The Bengals have their second draft board of the spring all set with three tiers of undrafted players ranked and ready to go. With as many as five college free agents from the previous two classes potentially becoming Opening Day regulars, Cincinnati under head coach Marvin Lewis remains a good landing spot for the unchosen.
They've run the gamut from the high-profile Quan Cosby to that last-second addition from Kentucky at the 2006 rookie camp for a tryout named Glenn Holt. Glenn Holt? He ended up with the second most kick return yards in franchise history.
It's a lot different, of course, this time around. With the NFL lockout freezing transactions after the last pick in the April 30 draft, one former general manager calls the impending college free agency period the eighth and ninth rounds because teams have had weeks to prepare instead of minutes.
"The good teams have gone back and recalculated their draft boards and have come up with guys that can help them," says the NFL Network's Michael Lombardi. "As opposed to just filling out your training camp roster. It doesn't come right at the end of the draft, when you're a lot more exhausted. It's ridiculous. Now, there's a lot more preparation this year."
Add CFAs to UFAs, RFAs, UFOs, and whatever else is on the list of what is on hold in the NFL as the next big date in the lockout looms Friday in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. But it's not the prom. It's just a date. That's when the NFL's appeal to keep the lockout going without a collective bargaining agreement is going to be heard with a decision not expected for at least two to three weeks.
In between, owners and players head back to mediation June 7 and 8 in a Minnesota federal court, which still doesn't yield an answer when the NFL year and all free agency begins. Once it is clear the NFL is going back to work and all forms of free agency have been defined by a CBA, Lombardi, a former personnel chief for Cleveland among other clubs, hopes the league allows college free agency right away with a five-day window until veteran free agency begins in order to prevent chaos.
"It's going to be over quick; it's going to be over in 24 hours," says NFL Network's Charley Casserly, former GM of the Redskins and Texans, of the CFA period. "Teams have a lot more important things to worry about. I don't think it's going to change how teams approach it. Teams like the Ravens don't usually spend a lot on college free agents and they won't now."
If that holds, that means the Bengals are going to stay in the middle of the pack and sign near the NFL average total of college free agents by spending near the average on bonuses with some of them not only hanging around for a couple of years but also becoming factors in roster battles and game day activations.
Heading into this season, Nate Livings, a 2006 CFA out of LSU, has started 31 games at left guard the last three seasons while Cosby, an undrafted wide receiver out of Texas in 2009, is coming off two solid seasons as the club's punt returner, special teams staple, and rock in the locker room and community. Linebacker Dan Skuta, also unclaimed in the '09 draft out of Grand Valley State, is a candidate to start at SAM after leading the team in special teams tackles last year. Safety Jeromy Miles, a free agent out of the University of Massachusetts, came off the practice squad for the last six games last season with five special teams tackles as a gunner and anchored a punt coverage unit that led the NFL.
Underscoring just what is available in the late rounds and after the draft is reflected in the projected training camp joust at fullback between Chris Pressley and Fui Vakapuna. The Bengals signed Pressley out of Wisconsin after they took Vakapuna in the seventh round.
In the past Lewis has walked reporters through the old college free agency process, which officially began in the last couple of rounds when teams began recruiting. He'd make a beeline from his draft wrap-up news conference back upstairs as the personnel department hammered out deals with players they had already ranked on the board.
It's not all that different now, except that there is more time for more structure and teams can't talk to players and agents per lockout rules. The Bengals have had time to rank a tier A of players they'll pursue hardest, a tier B of players they like, and a tier C of players that fill out the camp roster but are long shots.
In eight seasons under Lewis, CFAs out of all three categories have had a pretty good run with the Bengals. Holt, a tier C wide receiver, played 42 games from 2006-2008. Cosby, a tier A player well known for his record-breaking days at Texas, logged the Bengals' best punt return season in 25 years with an 11.9-yard average in 2009 when two long ones in Green Bay ignited the AFC North title run. The Bengals also went hard that year after Skuta, a versatile sort with 33.5 Division II sacks.
The '05 North champs also had a CFA of note in second-year punter Kyle Larson, as well as one of their top special teams players early in the season in four-year cornerback Reggie Myles. While their most recent high-profile forays into the CFA pool (center Ben Wilkerson, defensive end Eric Henderson) didn't pan out because of injury, the Bengals have eventually found some men.
The Bengals had a good grade on Kyle Cook when the Vikings signed him as a CFA after the '07 draft and after Minnesota cut him just before the season they signed him to their practice squad and he's been the starting center the past two seasons. They've also lost some. After University of Cincinnati long snapper Mike Windt was cut just before last season, he resurfaced at Paul Brown Stadium late in the year with the Chargers.
So the CFAs are going to get some play here. But how many and for how much remains to be seen since it all depends on what economic system the NFL is going to use. The Bengals are still going to chase their coveted guys no matter what, but the details are wanting because there are no details, such as salaries or roster size.
Last week NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hinted a late start could mean expanded rosters and the clock is already ticking.
"One of the questions is going to be how many of these guys are going to make it?" Casserly says. "If there isn't going to be much of a training camp, these guys aren't going to have a lot of time to show what they can do."
And what exactly does an expanded pool of CFAs mean for demand and price of the top free agents?
"Unfortunately, that's where the NFL is right now," Lombardi says. "Nobody knows really when or in what form it's going to happen. I just hope it doesn't turn into a big mess and that could happen if both rookies and veterans come out at the same time.
"But," he says, "it's going to be quick. Teams have had extra time to study the players and the players had time to look at the depth charts and rosters of all the teams."
Let the eighth round begin.