With the start of free agency less than three weeks away, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said the team is focusing on re-signing its own players rather than looking to land any big names on the market such as Reggie Bush or Mike Wallace.
“There’s been very few unrestricted free agents signed by a team (who have been) that beneficial,” Lewis said Friday at the NFL Combine.
“We have good players,” Lewis continued. “We want to retain our good players and keep growing them up and keep rewarding them for their maturity and the levels they play at. We want to keep developing our guys in my way, our way.”
But with 23 unrestricted free agents, the reality is that the Bengals will not be able to retain all of them. Defensive end Michael Johnson and right tackle Andre Smith would seem to be the highest priorities, but there are four other free agents who started the playoff game in Houston – Robert Geathers, Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman and Nate Clements – and seven if you count kicker Josh Brown, punter Kevin Huber and punt returner Adam Jones.
“There’s some work to do,” Lewis said. “To sit here and speculate … obviously I’m not going to tell you what we’re going to do.”
He did say the team hopes to avoid using the franchise tag, a tool teams have to bind one unrestricted free agent to a one-year contract worth the average of the top five salaries at that position.
“We hope that we don’t have to use the tag, but if we have to use the tag we’ll tag somebody,” Lewis said. “We’re going to retain our guys in every way possible. But in some cases we’re going to need to move on parallel paths.”
What the team ends up doing in free agency will have a big impact on how it tackles the draft in April. And as Lewis and the rest of the coaches and scouts meet with and assess all of the prospects this weekend at the Combine, they are keeping all of their options open – except one.
“We’re not going into the draft looking for a starting quarterback,” Lewis said. “But I think, basically, every other position is open to be drafted.”
The Bengals have earned praise for their most recent drafts, especially the last two that produced eight starters for the playoff game in Houston. All told, 18 of the 22 starters in that wildcard game were either drafted by the Bengals or signed with the team after going undrafted.
“I think (Director of Player Personnel) Duke (Tobin) has done an outstanding job with the organization of things,” Lewis said. “He’s done a very good job of putting the information together, the cross-checking of things, the organization of things. He’s really streamlined it, I think, both personnel- and coaching-wise. We have a pretty good blueprint for what we’re looking for.”
And that ability to draft well has put the Bengals in a position where they can develop their own talent without having to gamble in free agency.
“I think the biggest lesson is let’s keep betting on our guys,” Lewis said. “We’ve got to bet on our process. We’ve trained these guys, we’ve grown these guys from the ground up, (so) let’s continue to bet on them and the process as we keep moving forward.”