With all of the talk about the unrestricted free agents the Bengals had to deal with this year, not many people are looking ahead and talking about players with contracts expiring next year. The Bengals have a few players who are simply too good to put off thinking about signing until 2017. Hopefully, they make an effort to re-sign most of their key players, but here's a few who they should work out a deal with sooner rather than later:
Despite being the No. 2 running back on the depth chart, Bernard is one of the most important weapons on the Bengals' offense. Last year, he only started a single game, but still managed to put up a combined 1,202 rushing and receiving yards, two touchdowns, and 199 total touches (averaging roughly 6.1 yards per touch). Were it not for a now illegal hit in the playoffs from Ryan Shazier, he would have only had a single fumble on the year, as opposed to starter Jeremy Hill's four.
The Bengals drafted Bernard in 2012 with a pick they received for Carson Palmer and, despite handing his starting job to Hill in 2014, the pick has paid dividends. Given Hill's well documented struggles in 2015, it would be a shame if the Bengals lost an offensive weapon of Bernard's caliber who managed to keep the running back position effective even in the absence of high-end production from the starter. Not to mention, there's a good chance he'll see dollar signs and opportunity elsewhere if he's allowed to hit free agency next year.
Zeitler is arguably the most important member of the Bengals' offensive line. As far as last year's starters go, Andrew Whitworth is 34-years-old, Russell Bodine is doing the Bengals no favors, Andre Smith is gone, and Clint Boling is good but not quite at Zeitler's level.
Part of Zeitler's prowess last year was his ability to protect the quarterback, not allowing a single sack all season. He was the only right guard in the NFL with at least 500 pass blocks to accomplish that feat, according to PFF. At 26-years-old, it would be a shame for the Bengals to lose such a talented right guard.
This offseason, the Bengals will likely make the easy decision to pick up the fifth year option on Tyler Eifert's rookie deal without having to actually come to terms on a new contract. You might remember a similar situation with A.J. Green, before he signed his massive contract that keeps him with the team through 2019. As the NFL's leader in receiving touchdowns for most of 2015, before getting hurt near the end of the season, you'd really hope the Bengals do everything they can to bring Eifert back. And it's safe to assume they will. It's possible that as was the case with Green, the Bengals pick up Eifert's fifth year option, but then extend him before they actually have to pay him that salary.
As the Bengals prepare to head into 2016 without the services of dynamic free safety Reggie Nelson, who has still yet to be signed, Shawn Williams is preparing to fill the starting role. If he performs well, the Bengals will probably have to pay him a ton of money, like they did with George Iloka, just to keep him from signing with another team next year.
That's why they should re-sign him now. Even if they pay him a bit more than his current market value to keep him around, it's still likely to be significantly less than what he could make on the open market next year. Of course, there's always the chance that he fails to convince the coaches that he's starting material in training camp or completely bombs over the course of the season. But, he's played well in his few in-game opportunities. If you're making your bets, expecting Shawn Williams to play well as a starter seems like a pretty safe one.
Peko has been an important player on the Bengals' roster for a decade, as well as a 16-game starter every year since 2007, save for five games missed in 2009 due to a knee injury. There was talk about whether or not the Bengals should move on after the lackluster year he put up in 2014, recording only 28 tackles and a single sack, despite taking up $5.9 million in cap space.
However, he played much better in 2015. His tackle numbers were down with only 17, but he produced a career best 5 sacks and even managed to bat down a pass up the middle. It certainly helped that Geno Atkins returned to his high-end form last year, but Peko managed to prove that he's still an effective defensive tackle for the team. He's only expected to take up roughly $3.7 million in cap space next year, which is about right for his level of production.
Peko is 31 now and will be 32 in November. The Bengals should definitely be thinking about the future at defensive tackle in the draft. But, he'd be a great veteran presence on the team going forward for one final victory lap.
Honorable Mention: Andrew Whitworth
The Bengals' prolific left tackle has been with the team for a decade, like Peko, but also entered the league at an older age (24) than Peko (22). The Bengals love Whitworth, and they should, he's been a dominant force along the Bengals' offensive line and a reason why the line has been as good as it has over the past decade. His contract extension negotiations took a bit longer than both parties were hoping for at the beginning of the season, but a deal did eventually get done to keep Whitworth in Cincinnati through the 2016 season.
Whitworth turned 34 in December and will be pushing 36 at the beginning of the 2017 season. With two young offensive tackles drafted in the first two rounds of last year's draft, is it really worth bringing him back again after this season? As long as he continues to produce at a Pro Bowl level, you've got to ask why not. Still, at his age, you need to consider the Bengals are thinking about moving on soon. If they do reach a deal with him, that would be great. But, you can understand why they might want to wait to see how he performs in 2016.