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How will the starting lineup for the Bengals offensive line shake out?

Second-year tackle Anthony Collins could be a wild card in the offensive line musical chairs scenarios, starting at right tackle early and then left tackle later.

In the spring of 2006, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted LSU offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth in the second round. While blogging the draft that year, I wrote:

If this pick isn't telling enough, you haven't followed the whole Willie Anderson side-show in recent days. Either that, or the Bengals are finished thinking backup Stacey Andrews as a project. Or Anderson's age and body breaking down is causing the team to plan for the future now. In all honesty, I see this is the ball rolling to getting ready for an Anderson-less Cincinnati team after the 2006 season. And yes, I'm well aware Whitworth played left tackle.

Ideally Whitworth was targeted to become Willie Anderson's replacement once he left the team in some form or another. It didn't turn out that way after the Bengals decided to extend Anderson's and Levi Jones' contracts. Since both starting tackles wouldn't be unseated by a rookie, Whitworth essentially would become a backup tackle, at best, while possibility projected as a left guard. I remember at the time that the scenario existed, but we weren't enthusiastic nor understanding of the move. After all, we only knew Whitworth as a left tackle. We also feared losing Steinbach, who we believed was a big reason for the offensive line's performances, which was rated as one of the best in the league before 2007.

In truth, it would seem he was always going to be a guard in the NFL. Making his career start at left guard during the opening weekend in 2006, Whitworth replaced Eric Steinbach at left guard, who replaced an injured Levi Jones. With that configuration, and Eric Ghiaciuc at center, the Bengals offensive line allowed 17 sacks through the first five games that season. Andrew Whitworth started against Carolina at left tackle, and nine subsequent games after that until he was replaced by Jones against Denver. The next week against Pittsburgh, Jones got hurt (again) and Whitworth finished the season at left tackle. It was slowly realized that the Bengals would be allowing Steinbach to hit free agency while grooming Whitworth as the next left guard. However, injuries to Levi Jones forced Whitworth to play left tackle that season.

For the rest of his young Cincinnati career, Whitworth started at left guard while being a backup left tackle when Levi Jones would sit due to injury or because of a coach's decision.

Even though he's not the most experienced, Whitworth is the de facto leader of the Bengals offensive line, co-anchoring (with Bobbie Williams) a lot of inexperience. Andre Smith is a rookie and figures to start; provided immaturity issues don't weigh him down. The center will be manned by youth; whether it's rookie Jonathan Luigs or Dan Santucci or Kyle Cook, the combined playing experience is very limited. Then there's Anthony Collins, who seems to always be forgotten, figuring as the starter opposite of Smith. Based on how he performed last year against some of the league's better pass rushers, I don't have a problem placing him back at left tackle to start the season. Remember, Collins shutdown James Harrison and limited Terrell Suggs; two defensive super-stars in the AFC North with teams that the Bengals have to beat if they are to compete in the division.

However, because of the unknowns, it makes you wonder where Andrew Whitworth will play? He has experience starting at left guard and tackle. And if they place him at one spot, they have alternative options at the other.

For instance, if he slides out to left tackle, who becomes the team's left guard? Since the Bengals have three centers that will compete for the starting job, one has to figure that one of the competing centers can slide out to left guard. However, moving Whitworth from left guard is based on the coaches evaluations of Collins and Smith. If they are ready, then there's no need to move Whitworth -- in fact, it wouldn't make sense. Ideally the Bengals would like Smith and Collins starting at the ends, with Whitworth and Williams and whoever wins the center competition in the middle.

However, if for some reason, they move Whitworth to left tackle, then what? The following list charts possibilities and where players could end up starting. (Note: this is not a depth chart).

Let's not forget two things, which aren't featured in the chart. Nate Livings should have as much a right to compete at left guard as any center that could make the transition. Santucci played every game his senior season at Notre Dame at right guard, so he has the experience.

The theme that we've really latched onto is options. From the offensive line, to running backs, to linebackers and safeties, we have options. Evaluations through training camp will go a long way to determining where players start. As with all early first round picks, there's the possibility that Andre Smith holds out, which will obviously set an early stage of giving Whitworth a majority of his snaps at left tackle. If that's the case, then we can suspect the Bengals go with the second chart to start the season, slowly pushing Smith into one of the tackle positions. And if that's the case, then Collins will probably have to work both tackle spots because it would seem like he's the one changed with being the other versatile lineman when Smith starts; which figures to be the right side while Whitworth figures to start at left tackle, if he starts at tackle.

In conclusion, there is no conclusion.