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ESPN names Bengals among biggest losers in NFL free agency

Did the Bengals’ window to a Super Bowl just slam shut?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll be shocked to hear the Bengals were among the biggest losers in free agency.

That’s the case anytime you lose your two best offensive linemen, which Cincinnati somehow managed to do in the same offseason. It started when Andrew Whitworth shocked the world and left to sign with the rebuilding Los Angeles Rams.

That was followed up with the division rival Browns snatching Kevin Zeitler away. Losing those two will greatly impact this team in a negative way in 2017, and that’s why the Bengals are among ESPN’s biggest losers thus far.

In a roundtable discussion, analysts Mike Sando, Dan Graziano and Field Yates discussed the Bengals losing Whitworth and Zeitler, and what it means to the team moving forward.

Graziano: Whitworth is a big loss for the Cincinnati Bengals. Who's more Bengal than him? I doubt Cedric Ogbuehi is ready to take over at left tackle, and even if he is, the Cincinnati locker room will miss Whitworth's steady hand.

Sando: Subtracting Whitworth and especially Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals assures their offensive line will regress further. Worse, the formula for compensatory draft choices works against Cincy in Whitworth's case; he has 10-plus accrued seasons and is 30-plus years in age, which means the Bengals can get no better than a fifth-round compensatory choice in return for him instead of a third-rounder. In the bigger picture, moving on from Whitworth was understandable given his age, but Zeitler ideally would have been a building block for the future. How many subtractions can this offense endure after losing receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones last offseason?

Yates: Back in 2015, the Bengals used first- and second-round picks on offensive linemen, setting the plan in motion to eventually replace Whitworth. Problem is, Whitworth has stayed so reliable, and neither Ogbuehi nor Jake Fisher has fully emerged as a dependable every-down starter. Throw in the loss of Zeitler, too, and Cincy has major work to do along the offensive line.

There’s no question that losing Whitworth and Zeitler was a brutal way to kick off the offseason for Cincinnati, and it undoubtedly lowers the team’s ceiling for next season.

The good news is Fisher showed some promise last year, and the team now has Andre Smith back and apparently ready to start at right guard. With Whitworth now 35-years-old, it’s possible his play suffers a major drop off this coming season, if not next year, and sometimes, it’s better to move on from guys a year early as opposed to a year too late.

But losing Whitworth’s leadership may be the biggest loss for the Bengals this offseason. Then again, this team has plenty of experienced veterans like Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Clint Boling who should be ready to shoulder a bigger leadership role now that Whitworth is gone.

And let’s face it; Dalton has elevated the play of nearly every linemen he’s played with due to his ability to make great pre-snap reads and put guys in their best spot to win. Once he develops a better chemistry with Fisher and other linemen, history suggests he’ll help make this offense line better than we expect.

It won’t be easy, but the Bengals will eventually recover from losing Whitworth and Zeitler. Let’s just hope it’s as soon as the 2017 regular season.