The Cincinnati Bengals had the most salary-cap room in the NFL when free agency started, and they still have a huge amount now. The Bengals showed no interest in signing wide receiver Wes Welker or safety Dashon Goldson.
The knee-jerk reaction is that the Bengals missed an opportunity to get a step ahead of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers because Cincinnati didn't add players at a time when those teams were losing players.
If you talk to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, nearly everything has gone according to plan. What exactly is that plan? The Bengals are looking to beat the Ravens and Steelers at their own game, which means building a team through the draft instead of buying one in March.
You can accuse the Bengals of being cheap. You can criticize them for not being aggressive in free agency. You just can’t knock their process, because it’s working.
The Bengals have been to the postseason in three of the past four seasons -- which is more times than Pittsburgh over that span -- and they’re doing it with homegrown players.
Cincinnati may start as many as 12 players this season who came from the previous four drafts alone (if offensive tackle Andre Smith is re-signed and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick beats out Terence Newman). That doesn’t include linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who joined the Bengals after going undrafted last year.
The fingerprints of recent drafts are almost as pronounced as those stripes on the Bengals' helmets. Their quarterback (Andy Dalton) and leading receiver (A.J. Green) were drafted two years ago. Their sacks leader (defensive tackle Geno Atkins) was taken in the fourth round in 2010. Their franchise player (defensive end Michael Johnson) was picked in the third round in 2009.
If you were waiting for the Bengals to make noise this offseason, it’s going to come later this month. That’s when the Bengals have three of the first 53 picks in the draft.
“There has been plenty of history in the National Football League of teams going out and spending a lot of cap dollars on other people’s players and then not really fitting together,” Lewis told ESPN.com this week. “So let’s look at the ones that are successful year after year, because those are the ones we want to model ourselves after."
The teams that the Bengals are modeling themselves after are the Ravens and Steelers. Lewis believes he wouldn't have been considered for the Bengals' head-coaching job a decade ago if he hadn't worked for the Steelers (linebackers coach 1992-95) and Ravens (defensive coordinator 1996-2001).
Now, Lewis and the Bengals have closed the draft gap. In 2010, when the Ravens' top two picks were linebacker Sergio Kindle and nose tackle Terrence Cody, the Bengals selected tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive end Carlos Dunlap before taking Atkins with the 120th overall pick. The Bengals' previous two draft classes have totaled 112 starts compared to the Steelers' 38 starts (although that number is smaller because of injuries to guard David DeCastro and tackle Marcus Gilbert).
These successful drafts are a reflection of the relationship between Lewis and owner Mike Brown, who has the final say on draft day.
"Mike and I’ve been doing this for so long now, I think he has a much better feel for the guy that I feel best about," Lewis said.
There are a couple of good reasons the Bengals don't spend much on other teams' free agents. In 2010, Cincinnati got burned after bringing in wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens. The other factor is the Bengals' desire to keep their own players, who they drafted and developed.
The Bengals used more than $30 million in salary-cap space this offseason to retain their own free agents, including four starters as well as kicker Mike Nugent and punter Kevin Huber. The team also placed an $11.1 million franchise tag on Johnson, which isn't really thrifty.
"If you think about bringing in someone from the outside, either he has to play to your scheme or you have to be ready to adjust to him," Lewis said. "There is going to be a time lapse until he gets comfortable."
When Lewis sat down with ownership, he said, there was only one free agent from another team who interested him. Although he declined to name the player, the educated guess is running back Reggie Bush, who signed with the Detroit Lions.
"We reached out and he wasn't willing to compete and share time," Lewis said of the targeted free agent.
By focusing on their own free agents, the Bengals probably will return all but two starters from last season's No. 6 defense. Cincinnati could bring back every starter on offense if it can re-sign Smith.
The Bengals need to resolve the situation with Smith over the next couple of weeks or prepare to draft his replacement. Smith was reportedly seeking a contract that averaged $9 million per season, but he won't come close to that now.
"I think it will get done here in short order," Lewis said. "Expectations were set higher and now things need to be where they are. Unfortunately, sometimes things don't work out in ways people planned it out. So there's got to be a come to reality. Now it's time to go to work. He's still a young enough guy that there's going to be a next time around for him."
Whether or not the Bengals sign Smith, they're still in an enviable position. Cincinnati has the 21st overall pick and two picks in the second round (37th and 53rd overall). The additional pick came from the Raiders in the Carson Palmer trade, and Oakland has dealt Palmer before the Bengals even get to use the pick .
The Bengals can take several different directions early in the draft: strong safety, speedy running back, wide receiver or outside linebacker. All Lewis knows is that the Bengals will add three starter-caliber players, which will get them closer to reaching the same championship level as the Ravens and Steelers.
"Our goal is to go beyond just making the playoffs. Our goal is to be world champions," Lewis said. "In my time frame here, we've got three teams that have done that out of our division. So the bar is high and we've got to keep working hard to achieve that."