The Cincinnati Bengals have not historically been major players in NFL free agency. Since full free agency in the NFL began in 1992, the Bengals have been known more for their busts (Antonio Bryant, Antwan Odom, etc) than hitting the jackpot. That doesn't mean the Bengals haven't found some talent among the free agent pool, however.
Bengals 101 has combed the archives and assembled the top 10 free agent signees over the past 20 years. Our selections were based on overall contributions to the team with longevity being the heaviest factor considered. Here's who the Bengals have signed who positively impacted the team:
10. Terrell Owens: What? TO? Yes, Owens was only a Bengal for one season in 2010 and that year was a disaster for the team, but you can't blame TO for that. Owens accumulated 983 yards receiving in 2010 and scored nine touchdowns, much more productive than any other receiver on the team. The locker room cancer was much more attributable to Chad Ochocinco and even Carson Palmer than TO. The NFL's most famous bad boy mostly minded his P's and Q's while in Cincinnati.
9. Chris Crocker: Despite Crocker's playoff meltdown in Houston, his arrival in 2008 greatly strengthened a struggling Bengals' secondary. Crocker has made 44 starts at safety since 2008 with 139 tackles and three interceptions. Considering the revolving door beside him at the other safety position during that time, Crocker's consistency puts him on this list.
8. Mike Nugent: The Bengals picked up the former Ohio State kicker off the NFL ash heap. All Nugent has done in his two seasons in Cincinnati has become one of the more reliable kickers in the league, connecting on 84% of his field goal attempts. Considering the Bengals struggles in the red zone over the past two seasons, Nugent has been the source of much of the Bengals' scoring at times. Especially this season, Andy Dalton could be relatively sure that if he got the team to the opposition's 30 yard line, Nuge was pretty much money.
7. Deltha O'Neal: The Bengals signed O'Neal away from the Broncos in 2004 and he became the team's shutdown corner. He made 39 starts in his four seasons in Cincinnati, recording 169 tackles and an incredible 16 interceptions including one pick six.
6. Cedric Benson: We're bidding Ced adieu at the moment, but he was another successful Mike Brown reclamation project. Cut by the Bears, Cedric came to Cincinnati in 2008 as the team was struggling to replace Rudi Johnson and dealing with Chris Perry's constant injuries. Benson gained 4176 yards in stripes and scored 21 touchdowns. It's time to part ways, but Benson certainly exceeded expectations as a Bengal.
5. Jon Kitna: Kitna came in at what was probably the nadir of the franchise's history, and along with Marvin Lewis and Bob Bratkowski, set the stage for the team's rebirth in the first part of the millennium. Kitna made 46 starts at quarterback amassing 10,707 yards and throwing for 59 touchdowns. When Carson Palmer was drafted, Kitna graciously accepted his backup role and mentored Palmer.
4. Jeff Blake: The "Shake -n- Blake" offense of the mid 90s was a phenomenon that took Cincinnati by storm. The Jets castoff arrived in Cincinnati in 1994 and started 66 games for Cincinnati. He threw for 15,134 yards and 93 touchdowns, teaming with Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott to form one of the more formidable passing offenses in the NFL over six seasons.
3. Rich Braham: Braham was a third round pick for the Arizona Cardinals in 1994, but was waived. The Bengals claimed him (so he's not technically a free agent) but Braham's durability and his leadership make him one of the most productive non-drafted Bengals ever. Braham made 142 starts at center over 12 seasons, spanning Jeff Blake to Carson Palmer. He anchored a line that at times was patchwork. His retirement in 2006 was perhaps more damaging to the Bengals continued evolution after the 2005 playoff season than Carson Palmer's injury.
2. John Thornton: "Big John" signed with Cincinnati in 2003 from the Tennessee Titans. Thornton anchored the middle of the defensive line for six seasons, making 88 starts at defensive tackle. Thornton made 156 tackles as a Bengals and had 17 sacks. That's the definition of consistent productivity.
1. Bobbie Williams: Williams made 129 starts at guard for the Bengals from 2004 until and ankle injury sidelined him this season. Like Braham, Williams career was a model of consistency on a franchise that often resembled a circus. He was a respected locker room leader and one of the most genuinely "nice guys" to play in the NFL. At training camp each season, Williams was usually the last one off the field, taking time to talk to children and sign autographs, always with his trademark smile and hearty laugh. It's doubtful the Bengals will retain Williams and he will most likely retire, but he tops our list of greatest Bengals free agent signings ever.
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