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Bengals Exit Interview: Guard Kevin Zeitler

Kevin Zeitler figures to be part of the Bengals' future on the offensive line, but even that's not guaranteed with his deal expiring in 2017.

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Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals offensive line will be undergoing several changes in the coming years due to a variety of factors.

Andre Smith's impending free agency, Andrew Whitworth's age and Russell Bodine's shortcomings could lead to as many as three new starters along the line within the next two seasons. A fourth may be in the works with Kevin Zeitler now entering the final year of his deal, though the Bengals would be sorely mistaken to not make him a pivotal piece to the future of this line.

Zeitler, now entering his fifth NFL season, has slowly become one of the NFL's better guards during his tenure. This past season, Zeitler had a great season worthy of Pro Bowl consideration, though he didn't earn that honor. He finished in a tie for Pro Football Focus' 11th-ranked guard while starting in every game at right guard. He's only missed eight games through his first four seasons out of a possible 68 games (including the playoffs).

One of the guards Zeitler ranked ahead of was the same guy who the Bengals essentially passed on back in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Bengals were on the clock with Stanford's David DeCastro and Wisconsin's Zeitler on the board, though many viewed DeCastro as the top guard in that draft by a wide margin.

But the Bengals traded down before their first pick, allowing the Steelers to take DeCastro with the 24th pick. The Bengals would later take Zeitler with the 27th pick, and those two have remained linked ever since in the minds of many Bengals fans and followers. For the most part, Zeiter has enjoyed a better career in Cincinnati's system, validating the Bengals' decision to pass on DeCastro and grab Zeitler a few picks later in the draft.

The only question is, will Zeitler remain with the Bengals for the long term? His rookie contract is nearing expiration, and he's set to play 2016 under the fifth-year option picked up last season. He'll be paid $8 million this coming season, making him one of the highest-paid guards in football. Ironically, Zeitler is currently tied with DeCastro for the highest 2016 cap hit as of now.

With the Bengals offensive line possibly undergoing many changes in the near future, getting Zeitler locked up for the long-term is something the team needs to make a priority this offseason. This should only become a bigger priority if the team misses out on re-signing its big free agents this offseason like George Iloka, Marvin Jones and Adam Jones.

Losing those guys doesn't have to be all bad if the money saved with their departure is used to help re-sign guys like Zeitler. He's certainly earned the right to be in Cincinnati for the long term, so hopefully the Bengals make it happen.