CINCINNATI -- The day after the Cincinnati Bengals' season came to an end with a wild-card playoff loss to San Diego, offensive tackle Anthony Collins tried to sell reporters on the reasons he desperately wanted to remain a Bengal.
For more than 20 minutes, in between cleaning out his locker and exchanging jokes with teammates, the always approachable Collins chatted about the highs and lows of a six-year career.
Class, in a sense, is out of session. The lessons Collins gleaned the last few seasons from offensive line coach Paul Alexander have paid off. So much so that the longtime backup is entering free agency next month with a likely pay raise looming and potentially a new city to call home.
He isn't alone. Defensive end Michael Johnson, a player whose franchise-tag status earned him more than $11 million this past season, also is up for free agency and could be staring at even more money if he gets re-franchised or signs elsewhere. Because of the high cost to keep both players, there's a rather strong possibility the Bengals will only be able to retain one of them.
Of the two, the Bengals should go hardest after Collins.
The latest salary-cap estimates from overthecap.com put the Bengals at about $23.7 million in cap space entering free agency. While that ranks among the top in the league, it still likely won't be enough to bring back both Johnson and Collins. That $23.7 million might sound like a lot, but it'll all evaporate before the Bengals know it. With so many pockets to fill, they have to be smart about who receives what, and when.
Because of the financial quandary Cincinnati is staring down, we decided Tuesday to ask who you thought the Bengals' most important free agent was. With 13 players eligible to be re-signed this offseason, we were curious to know which one you thought the Bengals ought to make their priority.
You and I agree: Collins ought to be Cincinnati's most important free-agent target.
As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, 24 hours after the poll was posted on ESPN.com, 56 percent of the roughly 700 of you who voted, declared Collins the more important free-agent target. Johnson was next, receiving 36 percent of the vote. Defensive back Taylor Mays received 4 percent, as did "Other." The "others" included another 10 free agents that included receiver/return specialist Brandon Tate, receiver Andrew Hawkins, guard Mike Pollak and linebacker Vincent Rey.
You can see a more detailed evaluation of each free agent and the odds each has to get re-signed in this ESPN.com blog from Tuesday.
Back to the Collins-or-Johnson debate. There are a few reasons I believe the backup offensive lineman has more value as a free agent. For starters, when it comes to Johnson and the double-digit millions he would be owed if he receives the franchise label for a second straight season, the Bengals would be better served to focus on spreading that money around to Collins and others.
If Collins were to be slapped on Feb. 17 with a franchise tag for the upcoming season, he could earn just short of $10 million. It's unlikely he or any player will receive the franchise designation, though. For a longer-term deal, Collins could see an annual cap value that rivals where Bengals tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith were this year. Per ESPN's roster management system, in 2013, Whitworth's cap value was $6.8 million, while Smith's was $6 million. On average, Smith is making about $5.1 million annually. Collins might get within that ballpark, giving him a nice bump from the $2 million he made in 2013 as a backup who became a starter due to injury.
Another reason Collins ought to be kept over Johnson is because of what his presence in the Bengals' offensive line rotation might mean in 2014 and beyond. Soon, the Bengals will be looking to replace an aging Whitworth, and they could send a strong message in the coming seasons by doing so with Collins and Smith. Both were drafted by the Bengals in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and were brought to Cincinnati in the hopes of allowing the franchise to prove its commitment to building its future from within.
Of course, holding onto Johnson would do the same thing. Part of the same 2009 draft class that brought Smith, Johnson also has been a steadily rising young star whom the Bengals have tried to groom. But they have another up-and-coming defensive end for whom they have high hopes. And they are in a position to allow him to take over with Johnson's potential departure.
Margus Hunt, a rookie who was taken in the third round of last April's draft, finally started getting his coaches' attention at the end of the regular season. Before he left for Minnesota, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer noted how Hunt was finishing plays better and was starting to show ability beyond the raw talent that made the native Estonian a coveted player this time last year.
While both Johnson and Collins will rightfully have their own share of suitors starting next month, the Bengals would be best served to make Collins the one they keep in stripes.