- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- It's safe to say Mike Zimmer receives more credit than anyone else for building and shaping the Cincinnati Bengals defense, one that has four top-10 rankings in the past five seasons.
The recognition that has come his way is well deserved, but it shouldn't end with him. In addition to the recently departed defensive coordinator who is now Minnesota's head coach, Cincinnati's business and scouting offices played a key role in bringing to Paul Brown Stadium the talent that Zimmer so masterfully manipulated.
Not all of it was elite, first-round draft choice talent, either, but it was good enough to meet Zimmer's needs in his aggressive, rush-oriented scheme.
In 2013, it also was very well paid talent. According to ESPN's roster management system, the more than $69 million that was set aside for Bengals defenders was the NFL's most for defensive players this past season. It also was a far cry from the days when the Bengals routinely trotted out some of the league's worst-paid units, including the 2008 defense that was given an NFL-worst $33.4 million.
Sometimes, spending really is winning. Even for a longtime spendthrift like Bengals owner Mike Brown.
Cincinnati's league-high cap value for its 2013 defense is far from a record. For perspective, Green Bay's 2010 defense ate more than $94 million of its overall team cap space.
The Packers, with the league's fifth-ranked defense, won the Super Bowl that season.
Even while bringing along undrafted free agents such as linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey, the Bengals since 2010 have added, at relatively affordable value, veteran free agents such as Adam Jones, Terence Newman and James Harrison. But with drafted players such as Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson panning out and performing as well as anyone at the top of their respective positions, the Bengals' defensive payroll has increased significantly across the past four seasons.
Johnson, as the franchise-tagged player this year, ate $11.2 million of the team's cap space. Atkins, who was given a massive five-year, $55 million contract extension just before the start of the season, claimed $7.1 million in cap value. Another Bengals draftee, seven-year veteran cornerback Leon Hall, had $8.4 million of it. Six of the top-10 highest earning Bengals in 2013 were defensive players.
The Bengals' defense was the only top-10 ranked unit to have spent top-10 money on its players. The other nine teams topping the league's defensive cap value had total defenses that ranged from 11th to 31st. The Ravens spent $56.1 million on their No. 11 defense. The Vikings spent $60.5 million on their 31st-ranked team that just hired Zimmer.
Seattle, which finished the regular season with the No. 1 defense and won the Super Bowl, spent about $52 million on its defensive unit. That's the 15th-highest cap value in the league. With young stars such as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Malcolm Smith nearing the end of their contracts next season, the Seahawks' defensive cap value should jump exponentially if the team plans on retaining them and the foundation of its uniquely physical defense.
Sometimes, winning has nothing to do with spending -- until you start winning.
Without a doubt, Zimmer's coaching principles, methods and his shared philosophy with head coach Marvin Lewis were major reasons the defense was so successful when he was in Cincinnati. But the Bengals also eventually had to pay to make sure they built the framework of a group that has seen relatively few changes in the past three seasons. This spring, though, with Johnson likely gone to free agency and with others possibly flirting with it, changes could be coming.
Well-paid or not, the Bengals will be leaning on their vastly more experienced group of returning players. How well it goes next season, two seasons and three seasons from now will be impacted by how well the front office negotiates this comparative offseason of transition.
The good thing for the Bengals is that they ought to be able to make whichever moves they need this season without taking any cap hits. According to ESPN's roster management system, they are currently one of 22 teams under the salary cap for next season. At $111.3 million in total cap value, they are about $15 million under this year's $126 million limit.