With the low-round tender option, the Bengals would pay all three $1.4 million next season if another team doesn't reach out and try to woo them away. If another team does make a higher offer when free agency starts next week, the Bengals' tender gives them the ability to match that same offer. Normally if they didn't match the other team's offer, the Bengals would be compensated by that team through the draft. Whichever round the respective free agent was originally drafted, the Bengals would receive a selection in that round.
Since all three of these players went undrafted, though, the Bengals won't be getting draft-round compensation.
So should the Bengals try to match offers and keep these three? Or should they be content to let them go if higher offers come? We'll briefly examine each player's value the rest of this week. Up first:
The good: There's a lot of good when it comes to Hawkins. Signed out of the CFL as an undrafted free agent ahead of the 2011 season, he quickly became a fan favorite in Cincinnati. His combination of elite speed and smaller size -- the Bengals list him at 5-foot-7 -- earned the respect of Bengals fans. When he became the team's third-leading receiver in 2012, catching 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns, that admiration grew. It was that production that had Hawkins and others anticipating a breakout season for him in 2013.
The bad: As he tried to make an athletic catch during a preseason practice last August, Hawkins suffered a serious ankle injury that forced him to the injured reserve/designated for return list. He ended up missing the first eight weeks of the 2013 season because of the injury, and was still trying to work himself back into midseason form when he returned to action in Week 9. For the first half of the season, the injury negated a key part of the Bengals' offensive plans. He finished with just 12 catches during the regular season.
His anticipated future role: Hawkins was mostly known as a slot receiver in the offense previously coached by Jay Gruden. Under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's watch, it's possible to see him line up at virtually any spot on the field. OK, maybe not offensive line. At 5-7, 180 pounds, he might not be the right person to block for Giovani Bernard flanked just off the right tackle. Still, it's possible he could be used in a fashion more like how Seattle used Percy Harvin in the Super Bowl. Hawkins could be flanked out wide catching screens or out routes. He could be used, like he has in the past, in reverses or fake reverses or double reverses. He also could remain in the slot, continuing to be a matchup mismatch for Nickel cornerbacks who might not be able to keep up with his shifty speed.
Try to keep him? By setting the tender so low on Hawkins, the Bengals have made it clear they don't expect to get into too high a bidding war with another team that tries to take him away. If the Bengals end up deeming a team's offer too high, they will pass. But should they? Obviously that depends on how high the offer goes. In part because of the injury it's hard to imagine Hawkins will be fielding offers higher than the maximum tender level compensation of $3.1 million that he and the other restricted free agents could have received. As long as the opposing offers are reasonable, the Bengals, to me, have to match and keep him. Yes, there are a variety of other playmakers on offense between A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard, but Hawkins gives the unit a measure of added athleticism and speed that can be tough to replace. Much like the difficulty opposing defenders say they have in locating the smaller and shifty Bernard, they are similarly leery of spotting Hawkins in traffic, too.