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Bengals Head Into NFL's New Year

Vonn Bell: One of the Bengals' biggest prizes in last year's free agency.
Vonn Bell: One of the Bengals' biggest prizes in last year's free agency.

The big buzz sizzling around the Bengals as they head into the beginning of the NFL new year is if they have an encore up their sleeve after last year's record spending in free agency.

The only answer is wait and see when the negotiating period opens Monday and teams are able to announce deals on Wednesday as the league grapples with the first reduced salary cap in history.

That's what Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said when he vowed his team would get involved in an effort to upgrade a variety of positions headlined by the defensive and offensive lines.

"We are certainly not going to sit on our hands," Tobin said. "I can't make any predictions. Free agency is unpredictable. We haven't gotten a chance to visit with these guys yet and find who might have interest, what the price tag is and how many of them we can fit.

"Once it kicks off we'll have a better feeling for maybe where the opportunities are for us to make headway, but it's a hard thing to predict. I know we will be prepared to jump in and see what we can get done. Hopefully we will be able to get the things done that we envision. Whether it happens or not we'll see."

With the cap being shorn by about $15 million in the wake of the pandemic, the Bengals have acknowledged that they look to be in better shape than most teams. As the cap sits at $182.5 million, the Bengals figure to have about $20 million to spend in cap dollars after budgeting $11 million for draft picks and accounting for other items like injuries, practice squad players and incentives.

Tobin said they're looking to use their edge.

"From our standpoint," Tobin said, "the way we have managed our cap and hitting it this year the way that we are I think that we've got certainly an advantage we are going to look to take advantage of."

When the Bengals didn't use the franchise tag on their best pass rusher, Carl Lawson, for a nearly $18 million cap number, or their starting cornerback, William Jackson III, for about $15 million, they appeared to be opting for flexibility to sign multiple players rather than settling on just a couple of big ticket items.

The Bengals could sign Lawson or Jackson or both to a long-term contract with more favorable cap numbers than the franchise tag.

"They're guys that we developed, we found, we groomed," Tobin said. "They've blossomed. I think there's a lot of interest around the league and we'll certainly compete and try to get them back. That's been what our focus historically has been, is we want to keep good players that come in here and develop that are Bengals."

The fate of 15 Pro Bowls is also up in the air.

They've indicated they're talking to eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins about reducing his cap hit that is in excess of $14 million. Along with Atkins' "fluid" situation, A.J. Green, the first wide receiver in the 50 years since the merger to be voted to the Pro Bowl in his first seven years, is headed to free agency after a season he was named their franchise player.

Also in the mix around the league is a growing sub-class of good players still in their primes who have become what is known as cap casualties after being tossed into the market by their teams looking for relief.

They're also on the Bengals' radar.

"We are going to be ready to quickly adjust," Tobin said. "Quickly pivot to guys who are on our list who become either available to us, maybe they are a cap casualty from another team maybe they are a free agent we thought wasn't going to be available to us but suddenly is available to us."

But don't look for the Bengals to deviate from their eat-each-meal approach so they avoid structuring deals that balloon in future years. That's why they're in good shape now. Using their year-by-year model, in the last decade the Bengals count themselves in the top half of the league when it comes to cap spending as well as cash over cap. 

And they'll also continue to focus on the draft as the major avenue to build the team while using free agency as a supplemental weapon.

If the Bengals do turn their attention up front, they won't be alone in combing the market for trench players. The Associated Press says just over half of the big deals since 2018 went to offensive linemen and front-seven defensive players.

"We're going to see what comes our way," Tobin said. "We want to attack our team needs through the draft, through free agency, through re-signing our own players, through development of young players that we have."