As you've undoubtedly heard by now, it's all but certain that the 2010 NFL season will go on without a salary cap. No salary cap also means no salary floor. If this happens long-term, it'd be Goodnight Irene for the Bengals' chances at a championship as long as Mike Brown ran the team. However, I'm of the belief that we don't have to worry about this. For all their posturing, the NFLPA knows that the salary cap system in place is good for both parties. After the 2010 season, whenever football is played again, it will be under a salary cap.
Thus, I'm operating under the assumption that 2011 and beyond will be under very similar cap rules as those that have been in place. A quick, very basic refresher. A player's salary counts only towards their cap number for the year it is paid, and can vary wildly by year. It can go from $10M one year to only $300k the next, depending on the structure of the contract. Thus, a player can have very, very different figures against the cap from year to year. Obviously, no player would allow their pay to be jerked around so violently every season. This is stemmed by two types of bonuses, signing and roster (they can be but are not always guaranteed). Signing bonuses are prorated over the life of the contract. For example, a 5 year contract with a $20M signing bonus means that $4M counts towards a player's cap figure every year of the deal. If a player is released at any point of those 5 years, the remaining bonus proration counts against the cap immediately. Roster bonuses, for the purpose of this article, function very similar to base salaries, at least in the way they are counted against the salary cap.
I follow the league as a whole daily, and I've yet to see any conclusive opinion on how exactly contracts signed in 2010 will count towards future salary caps. Will they be prorated as per usual? Will they work under a different set of rules? Nobody knows for sure, and nobody will until the next CBA is hammered out, which will be in March 2011 at the earliest.
What seems fairly obvious is that there will be no penalty for releasing players as there normally would be. For instance, if the Bengals were to release Lavernaues Coles under normal salary cap rules, they would take a large hit for the 2010. It's possible that the hit would be so large that it wouldn't be worth it to cut him. Without the salary cap, there is obviously no salary cap hit, and it is not a consideration. Strictly financial and performance issues must be taken into account. Without a significant restructuring of his deal, I'd release Coles. He's simply not worth what he'll be owed, even given the weakness at the position. Other than that, I can't think of another veteran on the roster who is making too much money and would be convenient to get rid of while there is no penalty for doing so. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, however.
Now, back to the fact that nobody knows how new contracts will be handled. Again, while noboody knows for sure the exact rules, it's pretty much agreed on that salaries paid in 2010 cannot count against future caps. Signing bonuses could count into future years, but base salaries and/or roster bonuses paid in 2010 probably will not.
This being the case, it seems to be that it'd be a great time to extend the contracts of young players who will help the team continue to be competitive in the long-term. To make their contracts extremely cap friendly, I'd give them large, fully guaranteed base salaries for the 2010 season. These would essentially function as signing bonuses, but would not impact the cap in the future as signing bonuses normally would.
For the players, the contract wouldn't differ from an extension they would have signed any other year. Same guaranteed money, same base salaries in future years, just different wording. Thus, the players would be open to signing an extension, just as they would be any other time
The one downside I could see from the team's perspective is cash on hand. I won't pretend to know how much liquid assets the team or family has on hand. This strategy would require more than usual, I'd estimate, but nothing totally out of reason for an NFL team.
The players I'd consider giving these contracts to are, in order: Jonathan Joseph, Leon Hall, and Cedric Benson. Again, like before, I'm sure I'm missing someone. I'd only be looking to extend young starters who I felt had the potential to be quality contributors for 4 or 5 more seasons.
As I said, I follow the NFL as a whole, not just the Bengals. I'm very eager to see how all teams, especially this one, handle the uncapped year. I have a feeling it won't be as big of a deal as most have made it out to be for 18 months or so. Two things I do know if the salary cap is gone for good: this post was pointless and Bengals fans are totally screwed.