The Bengals will have their work cut out for them this offseason when it comes to re-signing their key free agents.
The team may have just finished 2016 with a losing record, but some of the guys hitting the market were part of significant winning seasons through the years. Other teams want a piece of that, so expect them to come hard after several Bengals set to become unrestricted free agents.
That’s evident in Pro Football Focus’ ranking of the top 50 free agents this year. Coming in at No. 9 was none other than Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler, who continues to look like one of the best players hitting the market in March.
9. Kevin Zeitler, G, Cincinnati Bengals
The offensive lineman group in free agency is headed by Kevin Zeitler and T.J. Lang, who are both Pro-Bowl quality guards on the right side of 30. Zeitler is the more balanced of the two in terms of run blocking and pass protection, and is also two years younger, so he narrowly edges Lang as the best available lineman, but depending on the system you run, a team might easily view Lang as a better fit.
Zeitler has emerged as one of the league’s best guards in recent years, so it’s no surprise to see him considered an elite free agent this year as his rookie contract expires. The Bengals will certainly make an effort to re-sign him, but the expectation is he’ll command a contract that puts him out of Cincinnati’s price range. 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.
Also making PFF’s ranking was left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who came in at #16 among the top 50.
16. Andrew Whitworth, T, Cincinnati Bengals
The only thing keeping Whitworth this low on the list is his age (35). Despite those advanced years, he remains one of the league’s best offensive tackles, surrendering 14 total QB pressures over the 2016 season. The Bengals have likely learned over the season that they can’t allow him to hit free agency, but if he does, he will have no shortage of suitors. As long as you accept that you’re not in it for the long haul given his age, Whitworth is one of the best potential short-term upgrades slated to hit the market.
Like Zeitler, Whitworth is considered one of the best at his position, but the difference in age (35 vs Zeitler at 26) is why the contracts they command will look vastly different. Whitworth should get a nice payday for 2017, but it’s hard to envision him getting a big multi-year deal since he’ll be 36 when the 2018 season begins, which is pretty unheard of for a starting lineman.
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.
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.
The same is also true in the secondary with Dre Kirkpatrick, who just snuck into PFF’s ranking.
47. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Dre Kirkpatrick has improved dramatically, but has still only really been passable as a starting corner for the Bengals. What makes him interesting, though, is that Cincinnati’s scheme doesn’t really play to his strengths, and he may prove to be a far more effective cover corner in a scheme that operates more pure man coverage. This past season, he allowed just 10.0 yards per reception and a passer rating of 68.9 when targeted. Both were the best marks of his career.
Kirkpatrick became a solid starting cornerback in 2016 after struggling to climb the depth chart for three years and then having a rocky 2015 season, his first year as a starter. With such a big premium on this position, Kirkpatrick is bound to land a big-money deal this offseason, though he’s a guy Cincinnati has a good chance of keeping.
Not making PFF’s top 50 were linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive tackle Domata Peko, and running back Rex Burkhead, all of whom are also set to hit the free agent market in March.