The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line will likely be undergoing big changes in the coming years.
Andre Smith is now in Minnesota, Andrew Whitworth is inching closer to retirement, and who knows how much longer Russell Bodine can remain the starting center if he doesn't start showing significant improvements. All of this could lead to as many as three new starters along the line by 2017.
Hopefully, a fourth change is not in the works as Kevin Zeitler is entering the final year of his deal. Zeitler, now entering his fifth NFL season, has slowly become one of the NFL's better guards during his tenure. This past season, Zeitler had a great season worthy of Pro Bowl consideration, though he didn't earn that honor. He finished in a tie for Pro Football Focus' 11th-ranked guard ranking while starting in every game at right guard.
The only question now is if Zeitler will remain with the Bengals for the long term, or is this his final year in stripes. His rookie contract is up next offseason, and he's set to play 2016 under the fifth-year option picked up last season. He'll be paid $8 million this coming season, making him one of the highest-paid guards in football.
The Bengals would be making a big mistake to not lock him up and try to keep this strong offensive line as intact as possible. This is a mistake the Bengals avoided this past year with Clint Boling.
Boling, now entering his sixth NFL season, was easily the best Bengal to hit the free agent market in 2015. Though many teams showed interest in him, Boling opted instead to re-sign with the Bengals on a five-year deal worth $26 million.
He's now signed through the 2019 season, making him the only Bengals starting lineman signed through the 2018 season (Bodine hits free agency during 2018 offseason as of now). This past season, Boling started in all 16 games for the third time in his four seasons as a full-time starter.
He finished as Pro Football Focus' 21st-ranked guard and was part of an offense that was among the NFL's best before Andy Dalton's injury. PFF actually gave Boling a higher run-blocking grade (82.4) than pass-blocking (72.3) after run-blocking was something he struggled at early in his career. Now, he has become a more complete guard, and it shows.
The combination of Zeitler and Boling will lead the way for the Bengals guards in 2016 and hopefully many years afterward. Behind them is a great competition between several talented guards, one of whom is Trey Hopkins.
Hopkins made the practice squad last year while spending 2014 on I.R. after he looked poised to make the roster as an undrafted free agent out of Texas. While he's looked good in the preseason, he's not shown enough to know if he is worthy of a spot on the final roster this year, especially with several guys assured of roster spots being able to play tackle and guard.
One of those guys is veteran Eric Winston, who's played both guard and tackle during his two years with the Bengals. After re-signing with the Bengals this offseason, expect Winston to make the final roster again primarily as a tackle, but also able to play at backup guard.
That's also the case with Jake Fisher, whose long-term outlook is at left tackle, but has spent some time at guard and even center during his first year in the pros.
There's also backup center T.J. Johnson, who has played guard well enough in the preseason and training camp that he's essentially a backup guard as well entering his fourth year in the pros.
Then there's fifth-round rookie Christian Westerman, who was rated as one of the top guard prospects in this year's NFL Draft, but fell into Day 3 before the Bengals scooped him up. As long as he does well in training camp and the preseason, he'll have an edge over Hopkins to make the final roster.
Ideally, the Bengals will hold onto both Hopkins and Westerman this year, unless someone else takes their spot(s) on the final roster. Houston lineman Alex Cooper, UCLA lineman Alex Redmond and Florida lineman Trip Thurman were signed as undrafted free agents this year. All three guys played multiple spots during their college careers, and for now, are listed as guards/centers, so it's possible one of them makes a surprise bid for a spot on the final roster.
Starters: Clint Boling, Kevin Zeitler
Backups: Christian Westerman, Trey Hopkins
Practice Squad Candidates: Alex Cooper, Alex Redmond, Trip Thurman
Wildcards: How much do Jake Fisher and Eric Winston play guard this summer in training camp and the preseason? If they play there a lot and do well, perhaps the Bengals list one or both of them as backup guards, which could cost someone like Hopkins a spot on the final roster.