As we rapidly near the official start of the 2017 season around the NFL, which coincides with the true opening of free agency, we are seeing reports flying all over the place, many of which concern our division rivals. The Cleveland Browns are expected to make several signings quickly, and one of them will come at the expense of their division- and state-rival Cincinnati Bengals.
One of Cincinnati’s highest-profile free agents on the market this year was former 2012 first-round guard Kevin Zeitler. While he was expected to be signed elsewhere, the earlier report that left tackle Andrew Whitworth intends to sign with the Rams switched that belief, given that the Bengals would be able to push money to Zeitler. But now Adam Schefter is reporting that Zeitler is expected to sign with Cleveland.
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
While we will have more on the Browns’ moves later in the days to come, suffice it to say that they have taken the project of rebuilding their offensive line seriously, first with an extension for guard Joel Bitonio, then bringing in center J.C. Tretter. With Zeitler and mainstay left tackle Joe Thomas, the offensive line that gave up by far a league-high 66 sacks in 2016 is looking much better right now on paper.
As for the Bengals, an offensive line that just a couple of years ago was among the best in the league is starting to look awfully dismantled. The expectation was that Whitworth–a Pro Bowl left tackle–would re-sign even though he wanted to test free agency. With the lack of development from young tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, they now have instability at the crucial position.
Whitworth and Zeitler were their two best offensive linemen. The Browns last year lost their two best offensive linemen outside of Thomas and their unit dramatically fell apart.
Quarterback Andy Dalton excelled during the 2015 season behind an excellent offensive line and in a comfortable offensive system with the appropriate skill pieces around him. It’s beginning to become hard to imagine the Bengals rediscovering that offensive success in the near future unless A.J. Green plays at some unheard of level that sees him carry the team.
To put it frankly, Cincinnati is expected to suffer some major blows with the loss of their two best offensive linemen. It was expected that they would be able to keep at least one, but losing both is going to be quite a task to overcome.