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Genius behind re-signing Eric Winston

This move was met with very little fanfare when it happened, but may have been one of the best decisions of the offseason.

Cincinnati Bengals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This offseason, the Bengals made a move that generally flew under the radar. They re-signed offensive tackle Eric Winston to a one-year extension worth $1,090,000. The move came on the same day as they re-signed high profile strong safety George Iloka to a massive five year contract worth $30,000,000, so Winston’s extension was generally brushed to the side as being less interesting news.

With half of the 2016 season in the rear-view mirror and the struggles of Bengals starting right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi becoming a central theme of the season, it seems that maybe we should have been a lot happier that the Bengals re-signed Winston. That’s not to knock Iloka’s extension, but, it is to say that we didn’t pay enough attention to how smart it was to re-sign the veteran and NFLPA president.

Coming off an injury-plagued rookie season, Ogbuehi proved his talent and work ethic in training camp, essentially winning the starting right tackle job without much competition. But, since the beginning of the regular season, he has struggled mightily in all aspects of his game.

As a result of Ogbuehi’s poor play, the Bengals’ running game got off to an extremely slow start and Andy Dalton is the third most sacked quarterback in the NFL (25). Also as a result of the poor play, Ogbuehi has been benched in favor of the veteran Winston at times in each of the last three games.

While this is all just part of the learning process for Ogbuehi and doesn’t at all mean that the Bengals are losing faith in his development, it does mean that they are very lucky to have a solid veteran lineman like Winston who can plug-and-play when needed.

That plug-and-play strategy has been especially evident in each of the last three games. In Week 6 in New England, Ogbuehi consistently struggled against the Patriots’ pass rush and even recorded one devastating offensive holding call that set the Bengals up for a safety that brought the Patriots within two points of the Bengals’ lead and sparked a 23-3 run in the final 22 minutes of the game. What was looking like a close battle turned into a crushing defeat for the Bengals.

After that safety, Winston played the remaining 31 percent of the offensive snaps. It didn’t seem to help much toward the final score and Ogbuehi did return to start the following game against the Browns. But, Winston provided a safe way to send a message to the embattled Ogbuehi while giving him a chance to watch and learn from a more experienced player.

Against the Browns, things didn’t get much better for Ogbuehi. He was benched during the game and ended up missing a total of 16 percent of the total offensive snaps before returning and finishing things out. Once again, Winston being available helped the team to stabilize what would otherwise have been a rocky transition.

Last Sunday in London, Ogbuehi played his lowest snap percentage of the season (67 percent). These benchings have all been part of an approach to take Ogbuehi in and out of the game for learning purposes, while still allowing him to maintain the starting role. Continuing to throw Ogbuehi into the fire, albeit with a solid backup like Winston available to fill in at any time, is critical to the young lineman’s development. Winston was able to fill in at the right tackle position and play effectively in London as the Bengals rallied after losing a 10 point lead in the second half to escape with a tie.

It’s clear at this point that Ogbuehi isn’t playing up to expectations and fellow second year player Jake Fisher hasn’t earned the Bengals’ trust as someone who should be playing in his place. Winston wasn’t expected to be needed this year, as the hope was that one of Ogbuehi or Fisher would be ready for a starting role. But, Ogbuehi has disappointed and Winston’s leadership has helped the first-year starter.

Without the services of a proven veteran like Winston, the Bengals would be forced to make more rash decisions on Ogbuehi’s development. It also helps Ogbuehi that Winston is able to assist him and help him out with film review, as he did on the plane home from that Week 6 game during which Ogbuehi was first benched. Winston might not be one of the Bengals’ superstar players and he certainly wasn’t one of the most talked about free agents this offseason. But, re-signing the 32-year-old veteran may have turned out to be one of the best personnel moves this year by the Bengals.

And that’s really saying something, isn’t it?