The Bengals hope Mike Nugent swings into his sixth season as their kicker.
While other teams braced for the NFL's new year on March 10 by jettisoning some mainstays (pass rusher Trent Cole in Philadelphia, running back Pierre Thomas in New Orleans and center Chris Myers in Houston) and restructuring contracts (Peyton Manning in Denver), the Bengals didn't have to do either Wednesday as they ratcheted up talks with their impending free agents.
Cincinnati is trying to wrap up a couple of deals before free agency opens, maybe as soon as the end of this week, in an attempt to keep their offensive line intact and begin the effort to shore up their linebackers corps.
It's believed the Bengals are working on re-upping a pair of starters in middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and left guard Clint Boling, as well as kicker Mike Nugent. They'd love to get Maualuga in the fold as soon as possible, given that they're not going to know for sure if WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict's knee is going to be ready for the 2015 season for another two to three months as he rebounds from microfracture surgery.
Maualuga has been an Opening Day starter since he arrived in the second round of the 2009 draft out of USC and had his best season last year despite missing four games with a hamstring injury. He had 59 tackles in 12 games, but he and Vincent Rey kept things together in the huddle as the signal-callers in the absence of Burfict.
Boling has also started every opener since he was drafted out of Georgia in the fourth round in 2011 and with 111 Nugent is 10 field goals from passing Horst Muhlman into fourth on the all-time Bengals list behind the big three of Jim Breech (225), Shayne Graham (177), and Doug Pelfrey (153).
The Bengals don't have to release or restructure because they are in pretty good shape under the NFL's 2015 NFL salary cap, set at $143.2 million. According to a variety of sources, the Bengals have about $15 million in cap room as they attempt to re-up their own as well as beef up depth at pass rusher, linebacker, and tight end.
An estimated $10 million or so of the cap is committed to their draft pool (larger than last year because of an extra third-rounder) and a pad for the players they have to pay to replace injured players.
About another $3.5 million is ticketed for the practice squad, the off-season work-out program, and potential dead money. Another $3.5 million is assigned to offers to restricted free agents, with the lion's share of that no doubt headed to SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur.
Since Lamur started and the club gets no compensation if they lose him because he was undrafted, it's believed they'll tender him at a figure where if they decide not to match an offer the Bengals get a second-round draft choice.
The Bengals may have room to maneuver, but they have to keep in mind they may not next year when 10 starters or regulars are scheduled to be free agents. And it could be an even dozen depending on what happens with 2012 first-rounders Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler.
They have options for 2016 and the Bengals have until the first week of May to decide if they want to exercise the $8 million for Zeitler and the $6 million for Kirkpatrick, or if they want to try and lessen the cap hit by trying to reach a deal with them as free agents next year.
Then there are the guys that are really up after this season, like the top three wide receivers, the starting secondary, and both starting tackles. The Bengals have rolled over about an additional $8 million in a nest egg they have devoted to extending their own. That should come in handy this season after they make their run at Maualuga, Boling, and Nugent before focusing on veteran free agents elsewhere that can help them as niche players.