"You win by developing your own players and not overpaying for a guy you're not sure how he's going to work out until six, eight, 10 games down the road and maybe not then," Lewis said. "That's what's been proven. . . . Aggressive doesn't mean overpay and get stuck with both a bad contract and an average player."
That was before free agency began. Since then, Lewis and the Bengals have indeed conducted themselves according to that philosophy, to the chagrin of some fans who feel the Bengals should have spent more of their league leading salary cap room.
But two months later, Lewis' philosophy has borne results as the team has strengthened areas of weakness and put the team into a position where there's still "a great opportunity ahead of us."
If the Bengals had a glaring weakness in 2011, it was the play of their interior line. The team let veterans Mike McGlynn and Nate Livings walk via free agency and went out and got Carolina's Travelle Wharton and the Rams' Jacob Bell. Many were disappointed the team didn't go after high profile (and expensive) guards like Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs, but by not overspending on the interior line, the Bengals have money left over that can and will be used to lock up long term some of the players they've developed like defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
Cincinnati also more than addressed their lack of cornerback depth, bringing in Jason Allen from Houston and Terence Newman from Dallas. Combined with the resigning of Adam Jones, the Bengals are in a position where they aren't forced to take a cornerback in the draft, but if a player they're high on, like Stephen Gilmore or Dre Kirkpatrick are available, the Bengals certainly can take them.
Cedric Benson's free agency left a hole at running back. The Bengals got the player they wanted in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, much to the regret of New England owner Robert Kraft. Benson is still unsigned and Michael Bush, the player the fans (including myself) were targeting, took a deal with the Bears to be a part time back.
The Bengals did open the checkbook in one area, paying a premium to secure safety Reggie Nelson. Again, this keeps with Lewis' philosophy of drafting, developing and then paying to keep the players who are already a part of the system.
The only area the Bengals really missed on is wide receiver. Jerome Simpson is still a possibility to return, but he'll be facing some sort of suspension. Andre Caldwell signed with the Broncos, leaving Ryan Whalen, Andrew Hawkins and Jordan Shipley as their most game experienced veterans to go alongside AJ Green.
Two factors likely influenced the Bengals not going out and getting a free agent wide receiver. One was the incredibly overpriced market. When marginal wide receivers like Pierre Garcon were going for $8 million and tons of guaranteed money during free agency's first week, that set a price the Bengals weren't going to pay. The second factor, which likely influenced the first, was the tremendous depth in this year's draft. NFL caliber starters will be available even into the fifth and sixth rounds this year. Any team looking to restock their receiving corps is a good position to do so in this draft.
Bengals fans are used to the Bengals "reaching" on retreads and players who never live up to their contracts. A month ago Bengals 101 wrote about some of these busts and warned fans not to expect the team to go after players like Nicks and Garcon.
With the draft coming in 11 days, the Bengals will cap off an off season that has quietly put them into a position to contend not just for another playoff berth, but for a championship. This has been done shrewdly through Marvin Lewis and the Bengals' front office finally practicing their philosophy.
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