The Cleveland Browns have a chance to strengthen their line while weakening the rival Cincinnati Bengals. They would be foolish not to take it.
Roughly 10 years ago, the Cleveland Browns made a bold move by inking standout guard Eric Steinbach to a seven-year, $49.5 million deal in free agency. The move gave Cleveland a Pro Bowl player on the interior of the line while taking him away from the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cleveland has the opportunity to make a similar move this offseason by snagging guard Kevin Zeitler away from the Bengals—and the Browns should take that opportunity.
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Cincinnati has 14 total players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, according to Spotrac.com. Even if the Bengals only focus on the significant contributors, it’s going to be difficult to retain everyone. In addition to Zeitler, the Bengals are set to lose left tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive tackle Domata Peko, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, right tackle Eric Winston and wideout Brandon LaFell.
Zeitler—who was rated sixth overall among all guards by Pro Football Focus last season—is going to be a highly coveted free agent and could be the most likely to leave Cincinnati. This is the opinion held by Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer:
I continue to feel confident Kevin Zeitler will be playing elsewhere in 2017. When Bengals free agency comes up, it always starts with Andrew Whitworth and usually skips over the 26-year-old guard. … We put a 45 percent chance on his return in our free agent piece when the season ended and I’d drop it to 30 today.
The Browns have the cap space to pry Zeitler away from the Bengals and other teams if they’re willing to spend. According to Spotrac.com, Cleveland should enter free agency with around $105 million in cap space.
While the new Cleveland brass didn’t want to spend big last offseason, the Browns proved they’re willing to spend to add or retain young ascending players when they inked linebacker Jamie Collins to a four-year, $50 million extension.
Zeitler will turn 27 years old the day before free agency begins, and he certainly fits the mold of a player entering his prime. He is the type of player the Browns should want to invest in, and he offers Cleveland some flexibility along the line.
Pairing Zeitler with a healthy Joel Bitonio would give the Browns one of the best guard tandems in the league. This move could also allow the Browns to move John Greco from guard to center on a more permanent basis while continuing to experiment with Cameron Erving at right tackle.
Erving has been a disaster during his time at center, while Greco has proven steady if unspectacular in the role. Greco finished 2016 rated 29th overall among centers by Pro Football Focus. Erving started the season finale at right tackle and was rated 65th among all 87 tackles by Pro Football Focus for the week. This might not seem noteworthy, but consider that Erving was rated dead last among all centers for the season.
This configuration could give Cleveland three players with Pro Bowl potential and two serviceable starters, and all of a sudden, the line looks exponentially better than the mess the Browns dealt with last year.
Improving the line is going to be incredibly important this offseason if, you know, the Browns finally figure out how to address the quarterback position. There are some quality guards in the this year’s draft class, but Zeitler is a proven commodity with experience playing in the AFC North.
Realistically, Zeitler should be one of Cleveland’s top targets in free agency, aside from that aforementioned quarterback position.