Hawkins saga provides lesson for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Perception and reality aren't always the same.

I used the line above in this story from earlier this week. I had outlined what the Cincinnati Bengals would miss if they were unable to match an offer sheet restricted free-agent receiver Andrew Hawkins had signed with the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday.

The theory? That they would miss out on a versatile slot receiver whose speed could allow him to be used in a variety of ways under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Hawkins' yards-after-catch statistics were clear indications that he is a playmaker who needs the ball in his hands. That was the reality.

The perception about Hawkins, though, was that while, yes, he was a good playmaker, he didn't deserve to have the ball in his hands any more than Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert or Jermaine Gresham did. Quite simply, because of where he appeared on the depth chart, he was perceived to be the Bengals' No. 4 receiver. He was perceived, at worst, to be their sixth or seventh pass-catching option behind the two tight ends and running back Giovani Bernard.

But perception and reality aren't always the same.

Hawkins' reality appears to be one that will be calling Cleveland home for the next four years. A source told ESPN.com on Thursday that the Bengals weren't expected to match the four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet the Browns gave Hawkins. The deal includes $10.8 million in the first two years.

When the Bengals offered tenders last week to their three restricted free agents, they got each of them at the low-round level. That meant that since all three were undrafted players, the Bengals wouldn't receive draft-pick compensation as they normally would had the players been draft selections. Without draft-pick compensation, they wouldn't get anything in return if they couldn't match offers extended to the players by other teams.

By setting a low-round tender of $1.4 million, they also were sending the message that they felt confident each of the free agents wouldn't get many looks on the open market and that they could hold on to them relatively cheaply.

From a business standpoint, it's an understandable and quite admirable tactic. After all, because of the perception about who he is on the depth chart, Hawkins isn't a major piece of Cincinnati's offense. He's just another regular piece to the bigger puzzle. The Bengals have other receivers such as Sanu, Jones and A.J. Green who have their own rather impressive pass-catching prowess. So if they ended up losing Hawkins, there wasn't much to worry about. Others are there who can easily fill his void. The tactic also made sense because in the event Hawkins didn't field any offers and they ended up keeping him, they could save a little extra money and push it over to other places. That's important because Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are all in line for bigger restructured deals.

It all makes sense. But it also set the Bengals up for learning an unfortunate lesson: that perception and reality aren't always the same.

The perception before free agency began was that Hawkins wasn't likely to field much external attention. He only played in eight regular-season games in 2013 due to a serious ankle injury that held him out of the first half of the year. As a result, his production was far lower than what it was the year before. He was basically a non-factor on a team that was oozing with talent at its skill positions.

Hawkins' reality, though, was a little different. After teams saw what having a shifty slot player like Percy Harvin did for Seattle in the playoffs, several knocked on Hawkins' door. Washington was rumored to have had interest because of Hawkins' connection to head coach Jay Gruden, the Bengals' former offensive coordinator. Because of their own uncertainties about departing slot receivers, Denver and New England were among those who had reasons to be interested, too.

Cleveland entered the fray because it needed another good receiver after Davone Bess was released earlier this offseason. The Browns also had to be intrigued by the fact that Hawkins spent three seasons playing for their in-state and division rival.

Had Hawkins been placed under a higher-level tender -- say the second-round tender -- he likely would have remained a Bengal. His tender would have been for about $2.2 million and Cincinnati would have earned a second-round pick as compensation in the event it didn't want to or was unable to match another team's offer sheet. Very few teams might be willing to part with a second-round pick for a player who was perceived to be a No. 4 receiver.

Even if the Bengals ultimately did want to part with Hawkins, the option of a second-round tender just seems to be more of a win-win scenario than the one they now are left with; no draft-pick compensation from a rival in exchange for a true playmaker.

The real lesson here is that hopefully the Bengals learned to evaluate more thoroughly the next time they're confronted with a similar situation involving an undrafted restricted free agent. They thought they had Hawkins pegged right, but it turns out they were a little wrong.

Perception and reality aren't always the same.