It’s no secret that the Bengals’ offensive line was poor in 2016. At one point, the Bengals were consistently allowing more sacks than nearly every other team in the NFL. They ranked among the bottom three in terms of sacks allowed through most of the season before improving near the end and finishing as only the seventh worst (41 sacks allowed). However, as bad as the offensive line was in 2016, the Bengals still had two very good linemen in an otherwise awful group. Unfortunately, both are free agents this offseason. We already discussed whether or not the team should bring back Andrew Whitworth (they should), so now it is time to discuss Kevin Zeitler.
With how poorly various players at the right tackle position performed in 2016, Zeitler holding down the right guard position was absolutely essential. Heading into 2017, losing Zeitler would be an absolute nightmare for a Bengals’ offensive line that looks to be in a state of turmoil. Hopefully Whitworth will be back, but even then, he’s only one guy and he’s already 35-years-old. The Bengals are almost certainly going to make an effort to re-sign him. But, there’s no guarantee he remains in Cincinnati and whatever ends up happening, the negotiation could turn out to be one of the most important events of the Bengals’ offseason.
72 games played, 71 games started: one tackle
2016 season stats
16 games played, 16 games started (1,086 snaps played)
Case against re-signing Zeitler
It would be ridiculous to suggest there might be some reason the Bengals do not want Zeitler to return in 2017. He is an absolutely essential member of the offensive line. The team would be much worse without him. Because of that, he will demand a very substantial contract from the team who signs him in 2017. Take Alex Mack, for example, who received a $45,000,000 contract over five years with the Atlanta Falcons in the 2016 offseason after foregoing the rest of his contract with the Cleveland Browns. David DeCastro similarly signed a 5 year, $50,000,000 contract with the Steelers last offseason.
The Bengals likely won’t want to pay a guard that much, even though he’s a great player and a staple on offense. Teams will jump through hoops if given the opportunity to add Zeitler to their roster, so if the Bengals aren’t willing to pay up, many other teams will jump at the opportunity.
Argument for re-signing Zeitler
There is no doubt in my mind Zeitler is the most important free agent the Bengals will deal with this offseason. If re-signing Zeitler means unfortunately having to part ways with some of the other high-profile free agents on the team, that is just the sacrifice the Bengals are going to have to make.
Right now, the Bengals are expected to have approximately $44 million in cap space to play with for 2017. That should be more than enough money to pay Zeitler and entice him to come back in 2017. The Bengals do need to keep some space available so they can sign other internal and external free agents as well as their 11 anticipated draft picks, but Zeitler should be the top priority.
Zeitler’s situation right now is similar to that of Eric Steinbach, who spent four impressive years with the Bengals. Like Zeitler, he was the the primary starter every year he was with the team. Due to an abundance of solid guards at the time, he never made a Pro Bowl despite being known as a relentless hard worker and one of the best young guards in the league. Unfortunately, that hype was enough for the Cleveland Browns to give him a $49.5 million contract when he hit free agency. He went on to make the Pro Bowl in 2007 and consistently held down the starting guard position before becoming a cap casualty after 2010. Zeitler could become another departed guard for the Bengals if the team doesn’t make a sufficient effort and fork over the necessary money to re-sign him.
Priority to re-sign: High