The Cincinnati Bengals entered the 2016 season with high aspirations, looking like legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Unfortunately, the offense sputtered and the defense remained an undisciplined unit that struggled to carry the team.
Fortunately, the season is in the books and they’re able to look towards 2017, when they’re expected to be more like their 2015-selves. That’ll only happen if they’re aggressive in free agency, namely with their own pending free agents. Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth are two of the biggest names (literally), and they’re must-targets for Cincinnati this offseason.
Here are three other names they should consider when free agency opens on March 9.
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DE William Gholston (Buccaneers)
The Bengals have a good trio in Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, but even their play has tapered off of late. The Bengals need to add reinforcements to the defensive line, even if they don’t spend all their money to make it happen. Gholston is 25 years old and while his numbers don’t jump off the page, he does have great measurables – 6-6, 281 pounds. He fits the mold of what the Bengals are looking for at defensive end and wouldn’t cost much to land. He’d be a valuable addition as the Bengals look to bolster the defensive front.
WR Robert Woods (Bills)
The Bengals took a step back without Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones on offense, struggling to replace them. A.J. Green is an elite receiver, but he and Tyler Eifert are Andy Dalton’s only reliable options. Robert Woods is a solid possession receiver with good athleticism, and is someone in need of a change of scenery after having his role reduced in Buffalo. He’d be a good underneath threat with Green having the ability to take the top off a defense on the other side.
LT Andrew Whitworth (Bengals)
When it comes to playing tackle, age isn’t always a huge factor. That’s true with Whitworth, who’s 35 years old and still an elite blindside blocker. He’ll require only a short-term contract, and even though he doesn’t have many years left in the NFL, he’s still playing at a high level. Keeping him and Zeitler together will be a key to the Bengals’ success on offense next season as they hope to return to their 2015 form.
LB Dont'a Hightower (Patriots)
Linebacker has become a big need for the Bengals with Vontaze Burfict’s future in flux and a lack of talent around him. Dont'a Hightower may not hit free agency because the Patriots also need him on their roster, but he’d be a perfect fit in Cincinnati if he does. He can do it all, from rushing the passer to dropping back in coverage to playing the run, which is the do-it-all versatility the Bengals need in the middle of the field. He’d be expensive – likely in the range of Jamie Collins’ four-year, $50 million deal, but he’s worth it.
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G Kevin Zeitler (Bengals)
The “Big 3” in Cincinnati consists of Zeitler, Andrew Whitworth and Dre Kirkpatrick. They (probably) can’t bring back all three, but Zeitler should be a possibility. At least, he should be their top priority. He’s the younger of the two linemen and has been consistent at guard, providing good pass protection on a line that struggled a bit in 2016. Guards are being prioritized more lately, so he’ll require a lot of money to retain, but he’s worth it.