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Bengals 2017 positional assessment: Offensive Line

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The Bengals’ offensive line was one of the biggest disappointments in a down year. What lies ahead for the team with two of their best players heading toward free agency?

One trademark of the Bengals’ massively disappointing 2016 campaign was the display of once-proud positional units playing well below expectations. Unfortunately, two of the most important groups on any football team, the defensive and offensive lines, were two of the big underachievers for Cincinnati this year.

In recent weeks, we have gone through the various position groups on the Orange and Black Insider—both in reviewing last year’s performance and what’s ahead in 2017. The offensive line was the focus of this week’s show, which created an interesting discussion among the OBI group.

In 2016, most fans who regularly watched the Bengals were able to note the struggles up front on offense. Their allowance of 41 sacks, an average of over 2.5 per game, was tied for the seventh-worst in the NFL and was one of the major facets to the struggles on that side of the ball.

Unfortunately for the Bengals, no player on the line was immune to criticism in 2016. Sure, Kevin Zeitler remained one of the better guards in the NFL and Andrew Whitworth made another Pro Bowl, but there were spurts of minor inconsistencies from both of them last year. Center Russell Bodine marginally improved, but familiar issues surfaced, while right tackle was a disaster, regardless of who manned the spot.

Cincinnati invested their first two picks in the 2015 NFL Draft on promising offensive linemen, but Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher proved to be unreliable starters in their second season. The promise and athleticism are still there, but it’s unclear how much faith the team has in them for starting roles this coming season.

What’s ahead:

The prospect of Ogbuehi and Fisher starting in 2017 becomes even more heavily-spotlighted with the upcoming possibilities of Zeitler and Whitworth hitting the open market. Right guard is an especially large conundrum, given the rumors of the team unlikely willing to shell out big money to Zeitler and the unknown entities of Ogbuehi, Fisher, Christian Westerman and even Whitworth’s value at the position. Furthermore, would Whitworth, a three-time Pro Bowl left tackle, make a move inside, if needed?

Based on his value on and off the field, his age and his loyalty to the Bengals, it seems as if Whitworth will be relatively easy to re-sign. As weird as it sounds for the often-unheralded right guard position, much of what the Bengals do in free agency and the draft hinges on where Zeitler ends up this offseason.

On the show, Scott Schultze, Connor Howe and I expressed both the concern in losing a fringe Pro Bowl player like Zeitler and the dichotomous belief of being able to replace a position that isn’t known as a premium one in league circles. This year’s draft crop isn’t stacked with the star talents at the guard position, but the middle rounds could bring a solid starter, if that’s the route they ultimately choose.

At tackle, obviously everyone hopes that Ogbuehi and/or Fisher can prove to be viable starting options as the end of their rookie deals are nearing. However, Connor noted an interesting band-aid the Bengals could use in old friend, Andre Smith. After playing in Cincinnati for seven seasons, Smith went to Minnesota with Mike Zimmer on a one-year “prove-it deal”. He started four games for the Vikings, but landed on Injured Reserve after a triceps injury.

Might the idea of getting the old band back together be a good one, as Ogbuehi and Fisher continue to develop? Or, does that just play right back into one of the major criticisms of Marvin Lewis and his preference of veterans, instead of truly letting promising youngsters sink or swim?

Whether or not Smith is a short-term answer, the fact that continuity along any NFL offensive line is always a critical component to a championship team. Unfortunately, amassing talent and subsequently losing those players to other teams is also a painful reality of the league. Regardless, the Bengals will need to be a bit more proactive in free agency this year, whether that’s in re-signing their own or getting able replacements for those who leave.