The Bengals showed a glimpse of the cards they're going to play in free agency next week when Tuesday's deadline to issue the franchise designation came and went and they didn't use it.
Instead of absorbing about half of their salary cap space on an estimated one-year, $17.7 million deal for edge rusher Carl Lawson or an estimated one-year, $15.2 million contract for cornerback William Jackson III, the Bengals cemented rare financial flexibility in a league facing a reduced salary cap for the first time in history.
On Monday director of player personnel Duke Tobin cited the NFL-wide constraints under what appears to be a $185 million cap instead of roughly $200 million from 2020. Meanwhile, according to overthecap.com, the Bengals began the week in the top 10 with the most room under the cap in a league where about half the teams are over the cap counting their 2021 rookies.
"The way we've managed our cap and coming into it the way that we are, I think we've got a certain advantage and we're going to look to take advantage," Tobin said in a Monday Zoom call with the Cincinnati media.
After a season they were rocked by depth issues, particularly on the defensive front, the Bengals look to be heading into a market that is going to have more supply than demand and not using the tag indicates they may be looking upgrade with a group of players across the roster. They can still secure big-ticket signings, but with more favorable cap hits than those offered by the franchise tag.
When the Bengals used the $18 million franchise tag on wide receiver A.J. Green last year, they had the benefit of the biggest cap in history. Thanks to the pandemic, the cap has gone down drastically even though the NFL had yet to make the numbers official by Tuesday's franchise deadline.
On Monday, Tobin said the team was still waiting to hear official salaries for the franchise tags as well as a salary cap figure. But by the time they had to make a decision, the numbers never arrived.
Even if the Bengals got the numbers, they would have probably still kept the tag. There's a consensus beginning to build out there that the big winners may not be those that come out of the gate on the first or second day of free agency. If you're looking for six players instead of four, this could be the year.
NBC Sports columnist Peter King noted earlier this week that there's going to be a sub market. And fast.
"There's no question that, over the next few days, we'll see an inordinate number of good players getting cut," King wrote on Monday. "There will be many more."
There have been reports the Bengals have been talking to Lawson about a long-term deal. If the Bengals can do it that way, than they'll get him for a lower cap hit than $17.7 million and save room for another deal. If they don't then they'll be looking for a replacement for his 5.5 sacks and NFL-high 32 quarterback hits. Edge rusher is viewed as a deep position in both the draft and free agency.