With 2017 free agency less than a year away, Bengal fans are already nervous about the prospects of losing star offensive guard, Kevin Zeitler. In 2015, Cincinnati had one of the best offensive lines in football. With Andrew Whitworth far and away the top player on the Bengals' offensive line, Zeitler has a case to make as the next-best player. So is there even a scenario in which the Bengals let one of their top offensive linemen walk in free agency?
The financial implication of having to pay Zeitler millions after paying Clint Boling when he hit free agency last year, scares fans, as most don't believe the Bengals are willing to allocate more money to the guard position. But contrary to popular belief, Cincinnati may be willing to do so. It's important to remember that when the Bengals paid Boling, they already knew a Zeitler extension would be something that needed to be worked out in 2016.
The good news for the Bengals is, they have the cap space to pull off a Zeitler extension. I'll explain.
Bengals have cap space for future Zeitler extension. Could also give Whitworth an extra year or 2 if they want. pic.twitter.com/w5HnHfICYz— Connor Howe (@HoweNFL) June 1, 2016
Assuming Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher take over at the tackle spots after the 2016 season, the Bengals' offensive line payroll significantly drops off after the upcoming season. Though Boling has a contract that will pay him an increasing sum each season, the millions they'll be saving by either letting Whitworth walk (around six or seven million dollars per season) or holding onto him as a reserve tackle (around three or four million dollars per season) leaves space for a Zeitler extension.
And as the Bengals have done with past contracts, like the Vontaze Burfict extension, they'll likely frontload Zeitler's extension, taking a big cap hit in 2017 in order to lower his yearly cap hit moving forward. And because Zeitler has consistently proven to be durable, the team likely wouldn't have an issue in doing so. As long as Cincinnati front loads Zeitler's contract, giving him a deal that's worth somewhere between $6-7 million (or potentially up to $8 million) in average yearly salary would be more than fair.
The Bengals won't be alone in paying interior linemen big money. The Vikings pay Alex Boone and Brandon Fusco a combined $11.55 million in average yearly salary. The Raiders pay Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson a combined $20.6 million in average yearly salary. Paying offensive linemen has been more and more popular among NFL clubs. In 2015, the Bengals offensive line had a collective cap hit of $25.6 million, which ranked third in the NFL. But despite the Bengals offensive line having a cap hit of nearly $25.8 million 2016, Cincinnati will rank 11th among NFL clubs.
Ultimately, the average yearly salary numbers don't matter nearly as much as the years in which Cincinnati's players are taking the biggest cap hits. Katie Blackburn, Duke Tobin and the rest of Cincinnati's front office staff have done a great job of ensuring the team can pay its top players. Because Zeitler has been a quality player and has proven durable, there's no reason to anticipate the Bengals won't be able to get a deal done with their star offensive guard if the asking price is reasonable.