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Cincinnati Bengals: Ranking the team’s 10 unrestricted free agents

Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said he didn’t “win” anything in his postseason meetings with team owner and president Mike Brown prior to signing a two-year contract extension.

But Lewis hinted at some changes and was more direct about others during a 40-minute press conference – the longest of his 15-year tenure with the Bengals – that followed the announcement.

Asked what type of changes were coming, Lewis touched on free agency.

“We’re going to have to look to augment what we do with what we have right now on the football team, and we’re going to have to do a little better and do a better job of maybe adding some guys from other clubs,” he said. “I don’t know that it means ‘more active.’ I don’t know how many (free agents) we added last year, but just make sure that if we can add someone that helps, we add them.”

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That’s a stark departure from the last several years when the message always was “We’re going to focus on re-signing our own guys.”

The Bengals have 10 players who will be unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins March 14, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team allow the majority of them to find work elsewhere in 2018.

The list could increase by one when an arbitrator announces his decision on the AJ McCarron grievance on Feb. 15, but the quarterback is likely to be a restricted free agent, which means the Bengals can tender him an offer that will result in them having a chance to match any offer or receive a draft pick if he ends up signing with another team.

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Here is a ranking of the 10 Bengals unrestricted free agents:

Tyler Eifert, tight end

He’s one of the best tight ends in the league when healthy, which isn’t often. Eifert has never played a 16-game season in his five years in the league, appearing in 39 of a possible 80 games.

After offseason back surgery Eifert said prior to the start of 2017 he would have limitations with his back for the rest of his career. Then after playing two games Eifert had more issues with his back and had season-ending surgery in October.

The Bengals are expected to make a run at him, but there no doubt will be provisions in the contract offer that require Eifert to be on the 53-man roster (not injured reserve) in order to collect the bulk of the money.

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Kevin Huber, punter

Ranking a punter this high says a lot about Huber’s value and even more about the remainder of the list.

Huber had one of the best seasons of his nine-year career in 2017, averaging 46.6 yards per punt, which was just shy of his team record of 46.8 set in his Pro Bowl season in 2014.

As good as Huber is, punters don’t break the bank in free agency and there will be mutual interest from both sides for him to stay in Cincinnati.

Russell Bodine, center

Bodine never developed into the player the Bengals expected him to be after trading up to take him in the fourth round in 2014, but he’s started all 64 games since arriving.

New offensive line coach Frank Pollack could unlock Bodine’s potential, but it’s just as likely the Bengals look elsewhere in free agency or the draft rather than committing to Bodine.

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Jeremy Hill, running back

Hill has less wear and tear on his body than most running backs entering their fifth season, so he could have a few more years as a productive rusher.

But his future is going to be elsewhere. With Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon under contract, the Bengals weren’t going to bring back Hill anyway, but the door officially closed when he opted to have season-ending ankle surgery even though doctors said it could wait until January.

Kevin Minter, linebacker

Minter opted for a one-year contract instead of two years last offseason, which means it’s probably one and done in terms of his career in Cincinnati.

At 27, he’s still young enough to be a productive linebacker, but he wasn’t a good fit in the Bengals scheme. And with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin coming in , the team likely will look for its next MIKE linebacker in free agency or the draft.

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Andre Smith, offensive tackle

The nine-year veteran performed well when the loss of Jake Fisher thrust Smith into the starting job for Games 9-14 before suffering his own season-ending injury on the final play at Minnesota.

He hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, but Smith could add some depth on an offensive line lacking it.

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Chris Smith, defensive end

The undersized defensive end earned a spot on the 53-man roster with a terrific preseason, but rookie Carl Lawson’s emergence as a dominant nickel pass rusher forced Smith into more of a hybrid tackle/end role.

The Bengals likely will let Smith test the market, but if he doesn’t find anyone willing to give him a longer deal, don’t close the door on him returning on a one-year contract.

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Cedric Peerman, running back

Peerman has value as a Pro Bowl special teams player, but the Bengals have younger options for the third running back spot with Brian Hill and Tra Carson.

The special teams struggled last year with Peerman out all season, so bringing him back on a one-year contract wouldn’t be a shock.

Pat Sims, defensive end

Sims lost his starting job to Andrew Billings and only played 26 percent of the defensive snaps. Rookie fourth-round pick Ryan Glasgow also played well.

There isn’t much room for a 35-year old run-stopping specialist.

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Eric Winston, offensive tackle

When the Bengals cut him prior to the 2017 season, no one came calling for the 12-year veteran.

The Bengals only brought him back as an emergency backup after Fisher went down. Winston ended up starting the season finale after the injuries continued to mount, but he’s likely played his last NFL game.

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