When our "mothership" speaks, we listen. And when they start ranking the units in the trenches, we pay particularly close attention to what they have to say. Earlier on Tuesday, Ryan Van Bibber ranked the NFL's offensive line units from 1-32.
Obviously, with Cincy Jungle being a Bengals website, we are primarily interested in where Van Bibber ranked our boys. Secondarily, we are interested in the rest of the AFC North. Looking back at the surprising 2011 season, it's hard to pinpoint exactly how good the Bengals' line was. We knew that the team had a fringe Pro Bowl left tackle in Andrew Whitworth, and we definitely saw a vastly improved Andre Smith. While they kept then-rookie Andy Dalton relatively clean, the run game really struggled and most pointed at poor play from the guards.
The Bengals addressed those issues this offseason with veteran Travelle Wharton and rookie Kevin Zeitler. Van Bibber took notice and gave the Bengals' unit a generous No.3 overall ranking:
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Andre Smith ate up all of our fat jokes from the 2009 draft, using them to become a solid right tackle. Andrew Whitworth is one of the more underrated left tackles in the league, allowing just 20 total pressures last year according to Pro Football Focus. The addition of guard Kevin Zeitler shores up the unit's biggest weakness from the year before.
The team and fans have high hopes for Zeitler. the team passed on the highly-touted David DeCastro, to move back ad grab Zeitler and a third round pick which then became defensive tackle Brandon Thompson. Even though the coaches told everyone that they had DeCastro and Zeitler rated evenly, there were reservations. Then we started looking in Zeitler's college career a bit further and found out that he hadn't given up a quarterback sack in his tenure as a Wisconsin Badger.
Wharton looks to be a marginal upgrade over the much-maligned Nate Livings and we know what we'll be getting out of Andrew Whitworth, even if he struggled a little bit last year. Smith remains a wild card, however, as he's entering the final year of his contract and really only has one solid season to stand on. If he dedicates himself to offseason conditioning the way that he did last year, we will likely see another solid performance out of him. Kyle Cook will continue to anchor the center position, and though opinions on his performance varies, he's solidified the position since 2009 and has put up the best performances at the spot since Rich Braham was in there.
There's a lot to be excited about with this group, but the proof of their improvement will have to be shown in the running game. The offense really struggled in short-yardage and red zone scenarios and that will have to change in 2012. We expect the sack numbers to remain low this season, not only because of the improvement at the guard positions, but also because of the scrambling ability of Dalton.
The rest of the AFC North cracked the top half of the league in Van Bibber's list with the Ravens coming in at No.8, the Steelers landing at No.12 and the Browns at No.13.