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Keeping the options open


Updated: 9:15 p.m.

When dilettante guitarist Mike Pollak gets a chance this hectic winter of two babies in diapers, he slips away to jam to one of his favorite bands, 311, a group known for its versatility when it comes to its range of genres.

Versatility is exactly why the Bengals re-signed Pollak to what has been reported as a three-year deal, a contract that was finalized Saturday, the first unofficial/official day of NFL free agency. Pollak, 29, a natural center who made five starts at right guard last season, is again preparing to play all three inside spots if need be.

"They said they were going to get me some reps at center, but they also might have a need at guard," Pollak said Saturday from Arizona, where he lives in the offseason.  I'm looking forward to a couple of more years of hanging out with these guys and getting back to the playoffs."

Versatility might be a good way to describe how the Bengals are going into free agency. They've got two starters headed to market and would like to re-sign right end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins. But with starters behind both on the depth chart and the looming mega deals of quarterback Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, both the Bengals and the players are apparently seeing how high the market goes.

According to, the market has already gone high for Johnson. The web site reported that indications are Johnson isn't going back to the Bengals. That would mean that he got his number. After giving two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins a $55 million extension and left end Carlos Dunlap $40 million more, the Bengals are walking a line on the line.

If the report is accurate, Dunlap is an option to replace Johnson, as are backup ends Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry, and Margus Hunt.

No deals can be offered to players on other teams and signed until 4 p.m. Tuesday. Starting Saturday teams could talk to agents and take "negotiating positions," and while the difference between that and an offer is all very confusing, it's pretty clear what the Bengals were doing this weekend. With their team pretty well intact and about 8-$10 million to spend under the salary cap with Pollack in the fold, they were believed to have made some introductory calls to potential backups even though that market doesn't develop for a few more weeks.

The salary cap has gone up $10 million over last year, when the Bengals spent the third most cash in the NFL with $139 million, $16 million over what was a $123 million cap. 

It won't be the whirlwind of last free agency season, when they signed more than a dozen of their own free agents that included six starters and regulars on the NFL's highest-paid defense. But even though there is more money under the cap, the Bengals are also looking at more extensions for premium players heading into the last year of their deals. Besides Green and Dalton, there are also Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive tackle Domata Peko as extension candidates.

Along with Johnson and Collins, they also have interest in re-signing their own backups, such as wide receiver Brandon Tate, safety Taylor Mays, and cornerback Brandon Ghee. The Bengals are also reserving about $15 million this year under the cap for injured players (about $5 million) and draft picks (about $5 million) and tenders to restricted free agents count $4.2 million. After that is where the $8 million or so comes in.

That secondary free-agent market has been good to them lately. That's how they picked off their leading rusher for the past two seasons when they got running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2012 and starting SAM backer James Harrison in 2013.

And it's also how they signed Pollack last April after he passed the physical and the tryout following his rehab for the injured shoulder that cost him every game but one in Carolina in 2012. It turned out to a fortuitous get because of the foot injury that sidelined right guard Kevin Zeitler late in the season.

Now with left guard Clint Boling recovering from ACL surgery, Collins unsigned, and center Kyle Cook heading into the offseason banged up from the last two games, Pollak offers options.

He also offers a glimpse of what new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants in his linemen. Jackson likes to move them and Pollack has the requisite athleticism and fluidity to trap and pull at any position he plays.

"He's a very athletic and productive player," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "We're both excited to build on this past season. He really fit into our system and played great."

Pollack, a second-round pick of the Colts in 2008 out of Arizona State, decided to return, in part, because of Alexander.

"I've had a couple of position coaches and so far I've taken something from each one," Pollak said. "The way Paul helped my game, I felt like he really improved it.  I wanted to keep it here and see what I could do under his guidance. I feel really comfortable with him. That was one of the big factors. The technique, the scheme, the way he goes about teaching guys to do things and how he expects guys to get things done. For some reason it really clicked with me this year."

Pollak arrived with 41 NFL starts with Peyton Manning's perennial-playoff bound Colts and he found some attractive similarities in Cincinnati.

"The chemistry on the team, the way guys interact on and the field," Pollak said. "There were lot of older guys on the Colts and you've got some of the older guys with the Bengals starting to take over the leadership roles. They've been to the playoffs a few times, they have that taste and that helps younger guys doing the things the way they should be done."

Although he was a center at Arizona State, Pollak has never played it in the pros in a game. But he brings that mindset to the line and gravitated to Cook as he rehabbed from a knee injury that took him out of his first seven games after an impressive training camp. That came on top of the season-ending shoulder injury with the Panthers.

"It was really frustrating for me. I came back to where I wanted to be, had a really good training camp in Cincinnati, and then got hurt (in the preseason finale). A lot of times that can be crippling to guys," Pollak said. "But I was just trying to find the positives and learn from it. I really got into the playbook and I was next to Cook the entire time I was hurt just trying to feed off any information I could learn from him. I think that helped. When I physically could be out on the field, mentally I was as sharp as I could be."

And after going 2-14 in Indianapolis in 2011 and then getting put on the shelf for a 7-9 team in 2012, he re-discovered how nice it is playing for a winner.

"I was extremely excited how our year went. I know we didn't finish it off as well as we wanted to," Pollak said. We were really improving each and every game toward the end of the regular season. We got to the playoffs and that mountain needs to be climbed. We were so close. I wanted to come back and hopefully be one of the pieces that can maybe get it over that hump."

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