The Bengals employed an interesting strategy in the 2017 NFL Draft. In 2016, Andy Dalton was sacked the second most times in the NFL (41), while the Bengals’ rushing attack ranked 20th in terms of average yards per run (4.0). With Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler leaving in free agency for the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, respectively, it would stand to reason that fixing the offensive line should have been one of the top priorities of the offseason. The problem is, that’s not what’s happened.
In free agency, the Bengals brought former right tackle Andre Smith back after a one-year stint in Minnesota. He is expected to fill in at the starting right guard spot while right tackle Jake Fisher continues to develop at Smith’s old spot. In the draft, they selected center J.J. Dielman of Utah, although it is unclear what position he will play at the NFL level as he has two years of experience at right tackle, a few games of experience at center and a substantial amount of athleticism to help him play on the outside. The Bengals are also bringing in Dustin Stanton and Landon Lechler as undrafted free agents.
That wraps up the changes. An old, past-his-prime Smith, a fifth round center who was expected by many to fall out of the draft entirely, and two undrafted free agents. That’s not exactly indicative of a heavy offseason focus on repairing an offensive line that greatly struggled in 2016 and lost its two best players this offseaosn.
As of right now, it appears as though Cedric Ogbuehi will start at left tackle, Clint Boling at left guard, Russell Bodine at center, Andre Smith at right guard, and Jake Fisher at right tackle. That’s an entire offensive line comprised by players who struggled in 2016.
Ogbuehi and Fisher have the most to prove after they were selected by the Bengals in the first and second rounds, respectively, in the 2014 NFL Draft, yet have struggled to make a positive impact on the offensive line. Boling and Bodine return as the only stabilizing factors, yet Boling took a step back in 2016 (largely due to an injury he played through). Bodine has struggled to prove he is worthy of the Bengals’ continued faith in his very slow development. Finally, it is hard to find a reason to be optimistic about Smith’s return, as the Bengals made virtually no effort to re-sign him in 2016. All he did with the Vikings was struggle to adjust and finished the season on Injured Reserve, which sounds a lot like the justification for letting him walk from Cincinnati in the first place.
The way the Bengals have attacked this offseason in terms of the offensive line makes you think they are supremely confident in the abilities of the players they currently employ. It is hard to see how the unit can struggle so much in 2016, lose the only two consistently effective players in Whitworth and Zeitler, and act like the unit is going to magically improve.
At the moment, it is very difficult to see the Bengals’ long-term plan for the offensive line. That said, there are a few players who are seen as depth guys right now who have the potential to become starters if something were to go awry with the current starting lineup.
Receiving comparisons to Pro Bowler Alex Mack, Westerman was expected to be drafted as early as the second round in 2016. He is an athletic, balanced guard with a terrific feel for both technique and timing. Unfortunately, he has never managed to shed questions about his play strength, which is why he fell. That said, if he can reach the potential that many scouts and analysts saw in him, he could take over at the right guard spot and help make the Bengals’ interior line a fortress.
One of the Bengals’ biggest unknowns on the offensive line, Hopkins is well liked by the Bengals’ coaching staff and has spent time on and off the practice squad. But, if he can take advantage of his arm length and above-average anchor, his presence could be enough to, at the very least, push some of the starting interior guys.
The second of the Bengals’ two fifth round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, Dielman was the only lineman the Bengals selected this year. He is listed as a center, but his strengths primarily revolve around his athleticism and body control, which are primarily traits noted for guys looking to play offensive tackle. Luckily for him, he seems to fit what the Bengals are trying to do.
"Dielman will fit in with the guys who we have. He's a big, tough, physical, smart guy that has a passion for football. I like him,” Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander said in a press conference, speaking of Dielman. “He adds to our room. He can play center, he can play guard and he played a little tackle at Utah so he's a versatile guy."
The Bengals certainly could have used a bit more injection of talent on the offensive line this offseason, but the team seems to have a plan in place. Deciphering what that plan is and how it fits with the talent currently available is a different story, but it is impossible to deny the Bengals’ focus is on youth and potential.