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Hobson's Choice: D-Days Of Decisions, Deadlines, Drafts

Nose tackle D.J. Reader: Bengals made him their highest-paid free agent ever last year.
Nose tackle D.J. Reader: Bengals made him their highest-paid free agent ever last year.

Hey Geoff, hope all is well with you in #WHODEYNATION. With Free Agency closing in, what names & positions can you see the Bengals possibly adding? Offensive linemen? Edge rushers? Defensive Backs? I'd like to hear your thoughts. Jeff Holmes, Elkville, IL

JEFF: Fine thank you and I hope this finds you and yours well in Bengaldom.

The first big question about free agency is whether it's going to be the Wild West or the mild west? The salary cap is lower for the first time in history. All player minimum salaries will go up due to the new labor deal, so just what will free agency look like? Check back in 10 days.

In terms of positions, you've hit the right ones. Like it or lump it, it is a passing league any more, and you have to address positions like cornerback, rusher, etc. I think the club might also look at defensive tackle, but let's see what happens with Geno Atkins first.

You've heard the buzz. Patriots guard Joe Thuney, out of Kettering, Ohio's Archbishop Alter fits a need and seems to be a fit. They're on record how they'd love to lure back edge rusher Carl Lawson and cornerback William Jackson III. There are going to be one or two cornerbacks you don't know.

(Or maybe not. One of the top guys out there is Rams cornerback Troy Hill, factory-approved by this personnel department that signed him as a 2015 undrafted free agent.)

But so much needs to play out. It's the biggest unknown heading into any free agent period. Never has a salary cap dropped. Never mind by about $15 million in one year. Not only that, teams still don't know what that cap number is going to be. So no one really knows what the market is going to be and, more importantly, no one knows if the market lasts longer than past years with the carnage of cap casualties.

Here's my contribution for a solid, sane deal that provides an immediate upgrade: Broncos defensive tackle Shelby Harris, a guy that Pro Football Focus pegs for three years, $33 million after rating him among the top ten interior linemen of the last four years. The only catch is he turns 30 during training camp. But, hey, 30 is the new 27, right? Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo also has high regard for Mike Daniels after he played so well here last year at age 31.

Check like every day for Hobson's Choice. I write in a lot too keep up the great work. 2 questions, first I don't wanna let Geno Atkins go was looking forward to Reader-Atkins combo sounds amazing. Second why is Ken Riley not in the hof unfair! Christopher Petote, Hilton, NY

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you for reading and for checking in. I think they also like that nose tackle-three technique tandem of D.J. Reader and Geno Atkins. Geno is going to the Hall of Fame, right? Not to mention a Man of the Year guy in the community.

Their problem is that together Reader and Atkins count more than $28 million against the salary cap. If the cap drops to $185 million, just those two account for 15 percent and that's tough on a defense looking to make several upgrades. But I think they'd love to have Geno back. Let's see what they can work out.

Ken Riley isn't in the Hall of Fame for a number of reasons. Small market. Played defense. Never won a Super Bowl. Never made a Pro Bowl. All lousy reasons of course, and those 65 career interceptions blow everything else away.

Also, the fact he played with another Hall of Fame worthy cornerback in Lemar Parrish has been a factor, too. Leapin' Lemar's great kick and punt returns competed with Riley's year-by-year consistency and they've kind of cancelled each other out even though both deserve to be in.

But 65 picks is 65 picks.

Hey Geoff, love your stuff! Last year was very uncharacteristic of the Bengals being so active in free agency, do you expect the same this year? If so, I would assume O- line so it frees up our draft needs? Bring Rudolph home!! Lonnie Sears, Delhi, OH

LONNIE: Thank you for your very kind words.

Hell of a question. They've kept their powder drier than a James Bond martini. They're not sending out any clues. It's just a totally different world than even last year with the massive cut in the salary cap.

But, here's the thing about last year when they stunned everybody. That was also a totally different world. They basically wrote about $150 million in checks during the first couple of weeks of a once-in-a-100-year pandemic. Bengals president Mike Brown, a Depression baby, had no problem spending big money in the most uncertain economy of his lifetime. Now the country seems to be turning the corner. And there is one constant from last year that bodes well for an active free agency.

A rookie contract for the quarterback.

You'll see my thoughts on O-line free agency. Plus, I'm not sure there's defensive talent draftable in the top five.

I, too, love Kyle Rudolph. He and Russell Wilson (although Wilson was only born here and didn't play here) strike me as the quintessential Cincinnati high school players. You can put Jags guard Andrew Norwell on that list, too. Tough. Passionate. Smart. Productive beyond belief. But Rudolph is 31 and with C.J. Uzomah in the second year of an extension and second-rounder Drew Sample hitting his stride, that may not be a match.

Hey lifelong fan with the draft coming up, what's the latest on Lawson's contract? Do I think Cincy will bring back AJ or possibly draft another Wide out ? Love to hear ur opinion Michael Bowman, Canton, OH

MICHAEL: Thank you for the fandom. With the deadline for designating franchise players set for this Tuesday, my sense is they're in the final stages of deciding if they can reach a long-term deal with Lawson before free agency starts March 17. And if they can't, they have to decide if they'll give him a one-year franchise deal. Also in the mix is cornerback William Jackson III with those same questions.

A big thing driving the internal debate, I imagine, is how many of those players at those positions and skill level are going to be on the market? Given there looks to be a slew of moves with a tighter cap, that may be a fluctuating market.

And there is a philosophical debate as well as market economics. What's worth more? What is rarer? Edge rusher or cover corner?

I think the A.J. Green question is to be decided by other teams. Is a Ravens team that has lusted for him for a decade going to pull the trigger? After coveting Chad Johnson 11 years ago in Foxboro, is Tom Brady interested in luring Green to Tampa? The Bengals need help in a lot of spots and they already have Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd at wide receiver. Green could be back with the right number, but no matter what, they'll be looking for a young receiver somewhere that can fly as John Ross takes to free agency.

What's the teams most needed position upgrade Anthony Cartagena, Silver Spring, MD

ANTHONY: Look, I'll take the bait. I know I got ripped for my last Choice when I suggested they need to upgrade several positions on defense. To some, apparently that meant I think the offensive line rivals the great Bengals units of the late 1980s and needs no help.

Not what I said, so let's try it again.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is 5-1 against the Bengals with a 111.4 passer rating. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is 5-0 against Cincinnati with two 100-yard rush games and a 97-yarder. Browns running backs Kareem Hunt (on 55 carries) and Nick Chubb (on 97 carries) average five and 4.8 yards per carry, respectively, against them. In the last 18 division games the Bengals have 22 sacks.

All that said, they've been racked by injuries on that side of the ball for the last three seasons and have already made some significant upgrades via the draft (safety Jessie Bates III, end Sam Hubbard) as well as free agency when they made nose tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes their highest-paid free agents in history last year. Safety Vonn Bell has been one of their greatest free-agent pickups ever on and off the field.

All but Bates and Bell missed significant time last season and they still played six winnable games (Chargers, Eagles, Washington, Giants, Dolphins, Cowboys) that they ended up losing, so you'd have to say if they're healthy they're on the uptick. But with their best pass rusher (Lawson) and one of their best cover cornerbacks (Jackson) potentially in free agency and the upgrades needed at defensive tackle, on the edge and at cornerback, I would think defense needs to be a major priority before they keep falling behind in the North. In the draft and free agency.

Clearly they have to do a better job of protecting Joe Burrow. No question they need to upgrade the line. I never said anything differently and I would expect them to do that early in the draft. And if they do indeed take Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell at No. 5, that means they've drafted an offensive lineman in the first round in three of the last four drafts and four of the last seven. So it is not like the line has been neglected. They have invested in it.

My only question is, if you're going to drop $50 million on a high-rent guard or another offensive lineman, what have you got left to sign an edge, a D-tackle and two cornerbacks? If you can do it all, by all means. Pro Football Focus says they can get Dayton's Joe Thuney for four years at $57 million. Love it. But can you do it without blinking against Chubb and Hunt?

To me, it makes more sense to upgrade the O-line with a guy priced in the next tier. And, really, they proved they could win with two solid vet guards in Xavier Su'a-Filo and Quinton Spain. Sure. Upgrade, but break the bank on defense. Plus, the re-hiring of offensive line coach Frank Pollack and putting him in charge of the run game should also count as an O-line investment.

I've said this before. I've said it again. And I'll keep saying it. Their best offensive lineman in pass protection just may be running back Joe Mixon carrying the ball.

Upgrade where you can. And that just doesn't mean personnel. All I'm saying is there's more to do on defense.

Greetings Mr. Hobson! AJ Green accomplished 2 important tasks that seems to be ignored. Played all games, healthy and drew the coverage from the #1 CB (which clearly helped Higgins). The balance between stats & health is debatable. Victor Pate, Dayton, OH

In a jump ball, or side/end zone line situation, where getting both feet inbound matters, I'll take AJ Green over almost any other NFL receiver. How can you pass on an opportunity to re-sign a savvy, fast, possession WR like AJ? Charlie Luttrell, Oxford, Ohio

VICTOR AND CHARLIE: You're talking to one of the biggest A.J. Green fans of all-time. There's a reason he's on the cover of "This Day in Bengals History."

There's no question that you can't write the history of the NFL in the 2010s without Green's signature toe taps. Amazing. You'd swear he's damn near an illusionist. The Bengals' dilemma is they barely saw those great contested catches last season and at age 33 (on Opening Day) they have to balance how many of those grabs they think he has left against how much they would have to pay him on a team with expensive needs up front on both sides. Green is the first to tell you it's a business.

Injuries to Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, as well as to rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, were the only reasons they didn't have their first pair of 1,000-yard receivers since Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. And, yes, you're right. They were helped by Green's presence. But they also began to get a lot of attention from top players themselves, too. Go back to Green's last touchdown catch last season against the Cowboys and he was covered by Saivion Smith, a practice squad rookie.

Believe me, I wish there's a way they could keep him. I know this. No matter what happens, nothing prevents him from being in the pantheon of all-time Bengals greats and a perennial Hall of Fame candidate.

Fact: Bengals lose 3-4 games/year due to the Refs. Pittsburgh getting 2 or three 15 yard penalties at the end of the game, calling A.J. Green for pass interference in the end zone against the Chargers. When will they call out the NFL? Paul Staniszewski, Cincinnati, OH

PAUL: The Bengals aren't alone when it comes to teams trying to calculate how many wins they could have had if it wasn't for a call or two. The working number of clubs in that group is 32.

I will say this. The offensive pass interference call on Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green that took the winning touchdown off the board with seven seconds left in last year's opener was and is still very much appalling. When do you ever see a great player like Green have a ticky-tack call go against him with the game on the line at home?

Two answers. Never and never.