Bengals look to get most out of free agency

Cincinnati Bengals' William Jackson (22) and Mackensie Alexander (21) celebrate after Pittsburgh Steelers turned the ball over on downs during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Cincinnati Bengals' William Jackson (22) and Mackensie Alexander (21) celebrate after Pittsburgh Steelers turned the ball over on downs during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Credit: Michael Conroy

Credit: Michael Conroy

Team evaluating its own players, other team’s free agents

Cincinnati Bengals director of player development Duke Tobin said the organization hasn’t decided whether or not to use the franchise tag on anyone this year, but there should be some flexibility in the salary cap to do so if deemed necessary.

The Bengals have 26 pending free agents when the 2021 league year begins March 17, and the deadline to use a franchise tag is set for Tuesday.

Defensive end Carl Lawson appears to be the most likely candidate for that designation, though some have speculated it could be used on cornerback William Jackson. The use of a franchise tag enables teams to lock up for one more year a player who otherwise has a chance to move elsewhere in free agency, but the player will be owed the average of the top five players at his position.

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“I’m not gonna break any news today one way or the other on that,” Tobin said Monday in a Zoom news conference with local media. “We’ll see if the deadline is (Tuesday). I’ve heard rumors that it may be moved, but as I sit here right now, we don’t know what the franchise numbers are. We don’t know what the salary cap is, so we’re going to have to assess it in real time when we get all of the information and we just don’t have all of the information right now.”

If the Bengals use the franchise tag on Lawson, it is expected to cost around $17.8 million, according to overthecap.com. That site also projects the Bengals having $41 million in cap space available, ranking sixth in the league for most flexibility.

The team paid wide receiver A.J. Green about $18 million last year on a franchise tag and his future remains in question, but Cincinnati could benefit from more time with Lawson before committing to a long-term deal. The question is whether that $17.8 million is wiser spent elsewhere as the organization tries to build around quarterback Joe Burrow.

“Those are the things that we have to balance, and right now we’re doing a deep dive onto what it might take to get guys signed, both our own guys and out-there guys and how best to attack it to get the biggest bang for our buck,” Tobin said. “Over the past ten years of the Cincinnati Bengals, we’ve been a top half of the league spending spending team. We are going to spend on players, but we’ve also maintained a cap that’s allowed us to be flexible. This year, we have flexibility, which is a good position to be in. We’re trying to best manage that number and come out of this free agency and the draft with the most help we can possibly get for our team.”

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Tobin said the team has an idea who might be coming available on the free agent market and which players have been floated on the trade market, but the Bengals want to “keep as much capital” as they can and he doesn’t anticipate them trading away a bunch of draft picks.

If players do become available, the Bengals will be prepared with their evaluations and how much of a price tag they are willing to put on them, but Tobin wouldn’t say if he expects to be as active as last offseason. Cincinnati was unusually busy last offseason bringing in players from outside the organization.

“We’re going to see what comes our way,” Tobin said. “We want to attack our team needs through the draft, through free agency, through re-signing our own players, through development of young players that we have. We are certainly not going to sit on our hands. I can’t make any predictions. Free agency is unpredictable. We haven’t gotten a chance to visit with these guys yet and find who might have interest, what the price tag is and how many of them we can fit. Once it kicks off, we’ll have a better feeling for maybe where the opportunities are for us to make headway, but it’s a hard thing to predict. I know we will be prepared to jump in and see what we can get done. Hopefully we will be able to get the things done that we envision. Whether it happens or not we’ll see.”

Credit: David Jablonski

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Regarding where things stand with their own free agents, Tobin said the Bengals still value players they’ve developed and groomed, so they expect to compete with outside interest to bring some of them back.

Tobin also said the team could make some moves to free up cap space as well, depending on what the salary cap ends up being. One of those players speculated as possibly being on his way out is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who struggled with shoulder injury last year and could see further decline in production as he approaches 33 years old.

To save $14 million in cap space, the Seahawks are releasing defensive end Carlos Dunlap – who was drafted by the Bengals in 2010 along with Atkins and traded to Seattle last October. Atkins also takes up $14.7 million in cap space.

“We’ll see as we go,” Tobin said when asked how Atkins fits in the plans for 2021. “We’ll see what if any of the room we need to do some other things. It’s a fluid situation. I don’t have any updates on it right now. I know we have high regard and high esteem and he’s been a Bengal his whole career. We’ll see if we can keep that going.”

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