It has been a common theme for years on end that the Cincinnati Bengals will inevitably lose very valuable players during the free agency process because they have historically been too cheap to pay them their due, in spite of the fact that they frequently had the salary cap space.
That has changed a bit in recent years corresponding to their success in making it to the playoffs so many years in a row—though I hasten to add that they still have not won one of them—but even last year they managed to lose Reggie Nelson, Andre Smith, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu, and the absence of all four was felt.
This year, they have some big free agents set to hit the market once again, most notably Andrew Whitworth, their Pro Bowl left tackle, in addition to cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and guard Kevin Zeitler. I should add that those pending free agents are listed roughly in the order of likelihood that they are Bengals in 2017.
While Whitworth has spoken of his desire to remain with the Bengals, he has also spoken openly about wanting to test the market. At 35, this is the first time that he has ever actually reached free agency in his career. Still, the expectation is that Cincinnati will work something out.
There is certainly a legitimate chance that the team does lose out on starting cornerback Kirkpatrick—the Pittsburgh Steelers are reportedly going to be one of several teams with the intention of bidding him—but the Bengals would like to keep him, even if they have invested multiple first-round picks in the position since they used one on him five years ago.
The same year they drafted Kirkpatrick in the first round, they also used one on Zeitler, who, unlike David DeCastro with Pittsburgh from the same round and class, did not work out a long-term extension. And, in fact, in part because of the precedent that DeCastro helped set with the guard market last year, it seems that the Bengals are bracing to lose him.
For as much attention as DeCastro has gotten since he was drafted, Zeitler has really been no slouch either, and, in fact, while perhaps not quite as strong, the latter may have been the more consistent player over the course of the past five years.
Cincinnati.com even wrote of him that it’s “hard to view Zeitler as anything but a former Bengal at this point”, citing the fact that “he hit free agency at the perfect time for his profile. The guard market exploded last year and now approaches the same compensation of the league’s top tackles”.
Preliminary indications are that Zeitler may set the guard market with a contract that averages somewhere in the range of $10 to $12 million per season. Given the Bengals’ history, they are not likely to pay that, and may instead turn to restricted free agent T.J. Johnson for second-year Christian Westerman in the hopes of filling in the right guard spot.