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Hobson's Choice: Capping the conversation

Q: Now that we enter into the draft and free agency season, any chance you can illuminate us with your thoughts in what should be an active Bengals offseason? I believe we should have about 30 million of cap space that should put us in the market to sign Stacy Andrews and Landon Johnson to new deals. I would love to see Madieu back but I am not sure they need to spend the money with the rookies looking good enough to keep us going. I thank Justin Smith for his never-ending motor, but he has to move on and so do we. Any chance we can pick up Suggs? If Jared Allen is not franchised can we get him? We need some new leadership and experience on defense. Who is out there that the Bengals can target in free agency?
--Bengals fan forever, David S., Oakville, Ontario

DAVID: No question they've got more cap room compared to the past few years. That was the plan. Which is why any trades with huge cap numbers make more economic fantasy than Robin Hood.

The pundits can talk about a Chad trade like they'll talk about an Obama-Clinton ticket or a McCain-Huckabee duo all they want. It won't happen. It's just that the Chad trade looks worse on paper.

At the risk of fans putting me in the same category with Charles Manson and Lee Harvey Oswald, let's attempt to get a working number on the Bengals' room under the salary cap.

If we start at $30 million, take about $5 million off the top for the 10 or so draft picks that should be coming their way. Then they'll tender restricted free agents like defensive lineman Jonathan Fanane, wide receiver Tab Perry, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Will they tender tight end Nate Lawrie and linebacker Roy Manning? At about $950,000 per bop, figure three would count about $3 million.

Plus, the injury pad and now you're probably looking at somewhere around $20-21 million under the cap. And, you're right. Start filling in with Andrews and Landon Johnson, and don't forget punter Kyle Larson. But do you throw any of those guys a big number if you have a shot to make your self closer to whole on defense in free agency with a big 3-4 nose tackle and an end?

You figure no one gets franchise tagged, particularly not right end Justin Smith because that would be about $10 million. Although they'd love to keep him, that very well may mean he won't be back. And, yes, going on history, they won't go head over heels to re-sign a safety like Madieu Williams.

So there is going to be a chance to remake this defense. And that was part of the idea when they tore up Chad Johnson's contract for the second time in two full seasons back in '06 and dropped another $10 million on him in signing bonus:

Front-load the thing so you have room in the out years to pay for the other side of the ball and other positions.

You mention Terrell Suggs and it's a great name. His linebackers coach in Baltimore, Jeff FitzGerald, is already here. So is his college teammate, Levi Jones. But the Ravens may very well franchise him, making him virtually untouchable, meaning a club would have to give up two first-round picks.

OK, you say. Take the franchise tag off Suggs and trade him for Chad.

Madness, of course, because it's AFC North rivals and would never happen. But even if Suggs wasn't in the division, it makes no sense because not only would the Bengals have to absorb Johnson's cap hit this year (which the club considers just north of $8 million), they would have to take the hit for signing Suggs, too.

Which puts them out of free agency until '09. So then they'd be forced to run something like a 2-5 defense instead of a 3-4 or 4-3.

So not only do you lose Johnson the player in a trade, you lose the two to three players you could get with that $8 million.

Yes, they should have some room. But you can't count Johnson's $8M. Which is why management is so adamant about not trading him because it knows it has to improve the entire team.

As for potential free-agent gets, wait to see who signs extensions and who gets tagged.

Q:Hi Geoff, thank you for reading my email. To what degree do you think the center position contributed to the offense's problems last year? What level of priority is fixing that position? Is Stepanovich the answer? Bobbie Williams? If Bobbie is the answer, does Stacy move to this position? Who is available in the draft that would be an upgrade at center?
--Scott T., Liberty Township, OH

SCOTT: Thank you for writing the e-mail.

Eric Ghiaciuc getting dinged up right away hurt things, no question, because the center is QB1-A and I think the guy toughed out some physical things.

Plus, Ghiaciuc has the burden of following a guy that virtually made no mental errors in Rich Braham, but he gets unfairly compared to a guy that has played roughly 100 more NFL games.

That said, they need a healthier and more experienced Ghiaciuc because they simply need some rhythm and flow in the middle of the line. That was hard to get last year between Ghiaciuc and Stepanovich when Ghiaciuc came out of the gate with the thumb injury.

They like Ghiaciuc's athleticism and ability to get to the second level and they hope his experience of the past two seasons will make things easier for him in making calls and helping Carson Palmer and his linemates in Braham-like fashion.

They spent a fourth-rounder on him in 2005 and I don't think they're ready to leap and get another center in the draft or move a guy in there. They know that it took Braham a few years to adjust, too, and I think he's their guy.

But, yeah, you're right. You need a healthy, experienced guy there. The things Braham was able to do were always taken for granted.

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