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Do everything you can to re-sign:
1. Andrew Whitworth
The 11 year veteran was among the best players at his position this year and the unquestioned leader of the Bengals’ offensive line. At 35-years-old, Whitworth isn’t the player he was earlier in his career, but he’s still better than nearly every other offensive lineman in the league and he will be starting at left tackle for a team in 2017. The only question is if that team will be the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals’ plan was that 2015 first round draft pick Cedric Ogbuehiwould become Whitworth’s replacement at left tackle as soon as 2017, but after a terrible season spent starting 11 games at right tackle and 1 similarly bad, but slightly better game starting at left tackle, Ogbuehi’s future is very much up in the air. This season, he surely didn’t look like someone capable of protecting Andy Dalton’s blind side in 2017. If the Bengals value Dalton’s health — and all indications point to that being the case — Ogbuehi cannot be the Bengals’ starting left tackle in 2017. That means, Whitworth is the No. 1 priority to re-sign this offseason.
2. Kevin Zeitler
The Bengals’ offensive line was not impressive in 2016, so it does seem somewhat strange that the two most important players to re-sign would be offensive lineman. But, Zeitler and Whitworth just happen to be the Bengals’ best offensive lineman and unlike Whitworth, Zeitler is young (26-years-old) and currently at the peak of his career. As unimpressive as the line was this year, imagine how much worse it would have been without Zeitler and Whitworth in the fold. The Bengals drafted Christian Westerman out of Arizona State in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but they didn’t let him play one snap during his rookie year and he was inactive for all but one game. Because of that, we have no real concept of his ability to play at the NFL level. Could he become Zeitler’s replacement if the Bengals fail to re-sign him this offseason? Sure. Will he do a good job if handed that role? We have no idea. Zeitler will command a big payday in free agency (think $10 million per year) but if the Bengals want to commit to making a playoff run in 2017, they have the money to re-sign Zeitler and they should.
3. Dre Kirkpatrick
Like his fellow 2012 first round pick who appears one place ahead of him on this list, Kirkpatrick becomes a free agent for the first time in 2017. The Bengals spent the last five years developing Kirkpatrick’s skills and it translated to the field in a big way in 2016, his best season since entering the league. There are still areas Kirkpatrick in which can improve, such as penalties and open field tackling, but this season, he was the Bengals’ best defensive back and the team can’t afford to lose him next season. It’s clear Marvin Lewis has a good relationship with Kirkpatrick and he’s hinted toward the cornerback’s return. In 2016, the cornerbacks with the top 22 salaries in the NFL all made $8 million or more. Expect Kirkpatrick to make at least $8 million per year on his next deal, which is slightly more than he made on his fifth year option in 2016. If the Bengals don’t re-sign Zeitler, consider Kirkpatrick a done-deal due to the freed up money that would be available to retain his services.
Would be nice to re-sign:
4. Brandon LaFell
I was a fan of the LaFell signing last offseason and assuming it won’t break the bank and he’ll only demand a small pay raise, I’m in favor of signing him to a two year extension this offseason. LaFell proved himself this year. We know what he is and what he’s not. Some of his best traits are his can-do attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team. Those are traits the Bengals can always use. With a very young receiver corps outside of Green, it’s nice to have LaFell’s veteran presence in Cincinnati. He’s not a must re-sign, but he would be nice to have back in the fold.
5. Rex Burkhead
Burkhead exploded in the Bengals’ final game of the season and proved he can be a heavy contributor for an NFL team next season. But, running backs drafted in every round and even those picked up in undrafted free agency have found great success in recent years in the NFL. With that in mind, I believe the Bengals could find a running back in the draft (with one of their 11 expected picks) to help carry the workload in Cincinnati next year and for years to come. Assuming a team pays Burkhead to be their No. 1 or No. 2 running back, the Bengals may not be willing to match offers Burkhead receives on the open market. While it would be interesting to see him return to Cincinnati and attempt to unseat Jeremy Hill as the starting running back, it currently seems more likely that he ends up with a team that promises him a prominent role in 2017.
6. Cedric Peerman
On offense, Peerman is never going to be anything more than the Bengals’ No. 3 running back, but on special teams, Peerman is a key player and a former captain. The Bengals’ greatly value his contributions and I expect the team to sign him to a new contract this offseason. A deal for Peerman won’t break the bank and shouldn’t impact re-signing other players.
7. Eric Winston
Winston proved to be a highly relied upon player for the Bengals in 2016. That was due to Ogbuehi’s struggles at right tackle and the need for Winston to fill in for Ogbuehi while he was getting lectured on the sidelines. Winston ended up starting two games at the position, too. The Bengals should bring Winston back with a contract similar to what he received in 2016. His role would be the same as it was this season, a backup for both the guard and tackle positions.
Re-sign only for a minimal deal with the ability to cut:
8. T.J. Johnson
Johnson is set to hit free agency for the first time and his market likely won’t be big as he’s started just one game in his NFL career and it came in Week 17, due to injuries. Johnson is technically the backup center for the Bengals, but his start came at left guard. The Bengals will likely try to bring him back to continue to be the backup center. That could change if the team opts to select a center in this year’s draft, so expect Johnson’s contract to be minimal in guarantees if he is in fact re-signed.
9. Randy Bullock
The Bengals have no kicker on the roster for 2017 and will have an open competition at the position this summer. Bullock missed his only game-winning attempt in three games with the Bengals in 2016. Is he the Bengals’ future kicker? Probably not. But he should be part of the competition this offseason.
10. Karlos Dansby
Dansby was a necessity for the Bengals this season, especially during Vontaze Burfict’s suspension and late season concussion. But, at 35-years-old, he’s clearly not the player he once was and his speed is an issue. Dansby needs just one interception to join the 40 sack, 20 interception club, but he was unable to get an interception this year, despite dropping at least one. His stat line in 2016 was 114 tackles, 1 sack and 6 passes defended. Dansby has said he doesn’t plan to retire (I bet he’s chasing that interception), but the only reason he should be brought back to Cincinnati is to serve as a backup who could be cut before the start of the 2017 season.
11. Brandon Thompson
Thompson never got to see the field in 2016 due to an ACL tear suffered in Week 17 of the 2015 season. The Bengals knew Thompson would at a minimum start this season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but they paid him when he hit free agency last season and he rehabbed with the Bengals’ team doctors all year. The Bengals could sign him again to a low-guarantees contract with incentives based on games played in 2017. He has potential as a quality defensive line backup, but he’s most likely never going to be a starter in Cincinnati. This is another deal the Bengals should be able to get done without impacting the rest of their free agency plans, just like what happened last year.
12. Wallace Gilberry
The Bengals let Gilberry walk in free agency last year and he signed a deal with the Lions in doing so. The Lions decided to cut him just a few weeks into the season, and after the Bengals’ struggles in the first half of the season, they brought him back for the second half of the year. He did well in his return to Cincinnati, though he was injured in the process and missed a few games. Gilberry ended up playing five games and accumulated 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the process. Comparatively, defensive end starter Michael Johnson started all 16 games this season and racked up just 45 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Gilberry could be another player the Bengals look to re-sign to a one-year, low guarantee deal. But, if they do, it cannot impact re-signing players at that top of this list.
Do not re-sign:
13. Margus Hunt
While it’s nice that Hunt showed signs of progress this year, the Bengals can take on a rookie to replace his special teams contributions. With Andrew Billings and Marcus Hardison expected to return from injury in 2017, there’s no room for Hunt’s limited ability on the roster moving forward. Hunt hasn’t done enough to warrant a second contract in Cincinnati.
14. Domata Peko
2016 was a bad season for the Bengals’ 11 year defensive tackle veteran. Peko has certainly played a valuable role in Cincinnati for years, but it’s time for a youth movement on defense, and Peko won’t be a part of that. His best days in the NFL are long behind him and it would be in the Bengals’ best interest to thank Peko for his time in Cincinnati and move on.
15. Chykie Brown
Brown unfortunately ended his season on Injured Reserve with a torn patella tendon, suffered against the Ravens in Week 12. Brown was on the roster bubble heading into the 2016 season and he didn’t do much to prove he deserves to stick around moving forward. He’s not a guy the Bengals need as even their sixth cornerback on the depth chart.
Ranking the Bengals’ 217 free agents in order of priority to re-sign - Cincy Jungle