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Free Agent Priority: Re-Signing Offensive Tackle Anthony Collins

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+ He was a rookie that year, watching as Andre Whitworth and Levi Jones suffered significant injuries, propelling the fourth-round selection to the starting lineup. Cincinnati was 1-9-1 before meeting the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 20, 2008, a Thursday Night Football game that was expected to be a national disaster. Anthony Collins, a rookie out of Kansas, was asked to start at left tackle to take on linebacker James Harrison, who would eventually win the AP Defensive Player of the Year that year over DeMarcus Ware, becoming the first undrafted player to win the award.

It was beautiful.

Though the Bengals still lost 27-10 in a national game that was broadcast on the NFL Network (meaning that it wasn't really a national game), Anthony Collins didn't allow a single pressure on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, much less a hit or a quarterback sack. Collins put together a near-identical performance the following week against Terrell Suggs and the Baltimore Ravens, only allowing one quarterback pressure (but no hits on the quarterback). Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney gave Collins problems, mostly due to his speed, registering two quarterback sacks against Collins.

But the legend was supposed to be written.

Instead the Cincinnati Bengals identified the offensive line as a need during the offseason, drafting Andre Smith sixth overall in the 2009 NFL Draft. Additionally the Bengals revised their offensive philosophy on the behest of Marvin Lewis, moving Andrew Whitworth from left guard to left tackle, flourishing at the position that got him drafted into the NFL in the first place.

Unfortunately Collins' placement on the depth chart meant he had two players to surpass. Andre Smith, who would suffer an injury and a prolonged contract negotiation, and Dennis Roland, beast-like man that belonged to the Clegane family tree that conquered during rushing plays, but badly struggled against the pass. Yet Collins did exactly that, starting the first seven games at right tackle, taking part in 258 snaps in the first four games before falling into a rotation with Dennis Roland.

Collins again struggled to get on the field in 2010, finding a home at right tackle when Andre Smith's season ended with another foot injury. Collins only allowed two quarterback pressures in 151 snaps during pass protection. When Smith suffered another injury in 2011 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Collins finished the offense's remaining 40 snaps and taking part in every offensive snap during the following two weeks against the Texans and Rams. In 88 snaps during pass protection, Collins allowed only one quarterback pressure.

Using our Mason Comets math, that's 239 snaps in pass protection in two seasons, allowing only three quarterback pressures.

Do we need to actually say it? You're thinking it. I'm thinking it. We're all thinking it.

Collins will be an unrestricted free agent next month, entertaining offers for a job that could provide him with an opportunity to become a full-time starting offensive tackle. He would be an idiot not to see what's out there.

Remaining in Cincinnati likely means that he'd have no shot to compete for either starting tackle position. However if the Bengals want him back, their best bet will be to pay him starting money. Otherwise his Bengals career is most likely coming to an end.

Using their grading system to rank the best free agents at respective positions, Pro Football Focus lists Collins as the league's fourth-best free agent offensive tackle this offseason.

That Collins ranks fourth among free agency tackles shows the depth, or lack thereof, in this tackle class. That is not to say that Collins isn’t a capable player, but with only five starts in the last two seasons, one of which saw him play only 14 snaps, his body of work is somewhat lacking. However Collins’ quality of play in those starts has been extremely impressive and, but for a No. 5 overall pick sitting above him on the depth chart demanding time to bed in, might have seen him earn more playing time. In his only extended stretch as a starter, 13 straight starts from Week 12 2008 to Week 9 2009, Collins proved to be an adequate starter and a team looking to fill a gap for the short term could get a pleasant surprise in Collins who with four years of experience at age 26 this season has plenty of tread left on his tires.

That being said, with $60 million available under the salary cap to spend, the Bengals should do everything they can to bring Collins back, keeping a strong depth chart with offensive tackles on the roster.

The reason we say that is because we remain very weary of the team's foresight on personnel decisions. Though they've done well recently drafting players and signing key veterans that's produced, the Bengals haven't been particularly good finding diamonds in the rough late in draft, turning them into strong players with any significant production. Consider that since 2005, Jonathan Fanene and Chinedum Ndukwe have been your only major producers selected later than the fifth round -- if you want to include Bernard Scott or Morgan Trent, go for it but I'm just not there yet.

Why do we bring this up?

The only players remaining on the roster at a backup offensive tackle is an undrafted free agent from Canada named Matthew O'Donnell. Additionally Scott Kooistra is the only offensive lineman that the Bengals have drafted in the fifth round or later that's been worth a damn.

Sign Collins or draft his replacement. It's either one or the other. But we suspect if they're going to find Collins' replacement, it'll be high in the draft.

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