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Which Fifth-Year Option Should the Bengals Exercise?

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Nov 23, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) pulls against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As of today, the Bengals have 16 days to decide whether they will exercise fifth-year options on either, or both, 2012 first-round selections Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler.  Cincinnati will have to weigh several options such as promise, roster demands, salary cap, etc.  Both players have experienced injuries, yet both have displayed promise for the future.  So whom should the Bengals lock up for the 2016 season?

Jan 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) against the Indianapolis Colts during the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Starting with the first of the two first-round selections, Dre Kirkpatrick.  If the Bengals exercise his option it will cost them $7.507 million in 2016.  Considering Leon Hall turns 32 and Adam Jones turns 33 in 2016 and both become a free agents, locking up Kirkpatrick becomes all the more important; as of now, they will only have Darqueze Dennard under contract past this season.  Cincinnati drafted Kirkpatrick and Dennard with the hopes they would eventually become the tandem to take the secondary into the future.

After suffering a couple of injuries early in his career, Kirkpatrick has since fulfilled some of the promise he initially offered.  He became a great special teams gunner for the Bengals last season and filled-in well for Terence Newman when he struggled towards the end of the season; Kirkpatrick’s best performance was against Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Week 16 when he picked off the future Hall of Fame quarterback twice.  But is he worth the money?

Given Kirkpatrick’s limited production to date, re-signing him now means he could be signed at a cheaper rate than he would be in a year.  Kirkpatrick’s performance in 2015 can do little other than raise his value compared to where it likely sits now.  Signing him now to a long-term deal seems prudent for the team and could be for Kirkpatrick considering his undetermined future as of now.  This all goes out the window if Kirkpatrick wants to gamble on himself and play out the season.

If he performs near Pro Bowl level, he could score a larger contract.  But if the Bengals offered him a reasonable deal, risk would be shared on both sides, yet it could be a real score for the Bengals going forward.  I’m envisioning a contract similar to that of Andy Dalton‘s which requires him to perform on a yearly basis, yet offered him solid money upfront.

With regards to their second selection in 2012, Kevin Zeitler, the situation is different.  Although similar to Kirkpatrick in that Zeitler has experienced injuries the past couple of seasons, when on the field, which is much more often compared to Kirkpatrick, Zeitler has lived up to his billing.  He’s a powerful blocker who gives his all and should dominate in the run game going forward.  Meanwhile, his pass blocking has been solid as well.  He and Andre Smith could end up forming one of the league’s best duos on the right side of the line.

The roster is a bit different than at cornerback though.  The Bengals did cut veteran Mike Pollak, so they aren’t terribly deep at guard as of now, but there is one caveat to that assumption, Andrew Whitworth.  If Cincinnati drafts a first round tackle in this year’s draft, it’s entirely possible this selection takes over at left tackle in 2016.

Yet, Andrew Whitworth is a lifelong Bengal, so regardless of whether he starts at left tackle or not, he could continue his career with Cincinnati following this season.  Is it possible that the team signs him to a more veteran appropriate deal–he will turn 35 in 2016–and is it possible he takes over at right guard if Zeitler can’t be retained.

I’m not suggesting this should be the plan going forward, but after suffering two injuries the past two seasons, would it be prudent to exercise Zeitler’s option and see how 2015 plays out before committing to him long term?  The Bengals would have a short term replacement in Whitworth while they groom another option, if need be.

The bottom line here is Kevin Zeitler’s fifth year option would make him the second highest paid guard in 2016 (as of now) based on average yearly salary.  It would score him some serious money in the short term while the team finds out if his injuries are freak situations or foreshadowing an injury prone future.  If the team can sign him at a reasonable price, based on both his production and missed time rather than simply on the great promise he’s shown, his 2015 performance can’t raise his value substantially.  Considering how the team would pay him in 2015 after exercising his option, it may be prudent to wait though admittedly it’s tough to tell what Zeitler would except in a long-term deal.  Would he be willing to sign a reasonable deal like Clint Boling did, or would he want to capitalize on his great promise?

When May 3 rolls around, I would personally love to see the team have signed both players to long-term deals.  Speaking logically, both players should be amenable to reasonable deals considering injuries and Kirkpatrick’s lack of time on defense considering them. I believe both players are promising professionals going forward.  Zeitler is the player I expect to be the better of the two going forward, so if he is amenable to a reasonable deal, prioritizing him first seems prudent.

In the end, I expect the team to only lock up one though.  This will likely be the player who is willing to sign the more market-friendly deal.  The other will have his option exercised and the team will revisit negotiations in the future.  It seems the Bengals’ way of doing things, as they often err on the side of caution and market-friendly deals.  With a little over two weeks to go before the deadline, time will soon tell how these decisions will be made.

Next: 10 Prospects Most Likely to Land with Bengals in 1st Round

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