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NFL free agency 2017: 5 Bengals among ESPN’s top players available

Brandon LaFell could be heading for a nice payday after a resurgent 2016 season in Cincinnati.

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

The Bengals will have their work cut out for them in retaining their top free agents this offseason.

With free agents becoming eligible to sign with new teams starting on Thursday at 4:00 p.m. ET, NFL free agency is here as the tampering period is already underway. Cincinnati is working against the clock to avoid losing some of the team’s best players to other teams. Three Bengals are among the top 65 players set to hit the open market, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right guard Kevin Zeitler and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

According to ESPN’s ranking of the 150 best unrestricted free agents, Zeitler is the best of them all, coming in at No. 8 in their ranking.

8. Kevin Zeitler, G

2016 team: Cincinnati Bengals | Age: 27

Zeitler will be primed for a huge contract as one of the top young guards on the market. Don't be fooled by the Bengals' struggles on the offensive line in 2016: Zeitler is the real deal. So why is he even on the market? The Bengals don't feel that guards should be paid as much as tackles, and with left tackle Andrew Whitworth also about to hit free agency, they're likely to let another team get into a bidding war for Zeitler. -- Katherine Terrell

Not much further down the list is Whitworth, who checks in at No. 15

15. Andrew Whitworth, OT

2016 team: Cincinnati Bengals | Age: 35

Whitworth is the oldest player at his position, but he remains one of the best pass-blocking left tackles in the league and went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2016. There's mutual interest in keeping Whitworth in Cincinnati, but with Cincinnati coming off its first losing season in several years, he has shown interest in signing with a Super Bowl contender. Despite his age, Whitworth will get significant interest from teams looking for a short-term rental. -- Katherine Terrell

The Bengals can ill-afford to lose both of these starting linemen if the team hopes to have a rebound 2017 season. The offensive line’s down season was part of why the team went 6-9-1 in 2016, but losing Zeitler and Whitworth would almost ensure another woeful season is coming.

The same isn’t quite as true with Kirkpatrick, being that he’s just one piece of a talented and deep defensive backfield. Still, losing the starting corner would be a tough blow to this defense.

The good news is, based on ESPN’s ranking, it may not be too hard to get Kirkpatrick re-signed since he ranks 64th overall.

64. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB

2016 team: Cincinnati Bengals | Age: 27

Kirkpatrick has been steadily improving and is coming off one of his best seasons. He won't earn top cornerback money, but with the demand for cornerbacks on the market, Kirkpatrick could be out of the Bengals' price range, in which case they would turn to 2016 first-rounder William Jackson III. -- Katherine Terrell

I think Kirkpatrick should be ranked higher on this list, especially since he plays a premium position that should ensure he lands a big contract with an NFL team. Hopefully, it’s in Cincinnati, at the right price.

But Kirkpatrick isn’t the only key defender set to hit the open market. Starting linebacker Karlos Dansby hasn’t gotten much attention this offseason, but he checks in at 136th in this ranking.

136. Karlos Dansby, LB

2016 team: Cincinnati Bengals | Age: 35

Dansby played in every game for Cincinnati in 2016, but he clearly doesn't have the same speed he once did. While Dansby sufficed as a one-year stopgap, the Bengals need to look to the future and inject some youth and speed back into their linebacker group. -- Katherine Terrell

Dansby was a big part of the Bengals’ defense last season, but the team has Nick Vigil ready in the wings if he’s not brought back, which is the expectation.

The only other 2016 Bengals player in this ranking is wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who came in at 92nd overall.

92. Brandon LaFell, WR

2016 team: Cincinnati Bengals | Age: 30

LaFell hit all of his incentives in the one-year deal he signed with the Bengals last spring, and proved to be a solid pickup. There's mutual interest to bring him back after a season in which he had six touchdowns and 862 yards. It's likely LaFell is looking for more security than another one-year deal. -- Katherine Terrell

LaFell was signed on a bargain deal last offseason, but he turned out to be a critical part of the Bengals’ offense throughout 2016. His role increased when A.J. Green was lost to injury, but LaFell had his moments with Green in the lineup as well.

But with the emergence of Cody Core and Tyler Boyd, not to mention Cincinnati possibly taking a receiver with the ninth-overall pick, re-signing LaFell may not be among the team’s priorities.

Of the five Bengals in this ranking, I’d ‘guess’ that at least two of them end up being re-signed, but it’s not out of the question that all five are on new teams next season. All five are planning to test the open market to see what other teams are offering.

Let’s just hope what they find is not a better situation than what the Bengals can offer.