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Future of Bengals’ offensive line murky after Andrew Whitworth joins Rams

The Bengals’ offensive line is dangerously thin heading into next season.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Just two years ago, the Bengals had one of the best offensive lines in football.

Now, the team could have one of the worst after Andrew Whitworth left to sign a big-money deal with the Rams. The move came as a complete shock in Cincinnati, as Whitworth was widely expected to re-sign with the team he’s spent 11 seasons with. Instead, he’s moving across the country to join a new team and collect a nice payday on what is very likely his final NFL contract.

You can’t fault Whitworth for doing so, especially since he’s spent most of his career making less than what he’s worth with the Bengals. If anything, we should be happy to finally see him get a huge payday that ensures he and his family are further set for life. It just is really unfortunate that it’s not coming in Cincinnati.

That doesn’t make the Bengals feel any better, especially when it comes to their offensive line. Even with Whitworth playing like one of the two or three best left tackles in the league last year, the line still regressed mightily to the point it was a liability more often than not.

Now, the team has lost its best lineman, and they may lose their second-best lineman as well. Kevin Zeitler is now a free agent and regarded among the best overall players hitting the market. He’s been a force at right guard for the past five seasons, and losing him would be huge for Cincinnati.

But while Zeitler is a great player, guard hasn’t been viewed as a premium position in the NFL, nor is it nearly as critical as either offensive tackle spot. That’s even more true of the left tackle, who serves as the blind-side protector for quarterbacks. But, the NFL is evolving and guards are now making more money than ever before.

Whitworth served as the No. 1 protector for Andy Dalton since he was drafted in 2011, and he was among the two or three best left tackles in football since then. Losing him not only affects this offensive line, but it also hurts Dalton, and thus makes the entire offense a lesser version of what it’s been in previous seasons.

That’s even more true when Whitworth’s replacement, for now, appears to be 2015 first round draft pick Cedric Ogbuehi. That’s after Ogbuehi was a disaster at right tackle in 2016, so unless another tackle is brought in, this is shaping up to be a big weakness for the team next season.

One has to wonder if Jake Fisher will move from right tackle (where he’s expected to start) to the left side, which is what he was originally drafted to be. But if that happens, there’s no one else to play right tackle, assuming Ogbuehi is still a disaster there. Which is what we should assume as of now.

This makes re-signing Eric Winston more critical this offseason. He’s played well in his brief stints as the backup right tackle since joining the team in 2014. But even if he’s brought back, Winston isn’t the answer there in the long term, and the 33-year-old probably won’t hold up over a 16-game season.

There’s also the possibility Cincinnati drafts a tackle early in this year’s NFL Draft, though the team has expressed enough confidence in Ogbuehi and Fisher to make us think taking one at No. 9 isn’t in serious consideration, not to mention there’s not a tackle worth taking that high. Maybe the Bengals will look to the free agent pool to draft a replacement for the left tackle position. While it’s easier to fill the right guard position, if Zeitler does in fact leave, replacing Whitworth will be a very difficult task. That cannot be understated.

The Bengals planned for Whitworth’s eventual departure in the 2015 NFL Draft. Ogbuehi was selected in Round 1 and Fisher was selected in Round 2. The hope with those draft picks was that the Bengals had their two starting tackles of the future. Smith was allowed to walk last offseason, and Ogbuehi filled in, taking over his starting right tackle spot. That experiment failed miserably and Winston and Fisher ended up starting games at the position, too. Nobody played great in the role, but Fisher did the best of the three, and the assumption has been that he’s in line for that right tackle job in 2017. But, Ogbuehi did nothing to show he’s capable of starting at left tackle, the most important spot on the line. Ogbuehi graded out as the 70th best offensive tackle in the league last year in Pro Football Focus’ grading, meaning he's essentially worse than every single team's starting left and right tackle. PFF believes there are even a bunch of backups better than Ogbuehi. He also received a terrible 39.4 PFF grade on the season, deemed "poor" by the service (the worst possible category of grading)...

Dalton is going to have a pretty miserable season unless some reinforcements are brought in for 2017, and they will need to be good reinforcements. The Bengals’ offensive line was average (if not below average) in 2016. How will it be without its two best players? We can hope and wish and even pray that Fisher and Ogbuehi improve in 2017 and use this offseason to get drastically better. But, can we really trust it will happen?

All said, here’s my early guess at what the starting offensive line looks like Week 1:

Left Tackle: Cedric Ogbuehi

Left Guard: Clint Boling

Center: Russell Bodine

Right Guard: Christian Westerman

Right Tackle: Jake Fisher

Wish Dalton luck.