NFL Nation: Anthony Collins

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.

SportsNation

How have the Cincinnati Bengals fared this offseason?

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    6%
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    25%
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    32%
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    26%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,496)

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.
It’s hard to find statistics on offensive linemen. But, thanks to STATS, we’ve got some.

It’s possible the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could take an offensive lineman with their first-round draft pick. So let’s take a look at the top three linemen in the draft.

You can make a numerical case that Michigan’s Taylor Lewan is the draft's best pass blocker. The Wolverines had 371 pass plays last year and Lewan allowed just two sacks, according to STATS. Lewan also allowed 10 pressures.

Auburn’s Greg Robinson allowed four sacks and eight pressures on 273 pass plays. Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews allowed six sacks and 21 pressures. But it's important to note the Aggies passed on 52.7 percent (473) of their offensive plays.

I don't think there's much difference among Robinson, Matthews and Lewan, and the Bucs would be happy if they end up with any of the three. The Bucs could use the rookie at guard to start off with. Or they could move left tackle Anthony Collins to guard and start a rookie on the outside.

Mock draft on the way

May, 6, 2014
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The NFL Nation mock draft starts at 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday and I'll be picking for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Much is going to depend on what happens with the six picks ahead of me, but I'm confident one of the scenarios listed below will play out.

If quarterback Johnny Manziel is there, I'm taking him. The Bucs need a quarterback for the long term and Josh McCown is only a short-term answer. Manziel might be a franchise quarterback and Johnny Football would create some excitement for a fan base that needs something to get excited about.

If Manziel is gone before Tampa Bay's pick, I probably will go with his college teammate, wide receiver Mike Evans. The Bucs have a glaring need opposite Vincent Jackson. I'd prefer Sammy Watkins because he's more of a speed receiver than Evans, but it's likely Watkins will be gone. Evans is a clone of Jackson in a lot of ways. That's not a bad thing. Jackson already is over 30 and Evans eventually can replace him as the No. 1 receiver.

What if Manziel and Evans both are gone? I've got a plan for that. I'd take an offensive lineman. Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan -- in that order -- would be my fallback options. They're all tackles, but the Bucs' big need is at guard. Maybe a rookie could slide inside or maybe Anthony Collins, who has played some guard in the past, can make the move from left tackles.

Please join us for the mock draft.

Plan B for the Buccaneers?

April, 30, 2014
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Virtually every mock draft I’ve seen recently has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking either a wide receiver or a quarterback.

Texas A&M’s Mike Evans is the popular pick among receivers, and his college teammate, quarterback Johnny Manziel, has been frequently tied to the Bucs.

Matthews
Lewan
But let’s turn hypothetical here. Let’s say that Evans and Manziel are drafted before Tampa Bay picks at No. 7. Or let’s say the hidden reality is that the Bucs don’t like Evans or Manziel as much as everyone seems to think.

Is there a Plan B in place?

Coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht are bright guys, and you can bet they have contingency plans ready. Licht has made it abundantly clear that the Bucs would be willing to trade down, which I think is a real possibility.

But let’s stick with our hypothetical here and say the Bucs stay at No. 7 and either can’t or don’t want to draft Manziel or Evans. What direction does Tampa Bay go in that scenario?

This is just a hunch, but I wouldn’t rule out the offensive line. Yeah, the Bucs spent good money to get left tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. But there still is uncertainty on the offensive line.

The job at right guard is wide open, and it's unclear if guard Carl Nicks can fully recover from a toe injury. Nicks has said there is nerve damage and he might have to play in pain for the rest of his career.

That is why I’m thinking there is a real chance the Bucs select an offensive lineman at No. 7. There aren’t any true guards worthy of that pick. But there are three tackles that could be available, and none of them would be a bad choice.
Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan all could be available when Tampa Bay picks. The consensus is that Robinson is slightly ahead of Matthews and Lewan, but some mocks have all three going in the top 10 picks.

I can see the Bucs taking any one of the three. They could plug that player in at guard for the short term and eventually move him to tackle. That would give Tampa Bay’s offensive line a big boost and firm up one of the few glaring weaknesses.

It’s just a thought, but going with an offensive lineman might not be a bad option for the Bucs.
Lovie SmithKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCoach Lovie Smith and the Bucs expect to compete for championships starting this season.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is a very good reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's most active teams in free agency.

"We thought it would be unfair to ask the fans to be patient with us," general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL owners meetings.

Fire those cannons at Raymond James Stadium and start the parade down Dale Mabry Highway. So far, Licht and coach Lovie Smith, both hired in January, are doing and saying all of the right things. They have signed 11 free agents, highlighted by defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Josh McCown.

"We wanted to go out and sign as many good players as we could this year to help our football team and make it competitive this year, and strive to win a championship this year," Licht said. "Not go with, 'Hey, give us a couple years.' We want to do it as soon as we can. The fans deserve it. I found out in a two-month period that these fans are so passionate in Tampa. So we want players that are just as passionate as the fans."

Those fans should be ecstatic to hear Licht's comments. This is a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2007 season, and hasn't won a postseason game since its Super Bowl victory more than a decade ago. The franchise had good intentions in the interim, but the results weren't pretty.

Plans were put in place at various times from the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen tried to win with veterans, to the time when Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris decided to build through the draft, to the days when it looked like Greg Schiano didn't have a plan.

[+] EnlargeAlterraun Verner
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsLanding cornerback Alterraun Verner was part of an aggressive free-agent push by the Bucs this month.
But you can look at what Licht and Smith are doing and you see a firm plan that has a chance to work -- and work quickly.

"As you saw last year with Kansas City, sometimes a little change is healthy and successful," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said.

The Chiefs indeed are a good example of a team that turned around its fortunes rapidly. Kansas City was dreadful in 2012, but made the playoffs last season.

For any doubters who say McCown, a career backup, doesn't have what it takes to lead a team to the playoffs, let me remind you that Alex Smith was Kansas City's quarterback last season. I don't see a big difference between Smith and McCown.

Yeah, people can talk all they want about how this is a quarterback-driven league and you need a star at the position to be any good. There is some truth to that. But was Russell Wilson really the best quarterback in the NFL last season?

Of course not. Wilson did some very nice things, but there were bigger reasons why the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. The defense and the running game had a lot to do with their success.

It's pretty obvious Licht and Lovie Smith are following a plan similar to Seattle's. Smith comes with a defensive background, and he inherited some good talent on that side of the ball. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are in place, and you could make an argument that a pass-rusher was the only thing Tampa Bay needed to be a dominant defense. That is why the Bucs signed Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks for Cincinnati in 2012.

On offense, the Bucs have overhauled their line. They parted ways with Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah, and replaced them with Anthony Collins, Oniel Cousins and Evan Dietrich-Smith. The running game should be in good shape, assuming Doug Martin is fully recovered from an injury that cut short last season.

I look at that and I see a team that might be ready to win now. I see a team with a plan that seems to make a lot of sense.

"Jason and Lovie have a plan, and that plan is that they want to win," Glazer said. "That's why we brought them in. We're all in the same boat. We want to win. They have a clear plan to get there, and that's why they were hired. We believe in the plan. We buy into the plan, and we're going to be supportive of the plan."

A few years back, the Glazers were often accused of not spending enough money to bring success. But recently, they have spent big money in free agency. This offseason, the Bucs went on another spending spree.

Licht and Smith frequently are being declared winners in free agency by the national media. They are also winning the news conferences by saying the right things.

Now, if they can go win some games in the fall, their plan could be a masterpiece.

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.

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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.
I’ve got the full contract details on the deal offensive tackle Anthony Collins signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As previously reported, it’s a five-year deal worth $30 million. But this contract has some twists and turns that could cause the total value to grow.

Collins
McCown
The deal includes $15 million in guaranteed money over the first three years of the contract. Collins has a $4 million base salary and a $2 million roster bonus this year. In each of the remaining years of the deal, Collins’ base salary will be $6 million.

But the most interesting part of this deal comes in the final three years. If Collins meets certain playing-time standards, he can receive escalators of $500,000 in 2016, $1 million in 2017 and $2 million in 2018.

The Bucs took a bit of a leap of faith in Collins, who didn’t become a starter until last year in Cincinnati. But I like the structure of this deal because, if Collins works out like the Bucs hope, he’ll be rewarded nicely.

Speaking of incentives, quarterback Josh McCown also has some incentives in his contract. McCown’s two-year deal is worth at least $10 million. He has a $1 million roster bonus and a $3.75 million base salary for this year and a $5.25 million salary for 2015. But the deal also includes up to $2 million in incentives each year and McCown also has a chance at a $1 million escalator in 2015 if he meets certain playing time standards.
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.
We've reached Day 4 of free agency and the Cincinnati Bengals have remained comparatively quiet while also losing several of their own players in order to free up additional cap space, presumably for future signings.

This is normal for this organization. You won't hear many stories about the team going out and landing major, big-splash free agents during the first week of the signing period. It's in the draft where the Bengals like to make their personnel noise, and anticipate doing so again this May.

The players who will be signed by the Bengals between now and the beginning of May will primarily be those who already had contracts with the team.

To help you get caught up on where things stand with the Bengals at the start of Day 4, here's a scorecard:

Signed
OG/C Mike Pollak (re-signed Saturday)
WR/PR/KR Brandon Tate (re-signed Tuesday)

Gone
DE Michael Johnson (signed with Tampa Bay on Tuesday)
C Kyle Cook (cut Tuesday)
OT Anthony Collins (signed with Tampa Bay on Thursday after mulling offer from Cincinnati)
LB James Harrison (cut Thursday)
CB Brandon Ghee (signed with San Diego on Thursday)

Up in the air
S Taylor Mays (reportedly re-signed Tuesday, but Bengals still haven't announced)
WR Andrew Hawkins (signed Browns offer sheet of four years, $13.6 million; Bengals not expected to match)

Other remaining 2014 free agents
OT Dennis Roland (UFA)
LB Mike Boley (UFA)
S Chris Crocker (UFA)
P Zoltan Mesko (UFA)
TE Alex Smith (UFA)
LB Vincent Rey (RFA)
WR Dane Sanzenbacher (RFA)
TAMPA, Fla. – At a news conference to introduce the Buccaneers' two newest players, Anthony Collins was seated to Josh McCown's left.

Collins
That was more than appropriate because that’s where Collins will be spending much of his time. Continuing with their full-fledged overhaul, the Bucs signed Collins to a five-year, $30 million contract Thursday. They promptly released veteran Donald Penn, who previously played left tackle. That’s where Collins is going to line up as McCown’s most important protector.

“He is a natural left tackle,’’ general manager Jason Licht said.

But Collins hasn’t followed a natural path to get to where he is. With the Cincinnati Bengals since 2008, Collins has only 25 career starts and he’s bounced between both tackle positions and guard.

“I’m ready,’’ Collins said. “I’ve been waiting for six years.’’

Collins caught the attention of the Bucs with what he did last season. An injury to Andrew Whitworth opened the way for Collins to get seven starts.

“Watching all the tackles this year, he’s the one that jumped out the most to me,’’ Licht said. “It was such a surprise to see a guy thrown into the starting lineup and to actually see their team perform better. That’s not a knock on any player. He has great feet. He has great athleticism and he plays very hard. I don’t want to say he came out of nowhere because everybody’s been aware of Anthony for a long time. But when he got his opportunity, he performed exceptionally. We felt very lucky to get him and I don’t think he’s hit his prime yet.’’

There’s no question the Bucs are doing some projecting with this move. But I think it’s a step in the right direction as they rebuild their offensive line. Penn was getting older and he didn’t have a good season last year. Collins has plenty of upside and he said he is more than ready to protect McCown’s blind side.

“Patience is a virtue,’’ Collins said. “Now is my time.’’
Andrew Whitworth; Terrell SuggsRob Carr/Getty ImagesWith Anthony Collins gone, Andrew Whitworth will remain the Bengals' starting left tackle.
CINCINNATI -- At long last, resolution has come to the Anthony Collins free agency saga, effectively ending the Cincinnati Bengals' pursuit of their top two unrestricted free agents.

Collins has signed a five-year deal, worth $30 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers according to a report by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Three months ago, I would have found it troubling that just three days into free agency the Bengals wouldn't be able to re-sign either Michael Johnson, one of their best defensive linemen, or Collins, their third-best offensive tackle who actually had the talent to start. I would have been particularly bugged that Collins wouldn't be brought back because he was the cheaper of the two and earned the right to keep contributing to the Bengals' offense.

But my, oh my. How enlightened one can become in a matter of three months. I can now confidently say that his departure from Cincinnati ought to be viewed as a good thing. With him out of the picture, stability will come to the Bengals' offensive line.

It's strange to make that admission, especially when you consider how valuable Collins was for the Bengals off the bench during the final quarter of the 2013 season, and when you read he hasn't allowed a sack since 2009, according to Pro Football Focus. Remember, just last year alone he kept the likes of Julius Peppers, Elvis Dumervil and Robert Mathis off quarterback Andy Dalton.

After Andre Smith restructured his contract last offseason, the Bengals were forced into this awkward dance when it came to playing -- and eventually paying -- Collins. With Smith as their starter at right tackle and Pro Bowl standout Andrew Whitworth as their starting left tackle, the Bengals simply didn't have the room to give Collins his share of snaps. He entered 2013 relegated to the same bench role he had since he was drafted in 2008.

But unlike the rookie version of himself, Collins had matured. He was with former Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson the day in Sept. 2011 when more than six pounds of marijuana was seized from Simpson's home. It was the only run-in Collins was associated with during his career in Cincinnati, and one he repeatedly said he learned from.

His on-field development began blossoming as well as he steadily improved his blocking techniques. When he filled in for Whitworth during the season opener and maintained a sturdy left edge against Peppers and the Bears, it became clear that the Bengals were going to have a real issue on their hands this offseason. Collins had the talent to be in the starting lineup, but he just couldn't fit.

Cincinnati's goal during this free agency period was to figure out ways to get him more playing time and to justify paying him like the starter other teams thought he was. After signing Johnson on Tuesday to a deal that will give him an average $8.75 million per year, Tampa Bay signed Collins to one that will pay him $6 million per year.

With Smith and Whitworth still committed to the franchise for at least another two years, the Bengals couldn't justify paying him a salary comparable to their other tackles. Unless they were going to move Whitworth to left guard and bump Clint Boling out of the starting lineup, that is.

Such a proposal was on the table after the way the Bengals' offense performed the last five games of the regular season. Due to Boling's season-ending ACL tear that came early in Cincinnati's Week 13 win at San Diego, Whitworth was forced to move to left guard, bringing Collins in to take his place at left tackle. In the five-game stretch that followed, the Bengals scored 40 or more points twice, and posted their second-highest rushing total of the season in 17-10 win over the Chargers.

With new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push this offseason about wanting to be even more physical, it made sense that Cincinnati would want to keep doing some of what made its rushing game and overall offense so successful.

Whitworth has contended since January that he considers himself a left tackle and wasn't moving to guard unless coaches felt that was the right course of action. It seems clear that Whitworth will now remain at the position that got him named to the Pro Bowl in 2012. Versatile tackles and guards still could be drafted in May to add depth, but for now the Bengals' offensive line plans are clearer.

Collins' loss is not one the Bengals will take lightly, but it is one that should be welcomed. Instead of spending the rest of the offseason answering questions about where Whitworth will play, or how Collins might fit into their scheme, or how they can justify paying Collins a salary comparable to Smith and Whitworth, team officials can focus on one thing: stability.
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.
Two of the New Orleans Saints' starting offensive linemen will become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday -- right tackle Zach Strief and center Brian De la Puente. It's still possible the Saints could re-sign one or both of them. But they're content to see how the market shapes up before making any decisions.

If Strief and De la Puente leave, the Saints have young backups who could compete for their roles with third-year right tackle Bryce Harris and second-year guard/center Tim Lelito. They could also add potential starters at either spot in the draft. But they would probably want to add some veteran options in free agency as insurance.

The most obvious candidate for that type of role would be former Saints center Jonathan Goodwin, who is now a free agent again after three years as a starter for the San Francisco 49ers. Goodwin, 35, would be a natural stopgap while the Saints develop a young future replacement.

There aren't many top-notch centers available in their primes right now. Most analysts rank either De la Puente or the Green Bay Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith as the top available options. Maybe Dietrich-Smith is slightly better, but the Saints would probably prefer to keep the guy they know at that price range.

Among the cheaper options at center would be the Atlanta Falcons' Joe Hawley, who was decent when he stepped into a starting role last year.

There are many more options available at right tackle, where the Saints could attempt to upgrade or at least get younger if they want to move on from Strief. The Cincinnati Bengals' Anthony Collins (28) and the New York Jets' Austin Howard (27 later this month) both had their best seasons to date in 2014 after beginning their careers as backups. Seattle Seahawks starter Breno Giacomini is another strong option in that same range.

The Baltimore Ravens' Michael Oher, 28, is a big name and a big, powerful run-blocker. But he has been inconsistent as a pass-protector throughout his career.

Older options who might be considered on short-term deals include the Arizona Cardinals' Eric Winston and the Tennessee Titans' David Stewart.

ESPN NFL Insiders Matt Williamson and Adam Caplan both said they didn't see many options the Saints should aggressively pursue -- though they did both mention Giacomini.

"With the offensive line, I keep coming back to their guys already," Williamson said of Strief and de la Puente. "Anthony Collins, to me, is about the same player as Strief but can also play left tackle. Giacomini is a mauler, you can run behind him on early downs. Austin Howard came out of nowhere and has exceeded expectations. His arrow is up, but he probably won't ever be 'great.' "
We’re still more than 24 hours away from the official start of free agency, but it sounds like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers already have been active.

Teams have been allowed to talk to the agents of prospective free agents since Saturday and the Bucs have been tied to several players as a potential landing spot, according to reports by ESPN and other media outlets.

The Bucs reportedly are one of four teams interested in Chicago quarterback Josh McCown. That makes sense because Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith previously was in Chicago. McCown’s stock is high after he filled in nicely for an injured Jay Cutler last season. The Bucs have praised what Mike Glennon did in his rookie year, but Smith has said he wants to add a veteran to the mix and McCown would be a logical fit.

The Bucs reportedly are the frontrunner for Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson. He supposedly is looking for about $9 million a season, and the Bucs may be willing to pay that because they want to upgrade their pass rush.

Johnson isn’t the only Cincinnati player the Bucs have been tied to. They reportedly are showing interest in Bengals offensive tackle Anthony Collins. Tampa Bay already has started an overhaul of its offensive line by releasing veteran guard Davin Joseph. If Collins is signed, veteran left tackle Donald Penn could be on his way out.
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.

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