With the Bengals heading into free agency using two of their nemesis as models, look for them to try to bolster one of the NFL's two youngest playoff teams via the draft, keeping their own, and signing solid players after the market peaks.
The Steelers and Patriots have been to four of the last six Super Bowls and since 2006 they've each signed just one big free agent in that stretch and none in the past four seasons. One, Steelers safety Ryan Clark, made it. The other, Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas, didn't.
And ever since the NFL adopted free agency 19 years ago, it is that roll-the-dice aspect of the exercise as well as the money that makes the Bengals and others wary of the prospect.
(New England's biggest moves last year on the way to the AFC title? Guard Brian Waters signed a maximum two-year deal for $5.5 million and pass rushers Mark Anderson and Andre Carter signed one-year deals for about a combined $3 million.)
Meanwhile, since 2007 the Bengals have thrown big money at defensive end Antwan Odom and wide receivers Laveranues Coles and Antonio Bryant with production that didn't come close to the payout.
"You win by developing your own players and not overpaying for a guy you're not sure how he's going to work out until six, eight, 10 games down the road and maybe not then," head coach Marvin Lewis said last month. "That's what's been proven.
"There have been very few guys that have done that and it's worked out to be productive. I believe we have to continue to draft. Do we need to supplement that with players? Yeah, and we're going to try to do that. But what does aggressive mean? Aggressive doesn't mean overpay and get stuck with both a bad contract and an average player. It doesn't fit what we want to do."
When the NFL opens its year Tuesday at 4 p.m., the Bengals look to be taking into account their future free agents as well as this year's draft haul before rolling out mega contracts. With the deals for Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals have seven picks in the first five rounds of the April 26-28 draft and most of them figure to make the roster.
And although players like Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham and left end Carlos Dunlap each have two years left on their deals and right end Michael Johnson and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga are going into their last seasons, the club appears to be keeping those potential numbers part of the process when dealing with this year's free agents.
With running back Cedric Benson expected to move on, it is a list that includes starting safety Reggie Nelson, starting nickel linemen Frostee Rucker and Jon Fanene that can play both tackle and end, and backup cornerback Kelly Jennings.
On Monday night Nelson's agent, Hadley Engelhard, said his client will test the market but says the Bengals are still in play.
Also expected to draw interest from the club are starting outside linebacker Manny Lawson and left guard Nate Livings, backup tackle Anthony Collins, backup cornerback Adam Jones, backup tight end Donald Lee, and backup defensive tackle Pat Sims.
Unclear at the moment is how the Bengals are going to deal with starters right guard Bobbie Williams and wide receiver Jerome Simpson. Williams, arguably the best Bengals free-agent signing as a bulwark for the last eight seasons, turns 36 early this season and is coming off surgery for a broken ankle. Simpson faces a potential NFL suspension for at least four games in a case stemming from a drug possession charge. It is likely the Bengals will go slow with both to monitor events.
Published reports have the Bengals under the $120.6 million salary cap ranging anywhere from $44-49 million. But with 34 players to be signed and with 14 starters or regulars that have to be signed or replaced, much of it figures to go quickly.
(On Monday, in the wake of stripping a total of $46 million in salary cap space from the Cowboys and Redskins for excessively dumping salaries into 2010's uncapped year, the NFL awarded every team but the Saints and Raiders $1.6 million more.)
If the average cap hit in 2012 for those 14 players is in the $2 million range, that accounts for about $30 million. Throw in an estimated $7 million rookie pool that includes two first-round picks and a couple or more restricted agents at more than $1 million each and that's about $40 million.
Plus, the Bengals usually keep a $4 million pad for injuries and possible extensions.
Like they do every year when free agency strikes, the Bengals contact dozens of players at every position, and with a record 600 players about to hit the market that looks to be more of the same.
Published reports have the Bengals seeking a running back to replace Benson, but with the club in a good position to draft a rotation guy in rounds two, three, or four, the more immediate need may be at starting guard and backup tackle. Livings, Williams and Collins are set to join backup guard Mike McGlynn and backup right tackle Dennis Roland on the market.
Lewis said last month at the scouting combine he wants his players back. Nelson, a No. 1 pick in Jacksonville in 2007, arrived in Cincinnati via a trade before the start of the 2010 season and revived his career with a solid 2011 in which he started all 17 games and led the team with four interceptions and was third in tackles.
Also in the mix is an inexperienced trio of second- and third-year safeties, Taylor Mays and Robert Sands, as well as special teams ace Jeromy Miles.
"We would like to have (Nelson) back, but we'll see. We're prepared to go either way," Lewis said. "We covered that spot last season and didn't have to dip into the reserve tank at any point where we were fortunate. We had a taste of Taylor Mays and we were impressed with what we saw, Jeromy Miles got a chance of having a little bit of a role and we feel pretty good about where we are."
Indications are the Bengals have talked to some of their free agents, but Angelo Wright, the agent for Fanene, said Monday night he's perplexed he hasn't heard from the club.
Fanene (six sacks) and Rucker (four) each are coming off seasons they had career highs in sacks. Wright says he believes Fanene is going to be a part of the first wave of free agents that go in the first 10 days whether it is to Cincinnati or elsewhere.
"There aren't many linemen out there with his versatility who can play both tackle and end," Wright said. "The way he stops the run and rushes the passer, I think his value is going to high as players are signed."
The Bengals have said they want to retain Rucker and Fanene, but both sides are also impacted by what the Bengals are going to have to pay Dunlap, Atkins and Johnson in the future.
Nelson is the textbook case of what the next few weeks are about for players and teams. Is he worth more to another team than his team?
For instance, will the Bengals or some other team feel he is worth more or less than Thomas DeCoud, a safety with similar experience also coming off a four-pick season? DeCoud, who has played one fewer year than Nelson in the NFL, just re-upped with the Falcons in a deal that reportedly gives him $3.7 million per year.
Although the Bengals didn't reach a deal with Nelson, Engelhard said he'd still like to play there.
"We'll go to market and we'll see what happens," Engelhard said. "Right now, all 32 teams are in play." Six of the Bengals free agents made CBSSports.com's top 100 free agents list with Nelson leading the way at No. 30. Three—Collins, Sims and Simpson—were in the final 15. In the end, it is all in the eye of the beholder.
Simpson may be viewed as a gamble. But Collins, sitting behind Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, could be seen as a good value by some in a market lacking tackles. That is, until Monday, when Eric Winston and Levi Brown hit the street.
Michael Lombardi, a former NFL general manager now writing for NFL.com, sketched out Monday why it takes time for a lot of deals to play out. Very few players get carried away in the first five-day wave, he says, when most of the big money deals occur.
"Agents want multiple bidders for every player to parlay the best deal. The best course of action if a team were interested in (a player) would be to lay low, waiting a week before making a call," Lombardi wrote. "Kind of like high school dating -- never show your interest too soon. And if (the player) were to sign with another team before a call was made, and then he probably went for more money than you were allocated to spend anyway. No big deal.
"Like high stakes poker, the best teams never sweat walking away, nor do they sweat when they lose a player. There has to be discipline in every decision. There's no place for emotions in free agency. Don't forget real games don't start until September, so there's plenty of time to improve a team."
After watching the Steelers and Pats deal the last five years, the Bengals seem ready for the pot to simmer.