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Free Agents the Bengals Should Target on Defense

For the fourth straight year, the Cincinnati Bengals came thisclose to taking that elusive next step in the playoffs. Yet, once again, here we are in mid January with the Bengals having as much of an impact on the NFL playoffs as us fans.

So how do the Bengals go about ensuring 2015 does not hold the same outcome as 2011-2014? It all starts with the free agent period.  For years the Bengals have employed the mindset of drafting to find success, not signing aged free agents. While that thinking has brought them to the playoffs four years in a row, it has proven to be not enough to get over the hump.

In order for the Bengals to reach the NFL Divisional Round in the playoffs, they must take a chance and add a few players via free agency – especially when realizing how many needs they have on the defensive side of the football. Considering the Bengals have roughly $38 million in cap space, they have the resources needed to improve this football immediately.

First, let’s take a look at the Bengals’ own free agents.

Unrestricted:
Jason Campbell, QB
Cedric Peerman, RB
Dane Sanzenbacher, WR
Brandon Tate, WR
Jermaine Gresham, TE
Alex Smith, TE
Clint Boling, OG
Marshall Newhouse, OT
Eric Winston, OT
Rey Maualuga, LB
Terence Newman, CB
Taylor Mays, S
Mike Nugent, PK

Restricted:
Devon Still, DT
Emmanuel Lamur, LB

Of those, Clint BolingCedric Peerman and Mike Nugent are the most likely to receive offered extensions. Other than that, Rey Maualuga and Brandon Tate are on the edge – meaning the team will likely make an effort to bring them back into the fold if they can’t find someone else on the market.

We know the Bengals’ biggest needs – defensive line, linebacker, wide receiver depth, cornerback depth. So let’s dig in.

Defensive Tackle

As much as Robert Geathers and Domata Peko have meant to the Bengals’ organization over the years, it is time to cut ties with both players. In and of itself, that would save the team roughly $7 million. While Carlos Dunlap had moments of brilliance last year, the same could not be said for Margus HuntGeno Atkins and Will ClarkeWallace Gilberry saw a decline in production as his playing time increased and Devon Still understandably had a tough time on the field in 2014 considering the more important battle he was fighting.

Improving the Line:

As much as pairing Atkins with either Ndamukong Suh or Nick Fairley gets us all tingly inside, it isn’t happening. While the Bengals are already paying Atkins $55 million, Suh would command a $100 million contract and Fairley likely is to receive at least $60 million. We just don’t see Mike Brown agreeing to put over $100 million into his two core defensive tackles (even though it could do wonders for the defense).

In all actuality, Terrance Knighton and Damon Harrison could be intriguing additions for the Bengals. Knighton, coming from Denver, has shown the ability to stuff the run game while applying occasional pressure on the opposing quarterback – an area in which Cincinnati was dead last during 2014. Harrison is more of a run stuffer, but is two years younger. During his time with the New York Knicks Jets, Harrison was an underrated player on Rex Ryan‘s front line.

When it comes to defensive ends, the Bengals won’t be giving up on Hunt or Clarke anytime soon. Both are young and raw, though Hunt showed brief glimpses of success at points in 2014. The free agent class for end pass rushers is not too deep. While Jason Pierre-Paul is out there, his health concerns and price tag will have Mike Brown running for the river.

Perhaps the most intriguing option at end on the free agent market would be Derrick Morgan. In five years with the Tennessee Titans, he split time between linebacker and defensive end. Morgan has collected 19 sacks over the last three years and could be a nice compliment to Dunlap at right end.

Best Options to Target:

Harrison fits the Bengals best – affordable, young and big as hell. At 6-4, 350 pounds, he perfectly fits the mold of what the Bengals desire on the defensive front. Pairing him with an undersized Atkins could take some of the pressure off of the Bengals’ franchise defensive tackle.

While Morgan isn’t quite as tall as Bengals’ coaches seem to prefer (6’3, 296), his production mirrors that of Dunlap (21.5 sacks last three years). He wouldn’t cost as much as Dunlap and is just a year older (26), meaning the Bengals could have a nice tandem for the next few years. The addition of Morgan would also give Hunt and Clarke even more time to develop without before forced to rely heavily on them in 2015. It also means the Bengals would have a nice rotation of defensive ends, keeping legs fresh throughout games (and giving themselves backup plans in case of injuries).

Linebackers

The loss of Vontaze Burfict really destroyed the Bengals linebacker group in 2015. While a healthy Rey Maualuga gave the Bengals’ a boost against the run during his best season in Cincinnati, the linebackers struggled mightily in coverage – especially against tight ends. It has been an issue that has plagued the Bengals for the past three years. While Maualuga’s play was improved last season, can the Bengals expect to take the next step with the same personnel?

The jury is still out on that one. So who can the Bengals line up next to Burfict in 2015?

Improving the Linebackers:

The Bengals must look for an upgrade a middle linebacker first. If they can find strong inside linebacker to slot alongside Burfict, they could afford to bring back Maualuga to focus on the run game. The first name that many will look to is David Harris. While he excelled for the New York Jets, he will be out of reach for the Bengals – and he isn’t the type of linebacker the team needs.

Assuming the Bengals opt to bring Maualuga back, they should focus on finding an inside linebacker who excels in man coverage. Enter Bruce Carter. Not only did Carter collect five interceptions and 57 tackles for the Dallas Cowboys in the 13 games he played (eight he of which he started) during 2014, but Carter also had 11 passes defended (Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey combined for 12). He would give the Bengals a true cover linebacker, one they haven’t had in quite some time.

Another strong choice would be Brandon Marshall, who played for the Denver Broncos in 2014. Exploding onto the scene this season, Marshall showed the ability to stop the run and succeed in coverage. With 95 total tackles, Marshall also compiled nine passes defended, two sacks and an interception. At just 25 years old, there is a lot of football left in his future.

In terms of outside linebacker, sack-extraordinaire Justin Houston would quickly fix the Bengals pass-rushing struggles, but will be far out of their reach financially. After a great struggle in 2014, Brian Orakpo could be an interesting signing – assuming he is able to return from injury. When healthy, Orakpo can put pressure on the quarterback (10.5 sacks in 2013). While both players could help the Bengals up front, they fail to address the team’s struggles when it comes to defending tight ends.

Best Option to Target:

It’s a tough choice between Carter and Marshall, as both are young and talented (26 and 25-years old, respectively). At the same time, both would be able to help Paul Guenther‘s defense with one of their biggest needs – man coverage. Infusing either into the middle of the linebacking group would allow the Bengals to bring Maualuga back to the team, an affordable option that would provide the team with additional continuity alongside a healthy Burfict.

If we had to pick one, it’d be Carter. But we would be jumping for joy if Marshall joined as well. Both players would be able to drastically improve the Bengals compared to the production they were receiving in 2014 from the position.

Cornerback

The Bengals won’t be searching the free agent market for a starting cornerback. While Terence Newman‘s career might be over and Leon Hall‘s age is noticeable, the Bengals have two young cornerbacks with all the potential in the world – Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. However, that shouldn’t stop Cincinnati from looking to add another nickle corner to the group.

Improving the Cornerbacks:

Rashean Mathis is a name that quickly comes to mind. He has played for 12 years and is no longer the player he once was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he still forced three turnovers and collected 45 tackles last season for the Detroit Lions. At 34-years old, the Bengals could expect him to provide much needed depth for the secondary, but not much more.

Another interesting name is Shareece Wright. The 27-year old defended 10 passes for the San Diego Chargers last season. Wright could provide an interesting battle, if signed. He possesses the ability to be a strong corner in whatever way the Bengals would chose to use him. However, Wright might have his sights set on starting, and that likely wouldn’t happen right away in Cincinnati.

Best Option to Target:

Mathis seems like the best bet, as he would likely join on a short term deal. The Bengals would be smart to take another corner in the 2015 or 2016 NFL Draft and Mathis would be a nice bridge until then.

Safeties

Though he is aging, Reggie Nelson once again had a strong season playing safety for the Bengals in 2014. The second straight impressive season by George Iloka rightfully began catching the attention of fans and experts nationwide as he is emerging as one of the top at the position in the AFC.

Improving the Safties:

There are a few impact safeties available this offseason, but considering the Bengals’ needs elsewhere, the team will not be looking for an upgrade here. While an heir is going to be needed soon for Nelson, Cincinnati will likely look for him in an upcoming draft, and rightfully so.

 

Obviously there are many needs on the defensive side of the ball for the Bengals, and luckily for them, the free agent class is loaded with talented defenders this offseason. It is time for the Bengals to break their trend of not signing free agents and do what is necessary to make this team better.

Spend the money.

 

Cover Photo: Getty Images

Grant E. Doepel

Grant E. Doepel

Editor in Chief and co-founder of Riverfront Grumble, Doepel is a Cincinnati native who lives and breathes Queen City sports. A University of the Cumberlands graduate with degrees in Journalism and Communication Arts, Doepel still resides in the Greater Cincinnati area to provide easy access to the riverfront stadiums.
Grant E. Doepel

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