The NFL's new year begins next week with the advent of free agency and even though the numbers are now in the astronomical billions, the philosophy remains grounded in the same economic principles that guided the Bengals through five straight playoff appearances from the previous decade to back-to-back AFC title game berths the last two seasons:
_Extending their young stars with top-of-the-line second contracts, as they did ten years ago with Geno Atkins, A.J. Green, Leon Hall, Andy Dalton and Carlos Dunlap.
_Crafting attractive salary cap-heavy deals that pay the player in the early years and allow the Bengals to flatten out the cap charges in the latter years to avoid making football decisions dictated by money. Exhibit A: Giving Green $26 million of his $60 million at signing.
_Stay low on the dead money list and remaining in or near the top ten in spending most years while balancing the wants and needs of the team on the field with future seasons. According to the NFL, the Bengals were eighth last year in team salary and according to spotrac.com, they have the second lowest amount of dead money with $619,060 behind only the Chargers.
"The money might start going to different portions of our roster as it matures. But it's the same every year," is how director of player personnel Duke Tobin put it at last week's NFL scouting combine.
"How can we add players, the best players available that we have access to, and how can we get our players back that have proven that they're successful football players and part of our culture that has won the last few years?"
The NFL salary cap has matched the Bengals' rise in the Roaring '20s. It's going up from $208 million last year to $224.8 million and with $85.5 million in player benefits that puts the team's total tab for 2023 at $310.3 million as the Bengals prepare to spend about $1 billion on players between now and 2025.
But with Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow up for an extension, as well as one of his favorite targets in two-time 1,000-yard receiver Tee Higgins and versatile middle linebacker Logan Wilson, this is going to be a much different free agency period than the three previous Marches.
Even before the Bengals took Burrow with the NFL's first draft pick of the 2020s, the month before they made Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader their richest free agent ever, along with adding one of the best young safeties in the game in Vonn Bell. The next March in 2021, Saints edge rusher Trey Hendrickson broke Reader's record and last March they locked up three starting offensive linemen in the first few days of free agency.
With Bell headed to free agency next week, along with two other postseason heroes in safety Jessie Bates III and linebacker Germaine Pratt, instead of the buzz of going to market early, they'll try keeping or extending who they have.
"We're heading into a phase of our roster building that is going to be more focused internally than externally," Tobin said in Indy. "It doesn't mean we won't be looking for opportunities externally, but we won't be trying to build our team from the external UFAs (unrestricted free agents).
"We're going to be trying to maintain our team with the guys who have proven they belong and can effectively win for the Cincinnati Bengals. While we always look at free agency, it might be a little different mindset."
Tobin said there are no timelines for Burrow or anyone else. They may not be on the ground early in free agency, but they'll have an ear to it.
"We have some ability to control the cap hit for Year One with doing some other things, but we'll see how it goes," Tobin said. "Maybe it's the first piece to come. Maybe it's the last. But we'll work towards it. I don't think that we're totally handcuffed with some other things as the process plays out. But obviously, sooner is better. But we're not going to rush the process. We're going to try to get the right deal for Joe and for the Cincinnati Bengals."
The meter has already started running. Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the Bengals' capologist since the inception of free agency nearly 30 years ago, typically has projections two years out and a forecast into the third year.
Next month's draft pool is an estimated $8 million, the practice squad is an estimated $3.5 million, as are the tenders to restricted free agent Joe Bachie and exclusive rights free agents Mitchell Wilcox and Clay Johnston.
"It's a group of players that we have high regard for or we wouldn't have had them, and so would we want them back? Yes," Tobin said. "As they grow in their careers, it's harder to fit them all under one umbrella. But we'll do our best and you know, it'll be largely dependent on what the rest of the league does with them, and you know, if they're out of our price range and we can't fit them in, it's unfortunate and we'll have to find replacements for them."