Take a look at the 2014 Cincinnati Bengals roster for a second. Nearly every position group brings a sense of relief, if not uber-confidence, save for one. It's been since the onset of the 2012 season that the center position has left a lot to be desired on this club.
Initially, Kyle Cook took over in 2009 because of multiple failed experiments after Rich Braham retired a couple of years earlier. Unfortunately, Cook never could re-gain the form from that improbable 2009 campaign and the team has been forced to try a new option--this year's fourth rounder, Russel Bodine.
The team coveted Bodine, the NFL Combine's bench press king, so much that they moved up in the draft to grab him for only the third time in franchise history. Their desire to get Bodine not only stemmed from his upper body strength, but likely also because some higher-rated centers were coming off of the board around that time.
After basically proclaiming him the Week One starter, Bodine received a lot of work during the preseason. By most accounts, a lot of it hasn't looked that great (see here and here) and has people worried about the position once again in 2014:
@CJAnthonyCUI try taking the bengals fans off the ledge tell us why we shouldn't worried with Bodine facing the ravens defense on Sunday?— jared (@Irishfootball11) September 2, 2014
Personally, I wish that we weren't beating this dead horse, but Jared brings up a valid concern--Bodine just hasn't looked the part throughout the preseason. Mike Pollak, a guy who was signed this offseason to potentially lock up a starting spot at either center or guard, just hasn't been healthy enough to do so. The Bengals are rolling with Bodine, for better or worse.
My take is that while Bodine hasn't looked good, I think there is a bit of an overreaction occurring. One thing that is encouraging is that some of the mistakes he made early in the preseason (botched snaps, lost assignment) appear to by a bit more mental than physical. Yes, Bodine has been beaten at times, but he seems to have righted the ship in the snapping department of late and some of the instances where he seemed to not understand his assignment on the play seem correctable. Not all of the mistakes, but some.
The other encouraging aspect comes with that aforementioned strength. There were times that Bodine was beaten on a block where most centers would have given up a monstrously disastrous result. Because of the upper body strength, Bodine can limit some of the damage done by an errant block more so than other centers with the upper body strength.
Pros From The Preseason:
1.) Jeremy Hill was very productive during many series where Bodine was the center. Not all of the lanes provided were his doing, but Hill is a between-the-tackles runner, for the most part. Bodine helped.
2.) As I mentioned, some of the dumb mistakes like terrible snaps went away as the preseason wore on.
3.) He seems to have a decent football I.Q.
4.) He has been somewhat solid in pass protection throughout the preseason.
5.) Great upper-body strength.
Cons From The Preseason:
1.) He often plays with poor leverage.
2.) Some of the worst plays on Bodine's film this preseason were against the run. That is the aspect that the Bengals are hoping to improve the most on their football team.
3.) Though he does have good football acumen, he still appears lost on some assignments, as he acclimates himself to the Bengals' offensive playbook.
4.) He appears to have "won" the starting job because Pollak was injured throughout most of the preseason, as well as his draft status.
5.) For as strong as his upper body is, the lower body doesn't appear nearly as strong. That, coupled with the leverage issue, could be a major problem.
6.) For how good Hill looked at times that Bodine was in the lineup this preseason, Giovani Bernard was swarmed by opposing defenses (2.5 yards per carry in three games played). It's disturbing because Bodine and Bernard are the "starters", but also because these two have great familiarity as college teammates. Hm.
Bodine needs time to develop into a quality NFL starter. Fans might not have the patience that the coaches seem to share on Bodine's upbringing with the club, but they will need to deal with it until he either succeeds or fails and the club moves on.Week One against Brandon Williams, Haloti Ngata and Co. in a loud, hostile M & T Bank Stadium won't be an easy debut for the former Tar Heel.
I was on record that I hoped the Bengals had looked at a center in the third round and potentially made a move up for one there. I had my personal sights set on Marcus Martin out of USC, who has since suffered an unfortunate season-ending injury, but had the potential and talent that caught Jim Harbaugh's eye enough to make him a 49er. Truthfully, Bodine wasn't on my radar for the Bengals--especially not in the fourth round.
But, regardless of my thoughts, the coaches like him. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has an up-and-down track record with his players. He's gotten quite a lot out of former low-round and undrafted projects, helped turned Andre Smith's career path around and has had many Pro Bowlers (or guys on the fringe) under his watch in The Queen City. He also has a disturbing penchant for latching onto a lesser-talented player while a quality starter sits--need we be reminded of the Nate Livings/Evan Mathis fiasco from 2009?
So, where will Bodine's career path fall? It's far too early to properly predict it accurately, but I don't see him being a Pro Bowler or a total flop. Will he be a Bruce Kozerski or Rich Braham for this club? Probably not. Will he be an Eric Ghiaciuc, or Jeff Faine? No. I think he'll fall somewhere in between these groups.
Maybe he ends up having a couple of decent years like Cook did and then the Bengals, who are uber-stacked, begin to bring in another guy down the road to continue to breed competition in their locker room. The point is, that fans need to back off of Bodine for a bit. The team needed to make a change at the position since it started in a major downward trend after 2011 and took a risk. It may or may not pay off.
People are jumping down the throat of a guy with four preseason games under his belt, where three of those games were against stout defenses. Give him a chance in the regular season first and see if he progresses from week-to-week, as rookies should. And, as to be expected with young players, don't be surprised if growing pains occur.
One thing to consider for the Pollak-as-starter apologists is that he hasn't played a lick of the position in the NFL, himself. Not one snap. He was All-Conference as a center for Arizona State, but none of the three teams he has been on feel comfortable starting, much less playing him there. They obviously see and know things that the fans don't.
For now, it's ride-or-die with Bodine. Like it or not, buckle up.