Cincinnati Bengals: Rey Maualuga

CINCINNATI -- Now that Terence Newman and Taylor Mays have signed with the Minnesota Vikings, the Cincinnati Bengals have lost three players to free agency this year. Since it's been a while, let's take a quick look at where things stand with the Bengals at this stage in free agency.

It's also worthwhile to check out ESPN's Free Agent Tracker in order to see what the Bengals and other teams have done throughout this busy month.

Signed
*DE Michael Johnson (added after being cut by Tampa Bay)
LB A.J. Hawk (added after being cut by Green Bay)
*CB Brandon Ghee
*DT Pat Sims

Re-signed
OG Clint Boling
MLB Rey Maualuga
K Mike Nugent
OT Eric Winston
DT Devon Still
TE Kevin Brock (as exclusive-rights free agent)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris (as exclusive-rights free agent)

Tendered
OLB Emmanuel Lamur (second-round tender offered)

Lost to free agency
OT Marshall Newhouse (signed with the New York Giants as an unrestricted free agent)
CB Terence Newman (signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent)
S Taylor Mays (signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent)

Released
OL Mike Pollak
DE Robert Geathers
WR Greg Little

Remaining unsigned Bengals unrestricted free agents
TE Jermaine Gresham
QB Jason Campbell
RB Cedric Peerman
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
WR Brandon Tate
TE Alex Smith

*-Denotes a former Bengal who was signed for a second stint with the team.

CINCINNATI -- How well have the Cincinnati Bengals handled free agency this year?

Pretty well, according to ESPN's Insider team of Mike Sando, Field Yates, Bill Polian, Matt Williamson and Louis Riddick. In their team-by-team listing of free-agency grades Thursday, the group posited the Bengals had earned a "B" grade for their efforts adding players this offseason.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceThe Bengals kept LB Rey Maualuga, albeit it with a large price tag in the first year of a three-year deal.

The group was right. That's the most deserving grade for what the Bengals have accomplished.

Like most offseasons, the Bengals' approach this year was simple: Re-sign our own while attracting non-bank breaking veterans from the outside who are unequivocal locker-room fits.

In that regard, mission accomplished.

Each of Cincinnati's top targets -- Clint Boling, Rey Maualuga and Mike Nugent -- re-signed early. Each of the outside additions addressed certain defensive needs, and they came from affordable players whom the front office knew would ease right into the fabric of the franchise. Three of them, Michael Johnson, Brandon Ghee and Pat Sims (whose signing came after the Insider post went live Thursday), began their careers in the Queen City. The fourth, A.J. Hawk, grew up a Bengals fan in his native Kettering, Ohio, 45 minutes north of Paul Brown Stadium. Hawk and Nugent also are very close, having played college, high school and little league sports together.

Chemistry always is a concern when adding free agents from the outside, but after having such connections and previous experience with the players they signed, the Bengals aren't worried about these additions getting along with others already on the team.

That in an of itself probably deserves an "A."

What also deserves a higher grade than a "B" was the way the Bengals finagled the return of Johnson. One year to the week that they lost him in free agency to Tampa Bay and a massive contract, Johnson returned on a fair but significantly smaller deal. Able to make up to $24 million across the next four years, he's earning less than the more than $8 million per year he agreed to with the Buccaneers.

Due to the manner in which they originally lost the promising pass-rusher, the Bengals earlier this week actually learned that they were receiving a third-round compensatory draft pick to account for his initial departure. In a strange sense, they never really lost Johnson, and ended up signing two players in exchange for the time they didn't have him. It was a brilliant move, and one that Yates considered "one of the more impressive" of all free agency.

Like Yates also mentioned, though, the Bengals' overall average deserved to drop a tad for the large Year 1 money they agreed to pay Maualuga. The linebacker who has struggled to stay on the field due to injuries the last two seasons stands to make $7.1 million in 2015. While the rest of the three-year extension is set up more favorably for the team, that high cap charge still seems a little bewildering.

When you combine that with the fact the Bengals didn't have any elite signings -- not that they actually needed any -- it's hard to argue against giving them anything other than a B.

Seventeen teams earned grades in the B range. Only four received A.

Free-agency review: Bengals

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
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Most significant signing: After vowing in January that the Cincinnati Bengals would have a free-agency period that went against the franchise's "status quo," coach Marvin Lewis' words appear to be coming to fruition. It had long been the Bengals' habit in free agency to focus on building up their roster from within by attempting to sign their own unrestricted free agents, and then bidding adieu to the ones who were too expensive to bring back. This year, Cincinnati has signed all of its key targets and has even added players at important positions from the outside. The most significant signing was Sunday's four-year, $20 million deal that brought defensive end Michael Johnson back from Tampa Bay. It made sense because the organization still knows Johnson well, and expects him to be a solid locker room fit and instant contributor to the defense.

[+] EnlargeRey Maualuga
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceThe biggest surprise of the Bengals' free-agency period thus far is the three-year contract Cincinnati gave to middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

Most significant loss: Last year, the Bengals were reeling a bit during free agency after losing both Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins to the Buccaneers. Receiver Andrew Hawkins also left as the Bengals botched the handling of his restricted free agency. So far this March, the Bengals have had only one free-agency hit. Tackle Marshall Newhouse signed a first-week deal with the New York Giants. At one point, there was fear the Bengals would lose offensive guard Clint Boling, who fielded multiple outside offers before ultimately agreeing last Tuesday night to stay a Bengal. Technically there hasn't been a significant loss yet. Newhouse's departure arguably upgraded the offensive line.

Biggest surprise: The biggest Bengals surprise of this free-agency period had to be the $7.1 million cap charge the team agreed to letting linebacker Rey Maualuga take this season. Six days before the start of the new league year, Maualuga returned to the Bengals on a three-year, $15 million extension. While the back end of his contract was structured commensurate to his playing time the past two seasons, that first year was rather alarming. While he will be -- for the foreseeable future -- the Bengals' starting middle linebacker, Maualuga has primarily been a run-support specialist, and a frequent entrant in the team's training room. He missed three games in 2013 because of a knee injury, and was out four in 2014 due to a bad hamstring. So with pending priorities that include Boling's new deal and signing a starting defensive end, why did the Bengals feel Maualuga deserved so much money up front?

What's next? Chief on the Bengals' remaining free-agency list is determining what to do at tight end. There aren't many top targets available at the position. Jermaine Gresham is still among the best on the board. It's been stated before that many around the team were displeased with the way Gresham declined playing through injuries in two of the more important late-season games last year. As a result, many don't want him back. But the Bengals still have a need for a good blocking tight end and could welcome him back on a lower contract than he probably expected at the start of free agency. Aside from that concern, the Bengals likely will re-sign others who were under contract last season, such as quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Cedric Peerman. A couple of other low-tier free agents could be signed just ahead of the draft.

CINCINNATI -- According to contract figures obtained by ESPN Stats & Information, the Cincinnati Bengals have spent nearly $23 million toward the 2015 salary cap with their free-agency signings this past week.

The signings take into account the 2015 cap charges for Rey Maualuga ($7,137,500), Michael Johnson (anticipated $6,000,000), Clint Boling ($5,100,000), Mike Nugent ($1,950,000), A.J. Hawk ($1,850,000) and Eric Winston ($950,000). Combined, that totals $22,987,500.

Maualuga's contract was extended five days before the start of free agency, when he was inked for another three years worth up to $15 million. Nearly half of the money on the deal will be paid by the end of this season. In addition to his large figure, the Bengals also committed large salaries to Boling and Johnson after the start of the new league year. Of the above free agents, only Johnson and Hawk were signed from off the roster. Johnson, of course, spent the first five seasons of his career in Cincinnati before leaving for Tampa Bay last offseason. Hawk is returning to his native Southwest Ohio after spending nine years with the Packers.

Even with the above deals done, the Bengals are expected to make a few others. They still have a couple of their own unrestricted free agents to shore up, and likely will target a couple other lower tier free agents as they start setting the roster ahead of offseason workouts. As it pertains to doling out contracts like many of the ones listed above, though, they appear to be done for this year.

The Bengals entered this year's free-agency period with nearly $40 million in available cap space based off their top-51 contracts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That figure also included an $8.6 million rollover amount that Cincinnati normally applies to re-signing future free agents a year before their contracts expire. A possible extension for A.J. Green this summer, for example, would likely pull from that rollover amount.

While exorbitant, the Bengals contend their salary-cap number is a little misleading. In addition to paying the salaries of the free agents they just signed and re-signed with that money, they also have other expenditures to take into consideration with it. Also covered under that $40 million is cash set aside to sign restricted free agents, practice-squad players, draft picks and money for injury protections, among other items. Because of the extra costs, the Bengals anticipated having close to $18 million to spend on players through free agency this year.

They were just under that projection before they signed Johnson over the weekend. As indicated here before, if the Bengals wanted him badly enough, they had some wiggle room with their salary-cap projections to make a deal work. They seem to have done that. It'll be interesting to see all the numbers pertaining to the Bengals' salary cap once Johnson's deal is processed through the NFL Players Association.

It appears right now that without including Johnson's contract, the Bengals have about $22.6 million -- of that nearly $40 million -- remaining in overall cap space, according to NFLPA records. ESPN Stats & Information had the number of available cap space closer to $23 million Monday afternoon. But remember, a significant portion of that money will be going to some of the other expenditures outlined above. For that reason, expect the Bengals to be just about done signing bigger free-agent deals this offseason.

CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have signed back defensive end Michael Johnson after he spent a year away, let's take a quick look at where things stand with them at this point in free agency.

It's also worthwhile to check out ESPN's Free Agent Tracker in order to see what the Bengals and other teams have done so far this busy month.

Signed
DE Michael Johnson (added after being cut by Tampa Bay)
LB A.J. Hawk (added after being cut by Green Bay)

Re-signed
OG Clint Boling
MLB Rey Maualuga
K Mike Nugent
OT Eric Winston
TE Kevin Brock (as exclusive rights free agent)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris (as exclusive rights free agent)

Lost to free agency
OT Marshall Newhouse (signed with the New York Giants as unrestricted free agent)

Released
OL Mike Pollak
DE Robert Geathers
WR Greg Little

Tendered
OLB Emmanuel Lamur (second-round tender offered)

Non-tendered
DT Devon Still (was due to be a restricted free agent; instead offered one-year free-agent deal he's considering)

Reportedly fielding outside offers
TE Jermaine Gresham
S Taylor Mays
CB Terence Newman

Other unsigned unrestricted free agents
QB Jason Campbell
RB Cedric Peerman
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
WR Brandon Tate
TE Alex Smith

video
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Hawk couldn't care less about where in the linebacker rotation the Cincinnati Bengals put him.

He could be lined up in the middle or outside. It doesn't matter. Wherever he goes, he has just one focus: the player running with the football.

"We're all trying to tackle the guy with the ball. That's it," the newest Bengal said Wednesday. "I don't get caught up in positions. They are different, you have different responsibilities and different setups, but a 'backer's a 'backer. Football's football. I don't want to complicate it."

Sounds simple enough. Remember, this is a player who has spent nine years in the NFL and at 31 is considered "old." If the Green Bay Packers' most prolific tackling linebacker has been approaching football this way his entire career, why change now?

Hawk
Hawk, speaking inside only the second NFL locker room that he'll soon call come, was asked about the different places he's lined up on defense because of concerns about how he'll adjust from Green Bay's 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 the Bengals run under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. A noted inside linebacker, he could play the middle, or "Mike" linebacker spot for the Bengals. That would involve moving Rey Maualuga over to the "Will" outside linebacker spot.

There's also a chance Hawk could play the "Sam" outside linebacker position, giving the Bengals a boost to that position. Emmanuel Lamur, recently tendered at the second-round restricted-free-agent level, has been Cincinnati's "Sam," but he's more of a true cover linebacker instead of one who specializes in playing the run. It's possible he and Hawk would be interchangeable, alternating playing passing and rushing downs, depending upon personnel matchups.

Hawk also could play the "Will" position if Vontaze Burfict doesn't come back as hoped from his January microfracture knee surgery. At this point, virtually any scenario is on the table.

Hawk, a native of Kettering, Ohio, played every linebacker position at Ohio State and did the same at times in Green Bay. His first three seasons also were spent in a 4-3 base scheme before the Packers switched to defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 base setup in 2009.

One reason Hawk believes his two years in Cincinnati -- worth $3.25 million total -- will work out well is because of his new coordinator. All it took was a meal during his visit last weekend to see why.

"He has his specific plan of what he wants to do, and he wants his guys to execute it, be violent and go out and become great at what they do, and not try to overcomplicate it and not try to get guys overthinking, worried about assignments," Hawk said of Guenther.

"That's a huge thing I noticed when I went to dinner with him Sunday night. We're drawing up stuff on the table and talking about coverages and blitzes and stuff. It got me excited."

Something else that got Hawk excited and convinced Cincinnati would be the perfect free-agency landing spot was the fact that he'd get to play alongside Maualuga and Burfict. He's been tracking both of their careers from afar, and even developed a friendship with Maualuga through Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who played at USC with Maualuga.

"When it comes to football, are you physical and do you make plays?" Hawk said. "Those guys do it."

Wherever he fits in their rotation, the Bengals are banking on Hawk to play physically and make a few plays, too.
CINCINNATI -- One of the most prolific tacklers in Green Bay Packers' history, A.J. Hawk has long been noted for his ability to factor into a defense's run-stopping efforts.

In fact, it's that characteristic that has many lauding his free-agency addition to the Cincinnati Bengals this week. With uncertainty hanging over Vontaze Burfict's return from a serious knee surgery, and with the Bengals months removed from an injury-filled year at linebacker, there was a need to bring in a player who can help stop the run.

[+] EnlargeAJ Hawk
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhVeteran linebacker A.J. Hawk will bring more to the Bengals' defense than just his run-stopping ability.
Because of Hawk's past success in that area of the game, there is a belief he'll primarily be used in Cincinnati in situations that require additional run support. But is it fair to call Hawk a run specialist only?

45.0

That's the percentage of snaps in Hawk's career that have come on rushing plays. It means that 55 percent of all the snaps Hawk has been part of have resulted in either quarterback scrambles or attempted passes. Clearly he has history attempting to stop both the run and the pass.

Which means it's unfair to consider him strictly a run-stopper in the Bengals' scheme.

What may be a more fair assessment is to consider him a first- and second-down type of player. Even then, don't be surprised if he sees his share of action on third downs. Compared to other situations, third downs weren't his forte in his own injury-plagued year in Green Bay last season. But compared to another noted Bengals run-stopper, Hawk was a third-down savant in 2014.

Of the 810 snaps Hawk was part of in 2014, only 131 came on third downs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That means 16.2 percent of all his snaps came with the defense needing that all-important pre-fourth-down stop. When you take into account the Packers had 206 defensive third downs last season, his 131 actually looks pretty good.

By comparison, Rey Maualuga, whose sole purpose is to be effective versus the run, spent just 35 plays on third down last season. They accounted for just 8.5 percent of all the snaps he took in 2014. It should be noted that he missed four games in the regular season due to a hamstring injury.

Here's more on why Hawk -- even in this, the downside of his career -- ought to be considered more than a run-stopper.

Compared to Maualuga, who had a very obvious impact in Cincinnati's run defense, Hawk's impact over the years has been almost negligible from a yards per rush perspective. According to ESPN Stats & Info, since Hawk's third season in 2008 (this particular statistic wasn't tracked until 2008), the Packers have allowed 4.4 yards per rush when he was on the field. When he wasn't on the field in that same time period, they allowed 4.7 yards per rush.

With Maualuga, by comparison, the Bengals since 2009 (Maualuga's rookie year) allowed 4.6 yards per rush when he wasn't on the field, and 3.9 when he was. His impact as a pure run-stopper was obvious.

Finally, when it comes to coverage, Hawk has gotten some high marks in the past. Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the 15th-best inside linebacker from a coverage standpoint in 2014, and the eighth-best in 2013. Two seasons ago he allowed a catch for every 12.9 plays when he was the primary defender in coverage.

Based on his past metrics, it seems fair to assume Hawk will be more than just another run-stopper.
CINCINNATI -- We're only hours away from the start of free agency.

So on the heels of a rather busy Tuesday morning in the Queen City, let's quickly get caught up with where things stand for the Cincinnati Bengals:

Re-signed
MLB Rey Maualuga
K Mike Nugent
OT Eric Winston
TE Kevin Brock (as exclusive rights free agent)

Released
OL Mike Pollak
DE Robert Geathers
WR Greg Little

Tendered
OLB Emmanuel Lamur (second-round tender offered)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris (exclusive rights tender)

Non-tendered
DT Devon Still (was due to be a restricted free agent; instead offered one-year free-agent deal he's considering)

Reportedly testing the free-agency market
OG Clint Boling (Vikings, Falcons among those reportedly interested)
TE Jermaine Gresham (Raiders reportedly interested)
S Taylor Mays (Vikings reportedly interested)
CB Terence Newman

Other unsigned unrestricted free agents
QB Jason Campbell
RB Cedric Peerman
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
WR Brandon Tate
TE Alex Smith
OT Marshall Newhouse
CINCINNATI -- So far, there has been little mystery to the Cincinnati Bengals' free-agency efforts this offseason.

Nugent
Two of their top in-house targets, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and kicker Mike Nugent have been inked to deals that will keep them in Cincinnati through 2016 and 2017, respectively. Both extensions were expected.

Nugent was the most recent of the two to sign, agreeing with the Bengals on Monday to a two-year extension that, according to a source, will pay him a maximum of $4 million. Officially, $3.5 million will count against the Bengals' cap the next two years, but Nugent has a chance to make an additional $500,000 in the way of performance-based incentives that involve field-goal percentage.

The percentage isn't specified, but as long as he hits it, he gets an additional $250,000 per season the feat is accomplished.

Overall, the deal is remarkably similar to the last one he signed. The two-year deal Nugent agreed to before the 2013 season paid him $3 million across two years. The main difference was that he didn't have as much in the way of roster bonuses. He also didn't receive any added incentives.

Nugent's $1.9 million cap value for 2015 is half a million higher than it was in 2014. It also keeps him in fairly competitive company among other league kickers.

The big question is will this be Nugent's final deal? Or will the 33-year-old have another one or two after it ends?

Per a league source, here are the numbers behind Nugent's latest contract:

2015
Cap value: $1,950,000
Base salary: $1,000,000
Guaranteed money:$600,000 (to be paid in the form of a roster bonus on Saturday)
Roster bonus: $850,000 (the total roster bonus, including guaranteed money; the remaining $250,000 paid per game active in 2015 -- $15,625 per game)
Workout bonus: $100,000
Added incentives: $250,000 (for hitting a particular field-goal percentage)

2016
Cap value: $1,550,000
Base salary: $1,200,000
Guaranteed money: $0
Roster bonus: $250,000
Workout bonus: $100,000
Added incentives: $250,000 (for hitting a particular field-goal percentage)
CINCINNATI -- On the surface it seems rather shocking that the Cincinnati Bengals agreed late last week to pay linebacker Rey Maualuga an average of $5 million over the next three seasons.

It seems even more bizarre that they are looking at paying him just short of half of his newly extended contract in the first year of the deal.

Bush
Maualuga
But upon further inspection of Maualuga's contract provided by ESPN Stats & Information and other sources, one can see there are provisions built in that appear to have saved the Bengals from long-term robbery in the event this next phase of the veteran's career doesn't work out.

In addition to the $7.1 million cap charge that is partially covered by the fully guaranteed $4.5 million roster bonus Maualuga will be due on Wednesday, the Bengals also don't have any dead money tied up in him in 2016 and 2017. That means if he gets cut after this season, they won't owe anything to his contract once he's released. Since the Bengals very regularly front-load their contracts with first-year guaranteed bonuses, they don't often run into trouble with dead money by the end of the deals they agree to.

Also working in the Bengals' favor are the relatively sizable cap savings they will get if Maualuga is released after 2015.

It was also good breaking up the roster bonus in the first two years, because it helped account for his guaranteed money, and also because it put the onus on Maualuga to stay healthy if he wanted to receive the maximum portion of his new deal. Health has been a concern of his the past two years, as he's been sidelined by knee and hamstring issues.

Regardless of how we dissect Maualuga's deal, it's still quite obvious he made out well for himself, particularly considering how ineffective the injuries have made him at times.

When healthy, he has been key in limiting opposing rushing offenses. When he was on the field last season, other teams averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. When he wasn't, they gained 4.9 yards per rush.

The former second-round pick has been loved and respected by coaches throughout his six-year career. As head coach Marvin Lewis said last Thursday, the decision to bring Maualuga back hinged in large part on the organization's belief that "keeping productive players who know our system" helped it reach an unprecedented four straight postseasons.

Here are the numbers behind Maualuga's deal:

2015
Cap value: $7,137,500
Base salary: $2,150,000
Guaranteed money: $4,500,000 (to be paid in the form of a roster bonus on Wednesday)
Roster bonus: $4,750,000 (the total roster bonus, including guaranteed money; remaining $250,000 paid per game active in 2015 -- $15,625 per game)
Workout bonus: $300,000
Dead money: $0
Cap savings: $2,637,500

2016
Cap value: $4,100,000
Base salary: $2,650,000
Guaranteed money: $0
Roster bonus: $1,150,000 ($900,000 due on fifth day of league year; remaining $250,000 paid per game active in 2016 -- $15,625 per game)
Workout bonus: $300,000
Dead money: $0
Cap savings: $4,100,000

2017
Cap value: $3,700,000
Base salary: $3,150,000
Guaranteed money: $0
Roster bonus: $250,000 (paid per game active in 2016 -- $15,625 per game)
Workout bonus: $300,000
Dead money: $0
Cap savings: $3,700,000
CINCINNATI -- It was a busy weekend for NFL teams as the lead-up to free agency hit its fever pitch.

The 2015 free-agency period officially begins at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday. Still, some players in the last day or two have agreed to contracts with other teams that will be formalized just after the league year begins Tuesday afternoon. Others, like two Cincinnati Bengals, have re-signed with the teams that held their expiring contracts.

When it comes to the Bengals, you'll see even more personnel changes in the next couple of days. Free agents will be added from the outside, and other players who were under contract with Cincinnati in 2014 will sign elsewhere. To get you caught up on the moves the Bengals have already made this offseason, though, here's a quick look at where things stand as of Monday morning:

Re-signed
MLB Rey Maualuga
K Mike Nugent

Released
OL Mike Pollak
DE Robert Geathers
WR Greg Little

Tendered
OLB Emmanuel Lamur (second-round tender offered)

Reportedly testing the free-agency market
TE Jermaine Gresham (Raiders reportedly very interested)
CB Terence Newman
S Taylor Mays (Vikings reportedly interested)
Hawk
CINCINNATI -- On the same day one of his former high school and college teammates was expected to sign a contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals, veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk was in the Queen City visiting coaches and other front-office personnel.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Hawk's visit early Monday.

If Hawk ultimately signs with the Bengals, he'll have a reunion with kicker Mike Nugent. Reports late Sunday indicated Nugent will sign a two-year extension. Natives of suburban Dayton, Ohio, Hawk and Nugent played together some 50 miles north of Cincinnati at Centerville High School before also starring at Ohio State.

Hawk has only called one place home since college. Drafted fifth overall in 2006, the inside linebacker spent the last nine seasons with the Green Bay Packers before he was cut two weeks ago. Since he was released, he could sign Monday if he and the Bengals reached an agreement that quickly.

One of the Bengals' focuses from a personnel standpoint this offseason has involved strengthening their depth chart at linebacker. Injuries ravaged the unit in 2014, forcing the Bengals to thrust a pair of inexperienced linebackers into some of the season's more pivotal games. At Indianapolis in the middle of the season, reserve Vincent Rey led a linebacker group that included rookie Marquis Flowers and former undrafted free agent Jayson DiManche, who was getting some of the first defensive snaps of his career.

It's likely the Bengals will draft a linebacker, in addition to trying to sign one in free agency, like Hawk. They already kept Rey Maualuga from hitting free agency, signing the six-year vet to a new deal last week just days before his previous contract expired.

Although injuries have caused Hawk's career to take a bit of a decline the past season or two, he still fits the Bengals' free-agent profile, and could give them solid depth at a position that lacked it.
CINCINNATI -- Part 2 of this weekend's Cincinnati Bengals mailbag continues the theme of exploring the free-agency class.

Saturday's portion of the mailbag revolved, in part, around the decisions to bring back receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Both are eligible for free agency next year, along with Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green. Will the Bengals re-sign all three of them? Will they make a move this offseason to retain any of them?

For the Sunday portion of the mailbag, we turn attention to the secondary, where cornerbacks Adam Jones and Leon Hall and safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka are due to hit the market in 2016. We begin by breaking down the two safeties:

@ColeyHarvey: I don't yet have any insight into whether this will happen or not, Mike, but it most certainly should. Although Iloka was one of two Bengals to receive playing time-based escalators to their 2015 contracts (Sanu was the other; both are scheduled to have cap values around $1.6 million this year), it probably isn't enough. The raises were based on provisions in the latest collective bargaining agreement that permitted players taken in Rounds 3-7 of the 2012 draft to earn raises of about $1 million if they played in 35 percent of their team's offensive or defensive snaps in two of the last three years.

Yes, Iloka earned that playing time, but his performance in 2014 was invaluable. Fully healthy, he had a career-high three interceptions and led all NFL safeties in Pro Football Focus' coverage snaps-per-reception metric. For about every 52 snaps Iloka was in coverage, a receiver caught a pass. The next closest safety to Iloka allowed a reception roughly every 43 passes thrown his way. Iloka was deserving of the Pro Bowl, but didn't get it. His play last season alone, particularly in clutch situations -- intercepting passes in the end zone, playing the role of enforcer on top tight ends and drawing a key last-second interference call in a win over Baltimore -- warranted a deal to be done this offseason. We'll see if he's among the first of the 17 free agents needing new deals to get one.


@ColeyHarvey: All appears quiet on the safety front as it pertains to this draft class, Keith. But I understand why you ask. Yes, Nelson is getting older and Iloka could be lost if the Bengals let him test the market next March. But the Bengals also are confident in Shawn Williams ' development as a backup. Much like Darqueze Dennard at corner, Williams has had trouble getting on the field because of more talented players at the position ahead of him. It will be interesting to see what the Bengals do with fellow reserve Taylor Mays, who is an unrestricted free agent this year. If the Bengals pull of the shock and decide against re-signing him, then there would be a need to address his departure, perhaps late in the draft or with a college free agent. Next offseason will be more telling with respect to Nelson.

@ColeyHarvey: That's a question I've asked myself the last couple of days, Ron. It appears like a safe assumption that A.J. Hawk would be out of the Bengals' free agency plans now that Rey Maualuga is re-signed and Emmanuel Lamur has been extended the second-round restricted free agent tender. I don't foresee any team forking over a second-round pick to the Bengals for Lamur, so count him among the returnees at linebacker, too. It's Maualuga's signing that does make it less likely that the Bengals would want to add another interior linebacker, particularly with Hawk's comparative advanced age (he's 31; Maualuga is 28), but you never know. Cincinnati's depth at the position was tested by injuries last year, meaning they're looking to add quality backups. It's hard seeing Hawk agreeing to being a backup, though, particularly seeing as how the Bengals are committed to Maualuga starting at middle linebacker.

@ColeyHarvey: It's still early in the draft process, so anything could happen, Rohan. But for now, I can't see a trade-up or trade-down scenario for the Bengals. They have done it sparingly in the past, but pulling off draft-day trades isn't really part of the organization's formula. Maybe if there's an earlier-than-expected run on offensive tackles or defensive ends, perhaps the Bengals try to leap over a couple of teams and make a move. At No. 21, though, they seem to be in good enough real estate to get some of the picks that are anticipated to be there when they make their selection.

@ColeyHarvey: Because I wasn't in Tampa this past year, it's hard to truly say, Ryan. From what I've been told by people down there, though, lack of comfort might have explained the issues of former Bengals Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson with the Buccaneers. Johnson never could get fully settled after battling injuries all year. Collins appeared to have problems getting adjusted to being a starter for the first time in his career. And yes, perhaps the pressure of their mega-contracts was a little too much to live up to in their first years. I'm definitely curious to see what happens to them this offseason.

@ColeyHarvey: It wouldn't be a pre-free agency Bengals mailbag without this question. Justin, you won't be seeing any news along those lines this year. Sorry to disappoint. From something I wrote a few days ago, here's a little more on why.
CINCINNATI -- As of Saturday morning, the Cincinnati Bengals have 17 players who could be eligible for free agency this time next year. Of them, 12 are regular contributors.

As a result, there is a very real need for the franchise to start using some of the rollover money it has been stockpiling and apply it toward extending the contracts of a couple of those players this offseason so as to abate the forthcoming frenzy that could come next March.

This weekend's mailbags are dominated with questions about preparing for the mass of talented free-agent deals that could be on the 2016 horizon. Let's get to them:

@ColeyHarvey. Good question, Landry. It's probably too early to say if the Bengals are ready to pick between re-signing receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but that quandary will preoccupy them soon enough. Both Jones and Sanu are among three Bengals wideouts scheduled to hit free agency next year. Pro Bowler A.J. Green's rookie contract is set to expire after he exercises his fifth-year option this season. For now, I'd bet the Bengals want to keep all three. Green's value is well-documented, and Sanu gave them meaningful reps -- his seven drops notwithstanding -- last season in place of Green, who missed multiple games with injuries. Jones didn't play at all in 2014 after suffering a series of early-season ankle and foot injuries but had a strong 2013 season and is hopeful about building on it when he returns this year. Because they haven't seen Jones in game action for more than a year, the Bengals probably want to reserve judgement on him. It's likely they'll let him play out this season before offering him an extension. It appears Sanu will be playing out the final year of his rookie contract, too. As far as potential replacements getting drafted, I don't think that's on the table right now. The Bengals need receivers, but it's more about recommitting to the long-term depth of the position than replacing players currently on the roster. @ColeyHarvey. Not to burst your bubble, but I'm going to keep the answer to this one very simple. No. The Bengals are not going to go after Randall Cobb. As good of a receiver -- and as great a return man -- as he is, he doesn't make financial sense for a team that would be better served committing money elsewhere. Reports have indicated Cobb wanted $12 million per year before the Packers cut him last week. Earlier this week we explored why signing a player to that kind of contract didn't make sense for a Bengals team that entered free agency with about $15-18 million to spend. @ColeyHarvey. Again, not trying to be a Debbie Downer here, but sorry, Nick, I do not. There's a financial component to adding Percy Harvin that likely won't work, and there's a chemistry component that makes him a bad fit, too. We expanded on both a little further in an earlier offseason mailbag. There are all kinds of reports about his poor locker-room attitude and lacking relationship with teammates. When you have a group that's as seemingly tight-knit as the Bengals are, bringing in free agents with a reported history of attitude issues with teammates sounds like a bad idea. Harvin to the Bengals isn't realistic at all to me. @ColeyHarvey. To complete the trifecta of adverse reponses, no. There hasn't seemed to be much of a chance that tight end Jermaine Gresham would be coming back since the Bengals' playoff loss at Indianapolis. Remember, that was the second of two key late-season games that Gresham didn't play in despite testing out injuries before kickoff. After the first missed game -- Week 15 at Cleveland -- he returned for the very next practice. Following the playoff game, he wouldn't talk when I tried to ask him why he didn't feel ready to play. Based on conversations with multiple people around the team after that game, Gresham lost any shred of respect he had with certain people around the organization. So no, I don't foresee him coming back. The only reason it could happen is if he has no other legitimate offers and the Bengals aren't pleased with the tight end landscape. After all, they need a blocker to replace him, and there are relatively few candidates in free agency or the draft who can adequately do that. @ColeyHarvey. There are a number of ways I can answer this question. I'll start by responding with a question of my own: What's your definition of a big-name player? Is it one who commands a large salary? Is it a player who simply has a recognizable name? Is it Suh? If it's the latter case, then no, the Bengals won't be making that move. They also aren't going to break the bank unless they're signing only one free agent from the outside. Of course, they've already inked Rey Maualuga and are expected to re-sign Clint Boling. But beyond that, the only other "big-name" free agent I could foresee them signing is a pass rusher. As I've been saying, Greg Hardy and Jerry Hughes are two ends who fit that bill. Hardy could come with a $7-10 million per season price tag and a lot of baggage following the dismissal of his domestic violence charges. Would that be big-name enough?
CINCINNATI -- Count Rey Maualuga among the believers.

While some around the Cincinnati Bengals are concerned about how well linebacker Vontaze Burfict will respond this offseason to microfracture surgery on his left knee, his teammate and fellow linebacker expects the recovery to go well.

Burfict
"I know Tez. He's a fighter. He'll come back," Maualuga said Friday following a news conference regarding the three-year contract extension he signed Thursday.

Maualuga was asked about Burfict because the Bengals' interest in re-signing him appears to have stemmed, in part, from the fact nobody knows yet what to expect.

Microfracture surgery is regarded as one of the most career-threatening procedures athletes can endure, with patience and persistence a necessary virtue.

"He's a tough guy," Maualuga said. "With the healing process, that's going to take some time. But with the spring and OTAs (organized team activities) and all of that, it's a chance for guys to get better. It's a chance for coaches to see what guys can be put in that role and look comfortable in it. We don't have to worry. We have time to find the right guys to take on that role if he doesn't come back in time."

Maualuga said he was optimistic the same old Burfict would be running around when training camp begins in July and August.

For now, that's the timeline the Bengals are hoping for. Head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther were told Burfict's slow recovery process ought to have him back in time for the start of camp. They likely will take it easy with him when he first gets on the field, but the hope is that when he's 100 percent, he will not have lost the explosiveness and burst that made him a virtual wrecking ball in the middle of the defense during the first two of his three seasons in stripes.

His 2014 season was almost completely derailed because of injuries, but Burfict, led the Bengals in tackles in 2012 and 2013. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict made the Pro Bowl following his second season before signing a contract extension that is scheduled to pay him about $20 million through 2017. He's still just 24 years old.

"Vontaze is a big reason for this linebacker group to be what we need it to be," Maualuga said. "With his presence and his understanding of the game, we're a lot more comfortable. If he's not out there, it's like we're playing not so much a catch-up game, but it's like that overall mindset is off for us. It changes a little bit."

Part of the reason Maualuga anticipates Burfict to make an adequate return is because he knows what drives him.

"Doctors are going to say what they want to say: 'This guy will come back in six months' or whatever," Maualuga said. "No, it's on the player. Just like my hamstring the first time [last season]. They said, 'Oh, it's going to be 6-9 weeks.' Well, I came back in four. It's all about how bad you want it and how fast you can come back."

Anyone who has spent time around Burfict knows there really is no questioning how much he wants to play at a high level again.

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