Updated: 4:30 p.m.
The Bengals have tipped their hand before free agency starts Saturday with teams able to start negotiating for deals that can be signed and announced starting Tuesday.
It should be no surprise since head coach Marvin Lewis already indicated at last month's NFL Scouting Combine that this isn't going to be a flashy free agency of Mike Wallace or Dashon Goldson (not even Laveranues Coles or Dexter Jackson for that matter), but it's going to be a no-frills, brick-by-brick effort to keep the team's core players in all three phases for a club that finished the regular season 7-1 while securing its second straight postseason berth.
So the Bengals wrapped up two key but under-the-radar names on their No. 1-ranked special teams Friday with Cincinnati's own punter Kevin Huber kicking off this homegrown free agency effort.
They reached five-year contracts with their record-breaker, Huber and flawless long-snapper Clark Harris. Throw in a two-year extension on Thursday to running back Cedric Peerman, who is Huber's personal protector, and the Bengals appear to be intent on keeping things intact in-house.
Those deals, along with the tendering of one-year offers to restricted free agent safety Jeromy Miles and exclusive free-agent wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and linebacker Vincent Rey, account for about $8 million.
Last week the Bengals made right end Michael Johnson their $11 million franchise player in an effort to keep their defensive line whole. With another $8 million reserved for the draft and injuries, and with an eye to securing two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and possibly left end Carlos Dunlap for long-terms deals during the summer, the Bengals are looking at about an estimated $20 million to spend under the $123 million salary cap.
(In the plans also appear to be rolling over $10 million of room for 2014, the club's first chance to extend Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.)
Peerman, Huber, Harris and the gang aren't big names. But they're solid role players that have been behind back-to-back playoff appearances. And that's the philosophy Lewis had said the Bengals are using to keep the run going.
Right tackle Andre Smith and his $9 million per year wishes are the stars of the agenda, but so are unheralded veterans that didn't get leading men pub yet were Oscar-worthy in supporting roles on the NFL's seventh-best defense. Ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry, tackle Pat Sims, and cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam Jones figure to be pursued by the Bengals in the next few days if they haven't been already.
Where middle linebacker Rey Maualuga stands with Vontaze Burfict poised to take over the middle remains to be seen.
After navigating those deals, what's next? If the Bengals need to fill, don't look for an all-out assault on the secondary free agent market, either. Not with what could be up to 10 draft picks this year after five of their top seven picks from last year had limited play time via injury or sitting behind veterans.
But before it all got started, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons had one of those Thank God It's Fridays on Friday with the re-signing of Huber and Harris.
Huber, a Cincinnati native who kicked at the University of Cincinnati and has punted in every game since the Bengals took him in the fifth round in 2009, is sticking close to Beechmont Avenue and his alma mater of McNicholas High School.
"I'm excited to get all three guys. They're obviously very key components in what we do and major players in that," Simmons said, adding Peerman into the mix. "We're off to a good start. Let's hope we can keep that momentum going for getting our own guys back.
"It's a huge step to keep those three guys together. I think they've showed they're a solid group. Any time you can get productive guys to stay together is the key to continuity."
It's believed the team is also trying to ink one of its kickers from last season, but it's not clear if it's going to be Mike Nugent or Josh Brown, the man that replaced Nugent with an AFC Special Teams Player of the Month December. Other free-agent specialists no doubt also on the club's list at some point are the unit's de facto captain, linebacker Dan Skuta, and cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones.
"When I talked to Darrin at the end of the season he told me when you have a niche somewhere, it's nice to stay," Harris said. "Once you find a niche and a spot where you know the guys, you know the coaches, you know everybody in the organization, it's kind of nice to be able to stay."
Harris will again be snapping to Huber, who's coming off the best season ever by a Bengals punter that was capped by a Herculean effort in Pittsburgh during the 13-10 win on Dec. 23 that put the Bengals into the playoffs. Huber's franchise-record net average of 42 yards shattered the club record set in the inaugural season of 1968 by nearly three yards and was fueled by his NFL-leading 11 punts downed inside the 5.
"When you look at what Kevin's done statistically, for the most part he's improved each season," Simmons said. "The thing that took a big jump this year was his net. And anytime a punter has success, you have to cover. We've got a lot of guys we can put in those spots. That's the key to being young."
Simmons's top gunners, Miles and Hawkins, are also back this year with the one-year tenders, and the Bengals think last year's No. 1 pick that missed most of last year with injuries, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, can help there, too.
Huber, who turns 28 just before training camp, also broke the 42-year-old Bengals record for gross average with 46.6, putting him into first place on the club's all-time list with 44 yards per his 324 career punts.
"I'm excited about coming back there. I like the city, I'm comfortable there, and I like the team," Huber said. "Hopefully we can get all our guys back and pick up where we left off. Our special teams are coming off a couple of good years."
Harris and Huber share a comfort level since Huber has caught all of Harris's snaps, including 254 as the holder on placekicks, as well as the same agent, Brad Leshnock of Chicago's BTI Sports Advisors. But Harris said their fates weren't tied together.
"We work out together and we've talked about it, but if he had gone somewhere else it wouldn't have been like, 'I can't sign here,' " Harris said. "It's every man for themselves even though we're friends and have the same agent. But he knows I'm going to be here, I know he's here and it's good to have that."
Harris also says it's good to have Peerman around for a while to keep the middle of the Bengals punt team stable. Peerman called his two runs of 48 and 32 yards off fake punts that set up touchdowns and erased early leads to put the Bengals ahead to stay in road wins against Jacksonville and Kansas City.
"It's a huge deal. I feel comfortable with him," Harris said of Peerman. "I'm not worried about trying to make the call or making sure the call is right. I know he's always making the call and doing the right thing."
"I love having Ced right in front of me," he said. "He's solid. I'm excited about that."
Harris is staying in Cincinnati this offseason because next week he begins tearing down his home in Manahawkin, N.J., his cottage near the beach that took a major hit in last October's Hurricane Sandy.
"It should be done by the end of next season, but I'm in no hurry," Harris said.
He's got a few years to go, but Huber is all but entrenched in his hometown. He admits it was a draw to coming back. The best thing about playing in Cincinnati, he says, is playing in front of his family.
"I can count on my hands the numbers of games they've missed in high school and college and here they can get to most of the away games," Huber said. "It's a great experience."
But he also knows the Bengals didn't get him for nothing. He joked when he said he should give AFC Pro Bowler Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs a congratulatory phone call. A few days ago Colquitt signed a reported five-year, $18.75 million deal and while Huber didn't get that, it probably helped him get close to a $3 million per year average.