The crop of potential free agents has been thinned a bit now that NFL teams have had the opportunity to place their franchise tags on players. Gone are the likes of Drew Brees and Ray Rice, but plenty of game-changing players remain on the market.
For the Cincinnati Bengals and their NFL best $40 million plus in salary cap space, one week from now will begin a tremendous opportunity to vastly improve the team. Bengals 101 has broken down those who players who are still available and who can make the most impact for the Bengals in 2012.
RB Michael Bush: As we wrote last week, Bush may be the perfect fit for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast offense. A polished pass catcher out of the backfield who can also run between the tackles and move the pile, Bush would bring a versatile new weapon to Andy Dalton's arsenal.
CB Cortland Finnegan: Finnegan was surprised the Tennessee Titans didn't tag him. His Twitter posts seem to suggest he feels slighted by the team. Finnegan would bring a top-flight cover corner to play opposite Leon Hall plus a hard-nosed run defender with a little "attitude," something that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been lacking in this defense.
G Carl Nicks: Nicks, arguably the best interior lineman in the NFL, will most likely be too costly for the Bengals to pursue. The Saints will no doubt still try to work out a long-term deal. They would have tagged Nicks, but were put in a corner when negotiations with Drew Brees broke down. The Bengals will also be able to grab a starter at guard in the draft with either Stanford's David DeCastro or Georgia's Cordy Glenn likely to be available at 17. Nicks would instantly become the best lineman on the team, however, and represent an overwhelming upgrade at the position. Baltimore's Ben Grubbs could also be a target at the position.
WR Reggie Wayne: Wayne represents the perfect veteran route runner to mentor and play opposite AJ Green. Like Nicks, Wayne may be outside the Bengals salary structure, but he would be the ideal candidate at this position. The team unquestionably would like to add a veteran to this young and talented group that includes Andrew Hawkins, Ryan Whalen and a rehabilitated Jordan Shipley. Other candidates include Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem and Braylon Edwards. There's been some talk of bringing back TJ Houshmandzadeh with Hue Jackson's arrival on the staff, but TJ doesn't have enough left in the tank to be the player to take the heat off of Green.
S Reggie Nelson: Nelson is the Bengals' own free agent that they must sign. The team elected to use their tag on K Mike Nugent instead of Nelson. That's not necessarily a bad thing for Nelson, who is looking for a long-term deal. He had thrived in Mike Zimmer's system and the Bengals would be wise to lock up Reggie like they have Leon Hall. Miami is another potential suitor for the Florida alum.
CB Adam Jones or Kelly Jennings: The Bengals will likely make a play for one of their own corners, but not both. This is another case of being able to fill a spot in a deep draft. Given Jones past off the field problems and his meltdowns the last two weeks of the season after getting beaten in coverage, Jennings would be the favorite to be re-signed.
TE Donald Lee: The veteran tight end proved to be a valuable asset in limited time last season. The team would like to bring him back to reprise his role of mentor and backup to young star Jermaine Gresham.
DL Pat Sims or Jonathan Fanene: Again, the Bengals will probably re-sign one, but not both of these linemen who were very effective in the rotation of linemen Cincinnati used. Sims is coming off of an injury, but still will probably get more looks from other teams. He could be a starter for someone else. Fanene has expressed his desire to return to Cincinnati and provides some versatility on the line.
LB Dan Connor: With Rey Maualuga's future somewhat in doubt, the Bengals may kick Connor's tires at middle linebacker.
LB Brandon Johnson: Johnson has been a crucial reserve and outstanding special teams player for the Bengals. If he's comfortable remaining in that role and willing to take the associated contract, the Bengals would love to have him back. If he gets a chance to start somewhere else, he may go.
OL Anthony Collins: How hard the Bengals go after Collins, who has been a valuable reserve, will depend on how serious they are about signing Andre Smith to another deal. Collins provides outstanding depth, but like Johnson and Sims, could possibly start elsewhere. The Bengals may have to pay more to keep Collins if they're unsure about the future of Smith.
Out the door:
LB Manny Lawson: Lawson did a fine job with Cincinnati this past season, but the team has other options. Keith Rivers, Roddrick Muckleroy and Dontay Moch will all be returning from injury and there's the possibility of Maualuga going back outside with Dan Skuta or a free agent/rookie playing in the middle. Lawson just doesn't justify the money he'll command.
OL Dennis Roland, Nate Livings, Mike McGlynn: There are teams that could probably use these players. Fortunately for the Bengals, they're not one of them.
WR Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson: Caldwell is still recovering from a sports hernia and Simpson is facing felony sentencing. Though that's not likely to keep him out of any football activities, his lack of progress in route running this past season is probably enough for the Bengals to not give him a shot at redemption here.
RB Cedric Benson: It's been a good run, Ced. Good luck wherever you land.
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