In the second quarter in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago, starting right tackle Andre Smith tweaked his ankle. He's been out of the lineup since, replaced by the enigmatic fourth-year man, Anthony Collins. Since his entrance into the lineup, there's been a noticeable lift in the offense's production in both the run and pass. This has prompted an interesting discussion amongst the Bengal faithful as to why Collins hasn't been in the starting lineup over the past few seasons--especially with the inconsistent play of the offensive line over that time span.
Collins has had a interesting career in Cincinnati since arriving here via the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft out of Kansas. He was another player that fit the Marvin Lewis/Mike Brown mold, in that he was a first round talent but an early exit from college coupled with some questions about his background made him slip down a few rounds. Another facet of Collins' game that made him an intriguing prospect was his versatility and ability to play both tackle positions. In his rookie campaign, injuries to then-starting left tackle Levi Jones and then-starting left guard Andrew Whitworth, forced Collins to make his first start against the Steelers. He suffocated All-Pro linebacker James Harrison in his first appearance and finished the season strong, which prompted the Bengals to sign running back Cedric Benson long-term.
Since then, Collins has been relegated to backup duty. With Whitworth becoming a Pro Bowl-type of left tackle and the team opting to draft the troubled Smith early in the 2009 draft, Collins lost any semblance of a major role on offense. In fact, many times when the Bengals use a sixth lineman in goalline formations, Dennis Roland was the extra blocker.
Now, with the offense seeming to find more consistency with Collins filling in at right tackle, the question arises of if he should be a permanent starter on the line. And, the follow up question to that is if he should be re-singed due to his initial rookie contract expiring after this season.
The answer to the first question is tricky. While it seems that the Bengals offense has produced at a higher level with Collins in the lineup, the actual sample size to reference is small. And, as all football fans know, the most popular player on a team tends to be an able backup who plays well when finally given the opportunity. The reality of the situation is that the play of three of the five starting offensive lineman have come under scrutiny over the past couple of years in Cincinnati. The only steady play on the line has come from Whitworth and center Kyle Cook and it's painfully obvious that overall inconsistency has run rampant.
The easiest problem on the line to point to has been that of left guard. Since injuries, age and free agency hit the Bengals' formidable offensive line of the mid-2000s, this position has been been a trouble spot. While current guard Nate Livings has manned the spot for the past two and a half years, there have been many ups and downs. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has stood by Livings--so much so that the team let a better player walk in Evan Mathis. On the right side, While Bobbie Williams has been a Cincinnati staple since 2004, his play has warranted his designation as one of the team's captains. But, his play has ever so slowly eroded the past couple of seasons. I'm sure that the masses will disagree at this notion at first mention of it, but when you turn on the tape, critical penalities and age have seemed to catch up with the big captain. And now, in his mid-thirties, big Bobbie has been placed on injured reserve, casting his future with the team in major doubt.
Then we come back to Smith. 2011 is the first season that we've really had any kind of sample size to judge his performance. He has battled injuries over the past three seasons, fought his way out of Marvin Lewis' doghouse and has contributed to the team's overall unexpected success this year. But, is he even the best player at his position? When you look at Collins' performances as a starter, you'd say he's at least one of the five best offensive linemen that this team has and arguably a better option at right tackle than Smith. I suppose the bigger question is this: was Smith handed the starting right tackle position simply because of his salary and draft position?
We (the Cincy Jungle staff) asked Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com this question in our podcast this week, and while he didn't come out and say that, even he was puzzled at Collins' current status with the team. When we asked him about the possibility of Smith playing right guard and Collins at right tackle, Hobson agreed that it sounded like a good idea but the coaches wouldn't go for it, though the reasons for not making the move were vague. Hobson also mentioned that when he asked offensive coordinator Jay Gruden about Collins, Gruden repsonded by saying that Collins would be a starting lineman on nearly every other NFL team. For whatever reason, Collins has obviously seemed to have put himself in the organization's bad graces.
There are a lot of potential scenarios with Collins and his future with the Bengals . For instance, going into the last three seasons, I personally held the unpopular opinion that Collins should be the starting left tackle while kicking Whitworth inside as the starting left guard. Seeing as how Whitworth has had three consecutive years of solid play at the left tackle position since I initially took that stance, I'll admit now that there is nothing warranting a change there. With Smith ailing temporarily and Williams out for the rest of the season, the most logical spot for Collins in both the short and long term is right tackle. Once Smith does return to the lineup, you could kick him inside permanently and let the more athletic Collins man the outside and the bigger, stronger Smith inside at right guard. His size, build and ability to run block seem to make him a better NFL guard anyway. And, while he hasn't been a bad rightt tackle, the consistency isn't there on the outside and Smith still struggles protecting the pass-- Collins doesn't. Remember Robert Gallery and Leonard Davis? They had career renaissances as high picks moving from tackle to guard. This would make too much sense to make a similar move for the Bengals braintrust to make with Smith and Collins.
So, what should the Bengals do with Collins long-term? With his contract expiring this season and the Bengals offensive line in a perpetual state of inconsistency over the last few years, extending and giving him a shot at a starting position makes sense for a few reasons. First, they'd potentially solidify two positions on the line--right tackle and right guard--in the wake of Williams' potentally career-ending injury. Secondly, it frees the Bengals up in next year's draft. Though they'll still need to use a high pick on an interior offensive lineman, re-signing Collins and naming him a starter would give the Bengals some flexibility come draft weekend. Third, if the Bengals are so inclined as to not making Collins a starter, brigning him back as a backup is a good idea as we don't know if Smith's feet and ankle issues will be fully behind him in 2012.
The Bengals have made mistakes while sticking to their stubborness about players. The careers of Jerome Simpson and Carlos Dunlap have suffered because of a skewed view on "how a player should practice" and/or "doing what's expected of them". At some point you have to put on the tape, recognize a "gamer" when you see one and give them the shot that they deserve. The team has already squandered an opportunity to form the best possible line when the let Mathis sit on the bench and eventually walk in free agency, and now they are staring at the same problem with Collins. If they don't re-sign him and rightfully name him a starter, he'll walk and likely start somewhere else. And where will they be again if that happens? Scrambling in the draft and picking up the scraps in free agency, needing to pick three offensive lineman through both avenues.