ANALYSIS: Bengals expected to address offensive line, secondary in free agency

FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2020, file photo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) receives the ball from center Ryan Jensen (66) during the first half of the team's NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders in Las Vegas. “It didn’t take too long, really,” Jensen said of building a rapport with Brady. “We both kind of have a fiery spirit and, you know, I think that has helped us quite a bit, getting to know each other and knowing what we’re about.”  (AP Photo/Jeff Bottari, File)

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FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2020, file photo, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) receives the ball from center Ryan Jensen (66) during the first half of the team's NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders in Las Vegas. “It didn’t take too long, really,” Jensen said of building a rapport with Brady. “We both kind of have a fiery spirit and, you know, I think that has helped us quite a bit, getting to know each other and knowing what we’re about.” (AP Photo/Jeff Bottari, File)

NFL’s legal tampering period begins Monday; deals don’t become official until Wednesday

Free agency has been good to the Cincinnati Bengals the past two years as they added several starters and built a Super Bowl-caliber roster. Now they will see what they can do to help keep them competing for championships.

The Bengals, like the other teams in the NFL, already are busy exploring the market and considering extensions for their own free agents, as the NFL’s legal tampering period begins at noon Monday. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents Monday. Any signings don’t become official until 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Cincinnati has up to $34.6 million in cap space to play with, according to OverTheCap.com -- though the Bengals also factor in the unexpected and other budget charges that come into play. The organization already locked down safety Jessie Bates by placing the franchise tag on him last week, and linebacker Joe Bachie was the latest player to get an extension Friday, but decisions still need to be made on players like tight end C.J. Uzomah, left guard Quinton Spain, right tackle Riley Reiff, defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill and cornerback Eli Apple.

ExploreBengals using franchise tag on Bates

It seems likely the Bengals will bring back at least one of the two defensive tackles between Ogunjobi and Hill, but the other positions all could be addressed in free agency, where the Bengals ranked sixth and second in spending the last two years. They were 12th in total salary spending in 2021.

Here is a look at some of the free agents expected to hit the market, assuming their current teams don’t re-sign them first, that might be of interest to the Bengals:

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Ryan Jensen, Buccaneers center: The Bengals could save $6 million on their cap if they decide to cut Trey Hopkins with a year left on his contract in order to upgrade that position after a rocky return from ACL surgery last year. Jensen would be an obvious choice to replace him, as a Pro Bowl center who allowed just two sacks and had five penalties in 2021 and earned a ProFootballFocus.com grade of 70.3. So-called NFL Insider Jeff Hathhorn, of 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, said last week when asked if the Steelers might add Jensen to their roster that he expects the Bengals to sign him. He was a $10 million cap hit to the Bucs in 2021.

Laken Tomlinson, 49ers left guard: If Spain comes back, he could be moved to right guard or re-signed as a backup to Tomlinson, who would be a more consistent upgrade. San Francisco reportedly had interest in keeping Tomlinson but couldn’t afford to use the franchise tag to keep him from leaving. He allowed just two sacks and five penalties last year and graded at a 75.9 on PFF’s scale. Tomlinson was a $6.6 million cap charge for the 49ers in 2021.

Austin Corbett, L.A. Rams right guard: The Bengals still have hope in Jackson Carman developing into a starter but the 24-year-old Corbett already has proven himself on a Super Bowl championship team and would be a cheaper option to some of the other players on the market. He is coming off arguably his best season in 2021, allowing three sacks and six hits (34 pressures) in 674 pass-block snaps and earning a PFF grade of 68.8 overall. While he counted just $1.5 million against the Rams’ salary cap last year, OverTheCap.com values him at about $6.3 million.

James Daniels, Bears right/left guard: Daniels, a 2018 second-round draft pick by the Bears, could be an option as a young player with potential. He allowed three sacks and had nine penalties on a struggling Chicago team last year, but he’s only 24 years old. In the last year of his rookie contract, Daniels was a $3 million cap hit for the Bears.

Brandon Scherff, Commanders right guard: Scherff will be one of, if not the most expensive, players on the market after holding an $18 million cap hit last year while playing on a franchise tag for Washington. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Scherff has started 89 games but a knee injury last year limited him to 11 games in which he allowed just one hit and no sacks. The five-time Pro Bowler would be an instant upgrade to the Bengals’ interior line.

CORNERBACKS

J.C. Jackson, Patriots cornerback: NFL analyst Jordan Schultz reported on Twitter last week the Bengals are among four teams that will have legitimate interest in Jackson. It seems like a bit of a reach, but Cincinnati is expected to cut Trae Waynes – saving $11 million in cap space – and realistically need two cornerbacks if Apple isn’t brought back as a cheaper depth piece. PFF ranked the 26-year-old Jackson as the sixth-best free agent available at any position, while NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal ranked him second after he led the league in 2021 with 23 passes defensed and had eight interceptions.

Kevin King, Packers cornerback: While King isn’t the most experienced of the free agent cornerbacks, the Bengals could catch the 27-year-old heading into his prime. The 2017 second-round draft pick signed a new one-year deal worth $5 million in 2021, but was limited to 10 games because of hip and knee injuries and only played 11 games in 2020. It wasn’t that long ago he was considered part of an elite duo at cornerback for the Packers, though, and if he can stay healthy, he could end up being a steal.

Charvarius Ward, Chiefs cornerback: Ward, an undrafted free agent who the Chiefs traded for in 2018, was considered the most improved player for Kansas City last season and should be on the radar for any team in need of a solid cornerback. He’s been a fixture in the Chiefs’ defense the past three years, starting 41 games, but his PFF grade jumped 6.9 points to 71.2 from a 64.3 grade in 2020.

TIGHT ENDS

Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers tight end: The Bengals would like to keep Uzomah, coming off a career year, but Spotrac.com projects him to earn a three-year deal worth $24 million and that might be a bit high for someone that has never topped 500 yards receiving. Gronkowski has been there, done that and already has said he would be interested in catching passes from Joe Burrow. He’s not the player he used to be, at 32 years old, but still was productive in 2021, grabbing 55 receptions for 802 yards and six touchdowns. And, Spotrac doesn’t predict that he’ll make huge money on this next deal, projecting just a one-year deal worth $9.5 million.

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