The NFL's "legal tampering period" begins today, which sounds a little like something you'd see on a VH-1 dating show. What it is, is the period of time "teams may enter into contract negotiations with agents representing the players who will become free agents at 4:00 p.m. ET on Thursday."
Which means that starting today, teams that aren't the Bengals can start negotiating with - among other players - Andrew Whitworth, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Kevin Zeitler.
Of the "big three," Kevin seems most likely to go. The reasons why have been documented for a while. Given the constraints of the salary cap, they can't keep all three (I don't believe that). They value left tackle, which Andrew Whitworth plays, more than they do guard, and because of the uncertainty in the secondary, there's supposedly more value to retaining Dre than keeping Kevin.
Zeitler is considered by some to be the best available offensive lineman. He's about to turn 27 (tomorrow), and playing on an offensive line that required him to be better than ever, his 2016 was graded as his best season of his five year career by Pro Football Focus.
And yet, not only does it seem like the Bengals are being very dismissive about letting him walk, it feels like the rest of us have gotten a little too comfortable with them allowing him to get away.
Which I don't get.
Zeiter may indeed "break the bank," as former agent Joey Corry predicted this weekend, and perhaps he'll emerge from his first foray into free agency as the highest-paid guard in the NFL. Maybe he's offered so much money by a team that's desperate for his services that it makes no sense for the Bengals - or any other team - to try to match.
But as the wheels of free agency start to spin, it seems like the money that Zeitler gets will simply be what the market should bear from a player of his caliber at his position, meaning that to keep him, the Bengals might not necessarily overpay, they'll just have to give him his market value.
Which, in recent years, they've been good at.
But the Bengals don't value guards as much as they do other positions, like, say, corner and left tackle. But they did value Zeitler enough in 2012 to use a first round pick on him, and they surely valued the play of an offensive line that - with Kevin helping to anchor - was one of the league's best in 2015. As much as they rely on their philosophy of drafting and developing ahead of quick fixes and lavish contracts for outside players, you'd think the Bengals would value the work they put into both selecting him and turning him into one of the more players in the NFL at his position.
But it is the position they don't value, at least not nearly as much. Guard, theoretically, might be easier to plug in a less-expensive player than, say, left tackle or corner. Maybe there's a guy who's not on the roster that can be had for less than what Zeitler will get paid elsewhere. (You do wonder if the Bengals are one of the teams reportedly asking Nick Mangold if he'd slide over from center) Maybe we should let the entirety of the offseason play out before we go into a panic over what's going to happen without Kevin Zeitler holding down a spot on the line.
But I can't help but wonder why, for a team that's long valued keeping their best players while not overpaying, the Bengals are seemingly so ready to move on from someone who was arguably their third-best player in 2016. There's clear merit to keeping Andrew Whitworth, but he's still 35 years-old, and a decent bet to regress next season. Kevin is more than eight years older, and shows no sign of slowing down. I'm a proponent of keeping Dre Kirkpatrick because of the uncertainties in the secondary, but Dre isn't close to being among the better players at his position, and the Bengals have at least chosen corners in the first round in recent years. Zeitler is among the better guards in the NFL, and there's no real, clear choice to replace him.
Shouldn't a team that values keeping its best players through their best seasons value Kevin Zeitler more? If Kevin Zeiter is the best and youngest player among their free agents, shouldn't valuing the quality of the player outweigh not valuing the position he plays?
The Bengals want to run the ball better in 2017. Actually, check that. The Bengals need to run the ball better in 2017. Doing so might (should ) include upgrading the personnel at running back, but can that really happen if the Bengals downgrade at guard?
The Bengals want to protect Andy Dalton better in 2017. They need to do that too. With the caliber of play book-ending Zeitler at center and right tackle being a question mark, can the pass protection really improve if the passer that Kevin Zeitler is protecting is playing for someone else?
I know, I know. NFL teams can't keep everyone (although I think that keeping the "big three" here is financially do-able), and every team prioritizes positions differently. To an extent, the Bengals deserve some benefit of the doubt because of how well they've done at replacing players who have left. And I'm sure you'll be the 377th person over the last month to remind me that tackles and corners are more valuable than guards. The Bengals, a team that typically has valued player over position, is apparently reversing course.
But considering both the age of each player, and what each player has done so far in their careers, Kevin Zeitler is a decent bet to be better at his job than Andrew Whitworth and Dre Kirkpatrick are at theirs.
Unfortunately, he's also a good bet to be doing it somewhere else.