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NFL free agency 2017: Zeitler ranked as top lineman, Whitworth close behind

The Bengals’ two big free agent linemen are sure to attract significant attention on the free agent market... if the team allows them to make it there.

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NFL: Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no question that Kevin Zeitler is one of the best offensive linemen hitting the open market this offseason.

With the Bengals unlikely to use the franchise tag or extend Zeitler before free agency begins, the five-year veteran will be one of the most coveted players who other teams get to pursue, and you can bet there will be plenty of teams interested.

Pro Football Focus actually has Zeitler at No. 1 atop their list of the 10 best free agent offensive linemen hitting the market:

1. Kevin Zeitler, G, Cincinnati Bengals

Zeitler may be just below the “elite” tier of guards, but not by much. He has earned a top-10 overall grade among guards in each of the last three seasons, and is pretty balanced in having success as both a run and pass blocker. Zeitler has allowed just one sack over the past two seasons, and recorded the fifth-highest pass-blocking efficiency among guards in 2016. At age 27, he likely has a whole contract’s worth of good years ahead of him, which gives him the edge over the next two players.

Zeitler, who just completed his fifth NFL season, has consistently been among the best right guards in football since being drafted out of Wisconsin in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Couple that with him turning just 27-years-old on March 8, and you’ve got a guy who’s going to get a contract that pays him $10-plus million annually for the next four to five years.

As if the thought of losing Zeitler is bad enough, the Bengals are also working feverishly to get Andrew Whitworth re-signed before he hits the open market in March. PFF has Whitworth ranked as their No. 3 linemen hitting free agency:

3. Andrew Whitworth, T, Cincinnati Bengals

At age 35, Whitworth may not be a long-term solution at this point. However, at worst, he can be an exceptional short-term answer for teams needing help at the tackle position. Whitworth has graded among the top-10 tackles for eight consecutive seasons, and his best play has actually come in recent years, as he’s ranked among the top-five tackles for the last four seasons. He remains one of the better pass-protecting left tackles, having allowed just 14 total QB pressures last season. Even though it may only be for a limited time, Whitworth could be a difference-maker for a playoff contender.

Whitworth’s age makes him a little less attractive than Zeitler, being that the 35-year-old left tackle probably has one or two more good years left in the tank. Still, teams are willing to overpay for just one good year. And that will be especially true if a team believes Whitworth can help elevate their franchise into playoff contention.

I would expect teams like the Buccaneers, Panthers and Seahawks to show interest in Whitworth, though the former two should be the ones that can afford a big-money offer for Whitworth (Tampa Bay and Carolina are in the top 10 of projected cap space, while Seattle is at No. 24).

Then it comes down to if Whitworth is willing to take a little more money from a different team, or if he’ll take what probably is a slightly lesser deal to remain in Cincinnati. The Bengals have been great at getting key players re-signed (Andy Dalton, A.J Green, Vontaze Burfict, Geno Atkins) by using the pitches of franchise stability and the team’s five-straight playoff berths. Neither of those pitches have as much weight now, so perhaps Whitworth and other key guys will be more willing to go elsewhere this offseason. Still, as long as the Bengals are willing to give Whitworth a deal worthy of his talent, you’d have to think he’ll re-sign in Cincinnati.