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5 winners and 3 losers from Bengals’ early free agency moves

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It’s been an up-and-down couple of days in Cincinnati.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The free agency frenzy (sorry, that’s a mandatory buzzword for these types of posts) in Cincinnati has gotten crazy over the past few days. In case you missed it, the Bengals managed to sign wide receiver Brandon LaFell to a two-year deal and Dre Kirkpatrick to a five-year deal. They also tendered backup interior lineman T.J. Johnson and saw left tackle Andrew Whitworth opt to move across the country and join the Rams while Kevin Zeitler is moving north to join the Browns.

There’s a lot to break down here. Upon the Bengals’ free agency moves, it becomes immediately evident that a return to the playoffs, let alone being able to compete in January, will be an incredibly steep hill to climb. The Steelers already won free agency before it even began, ensuring their two top players remain in Pittsburgh, while the Ravens swooped past the Browns and signed safety Tony Jefferson to a relatively team-friendly contract and picked up former Chargers running back Danny Woodhead. Cincinnati’s competition in the AFC North alone should be concerning, but Whitworth’s departure stands alone as the most devastating event of free agency to date. With that, here are the winners and losers of this week in Bengals free agency.

Winners

Andrew Whitworth

Why Whitworth opted to move his family across the country to Los Angeles, where his chances of winning a ring have diminished, is a concept I’m still trying to figure out. On one hand, I think it’s easy for people to assume the Bengals flubbed negotiations and saw their superstar tackle walk in the process. And who knows, maybe they did. But for those of you who know me, you know I love to challenge every assumption made about anything. So here it goes.

Whitworth’s decision to move to Los Angeles makes sense on many levels. First of all, the money was there. His three year, $36 million deal might just seem like a “few million dollars.” But in all reality, the 35-year-old tackle is getting a few million dollars more, per year. That’s a big difference. I’m also not sold on the Bengals, or most NFL teams, being willing to bet on a tackle so much as to offer him a three-year deal at his age. Props to the Rams for doing so, and good on them if the deal pays off. To me, though, the deal seemed a bit rich.

Before you claim I’m a Bengals defender or call me whatever names you want to call me (I can take it, for what it’s worth), consider that Whitworth is a person, and because of this, there’s a very solid chance he just decided moving to Los Angeles is a decision he wanted to make rather than something the Bengals screwed up. Anyone who has followed the tackle on Instagram for more than a month will see how much he and his family seem to love tropical climates and new places. If Whitworth, a father of four, decided to leave Cincinnati, finding a new home which can boast great weather and a great quality of living for his family makes a lot of sense. (To me, it makes a lot more sense than moving somewhere like Green Bay or Pittsburgh in hopes of winning a ring — no offense to those who live in those cities.)

All the best to Whitworth in his family as they move to Los Angeles. It’s been a joy to watch Big Whit do his thing in Cincinnati for so many years.

Brandon LaFell

A year ago today, it seemed like there was a solid chance LaFell’s career in the NFL, or at least his days of seeing significant snaps, were over. Today, he’s a quality NFL starter and the beneficiary of betting on himself.

Signing LaFell was a mutually beneficial deal for Cincinnati and the veteran wideout. The two year deal, worth “up to $10 million,” was a pretty nice bargain for a player of his caliber. No one’s going to pretend that LaFell is better than the departed Marvin Jones (because apparently it’s our obligation to compare him to Jones every time he comes up in conversation), but he’s still a reliable player at age 30.

While signing LaFell wasn’t as flashy as the Giants locking up Brandon Marshall, I still like the move more for the Bengals. Fans were quick to call Cincinnati cheap, “settling for LaFell” rather than going out and trying to sign a superstar like Marshall. But for what it’s worth, LaFell actually had the better year than Marshall last year. On 22 fewer targets, LaFell caught five more passes, gained 74 more yards and scored three more touchdowns than the six-time Pro Bowler.

For those citing Ryan Fitzpatrick’s decline as the reason for Marshall’s lack of 2016 success, it still doesn’t explain how teammate Quincy Enunwa managed to surpass him as the team’s most reliable option in the passing game.

Critics claim LaFell’s production was only a product of A.J. Green’s injury, but those same people fail to acknowledge Marshall — with Eric Decker curbed for the year — had even more opportunities than the Cincinnati wideout and did less with more.

Even with all of that being said, LaFell still probably doesn’t have the upside of a guy like Marshall. On the bright side, however, keeping him around ensures there will be continuity in the wide receiving corps — something the Bengals had virtually none of last offseason. Maintaining continuity is huge for an offense that saw a ton of turnover last offseason, especially given the changes up front already.

With LaFell signed to a contract worth Eddie Royal money (he’s getting paid less than Mohamed Sanu), he comes at a nice bargain. Even better, he can still play. It would be nice to see the Bengals add some speed at the receiver position, but re-signing LaFell doesn’t prevent them from doing so, especially with this year’s abundance of draft picks.

The Bengals’ youth movement

The possibility of having as many as three new (and inexperienced) starters on the offensive line is a scary proposition. But, whether we like it or not, we as fans are getting what we asked for. Drafting Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher a couple of years ago, Cincinnati had hoped it would be in the position it’s in today.

Sure, it would be far more encouraging if either tackle had some semblance of competency on film. But regardless, the Bengals are getting younger along the offensive line and giving some of their high draft picks a chance at significant starting snaps.

Neither Ogbuehi nor Fisher have had enough snaps at the positions they’re assuming in 2017 for us to determine whether or not they’re capable of starting in the NFL and/or determine whether or not they’re busts, so for now, I choose to remain hopeful the two tackles can prove fans wrong about being cynical heading into the 2017 season.

On defense, the Bengals seem to be moving toward youth, too, as Karlos Dansby is leaving for the Cardinals and the Bengals are ready to have Nick Vigil become a starter in his second season.

Critics of the Bengals’ front office

As optimistic as I feel I am, it’s still devastating to see Cincinnati lose one of its most talented players in Whitworth. Zeitler leaving was more expected, even though it hurts. The timing of the transition couldn’t be better – expectations for the Bengals today are as low as they’ve been in quite some time – but there’s not much solace in that. Keeping LaFell around is great, but it’s still not as exciting as one of those flashy signings, even if keeping LaFell around might be the better move to make. Even keeping Kirkpatrick around, while a great move, is not the signing many Bengals fans were hoping for as the top money re-signing from Cincinnati.

And even though I truly believe Whitworth’s decision to move across the country was his decision rather than a mistake made on Cincinnati’s part — after all, this is the first time in his 11-year NFL career he hit the open market — it’s still hard not to think about the possibility of the Bengals possibly messing something up. After all, that’s where one’s mind goes coming off a frustrating season.

The Bengals still have a ton of cap room left and Rex Burkhead is still on the table, as well as many external free agents. The team also tendered T.J. Johnson too high (though the lowest tender amount), which, though it won’t have devastating consequences, is easy to criticize. It’s hard not to be frustrated, though, signing Kirkpatrick does make Cincinnati’s first day of free agency a little easier to bare.

Kevin Zeitler

Who is the NFL’s highest-paid offensive guard? Former Bengals right guard and now Browns guard Kevin Zeitler. The 2012 draft pick is heading north to the Dawg Pound and doing so with a massive amount of money coming his way.

With hindsight being 20-20, it’s easy to look back and give the Bengals some credit here for not overspending on the guard. After all, there’s a legitimate argument to make Zeitler isn’t even a top-10 or top-15 guard, let alone one of the five best players at his position, like many fans seem to be claiming. (For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000 project graded him out as the number 21 guard in the league this past season.)

But with that said, there’s no ignoring the Bengals’ inability to get a deal done with the guard last offseason. Cincinnati and Zeitler reportedly tabled talks of an extension in September, immediately following a blockbuster contract extension signed by Steelers guard David DeCastro. Why it is that Zeitler opted to table is unclear — and we probably won’t ever know exactly why — but it’s evident the team did not offer a contract sweet enough to convince the guard not to opt for free agency.

The Bengals reportedly didn’t even offer Zeitler a contract this offseason. But regardless of that, it’s hard not to feel happy for Zeitler. The Browns paid him big-time, just like they did Eric Steinbach almost exactly 10 years ago. Best wishes to the guard in his Cleveland endeavors, but only when he’s facing the Steelers and Ravens.

Losers

Andy Dalton

Maintaining continuity in the wide receiver corps is huge – it’s something I’m sure many people will overlook. But that doesn’t change the fact that Dalton’s offensive line, after a bad year in 2016, looks even worse on paper heading into 2017. There’s really not much else to say here. Unless the offensive line play improves in the upcoming season, it’s hard to imagine the offense gets any better.

Marvin Lewis

Five consecutive one-and-done seasons is rough, but it’s still not nearly as rough as missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in nearly a decade would be. If Lewis, whose expectations are much higher now than they were in his first few seasons as the head coach in Cincinnati, leads the Bengals to their second consecutive losing season, it’s possible the Bengals make a change at head coach.

That’s not to say I think the Bengals will miss the playoffs this year, but that said, it’s hard to expect a playoff run this year when the team appears worse on paper now than it did a year ago today. Player progression and coaching could definitely change things – and Lewis should get a ton of credit if he manages to churn out a winning season in 2017 – but today, it’s hard not to stare at the massive hill Lewis will need to help his team climb should the Bengals try to make another playoff run.

Paul Alexander

I guess from a coach’s standpoint, Alexander is a winner here. He has the opportunity to prove cynics wrong and help the Bengals’ young offensive lineman take a step forward in the wake of Whitworth’s departure. But from any coach’s perspective, losing a guy like Whitworth is not an easy obstacle to overcome.

2017 will be the year that Bengals fans learn whether the team’s praise of Alexander is just talk, or if the coach really is as good as people around the league have claimed he is. If guys like Clint Boling, Russell Bodine and the youngsters are able to step up and perform at a competent level, this could be a great Bengals offense. But that’s a big if.

On Thursday, Alexander was a big loser in losing his two best players.