Updated: 6 p.m.
A week after agent Jim Steiner said he wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals franchised his client and head coach Marvin Lewis re-committed to the 4-3 defense, the club announced it is tendering Smith a one-year contract that basically takes him off the market when free agency begins March 2 because another team would have to give up first-round draft picks in 2007 and 2008 if the Bengals didn't match the offer.
Steiner said Thursday that it's too early to say if and when Smith would sign the tender. But it's not too early to say that the move all but means left guard Eric Steinbach will leave in the first hours of free agency.
If the Bengals don't get a multi-year deal with Smith by July 15 for a lower salary cap count, they have to keep the one-year contract for $8.6 million on their cap for the rest of this season. That salary comes from the average of the NFL's five richest deals for defensive ends.
They could reach a longer deal with Smith after July 15, but can't sign until after the season.
Follow The Money for '07: **
$8.6M:Franchise tag for DE Justin Smith.
Estimated $8-10M:Potential free agent deals for TEs Reggie Kelly and Tony Stewart, RB Kenny Watson, S Kevin Kaesviharn, LB Marcus Wilkins, QB Anthony Wright.
Estimated $4-6M:** One-year offers of at least $850,000 to restricted free agents OL Stacy Andrews, P Kyle Larson, DT Shaun Smith, LBs Landon Johnson and Caleb Miller, CB Greg Brooks.
(Note: May be $1.3 million for Andrews and/or Larson). **
Estimated $3-4M:** Rookie pool for six draft picks.
"We are pleased to designate Justin as our franchise player," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in a press release. "He has been a consistent performer and worker. This move helps us keep our core players together, and it gives us an opportunity to continue negotiating for a longer-term contract with Justin."
With ESPN.com reporting the Bengals have $18.7 million under the cap, the one-year deal for Smith appears to prohibit any more big moves in free agency given what the club needs to sign its draft picks and other free agents as well as one-year offers to its restricted free agents.
The Bengals can also take the tag off at any time if they want to go in a different direction or use it to trade him. But they can only drop the tag if Smith doesn't sign the contract.
If Smith signs the contract, he's guaranteed the $8.6 million. If they trade him it would be because the other team agreed to a long-term deal.
If he doesn't sign the contract, he could conceivably sit out the season. Steiner wouldn't speculate if Smith would remain unsigned through the voluntary spring workouts and/or training camp or the season.
"We're just finding out about it now so we have to sit back and digest what's happened and look at the implications," Steiner said. "It tells me they think he's one of the top five defensive ends in the league."
Reaching a long-term deal may not be all that easy. The only game Smith has missed in his career was because his rookie holdout extended into the regular-season's first weekend after he was the fourth pick out of Missouri in the 2001 draft.
But Steiner, the point man in those talks, has continued a dialogue through the years with Troy Blackburn, the club's director of business development and chief negotiator in free agency.
"Those talks have no bearing on what happened six years ago," Steiner said. "Our relationship is intact. There are times we've had disagreements but we've got a working relationship. I've talked to Troy off and on this past year and I'm sure we'll continue to talk."
While talks for a long-term deal are barely off the ground, all indications are the Bengals want to keep Smith. He's coming off his fifth straight season in which he led the defensive line in tackles and finished as one of the team's top two sackers. Smith, who turns 28 early next season, is one of only four Bengals with at least 40 career sacks (41.5).
"The franchise option is designed to help a team retain the rights to a top player," said Blackburn in the club's statement. "The players' union supports it because it guarantees that player a salary commensurate with what he has accomplished."
The question is how much do they pay a solid defensive end that is going to be paid like an elite pass rusher on the market. It appears that there is going to be a record number of franchise free agents, ranging from Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas, and Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel.
With those defensive playmakers closed off and arguably the weakest free-agent market ever staring at them, the Bengals have apparently decided to keep one of their most productive players from a nucleus that barely missed the playoffs last season but needs all the defensive playmakers it can find.
Steiner and partner Ben Dogra, formerly the big hitters for SFX Sports, have recently joined forces with former IMG heavyweights Tom Condon and Ken Kremer to form the football division of CAA.
"It's too early to really get into it in the media," Steiner said. "It was expected, but until it happens for sure you don't move on it. We'll talk to Justin, we'll talk about it as a company and we'll do the right thing."