The fake offseason has returned for a third year. Year 1 and Year 2 saw the Bengals land in the NFL’s Final Four, and this spreadsheet set a template for the path they eventually hit.
Now it’s happening again.
As a refresher: Everyone has their own ideas about how they want to fix the roster in the short and long term. Between free agency, the draft, cap cuts, expansions and finding bargains, there are hundreds of paths to the final product on opening day.
The purpose of this piece is not to tell you which way they should go, which way they should go, or how outsiders think it plays out.
It will just set the table for all the options and let you try it yourself. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book for roster building.
Use the drop-down menus to select each position, make cuts, add free agents, insert draft picks, extend players and fill out the top 32 players. The hood adjusts automatically with every movement you make. Draft picks are based on Dane Brugler’s current top 100 (ie everyone ranked before 28 is off the board in the first round).
We recommend reading along with this story as you go through the process of making moves in the spreadsheet for added clarity (and analysis!).
When you’re done and feeling proud, send us screenshots of your results on Twitter (@pauldehnerjr) or @JayMorrisonATH).
The point of this exercise isn’t to find the exact amounts free agents will cost — that’s impossible — or even to show all options on the table when entering trades, cap gymnastics, friendly contract structures and free-agent bargains. We try to get on the field for the primary decisions.
You’ll notice that we’ve adjusted the prices a bit this year to be a decent amount lower than the average annual value projects for each player. This is not because we think the market will be down. This represents that the first-year cap on most contracts is typically lower for all deals and was the case for all multi-year free agents the Bengals signed last year.
Just remember. This. Is. Not. Perfect.
And the cap is hardly real anyway. It does matter, though, especially in Cincinnati.
This exercise is intended to show the primary part of offseason predictions overlooked in the desire and excitement to sign and pay everyone. There’s only so much money and so many positions you can fill. This will give you an idea of how much the Bengals can realistically do for 2023 and what each move means as a domino effect for everyone else.
Will you invest every penny in bringing back all your defensive free agents? There are consequences. Want to see what Eli Apple would tweet if you paid him $13 million? We do that too, but it has consequences. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t do everything. But with this tool you can try.
• On desktop, open the Google Doc here, go to File -> Make a copy, and then you’re ready to start picking players and staying under cover.
• Open the Google document on your phone here, click the pencil in the top right to edit it in your spreadsheet (best with Google Sheets). There are three dots next to the file, click it, then select “Share and Export,” then scroll down to “Make a copy.”
• If you prefer Excel, download a copy as an Excel spreadsheet here: Bengals Choose Your Own Adventure (Excel)
Shows the calculation
The Bengals don’t like to restructure contracts and kick money down the road for future teams to overcome. They always keep money behind to allow for the allocation of draft picks, potential injuries, paying practice players and an assortment of other future expenses, so the money you’d put directly up to the cap number doesn’t apply in a basic mathematical sense.
Traditionally, you subtract somewhere around $10-15 million from the cap to get the true amount of money the Bengals expect to spend.
People may not agree with this philosophy or the math, but it’s just years of history.
For example, last year, it worked almost exactly to the end result. The Bengals’ top hitter ended up just $2 million short of our estimated number.
So let’s do it again.
The salary cap for this year is $224.8 million.
Cincinnati’s cap space is based on the top 51 contracts on the roster. Over The Cap estimates $35.7 million in cap space, currently sixth most in the NFL.
Take out the traditional subtraction in the Bengals’ math, and we put the true spending number this year at a nice, even $25 million.
From build to sustain: How the Bengals’ personnel attack the next step
Many positions for the Bengals are set and you have the starters locked in place without the potential to be a cap casualty. We are only concerned with starters and key rotation pieces, plus specialists. There are 32 players, and the other 19 are basically interchangeable low-cost options already included in the top 51.
This could end up being one of the most interesting parts of the seven-candidate exercise that could dramatically change the ability to get healthy in free agency, but cut the core of back-to-back AFC North champions.
A name on the list doesn’t mean the Bengals are considering the move, just that cutting the player would amount to at least $4 million in savings.
Cap savings numbers are set as pre-June 1 designations since most Bengals cuts have been made that way.
That leaves seven players on the chopping block and your decision whether to be ruthless or loyal.
Once you’ve picked your cuts, you’ve arrived at your dollar amount for total remaining capacity and a new number of positions to fill. Congratulations! Let’s move on to the next level in the offseason. Time to spend.
As for extension candidates, namely Joe Burrow, it gets scarier and the most important question hanging over this entire project. The cap number for this year for a player receiving an extension is usually a small base salary figure plus the prorated amount of the signing bonus.
A chance exists for a decent bump from Burrows’ current $11.5 million cap hit. The figure on the Burrow extension with respect to 2023 is fluid depending on negotiations, but we went by precedent using other recent quarterback extensions as a judge. That only increased his top number this year by $3.5 million to a steady $15 million.
Pressing the Burrow extension button is basically like the middle square in Bingo in this year’s exercise. Consider it mandatory.
A Tee Higgins extension actually provides a similar increase in ceiling and may be easier to predict. It’s based on the four extensions signed by Day 2 draft pick receivers last year (Deebo Samuel, AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin) and the average jump in cap hit from the third to fourth season due to their extensions. They were all in the same ballpark, but the average jump would amount to $3.2 million more than Higgins is already slated for ($4.3 million) at the 2023 cap.
Other players could be extended, Logan Wilson the most prominent among them, but none would be expected to dramatically change the 2023 cap.
Who would you re-sign? All of the Bengals’ free agents have the valuation placed on them by the OTC, PFF or our own estimate. These are hard to find, but we’ve done our best to curate the ballpark value for the sake of this exercise.
The numbers are skewed lower than the estimate because the Bengals traditionally work with the actual cap hit for the first year being much less than the average value of the contract.
Select the players you want back in stripes by looking for them at the top of each drop-down box. They will all be options along with the costs. If they are already under contract, they cost you nothing towards the top.
Players who could potentially change positions are listed as an option in several positions. For example, you can keep Jonah Williams at left tackle or choose to move him to the right side and project Jackson Carman to the left, if you wish.
Free agents are also listed as options in the dropdown box. You can’t possibly list them all, especially when you consider all the number of losses expected over the next two months, but it’s representative of most levels of the pay scale.
The draft picks will not affect the bottom line of the cap, as they are already in the equation of the money that was traditionally cut from the total of the team at the very beginning.
You get three rounds to make a difference, though you’ll see Day 3 picks appear as an option in select rotation positions.
Realistically, you could argue that the first three picks should all be in the rotation somewhere. The rest will be placed at the back of the list with a chance of greater impact next year or beyond.
Cincinnati Bengals 2023 NFL Draft big board: Michael Mayer among offensive options
So you can choose a player you want in each round. Enter the name in the draft slot. Then find the corresponding round in the dropdown menu for his position. We will operate under the assumption that the team does not add picks and stands pat with its picks (no. 28 in the first round, no. 60 in the second and no. 92 in the third).
Again, Brugler’s top 100 will dictate the player universe available to you, meaning you can’t take anyone in the top 27 in the first round, no one in the top 59 in the second round, and no one in the top 89 in the third round. No cheating!
It is impossible to be correct on all these contract numbers, even those closest to each individual player cannot know for sure where the market will land. This also doesn’t factor in the movement we’ll see from other teams who cut their veterans before the new league year. We have also not mentioned trades in this factor. There are so many other ways this offseason could turn.
The importance of going through this exercise is to provide a real sense of decisions and priorities at the core of the entire offseason. Where can they save? How many players can they even afford to sign before leaving the cupboard completely bare at other positions? What impact will expansions have on decisions in 2023? It’s easy to say pay the players, but understanding the true limitations through the eyes of the front office is critical to judging success and strategy.
(Top photo: Ian Johnson/Getty Images)