Toast of the pundits

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The Bengals and Rey Maualuga stayed at home to keep close to Pittsburgh in the always tight AFC North.

With the NFL Draft a month away, the Bengals are drawing rave reviews from the national media for their work this offseason. After chronicling the pirating of Michael Johnson to the in-house signings of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and left guard Clint Boling, the pundits have returned from last week's NFL owners' meeting with thumbs up.

"They're having the kind of offseason that successful teams have because successful teams don't leap to the starting line in free agency very often,' says Peter King of the Monday Morning Quarterback. "If you make the playoffs and then you get third and fourth round compensatory picks, then you're doing something right. If you made the playoffs, your team was not torn asunder."

Alex Marvez, senior NFL writer for Fox Sports.com and an NFL Radio host, calls the Johnson move "a coup." Pete Prisco, a NFL senior writer for CBS Sports.com, calls the re-signing of Maualuga and Boling, "smart." John Clayton, ESPN's "The Professor," gives it an "A," with "Everybody wants the splash in free agency, but they don't understand the value of keeping your own players."

"Re-signing the offensive lineman was smart. Just keeping that group intact for another year," Prisco says. "Maualuga is a good guy to have in the run game. They couldn't afford to lose another linebacker with the Vontaze Burfict (injury) situation hanging over their heads. When you keep the guys you want, then bring back a guy like Johnson with whom you're familiar, those are smart, good moves. That's a good football team. They're having a good offseason and let's not discount the injured guys they're getting back like Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert that make it even better."

What has the pundits buzzing is the Bengals re-signing Johnson a year after they lost him in free agency while also getting the third-round compensatory pick for him.

"It doesn't get any better than that," Clayton says and Marvez observes, "It gives the Bengals some flexibility in the first round because they're not locked into the pass rusher per se. They can do a lot of things. It might have not been like this back in the Ashley Ambrose days, but you can say it now. The Bengals are a model of efficiency in free agency."

What has caught the eye of the national media is not only the Bengals' ability at keeping their own players, but also their dexterity at playing the game for compensatory picks. Clayton says the ability to lure Johnson back for $5 million per in a four-year deal after not being able to get him for nearly $9 million last year is "fantastic."

"They got the 99th and 135th picks for free to help re-make their team," King says. "To me, the smartest team in free agency has been the Ravens…They got one of the best right tackles in football, Rick Wagner, with a fifth-round compensatory pick. They do smart things with their compensatory picks just because of the volume of picks."

For years the Bengals were lambasted for not moving during the first few weeks and waiting for the market to depress. Now they're getting praised for it.

"Don't be one of those team followers or fan groups that say we need to have an exciting offseason," King says. "If you need to have an exciting offseason, you're in it for the wrong reason. You need to have an exciting season. Most of the teams that have exciting offseasons do not have winning records the next year."

Marvez broke into the NFL with the Ambrose-era Bengals 20 years ago at the dawn of free agency and everyone has learned something.

"We're learning as national media – I at least hope people learn – just because you keep your team together, it's not a bad thing," Marvez says. "Especially when you add a piece like Michael Johnson. This team is ready to compete. If it weren't for all the injuries last year, this would be a different story in Cincinnati."

Clayton points to a guy that arrived as a scout the year Ambrose left in 1998.  Duke Tobin is now the director of player personnel.

"The key to it all is the drafts and Duke has been very good there,' Clayton says. "If you're able to replace free agents with draft picks, it's all about value."

But all the moves have to be good enough to claim the AFC North, the best division in football that for the last six seasons has spawned three playoff contenders. So far, King says, the Bengals have.

"They've got a solid roster. Especially if Geno Atkins gets back to his level," King says. "No question (coach) Paul Alexander is always going to have a good offensive line. I think they have enough weapons, but they need one more wide receiver. You have to wonder about Burfict's future with the concussions. They need a linebacker and one more pass rusher, but the base talent is good enough to win the division for the next four or five years with two other very good teams."

At this point, it's hard to handicap the North in 2015, particularly before the draft. But Johnson looks to be the biggest free-agent pick up among Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.

"They all have quarterbacks, they all have good rosters, they all have good defenses, they all have good running games. So it's all built for the same thing," Clayton says. "But when you get a playmaker back like Johnson…huge."

No, not a bad offseason the experts say.

"How many teams would trade with the Bengals for four straight playoffs?" asks Prisco, getting ready to answer his question.

"Almost all of them."

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