The Cincinnati Bengals head into the offseason knowing they will have some difficult decisions to make with 15 players entering free agency.
While it’s not realistic to think the Bengals can — or want to — bring all of them back, head coach Marvin Lewis said in his season-ending press conference that he thinks the team can retain the majority of free agents.
“When I looked, it wasn’t as many as I expected, so I do feel good about things,” he said. “I think the core is here. I think positionally we’re in good shape. We’ll do a good job of getting guys back here and signed. I think our guys know they have a good home here. I think we’ll be okay that way.”
Of the 15, here are the five the Bengals most need to re-sign:
It’s not totally out of the question that the Bengals could keep both Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but it’s doubtful. Jones is the more important piece because he plays a vital role as a big-play threat on the opposite side of A.J. Green, and he’s coming off a season in which he posted career highs in receptions (65) and receiving yards (816).
The Bengals will have to pay top dollar to keep him as he is expected to garner a lot of interest on the open market, especially in receiver-starved Cleveland, where former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is now the head coach. Jackson thinks highly of Jones, so expect the Browns to make a big push for his services.
This could be another either/or situation with the Bengals other starting safety, Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson, also entering free agency. As great of a season as Nelson had (tied for league lead with eight interceptions), Iloka is only 25 while Nelson is 32.
At 6-foot-4, Iloka is big and physical, but he also covers really well for a safety. The chances of retaining both safeties are probably better than the situation at wide receiver, but the emergence of Shawn Williams could lead the Bengals to allocate more money to other positions on the team.
While some may be ready to wash their hands of Jones after he lost his composure and drew a 15-yard penalty that led to game-winning field goal in the wild-card loss to Pittsburgh, that play may end up being why the Bengals keep him.
Jones had an outstanding year, arguably the best of his career, but that penalty that 31.2 million people watched could put a dent in his value and lead to the Bengals getting him at a discounted salary.
Other than the personal foul against Oakland’s Amari Cooper in the opener and the bookend against the Steelers, Jones played within the rules and was the best cornerback on a defense that set a franchise record for fewest points allowed.
He is as solid as they come, on the field and off, and his ability to play all three linebacker positions makes him a valuable commodity, especially given that Vontaze Burfict has missed 17 games the last two seasons with injuries and has been suspended for the first three in 2016.
The Bengals were 6-0 with Rey starting for the injured Burfict to start 2015. Rey also has a lot of value on special teams and should come at a reasonable cost.
Like Rey, Gilberry provides versatility. He can play tackle or end, and with the way the Bengals rotate personnel on the defensive line, Gilberry has value beyond his skills.
The Bengals revived his career, signing him off the street in 2012. That, coupled with the fact that he is one of the more popular players in the locker room, could result in Gilberry signing for a little less to stay where he is comfortable.
Then again, at age 31, this could be his last shot a big contract.
In addition to Sanu and Nelson, the other free agents are cornerback Leon Hall, defensive tackles Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims, tackles Andre Smith and Eric Winston, wide receiver/returner Brandon Tate, center T.J. Johnson and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.
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