Hobson's Choice: Numbers game

Q: Just wondering what free agents you think the Bengals might sign, who might we lose, and if you think that they could re-sign both Justin Smith and Eric Steinbach.

Also do you think the Bengals will keep all their problem players like Henry and Thurman, and do you see Perry sticking around? And do you think we could get any draft picks for those players?
**--John, Dayton OH

JOHN:** According to ESPN.com, the Bengals have $18.7 million under the $109 million salary cap for 2007, suggesting if Justin Smith gets the franchise tag the top tier of free agency looks impregnable.

A Smith tag is worth $8.6 million for one year, and they have until Feb. 22 to make that call. They would be stuck with that number all year, unless they get a long-term deal with Smith before July 16.

The 18th pick in the draft and the five ensuing picks (it's doubtful they'll get a compensatory pick for Jon Kitna) accounts for about $3-4 million.

They also figure to tender restricted free agents Stacy Andrews, Kyle Larson, Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson, and maybe cornerback Greg Brooks. That's about another $4 million and could be more if they decide to tender Andrews and Larson $1.3 million to fend off suitors.

Plus, all indications are they want to re-sign unrestricted free agents Kevin Kaesviharn, Kenny Watson, Reggie Kelly, Tony Stewart, Marcus Wilkins and Anthony Wright.

There's a good shot they'll re-sign most of their own free agents and they're going to retain all their restricteds unless another team wields an unforeseen blockbuster offer sheet.

As much as Miller rubbed some people the wrong way (he said last season there was a time he thought he had been classified as hard to coach), you'd think his production would warrant that he'd be back. When he plays, he puts up numbers. Same with Landon. Johnson is unspectacular but solid and the ultimate gamer.

If they can't get long-term deals with Andrews and Larson, they have to protect themselves. There are plenty of teams out there with money to burn now that the cap is leaping $7 million over last year. According to ESPN.com, 12 teams have more cap room than the Bengals and 19 have at least $15 million.

When they gave tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson extensions before last season that put them in the top five of their positions, Steinbach became a casualty because they can't give a guard top five money as well. The salaries for offense and defense are already out of whack.

The potential tagging of Smith indicates they're willing to reserve big money for a defensive player who earns it in the wake of offensive deals for Anderson, Jones, Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bobbie Williams, and Jeremi Johnson.

It also may be a belief they don't feel like they can replace Smith from the roster or free agency. If we're talking in free agency Buffalo's Chris Kelsay (11.5 sacks in his four seasons) and Detroit's Cory Redding (12), they're probably right, and Frostee Rucker certainly isn't ready after spending his rookie year on IR.

No, Smith isn't the Pro Bowl party-crasher everyone wants. But try replacing 7.5 sacks and 90 tackles. It's harder than you think.

Henry and Thurman are going to decide if Henry and Thurman are going to be back. Each one steps off a cliff if they screw up again. And who would trade for that?

It's hard to give up on running back Chris Perry, but what can you do if he can't stay healthy? Lewis says he has a long road back from his broken leg and indicated they need to make sure they need to back up Rudi Johnson with someone injury-free and not a free agent.

Could that suggest a running back on the second day of the draft? It's awful early for that stuff.

Q: Do you think that the Bengals need a more aggressive and self-confident attitude on defense?

When the Bengals played the Colts this last season they had an irrational defensive strategy. They said that they were going to purposely give up the short pass to try and prevent the big play. How is it logical to basically give up a guaranteed touchdown on say 10 plays, just to prevent a merely potential touchdown on one play?

Even Peyton Manning said after the game that he was amazed (and apparently pleased) that the Bengals chose such a strategy. It sounds like they were in awe of Manning and were playing scared. Do you think that they are going to stick to that kind of defensive strategy in the future, or do you think they will play more aggressively in 2007?
** --Tom W. Moorpark, CA

TOM:** As irrational as it seems, the Bengals weren't the only team that played the Colts that way, and that includes the Bears. It seemed a lot more rational after watching the Pro Bowl and even the NFC stars couldn't cover Reggie Wayne one-on-one. That said ...

Of course they have to be more aggressive. Particularly from the back seven, where they have to settle on a set rotation of linebackers and get away from cornerbacks that give more cushion than the Mattress Factory.

Memories are short. Remember when the Bengals blitzed Manning back at PBS in '05 and he put up 35 first-half points? So much for being aggressive.

Other teams besides the Bengals took note because down the stretch in '06, everyone played the Colts the way the Bengals did: Cover 2 and make Manning hit the check-down pass. That's what the Bears did in the Super Bowl and they had the same problem the Bengals did when their linebackers and DBs missed so many tackles that the check-down passes became first downs.

You're right. What the Colts game did show is the Bengals' stunning lack of aggressiveness in the secondary. If you're going to play Manning zone and not blitz much, if at all, you have to at least redirect (i.e. drill them) his receivers the way the Patriots do.

Heck, the Bengals played the Colts better than the Bears simply because they didn't get run on like Chicago did. What lost it for them was letting the Indy receivers run unchecked through the red zone and end zone. When Manning went to throw on the goal line, it looked like a 7-on-7 drill on the outside.

So yeah, they have to be more aggressive and play faster. How you get there is anyone's guess.

More aggressive players? Or a simpler scheme that allows them to play faster?

Marvin Lewis indicated last week that he doesn't think the scheme can be any simpler, but with the dismissal of Tory James and the warning to Deltha O'Neal it's also clear that he wants that kind of aggressive football from his corners.

A cleansing at corner and keeping the linebackers in pretty much the same spots could go a long way in helping them play faster and with more confidence. Injuries forced them to move backers like Brian Simmons, Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson all over the place.

Plus, plain and simple, if they're not going to sign a big defensive free agent, they've got to play the one guy on their roster that can potentially make a difference in middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Put him in there like they put Odell Thurman in there and live with it.


How can you count on him being back?

Q: It seems we are sticking with a 4-3 by franchising Smith. I am curious though at what cost, since this is just for one year. I know the debate on paying Steinbach such high money to keep him, but what would it cost to franchise him instead?

My concern is the effect on the O-line. Yes, we have Whitworth, but where does this roster move leave us on depth? We are losing our center and that forces a move, too. Now our backups change and are we stretching it too thin? We were deep last year and were stretched. What will be the talent level of our backups?

Whitworth proved to be an excellent choice, but just wondering if franchising is an option to maintain stability that affects the whole game plan.
**--David, San Ramon, CA

DAVID:** Smith's tag costs $8.6 million while Steinbach's would be $9.5 million. You just can't pay a guard that much. Actually, moving Whitworth in place of Steinbach at left guard sets in motion the game plan that ignited once they drafted Whitworth, figuring correctly they couldn't keep both Steinbach and left tackle Levi Jones and Whitworth can play both.

In an ideal world, Steinbach would be their center this year, but the cap ain't ideal. They do have a center that made double-digit starts this past year in Eric Ghiaciuc and they did re-sign Scott Kooistra as a backup guard-tackle so the depth chart doesn't look all that different.

Yes, they lose a Pro Bowl-caliber guard in Steinbach that can play every spot on the line. But at some point they have to start paying for defense.

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