As expected, Kevin Zeitler is leaving the Cincinnati Bengals to sign a big contract with a new team.
According to Adam Schefter, Zeitler will sign with the Bengals’ division and in-state rival, the Cleveland Browns.
Former Bengals G Kevin Zeitler expects to sign with Cleveland, per sources. Big day for Browns O line. Highest paid guard in NFL history.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 9, 2017
Cleveland plans to give Kevin Zeitler a five-year, $60 million deal that includes $31.5 million guaranteed, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 9, 2017
As Schefter alluded to, Zeitler is expected to become the richest lineman in the NFL with this new deal. He entered free agency clearly among not only the top offensive linemen, but overall top free agents after being a borderline Pro Bowl guard for much of his career.
Having just turned 27 on March 8, there’s no reason to think he won’t continue at his current level of play for many more years to come. It just won’t come in Cincinnati.
This past season, Zeitler had a great season worthy of Pro Bowl consideration, though he didn't earn that honor. He finished 2016 as Pro Football Focus' seventh-ranked guard while starting in every game at right guard. He's only missed eight games through his first five seasons out of a possible 84 games (including the playoffs).
Zeitler came to Cincinnati via the 27th-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft out of Wisconsin. He became a Day 1 starter and has never looked back, though he’ll now do so with a new team. The Bengals wanted to keep Zeitler, but knew the contract he would score this year would outweigh what they were willing to pay for a guard.
That’s not to say Zeitler didn’t earn this deal, which he did. It’s just not a position where the Bengals want to commit a ton of money when they already have left guard Clint Boling locked up for three more years at over $5 million annually. Not many teams are willing to commit $15 million plus per year to their guards. Only four teams reached that number in 2016. The Browns will now surely surpass that number after extending guard Joel Bitonio with a 6-year, $51.2 million deal this morning.
This is still a huge loss for the Bengals, as Zeitler was easily the best lineman on this team in the short and long term. Andrew Whitworth, who left to sign with the Rams, may be the better lineman right now, but at age 36, he only has a great year or two left in the tank, whereas Zeitler will be playing at a high level for many years to come.
But the Bengals ultimately lost out on both players, making Cincinnati big losers on the opening day of free agency. As for Zeitler’s replacement, the Bengals will likely have a competition this year between Christian Westerman, Trey Hopkins, T.J. Johnson and Alex Redmond. Future draft picks and potential free agent acquisitions could be in the mix, too.
It’s also worth noting that the deal Zeitler is getting should be big enough for the Bengals to land a high compensatory pick in next year’s draft, possibly in the third round. That’s about the only good news that comes from the Bengals losing one of the best guards in the NFL.