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Growing belief Kevin Zeitler will leave Bengals in free agency

It would be surprising to see the Bengals re-sign Kevin Zeitler when he hits free agency next month. So, hopefully, we’ll be surprised.

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Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

It’s starting to become the common belief in Cincinnati that the Bengals will lose right guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency.

In less than one month, on March 9, the NFL calendar will reset and players whose contracts ended with the 2016 season will officially be free to sign with new teams as of 4:00 p.m. ET.

Here’s a look at the Bengals players who are set to become free agents at that time:

Bengals 2017 free agents

Player Pos. 2016 Team Type Current APY Guarantees Status
Player Pos. 2016 Team Type Current APY Guarantees Status
Andrew Whitworth LT Bengals UFA $9,000,000 $2,000,000
Domata Peko 4-3 DT Bengals UFA $4,500,000 $4,400,000
Brandon LaFell WR Bengals UFA $2,500,000 $1,000,000
Dre Kirkpatrick CB Bengals UFA $2,155,749 $7,840,065
Karlos Dansby 4-3 OLB Bengals UFA $2,000,000 $700,000
Kevin Zeitler RG Bengals UFA $1,886,050 $6,125,446
Eric Winston RT Bengals UFA $1,090,000 $80,000
Cedric Peerman RB Bengals UFA $1,065,000 $250,000
Margus Hunt 4-3 DE Bengals UFA $917,775 $1,049,892
Wallace Gilberry 4-3 DE Bengals UFA $885,000 $0
Brandon Thompson 4-3 DT Bengals UFA $840,000 $50,000
Chykie Brown CB Bengals UFA $760,000 $0
Randy Bullock K Bengals UFA $675,000 $0 Re-Signed
T.J. Johnson C Bengals RFA $600,000 $0
Rex Burkhead RB Bengals UFA $565,550 $102,200

This week, both ESPN’s Katherine Terrell and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. expressed the opinion that the Bengals will not re-sign Zeitler.

Here’s what Terrell had to say:

The Bengals will lose one of their "big three" free agents this offseason.

Between cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, the Bengals are unlikely to pay them all to be on the roster next season. The expected casualty? Zeitler. Guards are getting higher contracts than ever in free agency lately, and the Bengals place a higher value at the tackle position. Another team will likely pay Zeitler more than Cincinnati would, and that means the Bengals could be looking for a new guard in April's draft.

Here’s what Dehner said:

I continue to feel confident Kevin Zeitler will be playing elsewhere in 2017. When Bengals free agency comes up, it always starts with Andrew Whitworth and usually skips over the 26-year-old guard. Rightfully so for Whitworth, who plays at a premium position and lives at the heart of the Bengals leadership group. As teams watch the Alex Mack acquisition at center help catapult the Falcons offense they’ll look to interior linemen on the market to do the same and Zeitler might be the No. 1 guard available. He’s about to break the bank. Like Max Montoya who came before him, the fact the Bengals never valued guard as a position worth paying top of the market dollar hangs like a black cloud. We’ll see as free agency ramps up next month, but we put a 45 percent chance on his return in our free agent piece when the season ended and I’d drop it to 30 today.

If the Bengals want to re-sign Zeitler, they could easily figure out how to afford re-signing all three of their top free agents. It’s really not a matter of what they can afford, it’s a matter of what they want to pay for and how they value varying positions. The Bengals have made it clear that they value offensive tackles over guards, and their decisions at cornerback prove they also value that position quite highly. I don’t subscribe to the belief that the 21st century Bengals are cheap and don’t agree with that being why the team could let Zeitler walk. If the Bengals let Zeitler walk, the explanation won’t be because Mike Brown is cheap.

Instead, I feel the Bengals’ front office has beliefs on how they want to spend their money, and paying a five figure annual salary to a guard, isn’t on their to-do list. The Bengals drafted Christian Westerman last year and if Zeitler does in fact leave, the team will add another guard in this year’s Draft. From there, the guards on the roster will duke it out for the right to start Week 1 of the 2017 season. The other two guards currently on the roster are Trey Hopkins and Alex Redmond who both spent 2016 on the practice squad.

While it’s unfortunate that the Bengals would Draft Zeitler in the first round and groom him for years, only to watch him leave in free agency, that’s more or less how the NFL works. You can’t keep everyone you Draft and sometimes, even a team’s best players leave in free agency.

Maybe the Bengals will surprise everyone and keep Zeitler in Cincinnati for the long-run. The Bengals already paid $7.5 million for him in 2016 on his fifth year option, so it's not like the team would be paying a significant amount more if they were to re-sign Zeitler. But again, I don’t believe this is about what they can afford, it’s about what they want to pay for the guard position. Spotract projects Zeitler's value in free agency at $11.6 million per year, for what that's worth. That type of salary would give him the second highest 2017 cap hit among all NFL guards.

And for what it’s worth, it seems like Zeitler’s wife is counting down the days.

Meanwhile, the couple is on what looks to be an incredible vacation in Bora Bora.

In love. With this guy and this place.

A photo posted by Sara Zeitler (@mrs_s_zeitler) on

Glad to have made it to Bora Bora. #vacation

A photo posted by Kevin Zeitler (@kzeit70) on

Letting Zeitler walk might not be what Bengals fans want, but it’s up to the team, not the fans, to make the right call here.