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[Bengals Training Camp Preview] Offensive Line

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Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 called them one of the worst units in football during the 2008 season. Combining Eric Ghiaciuc, an aging Levi Jones and fiscally overrated Stacy Andrews, the Bengals offense was largely ineffective with Carson Palmer and Ryan Fitzpatrick taking a combined 49 quarterback sacks with 260 yards lost. If you include the two sacks against Jordan Palmer that season, the Bengals offensive line allowed 51 total sacks, most since 2000. Including Cedric Benson, the Bengals rushing game averaged 3.6 yards per rush -- an average that hasn't been seen since 1993. It wasn't until late in 2008 that the team's offensive line began stabilizing with Anthony Collins and Nate Livings replacing the injured Jones and Andrew Whitworth.

After the season was over, it was desperately demanded that Cincinnati acquire an offensive tackle in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. However, the rebuilding project on the line went much deeper. Andrew Whitworth was moved from left guard to left tackle. Ghiaciuc wasn't re-signed, Levi Jones was released and the team never made a serious bid to keep Stacy Andrews from leaving for Philadelphia. Paul Alexander, someone that Marvin Lewis should thank heartedly, was tasked with reformatting the offensive line. With Whitworth as the left bookend, Nate Livings and Evan Mathis competed at left guard and Kyle Cook was given the start at center. While Bobbie Williams sat comfortably at right guard, right tackle was like a blizzard. Anthony Collins was the early favorite to start, considering first round draft pick Andre Smith's holdout lasted through all of Training Camp. Dennis Roland would be a factor, mostly as the final lineman in a six-line offensive front until later in the regular season.

As a result, the Bengals offensive line, thanks to a growing number of quick-drop passes called by Bob Bratkowski, improved their sacks allowed number by 23 and the 2,056 yards rushing is only the second time the team recorded 2,000 yards rushing in the 21st century. The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line, in our book, was a clear winner for comeback unit of the year with the Bengals, if not seriously considered as a nomination in the NFL.

Andrew Whitworth
Height: 6-7
Weight: 335 lbs
Age: 28
Experience: 5
College: Louisiana State

The NFL Network's Steve Wyche praised Andrew Whitworth, writing:

One of the most memorable periods of last season was when I was dispatched to Cincinnati, and later suburban New Orleans, to report on the unfortunate death of Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry. It was indescribably sad and moving because you saw the life supersede the game and young and old people left in the wake trying to cope.

Amid this, Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, like Henry, from Louisiana, stood up as the team spokesman and the guy a lot of players -- and non-players -- looked to for guidance. I just can't forget how this guy, who I only knew in pads and in the middle of a pile, appeared as such a beacon. He really made me take notice of him in a lot of ways, even to where I watched him more closely on the football field.

One of my favorite moments with Whitworth was his fight against John Henderson, which was a response to the defensive tackle's eye gorging of our, at the time, offensive guard. If you include the Bengals first win of the year, the same game that Whitworth was ejected from, the Bengals would go on to finish the season 4-3-1. One could argue, if you wished it, that Whitworth's fight gave the Bengals some attitude to help rebound after a disastrous start in 2008.

Whitworth is the Captain of the offensive line and one of the Captains on offense. According to the Enquirer's Joe Reedy, Whitworth only surrendered 1.5 quarterback sacks last season and of the 87 runs behind Whitworth, Bengals running backs averaged 4.46 yards per rush. Still, it's the moment Whitworth walked off the field after his ejection against Jacksonville that made me respect the guy.

And I haven't looked back yet.

Kyle Cook
Height: 6-3
Weight: 316 lbs
Age: 27
Experience: 3
College: Michigan State

When the Bengals elected to not re-sign Eric Ghiaciuc, I cheered. It was one of the best offseason moves the Bengals made that year. It's not that Ghiaciuc was a bad guy, but he didn't have the size or strength to weather the storm of massive defensive tackles in the AFC North. Ghiaciuc would go on air some dirty laundry to the media about the Bengals lockerroom calling Chad's antics a distraction to the lockerroom. To which Chad promptly responded, "Ghiaciuc's play was a distraction."

To replace Ghiaciuc, the Bengals had the choice of Kyle Cook, rookie Jonathan Luigs and Dan Santucci. Marvin Lewis and Paul Alexander choose Cook, and the Bengals never looked back. Cook, an undrafted free agent signed by the Minnesota Vikings after the 2007 NFL Draft, was brought to Cincinnati after he was waived and worked with the Bengals practice squad. In 2008, he played mostly special teams until he dislocated a toe during a pregame collision against Dallas -- at about this time, he was starting to be considered as a Ghiaciuc replacement. He would be placed on Injured Reserve soon after.

Considered a good communicator on the line, Cook was able to hold his own against thick defensive tackles in the AFC North, helping contribute to the team's massive success as a rushing offense in 2009. Barring injury, Cook will start against the New England Patriots when the season kicks off.

Bobbie Williams
Height: 6-4
Weight: 345 lbs
Age: 33
Experience: 11
College: Arkansas

Never changing positions and starting 93 of 96 regular season games, Williams has been a constant on the offensive line since joining Cincinnati in 2004. Still considered one of the league's better offensive guards, Williams signed a two-year deal with the Bengals during the offseason, allowing Cincinnati to hold onto a guard in which Pro Football Focus ranked as one of the top five guards in the NFL last year.

Williams will naturally start at right guard, perhaps a great situation to help a young Andre Smith on his right. Furthermore, as he ages, Williams will be able to mentor another young guard, Otis Hudson, as his eventual replacement if he pans out. But in the meantime, the Bengals will have one of the league's better guards who's just as strong as a run blocker as he is a pass blocker.

Andre Smith
Height: 6-4
Weight: 345 lbs
Age: 23
Experience: 2
College: Alabama

Expected to be one of the keys to rebuilding and turning around the Bengals offensive line, Andre Smith was drafted with the Bengals sixth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. However, after a lengthy holdout and a broken foot suffered two days after signing, Smith was forced to miss the first nine regular season games. When he did finally play in a game, he was used as a sixth offensive lineman and a backup on as a right tackle rotation, getting his first, and only, start against the Minnesota Vikings.

In early February, Smith went under the knife as a preventive measure from having his foot breaking again. He's expected to be medically cleared by the time training camp starts. And if that's the case, Smith is likely the early favorite to take his spot as the team's starting right tackle.

Nate Livings
Height: 6-5
Weight: 332 lbs
Age: 28
Experience: 3
College: Louisiana State

Perhaps one of the more interesting training camp battles this year will be between Nate Livings and Evan Mathis -- a battle that started during last year's training camp for left guard. Along with Anthony Collins, Livings was a part of the team's stabilization on the offensive front during 2008 that would feed into 2009. Livings would go on to win the training camp battle in 2009, starting against the Denver Broncos. However, due to an injury, he missed consecutive games against Green Bay and Pittsburgh. He rotated with Mathis, until starting again against the Steelers when Mathis suffered an ankle injury, missing the following three games.

Evan Mathis
Height: 6-5
Weight: 302 lbs
Age: 28
Experience: 6
College: Alabama

The second half of the training camp battle of left guards, Mathis made his first appearance of the 2009 season after Livings went down to injury in the first half against the Denver Broncos. He would go on to start the next seven games, replacing Livings quite well. Even though he missed games against Pittsburgh, Oakland and Cleveland, Livings rotated with Mathis as the team's left guard with Livings mostly starting.

Even though the Training Camp battle between Livings and Mathis will resume a battle that took place last year, expect both guards to have an active role on the offensive line, rotating, giving the team fresh legs throughout the games.

Anthony Collins
Height: 6-5
Weight: 324 lbs
Age: 24
Experience: 3
College: Kansas

Much like Livings, Collins stepped up for an injury-depleted offensive line in 2008, shutting down guys like Pittsburgh's James Harrison and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs. While he performed admirably, the acquisition of Andre Smith eliminated any chance at Collins starting with the Bengals. That was until Smith went on to have an ineffective year with contract issues and injury. Collins would go on to start the team's first five games in 2009 before being replaced by Dennis Roland as the starting right tackle. Collins would start two more games as the team's sixth offensive lineman.

He has a shot at compete as the starting right tackle, but the odds remain long, provided Smith is medically cleared for Training Camp and avoids injury. However, Collins would seem like the team's most natural backup tackle on the left and right side.

Dennis Roland
Height: 6-9
Weight: 320 lbs
Age: 27
Experience: 3
College: Georgia

Much like Collins, Roland's fighting chance at playing time last year was either at right tackle or as the team's sixth offensive lineman. To his credit, he started 12 games, most of which were at right tackle. While his size gave him an advantage as a run blocker, his pass blocking seemed somewhat of a struggle in 2009, especially against quicker defensive ends, allowing seven quarterback sacks (according to PFF).

Roland will be competing against Collins and Smith as the team's right offensive tackle -- though with Smith in the mix, the odds seem long. Most likely he'll play backup tackle and perhaps get additional playing time as a "tight end", playing in six-man fronts.

And the Rest...

Otis Hudson was drafted in the fifth round by the Bengals during this year's NFL Draft. He's already listed as a backup to Bobbie Williams with possibly an eye as the team's future right guard. Reggie Stephens is a versatile offensive lineman that can play multiple positions on the offensive line and Jonathan Luigs is the likely candidate to backup Kyle Cook at center. Guard Isaac Sowells and tackles Anthony Mitchell and Gabriel Manns are as long-shot as long-shot can get to make the team, but both rookie tackles appear as prime candidates to join the Bengals practice squad.