The NFL offseason is a time for wild speculation about the events to come in the following months. For Bengals fans, there’s perhaps no greater nightmare scenario than this: a world where Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, and Dre Kirkpatrick all find new homes for 2017 and don’t re-sign with the Bengals. Should this come to pass, the team will have to move forward, but how exactly would the Bengals mold the roster with the loss of three of their impact players? Let’s break it down on a case-by-case basis for each player.
The Bengals’ mainstay at left tackle for years, the team would not only be losing one of its most productive players, but a leader and face of the franchise if Whitworth were to leave the team. I personally find Big Whit to be the most unlikely player to move elsewhere, largely because of his tenure, high level of play, and the Bengals’ need for his talents. I also have a hard time picturing that at 35-years-old, he would want to pack up and move his family. But let’s say the Bengals get stingy and try to low ball the All-Pro offensive tackle and he has no choice but to join another franchise. Then what?
The Bengals really can’t afford to spend more picks on offensive tackles in the draft, at least not yet. Jake Fisher played well at times (and terrible at other times), and is likely on track to compete for a starting spot at right tackle during 2017 training camp. Former first rounder Cedric Ogbuehi was noticeably worse than Fisher in 2016, even though he was given the right tackle job to lose (which he did). But Ogbuehi is a natural fit for left tackle, and not a fit for a typically more aggressive right side. He should be better on the blind side, catching more speed rushers than power, but he still isn’t ready to start by any stretch of the imagination. He would do well to have another year learning and watching behind Whitworth. So should Whitworth not be around, the Bengals would likely need to dip into free agency to at least find a bridge starter while Ogbuehi continues to mature. Some of the more notable names would be Matt Kalil from Minnesota and Riley Reiff from Detroit.
In short: Dip into free agency to find an immediate starter while continuing to groom and turn around Cedric Ogbuehi.
While it’s tough to understand why the team would let its best young offensive lineman walk in free agency, reports are starting to indicate that’s exactly what we’re going to see happen. Clint Boling will continue to be a solid contributor at left guard, but there’s no heir apparent for Kevin on the right side. The Bengals likely don’t have confidence in 2016 draft pick Christian Westerman to come in as a starter, since he was inactive for 15 games last season and didn’t play in the one game for which he was active. Even when the Bengals needed a reserve guard in 2016, the team opted for backup center T.J. Johnson to take over in Week 17 against the Ravens.
If Zeitler departs, there are multiple options for the Bengals to pursue - both in free agency and the draft. In terms of free agency, they could opt for another young and solid player in Chance Warmack of the Titans. They could also take a chance on a proven veteran in Green Bay’s T.J. Lang. Should free agency not be an option the Bengals want to explore, there are multiple offensive guards that the team could target in the draft. The Bengals will likely want to take an impact player in the first round, but there are plenty of choices in rounds two and three that could prove fruitful. In particular, Pitt’s Dorian Johnson and Temple’s Dion Dawkins could be nice additions to the Bengals’ offensive line. Johnson in particular is a nice fit for the Bengals offense as he’s more of a mauler guard compared to Dawkins who played in a spread attack at Temple.
In short: The team is able to go a number of different directions, with multiple good options in the draft as well as free agency.
While he had a slow to his career start due to injuries, Kirkpatrick has developed into an extremely capable corner, who I believe is really underrated - even by Bengals fans. Not many corners in the NFL are capable of matching up with Antonio Brown and have success, but Kirkpatrick continues to do it time and time again. Losing Kirkpatrick now, when he’s finally come into his own as a really good boundary corner, would be an immense loss to the team. But if there’s a position at which the Bengals are prepared to replace talent, it’s cornerback.
Some may not believe it, as fans will quickly point out that William Jackson III hasn’t played a down yet, and Darqueze Dennard has struggled to find playing time so far. You’d be right about that, but that’s not the entire story. Since coming to Cincinnati, Dennard has largely been limited to working out of the slot, a position he wasn’t good at even in college. Dennard is a boundary corner, but snaps are hard to come by when Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick are ahead of you on the depth chart (and Leon Hall and Terence Newman before that. Luckily, Josh Shaw has proven to be an excellent slot corner who could hold down the role for quite some time for the team. Jones is also going to be 34 in September, meaning his days are numbered in the NFL. If Kirkpatrick leaves, the Bengals could draft a defensive back or two in later rounds for depth, but I truly believe the team could have a successful secondary with Dennard and Jackson on the boundaries and Shaw in the slot. It would be nice to keep Kirkpatrick around, but the Bengals could definitely survive without him.
In short: The Bengals have plenty of talented boundary corners who haven’t yet received an opportunity. There are suitable replacements on the roster already without needing to dip into free agency or the Draft.