<
>

Bengals mailbag: Where to turn in free agency?

CINCINNATI -- If you have been following along the past two weeks, you might have noticed where our Cincinnati Bengals blog took a daily look at the 15 pending free agents on the roster. The series concluded Friday.

Soon enough, free agency will be the talk of the offseason for the Bengals and the other 31 teams. But why wait for March? Those of you who follow the Bengals have questions about it right now. That's why we are using free agency as our jumping off point in this week's mailbag:

@ColeyHarvey: Man, this is such a tough question to answer right now, Cincy. There is no telling exactly which potential unrestricted free agents around the league will become available. It's also unclear how the Bengals' own efforts with the free agents who spent 2014 with them will pan out. I will say this, though. Personally, I would put re-signing Clint Boling and Rey Maualuga atop the Bengals' free-agency concerns. Boling responded quite well to ACL surgery this season, and proved how versatile he can be as an offensive lineman who plays more than just left guard. He also has had a hand in Cincinnati's turnaround since 2011, and has been part of the foundation for a line that was one of the NFL's best this season. Maualuga ought to be in there, too, because of how truly valuable he proved to be in the run-stop game this season. He's had his share of ups and downs in six years as a Bengal, but with uncertainty about how Vontaze Burfict will bounce back from microfracture surgery, it's important to keep as much of a fragile linebacker corps together as possible. Who I'd target from the outside? I would focus on Cleveland tight end Jordan Cameron if he becomes available. That is, assuming the Bengals part with Jermaine Gresham. It's hard to see Buffalo letting defensive end Jerry Hughes walk, but he also would be atop my list. The Bengals are looking for pass-rush help, and he had 10 sacks in 2014.

@ColeyHarvey: Though it seems likely to me that Gresham won't return, it might not be a foregone conclusion. I caught up with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson in Cincinnati the afternoon before he left for Super Bowl Week festivities in Arizona, and he didn't close the door on Gresham remaining a Bengal. Jackson said there was still a place for the embattled tight end in Cincinnati, but that it ultimately depends upon negotiations. Again, I still have my doubts, but you never know. Like I mentioned above, Cameron could make a good free-agent target at the position. But there also are a number of good tight ends in this draft class, so the Bengals might have to act quickly to take one. Can we safely say they do it in the first three or four rounds, though? No. Remember, Cincinnati likes to draft based off talent available. "Positional need" is secondary.

@ColeyHarvey: I can't tell if this is a joke or a legitimate question, Kevin. You'll have to forgive me. I'm still shell-shocked from the nonstop Tyler Eifert questions myself and other Bengals reporters received during the season, often at times when there was nothing to report on him. But here's the lowdown. He was one of three injured offensive players who coach Marvin Lewis said Thursday was "progressing well" from late-season surgery. Not only did he have surgery on his dislocated right elbow, but he also had surgery done on a shoulder to get him fully over an ailment that bugged him all last offseason and into the regular season. The day after the Bengals' playoff loss at Indianapolis, Eifert said he doubted he would participate much in minicamp in May, but he anticipated being healthy before training camp.

@ColeyHarvey: In case you missed it, Lewis earlier this offseason said the Bengals planned to be a little more aggressive in free agency, per directives from team president Mike Brown. Normally, the Bengals sit pat while other teams wheel and deal around them. They try hard to re-sign their own, but they don't often welcome many others into the fold. As far as restructuring contracts, Jim, the Bengals don't do it as much as most teams because of how front-loaded their contracts typically are with guaranteed money. Unless they are really trying to land a big fish, they might not need to restructure any contracts this season, Leon Hall's included, considering this year's salary cap could be close to $150 million. At about $118 million (with dead money factored in), according to NFL Players Association records, the Bengals would be in great shape if the cap hits estimates.

@ColeyHarvey: I've got a few who I'll be keeping my eye on as the Bengals get ready for the No. 21 pick. Here are a couple of names I could see the Bengals exploring during the pre-draft process given their apparent needs at defensive end, offensive tackle and receiver: DE Dante Fowler Jr. (Florida), DE/OLB Bud Dupree (Kentucky), WR Devin Smith (Ohio State), WR Phillip Dorsett (Miami FL), WR Jaelen Strong (Arizona State), OT Andrus Peat (Stanford), and OT Ereck Flowers (Miami FL). Each could be on the board around the 21st pick.

@ColeyHarvey: I'll actually have a little bit more on this next week. But for now, let's say I do believe it's possible we'll see running back Rex Burkhead used a little more next season. Coaches have long liked him, and he definitely helped himself with strong play every time he touched the ball this season. He was a viable option as a slot receiver with A.J. Green and Gresham out of the playoff game at Indianapolis, and he has been a serviceable No. 3 or 4 back. I can't imagine his production will exponentially increase, but he should see more playing time in 2015.

.