The Bengals’ effort to solidify their offensive line for the 2017 NFL season will be one of the more important tasks to accomplish during the course of the offseason.
With the impending free agency of two playmakers along Cincinnati’s line in Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth, evaluating alternative options will be something the Bengals are forced to do.
The struggles of second-year tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher have been well-documented, and while there’s potential for one or both players to improve during the offseason — Ogbuehi still hasn’t had the benefit of a full offseason in his NFL career — Cincinnati would be well-served to assume the team needs to add at least one more player at the tackle position, even in a scenario where Whitworth and/or Zeitler are retained.
Zeitler will likely command the largest salary among all free agent guards set to hit the market. Spotrac projects Zeitler's next contract will pay out $11.6 million per year, which would be the second highest average annual salary among all guards.
But do the Bengals value a guard as much as they value a player at a bookend position, such as an offensive tackle or even cornerback?
History says no. Philosophically, the Bengals like to build from the outside in. It’s the reason why the team seems to take a cornerback or offensive tackle in the first round of so many Drafts. It’s also why defensive ends like Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke were selected with early Draft picks, while interior defensive linemen like Geno Atkins and Andrew Billings get added in the later rounds. Sure, there are some exceptions. Zeitler, of course, was taken early. Defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson were both selected in the earlier rounds of their respective Drafts. But generally, Cincinnati operates with an outside-in philosophy.
With that in mind, I could understand Cincinnati letting Zeitler walk in free agency. It’s never easy to groom a player into a star only to watch him leave for greener pastures — Jones’ decision to move to the Motor City and join the Lions was devastating to most (if not all) Bengals fans. That includes people like myself who believed the decision was the right one to make at Jones’ asking price.
So in case you can’t tell by now, I expect the Bengals to lock up Whitworth for the next season or two, with Kirkpatrick signing a long-term extension and Zeitler leaving Cincinnati. Whitworth may be the most talented tackle on the market, but at his age (35), teams probably won’t be willing to shell out a ton of guaranteed money, even for a guy as talented as the Bengals’ tackle. Unless he gets a contract well above his market value (or feels slighted by the team in a major way), I can’t imagine the longtime Bengal moving his family elsewhere just for a few millions dollars more.
Kirkpatrick will get big money, but he’s one of many talented cornerbacks hitting the free agency market. According to Evan Silva’s free agency rankings, Kirkpatrick is the fifth-most valuable corner hitting the market behind A.J. Bouye, Trumaine Johnson, Stephon Gilmore, Morris Claiborne and Logan Ryan. Additionally, the depth among free agents at the cornerback position — Brandon Carr, Prince Amukamara, Kayvon Webster and several other players capable of starting will be available — could drive down Kirkpatrick’s free agency value.
Of course, there’s no surefire way to tell what a player is worth in free agency. Iloka’s five-year, $30 million deal seemed like highway robbery by the Bengals, and the contracts signed by Marvin Jones and Sanu seemed to be well above their perceived market value. But generally speaking, Kirkpatrick should be much easier to retain than Zeitler.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume the Bengals are able to lock up Kirkpatrick and one of the two top offensive linemen hitting free agency — pick your poison, it really doesn’t matter. If I’m the Bengals, I’m calling Andre Smith.
The longtime Bengal has familiarity with Cincinnati’s system (the team may have a new offensive coordinator, but Ken Zampese didn’t write a new playbook from scratch), a skill-set which suggests he could potentially kick into right guard should Zeitler walk and will likely come at a bargain bin price. Smith’s season-ending triceps injury was unfortunate, and it could potentially be a red flag big enough for the lineman to last until the second wave of free agency, when teams’ free agency signings don’t count toward compensatory picks.
It’s unclear what teams will pay for Smith’s services, but the tackle’s market value has plummeted from where it was last season, and either way, he could make a lot of sense for the Bengals. Smith signed a contract worth up to $3.5 million with the Vikings in 2016, $500,000 of which was guaranteed. He had a per game bonus, which he didn't get most of as he spent the majority of the season on Injured Reserve.
If Zeitler leaves in free agency, and the Bengals sign Smith in free agency, the team would have two openings on the right side (it’s unclear who will play right tackle in 2017) with four players (Ogbuehi, Fisher, Smith and Christian Westerman) to fill those roles. Though, it seems Ogbuehi is moving to left tackle and doesn’t want to swing back to the right, so we can likely rule him out of the right side discussion. Fisher is likely the front-runner for the starting right tackle job as of now. If Whitworth leaves, the Bengals would have two openings at the tackle positions, with Ogbuehi, Fisher and Smith to choose from, again, assuming Smith is brought back to town. Those scenarios also don’t take into account the potential re-signings of free agent linemen (Eric Winston is also a free agent and T.J. Johnson is a restricted free agent) or acquisition of additional players, either via the Draft or free agency. Losing Whitworth or Zeitler wouldn’t be ideal, but things could be worse in both scenarios.
Smith has lost some of his power and much more of his athleticism over the years, but he’s still an average-or-better run blocker. And while inconsistent in pass protection, the veteran can still hold his own to a degree. At the very worst, Smith would be a quality backup. At the best, he’d be an average starter, minus the early growing pains which can be had when adding external free agents.
Call me crazy, but I don’t hate the idea of bringing Smith back to Cincinnati.