Ever since originally signing with the Cincinnati Bengals in the middle of the 2014 NFL season, Eric Winston has helped out in times of need along the offensive line.
When former Bengals right tackle Andre Smith went down with an injured biceps in November 2014, the team quickly signed Winston, who helped the team make it through that season, starting two games to finish out the year (including the playoffs).
In 2015, the Bengals had one of the best offensive lines in the league, and Winston was used minimally, starting two games, again, in place of an injured Smith. Then in 2016, Smith left the team, Winston re-signed with the Bengals and the hope was that he’d serve in the same minimally-used, backup role, both as a guard and tackle. But, the right tackle position became a mess in 2016 (as the entire line took a big step backward) and Winston ended up playing 25.94% of offensive snaps during the course of the season. That was because Cedric Ogbuehi didn’t perform up to expectations and needed to be continually benched in favor of Winston so that he could receive in-game coaching in the hopes that he would improve. After 11 starts at right tackle, the Bengals finally called it quits on Ogbuehi’s future at right tackle and handed over the reigns to Jake Fisher.
Last week, the Bengals re-signed Winston, bringing him back on his third consecutive one-year deal. But while Winston will be returning, two of the starting lineman from the Bengals’ 2016 roster will not be back in Cincinnati in 2017. Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler are moving on and the Bengals will need to figure out how to field a roster without them.
“That’s part of it in this league,” Winston said in speaking with Cincy Jungle after news broke of his new deal. “You have a team that saw things a certain way and the market said those guys are top, premium players and they moved on. Not everyone is going to stay with the team who drafted them.”
But, Winston has nothing but respect for his former teammates, especially Whitworth, the 11-year Bengals veteran tackle.
“One day they’re going to put the names of the all time players on the walls of the stadium and he’ll be there,” Winston said of Whitworth. “He’s been a team leader here for as many years as I can remember. He’s a very, special, unique player. To me he’ll always be a Bengal and a great Bengal at that.”
Winston also spoke kindly of Zeitler, who’s headed north to join the Cleveland Browns after being drafted by and spending five years in Cincinnati.
“Zeiter has done everything you could expect a first rounder would do,” Winston said. “He’s dedicated himself to being the best player he can be for this franchise and Hue Jackson knows him really well and wanted to bring him to the Browns. For us now, our job is going in and making sure that we don’t miss a beat. And it’s going to be hard, because those guys are great, but it’s going to be on us now to figure that out.
On a positive note, Winston will be back to help stabilize the line and make the losses less noticeable, especially from a leadership standpoint.
“I’m excited. I like Cincinnati... I like my teammates. A couple of them are going on to other places,” Winston said of re-signing with the Bengals. “But, I’m excited about the team; we’re a talented bunch. We didn’t quite figure it out last year like in year’s before. But we have to figure out a way to be great again.”
The way to be great again will start with seeing major improvements from the young tackles (Ogbuehi and Fisher) and watching as T.J. Johnson, Christian Westerman, Trey Hopkins and Alex Redmond battle it out for the starting right guard spot to replace Zeitler. You can bet at least one rookie will be in on that battle, too.
“There’s a lot of pieces in places, and backups, guys who’ve done it for a few years now, that need to step up for us to excel and move forward,” Winston said. “I’m excited for the challenge and the opportunity. And hopefully we’ll make the most of it.”
A big part of Winston’s role on the team in 2016 was mentoring Ogbuehi and helping him develop into the player the Bengals were hoping he’d be when he was selected with the 21st overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Winston will once again enjoy that responsibility again in 2017.
“When I was a young player, the older guys helped me out in getting adjusted to the league,” Winston said. “And that’s part of what you do in this league; you help out and you leave the league a little better than you found it. I take it as one of my roles to mentor the young guys and I’ll do it again.”
Winston believes in his teammates and their ability to be starters for the Bengals. He also knows Ogbuehi and Fisher need to put in hard work and dedication this offseason to make that happen. And while his mentoring certainly is helpful, Winston also says there are some things you can’t teach an NFL player. Some things need to be learned through personal experience.
“Ogbuehi and Fisher have everything you need to be a good offensive lineman in this league from a physical standpoint,” Winston said. “Now, they’ve just got to put the time and dedication into it and figure it out. There are some things in this league that nobody can teach you and you need to figure it out yourself. Luckily, they got a lot of chances to play last year and that will give them the experience and a lot of tape and they’ll study and come back ready to go.”
It won’t be easy for the Bengals to come back from losing a long-time locker room leader like Whitworth, but Winston does add some consistency to an offensive line that struggled even with Whitworth and Zeitler in 2016. And as much as losing Whitworth hurts, Winston summed up how he believes Bengals fans should feel after watching Whitworth leave for the Los Angeles Rams.
“I don’t think as a fan you can have anything but positive thoughts and memories of his time here.”
And that we do.