The Cincinnati Bengals: Day 1 Free Agency
It is not even a day into the new league year, and the Cincinnati Bengals are already having an unhappy new year. As free agency began Thursday afternoon, it comes as no surprise that the Bengals did not reach any deals with veterans from outside the organization who could help Cincinnati get back into the playoffs. The team did make the news however as each of their top four free agents found a home.
Offensive guard Kevin Zeitler entered free agency as one of its highest regarded players. Now he is the NFL’s highest paid guard and one of the newest members of the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals held Zeitler in such high regard coming out of college that they traded up to get him at the end of the first round in 2012. He was an immediate starter for the club and has become one of the team’s best, most reliable linemen.
Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth was with the club for eleven seasons and has played better in the later years of his career. Whitworth is primarily seen as the team’s left tackle but played left guard as well last season when the team struggled to find a fit in that position. Whitworth accepted a $36million offer from the Los Angeles Rams in what was probably his last chance to cash in big on free agency.
Although it hurts losing a top player to an instate rival, the writing was on the wall with Zeitler long ago. It was believed however that the Bengals had a good chance of retaining Whitworth. The Bengals struggled last year on the offensive line, and now their two best players have departed. The Bengals are unlikely to pursue a starting tackle in free agency, and this draft is not particularly strong at the position. In all likelihood, the Bengals will look to insert 2015 first round pick Cedric Ogbuehi as the starter at left tackle. Ogbuehi played the position when Whitworth was bumped down to guard last year, but struggled in pass protection. This leaves Jake Fisher at the right tackle and a strong possibility that the team will bring back fellow tackle Eric Winston as well. The trio of Ogbuehi, Fisher, and Winston have played a few musical chairs at the right tackle position of late with no one firmly entrenching themselves in it.
The future of the interior line is even less sure. As stated above, Whitworth has been playing guard at times because the team couldn’t solidify the left guard position. In effect, the team has lost both of their starting guards from last season. The most likely in-house replacements are Clint Boling, who struggled last season, and 2016 fifth round pick Christian Westerman. The Bengals starting center, Russell Bodine, also had difficulties last year. Interior lineman tends to run cheaper, so there is a chance that the Bengals will pursue a replacement from outside the organization, but don’t expect one of the top free agents like T.J. Lang. One name that does make some sense is Nick Mangold. Mangold is an Ohio native who could play center or guard and being a little older may not cost the team as much as his talent would normally dictate. He would also replace Whitworth’s leadership and experience. The biggest question with him is whether or not he would go to a team that does not seem poised to make a Super Bowl run anytime soon. The Bengals could also look to the draft where with good scouting teams can find starting interior linemen in the second and sometimes third round.
The Bengals were able to reach a deal to retain starting corner, Dre Kirkpatrick. Many had written off the 2012 first round pick’s return to Cincinnati believing that with two additional first round corners developing behind him (Darqueze Dennard & William Jackson III) the Bengals would not be willing to pay enough to keep him. Fortunately, that was not the case as Kirkpatrick is just starting to show his full potential in the NFL.
Wide receiver Brandon LaFell will also be returning to Cincinnati. Technically this deal was in the cards before free agency began, but the Bengals had a rough day, so we will count it. LaFell played well in the receiver two role during his first year with the Bengals more than replacing the production of Marvin Jones the year before. Some fans will have mixed emotions about this signing as it likely means the Bengals will not select a speedier receiver such as Corey Davis in the first round. The Bengals return some promising young receivers behind A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell, including 2016 second round pick Tyler Boyd. Expect more production from both LaFell and Boyd in their second year with the team, but don’t be surprised if the Bengals look to add a young speedster in the mid rounds of the draft.
The Bengals have made two positive moves so far by bringing back their productive starters, but the loss of their two best offensive linemen leaves a large gaping hole right between Andy Dalton and the opposing defense. If major steps aren’t taken to remedy this malady, the Bengals will likely be looking at a sub-five-hundred season for the second year in a row.