The Bengals’ offensive line struggled mightily in 2016, giving up the seventh most sacks in the NFL (41), and contributing to the NFL’s 20th ranked running game in terms of yards per run (4.0). The issues on the line were primarily due to the transition taking place at right tackle, but it didn’t help that Clint Boling had an inconsistent season at left guard. Boling injured his shoulder in the Week 4 game against the Dolphins and played through the injury up until Week 16.
Going forward, the Bengals have quite a bit of work to do on the offensive line, particularly at guard. The current players on the roster are talented, but Kevin Zeitler is about to hit free agency, leaving Boling as the only experienced guard on the roster. There are options in the draft and free agency to consider for 2017, but something has to be done if the Bengals expect the offensive line to take a step forward.
The current roster
The Bengals will be facing a major decision with Zeitler this offseason. He is an extremely well-established member of the Bengals’ offensive line. That line was bad in 2016, but, it had more to do with issues at right tackle as well as inconsistency at center, and Boling’s injury than any issue with Zeitler.
Without a doubt, the Bengals would be much worse off if Zeitler left. He is the best young lineman on the roster and it will not be easy to replace his talent. If the Bengals can re-sign Zeitler, they will be set at right guard for as long as he stays in Cincinnati.
The only backup guard who stuck on the roster for the entire season in 2016 was rookie Christian Westerman. He clearly wasn’t ready to take over starting duties when Boling missed the Bengals’ Week 16 and 17 games against the Texans and Ravens. But, the hope is that over time, he can develop into a solid contributor for the team. Backup center T.J. Johnson could also fill in at guard and did so in Week 17 of the 2016 season. He’s also a free agent, but a restricted free agent, so it shouldn’t be an issue for the Bengals to retain his services if they want to.
Beyond that group, the Bengals don’t have any guards who have spent significant time on the active roster. Trey Hopkins did make it to the active roster following A.J. Green’s placement on Injured Reserve, but he didn’t make an impact in the Ravens game. The Bengals also signed Alex Redmond as a free agent out of UCLA last season, and he spent the season on the practice squad. He will be in the competition for a starting role in 2017 if Zeitler leaves in free agency, but as of now, it’s hard to imagine him as a frontrunner for the job.
Whether it be preparing for Zeitler’s departure, injecting talent, or building depth, the Bengals need to work on the guard position. That shouldn’t be hard to do with potentially 11 draft picks and a plethora of options in free agency.
The Bengals are currently in possession of the No. 9 overall pick. That means, they could look at Alabama standout Cam Robinson, Wisconsin stalwart Ryan Ramczyk, or even Utah’s versatile Garett Bolles. The Bengals will likely have their pick of the litter. Should they make the decision to invest this heavily at the guard position, they have a great place to start. Still, it’s unlikely the Bengals will go with a Round 1 offensive tackle considering other needs on the roster.
If the Bengals don’t go guard on Day 1, they could still pick up a solid player in the second or third round. In fact, depending on how the first round plays out, Bolles could potentially be available with the Bengals’ No. 41 overall pick. They could also look at Temple’s Dion Dawkins, Western Michigan’s Taylor Morton, Bucknell’s Julie'n Davenport, Florida’s David Sharpe, Troy’s Antonio Garcia, or Florida State’s Roderick Johnson.
On Day 3, the Bengals’ options are virtually limitless. They should see players like South Carolina State’s Javarius Leamon, Vanderbilt’s Will Holden, and USC’s Chad Wheeler left on the board. But, the Bengals will almost definitely have a few players from their scouting reports they will be looking at, if they haven’t already taken ‘their guy’ on one of the earlier days. Remember, Zeitler may have been a first round pick, but Boling was a fourth round pick, so the Bengals know how to find starters at any point in the draft.
Low-Cost Free Agents
Let’s go ahead and kill any notion that the Bengals are going to try to go after pricey veteran free agents like Jacksonville’s Luke Joeckel, Green Bay’s T.J. Lang, or Tennessee’s Chance Warmack. If they were making plans to sign a player like that, they would just give slightly more money to Zeitler, one of their own, for the sake of continuity.
The Bengals are much more likely to look for free agents like Indianapolis’ Hugh Thornton, Los Angeles’ Garrett Reynolds, Minnesota’s Brandon Fusco, and Baltimore’s Vladimir Ducasse. However, these players will all require time to adjust to the Bengals’ system in addition to a large amount of confidence from the Bengals’ front office and coaching staff. The Bengals are unlikely to sign a free agent to solidify the guard position, but much like Eric Winston at the tackle position, there might be a player out there who fits well with the Bengals and won’t break the bank. If the Bengals were to go this route, it would likely be in an effort to add stability to a position as a young player like Westerman continues to develop.