Positional spending can be a good indicator when deciphering strengths and weaknesses on a team. Believe it or not, the Bengals find themselves entering the 2017 NFL season ranked 31st in salary cap money distributed to its offensive line, only spending more this year than the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks offensive line has been plagued with poor performances for years now, and the Bengals offensive line isn’t looking too much better nowadays.
Part of this is due to the overall youth of the group. Eric Winston, and Andre Smith are 33 and 30 years old respectively, and everyone else is 28 or younger. All except 28 year-old Clint Boling are still on their first contracts. However, the team that’s just ahead of the Bengals in offensive line spending is the Tennessee Titans, who bolster a commendable group up front. Both the Bengals and Titans have young starters on their lines, but the young talent the Bengals have brought in has shown to be far less than the what the Titans have.
Smith and Boling are both well established blockers, and at this point, their level of play is predictable in the sense that we know who they are. Boling is an above average starting left guard, and Andre Smith is now a lackluster right tackle who is being tasked to play right guard for the first time professionally. Boling’s competence and Smith’s underwhelming play won’t be unforeseen. It’s the other three starters on the line that leave questions to be answered.
The rule of thumb is by the end of year their third year, a player’s career arc can be accurately depicted. Very rarely do underwhelming players at any position suddenly change for the better if their first three years in the league are less than desirable. As it happens, both Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher are entering their third years in the league, and Russell Bodine is now three years deep into his career.
Let’s start with Ogbuehi.
Ogbuehi’s biggest asset is his size, and that’s been the case since his days at Texas A&M. As far as what he can do with that size, it’s getting out of stance. Running a fast 40-yard dash is a nice accomplishment as an offensive lineman, but that plus athleticism isn’t necessary for blockers. The rep all starts with effectively getting out your stance, and beginning to mirror the edge-rusher. When Ogbuehi takes his first step into his kick-slide, all is well. Unfortunately, it’s just the start of the rep, and it’s far from over.
Ogbuehi has never been able to transfer power from his core into his punches. Often-times you’ll hear the phrase “building his house” in reference to a tackle going up against an edge-rusher coming from the widest alignment on the line of scrimmage, the Wide-9T spot. When that edge is coming and preparing to translate his speed to power upon collision, the tackle needs to establish and prepare his base, or foundation to sustain the force and reverse it back to the edge-rusher. Too many times Ogbuehi has been the victim of getting overpowered against bull-rushes, and this is the main reason why.
To add on this point, his punch timing is consistently late, as his opponent is almost always able to get his hands under Ogbuehi’s pads before Ogbuehi can do the same. He loses the leverage battle from start to finish.
What Ogbuehi needs to show is that he can successfully absorb and re-direct force and display much better timing with his hands. These two are both innate traits in an offensive lineman, where you typically either have them or don’t at this stage, but it’s possible minor improvements can be made. If he can do that, edge-rushers will try to use speed and bend against him, and he’s shown he can always win to the edge with his quickness.
Moving to the other side of the line, Fisher possesses the same plus athleticism and feet quickness as Ogbuehi. Despite reportedly weighing a mere 285-pounds toward the end the year, Fisher showed on a regular basis his play strength is much better utilized and distributed in pass protection and gap run blocking.
Fisher’s overall body synchronization is more advanced than Ogbuehi’s in the sense that the angles of his knee bend and arm bend in his kick-slide are all proper, and everything else is lined up well. But Fisher never received snaps at the tackle position until late in his second year. So more so than Ogbuehi, rust was showing in his timing of his positioning and blocking in general.
Fisher’s weight is now back to normal, and the best thing for him to do to improve is just getting starter reps and having a full offseason of training to work at his craft. One of the bigger misconceptions in the NFL is that being on the bench early on can save players from making mistakes and ruining their careers early. You don’t get better at football by not playing football. The more reps you get, the more consistent a player you will be. This goes for Ogbuehi, too. His deficiencies may always plague his ceiling, but he’s going to make less mistakes the more he gets to play. This was the exact case with Bodine.
From the start of his career, Bodine has been very limited as a player. Lack of ideal length and core strength made him a late-round prospect, and most of his negative reps have been a result of those weaknesses. In his first two years, Bodine was simply unreliable in pass protection, as he couldn’t anchor down and was consistently blown off the line by an A-Gap defender. But in year three, every once in awhile, you saw plays like the one above where he used his natural leverage and got under his opponents’ pads. This came with just the experience of playing the position. But as a run blocker, he’s still well below proficient.
Unlike Ogbuehi and Fisher, Bodine is, in all likelihood, a finished product as a player. The odds of him improving beyond a stop-gap/emergency starting-caliber center are very low based on his build and lack of skill-set. Three years tells you a lot, and it’s told us enough about Bodine. Can the pressure of playing in a contract year help? Probably. But there’s only so much he can elevate on his own.
The Bengals are sleeping in the bed they made for Andy Dalton up front; by the end of this year, we’ll know if the team needs to look again for help.