Long time Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth is regularly recognized as one of the best players at his position and in the NFL. He's been elected to the Pro Bowl twice, was a first team All Pro last year for the third time and finally made the NFL's top 100 players list this year. He's held down the Bengals' left tackle position since switching from left guard in 2009. Since then, there has been virtually no question as to where he fits best on the depth chart.
However, at 34-years-old he isn't getting any younger. Inevitably, that means Whitworth's speed and agility, which are so crucial to the left tackle position, will likely deteriorate as he ages. It's something that isn't fun to think about, but it's an ugly inevitability the Bengals will need to face sooner or later. As a result, there has been talk about Whitworth potentially switching back to guard, a position that requires much less speed and agility than tackle, so that he can continue to contribute for the Bengals at a high level.
First of all, it should be noted that this is definitely not something that will happen this year. Whitworth has recently discussed his willingness to make the move, if necessary. But, it's a pretty safe bet that the Bengals aren't thinking about moving him away from the position right now, as he's coming off arguably his best two seasons at the position and both of their talented young tackles are still inexperienced. It would not only be surprising, but also not particularly smart for the Bengals to jump on this idea too quickly.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let's talk about Whitworth's future on the Bengals' offensive line. This year, it could potentially make sense for the Bengals to start working Jake Fisher or even Cedric Ogbuehi in a bit more at left tackle, just to make sure they have some in-game experience. There's no reason to move him Whitworth now, but it wouldn't hurt to begin the process of putting the pieces in position for when Whitworth hits free agency next March. In fact, Whitworth himself seems to agree that the move makes a lot of sense.
"I still see myself as having value in that," Whitworth told Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I feel with my kind of strength that’s something that’s definitely a positive for me, so I think that you can move inside when you’re a big powerful guy. Not all tackles can do that, but I’m really comfortable in there, have played really well in there and know that I could still do that. Yeah, if the body is still feeling good, for sure.
As early as 2017, Whitworth could begin the process of transitioning back inside to guard so as to bolster the depth at that position, given the Bengals extend Whitworth this year or re-sign him in 2017. It probably wouldn't make sense for him to play guard over the talented and still relatively young Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler, but his talents would be a significantly preferable insurance policy over any depth guard currently on the roster. Not to mention, it would be a great way to extend his career and get the most out of an incredible talent. Zeitler, like Whitworth is also entering a contract year in 2016.
"I feel like at tackle, I still have some years,and at guard, I for sure have years," Whitworth said, "I feel like it's one of those things that you have to stay open if you want to keep playing."
Given the current depth on the Bengals' offensive line, the move could really bolster the unit. We've already talked about the value of allowing Ogbuehi and Fisher to get some experience playing at the tackle positions, but don't forget that Eric Winston remains an experienced option behind the two players and shouldn't have too much trouble filling in if an injury should happen.
However, it's much more of a tossup behind the Bengals' guard positions. Boling and Zeitler are two of the NFL's best young guards, but there is virtually no proven talent backing them up. Christian Westerman was one of the Bengals' most talked about picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he has yet to prove himself and could very well make the transition further inside to center. That would leave only Trey Hopkins and a handful of 2016 undrafted free agents to battle it out for the backup spots.
Granted, as it stands right now, Whitworth is one of the best left tackles in the NFL. A move away from the position right now would be very strange, to say the least. But, his advancing age and the state of the Bengals' offensive line depth would suggest that a move inside in the relatively near future could actually be a very useful and lucrative strategy to maximize Whitworth's longevity and effectiveness.