Bengals set to roll out Cincy's $200M homegrown team

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Perennial Pro Bowler Geno Atkins is one of the many Bengals starters working beyond his rookie contract.

In this searing Cincinnati summer of Peter Edward Rose, Riverbend fireworks, Graeter's ice cream, pro tennis at King's Island, amateur astronomers at Ault Park  and Ken Griffey Jr.'s Cooperstown Hat Trick, the homegrown Bengals fit quite nicely with the local iconography as they begin their bid to bring a Super Bowl parade to Fountain Square.

When one of the NFL's most celebrated rosters lines up for its first practice of training camp at 3 p.m. Friday on the fields adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium, it features 19 of 25 starters working on multiple contracts with the club.

"They're a model of how you should do it. That's the best way to go," says one long-time NFL personnel guru now working in the NFC of the Bengals' homegrown approach.

"Everybody in the league would like to do it that way," says the team exec. "It doesn't always work out. Teams make mistakes with draft choices. They're not worth a second contract, but they've hit on a lot of draft picks and they're developing the guys they drafted. That's a big part of it. When I look at the draft they had this year, they had another good draft and they've stacked good ones together. And they seem to do it under the radar."

But as Cincy's Team eyes its sixth straight post-season appearance, the Bengals are more than a few blips these days in the standings, where they have one of the two best records in the league the last two seasons, and on the balance sheet.

One documented source has the Bengals as the NFL's eighth highest spending team heading into this season, where they are destined to again be at the salary cap, which has gone up to $155 million.

In putting together a 2015 roster that Hall-of-Fame general manager Bill Polian said at the Super Bowl was the best in all of the NFL, the Bengals were documented to have spent the seventh most against a cap that was at $143 million.

With additional player benefits accounting for about $40 million on top of the salary cap, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has nearly $200 million player costs at his fingertips. If it's not the most talented Bengals team of all-time, it's certainly the most expensive.

And many experts believe they've spent wisely enough to contend again for the Super Bowl.

 "Absolutely," Polian said back in February. "Unfortunately, Pittsburgh is every bit as good when healthy. It's just a shame neither team was healthy at the end."

It's no secret where the Bengals have spent their money. From making perennial Pro Bowler A.J. Green the NFL's highest paid wide receiver last year with a $15 million average (according to spotrac.com), to making Giovani Bernard this season the highest paid running back in franchise history with a $5.1 million average , to keeping intact the league's ninth most expensive defense (according to spotrac.com), the Bengals have rewarded their own.

Even their specialists, punter Kevin Huber, kicker Mike Nugent, and long snapper Clark Harris, are working on their second and third contracts. Linebacker Karlos Dansby, a veteran free-agent pickup back in March, is the only projected defensive starter working on his first Bengals' contract. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, as well as right guard Kevin Zeitler, have had their rookie contracts optioned into a fifth year.

"It's easier to spend on guys you know fit and guys that have earned it,' says Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel.  "I think it makes sense to reward people who have earned their way and have been valuable to the organization. Every now and again you have to supplement with guys from the outside. But the first look is always to the guys who have grown up and developed here. I think it resonates well in the locker room and gives the next crop of young guys something to shoot or and work hard for."

Duke Tobin is one of the architects of the club's Homegrown Approach.

As they say, there are many ways to skin a cat. Denver spent its way to the most recent Super Bowl title in free agency against a Carolina team that began the season as the second oldest team in the league with a league-low seven rookies and first-year players.

But successful franchises like the Bengals, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay have built through the draft and pretty much eschewed free agency. Tobin admits if the free-agency model worked more consistently, they'd do it.

Yet the build-through-the-draft philosophy also fits the small market. Nearly 70 percent of the Bengals' revenues go to player costs, magnifying their top ten appearances on the spending chart. The last two years they've spent more than $350 million in player costs, which was the cost to build PBS.

"A lot of teams talk about it, but Cincinnati is getting it done," says the NFC exec. "The advantage is you know the guys. The issues I've had with free agents are you really don't know these guys. You know what they are on the field and how they perform. But you don't know anything about them in the locker room, or if they're coachable, or how they are in the community  ... it's too expensive ... Cincinnati knows their guys. They do a good job in the draft, they do a good job with signings, and they're doing a good job of coaching them."

Never has the Bengals' homegrown philosophy of draft-develop-retain been more apparent than this year's off-season promotion of fourth-year player Shawn Williams to starting safety in the wake of Reggie Nelson's departure to free agency.

In his first two seasons after getting drafted in the third round out of Georgia, Williams showed up on special teams but played less than a combined 40 scrimmage snaps in 2013-14.

But last season when injured safety George Iloka missed a few games, Williams racked up 485 snaps and made some big plays, including the season-changing pick in Pittsburgh for his first NFL interception.

"You have to develop them in your system and that's as imperative as drafting the right ones," Tobin says. "You have to give them an opportunity to develop at their own pace and put them in a position to succeed. You have to do both. You have to bring in the right guys and you have to do the right things with them. At the end of the day you're going to want to keep them … if you don't have the first two things, draft and develop, you can't have retain."

Williams responded when defensive coordinator Paul Guenther put him into the lineup in various roles, a third safety, a pure safety, and occasionally as a nickel linebacker.  He played well enough that back in May the Bengals gave him a four-year extension that hits the cap at $4.1 million this year when it comes to salary and bonus, keeping Williams and Iloka in the middle of the Cincinnati defense through 2020.

So when the Bengals chose not to pay the 32-year-old Nelson, they used the money on the 25-year-old Williams and the 24-year-old Bernard.

"They have their act together. The stability of the head coach and his staff is huge," says the NFC exec. "That's big when you have very few coaching changes. It's a well-run operation. They just have to take one more step."

That, of course, is post-season success, which has eluded them despite Lewis leading them to seven play-off berths in the last 11 years. But Polian and other talent evaluators are putting them in the hunt again.

"From A to Z they've got a talented people," the guru says. "They've done the groundwork. They've kept the right guys around."

They've kept their guys. Cincy's team.

"I think there's a sense of pride with guys who only played for us," Tobin says. "We're looking to win and we think that's the best way to win. There's a pride there that these guys grew up as Bengals and we hope they play their whole career here.  That's the plan when we draft a guy. That's the vision."

If they win a parade, they'll have no problem finding Fountain Square.

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