Salary-cap bump could be big for Bengals

INDIANAPOLIS -- There may be hope for you yet, Cincinnati Bengals fans.

Maybe, just maybe, Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins will be wearing stripes again this fall.

Thursday's news from ESPN Insider Adam Schefter that the NFL is planning to bump the 2014 league salary cap from around $123 million to about $130 million could have big implications for franchises like the Bengals. Ahead of the free-agency period that begins next month, the Bengals are trying to figure out ways that they can retain both their high-priced defensive end and the backup offensive tackle who is due a big pay raise.

A 5 percent increase to the team's spending limit may be just enough to make both moves happen.

The key word there is "may." Even with the additional $7 million, the Bengals have other free agents to pay and draft picks yet to sign. Not to mention, they want to remain as far under the cap as is still competitively possible, while also beginning to save enough to re-sign next year's rather hefty list of looming free-agent targets. As a result, they could end up coming just short of being able to land their biggest free-agent targets.

According to ESPN's Roster Management system, the Bengals currently sit about $20 million shy of the proposed new salary-cap mark. As of the latest update to the Roster Management system, the Bengals have a cap around $110.3 million, and hold a cash value near $92 million.

In a story from Bengals.com posted hours before Schefter's report, one of Johnson's co-representatives, former Bengal John Thornton, said he thought there was still a good chance the Bengals could re-sign the unrestricted free agent this offseason.

"I know a lot of things have been said out there that there's not a chance, but that's not the case," Thornton said. "I think it's still a possibility. I think everybody [in the Bengals' front office] really wants it to happen, so we'll see."

Slapped with the Bengals' franchise tag last offseason, Johnson ended up making close to $11.2 million for the 2013 season. Although it's highly unlikely, if he were to get the team's franchise tag again this offseason, he stands to make close to $13.4 million in 2014. The Bengals now have 11 days to re-franchise him. If they don't apply a second straight year of franchise tag status to Johnson's contract, he'll be able to test the free-agent market starting March 11.

For that reason, it appears the only way Johnson remains a Bengal is if he gets inked to a longer term contract that could still give him a near eight-digit annual salary.

Along with Johnson, the Bengals also are hopeful of re-signing Collins, a veteran lineman who has gone from little-used reserve to elite backup to potential starter. When changes were forced upon Cincinnati's line in Week 13 thanks to offensive guard Clint Boling's ACL tear, Collins came off the bench to start at left tackle while Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth slipped inside to Boling's old position.

Where it once seemed like a foregone conclusion that perhaps only one of the two big free agents would get re-signed, Thursday's news gives the Bengals a glimmer of hope -- if still somewhat faint and flickering -- that they may be able to keep them both.