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Evaluating importance of Bengals extending Kevin Zeitler's contract

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The Bengals have had a busy offseason thus far, but there's more work to do before they get to the regular season. Before Week 1 arrives, the team would be wise to execute a contract extension for right guard Kevin Zeitler.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

$13,694,901.

That is the amount of cap space the Bengals currently have, per Over The Cap. It's a number that Cincinnati's front office has carefully managed over the course of the past few months, and their arrival at such a figure is no accident. However, it should look slightly different before the season in September.

Five projected Week 1 starters, George IlokaVincent ReyShawn Williams, Adam Jones and Giovani Bernard, have received contract extensions or were re-signed so far this offseason, and you could easily make the case that the Bengals still haven't dealt with their most important impending free agent.

If it wasn't obvious I'm referring to right guard Kevin Zeitler.

After resigning left guard Clint Boling last offseason, the team took the first step in realizing that in today's NFL, retaining quality guard play is more important than ever. And the Bengals didn't showcase any patience in regards to using Zeitler's fifth year option last offseason as well.

However, with no extension just yet for the four-year starter, Zeitler's long term future with Cincinnati has to be classified as questionable. And with the selection of Arizona State guard Christian Westerman in this year's NFL Draft, you have to at least wonder how much time Zeitler has left in Cincinnati.

If the sentiment is that Zeitler will be out of their price range, it is not only a disappointing outlook, but also an incorrect one, for a couple of reasons.

Need for Continuity

This one is rather obvious. The Bengals offensive line is known as one of, if not the biggest strength of the team. After all, the line was just ranked the fourth best unit in all of football by ESPN. The line has a history of investing high draft capital and salary cap money into the position group. And with their leader Andrew Whitworth's contract expiring at the end of the 2016 season, Zeitler could arguably be their best o-lineman moving forward.

But beyond this, maybe the biggest mentality the team preaches is continuity within the organization. Look no further than how many head coaches have reigned over Cincinnati football this century. Whether or not a player or coach is worthy of being brought back, the Bengals show more consistency than nearly any other team. The Bengals will always prioritize keeping together the group over replacing pieces to the puzzle.

So why would they abandon this strategy in the right circumstances? They shouldn't.

Zeitler is easily one of the best young guards in the game. Coming out of Wisconsin and the ground and pound attack they're known for, he came into the league with professional-ready strength and was already accustomed to power concepts. But his growth as a pass protector throughout his first years has been wonderful. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, he was the only right guard last year to play 500 snaps and not allow a sack. That's a stat that can't be skewed.

The question isn't if Zeitler has earned a healthy second contract, the question is if it's smart for the Bengals to pay top dollar for both of their starting guards. 10 years ago this wouldn't have been a conversation, but 10 years ago, the NFL was a much different league.

Value of the Position

Worth is an arbitrary term if nothing else. In the grand scheme of things, what something is worth is based on how much someone is willing to pay, but someone who pays $50 for a gallon of milk is still be subjected to criticism, right?

For the 2016 NFL season, the average yearly salary for the top 10 most expensive "new money" contracts for right guards is just under $5.9 million. In relation to the seemingly ludicrous contracts we see on a yearly basis in the NFL, this number seems rather minuscule. But it is on the rise as is the importance of having quality guards along your offensive line.

And while inflation is the primary denominator in the alteration of worth, the value of solid guard play in the NFL can credit its rise to more than just the natural cycle of the economy.

The pro-style offense is evolving quicker than we've ever seen. It is much more pass oriented and reliant on short and quick plays, which means that quarterbacks are getting the ball out of their hands faster than ever. As this evolution progresses, the value of edge rushers diminishes in comparison to the value of interior rushers. It's pretty obvious for quarterbacks everywhere that pockets collapse quicker when the pressure comes from the middle because there's no way to avoid it.

In order to provide a proper counter to such a fast paced offense, defenses evolve as quickly and as often as offenses dictate. How do you stop a three step drop? You get guys who can quickly penetrate up the middle. While the sack kings still lineup on the edge, four interior lineman eclipsed the double digit sack mark in 2015, one more than 2014 and 2013 had combined. It's a slow growth, but it's becoming a noticeable one.

So, how do you continue to counter the growing interior pass rush movement, while simultaneously having a less than reliable center?

Retaining great guards, that's how.

Make no mistake, the Bengals are in the process of making sure Zeitler's future resides in Cincinnati. He's one of their best young core pieces and extending him would be a continuation of their draft, develop and retain mindset. There is plenty of cap space for a deal to get done, and there should be mutual interest from Zeitler's camp.

But in all this reassurance, this is a deal that simply can't be prohibited from a difference in financial priorities. The Bengals should be more than ready to reward Zeitler with a deal that aligns him with the highest paid right guards in the game. Because at the end of these discussions, their biggest investment, also known as Andy Dalton, will be directly impacted on either side of the spectrum. We're watching their window for success, now is not the time to be frugal.