With a very deep roster, the Bengals face tough questions at almost every position. There are many young guys worth a spot on the roster and only 53 can be picked.
One of those players is second-year lineman Christian Westerman, who had a solid performance in the first game of preseason against the Buccaneers on Friday night. Usually somebody like him would have his job guaranteed throughout his rookie deal, but the emergence of Trey Hopkins and the presence of first-year guard/center J.J. Dielman has made for a very crowded unit. The solution to keeping Westerman and Dielman is easy, though. Part ways with veteran Eric Winston.
Last offseason the Bengals opened up a hole on their offensive line when they let right tackle Andre Smith go. It was the right decision to make at the time. He was inconsistent and it didn’t make sense to offer him what he could have had commanded on the market after drafting two tackles with their two first picks in 2015. With Russell Bodine already manning the center position the contending Bengals couldn’t afford a blow anywhere else on the line, but neither Cedric Ogbuehi nor Jake Fisher impressed, to put it nicely.
And not only did Cincinnati not address those needs at the line, they somehow made it worse after kissing Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler goodbye, their two best linemen and top performers at their positions respectively. I’m not going to talk about the decision process, we’ve already written endless amount of words about that. The thing is, the Bengals managed to turn a strength into a glaring weakness in two offseasons.
While their tackles are still struggling, the collection of youngsters inside are performing well in August and that depth could push Smith outside again, after being brought back from the Vikings to play right guard and replace Zeitler. The presence of Smith along with the need to keep giving opportunities to Ogbuehi means the Bengals don’t need a fourth tackle and can keep all their interior guys, like the aforementioned Westerman, Hopkins, Dielman or T.J. Johnson, who also had a good showing against Tampa Bay.
Cincinnati usually only carries nine linemen, sometimes eight, and with Ogbuehi, Fisher, Smith, Bodine, Clint Boling and Hopkins all safe, as well as Johnson likely safe, Westerman, Dielman, Alex Redmond and Winston are the most likely candidates for the other two spots, assuming the team keeps nine linemen.
Westerman would have been safe in past seasons, but with 11 picks in the recent draft the Bengals took another young lineman in Dielman, and long-time backups like Johnson and Hopkins have played well when finally given a chance. It’s uncertain if the Bengals could sneak Dielman through waivers and onto their practice squad, as there sure are a few teams willing to take on a recent draft pick to see if he can boost their line now or in the future. Winston might have been the best option for a contender struggling with its offensive line, as a veteran with knowledge of the system and supposedly a strong presence in the locker room, but he’s not better than Westerman at this point and there’s no upside to retaining him, while the Bengals’ two youngsters may one day become full-time starters or at least versatile contributors.
What’s the point in keeping Winston while risking losing Westerman or Dielman? If any of the tackles misses time, Smith will be there. And while injuries can decimate any position, any other linemen can play tackle in a pinch. Unlike baseball, where if you have some poor starters you can load up on relievers to make up for it, having a poor fourth tackle won’t solve any problem. That means carrying 10 offensive linemen when of them is bad and has no upside isn’t the answer, and it shouldn’t even be an option when considering the amount of talent elsewhere on the roster, including quarterback,
The Bengals have been reluctant to part ways with the veterans they value over the years, and Winston is clearly somebody they like as he’s been in Cincinnati for three seasons and he’s also the president of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).
The hope is the Bengals realize what they have and go with the best or most promising guys, meaning they cut ties with Winston when the time comes and stick with Westerman and Dielman, who even if they never become great players are more valuable right now than the veteran tackle.