Paul Alexander is in his 21st season on the Bengals coaching staff. Before that, the offensive line guru was an NFL assistant with the New York Jets and coached at the college level for Penn State, Michigan, and Central Michigan. In short, he’s worked with hundreds of guards, tackles, and centers.
But he’s never coached anybody quite like Kevin Zeitler.
“He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around – he really is,” said Alexander. “He’s a pleasure to coach, loves to work, and has aspirations to be great.”
Zeitler earns similar praise from Dave Lapham who spent 10 years on the Bengals offensive line and is heading into his 30th year in the broadcasting booth.
“In some ways he reminds me of Anthony Munoz,” said Lapham. “Anthony wanted to be the best and physically did everything he could to try to get there. I think Zeitler is doing that, and I think his preparation with studying film and things like that are extraordinary as well. That’s high praise to put him with a perennial Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer, but I think that’s where he wants to be. And that’s where his preparation and work ethic are trying to take him.”
Since being drafted in the first round (27th overall) in 2012, Zeitler has been one of the Bengals biggest and strongest players. But when the players returned to Cincinnati in April for the start of voluntary workouts, Zeitler was visibly bigger in the upper body.
“This last offseason I worked really hard,” Kevin told me. “I did double-days for two straight months which actually put me in a bad position where I reached an overtraining phase. But I’ve healed from that and I’ve definitely put on some muscle. I got down to 12% body fat where I had a six pack showing for a while. Now I’m performance eating and having a few more carbs than I normally have.”
But his offseason work went beyond the weight room. Zeitler asked a member of the Bengals staff to provide video of the best guards in the NFL.
“I think I must be a jealous person in general,” said Zeitler with a laugh. “I’ve watched a lot of film this offseason and I see other guards do so many things so well. I just really want to do it at the top level, and whatever I have to do to reach that, I’m willing to put in the time.
“I love what we do here, but it’s always nice to see little things that other people do. I’ve watched San Fran, Seattle, Dallas – you can pretty much name any O-line and I’ve tried to learn something from each of them. You can always learn something.”
Last season, ProFootballFocus ranked Zeitler as the 9th-best guard in the NFL (#5 among right guards). Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda was ranked first at the position by a wide margin. In fact, PFF ranked Yanda as the fifth-best overall player in the NFL.
“Yanda is definitely one of my favorites to watch,” said Zeitler. “He’s just so smooth, so strong, and he’s always in the right place. That type of consistency is invaluable in the NFL and there’s a reason why he’s an All-Pro.”
So how close is Zeitler to playing at that level?
“We’ll see this year,” said Alexander. “I think he’s made a jump every year. He’s always been good and gotten better, but I think this year may be his biggest jump.”
“He wants to be the best there is,” said Lapham. “He’s so driven and I think he’s very hard on himself. It’s a good attribute to be your own best critic, but I think sometimes he takes it to the point where it can be a little bit harmful. It’s a balancing act and I think he’s doing a better job of finding that line. He’s not beating himself up over something he thought he could have done better. Sometimes you just have to move on. I think that’s where he can probably get better. In every other area he’s a pro’s pro in every sense of the word.”
“I have perfect images in my mind of how I do everything, and my only goal is to work every day to get there,” said Zeitler. “I doubt it will ever happen, but I’m going to be the closest I can get to that every day.”
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