The Cincinnati Bengals rarely have more than a few starting spots up for grabs each season.
They've been very good at re-signing their own and/or drafting and developing adequate replacements who are prepared when a starter does leave. That's the case at right tackle this year; Andre Smith is gone after being the starter for seven seasons and now is in Minnesota.
That's mainly because the Bengals were ready to move on from him this offseason and ready to allow their top two picks from the 2015 NFL Draft to compete for that starting role. Those picks are Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, and the odds greatly favor one of those two being the starting right tackle in 2016.
Ogbuehi, the 21st-overall pick out of Texas A&M, wasn't expected to do much as a rookie after tearing his ACL during his final college football game. That was in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, 2014, and an ACL tear takes around six months to recover from just to be game-ready.
And as we saw with Geno Atkins, it can take over a full year to fully recover from an ACL tear and get back to pre-injury form. Despite months of rehab ahead of him and NFL teams knowing he would open the year on PUP, Ogbuehi was still taken in the first round of the 2015 Draft by Cincinnati.
Over the course of his college career, Ogbuehi started at guard as a freshman and sophomore before moving to right tackle as a junior and left tackle as a senior, though he eventually went back to the right side in his final year. In 2014, Ogbuehi started all 13 games for A&M with 11 at left tackle and two at right tackle. He earned first-team All-SEC and third-team AP All-American honors.
For the Bengals, Ogbuehi is expected to mainly focus on right tackle, even though he also played left tackle and swing tackle in the limited snaps he got last year. Now that he should be close to or fully back to his pre-injury form with a year of NFL experience under his belt, there's no telling how good Ced will be this year. Ogbuehi is currently sitting out of OTAs but is expected to be ready for training camp. It's unknown exactly why he's not currently practicing.
As for Fisher, the No. 53 overall pick in 2015 started 13 games at left tackle during his final season in college (and played in 51 games during his Oregon career). Many viewed him as a late first-round/early second-round prospect in the 2015 draft, so when the Bengals were on the clock at 53, they couldn't pass on him.
As was the case with Ogbuehi, Fisher rarely saw the field during his rookie year. He ended up getting snaps at right tackle and as a swing lineman in jumbo formations while also catching one pass for 31 yards vs the San Diego Chargers in Week 2.
But as far as his long-term future goes, Fisher is probably the starting left tackle when Andrew Whitworth calls it quits. Fisher is also getting work at guard and even center this offseason as the team wants him to be able to play any spot in a pinch.
I still expect Fisher to get a chance to win the right tackle spot as it's not a wise move to give an unknown and unproven guy like Ogbuehi a starting gig without earning it.
As for darkhorse players to watch for, the only other backup tackle with a realistic chance of even making the final roster is Eric Winston. For the past two seasons, the 32-year-old Winston has been one of the first linemen off the bench at both offensive tackle spots and sometimes at guard for the Bengals.
His age is why he signed a one-year deal for the second straight offseason, and as long as he keeps playing like he has so far for the Bengals, they'll likely keep giving him one-year contracts. Winston played in 13 games (2 starts) during the 2015 season after making four appearances (2 starts) in 2014.
He didn't join the Bengals until midway through the 2014 season, but picked up offensive line coach Paul Alexander's blocking scheme quickly enough that he ended up being the starting right tackle over the final three games (including the playoffs) of 2014.
Winston eventually re-signed during the 2015 offseason and went on to be one of the team's key backup lineman last season. But if neither Ogbuehi or Fisher are ready to take over the starting right tackle spot, don't be surprised to see Winston open the year as the starter there to give Fisher or Ogbuehi more time to get acclimated to that spot.
It's not unheard of for NFL teams to use two players at one position until one of them proves he's worthy of being the full-time starter. In the end, Winston is best suited for being one of the Bengals' backup tackles or backup guards.
Ideally, the Bengals want Ogbuehi starting, Winston backing him up and Fisher being the swing lineman who occasionally gets snaps inside at guard and even at tight end. He can't do all of that if he's locked down with one starting spot, which the team hopes to be at left tackle once Whitworth retires, or moves to guard.
With that said, when the 2016 regular season opens, I expect Ogbuehi to be Cincinnati's starting right tackle.