Hobson's Choice: Their own free agency

Q: I applaud the Geathers signing; however, I have one major concern. Couldn't we have re-signed Eric Steinbach for that money?

I just have a hard time justifying giving all that money to a player who didn't start at all this year when we could have given it to not only a guy who has started EVERY game he has ever played but also one of the top five at his position in the league. What do you think?
**--Kurt, Red Lake Falls, MN

KURT:** That's just the problem. Steinbach is one of the top five or six guards in the NFL, but they also have two top tackles and it would be hard to find any team that has three top five players on their offensive line simply because of the salary cap.

Plus, it's a two-way street. The Bengals' ideal offensive line for next season would probably be Steinbach at center and Andrew Whitworth at left guard. But why should Steinbach take top center/guard money when someone out there is going to give him damn near tackle money to play guard?

The Bengals are already pretty much breaking precedent by giving both tackles top five money, which is why they can't come close to giving Steinbach what he would get on the open market.

And I don't think you can blame the Bengals for that. They have to protect Carson Palmer from the Dwight Freeneys of the world (not to mention the Kimo von Oelhoffens) and in order to do that you need premier tackles.

As long as Palmer is here with that $118 million deal, tackles have to financially follow suit. Guards and centers have to be slotted. It's a fact of salary cap and NFL X-and-O life.

It's also bad timing to do Steinbach. After dumping millions and millions into extensions for offensive players (Palmer, Willie Anderson, Levi Jones, all three Johnsons), it's clear their strengths are on offense and it's time to look at defense. Geathers is a good start.

Defensive starts are overrated. Besides, the Bengals play with about 15 regulars because of their various packages. The key down is third, which is where the big money goes: Pass rushers and pass defenders. Geathers is an obvious starter there, and even though he didn't start games he played starter snaps with the third most plays of any defensive lineman.

I know, I know. Geathers only has done double-digit sacks once. But the kid is 23 and is obviously a hell of a player. If he follows it up with 10.5 more sacks in '07 (and why shouldn't he?), he now becomes one of the best bargains in the NFL.

Finally, the Bengals are not letting the market come to them. The earlier you go get a guy, the less you have to pay. They've done it with Chad and Jeremi Johnson, Jones, and now Geathers.

Q: God forbidding we stay healthy (and moral) this offseason and regular season, it appears that the '07 Bengals should have a legitimate chance at playing in the Super Bowl.

But there are some glaring problems at certain positions. Most obviously defense. Is this the year we can sign some premier free-agents to seriously improve our chances of winning a championship? Is there legitimate talk throughout the organization to land at least one big-name player? We have struck out in this category for too long!

In your opinion which big name free agent(s) would we go after? Why do we consistently miss signing these type of free agents?
**--Shane, Florence, KY

SHANE:** The Bengals have signed them and signed them consistently but they don't get any credit because they pursued their own. They've struck NFL landmark deals with Chad Johnson, Carson Palmer, Willie Anderson and Levi Jones instead of going on the market.

And, anybody seen free agent champ Washington in the playoffs?

So now that the Bengals have kept the same philosophy and re-signed Geathers, I doubt they'll delve into free agency for a big name. And, most everyone agrees this is as thin a field as ever has been out there. Because the cap goes up about $9 million this season, some bad players are going to get good money.

The Bengals used the cap increases in '06 and '07 to sign up their impact offensive players, which is why they probably only have room to get Justin Smith or one big name if they also want to lock up valued role players such as tight end Reggie Kelly, running back Kenny Watson, and safety Kevin Kaesviharn.

If it were me, I'd forget Smith and go after Adalius Thomas. He's a guy that can make a difference and can provide a handful of plays that separate an 8-8 team from a Super Bowl winner.

Or, one of those cornerbacks in Buffalo's Nate Clements or New England's Asante Samuel.

But I must say, watching Samuel's Patriots, or Thomas' Ravens, or the Colts this past weekend makes you wonder about free agency.

Remember the Pats wouldn't re-sign Deion Branch? Well, Branch and Seattle are home today and someone named Reche Caldwell got the Pats into the AFC title game with Sunday's big catch.

Baltimore and Indy, teams the Bengals want to replace, lined up Saturday with basically their own guys as their key players.

Sure, Steve McNair and Derrick Mason were big free-agent signings for Baltimore and the Colts got kicker and Saturday's Most Valuable Player Adam Vinatieri in the market.

But wasn't all that comparable to the Bengals re-upping Palmer and his tackles?

Q: What are the chances of the Bengals being able to pick up a marquee free agent like Adalius Thomas? It seems to me if they really want to switch to the 3-4, they need a star to build it around.

Do you think Justin Smith returns? It doesn't seem like they're that interested, especially since they just locked down Geathers. Do you think Smith is worth double-digit sack money?
**--Rob, Pleasant Ridge, OH

ROB:** Since Smith has never had double-digit sacks in six seasons, how can it can be yes? But he's still a solid player and we'll know if the Bengals are sticking with the 4-3 soon enough by how hard they pursue him before free agency.

Smith is in a little bit of the same boat as Steinbach. Someone on the open market is going to pay Smith like he's a double-digit sacker and give him $15 to $17 million guaranteed. But if you're the Bengals, how can you do that, and not give double-digit sack money to your 23-year-old who has done it?

That said, if you can get Smith for what he's actually worth, great. A guy who has a great motor, plays all three downs, and is always either first or second on sacks and tackles along the D-line is still going to get paid well but not the mega bucks he'd get on the open market.

Like Steinbach, it may be difficult for the Bengals to keep Smith from wading into an open market that could very well pay him like a 12-sack a year guy instead of seven.

If the Bengals pursue Smith in the weeks leading up to free agency that first week of March, that would indicate they're sticking with a 4-3. If they don't, it could mean he got too expensive or they're going to a 3-4, or both. Smith said himself back in May that he's not a 3-4 player.

People want to know if it's going to be a 3-4 or a 4-3 in '07. But you heard Marvin say it right after the season. The problem on defense is they don't have an identity, so if they don't know, we don't know.

Thomas would be a great pickup in a 4-3 or 3-4, or 2-2-7, whatever, he's that versatile. I'm just not sure how much Lewis wants him, given he was the defensive coordinator when the Ravens drafted him in the sixth round in 2000.

Thomas was on the open market until June in 2003 when the Ravens re-signed him during Lewis' first free-agency period in Cincinnati, a stretch he was picking off guys he liked at a pretty good clip.

Of course, much has changed since. Thomas has blossomed into an elite player with 32 sacks in the past four seasons and he's coming off his first double-digit year with 11.

It looks like the Bengals have enough under the salary cap to do either Smith or another big-time free agent. They'd have to give Thomas more than Geathers ($14 million guaranteed) and would they do that given Thomas turns 30 in August and is six years older than Geathers?

But Thomas is also the kind of difference-maker the club seeks. I'm all for getting him. The Bengals always seem to be preparing for hard defenses that have five werewolves that rush the passer from countless looks and fronts.

Read Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Either sign the werewolf or change the scheme, right, and make the other team find an indispensable center?

Q: Ken Peters an AP sports writer wrote this: "(Marty) Schottenheimer ranks fifth on the NFL list with 200 regular-season victories, but he's also the coach with the most wins without a league championship. The other coaches who won at least 200 regular-season games -- Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Curly Lambeau -- all won multiple Super Bowls or NFL titles."

What about Paul Brown? Why do they leave him off? Between his coaching the Browns and Bengals, I figured he had 222 wins. Is that right?
**--John J. B., Vermilion, OH

JOHN:** The book says P.B. has 166 regular-season wins and 170 including postseason on the way to three NFL titles with the Browns.

He just didn't go as long. Brown coached 21 seasons while Shula went 33 for 347 total victories, Halas 40 seasons for 324, Landry 29 for 270 wins and Lambeau 33 years for 229.

By the way, P.B.'s standing at 10th on the career victory list wasn't impacted by the 2006 season. Joe Gibbs (12th at 157 before the season) and Bill Cowher (14th at 153) didn't win enough to pass him.

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