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Let’s Make a Deal: Examining potential new contracts for Whitworth, Zeitler and Kirkpatrick

What could Whitworth, Zeitler and Kirkpatrick’s next contracts look like? We take a stab at projecting just that and offering all the potential details.

Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler and Dre Kirkpatrick form the so-called “Big Three” Bengals’ free agents entering the 2017 season. While all three players are worthy of extensions with the club, they all are likely to be in very high demand on the open market. Let’s take a look at what type of contracts it may take for the Bengals to bring the Big Three back into the fold for the 2017 season and beyond.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth:

Andrew Whitworth enters free agency in a very unique situation. He is 35-years-old, yet he continues to play at a high level while showing no signs of slowing down. Whitworth has no major injury history, and his skills show no obvious signs of deteriorating any time soon. He remains one of the top left tackles in the league, and has been an elite pass blocker for the last half decade. While Whitworth is unquestionably the second best left tackle in franchise history, he’s also arguably become a top 10 player in franchise history as well.

Whitworth’s Perspective:

From Whitworth’s perspective, he knows he is still one of the league’s premier left tackles, and he shows no signs of slowing down or that his play will be suffer a precipitous dip in performance anytime soon, even as he enters the 2017 season at 35 (he will turn 36 in December). Whitworth also knows the leverage he holds as not only being an elite player, but also playing a premium position. He knows the value he brings in ensuring the blindside protection of Andy Dalton. Whitworth is also keenly aware of the value that the coaching staff and his teammates likely place on him as a team leader and as the “glue” of the locker room. Whitworth’s value is further increased by the lack of development of the two tackles selected by the Bengals in the 2015 NFL Draft. At this point, there is no proven backup ready to step in, in the event that Whitworth sign’s elsewhere on March 9. In other words, Whitworth knows the immense value he brings to the Bengals in a variety of ways and on a variety of levels. He and his agent will rightly leverage this value and look to be compensated accordingly.

Whitworth is very likely to receive several lucrative offers on the open market, and the club surely knows this. Because of his age, it’s likely that most offers Whitworth receives will be for contracts covering one or two years, though several clubs may even offer four-year deals (where the final year is voidable. Voidable years allow for an “extra” year of signing bonus proration in order to further reduce the prorated portion of the signing bonus cap hit). Regardless of contract length, the offers he receives from other teams commencing on March 7 are all likely to contain sizeable guarantees. Since the Bengals typically don’t fully guarantee any portion of a player’s contract outside of a signing bonus, the Bengals face the distinct possibility that Whitworth will be enticed just enough by another club’s offer and decide to end his career with a team who simply offers him a contract with the most guarantees. It’s likely that Whitworth would only pursue this route if the dollars were simply too good to pass up (i.e. a substantial full guarantee at signing), and if the team was a legitimate playoff contender. With this in mind, teams like the Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Giants (among others) all have a glaring need at left tackle, are all flush with cap space, and have all made the playoffs within the past two seasons.

Bengals Perspective:

The major concern the Bengals likely have with regard to re-signing Whitworth is ensuring they adequately protect themselves in the event that Whitworth’s skills suddenly erode, whether as a result of age or otherwise. For this reason, the Bengals may seek to insist on the inclusion of per-game active roster bonuses in Whitworth’s contract. Whitworth’s agents may initially balk at a contract offer containing per-game active roster bonuses, considering that Whitworth has missed a grand total of two games in the past eight seasons. In other words, Whitworth has been a game-day active in 126 of the last 128 games over the previous eight seasons. With this in mind, a potential compromise that both parties may be able to find common ground on could be the inclusion of per-game active roster bonuses for any year other than the first year of the contract. The inclusion of per-game active roster bonuses in year two affords Whitworth the security of not having any 2017 pay tied to per-game roster status, while also allowing for the Bengals to financially protect themselves in 2018 should Whitworth’s age finally catch up to him.

The Bengals do utilize the per-game active roster bonuses in several player contracts, and while $2 million may be an unusually large amount to tie-up in per-game active roster bonuses, this type of structure (i.e. per-game roster bonuses outside of Year 1) may just be the type of provision that both the Bengals and Whitworth’s agent would view as fair, and one that protects both the player and the Club.

The Bengals should be cautious in attempting to negotiate a deal with Whitworth containing any sort of sizeable “hometown discount”, and merely assuming that Whitworth would be willing to take such a discount. Of course, there are multiple factors (family decisions, moving school-aged kids out of school, weather, community involvement, and a whole host of others) that go into a player’s determination of whether to sign with another team and move to a different city. No decision is made in a vacuum, and while it may be difficult for the Bengals’ front office to envision Whitworth actually leaving, the Bengals likely realize they can’t low-ball Whitworth because of the value he brings, as mentioned above. The Bengals surely realize there is a real risk of Whitworth leaving if the club fails to value him as much as other teams will value him on the open market.

Ultimately, I firmly believe the Bengals and Whitworth will agree to a new contract. My guess is that Whitworth will test the market in the sense that he will be counseled by his agent not to sign anything with the Bengals prior to the two-day negotiating window before to the start of the 2017 league year. Whitworth will see what the market bears, and it’s likely that he may seriously consider some of the offers he receives. However, I do think the Bengals realize how devastating a loss it would be for their stalwart left tackle and team leader to leave in free agency. Accordingly, I think both parties strike a deal after the start of the two-day open negotiating period with all teams, but before the official start of the new league year – 4 p.m. on Thursday March 9.

Below are the contract terms that I think will closely resemble the terms in an eventual contract Whitworth signs with the Bengals. If Whitworth signs with another team, I fully expect that such a contract will contain more favorable terms (i.e. more money and more fully guaranteed money) than the one proposed below.

2 years/$23 million with $10 million fully guaranteed at signing (signing bonus).

Andrew Whitworth Proposed Contract

Year Season Base Salary Signing Bonus Roster Bonus PGRB Cap Hit Cash Spend Running Cash
Year Season Base Salary Signing Bonus Roster Bonus PGRB Cap Hit Cash Spend Running Cash
1 2017 2,000,000 5,000,000 3,000,000 0 10,000,000 15,000,000 15,000,000
2 2018 3,000,000 5,000,000 3,000,000 2,000,000 13,000,000 8,000,000 23,000,000
Total 5,000,000 10,000,000 6,000,000 2,000,000 23,000,000 23,000,000
  • $10M fully guaranteed = $10 million SB
  • $3M 2017 roster bonus due five days after contract signed
  • $3M 2018 roster bonus due on third day of the 2018 League Year
  • $2M per-game day active roster bonus ($125,000 per game)

Offensive guard Kevin Zeitler:

Kevin Zeitler has been a full-time starter at right guard for the Bengals since being drafted with the 27th selection in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and his play has steadily improved each season. Zeitler has established himself as the Bengals’ second best offensive lineman and as a premier guard in the entire NFL. Zeitler has certainly earned a new contract with the Bengals, and his services will be highly sought after on the open market.

Zeitler’s Perspective

From Zeitler’s perspective, he will undoubtedly want to be compensated in a manner that is consistent with (or even surpasses) the current market rate for top-tier guards. Kelechi Osemele re-set the guard market last season when he signed a five-year deal with the Raiders averaging $12 million per season. Outside of Osemele, two other premier guards signed contracts averaging $10 million per season. The Chicago Bears signed Kyle Long to a four-year/$40 million extension, and the Pittsburgh Steelers signed David DeCastro (like Zeitler, a first round pick from the 2012 Draft) to a five-year/$50 million extension. As soon as the terms of the DeCastro extension were announced last summer, it became increasingly clear that the Bengals would not be re-singing Zeitler.

Bengals Perspective:

From the Bengals’ perspective, the club has historically never valued the guard position to the point that they have been willing to pay them top-of-the-market money. This trend essentially started with the free agency departure of Max Montoya, and then continued with the departure of Eric Steinbach. Zeitler’s seemingly inevitable departure will further this trend. It should be noted that Clint Boling’s 2015 extension was a very good and fair contract from both the team and player’s perspective, but the contract’s value is not at the top of the market for guards.

While I do not necessarily agree with the Bengals’ approach to avoid paying top-tier guards top of the market rate money, I do understand their point of view. The club has had done a more than decent job of finding good guards at various points in the draft (Clint Boling – fourth round, 2011), in free agency (Bobbie Williams – 2004), and as college free agents (most recently, Trey Hopkins, for example). Moreover, I expect that the main reason for historically refusing to pay top-of-the-market rates for guards is to avoid a disruption (or unbalance) of “pay rates” among the different offensive line positions (tackle, guard, and center). Essentially, I think the Bengals want to avoid a situation where the presence of a highly compensated guard on the team would cause a tackle (who, for example, has an upcoming expiring contract) to want to be compensated “more than the guard”. I suspect the Bengals want to avoid setting a contractual precedent, and avoid negotiating themselves into a proverbial corner with future guards and tackles by setting market rates for a position they don’t value as highly as others.

While I can see the Club’s point of view if framed as a value proposition, I think it’s ultimately misplaced in the sense that players should be evaluated (and therefore, valued or not valued) based on their individual talent and contributions to the team, and not necessarily on the position they play (no matter how seemingly unimportant the position is, or how seemingly fungible the players at such position are). Of course, not valuing the guard position to the point of refusing to pay them top-of-the-market money seemingly contradicts the fact that the club expended a premium asset (i.e. a first round pick) on Zeitler, a guard.

Zeitler is a top-tier guard in the NFL who is just entering the prime of his career. Zeitler’s game, while already very good, has room from improvement, which is another added benefit for the team that ultimately secures his services because he’s already performing at a near-elite level. Zeitler has performed and developed exactly as expected since the day he was drafted. The Bengals have plenty of cap room to sign Zeitler, so the issue is not one of affordability. Offering Zeitler a deal in line with that of Kyle Long’s extension, would easily fit in this year’s cap, would not jeopardize future years’ cap space, and would be one that Zeitler would strongly consider signing (even though he will likely receive better offers on the open market). I believe Zeitler would strongly consider signing a Kyle Long-type contract with the Bengals because he knows that absent totally unforeseen circumstances, he will receive every last penny of that contract.

Below are the contract terms that I think will closely resemble the contract terms in the eventual Zeitler contract he signs with the Bengals. If Zeitler signs with another team – and I fully expect that he will - such a contract will contain more favorable terms (i.e. more money and more fully guaranteed money) than the one proposed below.

4 years/$40M with $8 million fully guaranteed at signing (signing bonus).

Kevin Zeitler Proposed Contract

Year Season Base Salary Signing Bonus Roster Bonus Workout Bonus Cap Hit Cash Spend Running Cash
Year Season Base Salary Signing Bonus Roster Bonus Workout Bonus Cap Hit Cash Spend Running Cash
1 2017 2,000,000 2,000,000 6,000,000 0 10,000,000 16,000,000 16,000,000
2 2018 5,750,000 2,000,000 4,000,000 250,000 12,000,000 10,000,000 26,000,000
3 2019 6,500,000 2,000,000 0 250,000 8,750,000 6,750,000 32,750,000
4 2020 7,000,000 2,000,000 0 250,000 9,250,000 7,250,000 40,000,000
Total 21,250,000 8,000,000 10,000,000 750,000 40,000,000 40,000,000
  • $8M fully guaranteed = $8 million SB
  • $26M functional guarantees = $8 million SB + $6M YR1 RB + $4M YR2 RB+ $2M YR1 P5 + $5.75M YR2 P5 + $250K YR2 WB
  • $6M 2017 roster bonus due five days after contract signed
  • $4M 2018 roster bonus due on third day of the 2018 League Year

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick:

Like Zeitler, Dre Kirkpatrick joined the Bengals via the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. While it took longer for Kirkpatrick to break into the starting line-up compared to Zeitler, he eventually got up to speed and has developed into a solid starter ever since. Kirkpatrick has just entered his prime, and his game still has a decent amount of growth potential. Kirkpatrick has the length and physicality that appeal to NFL teams, and based on the premium placed on the cornerback position, he is likely to receive substantial interest on the open market.

Kirkpatrick’s Perspective:

From Kirkpatrick’s perspective, he will likely want to test the market to see how other teams in the league value him. He may be looking to top the contract signed by Janoris Jenkins (five years/$62.5 million) during the first couple of days of the 2016 free agency period. A more realistic contract benchmark could be Darius Slay’s four year/$48 million extension signed with the Lions before the start of the 2016 season. While no one truly ever knows what the market will ultimately bear, it would not be inconceivable for cornerback-needy teams to offer a similar contract to Kirkpatrick based on his skills and room for improvement. Clubs are flush with cap space, and there has always been a willingness by clubs to invest heavily in the cornerback position based on the important role the position holds in today’s pass-heavy NFL.

The one thing possibly working against Kirkpatrick is the fact that the free agent market is decently saturated with Cornerbacks. Such a relatively large supply of good, but not great, cornerbacks may drive the prices down as a result of simple supply-demand economics. Since only one cornerback received the franchise tag (Trumaine JohnsonRams), cornerback may be a buyer’s market, and so it may be tough to see a cornerback contact surpass Jenkins’ deal from last offseason. Again, there’s just no way to know the market until the new league year begins, but no one should really be surprised about contracts signed during those frenzied first days of free agency.

Bengals Perspective:

From the Bengals’ perspective, the club has shown patience in sticking with Kirkpatrick through some of his early struggles. It also appears, by most accounts, that the club views Kirkpatrick as a foundational piece, not only for the secondary, but also for the entire defense and rest of the team. Even though Kirkpatrick suffers lapses in coverage at times, he has shown a penchant for making big plays, and the coaches continually rave about the physical tools he possesses and as a result, how it allows him to effectively match up against some of the bigger receivers in the league

The Bengals have shown a willingness to pay cornerbacks at or near market rate if they feel it’s warranted. Most recently, Leon Hall was signed to a four year/$39 million extension prior to the start of the 2011 season. While Jonathan Joseph’s departure as a free agent in 2011 does provide reason for concern to those who would like to see Kirkpatrick re-signed, reports strongly suggest Kirkpatrick remains a top priority for the Bengals in free agency.

Based on Kirkpatrick’s steady play during the past two and half seasons, and his room for continued improvement, coupled with the uncertain situation involving Adam Jones (i.e. a likely multiple game suspension at the least, or a contract termination at the worst), and the relative inexperience of the cornerbacks on the depth chart (Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson III, Josh Shaw, KeiVarae Russell and Bene Benwikere), it is likely the Bengals will reach a deal with Kirkpatrick.

So what will that eventual deal look like? Below are the contract terms I think will closely resemble the contract terms in the eventual contract Kirkpatrick signs with the Bengals. If Kirkpatrick signs with another team, such a contract will likely contain more money (and more fully guaranteed money) than the one proposed below.

4 years/$46 million with $9 million fully guaranteed at signing ($9 million signing bonus).

Dre Kirkpatrick Proposed Contract

Year Season Base Salary Signing Bonus Roster Bonus Workout Bonus Cap Hit Cash Spend Running Cash
Year Season Base Salary Signing Bonus Roster Bonus Workout Bonus Cap Hit Cash Spend Running Cash
1 2017 5,000,000 2,250,000 0 0 7,250,000 14,000,000 14,000,000
2 2018 3,000,000 2,250,000 6,500,000 250,000 12,000,000 9,750,000 23,750,000
3 2019 10,000,000 2,250,000 0 250,000 12,500,000 10,250,000 34,000,000
4 2020 11,750,000 2,250,000 0 250,000 14,250,000 12,000,000 46,000,000
Total 29,750,000 9,000,000 6,500,000 750,000 46,000,000 46,000,000
  • $9M fully guaranteed at signing ($9 million SB*)
  • $23.75 million functional guarantees ($9M SB + $5M YR1 P5 + $6.5M YR2 RB + $3M YR2 P5 + $250K YR2 WB)
  • $6.5M year two roster bonus due on third day of the 2018 League Year


  • P5: "Paragraph 5 Salary" which is the industry term of art for a player's base salary. The player's base salary is located in paragraph five of the player contract, so hence "paragraph 5 salary" or merely "P5".
  • RB: "Roster Bonus"
  • WB: "Workout Bonus"
  • YR1, YR2, YR3: The contract year. Ex: YR1 = year one of the contract.
  • Functional Guarantees: Money that, while not truly 'guaranteed' in a contractual/legal sense, is nonetheless guaranteed (therefore, functionally guaranteed) because there is little risk that the player will get cut during the time that they earn the money covering the functional guarantees.