Bengals fans don't need to be reminded it's a quarterback's league. But just in case they forgot less than month after sophomore Joe Burrow brought them within 50 yards of the NFL title, there were Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson on Tuesday offering an earth shattering preamble to next week's free agency period.
Rodgers may or may not became the first $50 million year man, depending on what his alleged extension with Green Bay looks like, and Denver gave up a king's, queen's and jack's ransom to ferry Russell Wilson out of Seattle.
As Cincinnati's AFC champs prep for signing free agents when the official signing window opens a week from Wednesday, Burrow's massive structure-changing extension looms on the horizon after this upcoming season.
But the $13 million franchise tag they gave free safety Jessie Bates III on Monday indicates it is business as usual as they try to add more pieces to a young nucleus that nearly swiped the Super Bowl from the favored Rams rather than hold their chips for Burrow, eligible for a new deal after 2022.
The only question is how the estimated $20 million available is going to be broken up. A percentage is no doubt ticketed to upgrading the offensive line as well as retaining some key men in the middle of the defensive line such as Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill. And they'd love to keep tight end C.J. Uzomah.
"Free agency includes the guys that we don't have under contract that were part of our team (in 2021). Sometimes I think that gets lost in the shuffle," said Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin at last week's NFL scouting combine. "Some years, your team has guys that aren't going to be high-level guys you pursue internally and so you get maybe a little more external guys, and then this year will be a blend. We'll look outside our organization. But we'll certainly look within our organization for the guys who don't have contracts going forward that we want to continue to work with and guys that got us where we got this year. And there's a number of them."
There is potential room out there. Releasing or trading cornerback Trae Waynes would save about $10 million against the $208.2 million salary cap, but one thing is for sure. The Bengals aren't going to alter their philosophy that frowns upon shoving big money into future years in order to pump up a mega deal, which plays into bracing for Burrow.
They like to take the hit in the early part of the contract, such as Trey Hendrickson getting nearly a third of his $60 million last year in his first season. They also like bang for the buck.
In the last eight years of the previous collective bargaining agreement, 2012-2020, they were eighth in the league in one cash analysis. Then last year in the first season of the current system, they nearly matched their 2020 free agent record when they committed about $115 million to five players while keeping the cap hits in the early part of the deals.
Along with Hendrickson's individual club record and Ogunjobi's beefy one-year, $6 million deal, the Bengals also struck gold with Pro Bowlish play from a pair of middle tier signings in cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton. Their deals combined were about what Washington paid Bengals cornerback William Jackson III. Could they get the equivalent of Awuzie and Hilton on the offensive line for the price of a big-ticket item?
"We don't want guys who are being paid far above what they actually bring to the football team," Tobin said last week. "That creates issues in other areas of your football team. Our job, and it's a tough job, is to put a value on every player. What is this player worth in today's football, in this year, in this market? And try to stay close to those values. Just because you pay somebody more doesn't mean they play better. They just get paid more, and that's less money you can spend on helping your team in another area."
The Burrow deal is real and it's coming fast. And there is going to be an impact. Estimates have the 2023 cap rising about $12 million and that's not going to cover it.
But the wife-husband negotiating team of Bengals vice presidents Katie and Troy Blackburn has been through this before. In the last week of his third season, they gave quarterback Carson Palmer what was believed to be the richest NFL deal at the time with an extension that was valued at nearly $120 million over nine years.
That was 2005 and the numbers are going to be astronomically different. But the philosophy is the same. Getting the deal done as early as possible and putting as much money as they could up front allowed the Bengals to re-sign such core players as running back Rudi Johnson, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and right guard Bobbie Williams, as well as strike top-of-the-league deals with tackles Willie Anderson, Levi Jones and wide receiver Chad Johnson.
"The market is what the market is and we try to analyze that," Tobin said. "We try to understand 'here's what these guys are getting.' Is that something we want to wade into with this player because we don't think it's reflective of what we think we're going to get as a team in return?' It's a hard analysis."