They may have just finished 2016 with a losing record, but some of the guys hitting the market were part of significant winning season over the years. Other teams want a piece of that, so expect them to come hard after several Bengals set to hit the open market in March.
That’s evident in ESPN’s ranking of the top 50 free agents this year. Coming in among the top 25 guys were left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler.
16. Kevin Zeitler, OG, Cincinnati Bengals
Zeitler, one of the best guards in the league, figures to get between $8 million and $10 million per year.
24. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Cincinnati Bengals
Whitworth seems to be getting better as he gets older. At 35, he ranks among the best left tackles in football.
Not making the top 50 were cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, defensive tackle Domata Peko, or running back Rex Burkhead. One would think Kirkpatrick would have cracked the list, but not so.
There’s no denying Zeitler is among top free agents though. He’s been a borderline Pro Bowl guard for much of his career, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue at his current level of play for many more years to come.
That’s why Zeitler also made NFL.com’s list of the top 25 NFL free agents.
Whitworth as an honorable mention on that list and while he is easily one of the best free agents in terms of his current ability, his age is why he’s not ranked higher on the top free agency lists circulating. Whitworth is 35 and will turn 36 during the 2017 NFL season.
Guys like Zeitler have value in the short and long-term. Whitworth no longer has the latter, though you can bet re-signing him is at or near the top of Cincinnati’s offseason to-do list.
All said, these lists only reinforce the belief that Zeitler will be one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason, not to mention the best guard to hit the market. I’d expect him to get something in the neighborhood of the 5-year, $58-million contract that the Raiders gave Kelechi Osemele last offseason.
It probably won’t be quite that much, but it shouldn’t be too much less either. I don’t see Cincinnati being the team to give him that deal, unfortunately. Their best chance to re-sign Zeitler is with the franchise tag, though they’ll probably let him test the market and see what happens.
The Bengals absolutely need to get at least one of these two lineman back next season. They were the two best players on the offensive line in 2016, a year in which we saw how much the absence of one former starter can impact the line.