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Hobson's Choice: Raid second tier

Q: When Marvin said that the Bengals were "going to be proactive in free agency," should we take it to mean that they are only going to re-sign their own players? Over the last few years they've missed out on premier players like Warren Sapp, Joey Porter and Shaun Rogers, all of whom could have given instant credibility to this team. Conventional wisdom has the Bengals taking a center sometime in the draft, but with all of the talk of them drafting a LT at No. 6, that would give them a rookie LT and rookie C on a line that didn't play well last year. Scary thought. Why wouldn't they try and go after LT Jordan Gross, DE Julius Peppers, DT Albert Haynesworth, RB Brandon Jacobs while signing only a couple of their guys back? They won't be able to address all of their needs through the draft. They need to get a premier player from a winning team to show everybody that they mean business in 2009, don't you think?
--Anthony, Aliso Viejo, CA

ANTHONY: I'm not so sure. One of the questions poised by puzzled and fired Browns boss Phil Savage was how did they go 4-12 even though Rogers had such a good year.

The Jets also went apple crazy in free agency last year and all it got them was a fired coach. The Cardinals lost arguably their best defensive player in free agency, linebacker Calvin Pace, to the Jets, and still made the Super Bowl. The Jets grabbed nose man Kris Jenkins from Carolina and the Panthers still made the playoffs.

I agree, though, that free agency has to be a supplement. The way the Bengals approach it, they must absolutely sign second-tier free agents to complement the guys they always make their priorities:

Draft picks and their own free agents. They have so many holes, they can't dump it on one or two guys.

I took Marvin to mean they will have to be active in free agency to replace guys they expect to lose in free agency. But that doesn't mean replacing T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Shayne Graham, Stacy Andrews and Eric Ghiaciuc with Brandon Jacobs, Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross.

All those guys, plus Haynesworth, are going to command damn near record deals that would no doubt chew up more than the Bengals want to give up on the salary cap to one player.

Do they have to sign Brandon Jacobs at an Action Auction price to show they mean business? What if they re-sign Cedric Benson with sane money, draft a running back, re-sign Graham and safety Chris Crocker, and eye a bunch of middle tier guys in free agency like wide receiver Devery Henderson, center Jason Brown and fullback Terrelle Smith.

OK, you want a difference-maker. So do I, plus three acres on Pemaquid Point. But do you drop a load on Terrell Suggs and then don't have enough to get the numerous other parts you need?

Just being smart about it instead of opening the wallet would show you mean business enough, I would think.

But now we're playing hot stove with a blindfold.

If you don't sign Houshmandzadeh (I think they must), what do you do with that money? Go after a speed guy like Henderson and hope Andre Caldwell gives you what Houshmandzadeh did?

Do you decide to pluck a center out of the richest center draft in recent memory? If you do, then you don't sign a veteran like Brown, right? (And word is he's looking for $7M a year. No thanks.)

And whatever you do, you don't sign the Colts' Jeff Saturday, a center we all admire but at 295 pounds you've got a 33-year-old version of the guy everyone wants to get rid of in Ghiaciuc because he's not big enough for the AFC North nose tackles.

If you're going to sign Gross, why not just keep Levi Jones? Gross is going to be too expensive and isn't special enough when you've already got two potential left tackles in Anthony Collins and Andrew Whitworth.

Get a left guard, you say, if Whitworth moves to left tackle? That's more like it. There will be someone out there, like old friend Mike Goff or Russ Hochstein. If you're nervous about a rookie center (join the club), put him next to two veterans like Bobbie Williams and Goff/Hochstein/Somebody Like That.

And, look, this all could end up like baseball. Anybody been looking at that ticker on the MLB channel of unsigned players lately?

It looks like lineups from the 2002 All-Star Game. Yeah, the top players are going to get paid. But in this brutal economy, who else will?

You have to spend the money. Spend it on four or five solid guys instead of two. That would them you mean business, too.

Q: Just read your comments on the offensive line and was hoping for some clarification. The way you "hypothetically" structure the line with Whit at left tackle, Collins at right tackle, Bobbie Williams at right guard, who fills left guard and does this conversation even include center? Are we shopping for another center? Is there one here we think we can move in, or is it still Ghiaciuc's job to lose? Sorry, but the only place I don't see potential turnover is Bobbie Williams at right guard. I am really hoping for an insight as to other total processes that could answer the whole line question instead of just parts. I see us starting next season with no one playing at their position but Bobbie, two different tackles, new left guard, new center. Is this feasible? Or is there another plan? Can Levi play right tackle? Maybe stay healthier against lower speed? Can Levi play either guard?
--Tony, Independence, KY

TONY: All solid questions and you are right. It sounds like they want to keep Whit on his left side, so Bobbie looks like the only guy that stays in his spot. And sure it's feasible because they only have one place to go and that's up.

I'm kind of piggy-banking on the previous question here when it comes to center. All signs point to them moving on from Ghiaciuc and they do like the young centers they have here in Kyle Cook, Dan Santucci and Andrew Crummey. In fact, they were ready to play Cook in the game he suffered a season-ending toe injury in warmups.

But that would be just like starting a rookie because they virtually have 0.0 game experience. So whether they draft one or not it would seem to be necessary to sign a veteran guard to help who is ever in there because it looks like it could be a young guy. And it could very well be one of those young guys already here.

(Note: Ghiaciuc may get the best center deal out there. He may not fit this division, but he can play in the league.)

What would be nice is a veteran that can play both guard and center but before you start talking about Baltimore's Jason Brown, the word is that he's looking for $7 million per year. Well, he's a good player but he ain't Steve Hutchinson.

This is like the conversation about a guy like left tackle Jordan Gross. OK, good player. But you're going to overpay him at a spot where you've already got a guy you think can play until you draft a left tackle. Hell, for all we know Whit could an elite left tackle. He did pretty well there in a little place called the SEC

Still, you could pick a left tackle as early as this year with the sixth pick. And you're probably better off drafting your own guy at some point (it doesn't have to be this year) rather than overpaying somebody else's guy. Plus, you figure even if they draft a guy now they would play Whit or Anthony Collins there until the kid was ready.

And I just don't see them moving Jones anywhere. He's a left tackle, albeit one with injury question marks.

Q: Would Darren Sproles not fill multiple huge needs for the Bengals? He is a dynamic punt and kick returner, and he would be a great fit for the Bengals offense. I think everyone would agree he is not an every-down back. But who is an every-down back in today's NFL? The Bengals offense was at its best under Carson Palmer when Chris Perry was getting 10-15 touches a game. Sproles is an extremely effective receiver out of the backfield, which Carson would love because when the protection breaks down he can't shrug guys off like Roethlisberger or scramble for yardage like some of the more mobile QBs in the league. Sproles, who has a penchant for making big plays and an ability to affect field position both on special teams and on offense, seems to be an ideal free agent target for the Bengals that would greatly benefit not only the offense, but the defense as well. Is this a pipe dream, nightmare, or something in between?
--Jeff S., Toledo, OH

JEFF: None of the above. Just a good solid question that is on the minds of many in Bengaldom. Sproles may be an every-down back, but he may want to be paid like one.

I agree with everything you say. I think the guy is a terrific weapon. I saw him personally win a playoff game in Indy a year ago when he took a 56-yard screen pass to the house for the Chargers.

But at 5-6, he can't be your bread-and-butter guy and I don't know how much you can pay a guy like that and still get a bell cow. Maybe you overpay Sproles and draft your complementary running back. The thing about Sproles is the punt and kick return factor, a spot where the Bengals have been damn near negligent in the draft. It can no longer be ignored.

Or, maybe you re-sign Benson, draft a back, and continue to see what you get out of rookie James Johnson, who showed quickness and ability out of the backfield late in the year.

Is the Benson-rookie-Johnson option too cautious and cheap?

Look, I'm a Sproles guy myself because it gives Carson another weapon as well as a dominating force on special teams, I don't think he'll have a bail-out number, and you can't beat speed.

And, granted, Johnson is no Sproles.

But what if the ticket on Sproles is high enough to take them out of a couple of more positions in free agency?

Tough call in my mind. But whatever happens, I hope they give James Johnson a long look in training camp.  

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