CINCINNATI -- Free agency officially begins March 9 as the 2016 league year begins.
Which of the Cincinnati Bengals' 15 unrestricted free agents will be back under their control that day? It's a question both the players and the team will spend the next four weeks scrambling to answer. Before we get too deep into the offseason, let's take a daily look at each of Cincinnati's free agents. On Wednesday, we start with:
CB Leon Hall
Bengals service time: Nine seasons (2007 Bengals first-round pick)
2015 cap charge: $9,600,000 (ninth among NFL CBs)
2015 stats: 55 tackles, 2 INTs, appeared in 14 games
The lowdown: Does an aging, injury-affected slot cornerback deserve $9.75 million per season? The blunt answer: probably not. That's particularly the case when he has recently been playing a more muted role for a defense that is pinning its future on a series of up-and-comers at his position. Still, to simply label Hall as "aging" and "injury-affected" greatly diminishes the overall impact he has had in Cincinnati. He has been a valued leader who has transitioned into the role of mentor in recent seasons. Part of the reason the overall level of play has been so high in Cincinnati's defensive backfield lately is because of the example he has set as a studious and tireless worker. Younger cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard have repeatedly harped on their desire to replicate Hall's industriousness in the short time they have been in the league.
Hall's leadership and mentoring have little correlation with his own on-field production, though. Since returning from a second Achilles tear in 2014, he hasn't been the consistently explosive player he was prior to the injury. Many point to a play late in the 2014 season when he was beaten by then-rookie Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant on a play-action "Go" route for a 94-yard touchdown as an example of who Hall has become since he came back.
The 584 snaps Hall was credited with in 2015 by ESPN Stats & Information also were significantly lower than what he posted during years when he didn't have a season-ending injury. Excluding 2011 and 2013 -- the years he had the Achilles tears -- Hall averaged 902 snaps prior to this past season. Although nagging injuries prevented him from playing in two games in 2015, he still was relatively active (he broke up five passes in limited action), albeit in more of a reserves role.
Stay or go? The Bengals have several capable cornerbacks who need to get on the field. Along with Dennard, Josh Shaw (a 2015 fourth-rounder) played well in relief of Hall and other veterans, like fellow free agent Adam Jones. Speaking of Jones, if Cincinnati felt compelled to choose between re-signing him or Hall, it likely would prefer to bring back Jones. Though Jones, 32, had his own injury concerns -- not to mention a costly penalty in last month's wild-card round playoff loss -- he was more of a consistent threat to opposing offenses, and offers versatility as a return man. Oh, and he was cheaper. Jones commanded just $2.55 million of the Bengals' cap space last season.
The Bengals could have a compelling case for keeping Hall, but it appears it might be in both his best interest, and the team's, for him to go. Instead of continuing to split time with younger players, he could revitalize his career elsewhere.