Updated: 10:30 p.m.
The Bengals kick-started free agency Sunday with their major special teams operation intact after they signed kicker Mike Nugent to a two-year deal that sets up Tuesday's official/unofficial opening for free agency.
And a few hours later they got another boost when an NFL source confirmed a Pro Football Talk report that the Bengals had agreed to a three-year deal for $6.75 million with 6.5-sack man Wallace Gilberry, ensuring the 18-sack tandem at right end returns. Since Gilberry is represented by the same Atlanta firm of Pat Dye and Bill Johnson that works for left end Robert Geathers, that would indicate the Bengals could also be talking them in an effort to bring back Geathers for a 10th season.
A chilling memo from the NFL office on Thursday warning teams of tampering apparently brought out the censor because the weekend turned into pretty much a news blackout as the Bengals seek to re-sign right tackle Andre Smith and several free agents off their top 10 defense.
Teams were allowed to contact free agents Saturday, but not announce deals until Tuesday and the memo vaporized all but the smallest tidbits. The club's announcement of the Nugent deal and the PFT report of Gilberry's signing appeared to be the only Bengals items surfacing as the weekend headed into Monday.
But that didn't mean that either deal was insignificant. They are big factors in Cincinnati's bid to repeat with the NFL's No. 1 special teams combined in the 10 major categories, as well as the club's single-season sack record.
Just ask Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons after the Nugent announcement came in the wake of Friday's five-year deals for Nugent's holder, punter Kevin Huber, and his long snapper, Clark Harris. The trio now heads into its fourth season together with Huber coming off the best punting season in club history, Harris riding a streak of 552 straight playable snaps, and Nugent saying he's 100 percent after missing the last month of the season with a strained calf that sidelined him the last month of the season.
"To get three of those four guys back who are free agents, that's extremely important. It's so important in what we do," Simmons said. "The key to the kicking game is continuity and all three guys have been around and they're familiar with themselves and what we do. It's huge."
The fourth guy is kicker Josh Brown, who may not be getting a contract from the Bengals but remains one of the most important players in club history after what happened back in December.
After Nugent strained his kicking calf in a Dec. 5 practice and reinjured it two weeks later, Brown came off the street and won AFC Special Teams Player of the Month with an 11-for-12 effort on field goals that included the 43-yard winner in Pittsburgh with four seconds left that put the Bengals into the playoffs.
But Nugent was apparently a better fit when it came to age, production and price. The price wasn't revealed, but Nugent, who turned 31 last week, has virtually the same career statistics as Brown as well as a slightly better percentage the past few years when it comes to touchbacks.
Brown turns 34 next month and Simmons thinks he's proven he belongs.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Josh Brown should be kicking in the league this year. He's one of the 32 best kickers out there," Simmons said. "I would have been happy with either one of them. What Josh did when he came in here and what he did for us, he hit us right where we needed it."
Simmons never forgot about Nugent, a guy that has an 83.8 field goal percentage for the Bengals that is second only to Shayne Graham in team history during a three-year career that began when he was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in his second game with the team. Nugent's five field goals lifted the Bengals to a 15-10 win over Baltimore in his first home game at Paul Brown Stadium in the 2010 home opener.
"He was an alternate Pro Bowler in 2011 and if you look what he's done here, it's pretty impressive," Simmons said of that year Nugent set the Bengals season records for points with 132 and field goals with 33. "And this is home for him. That means a lot to guys like him and Kevin."
Ten days before he got hurt last season; Nugent hit a 55-yarder against Oakland at PBS that tied the club record's long, another chip for a guy that was literally born into the Bengals. A Centerville, Ohio, product, Nugent's parents were season ticketholders and attended the Freezer Bowl at Riverfront Stadium two months before he was born. An Ohio State icon, Nugent again teams with the University of Cincinnati's Huber to give the Bengals specialists a local flavor.
"It's great to be able to come back to a place where you love going to work every day," Nugent said. "That obviously means a lot and I really think we've got a good thing going with the specialists. We've been together a long time and that not only helps us, but it helps the team, too."
When Nugent got hurt, he was 82.6 percent for the season (19-for-23 on field goals) and thought he could have been back for the Dec. 23 game in Pittsburgh. But he reinjured it and went on season-ending reserve for the second time in his three seasons here. His '10 season ended when he tore the ACL in his kicking knee following an onside kick.
"I think it was a case where the mind wants to do more than the body can allow," Nugent said of trying to come back last year. "You get the competitive juices going, and that's how the mind works. I should have been more patient. I've just gone into this offseason working hard enough to make sure it doesn't happen again. I think for a guy that works as hard I do, that shouldn't happen and I'm trying to make sure it won't again."
Nugent admitted it had been an offseason of uncertainty and anxiety when the season ended like it did. But he got lost in his workouts and says he got the calf back to 100 percent a few weeks after the season.
"I had made up my mind that no matter what happens, I was going to be kicking somewhere," Nugent said. "I feel like I haven't reached my peak physically or mentally. I don't think age matters. I'm excited about the next step and that we can keep what we've got going."
Gilberry, heading into his sixth season, has quietly racked up 16 sacks in his last 46 games and is excited coming back to an intact right end of the Bengals defensive front. He showed up just a few days after Tampa Bay cut him when he replaced injured Jamaal Anderson on Sept. 18 and he responded to help the Bengals set their club record of 51 sacks while backing up Michael Johnson with 353 snaps in 14 games. Johnson, who rung up 11.5 sacks, is coming back as the one-year franchise player.
"I knew if I could get some snaps, I could make some plays and Coach Jay and the coaches gave me the opportunity," Gilberry said of defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "I'm excited about having everyone come back and if we can get Rob and Pat Sims, it would be great to just keep it going. If my role expands, great, but I'm just looking forward to getting back there and having an entire offseason to work with everybody. That can only help."
Sims, a run-stopping tackle specialist, is also a free agent the Bengals would like to retain. There is also mutual interest in bringing Geathers back and there are indications talks have taken place. Geathers, versatile, durable and highly-regarded as a locker-room leader, would be the first Bengals defensive lineman since nose tackle Tim Krumrie to play double-digit seasons.
The combined salary cap hits for Nugent and Gilberry figure to be between $3-4 million.