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Model free agents


                The Bengals hope they can re-sign left guard Clint Boling (65). The Bengals began their foray into free agency Monday by doing due diligence, and that doesn't always mean finalizing a contract.

There were indications the club met with Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones and Eagles tight end James Casey, but there were no deals announced and Jones is reportedly headed to Tennessee for a visit Tuesday.

A free-agent visit usually consists of a coaches' conference as well as a physical, but with unrestricted free agency not set to start officially until a week from Tuesday on March 10 (agents and teams can start talking March 7), it's a little too early to get a grip on the market for both players and the teams.

The only thing we know is that on Monday the salary cap for 2015 was announced at $143 million, a bump of $10 million for the second straight year, and it remains to be seen how the market is going to react. The Bengals traditionally wait for the numbers to develop while they focus on their strategy of saving the big money for their own players and plugging holes in free agency.

Indications are the Bengals' top priorities look to be re-signing middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, left guard Clint Boling, and kicker Mike Nugent, as well as extending some of the 11 starters and regulars heading into the last year of their deals.

They also want to shore up depth at defensive end, linebacker, and tight end.

And by depth at defensive end, it looks more and more like they are not prepared to drop starting money at a spot where they think they'll get a lot of snaps from the little-used Margus Hunt and Will Clarke. But it would seem they are also looking for a player to add to the rotation.

They're also indicating they're looking to add depth with a receiver that is a vertical threat, but that seems to be more of a draft question. There's no question they've loved Jacoby Jones in this building for many years for his speed and adroitness as a returner, which brought the Ravens a Super Bowl title. He would be an upgrade over Brandon Tate, also a free agent. But if they do a deal it is despite the fact he turns 31 in July.

If there's a free-agency road map to follow, it could be the busy one the Bengals used three years ago. During the 2012 offseason, they re-signed starting safety Reggie Nelson and key reserves Adam Jones at cornerback, Pat Sims at defensive tackle, and Anthony Collins at tackle while inking several second- and third tier free agents to fill roles.

It will be recalled that's when they went under the radar and signed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and left guard Travelle Wharton for starting jobs and then wrapped up a trio of former first-rounders for defensive depth in ends Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey and cornerback Jason Allen. All before the NFL meetings opened that year in Palm Beach Fla.

 At 31, Wharton was the only one older than 30, and Anderson, 26, and Harvey, 25, were young enough and talented enough to get another shot in a rotation.

The meetings open this year on March 22 in Phoenix and while they may not be as active as that, that's pretty much their model. Build through the draft and plug in free agency with guys that are ascending or have a chance to ascend rather than playing out the string.

But it's hard enough to cash in on free agency whether you're looking for a starter or backup, which is pretty much a 50-50 gamble. The Bengals quote the stat that half the free agents signed to seven-figure deals don't play as long for their new team as they did their old ones and look what happened in '12.

Wharton, with an ACL tear on the third pre-season snap, and Anderson, with a muscle tear in the regular season's second game, went down early and never played for the Bengals again.  Harvey got cut after the first week of training camp. Allen suffered nagging injuries and played in just four games.

And look at Collins, the tackle they re-signed for two years before the '12 season. He signed a five-year, $30 million deal in Tampa last year and is now reportedly on the trading block.

Green-Ellis, on the other hand, had a career year and lifted a backfield that had been struggling with injuries and an erratic 2011 season from Cedric Benson racked with fumbles and no yards after contact. But BJGE gave them exactly what they have in mind for a free agent. He may have not cost much ($3 million per), but he gave them stability and productivity in their system.

That's what they seem to be looking for in a defensive end. A guy that fits into the rotation around the big-salaried Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.

Who is the BJGE for them this year? They'd like him to emerge at defensive end, or linebacker, or tight end.

Former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk is an interesting possibility, but at 31 and coming off ankle surgery for bone spurs, that doesn't exactly fit the model. Neither does Casey. He turns 31 early in the season and while he's a versatile guy, they get a lot of the same things from rookie Ryan Hewitt, nearly eight years younger than Casey.

And with the anticipated loss of tight end Jermaine Gresham, they're looking for a bruiser, a blocker, a guy bigger than 240 pounds. In fact, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson indicated they're looking for a masher.

And then there is always the signings that come before and even after the draft. The reason Allen had trouble breaking into the lineup is because they signed 34-year-old Terence Newman to a one-year deal a month after free agency started. He didn't fit the model, but he became one of their top five free-agent pickups of all-time and started for three seasons.

It sounds like they're moving on from Newman this trip, but they don't have to scramble to fill since they've taken two first-round corners since they signed him and have two others in Leon Hall and Adam Jones.

Where the Bengals have to scramble this year as opposed to 2012 is the next season. A total of 11 starters and regulars are heading into the last year of their deals, among them Hall, Jones, and the team's best player, A.J. Green.

It's believed they'd like to wrap up a good number of them before this season starts, which seems to be a longer process than regular free agency. But they've always felt like a couple of those under-the-radar extensions later on mirror the flashy free-agent deals celebrated around the league in the coming week.

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