The Bengals are facing one of their biggest free agent challenges to date: Getting both of their two best offensive linemen re-signed in the same offseason.
The team has been lucky enough to avoid having two critical starters on the same unit become free agents in the same offseason, especially since Andrew Whitworth has typically signed extensions before the year he was set to hit free agency.
However, not only is the stud left tackle becoming a free agent, but rising star Kevin Zeitler is as well. Zeitler has quietly become one of the NFL’s best guards, and he’s primed for a massive deal this offseason.
Whitworth will get a nice payday, though his age will likely keep it from being anything more than a one or two-year deal. Still, I would venture to guess both players combine to make around $20-plus million in 2017.
Even so, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell thinks re-signing both of them should be the No. 1 priority for the Bengals this offseason.
Whitworth and Zeitler were the best parts of the Cincinnati offensive line last year, and they're both unrestricted free agents. The Bengals unquestionably drafted Ogbuehi to be their left tackle of the future and take over for the 35-year-old Whitworth. So far, it hasn't worked. It's dangerous to assume Whitworth will continue to play like an upper-echelon left tackle, but right now, the Bengals don't really have much of a choice but to believe. The Bengals might not want to commit a lot of money to guards after signing Clint Boling to an extension, but unless they think Fisher will settle inside, there isn't an obvious replacement for Zeitler on the roster.
Barnwell went through the entire AFC North and ranked the five biggest moves each team needs to make, and it’s no surprise keeping those two is his top thing for Cincinnati to do.
After getting those two re-signed, Barnwell thinks the next biggest move for Cincinnati to make is re-signing cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
The Bengals have two first-rounders already at cornerback in Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson III, but Dennard has struggled mightily early in his career, while Jackson missed his entire rookie year. Marvin Lewis also loves to bring his corners along slowly and plays in a division with the Steelers, so the Bengals need all the cornerbacks they can get. Kirkpatrick has been inconsistent, but he also has been the best cornerback the Bengals have had the past two seasons. They might also move on from Adam Jones, who was charged with felony harassment this offseason. Cutting Jones would free $6.3 million in cap space, though the Bengals already have $45 million in room heading into the offseason.
Barnwell is spot on as to why keeping Kirkpatrick is so critical. He’s been very erratic throughout his career, but his importance to this team is greatly magnified with so many question marks surrounding the other corners, including Adam Jones, who probably will either be cut or be suspended for multiple games next season. That’s why having a veteran presence like Kirkpatrick return is so key.
As for the next move to make, re-signing Tyler Eifert is what Barnwell thinks is the next biggest priority, though the injury concerns make it hard to project what his next contract may look like.
The closest comparison to Eifert would be Travis Kelce, who has stayed relatively healthy while having the specter of rookie-year microfracture surgery hanging over his future. Kelce signed a five-year, $46.8 million deal with the Chiefs before his fourth season. That included $21 million in new money over the first three years of his contract. Eifert likely will be looking for something in that range.
The Bengals would pay $28 million or so over that time frame if they went year-to-year with Eifert while losing the ability to use the franchise tag on someone else. It's difficult to commit long term to a player with Eifert's injury history, but Cincinnati really has no choice but to give him two guaranteed years as part of a multiyear deal.
There is no question the Bengals should work to lock up Eifert long term, but I don’t think it’s that big of a priority. The Bengals can just slap the franchise tag on him next year and pay him around $9 million, a large number, but still just a one-year commitment to a player who’s not shown he can stay healthy for a full season. Committing anything more seems unwise until Eifert shows he can be more durable.
Up next on Barnwell’s list is addressing a defensive line that has struggled to produce outside of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
In a draft that seems relatively deep with contributors up front, the Bengals are probably best using their draft resources on pieces along the defensive line. Both starting defensive tackle Domata Peko and rotation lineman Margus Hunt are free agents, and though the Bengals can still bring either one back, it's probably time to start refreshing the well behind the big three of Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. With Cincinnati expected to pocket four compensatory picks in this year's draft, the Bengals can replenish some of the weaker spots on their roster.
We’ve hit on this a ton this offseason, but it’s worth repeating how important upgrading the defensive line will be critical to a bounceback 2017 season. If Cincinnati rolls out the same unit as last year, we probably should expect similar results from the defense, which failed to make enough game-changing plays in a season marred by one-score defeats.
Barnwell thinks the final thing on Cincinnati's to-do list should be targeting some of the wide receivers released by other teams, just like the Bengals did last year when they signed Brandon LaFell after the Patriots released him. He even thinks Jets receiver Brandon Marshall could be a name to watch for, and the thought of him paired with A.J. Green should have fans salivating and defenses trembling.
Perhaps. Danny Amendola, Mike Wallace and Torrey Smith could all be cap casualties, but the one to look out for is the same player I suggested might make sense for the Ravens: Brandon Marshall. The Bengals have taken plenty of chances on players who have worn out their welcomes in previous destinations, and Marshall would be a huge upgrade over Brandon LaFell. If the Jets choose to move on from Marshall after two seasons, the Bengals could justify making a rare plunge into the free-agent market.
All said, I think these five priorities are spot on, though I would put ‘upgrade the running back position’ higher on this list than getting Eifert re-signed or finding another free agent. Those latter two items can take care of themselves thanks to younger guys waiting in the wings at receiver and then using the tag next year on Eifert.
However, the running back situation isn’t getting better without another guy coming in. Re-signing Rex Burkhead would be nice, but it’s hard to see him being the upgrade Cincinnati needs after he rarely even saw the field over his first four seasons.