Before examining the NFL free agent pool, before deciding who to draft in April, the Cincinnati Bengals have a more pressing job: evaluate and decide who among the current players on the 53 man roster who are eligible for free agency they want to sign and keep.
That's quite a long list for Cincinnati and involves some players who started and/or played integral roles on this year's team. The Bengals will need to consider how they think each player will fit into the future and at what cost against the cap.
Before we get into players, let's take a look at the NFL's free agency structure. There are essentially three kinds of free agents in the NFL. Unrestricted free agents are players with at least five years of NFL service who are free to solicit any deal they can get from any team in the league once free agency opens in March. The team receives no compensation for these players if they leave. Restricted free agents are players with three to five years of service who are free to negotiate with other teams, but the Bengals have the right to match any offer. Additionally, if the Bengals tender these players an offer prior to free agency, the team is entitled to compensation based on the level of the tender. Exclusive Rights Free Agents are players who are going into their second or third year of NFL experience and can only sign with the Bengals unless the Bengals release them. These are usually undrafted free agents working on one year deals.
So looking at them in reverse order, here's what the Bengals have to deal with and what we think they should do:
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: LB Vincent Rey, RB Cedric Peerman. Both Rey and Peerman were valuable special teams contributors, Peerman so much that he received Pro Bowl consideration. I would think neither would draw strong consideration from other teams for starting positions, so it would make sense for them and the Bengals to remain together and work out new deals.
Restricted Free Agents: LS Clark Harris, DT Nick Hayden, FB Chris Pressley, LB Dan Skuta. Harris replaced long-time long snapper Brad St. Louis after St. Louis got the "yips" in 2009. He's been consistent and should be retained. Good long snappers shouldn't be taken for granted. Nick Hayden didn't contribute much, but there will be some change in the defensive line rotation. If he's willing to take a similar deal to what he has now, keep him. If another team wants him, let him go. Dan Skuta was outstanding on special teams and filled in ably for Rey Maualuga after he was injured. He could get some looks. The team shouldn't overpay to keep Skuta, but he provides quality depth that would have to be replaced somehow. He should at least be tendered an offer. The status of injured LBs Roddrick Muckelroy and Dontay Moch might be a factor in whether Skuta stays or goes.
Unrestricted Free Agents: RB Cedric Benson, WR Andre Caldwell, OT Anthony Collins, DE Jonathan Fanene, CB Kelly Jennings, LB Brandon Johnson, CB Adam Jones, LB Manny Lawson, TE Donald Lee, OG Nate Livings, OG Mike McGlynn, S Reggie Nelson, K Mike Nugent, OT Dennis Roland, DE Frostee Rucker, TE Bo Scaife, WR Jerome Simpson, DT Pat Sims, OG Bobbie Williams