Changing of the Guard: Scouting Kevin Zeitler as a Free Agent Fit for Miami
The Dolphins’ decision to trade Branden Albert was definitely a smart one. Moving on from the injury prone veteran and his bloated contract (due almost $9 million this year) in exchange for a talented tight end in Julius Thomas addressed an important need ahead of the 2017 NFL season. Additionally, the coaching staff can now prepare rookie standout Laremy Tunsil to play the position he was drafted to. However, Albert’s trade to Jacksonville and Tunsil’s subsequent move to left tackle leave an immense hole on the interior offensive line. While the team could re-sign Jermon Bushrod to address the issue, dipping into a very strong free agent interior offensive line pool makes more sense to stabilize and improve the offensive line for this season and for future campaigns. The best option to fill the void may be 26-year-old Kevin Zeitler, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Since the Cincinnati Bengals made Kevin Zeitler their 1st round pick in 2012, he has been the epitome of reliability on their interior offensive line. The talented guard struggled a little bit with injuries from 2013-14, but he rebounded with two Pro Bowl seasons and started all 16 games in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Zeitler is a paragon of versatility and is talented enough to excel both as a left guard and a right guard, so a team like the Miami Dolphins can be confident placing him on either side of the center. In fact, he only allowed one sack on the season, playing nearly every snap for the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense.
Admittedly, watching film on good offensive lineman is very difficult and not particularly exciting. Having said that, there are plays in which Zeitler truly inspires awe with his pure, unadulterated strength. He bullies people at the line of scrimmage and was probably Andy Dalton’s most stalwart protector next to All-Pro Andrew Whitworth. Pro Football Focus even named him as their 2nd best right guard behind Dallas Cowboys’ All-Pro Zack Martin. With a block like this (on Jordan Phillips), who could blame them?
The Bengals’ run-blocking scheme is predominantly power run based: the offensive lineman are essentially tasked with beating defensive lineman man-to-man in order to open up running lanes. While the Bengals were not able to do this consistently after losing offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to the Cleveland Browns, Zeitler still managed to do his part and do it well. Take this play in which Zeitler (no. 68) manhandles Shane Ray (no.56) to create an opening for Jeremy Hill’s 50 yard run for example:
His playing style will fit Adam Gase’s offense like a glove, as Gase primarily employs the power-run sceme that he used during his time with the Denver Broncos. Though Zeitler’s run-blocking ability is well above average, it is his pass-blocking prowess that has made him truly special. His technique is sound and his advanced upper body strength allows him to bully all but the biggest 3-4 defensive ends and 4-3 defensive tackles.
Additionally, Zeitler can wreak havoc downfield on screen passes. Considering Adam Gase’s love for creative mismatches in the short-passing game, Zeitler would fit in perfectly to the offensive gameplan.
Zeitler never gives up on a play and maintains the focus and competitive fire that coaches like to see in their locker rooms. The man made it his mission to ensure that Andy Dalton stayed upright, and in that repect he certainly succeeded. Zeitler’s reliability as a shield for the quarterback and anchor for the ground game make him an extremely desirable piece for at least half of NFL offenses. The only question is whether or not his asking price will scare those potential suitors away.
Kevin Zeitler’s weaknesses aren’t so much weaknesses as they are “areas of lesser strength.” He is objectively above average at everything but excels in pass-blocking and power based run-blocking. However, his relative lack of length and agility limit his ability to block more agile defensive linemen.
If the defender manages to slip past the wall that is Kevin Zeitler, there is little the offensive lineman can do to rectify his mistake in time to save the play. Additionally, his skillset (particularly his lack of speed and agility) makes him a poor fit in zone-blocking schemes that some NFL offenses like to use. Luckily, Adam Gase does not typically employ zone-blocking in his offense and does not figure to do so in the near future.
Furthermore, Zeitler is slightly more penalty prone than you’d like a star offensive lineman to be. This holding penalty, which occurred the play after a false start penalty, stands out as a drive killer.
Additionally, Zeitler’s injury history warrants an above average level of concern. While he is far from injury-prone, his 8 missed games from 2013-14 could be a red flag in guaranteeing long-term payment for his services.
Of all of Miami’s potential free agent targets, Zeitler is probably the man that would cost Miami the most to sign. However, young Pro Bowlers in their prime do not enter the open market particularly often. While good offensive guards are no longer the cheap signings they used to be (as Kelechi Osemele’s 5 year, $58.5 million contract show), they tend to be relatively safe compared to other positions that command higher salaries on the open market. Considering Zeitler’s consistency, pedigree, offensive fit, and young age, the Dolphins would be wise to seriously consider bringing him in as the starting left guard of the future. With Tunsil, Zeitler, Pouncey, Bushrod, and James, this unit would have the potential to be special for 2017 and beyond. I’m sure, if given the opportunity, Ryan Tannehill and Jay Ajayi would be inclined to agree.