In the weeks leading up to the draft, two things were known: the league didn’t think highly of the quality of this year’s class of offensive lineman (which is debatable), and the Bengals were comfortable letting go of their two best blockers up front. Andrew Whitworth left for Los Angeles and Kevin Zeitler left for Cleveland, and the Bengals scrambled to patch things up.
They brought back versatile (I say that word loosely) backups T.J. Johnson and Eric Winston to maintain their sense of continuity in the offensive line room. Then, they reached out to former first round pick Andre Smith and offered him starting money as Zeitler’s replacement at right guard. Smith is coming off a four game season in Minnesota, in which he was inconsistent at best when he started at right tackle for the Vikings, and then spent the remaining 12 weeks on Injured Reserve after injuring his triceps. While Smith brings familiarity to the offensive line having started there two years ago and the previous four years at right tackle, he shouldn’t exactly ease anyone’s worries when it comes to the questions about this year’s group up front. That’s especially true as he’s never played guard at the NFL level.
The Bengals offensive line is in much worse shape than how it looked a few months ago, but what does the Bengals draft tell us about how the club feels about its current offensive line?
The NFL Draft is a great indicator about how a team feels about the strengths and weaknesses of its roster. The plain coach speak that’s forever muttered is “drafting best player available” and “just getting good football players”, but it’s never that cut and dry. Value at certain positions differs from team to team, but every team comes in with their own plans of attack before the start of draft. How the draft plays out determines which plans they want to execute.
Personally, I believe there were two plans brewing in the Bengals’ war room on the night of Round one. They most definitely had their eyes on LSU running back Leonard Fournette, and had he somehow fallen to the Bengals, I feel confident he would’ve been the pick. For as intriguing as Fournette is from a height-weight-speed perspective, he’s very schematically limited and would force the Bengals offense to condense in style to maximize his ability. Under this direction, the Bengals would have used the combination of Fournette and Jeremy Hill to carry the ball about 30 times per game game with Andy Dalton under center, Ryan Hewitt as a traditional fullback, and run an abundance of play action to take advantage of the stacked boxes that facing Fournette requires.
What this game plan would’ve done is handcuff the offensive line to strictly simplistic gap blocking by running power over and over again. It would also rarely ask them to pass block for passing plays requiring multiple progressions from Dalton. The Bengals would’ve hid their offensive line deficiencies by making everything tighter. More two tight end sets would’ve been used as well to counter the heavy boxes they would’ve faced. You could make a case that this is what the Jacksonville Jaguars are doing, only they are doing it to mask the problems of both their offensive line and their quarterback.
But, Fournette didn’t make it past the Jaguars at pick number four, so that plan went out the window. Instead, the Bengals went with their other plan, which is completely opposite of what they would’ve done with Fournette. Speed.
The selection of John Ross in the first round and then the selections of Joe Mixon and Josh Malone tell of an offensive scheme that wants to expand the field and spread everything out. The Bengals reportedly want to keep seven receivers this year, and that makes sense if they want to implement more four receiver sets in 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends on the field). Or, they could go empty set with Dalton in the shotgun with five different pass catchers. The point being, if the draft told us anything, the Bengals wanted to help their offensive line by not adding more offensive lineman, but spreading the field by adding more weapons.
If your offensive line can’t hold up in pass protection, then the quarterback needs to get the ball out quick. Last season, the Bengals didn’t have anyone besides A.J. Green on the outside who could efficiently separate from tight man coverage. This lead to Dalton holding the ball longer than he wanted to and resulted in more sacks given up due to Dalton’s extended time in the pocket. Ross brings that trait with his start-and-stop ability as a route runner and the fear he invokes in corners playing off coverage.
Then, once you force the defense in constant nickel and dime looks when you’re constantly running three and four receiver sets effectively, the running game has more open gaps in the box for a back like Mixon, who can effectively run without a lead blocker, to gash through. Mixon’s advanced vision and burst in the hole make the offensive line’s job that much easier, especially when they’re blocking against smaller boxes as a result of the passing game.
The Bengals didn’t have to invest in the offensive line to actually help the offensive line. It’s clear they want to see what they have in Jake Fisher, Cedric Ogbuehi and maybe eventually Christian Westerman. But instead of drafting players from a class that wasn’t very strong in their eyes, they made the offensive line’s job a lot easier with the addition of faster and more effective weapons around them.
The Bengals want to spread out defenses this year and play faster than ever before; the offensive line just needs to keep up.