The Bengals finally made their first free agency signing of this offseason, choosing to spend $10 million across three years on veteran guard Travelle Wharton.
It was definitely money well spent. Take a look at former Bengal Nate Livings' contract, who signed for $19.6 million across 5 years, with $6.2 million guaranteed. Livings was arguably one of the worst players on the Bengals team last year, and was ranked 56th out of a total 77 NFL guards in 2011 by ProFootballFocus.
Wharton, also a left guard, was ranked 38th. Wharton has started 99 games for the Panthers since he was drafted in the third round in 2004. He has spent most of his time at left guard, but has played two full seasons at left tackle as well. Wharton signed a major contract with the Panthers before the 2008 season, and was due $7.6 million this year. As a result, Wharton became a salary cap casualty, and was snagged up by the Bengals for far less money to become Livings' replacement.
Wharton and Livings are very different players, but for the time being, it looks like the Bengals have made an upgrade at the position.
If you look at Wharton's play in 2011, he is an above-average run-blocker, a poor pass-blocker, and he gets very few penalties. Livings, on the other hand, is poor run-blocker, an above average pass blocker, and he gets a lot of penalties. Livings would have cost much more to keep.
There's no guarantee that Wharton will be the team's starting left guard in 2012, but the fact that he will be receiving around $3 million per year seems to suggest that he will be starting. That leaves Wharton fighting for the left guard spot (with presumably another draft pick or free agent signing), and 2011 4th Rounder Clint Boling and 2010 fifth rounder Otis Hudson fighting for the right guard spot. With no clear starters set at either guard spot, the Bengals could still easily take a guard like David DeCastro or Cordy Glenn in the first round (DeCastro is a natural right guard, for those wondering).
The signing of Wharton appears to reflect the team's desire, in my opinion, to run the ball. The Bengals were miserable at running the ball last year, and only Bobbie Williams, who will probably leave in free agency, graded positively in run-blocking. Andre Whitworth, Nate Livings, Kyle Cook, Mike McGlynn (Williams' injury replacement), and Andre Smith were all better at pass-blocking than run-blocking in 2011.
Wharton started 15 games at left guard for a Carolina Panthers team that averaged a league high 5.4 yards/attempt last year. Not only did Wharton's team run well, but Wharton plays left guard, which is where the Bengals want to run. Take a look at these stats, provided by the Enquirer's Joe Reedy:
One note on Wharton and his run blocking. The Bengals ran 52 plays off left guard last year, which was ninth most but averaged 3.6 yards per carry, which was 24th. By comparison, Carolina averaged 4.1 yards running off left guard was in the middle of the league rankings.
Of course, the Panthers have some of the best runningbacks in the league in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and one of the best running quarterbacks in the league in Cam Newton. Therefore, don't automatically assume that Wharton will provide an instant boost to our running game.
Taking a look at other parts of Wharton's game, he is good with penalties (was only called for 1 penalty in 2011). However, he his biggest weakness is pass-blocking. Wharton allowed 27 QB pressures in 2011, which places him tied for 5th-worst in the league among NFL guards. The 6'4", 312 pounder gets decent praise around the league for his run-blocking, but he is truly lacking in the pass protection category. He receiver a -7.9 grade in pass protection in 2011 by ProFootballFocus.
I'm not so sure that it is a brilliant idea to sacrifice protecting Andy Dalton in order to run the ball a little better. Hopefully, Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander can develop Wharton's pass-protection skills before he sees the field in 2012.
In general, some experts in the league think that Wharton was "overwhelmed as a starter", but is a "solid backup". Others say that Wharton is "probably an upgrade over Nate Livings, but inconsistent". The one constant theme though, is that Wharton is an "asset in the run game".
Finally, attitude-wise, Wharton is a great fit for this team. He is excited for this young, developing team:
"You can see it on the rise...and I want to be a part of something special"
"It's exciting...he's doing great things and it's my job to protect him so he can do more."
Hopefully, Wharton can improve in certain parts of his game and continue to do well in others. Here's to the Bengals making their first signing!