After giving up 41 sacks last year – the third most in the Marvin Lewis era – the Cincinnati Bengals lost their two best offensive lineman in free agency Thursday with left tackle Andrew Whitworth going to the Los Angeles Rams and right guard Kevin Zeitler headed to the Cleveland Browns.
Whitworth, who came to the Bengals as a second-round pick in 2006, signed a three-year, $36 million deal, which even for a three-time Pro Bowler is a lot for a 35 year old. And Zeitler, the 27th pick in the 2012 draft, got a five-year, $60 million contract from the Browns, making him the highest paid guard in the NFL.
The Bengals avoided losing each of their three biggest free agents when they agreed to terms with starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a five-year contract worth a reported $52.5 million.
But the loss of Whitworth (168 starts in 11 seasons) and Zeitler (71 starts, including 40 in a row, in five seasons) means the Bengals head into 2017 with the prospect of starting an offensive line of Cedric Ogbuehi, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, T.J. Johnson and Jake Fisher.
Johnson and Fisher have five combined starts, and Ogbuehi has 12 unproductive ones.
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“There’s talent on the offensive line,” Boling – the senior member of the unit with 79 games (77 starts) during his six seasons – told the team website.
“Unproven talent, but at the same time, it’s there,” Boling added. “I think it’s going to be something we’re able to work with.”
The succession plan at left tackle began in 2015 when the Bengals selected Ogbuehi in the first round and Fisher in the second round.
But Ogbuehi struggled mightily as the starting right tackle last season and eventually was benched, while Fisher, a second-round pick in 2016, has battled injuries and his own inconsistent play. But after taking reps at various spots on the line, Fisher played better once he settled in at right tackle, starting the final three games at the spot he played in college.
Like Fisher, Ogbuehi will settle into his more accustomed spot at left tackle, where he made one start in Week 16 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
“I feel more comfortable on the left side, and I’m healthy,” Ogbuehi told the team website. “I feel like I’m ready. I feel better over there.
“I’ve got to go in there and prove a lot of people wrong and prove that I can play the position,” Ogbeuhi added. “Last year was just a bad year. Plain and simple. I learned a lot. Just going through all the trials and tribulations. And never wanting to ever have that feeling again.”
Boling is entering the third season of the five-year extension he signed in 2015, while Bodine is heading into the final year of his rookie contract.
Cincinnati tendered a one-year contract to Johnsonon Tuesday, making him a restricted free agent, which means he can negotiate with other teams but the Bengals can match any offers.
Johnson currently is listed as the backup center on the depth chart, although that is expected to change. There are no other centers on the roster, while the other guards are Christian Westerman, last year’s fifth-round pick who was inactive all 16 games, and undrafted college free agents Trey Hopkins and Alex Redmond.
Kirkpatrick announced his signing on Twitter, writing "The City of Cincinnati will never be the same after this one. Thanks for the opportunity and I love y’all for that.”
His signing means the Bengals return all 11 starters on defense, although they could be without starting corner Adam Jones pending the disciplinary action the league as a result of his Jan. 3 arrest.
Seven other Bengals became unrestricted free agents when their contracts officially expired Thursday afternoon:
Running backs Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman, defensive ends Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry, defensive tackle Domata Peko, tackle Eric Winston and cornerback Chykie Brown.