This week, it was announced that former Cincinnati Bengals starting right tackle Andre Smith will be re-joining the team after one year in Minnesota with the Vikings. The news was met with mixed reactions by Bengals fans. Some expressed delight for the return of a player who brought stability to the right tackle position. While others are rightfully irritated by the Bengals for making yet another low-key free agency move, bringing back a player who has struggled with health and consistency for much of his career.
After the signing, it was reported that the Bengals are actually thinking of Smith as a player to temporarily replace Kevin Zeitler at right guard, rather than wanting to bring him back to play at right tackle.
Given his checkered history and current age (30), it would to stand to reason that Smith’s usefulness to the Bengals could be very short-lived going forward. His deal is just for one-year, supporting that notion. If he continues to show the same injury and penalty struggles he has shown for much of his career, you would expect the Bengals to think of him as a temporary place-holder while the next generation develops on offensive line.
As of right now, the next in line at right guard appears to be 2016 fifth-round pick Christian Westerman. Originally projected to be a Day 2 selection, his play strength turned out to be a bigger problem for scouts than most analysts expected. He fell much further than expected, but the Bengals simply couldn’t pass him up again with pick No. 161.
He didn’t record any playing experience in the 2016 season, but he might have a chance to fill in and gain some experience in a rotational system with Smith, whose injury problems could cut into his playing time. In theory, as the Bengals continue to work Westerman in, Smith would be shifted more and more to a backup/mentor role for the young guard out of Arizona State.
In addition to Westerman, Smith’s presence on the team could be beneficial for another young lineman, right tackle Jake Fisher. Smith spent seven years as the Bengals’ starting right tackle before moving to Minnesota in 2016, at which point the Bengals attempted to fill the void with a combination of Cedric Ogbuehi, Eric Winston, and Fisher. In 2017, Ogbuehi is expected to make a move to left tackle while Fisher is expected to take over the starting right tackle role. Having an experienced veteran like Smith next to him at the right guard position should allow for Smith to help Fisher along without the distraction of competing for a starting spot.
Smith’s presence as an experienced veteran in Marvin Lewis’ system could also be useful for helping other young linemen like Ogbuehi, T.J. Johnson, Trey Hopkins, and Alex Redmond. Johnson and Hopkins will also be in the competition for the starting right guard role. Though, it seems Smith is the front-runner.
Having Smith taking over the reigns could delay those players’ development, but, if the Bengals don’t believe they’re ready or in a better position that Smith to start, the Smith signing provides a bandaid for the position in 2017.
The Bengals’ focus on mentorship from their veteran linemen such as Smith and Winston will be imperative in 2017, with long-time vocal leader and offensive line mentor Andrew Whitworth now in Los Angeles with the Rams. Smith has never been known as a vocal leader or mentor in the past, but as the most senior member of the expected starting lineup, he will be expected to take on a new role this year and help the young players come along. Hopefully, in a few years, guys like Westerman will be ready to guide their own careers and take over full-time for the Bengals.