Yesterday, we broke down the Cincinnati Bengals' free agent picture, focusing on the offensive players who will be unrestricted free agents this off season. On the defensive side of the ball, eight players will have the opportunity to shop their services across the league. With a unit that finished the season in the top 10 in the league in total defense and was largely responsible for the team's 2011 success, the decisions made here will be critical to the team's chances in 2012.
Starting in the secondary, three players are up for free agency: CB Kelly Jennings, CB Adam Jones S Reggie Nelson. Jennings came on strong toward the end of the season and was becoming the most consistent "shut down" corner on the team following Leon Hall's injury. Assuming Hall returns from his injury (big assumption) the team will still have him under contract through 2015. Even so, look for the team to spend an early draft pick on a corner. That means somebody's going to go. My vote is for Adam Jones. Jones' raw athleticism is amazing. His punt return in the Seattle game was electrifying. His injuries (had "Peyton Manning" neck surgery last off season) and mental lapses leave a lot to be desired. Most importantly, his tantrums in the Baltimore and Houston games after blown assignments illustrate he hasn't quite gotten past his bad boy image. The Bengals are past having to go with potential. They need performance. Keep Jennings as a nickel back, draft a corner high, and go with Nate Clements and Leon Hall to round out the corners. As for Reggie Nelson, he's a beast of a safety just coming into his own. Resigning him should be a high priority.
At linebacker, Brandon Johnson and Manny Lawson will be free agents. Lawson started and was serviceable at the Will linebacker, but overran plays too often and lost contain. Brandon Johnson, on the other hand, was invaluable as a special teams player and valuable backup. He's a "glue" player that the Bengals need to keep around. Another player they Bengals need to decide on is former first round pick Keith Rivers who sat out 2011 after having wrist surgery. Rivers is still under contract and hasn't really lived up to his potential. It will be interesting to see how the Bengals approach the linebacker position in the draft.
The Bengals' defensive line was the heart of the defense this year. No team in the NFL could boast the quality and depth put out there by the Bengals. Now they're going to want to get paid. Jonathan Fanene, Frostee Rucker and Pat Sims all will be free agents. Fanene has shown himself to be an impact player with a nose for the ball. He is a solid player against both the run and the pass. Pat Sims was also very effective before getting injured late in the season. Both would warrant serious consideration by the Bengals provided they're willing to sign at a price commensurate with their status as not-every-down players. Rucker has been fairly effective when healthy, but has had a lot of problems in that regard. I'm not so sure the Bengals want to reinvest in a defensive lineman that fragile.
How the Bengals deal with these openings will tremendously impact their ability to repeat or surpass their accomplishments of 2011.
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