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Comparing Kevin Zeitler’s 2017 free agency to Jonathan Joseph’s in 2011

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The Bengals can’t afford to repeat past mistakes and let go of key young players. They should have learned that lesson with Jonathan Joseph and the team can’t afford to let one of the NFL’s best guards walk away.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

As we approach February, the Bengals’ offseason priorities are pretty clear. The team needs to retain one of their young stars entering free agency in Kevin Zeitler, just as they had to back in 2011 when cornerback Johnathan Joseph hit the market. The two players’ free agent statuses aren’t identical, but they do have a lot in common.

Zeitler was drafted by the Bengals in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft and has started since day one in Cincinnati. He’s become one of the best guards in the league and will be the hottest name on the market among offensive linemen. Many teams will try to pry him away from Cincinnati if he doesn’t get re-signed before March 9, and the Bengals appear reluctant to pay him top money, per Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com:

Now, Zeitler already made a bit more than $8 million in 2016, and Boling’s cap hit for 2017 will still be under $5 million, which makes him only the 10th most expensive left guard in the league. The Bengals can afford every single one of their three premium free agents: Zeitler, Whitworth and Kirkpatrick, as per overthecap.com they should have about $44.6 million in cap space next season.

But this article is not about money. The Bengals could be parting ways with a first-round pick who they helped develop into a very good player at his position, seemingly because they’ve already invested in somebody else on the opposite side. I hate this idea that you can’t invest too much in specific positions. Zeitler would probably command around $10 million per season, so we’re talking about an amount close to what they were already paying in 2016, and the rest of the line is filled with two rookie contracts and a veteran left tackle, who also needs to be re-signed but shouldn’t cost too much more than he made last season.

That wasn’t exactly the case with Joseph when he elected to go down South to Houston, but if the Bengals want to make good on their philosophy of drafting and developing, they must retain Zeitler. The team can’t afford to lose one of its best players at a position of need. Other teams find ways to open up money for their good players, they don’t just let go of key pieces without a say.

Joseph was also a first-round pick who turned into a pretty good cornerback with the Bengals, and even though the team made him two offers during the lockout offseason, he ended up signing with the Texans for big money while calling the Bengals’ franchise cheap on his way out. Joseph got close to $50 million, but delivered in big way, going to the Pro Bowl twice and being named to the All-Pro second team once.

He’s also played pretty well against his former employer, including two interceptions in two playoffs games against the Bengals. Even now, at age 32, Joseph has played very well for one of the top defenses in the NFL, although he failed to have an interception in 2016 for the first time since his rookie season.

Mike Zimmer wasn’t happy to see him leave, as the Bengals tried to replace him with free agent Nate Clemens, second-year player Brandon Ghee, Kelly Jennings who came from Seattle via trade, and Adam Jones, who not only came with a heavy bag, but also ended the 2010 season on Injured Reserve. Leon Hall, Joseph’s former partner in crime, would tear his Achilles tendon later in the year. The secondary went from being number five with both Hall and Joseph to number 12 in the league. They got Jones and Terence Newman to play well during their time in Cincinnati, but the team has used three first-round picks in cornerbacks since 2012. Maybe one of those picks could have been a defensive end to help improve that position.

It is clear that the Bengals wanted Joseph back, but clearly not at the price the Texans were ready to pay for a top cornerback. I’m sure they also want to keep Zeitler, as he’s the best young lineman they have and no team can afford to lose its better players. Will the Bengals be ready to pay Zeitler the money he deserves?

Joseph plays cornerback, which made him more appealing, as it’s seen as a position of need by pretty much every team. With him gone, Cincinnati went to the 2012 Draft and picked Kirkpatrick in the first round. They shouldn’t necessarily regret that move, but with Joseph on board they wouldn’t have needed to draft by necessity.

Zeitler plays guard, and most fans don’t see the inside linemen as important as the tackles. But number 68 is one of the best at the position and it’s not like the team has a clear replacement ready. Letting him go would open up another hole in an offensive line that is already struggling with Russell Bodine and Cedric Ogbuehi disappointing so far in their respective careers.

Every team should try their best to keep their best players. The Bengals tried hard last season with Marvin Jones Jr., but he went to Detroit in search of a bigger role. With Zeitler, it seems Cincinnati is taking the same route as they did with Joseph back in 2011, which would be a blow to their offense.

It is true that you can’t keep everybody, but the Bengals are in pretty good shape cap wise. The Bengals paid Zeitler more than $8 million in 2016, if three to four more million are going to hurt them that much, they could cut Rey Maualuga with no dead money involved and save more than $3 million, easy.

The Bengals need to contend now, when they have the large majority of weapons in place to do so, and Big Z is the kind of young player entering his prime that every contender should be trying to lock up for many years.