AFC North: Michael Johnson

CINCINNATI -- The question -- did their offseason moves make the Cincinnati Bengals worse? -- is one I've received often in the past month, particularly from passionate fans. They are concerned about the timing of the team's extensions and re-signings, the losses of Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Andrew Hawkins and Mike Zimmer, and the lack of big-name free-agent additions.

Even as good a draft pick as cornerback Darqueze Dennard appears to be, there is also some unease about the rest of the draft class.

All of the anxiety is warranted.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesTime will tell how much the departure of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will impact the Bengals.
If you ask some of ESPN's NFL Insiders the question above, they will answer with a resounding "yes." That was made clear Thursday when Insider Mike Sando published his offseason grades for all 32 teams Insider, and handed the Bengals a C-plus. Some might say the "plus" was too high a grade. C-minus or worse was more like it, in their eyes.

Why might some feel that way? Because they are answering the question posed above the same way Insider Field Yates did.

"Ultimately, the question is, did this team go from three straight playoff appearances to taking the next step?" Yates asked in Sando's assessment of the Bengals' offseason. "I do not think they are enough improved to consider them challenging for one or two playoff wins. The loss of Zimmer is gigantic. They could miss Collins on their [offensive] line knowing some of the concerns relating to injury and other question marks with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. I understand the price tag for Michael Johnson was too high. I wouldn't be surprised if the money was going to contracts for nucleus players, but for now, they have money unspent that is just sitting and waiting."

The nucleus players Yates is alluding to are, for now, primarily quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Both are in the middle of contract negotiations with the Bengals that would keep them in Cincinnati after their rookie deals expire next March. They could easily could combine for more than $20 million in cap space if re-signed this offseason. The Bengals have about $24.5 million in unused cap dollars for the 2014 season. That ranks as the third-most cap space in the league.

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How have the Cincinnati Bengals fared this offseason?

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Had Cincinnati been able to re-sign Johnson, the defensive end drafted in 2009, it likely would have cost between $8 million and $9 million per season. His deal with Tampa Bay, signed in March, is to pay him about $8.75 million annually.

Along with the slow progression in contract talks for Dalton and Burfict, and the losses of Johnson and Collins, the Bengals also were hit this offseason with the loss of longtime defensive coordinator Zimmer, who accepted Minnesota's head-coaching job. Though it's clear the Insiders think Zimmer's departure will be a serious blow to the Bengals, I disagree. It will be a challenge to move forward after losing such a sharp defensive mind and hard-coaching personality, but from a schematic standpoint they might even gain something by having Paul Guenther take over the coordinator's duties. It was Guenther who came up with some of the team's more creative blitz packages in recent seasons.

The loss of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden also could be bothersome, but new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson already has started addressing some of the areas that were most deficient for the Bengals last season; namely the running game.

Something else to remember: The Bengals might have lost a number of pieces, but the majority of their losses were anticipated. Plans had been in place for some time to slide Jackson into Gruden's old spot and Guenther into Zimmer's. Both departures had been expected, just as Collins' and Johnson's were. Aside from those losses, the Bengals kept much of the rest of their foundation in place.

So, Yates is right. It's not so much a matter of what the Bengals did or didn't do this offseason that is the question. It's about whether what they did was enough to make the Bengals a better team or a worse team. I'm not sure we can call them a worse team, but for now, there are some reasons to believe they won't be dramatically better than they have been the past few seasons.

Do you agree? Let us know what you think in the poll above.
A day-by-day look this week at five position groups where the Cincinnati Bengals have draft needs. We started with quarterbacks, and continue with defensive ends.

Defensive ends lost: Michael Johnson, signed with Tampa Bay in free agency.

Defensive ends added: None*
*Dontay Moch and Sam Montgomery were added in free agency. The Bengals list both as linebackers, but they have been defensive ends previously.


Draft likelihood: High

Rounds drafted? Any

Analysis: While the likelihood the Bengals will draft a defensive end is high, the position -- like most in this draft -- doesn't rank high on the list of immediate impact positions. They aren't looking for defensive ends who can contribute right away on defense because they're rather stacked at end with Margus Hunt, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers all looking to get repetitions and contributions this season. Along with fellow end Carlos Dunlap, each of the ends could see time playing both edge-rushing positions as new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system calls for creative stunts and rushes featuring mixed-and-matched line packages. It's one reason why you shouldn't be too surprised the Bengals signed hybrid rushers in Montgomery and Moch. Guenther's defense could have linebackers rushing off the line, too.

Still, it stands to reason the Bengals ought to add an end to fill Johnson's old spot, as well as start preparing for a future without some of the veterans who occupy the position. Geathers is 30 and Gilberry will turn 30 during the season. While both may have several seasons left in them from an age standpoint, they may not necessarily have many more with the Bengals from a contract standpoint. Both are free agents after the 2015 season. In the event one or both aren't re-signed during the 2016 offseason, then the Bengals would like to have another end they have already groomed right into a contributing role. This could be the year that future defensive end arrives. Who that player is depends completely upon when the Bengals decide to select a defensive end. They could draft an end in the first round, the second or the sixth. Most draft insiders believe they'll try to pick an end earlier rather than later. If they go early, there is a slight chance Auburn's Dee Ford, one of the more heralded players in this draft, is available at No. 24 when the Bengals make their first-round pick. Missouri's Kony Ealy is another option who, despite being rated the No. 2 defensive end on the board by ESPN's draft team, could be available at 55th overall in the second round.

Along with Ford and Ealy, the Bengals might also have interest in Oregon's Taylor Hart and West Virginia's William Clarke. Both are listed at taller than 6-foot-6. While they could be mid-to-late-round picks, they best fit the body style the Bengals will be missing with Johnson's departure. As a 6-foot-7 end with great leaping ability, a large wingspan and large hands, Johnson was noted for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. He tied for the league lead in batted passes last season. Part of replacing him will include getting players who can replicate some of that. Conventional wisdom says the taller the body and the longer the arms, the better for deflecting passes.

Potential picks: Dee Ford (Auburn), Kony Ealy (Missouri), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame), Taylor Hart (Oregon), William Clark (West Virginia).
With so many core players from last season returning, along with the few veteran free agents they signed this offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals are in relatively good shape when it comes to draft needs.

They aren't looking for many immediate impact players, but they still would like to add cornerbacks, defensive ends, versatile offensive linemen who can play multiple positions, outside linebackers and quarterbacks to add to their depth chart. Players at those positions could end up having tremendous value in later years as the Bengals continue building for the future.

With less than a month until draft weekend, ESPN Insider Todd McShay released his fourth 2014 mock draft Insider on Thursday. His first-round Bengals pick is one football fans across the Buckeye State ought to find intriguing.

Free-agency review: Bengals

March, 18, 2014
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Most significant signing: To this point, Cincinnati's most significant free-agent signing has been a re-signing. By inking restricted free-agent linebacker Vincent Rey to a two-year deal, the Bengals maintained their depth at outside linebacker and kept a vital special-teams piece. The Bengals aren't known to make major free-agency splashes with players from the outside, so it was even more significant that they retained a well-regarded player who not only provides depth but also can start regularly.

Collins
Johnson
Most significant loss: Anthony Collins' decision to sign with Tampa Bay wasn't a big surprise, but it was the biggest loss the Bengals have had so far this free-agency period. Defensive end Michael Johnson's departure was long expected because of the higher price tag he was likely to command. The team still felt it had a chance late with Collins, even an outside chance. The cuts of linebacker James Harrison and center Kyle Cook were big moves, too, but ones the Bengals should more easily move on from.

Biggest surprise: Cincinnati's biggest free-agency surprise actually came two weeks ago, when the Bengals extended low-round tenders to restricted free agents Andrew Hawkins, Dane Sanzenbacher and Rey. The decision to give a low-round tender to Hawkins was perhaps the most curious decision, as it gave the rest of the league free reign to bid as high as they wanted on the player who was the Bengals' third-leading receiver in 2012 (an injury limited him to just half the season in 2013). Cleveland jumped at the chance to give Hawkins an offer that is expected to go unmatched. Since he was an undrafted player, the Bengals won't receive any draft-pick compensation from Cleveland if they fail to match its offer. Lesson learned: The Bengals should have given Hawkins a second-round tender in order to keep him from being poached so easily.

What's next? Although the Bengals lost a couple of big pieces in Johnson and Collins -- not to mention their starting center and "Sam" linebacker -- they will return in the fall with a roster that has very few glaring holes. The good news is that their biggest contributors are already in place, and other backups, like recently re-signed guard/center Mike Pollak, could end up taking over starting jobs. Still, expect the Bengals to keep trying to build their defensive-line and offensive-line depth via free agency and the draft. Linebackers also could be draft targets, as could any number of defensive backs.
Michael Johnson, Anthony CollinsGetty ImagesFormer Bengals Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins have both landed with the Buccaneers.
Each week during the regular season you saw ESPN's NFL Nation reporters team up for "Double Coverage," a back-and-forth midweek banter about the biggest storylines going on ahead of that weekend's games.

There may not be any games right now, but teams have made all kinds of moves during this opening week of free agency. Few moves have been as big as the one that brought defensive end Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday, officially putting an end to his five-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. He wasn't the only former Bengal to start calling Tampa Bay home this week. Offensive tackle Anthony Collins also left Cincinnati to sign with the Bucs. Clinton McDonald, a 2009 Bengals draft pick who spent the last three seasons in Seattle, also arrived in Tampa Bay.

Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas decided to check in with each another to put the moves in perspective for you:

Coley Harvey: Of course we still don't know the date yet, Pat, but the Bengals will be scheduled to visit Tampa Bay this fall as part of the AFC North/NFC South scheduling crossover. Did any of the former Bengals address playing their old team in their news conferences? Whether they did or didn't, what did they say about the ways their careers in Cincinnati ended?

Pat Yasinskas: None of them really talked about Cincinnati. They all seemed focused on a new start with Tampa Bay. But I'm sure the Cincinnati game will carry extra meaning for them. Playing against your old team always means a little more.

Michael Johnson was the crown jewel of Tampa Bay's free-agent class. He had only 3.5 sacks last season, but 11.5 the year before. Which season is a better indicator of what Johnson brings to the table?

Harvey: You know, Pat, I'd say the latter. If you look at his stats since the start of his career in 2009, you'll see that the 11.5 number was a bit of an aberration. He had 6.0 in 2011, but 5.5 combined in 2009 and 2010. That said, he can be a good pass-rusher, but I have to imagine Lovie Smith saw something else, too. Johnson has been noted for being a good run-stopper and his insanely long arms are a benefit, too. Why do I bring up his arms? Johnson was a basketball player growing up, and by most accounts a really good one. That skill must have translated to football because he's become known for his ability to swat passes at the line of scrimmage. He tied for the league lead with eight batted balls last year. Two of them tipped into his teammates' hands for momentum-changing interceptions. Another helped negate a potential Packers touchdown pass on their final play of a 34-30 Bengals win.

Part of the reason there wasn't much pressure on Johnson to collect sacks last season was because of left end Carlos Dunlap's success. Dunlap had 7.5 sacks in 2013, tying for the team lead. Now that he's teaming up with another good end in Gerald McCoy, what are the Bucs expecting from Johnson?

Yasinskas: The Bucs envision Johnson as a strong outside pass-rusher. That's something the Bucs sorely lacked last season. McCoy was a force in the middle, but there was almost no outside pass rush. The Bucs are hoping Johnson can be a double-digit sack guy. I think he can do that and I think his presence will only make McCoy better.

On offense, the Bucs invested a lot in Anthony Collins to be their left tackle. Is he capable of keeping the league's best pass-rushers off quarterback Josh McCown?

Harvey: Absolutely. According to Pro Football Focus, we're talking about a guy who hasn't allowed a sack since 2009. Granted, he didn't play much until last season. He was a pure backup from 2008 to 2012. In 2013, injuries forced him into a greater role. He earned seven starts between the playoffs and regular season last year and he didn't disappoint. Called upon to fill in for Pro Bowl veteran Andrew Whitworth at Chicago in the season opener, Collins completely shut down sack king Julius Peppers. He did the same against Elvis Dumervil late in the year and kept outside linebacker Robert Mathis silent when the Colts visited Cincinnati. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has to be pleased with how clean Collins kept him.

Now, it was becoming clear in Cincinnati that Collins was ready to be a starting left tackle, but what was it about his play off the bench that impressed the Bucs so much?

Yasinskas: General manager Jason Licht said he studied the seven games Collins started very closely and he came away very impressed. Licht said Collins' footwork and athleticism stood out. The Bucs obviously believe strongly that Collins can be a solid starter. They're paying him $6 million a season and they released veteran Donald Penn to open up the spot for Collins.

Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald is kind of the wild card of Tampa Bay's class of free agents. He had a big impact for Seattle last year. But McDonald was with Cincinnati in 2010 and did very little. The Bucs are planning on having him as a starter. Is he ready for it?

Harvey: Based off what I saw in Seattle last year, I'd say yes. We talked a lot earlier about sacks. It's not easy for a defensive tackle in constant rotation with others to pick up 5.5 sacks, particularly on a defense like Seattle's that had so many playmakers at every level. That's a dedication to McDonald's blue-collar work ethic and team-focused mentality. He may not have been a great player in Cincinnati, but he was a respected teammate. If he keeps grinding the way he clearly has since he left the Bengals, he should be just fine for the Bucs.

Kiper's Mock 3.0: Bengals

March, 13, 2014
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It has been said a lot this offseason, but bears repeating. Compared to most teams, the Cincinnati Bengals have relatively minor draft needs.

As it currently stands, due to Michael Johnson's signing with Tampa Bay and Kyle Cook getting cut, the Bengals will only be without two starters off last year's team. The rest of Cincinnati's starting lineup will return, meaning the Bengals won't be in the market in May to draft too many immediate impact players.

Cornerback remains an area of concern with veterans Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones all now in their 30s. With each of their contracts set to expire in the next two years, and with injuries and age beginning to catch up to them, it would be in the Bengals' best interest to start looking into replacing them. The good news is that this draft is chock-full of secondary talent.

Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner, TCU's Jason Verrett and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller are among the group of elite corners who could be available when the Bengals make their first-round pick at No. 24. Since so many teams have already made moves in free agency to bring in cornerbacks, it's possible that those with defensive back needs who pick before the Bengals will end up bypassing some of these players. If that happens, the odds of Gilbert or Dennard falling to 24th might increase.

Cincinnati's draft mantra in recent years has been to take the best available player. Coaches contend that will continue this year, and that's not a certainty that they will be using their first pick on a cornerback. As they look to start creating depth at multiple spots, the Bengals also have needs at outside linebacker, defensive end, center and safety. They also could draft a quarterback to help back up Andy Dalton, and a running back to aid in their efforts of employing a more physical offense this season.

Mel Kiper's latest mock draft .
CINCINNATI -- There will be other, more glamorous free-agency signings than the one the Cincinnati Bengals announced just before noon Tuesday. That is a fact.

But that shouldn't diminish the importance of the organization's decision to bring back Brandon Tate.

OK, so his name didn't have the free-agency sex appeal of Michael Johnson's. He wasn't courted by as many teams as Andrew Hawkins and won't be making as much money next year as Anthony Collins. Still, his return to Cincinnati has a much deeper meaning than the fact he's a little-used backup receiver who occasionally returns a few kicks.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Brandon Tate
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsFifth-year veteran Brandon Tate is considered to be one of the Cincinnati Bengals' "core special teams players," says coordinator Darrin Simmons.
Tate's re-signing embodies what this particular offseason will be all about for the Bengals. When it comes to adding and retaining players, the mission in 2014 is about creating depth. You've already seen it in free agency with Cincinnati's re-signing of offensive guard Mike Pollak last weekend. You'll see it in the draft when the Bengals start looking at cornerbacks who can play both the edge and the slot, as well as offensive linemen who can line up at some combination of guard, center and tackle.

Since their starting rotations are nearly set with defensive end Michael Johnson as the only casualty from 2013's regular rotation (it seems it will stay that way), the Bengals are calmly going through this offseason looking like a team with few major needs to address. That's why once the attention surrounding Johnson and Collins begins to fade, the Bengals' focus will shift toward role players, such as Tate.

The role Tate played last year in his third season in Cincinnati was an important one. Among qualifying kick returners he ranked ninth in the league in kick return average, consistently advancing the ball 26.1 yards per return. He also served as the team's primary punt returner once injuries in the secondary forced longtime return man Adam Jones to be a special teams observer.

While he was mostly better at returning kickoffs than he was at returning punts, Tate still had a knack for breaking a timely punt return, too. Arguably his best punt return of 2013 was a 29-yarder in overtime that helped set up Mike Nugent's game-winning field goal at Buffalo in October.

"Brandon's numbers speak for themselves, and I've got a lot of confidence in him," Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. "This could be a real breakout year for him."

Simmons and the Bengals haven't yet said whether Tate will remain the team's starting punt returner, but his statement of confidence seems a clear indication they're hopeful he can continue contributing there. With the anticipation of having a fully healthy secondary ahead of training camp, the Bengals have good reason to put Jones back in the normal punt-return rotation.

Tate's return gives the Bengals options, and those options could even increase in the coming months depending upon which players the Bengals end up drafting. Some of the defensive backs who stand the best chance of being claimed early in the draft by Cincinnati have punt and/or kick return experience.

Along with Tate's occasionally explosive special teams play, he also provides a measure of sure-handedness. In his five NFL seasons -- the first two in New England -- Tate has only one fumble and three dropped passes in 71 attempts. He's another veteran who not only knows what it takes to win in Cincinnati, but has some measure of postseason experience with a franchise regarded as one of the NFL's modern-era dynasties.

There's also the depth Tate provides at receiver. One of the deepest returning positions, the Bengals have strong personnel numbers at receiver. Still, they need to bolster their ranks there just in case. Hawkins is an unrestricted free agent, as is Dane Sanzenbacher. After offering tenders to both players last week, the Bengals are in wait-and-see mode until another team formally offers the pair salary numbers that can be matched. In the event Cincinnati can't match one or both of the free-agent receivers, at least they still have Tate as a last resort pass-catching option.

No, Tate's re-signing isn't sexy nor should it even be attempted to be construed that way. But it's just the type of important, depth-chart specific move that a team looking to build off its relative success from a year ago is trying to maintain.
CINCINNATI -- There was no shock in the news. No awe was inspired by the announcement. It was all expected.

For five years it was expected.

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsThe Bengals were prepared to lose talented defensive end Michael Johnson.
When the Cincinnati Bengals began laying the framework for their Mike Zimmer-led defense, a unit that in 2009 was only one year into being guided by the now former defensive coordinator, they were making a bold turn in philosophy. Yes, they wanted good linebackers. They wanted better-than-average cornerbacks and safeties if they could get them, too. But above all that, they wanted to build a defensive line that put unrelenting pressure on quarterbacks.

Michael Johnson was the guinea pig in Zimmer's grand experiment, one that a year later brought the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to Cincinnati. Because of their youth, the trio of defensive linemen earned a nickname: "the Fisher Price defense."

The Fisher Price kids have grown up. Their bank accounts have matured.

One year after Dunlap and Atkins cashed in on long-term, multimillion-dollar deals, Johnson on Tuesday agreed to a five-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that's reportedly worth $43.75 million. The free-agent defensive end anticipates making $24 million of guaranteed money, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson. The approximate $8.75 million per year figure he'll be earning was higher than what the Bengals would have been able to match, particularly with offensive tackle Anthony Collins also a free-agent target of theirs. Quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict also have contracts that expire next year.

It has been a foregone conclusion since last March when Johnson was slapped with the team's franchise tag that he likely would be gone this offseason. A case also could be made that as far back as 2009, it was unlikely he would be a Bengals lifer. Then again, as long as they produced, the same could have been said for Dunlap or Atkins in 2010, too.

Back when he was drafted in the third round out of Georgia Tech, questions about Johnson's size, motor and durability hung over him. Some weren't sure how well he could translate long-term, so he dipped into the third round. Zimmer, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and their scouting staff saw something. Each believed he could project into the highly valued end he became the past two years. So they drafted him.

Similar sentiments could be expressed about Dunlap and Atkins. When Dunlap arrived, the second-round pick was pushed hard both publicly in practices and privately in meeting rooms by Zimmer, who foresaw more potential than the lineman initially put out. Atkins was a fourth-rounder who many didn't originally think had an NFL future simply because he waddled instead of walked like most defensive tackles.

Once all three began getting to quarterbacks and climbing up the Bengals' sack charts, though, the questions faded away. Johnson's motor suddenly was fine. Dunlap began pleasing Zimmer. Atkins' duck walk started drawing praise. The baby Bengals were going to be fully grown before too long. Holding on to each of them beyond their first deals was going to be virtually impossible.

Cincinnati began learning that lesson last offseason when it was faced with the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to bring back all three. Johnson was up for a new contract, but the Bengals didn't want to let him get away. Atkins and Dunlap had another year before their rookie contracts expired, but Cincinnati wanted them, too. So ownership made the difficult decision to tag Johnson while working out new deals for the other two (five years, $55 million for Atkins; five years, $40 million for Dunlap). At the same time, other steps were being taken to ensure the Bengals would be OK for that moment when Johnson, the eldest of their "Fisher Price" stars, decided it best to leave the nest. He loved Cincinnati, though, so the only way he would leave was was if the money just wasn't able to match up. After the Seahawks reportedly offered end Michael Bennett about $8 million per year Monday, it started getting even clearer that Johnson wouldn't be coming back to the Bengals.

As they anticipated Johnson's likely departure, the Bengals re-signed Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers last offseason while also drafting Margus Hunt in the second round. It was their belief that in the event Johnson would cost too much this year, at least they had a pair of veterans and another young but learning player to replace him with.

It was because of those steps that the Bengals can proudly bid farewell to the player who was the first and perhaps most crucial piece to the establishment of their young defensive line unit. It's much the same pride they felt when Zimmer, the man who built and nurtured the unit for five years, moved on to become a head coach for the first time in January. Like Zimmer, the expectation for Johnson's departure has been in the works for some time.

While there surely will be many in Cincinnati who will miss Johnson and his often-lauded charitable spirit, they must also know that his time simply had come. The leader of the young Bengals has, like the rest of them, grown up.
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.
Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.

The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.

So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.

Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:

1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.

2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.

3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.

4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.

6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.

8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.

9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.

11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.

12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.

13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.

14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.

15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.
CINCINNATI -- Chalk up a win for Hue Jackson and his plans of establishing a more physical Cincinnati Bengals offense.

From the time the new offensive coordinator was introduced in mid-January until now, the talk surrounding his unit has centered around his desire to make the Bengals more intimidating offensively by running powerfully and efficiently, while using a punch-first mentality to open up play action and other passing options downfield. The news Saturday that the Bengals have re-signed guard Mike Pollak was a clear sign that Jackson's plans are beginning to take shape.

Rule No. 1 in structuring a physical offense: take care of your offensive line.

Pollak's re-signing begins what will be a tedious, rumor-filled next few weeks. With a three-day window this weekend in which teams are permitted to talk to certified agents of free agents, the NFL's signing season has unofficially started.

While defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins will dominate the Bengals' free agency news cycle, there are other meaningful signings that deserve attention, too. Namely, those like Pollak's, that have to do with building depth on Cincinnati's front lines. One of three free agent offensive linemen, Pollak had been considered one of the Bengals' more important unsigned players. Offensive tackle Dennis Roland also is up for a new contract, and could get one as the Bengals continue strengthening their line.

Pollak, a six-year veteran, missed nearly half the 2013 season because of a knee injury, but returned just in time to contribute to some of the Bengals' better offensive performances of the year. He either started or received significant action in each of the final six games of the regular season, originally coming in off the bench to relieve starting right guard Kevin Zeitler who hurt a foot at Baltimore in Week 10.

Even when Zeitler was healthy enough to return, Pollak remained in the starting rotation. He averaged 49 snaps per game across the final six games, and gave the Bengals a relatively fresh extra blocker as the season came to an end.

"Very simply, we are just glad to have Mike back," Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander said in a news release. "He's a veteran you can count on. When some injuries provided him an opportunity last year, he came through with flying colors for us."

The insertion of Pollak into the primary rotation coincided with some of the Bengals' best rushing performances and most prolific scores of the season. In the six games when Pollak saw significant action, they rushed for more than 100 yards four times, including the 164-yard effort in a win at San Diego, and the 155-yard showing in a win the next week against Indianapolis. That win over the Colts was one of three in the end-of-year stretch that saw Cincinnati scoring 40 or more points. The Bengals also scored 49 in a 40-point win over the Jets in Week 8. Pollak played just six snaps in a backup capacity during that game.

The point here is that Pollak's bump in playing time overlapped with the contests in which the Bengals' offense played some of its most physical and complete games last season. Other offensive line changes came around that time, too, including Pro Bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth's move to left guard to replace an injured Clint Boling, and Collins' addition from the bench as the starter at Whitworth's old left tackle spot. Each of those changes came early in Week 13's 17-10 win over the Chargers.

If the Bengals are to institute the type of aggressive offense that Jackson envisions, they'll need to mimic much of what went right in the last six weeks of the regular season. Few games provide the type of blueprint Cincinnati is seeking than that late-season Bengals-Chargers game. The Bengals had their most balanced offensive attack of the year in that game, and prominently featured a heavy dose of their rushing offense.

When asked earlier this offseason about Jackson's plans on offense, Whitworth praised his new coordinator's wishes. Yes, he knows that putting a greater emphasis on the run is important to Jackson, but the veteran lineman also believes that attitude and willpower are at the heart of what Jackson will soon be asking his players to do.

"It's more about an attitude and a confidence and about imposing your will on another team," Whitworth said. "That could be done in the air or on the ground. That's more of what [Jackson] is talking about. He knows to be able to do that, you're going to have to run the ball successfully."

He also knows that a team will need a strong and deep offensive line to get that done.

With Pollak back on board, the framework of Jackson's looming physical system has started taking shape.

Free-agency primer: Bengals

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
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Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins, S Taylor Mays, S Chris Crocker, WR/KR/PR Brandon Tate, OG Mike Pollak

Where they stand: Last week the NFL's franchise/transition tag deadline came and went without the Bengals using either designation for the first time in three years. Johnson, who held the team's franchise tag in 2013, enters free agency with the ability to go anywhere he picks up a quality offer. The Bengals are hoping to extend a strong-enough offer to him, but teams like the Vikings and Falcons could enter the stakes and raise his price tag even higher. Cincinnati is also currently at a standstill with Collins, another big-name free agent who could soon call another city home.

Earlier this week, the Bengals tendered restricted free agents Andrew Hawkins, Vincent Rey and Dane Sanzenbacher. Since they weren't drafted, the Bengals won't be receiving any draft-pick compensation in the event they don't match other offers that those three will receive.

What to expect: Some teams are always heavy players in free agency. That's not really the case for the Bengals. They'll do what they can to re-sign the 14 free agents they currently have, but outside of that, don't expect much wheeling, dealing and spending. Johnson and Collins will receive the bulk of the Bengals' attention early in the free-agency period, with other players being handed offers in the background. Mays, Tate and Pollak in particular are unrestricted free agents whose fates remain somewhat uncertain. Tate and Pollak have more of a legitimate chance at being re-signed, although Mays could still assist in the team's defensive backfield depth. Don't expect punter Zoltan Mesko to be re-signed. The player he replaced in December, Kevin Huber, is still rehabbing from a broken jaw but should be fully healthy long before the 2014 season begins.

If the Bengals make any external additions during free agency, they are most likely to do so with fairly cheap veteran players who could assist with immediate depth. Defensive ends, cornerbacks and running backs are among those who could be added.
Good Saturday morning to you.

After taking a week off last weekend due to a busy couple of days at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, we're back with another Cincinnati Bengals mailbag. And because we got such a great rush of questions on Twitter this week, we'll be splitting this mailbag up into two separate posts. Here is Part 1. Come back Sunday morning to check out Part 2.

This edition of the weekend's Bengals mailbag is devoted primarily to free agency (although, a couple of free agency questions will sneak into Sunday's post, as well). Are there free agents the Bengals could go after, including their own 14 unrestricted and restricted players? Who might some of those targets be? Is Oakland running back Darren McFadden one of them?

We try to answer some of these questions below:

INDIANAPOLIS -- Since Mike Zimmer took over as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach, it's been a popular and sensible exercise to project whether the Vikings might be a good fit for some of the Cincinnati Bengals' pending free agents that Zimmer coached while he was the defensive coordinator there.

On Friday, Zimmer didn't dispute the idea that he'd like to bring some familiar players to Minnesota, but also hoped he'd be able to connect with a number of the players currently on the roster.

"I think the familiarity of guys with me, I think that's always important, but I don't know that I need to do that," Zimmer said when asked about bringing former players to the Vikings. "Hopefully, we have some people in Minnesota that will be 'Zim' guys."

Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson seems like an obvious candidate to get a strong look from the Vikings in free agency this spring, though Johnson will have plenty of offers and could command a sizable offer if he gets to the open market. Cornerback Brandon Ghee could be another name to watch for the Vikings. ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey thinks there's a chance Cincinnati won't bring Ghee back. Though he hasn't taken off like the Bengals had hoped, Ghee is only 26 years old.

If the Vikings didn't land Johnson and decided not to re-sign Jared Allen, could Brian Robison slide over to Allen's old right end spot? "When I get them on the field and when I start seeing them for a day or two, I’ll have a much better idea if Brian can play the right side," Zimmer said. "I don’t know if he can get in a left-handed stance. He’s always been in a right-handed stance. So I just don’t know enough about him."

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