Updated: 11:05 p.m.
The Bengals defensive line, the unquestioned strength of Cincinnati's back-to-back playoff teams, is coming back all but intact for 2013 when veteran left end Robert Geathers signed what is believed to be a three-year deal.
With free agency set to begin at 4 p.m., the Bengals are efforting to re-sign right tackle Andre Smith as well as two of their top three cornerbacks in Terence Newman and Adam Jones. Even as Smith hit the free-agent market Tuesday, all indications are the Bengals are still going to try and re-sign him as they attempt to bring back as many starters and regulars as they can from the team that has been to the playoffs the last two years.
While the Bengals were content to spend the first day of free agency pursuing their own, the NFL unleashed its typical blizzard of deals. The most noteworthy for the Bengals was the $30 million guarantee Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace received in Miami, Exhibit A why the Bengals are rolling over $10 million of salary cap room to next year. That's their first shot at extending two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Daltion.
After years of getting burned by those big deals early in free agency (Antwan Odom, Laveraneus Coles, Antonio Bryant) and watching it happen to other teams (Washington, Buffalo, Philadelphia), the Bengals say they are trying to keep intact their last few draft classes.
Plus, they only have to go back to last year to realize that the first week, or even the first day of free agency, doesn't mean much. That's when the Bengals lost 10.5 sacks in the persons of defensive linemen Frostee Rucker and Jon Fanene and ended up setting the team's sack record with 51.
So they're looking to keep that crew together, and with the signings of Geathers and backup right end Wallace Gilberry the Bengals go into this season with their six most-used defensive linemen from last season in a rotation that was the hub of the NFL's seventh-best defense.
Geathers is set to become the third Bengals defensive lineman to play 10 seasons, joining left end Eddie Edwards (1977-88) and nose tackle Tim Krumrie (1983-94). who both played a dozen seasons.
"It means a lot to possibly finish your career with the team that drafted you," Geathers said. "It means a lot that they appreciate what I bring to the table for our team."
Geathers, 29, who played out his six-year, $30 million deal in a variety of roles, returns to the team where he is the oldest homegrown player and esteemed locker-room leader. A fourth-round pick in 2004 out of Georgia, Geathers is coming off a season he played the fourth-most snaps on the line (691 according to Pro Football Focus) while starting every game with 3.5 sacks and 45 tackles in playing both the run and the pass.
The Bengals are also believed to be "kicking the tires" on outside free agents not viewed as big-ticket items when it comes to running backs, outside linebackers and backup quarterbacks and figure to have them in for physicals and/or tryouts.
Yahoo.com reported that Raiders running back/kick returner Mike Goodson is visiting Wednesday. The site also reported the Bengals brought in Cards running back Beanie Wellls on Tuesday, but don't look for them to sign the former Buckeye. A fourth-round pick of the Panthers in 2009, Goodson has 160 pro carries for a 4.5-yard average as well as 95 career returns for a 21.9 average. In his one season with Oakland last year, the 6-0, 210-pound Goodson averaged 6.3 yards on 35 carries.
Reports also linked the Bengals to Dolphins runninng back Reggie Bush, but they aren't looking to spend a big number on a bell cow with the draft looming while trying to fit in numbers for Smith, as well as future deals for not only Green and Dalton but Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap as well as franchise player Michael Johnson. Plus, Bush figures to end up in Detroit as a high-end centerpiece.
The bulk of Cincinnati's money is reserved for its own players and the Geathers deal (figure about $10 million total) puts the Bengals at about $26 million against the 2013 salary cap in deals for their free agents starting with the March 1 franchising of Johnson.
That gives them about $14 million more to spend in cap dollars in free agency, and much of it is earmarked for Smith as well as making room for Newman, Jones and some others like defensive tackle Pat Sims, the run-stuffing specialist and seventh man in the D-line rotation as far as play time. The Bengals will probably take a look at the secondary market to fill some holes, but Smith is the biggest priority.
He's rated as a top 10 free agent on most boards, but his name didn't surface Tuesday on a day the Bears signed Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, right tackle Phil Loadholt re-upped in Minnesota, and Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus signed with the Colts. According to NFL.com, Loadholt got a four-year extrension at $25 million with $7 million to sign, while Bushrod got $36 million over five years. According to reports, Loadholt's $6.2 million average makes him the second-hghest paid tackle in the league behind the $8 million of Doug Free of the Cowboys.
Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga tweeted he's on his way to visit Arizona, which may take the Bengals out of the mix. Cincinnati was hoping he might be around after the dust clears and talk to him about playing SAM, but the Cards are no doubt projecting him at inside backer in their 3-4 if they sign him.
Bengals backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is reportedly visiting the Steelers on Wednesday, a sign the Bengals are looking into the draft and potentially free agency down the road to fill the spot behind Andy Dalton.
Befitting his locker-room status, Geathers fielded calls from linemates such as Johnson and Sims as he drove to Paul Brown Stadium to sign the contract Tuesday afternoon.
"They don’t come much better than Rob. They don't make many like him. He's a hell of a player on the field and an even better person off the field," said tackle Domata Peko, who has played next to him for seven seasons. "It's good to keep this chemistry (on the line) going. We've got a good thing going and keep building on that and it starts with Rob. Rob is one of those guys that kind of keeps the group together. He keeps everyone going and he's been playing at a high level for a long time."
The defensive line has carried the Bengals the past two seasons and never was it more apparent than in last year's 7-1 finish in which the defense allowed 13 points per game en route to setting a club-record 51 sacks. Geathers wasn't a headliner, but the delicate rotation with guys like Geathers and Gilberry that made sure the pass rushers had plenty of chances paid off with Johnson hauling down 11.5 sacks and tackle Geno Atkins making his second straight Pro Bowl with 12.5. Gilberry, cut by Tampa Bay early in the season, chipped in with 6.5 sacks in his 14 games.
"I'm so happy for Rob. I'm so happy for this line. It's great to keep it together," Peko said. "Gilberry come out of nowhere and he kind of replaced Fanene as a swing guy that could come off the bench and be a disruptor."
The prowess of the defensive line surfaced in a big way nationally last season with three AFC Defensive Player of the Week awards. Johnson got it for his career-high three sacks in Washington on Sept. 23, left end Carlos Dunlap got it for two sacks and strips of quarterback Philip Rivers in San Diego on Dec. 2, and Atkins got it for two sacks and a forced fumble in Pittsburgh on Dec. 23.
It's only the seventh season since the inception of the award in 1984 and the second time in this century that at least three players from the same position group were named conference defensive players of the week.
The last time it happened was in 2011 when Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs did it three times and outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson and middle linebacker Ray Lewis once each, and the last defensive line to do it belonged to the 1996 49ers of ends Chris Doleman and Roy Barker, and tackle Bryant Young.
There are some pretty heady groups on the list. The three defensive lines that made it before the Bengals were all anchored by a Hall of Fame end with the 1987 Bears led by Richard Dent, the 1988 Eagles led by Reggie White and the Niners led by Doleman.
"I just think we have something special in our front seven. We're a good group, but we could be special," Geathers said. "We've got a good chemistry. You just don't want to break that up. It means a lot and we can just stick together and get over this hump."
Geathers may not have an eye-opening number of sacks, but with 33 in his career he's two more from passing Krumrie on the all-time club list into fifth place. He may not have a boatload of career tackles (451), but he's played end, tackle and, sometimes, linebacker against both the run and pass, and all reliably and well.
This is why defensive line coach Jay Hayes says Geathers is so important:
"He plays every down," said Hayes, who has coached him for all of his career. "He can go out there and be in charge of the group. The things he gives you when it comes to being a leader and the amount of plays he gives you, you can't always quantify it in numbers.
"The things he does well help us rush the passer because we play the run so well. If you don’t get the run stopped, you can't get into pass situations and rush the passer like we have the last couple of years. He's an excellent run player. He understands playing with technique and being the type of player that's very dependable and does the little things the right way. That's what he gives us and we're lucky to have it."
Geathers didn't celebrate his 21st birthday until he was in his third week of training camp at Georgetown College in 2004, so he's not going to say this is his last contract. But he says it's important to him to finish his career where it began.
"I said maybe. If God says I can play six more years, I'm there as long as I can do it," Geathers said. "But I still have the mindset this year I still have to make the squad."
Yes, Geathers has heard of the two-time Pro Bowl Krumrie, a local folk hero and Bengals cult figure who coached here after he became the last defensive linemen to play in double-digit seasons here.
"I heard about him from Justin (Smith). Justin had some good stories," Geathers said. "I'm in good company. That's special. That says something."
(Position groups that had at least three players win Defensive Player of the Week in the same season since the inception of the award in 1984)
2012 - Bengals DL: DT Geno Atkins, DE Carlos Dunlap, DE Michael Johnson
2011 - Ravens LBs: Terrell Suggs (3), Jarrett Johnson, Ray Lewis
1996 - 49ers DL: DE Roy Barker, DE Chris Doleman, DT Bryant Young
1993 - Oilers DBs: S Blaine Bishop, CB Steve Jackson, S Marcus Robertson (2)
1988 - Eagles DL: DT Jerome Brown, DE Clyde Simmons, DE Reggie White
1987 - Bears DL: DE Richard Dent, DE Al Harris, DE Sean McInerney
1984 - Steelers DBs: S Donnie Shell (2), CB Sam Washington, CB Dwayne Woodruff