Bengals have to hope their key free agents are still content with roles

Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu had no receiving touchdowns in 2015, marking the first time that's happened in his four-year NFL career. Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

CINCINNATI -- Mohamed Sanu was targeted 50 times last season by Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks.

A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert and even running back Giovani Bernard were all thrown to more. Sure, Sanu had a few plays late in the year when he lined up as a Wildcat quarterback, but for the first time in his career he went through a season without attempting a single pass. After having been a significantly larger piece to the Bengals' offensive arsenal the year before following an onslaught of injuries at the pass-catching positions, Sanu took a relative backseat in 2015.

Playing fifth fiddle was his role. If the Bengals somehow re-sign both him and Jones in the coming days, there's a strong chance Sanu will be asked in 2016 to replicate his responsibilities from the season before.

Would the pending free agent want to stay in Cincinnati then? That's a question he's had to ask himself this offseason.

The Bengals know that. They also know Sanu isn't the only soon-to-be free agent who has to think about how he contributed last season. As the Bengals keep finalizing their pitches to retain key players, they want each to be happy with what they've been asked to do.

"They have to be content with their role that they had this year, first," Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at last week's combine. "And then they've got to look around and see some examples maybe of guys that did leave and it didn't work for them ... and they wanted to come back. Michael Johnson would be a good example of that.

"So it's incumbent upon the guys that are doing [free agency] for the first time to really explore with some of the veterans about 'is the grass really greener?' or all things equal, is it best to stay with with you know?"

Head coach Marvin Lewis believes communication between coaches and free agents is paramount to them understanding whether their current role is better or worse than what they could have elsewhere. He knows some will want more opportunity.

"That becomes a realization at some point in a guys' career. For every player that's a little different," Lewis said. "That's why we spend the time trying to communicate to them from my point of view as the head coach and their point of view as the player. Very few NFL players are satisfied with being second. They want an opportunity to showcase and show they can go out there and be a starter."

Sanu certainly would fall into that category. At the very least, he has to feel he deserves a role larger than fifth passing option behind a couple other receivers, a tight end and a running back. Remember, when Green, Eifert, Jones, Bernard and former Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham missed multiple games with injuries in 2014, Sanu was the Bengals' lead pass-catcher and they still went to the playoffs.

Jones and linebacker Vincent Rey could be other Bengals free agents eager for larger roles. Another team might think of Jones as a No. 1 receiver. Rey probably is a regular starter elsewhere.