CINCINNATI -- For some of them, it's just time to graduate.
The statement above was made to me earlier this offseason by a Cincinnati Bengals source as we casually discussed the team's extraordinarily high number of key players who were scheduled to hit free agency.
Essentially, the source was saying that after a solid tenure helping build the foundation of a team that's coming off its franchise-record fifth straight playoff berth, the time was at hand for a few of the team's rising stars to go off and do the same for someone else's team. At the heart of that statement was the fact some of them would probably make more money with another team, while others might end up receiving more opportunities than they would have had by staying on Cincinnati's otherwise deep roster.
It was a raw dose of reality that hits home on days like this one.
By now you've probably heard about the Detroit Lions’ big free-agency signing, a pending deal with now-former Bengals receiver Marvin Jones that was first reported by ESPN's Dianna Russini. NFL Media's Ian Rapoport is reporting the deal is worth about $8 million a year. The deal can't be made official until 4 p.m. ET, when the new league year begins.
If Jones' new contract does in fact pay him $8 million a year, then the Bengals were grossly outbid. Although Cincinnati wanted him back in stripes badly, there simply was no way the team was going to pay Jones that much on his second contract when it had 12 other unrestricted free agents it was interested in working out contracts for. According to NFL contracts and salary-cap website Spotrac.com, Jones' market value entering this free-agency cycle was closer to $5.5 million per year.
At the price the Lions are reportedly willing to pay Jones -- a deal that's expected to come one day after Calvin Johnson retired following a nine-season career -- he ought to garner significantly more targets than the 98 he had as the Bengals' No. 2 receiver last season.
Detroit's lead pass-catchers in 2015, Johnson and Golden Tate, were targeted 144 and 128 times, respectively. Jones could be paired with Tate in a similar fashion in 2016. Had he re-signed in Cincinnati on a dramatically lower deal, Jones likely would have been the No. 3 passing option in the Bengals' offense behind A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert.
In the time of obscene television rights contracts and increasing salary-cap limits, money in the NFL can often have a negative connotation attached to it. In this case, though, it shouldn't. As a key playmaker for the Bengals two of the past three seasons (he lost a year due to foot and ankle injuries), Jones deserved to test the market and get every penny he's supposedly worth. Any other year, with fewer free agents to try to pay, perhaps the Bengals would have felt better about giving him a deal closer to what he's slated to now make.
But alas, that wasn't the case.
As the Bengals were concerned, this became a graduation year for Jones. It is now his time to be paid.