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Like it or not, Russell Bodine is the Bengals’ starting center

Many fans have been clamoring for a possible late free agency addition to supplant the Bengals’ incumbent starter at center. In reality, that’s not going to happen.

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line has continued to experience more and more criticism, both from fans and the media. While the team did a number of things to improve the roster from the six-win team of 2016, especially with their 11 draft picks, the offensive line still looks like the weakest link on the roster.

Since his arrival in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, gans’ favorite whipping boy has been Russell Bodine. Early in his career, Bodine was easy to pick on with so many other talented veterans flanking him. Now, in the wake of free agency attrition, Bodine is one of the veterans the team will be highly-dependent upon in 2017.

With so much talent on the defense and a re-stocking of the offensive skill positions this offseason, Bodine, Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi are all under intense scrutiny to perform this year. After all, it’s very possible the Bengals’ quest to get back to the postseason resides in the performance of the offensive line this year.

Recently, on both the Orange and Black Insider podcast and through our regular mailbag posts, questions and comments have largely centered on Bodine (see what I did there?). NFL teams have an opportunity to get some talented veterans on the cheap for rental-like deals during the summer.

One of the names that keeps coming up from fans as responses in this regard is former Jets Pro Bowler, Nick Mangold. Aside from talent, there are other aspects that make this potential move logical for the Bengals.

Mangold is a local guy, who is originally from Centerville, Ohio and played college ball at Ohio State. He’s likely a Hall of Fame center with seven Pro Bowls to his name, while also fitting into the Mike Brown mold of a high-profile name who could be had on a relatively-cheap deal.

However, there are reasons why Mangold won’t be an option for the Bengals and why Cincinnati will be sticking with Bodine in 2017, barring an injury.

The Bengals and their stubbornness:

If there’s one thing that has defined the Brown era, it’s in the reluctance of admitting the team making a mistake with a player. We’re not saying Bodine is a mistake, but there have been tangible criticisms in his three years as a starter.

Regardless, Brown and Marvin Lewis have been very hesitant to pull the plug on embattled starters and/or projects, often allowing them to see a contract through when other teams may cut bait. Of course, this usually coincides with their conservative nature in outside free agency, but it’s almost equally as frustrating as the aforementioned offseason approach when the player isn’t performing up to snuff.

There are many examples of this with the Bengals and while Bodine isn’t in the category yet, he might be if we’ve seen the peak of his pro career so far. Remember, Bodine was a guy they made the rare move up for in the draft (just the third time of four in their history) and Paul Alexander likely believes he isn’t done molding the clay.

Bodine is durable and has been marginally improving:

How many times have we seen Lewis draft an exciting player, only to see him miss significant time because of injury? We’ve heard Lewis talk about talk about the important trait of availability and, even though it might not mean a whole lot to fans, Bodine provides it.

Of 50 career games, including the playoffs, Bodine has played in and started every one. A big reason the Bengals brought Bodine and his immense upper-body strength was to assist in the running game.

And, while there have been inconsistencies in the aspect over the past few seasons, the team’s rushing offense, in terms of yards per game, has never ranked lower than 13th. While Bodine has had struggles in the NFL in this aspect, he also has been a positive factor as well.

And, if you’re an NFL stat geek, then you love Pro Football Focus’ metrics on player performance. In Sam Monson’s recap on offensive line performances from 2016, he noted an improvement from Bodine, particularly in the run game.

Other young, cheap, versatile options already on the roster:

One of the things you have to credit the Bengals with when it comes to the draft is their gift of foresight, largely eliminating major annual needs. Even though Fisher and Ogbuehi have a lot to prove in 2017, the team invested their two top picks in 2015 in them as a remedy to the looming departures of Whitworth and Andre Smith. They’ve done the same in the interior of the line because of Zeitler, as well as the contract and performance of Bodine since 2014.

In the past two seasons, the Bengals have drafted versatile players in the fifth round in Christian Westerman and J.J. Dielman. They have also kept T.J. Johnson on (and occasionally off of) the roster since 2013. While this doesn’t necessarily play into Bodine’s corner, per se, it does play against the addition of a guy like Mangold.

Bodine’s contract year:

The embattled center is in the final year of his rookie deal and the team wants to find out if he can become a core guy they want to re-sign after this season. As mentioned above, Bodine has been improving, even if it’s by baby steps. The team has had trouble finding viable center options since the days of Kyle Cook and Rich Braham before that, so the all-important “contract year” for Bodine is part of the reason why the team is sticking with him this season.

Cincinnati’s staff needs to figure out if Bodine is a guy they want to dedicate another three or four years to going forward, and to find out if they have a viable long-term solution at center. Even if they can get a slightly better year from Mangold in 2017, who is at the end of his career, Cincinnati is looking for a guy they can lean on for the next half-decade.

Another part of the equation in Bodine’s allure to the team is his affordability this year. He has a $1.9 million cap hit on the year and in a prove-it year and even with some of the struggles, the Bengals probably feel he’s worth a one-season gamble.