The Bengals’ 2017 batch of free agents isn’t quite as problematic as 2016's free agent load, but there are a few notable names that pop out when trying to decide who should be the Bengals’ top extension priority this winter. The Bengals only have five starters coming up on the end of their contracts (Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko, Brandon LaFell, Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler). And then there are some key guys like Eric Winston who have started with the Bengals at some point due to issues with the primary starter. Regardless, there is plenty of debate as to which player the Bengals should place the highest priority on in free agency.
Everybody loves Whitworth. Why? Because he has given his heart and soul to the Bengals’ franchise for 11 years. Not only has he been arguably the Bengals’ best offensive lineman since Willie Anderson left in the 2008 offseason, but he has been an exemplary mentor to the young guys and a team leader who wasn’t afraid to step aside when Andy Dalton was ready to be the primary captain of the offense.
He is arguably the best all-around person on the Bengals' roster and still a very talented left tackle who has the versatility to move inside to guard if need be. His biggest drawback is the fact that he is 35-years-old. That said, age doesn’t typically affect linemen the way it does other positions, and his age hasn’t seemed to affect him to this point. So, given the Bengals’ lack of impressive depth at offensive tackle, re-signing him could be seen as an absolute must.
If Whitworth is the Bengals’ best offensive lineman, Zeitler is a close second. He has remained virtually unchallenged at the right guard position since he was drafted in 2012. He has yet to be elected to the Pro Bowl, but anyone who has paid attention to his performance and development over four knows he has deserved it more than once. This year, he's an alternate. He might not be quite as dominant as Whitworth just yet, but he is only 26 and has a long and prosperous career ahead of him. The Bengals absolutely do not want to lose him and would be wise to pay up.
Although he has a tendency to get burnt in coverage in extremely noticeable ways, the fact of the matter is Kirkpatrick has turned out to be absolutely critical to the Bengals’ defense over the years. It took him three seasons to become a regular starter, which was long, but is much more than can be said for the many other cornerbacks the Bengals have drafted in this decade. With Adam Jones clearly showing his age in 2016 and a bunch of unproven talent behind the two starters at the cornerback position, Kirkpatrick’s value to the Bengals is very high.
Go back to the beginning of the 2016 NFL season and try to tell me that Burkhead was going to turn out to potentially be one of the Bengals’ biggest free agent priorities in 2017. Chances are, I’d probably laugh and try to explain to you that, as the Bengals’ third string running back, he had far more chance of fizzling out this year and never being seen in the NFL again than getting re-signed by the Bengals for anything other than a veteran minimum contract. After that, if you went ahead and told me that near the end of the season, I would be talking about how he should replace Jeremy Hill on the depth chart, that is probably where the conversation would have ended. That's because I couldn’t have fathomed that as a legitimate possibility at the time.
But, another lackluster season from Jeremy Hill, a season-ending injury to Giovani Bernard, and an absolutely electrifying performance from Burkhead in a starting role against the NFL’s former No. 2 rushing defense, and that perspective has completely changed. Now, it seems that the player who can resurrect the Bengals’ virtually dead rushing game has been hiding under our noses this whole time, and we didn’t notice until his contract was about to run out. It’s hard to say that a reserve running back is going to be a major re-signing priority for the Bengals, but there are many who would argue that Burkhead has earned that distinction.
What do you think, Bengals fans? Should Whitworth, Zeitler, Kirkpatrick, Burkhead, or someone else be the Bengals’ biggest extension priority between now and March? Let us know your choice in the poll, and your thoughts in the comments!