AFC North Free Agency Watch Day 2: Cincinnati Bengals

Either due to lack of finances or whatever it is the Cleveland Browns are doing, the AFC North has been rather quiet thus far when it comes to signing any players, whether from their own team or outside the organization, to bigger contracts.

The Cincinnati Bengals have been the biggest movers so far, bringing in linebacker A.J. Hawk earlier along with re-signing linebacker Rey Maualuga and offensive lineman Eric Winston.

The signing of Winston gave the Bengals an option along the line, a contingency plan in case they were unable to work out a new deal for starting left guard Clint Boling. But they were able to make that happen yesterday.

Boling recovered from an ACL injury to play well last year in his fourth season, which had him drawing interest from several teams, but the Bengals’ front office and the guard were able to come to terms on a five-year, $26 million contract to keep the offensive line intact.

Failing his re-signing, it’s possible that the Bengals would have moved left tackle Andrew Whitworth over to Boling’s spot at left guard, where he already has experience playing, while plugging in Winston at tackle. Now, the veteran Winston can fill the role he was brought back to fill as the swing tackle.

Keeping the line intact is key for the young Bengals offense, particularly for their two young running backs. Jeremy Hill had a breakout rookie season in large part due to their strong run blocking, and Boling is a an above average run blocker at his position.

Cincinnati’s biggest weakness a year ago, however, came on the other side of the ball, and that was the lack of a significant pass rush. They ended up finishing toward the bottom of the league in terms of generating sacks, and they are looking to change that this season.

The Bengals were reportedly among the teams courting Jabaal Sheard, but he signed yesterday with the Patriots. Today, they are expected to host defensive tackle Nick Fairley, which would be a big signing for that defensive line.

Pairing Fairley with a healthy Geno Atkins would give the Bengals among the most imposing defensive interiors in the AFC. But hosting a player and signing a player are two very different things, and the Bengals haven’t always been the most forthcoming in handing out contracts over the years. But they know they need pass rush help, so they may have to bite the bullet.

They must be careful, however, because they will have no shortage of expenditures in their near future, with many of their key players entering 2015 with expiring contracts.

That includes star wide receiver A.J. Green, Whitworth, Andre Smith, Reggie Nelson, and other starters. The wise thing to do, of course, would be to start to work out contract extensions with them during this offseason to avoid a crisis next winter. There has been talk about working on lowering Leon Hall’s cap hit, but nothing imminent seems likely. In the meantime, they are interested in bringing back the recently released Michael Johnson.

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