Here's what the Cincinnati Bengals should do with their prime free agents. The NFL free-agency period begins March 12.
The Bengals' priorities are Johnson and Smith. If Cincinnati can't sign both to long-term deals, one has to get the franchise tag (and the Bengals have plenty of salary-cap room to do so). The Bengals don't have to re-sign Newman because Dre Kirkpatrick has a shot to be a starter this year. But Newman exceeded expectations and was the 19th-ranked corner by Pro Football Focus. He can continue to be the starter until Kirkpatrick is ready or can provide experienced depth.
Jones was the Bengals' best returner in 2012 and should handle that role this season. Howard, the team's leading tackler in 2011, deserves to come back if he's making progress with his season-ending knee injury. Gilberry, who had 6.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries, was one of the biggest surprises on last season's team.
SHOULD LET WALK
It's time to cut ties with Maualuga, especially after he was picked on by the Texans in the playoff game. He also had the fifth-most missed tackles in the NFL last season. The Bengals can move Vontaze Burfict to the middle. Cincinnati needs to upgrade from Crocker and Lawson. Tate became a liability with his decision-making as a returner. Clements, 33, is showing his age on the field. The Bengals need to get more speed in the backfield, which makes Leonard expendable.
Placekicker: Mike Nugent or Josh Brown. What a difference a season makes. Last year, the Bengals placed the franchise tag on Mike Nugent, who set team single-season records for points (132) and field goals (33) in 2011. Then, after Nugent injured his right calf in December, Brown converted 11 of 12 field goals (91.7 percent), with his only miss coming on a desperation 56-yarder in Pittsburgh. His 43-yard field goal with four seconds left on Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh clinched a playoff berth for Cincinnati. It doesn't help Nugent's cause that he ended two of the past three seasons on injured reserve. This decision could go either way.