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Bengals pass on NFL franchise tag as deadline passes

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The Bengals didn’t want to play tag with Kevin Zeitler, Dre Kirkpatrick or Andrew Whitworth.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

As expected, the Bengals will not be using the franchise tag this year.

The deadline to do so came and went on Wednesday with no tag being applied to any of Cincinnati’s key free agents. The two players even remotely in contention for it were offensive guard Kevin Zeitler and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

While Zeitler is easily one of the best players at his position, tagging him becomes unrealistic since the tag pays him like a top-five offensive lineman, not a top-five guard. Because offensive tackles make so much, tagging Zeitler would cost around $14 million.

As good as Zeitler is and as important as he is to the Bengals, that’s just too high of a number to pay a guard, even if he’s among the best in the game. That’s why Zeitler is most likely going to hit the open market on March 9, and it’s looking unlikely that he re-signs with the Bengals.

As for Kirkpatrick, it’s a different story since he plays at a premium position, though he’s further down the list in terms of the NFL’s best corners. Tagging him would cost around $14 million this year, a number far too high for a guy without a stronger background.

Kirkpatrick was ranked among Pro Football Focus’ worst corners for most of his first four seasons in the league. Though he made huge strides in 2016, he still finished as PFF’s 53rd-best corner.

For comparison, the Rams placed the franchise tag on their star corner, Trumaine Johnson, who finished as PFF’s 26th-best corner. Kirkpatrick was also ranked 32nd among corners in the B/R 1000, compared to Johnson coming in at 12th.

If a team is going to tag someone, that player needs to be at least among the 25 best players at his position, if not higher. Kirkpatrick has become a valuable member of the Bengals defense, but he’s still not an elite corner, especially if we’re considering his career as a whole and not just how well he played in a contract year.

All of this is why it’s no surprise the Bengals won’t be playing tag this year. Hopefully, it won’t come back to bite them and cost them one, if not both of Zeitler and Kirkpatrick.

The seven players who were tagged by their respective NFL teams are: Chandler Jones (Cardinals), Kawann Short (Panthers), Melvin Ingram (Chargers), Trumaine Johnson (Rams), Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants), Le'Veon Bell (Steelers) and Kirk Cousins (Washington).

Next up is the start of NFL free agency, which officially begins March 9 at 4 p.m. EST. However, the tampering period begins on March 7, which gives teams a chance to talk with free agents before being allowed to put pen to paper.

As much attention as Zeitler and Kirkpatrick figure to draw this offseason, it’s possible one or both of them have agreed to new contracts by the time free agency opens. Let’s just hope it’s with the Bengals.