Imagining life without Collins and Johnson

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
5:15
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- Brace yourselves, Cincinnati Bengals fans. As the hours start flying by between now and the start of free agency Tuesday afternoon, it is beginning to look more and more as though losing Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson will be a real possibility.

Collins, the backup offensive tackle who has starter's potential, and Johnson, the formerly franchise-tagged defensive end who is entering free agency with him, are likely too expensive for the Bengals to keep. Reports have already indicated that Collins could command between $6-7.5 million per year from the teams that have courted him during this soon-to-expire three-day legal tampering period.

[+] EnlargeCollins
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals are well positioned to absorb the loss of Anthony Collins.
Johnson could be looking at slightly better numbers that the Bengals just won't be able to match.

In the event they sign elsewhere, where would that leave the Bengals? Would all hope be lost for the franchise that exhausted as much time and effort as it could at re-signing the pair? Not at all.

Truthfully, the Bengals are in the envious situation of bringing back a roster that is full of veterans. Even their young players have had significant playing time across the past three seasons. Because the overall depth on the team is solid, particularly at Collins' and Johnson's positions, the Bengals ought to have very little to worry about if they aren't able to re-sign either player.

Let's focus on offensive tackle first.

If they are able to re-sign Collins, the Bengals are setting themselves up for a rather tenuous situation on the left side of their offensive line, one that Collins may not want to go through another couple of seasons, let alone one more.

With Collins back in the rotation at left tackle, the Bengals will have to decide whether they will allow him to start permanently or continue to have him come off the bench as needed. Although he only started seven games last season, Collins still was used quite extensively as a backup to Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith. If Collins returns and the Bengals start him, it would mean Cincinnati was moving Whitworth from left tackle to left guard, forcing previous starting left guard Clint Boling to the bench. Boling started 12 games last season until an ACL injury early in the Week 13 game at San Diego ended his season. To replace him, the Bengals moved over Whitworth and started Collins.

From a financial standpoint, the only way Collins would return to Cincinnati is if the Bengals could match an offer that would pay him close to $6 million a year. That's a lot of money to pay him to ride the bench again, so team officials would have to think long and hard about how much they wanted to shake up the lineup with his return. It wouldn't necessarily be a bad decision to have.

The reasons for such free-agency frugality are many. Among them include the team's hopes of re-signing each of its three tendered restricted free agents, keeping several of its other less pricy unrestricted free agents, making pushes to extend quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict a year early, and just trying to balance the books. Even with a salary cap that's about $7 million more than expected, so much of the nearly $30 million the Bengals have in cap space will be eaten by other budgetary obligations before some $15 million miraculously appears for Collins and Johnson to get paid.

Speaking of Johnson, a logjam similar to what Collins could be facing might be staring at Johnson and his fellow defensive ends if he re-signs.

After placing the franchise tag on Johnson last March, the Bengals re-signed defensive ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry and drafted Margus Hunt in hopes of building up their depth and talent at the right end spot. Their thinking last offseason was to simply get the position group ready in the event they were unable to re-sign Johnson this offseason. Geathers' season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 helped the Bengals avoid any playing-time issues at the position last season.

Coupled with an expected healthy Geno Atkins at defensive tackle and Carlos Dunlap at defensive end, the rotation of Geathers, Gilberry and Hunt should give the Bengals a measure of freshness and relief at Johnson's old spot.

Life in Cincinnati without Collins and Johnson also could include draft picks in May as the Bengals start looking even further into their future for replacements for veterans like Whitworth, Geathers and Gilberry. With draft picks coming and what Cincinnati already has in place, it's a future that's not as dark and morbid as many might want to believe.

Yes, Collins and Johnson were the big metaphorical fish they had hoped to land once again.

But get ready, Bengals fans, because you may soon have no choice but watch your organization adapt to life without them.

Coley Harvey

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter

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