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Joseph or Benson: Who Do You Franchise?

While the league and the union grapple over a new collective bargaining agreement for 2011 and beyond, the Bengals continue to move forward with various offseason dilemmas including replacing coaching and medical staff personnel, and figuring out what to do about Carson Palmer’s power play and Chad Ochocinco’s eccentricities.

Meanwhile, it turns out that despite the lack of a CBA, the team can designate a franchise player.  The Patriots tagged OT Logan Mankins Monday, and the Eagles have already tagged Michael Vick.  The Chargers tagged WR Vincent Jackson today, as did the Colts with Peyton Manning and the Ravens with DT Haloti Ngata.

So, in exploring who the Bengals might designate, there are only two players worthy of it:  CB Johnathan Joseph and RB Cedric Benson. However, Hobson over at the official mouthpiece says it’s unlikely either of them will be tagged (at least in the short term):

“But no matter what happens, don’t look for the Bengals to use the franchise tag on either of their two key free agents, cornerback Johnathan Joseph or running back Cedric Benson. They want to sign both to long-term deals with sane salary cap hits. But not before the CBA is done because they want to make sure the deals fit whatever system they get.”

Frankly, it sounds like a solid strategy for the Bengals considering that neither player is irreplaceable.  Tagging Vick was a no-brainer for the Eagles, no matter what becomes of a new CBA simply because he’s that valued in the league right now.  Same with Manning. Mankins protects Tom Brady, so that one is also understandable.  Ngata is a dominant defensive tackle, and those just don’t grow on trees. The Jackson tagging makes less sense to me, since he’s already expressed agitation with the team’s handling of his contracts and held out last year. He is a 6-foot, 5 inch receiver in his prime, however, so you can’t necessarily knock it. 

Back to the Bengals.  If we are to assume that a new CBA is in fact agreed upon before March 4, and use of the franchise tag is something that’s applicable, I expect the team to use it in short order. 

While it seems to be a fairly hotly contested subject in many circles, it’s our opinion that the Bengals should use it on RB Cedric Benson, and to us it’s a slam dunk for several reasons. 

Firstly, the offense is the side of the ball with the most holes and the most need for stability.  With Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco showing up as huge question marks, T.O. gone for sure, and a new offense being installed, having a dependable workhorse back is essential.  Add to that the fact that both Gruden and Marvin Lewis have stressed the team needs to return to a grind-it-out, run-first mentality, and tagging Ced seems like the smart thing to do.  

Aside from Benson, the team has only Bernard Scott, whose talent hasn’t been fully utilized but who also isn’t tested, the oft-injured Brian Leonard, and totally unproven Cedric Peerman.  Having the running back position settled early will be crucial, particularly if the team will be sporting a new QB in 2011. 

Additionally, Benson has been a vocal leader on the team, often single-handedly carrying the load and grinding out drives.  Fumbling was an unexpected problem last year, but should be easily rectified. He is never intimidated and like all good backs, always wants more carries.  He’s also been unafraid of calling it like he sees it, and was one of the first to give us a glimpse into the schizophrenic state of the offense in 2010. 

One last thing to note in favor of Benson, the franchise tag tender for running backs is one  of the lower amounts in the league (expected to be in the 8.5 to 9.5 million range). The franchise tag for cornerbacks is estimated to be in the 10 to 14 million dollar range. 

Joseph, while equally talented, is simply a luxury for the Bengals.  Unlike Benson, he’s had several injury problems over the years (13 games missed), and isn’t even the best or most reliable at his position.  Leon Hall has been the steadier, more consistent of the two starting corners, and retaining him after 2011 should be more of a priority to the team. 

Behind Joseph, the team has several options on the roster, although progress on injuries to reserves will play a large role in the team’s decision making.  Behind Joseph, the team has former first-round pick Adam Jones, who is recovering from a serious neck injury, and Morgan Trent, working back from a catastrophic knee injury, both of whom have fairly extensive starting experience. 

Behind them, the team has 2010 3rd-round pick Brandon Ghee, and journeymen Fred Bennett, Jonathan Wade, Keiwan Ratliff, and Rico Murray.  While not star-studded, this is a deeper group than the running back field. 

Also, if the Bengals are not forced to take a QB at #4, they will likely have their pick of the best corner in the draft, with gurus debating between Patrick Peterson of LSU and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara. 

Benson is the kind of back that’s needed in the rough-and-tumble AFC North, and his aggressive, angry running style is something that could give the team some instant identity if finally allowed to do so.  One other thing that hasn’t yet been exploited has been Benson’s soft hands.  Bob Bratkowski seemed to discover them late in 2010, and we think Gruden’s already drawn up plays to utilize them in 2011. 

In short, the Bengals can more easily live without Joseph.  With an offense in flux, having a two-time 1000-yard back returning to the fold will be the one thing the team can count on if they pull the trigger.

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