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Weekly Lineman: Final assessment of the 2017 Bengals offensive line

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In Paul Alexander’s final season with the Bengals, his offensive line produced mixed results at best.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Hindsight is always 20/20. But some decisions are so obvious from the beginning that you have to wonder if there was more to it than just the surface.

One final time: The Bengals screwed up their offensive line. They watched their team captain and source of leadership Andrew Whitworth join the Los Angeles Rams as he helped them win the NFC West, and he looked as dominant as ever doing so. He was recognized with his second All-Pro selection of his career, and one of the main reasons why quarterback Jared Goff took such a gigantic leap in his second year.

The Bengals played hardball in negotiations and decided to bet on Whitworth’s decline to arise sooner than later in what will probably be his last contract as a starter, effectively riding with their first-round pick in Cedric Ogbuehi. The third-year player would transition back to his “natural” spot at left tackle, and he would fill the hole left by Whitworth well enough.

This plan backfired so abruptly it gave Paul Alexander whiplash. The signing of Whitworth by the Rams has been universally regarded as one of the best decisions of the offseason, and Ogbuehi looked the same as he did in 2016.

In addition to Whitworth’s departure, right guard Kevin Zeitler reset the market for guards as he signed his second contract for the Cleveland Browns, vacating another spot and hundreds of lost snaps.

But there was more to this group that experienced so much turmoil and turnover. Only five games all season did all five starters play the entire game. Only two starters ended up playing over 90 percent of the total snaps. Injuries and general inconsistencies kept this group on constant notice for change.

From the very beginning, it was obvious this group was going to struggle, so from the very first week, I kept track of every rep from every lineman. Every bad punch, ineffective drive block, slow pull, and mental error was accounted for, and treated with context.

I counted these as Low Quality Snaps, and divided them by the number of snaps (sans QB kneels) to come up with Low Quality Snap Percentage for all 11 offensive lineman that have played this year. These were the numbers you may’ve remembered from the bye week back in October:

Low Quality Snap Percentages (thru Bye Week)

Player Cedric Ogbuehi Clint Boling Russell Bodine T.J. Johnson Jake Fisher Andre Smith Trey Hopkins Alex Redmond
Player Cedric Ogbuehi Clint Boling Russell Bodine T.J. Johnson Jake Fisher Andre Smith Trey Hopkins Alex Redmond
Position(s) LT, RT LG C RG RT, LT RT, LT RG RG
Low Quality Snaps 36 15 48 26 32 14 12 4
Total Snaps 251 311 311 227 257 114 68 16
Offense Snap % 80.71% 100.00% 100.00% 72.99% 82.64% 36.66% 21.86% 5.14%
Low Quality Snaps % 14.34% 4.82% 15.43% 11.45% 12.45% 12.28% 17.65% 25.00%

These are the final end-of-season numbers (reminder, QB kneels were taken out):

End-of-Season Low Quality Snaps Percentages

Player Cedric Ogbuehi Clint Boling Russell Bodine Trey Hopkins Andre Smith Jake Fisher T.J. Johnson Eric Winston Alex Redmond Christian Westerman Kent Perkins
Player Cedric Ogbuehi Clint Boling Russell Bodine Trey Hopkins Andre Smith Jake Fisher T.J. Johnson Eric Winston Alex Redmond Christian Westerman Kent Perkins
Low Quality Snaps 78 47 123 69 62 39 37 19 11 12 1
Total Snaps 657 944 944 692 525 358 233 196 101 86 6
Offense Snap % 69.60% 100.00% 100.00% 73.31% 55.61% 37.92% 24.68% 20.76% 10.70% 9.11% 0.64%
Low Quality Snaps % 11.87% 4.98% 13.03% 9.97% 11.81% 10.89% 15.88% 9.69% 10.89% 13.95% 16.67%

Let’s go through from most to least amount of snaps:

Clint Boling

Best Games:

  • Week 5 vs. Buffalo (0% LQS, 62 snaps)
  • Week 12 vs. Cleveland (0% LQS, 61 snaps)
  • Week 13 vs. Pittsburgh (0% LQS, 64 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 16 vs. Detroit (11.90% LQS, 84 snaps)

Iron Man, The Rock, Mr. Incredible, whatever you want to call Boling for his performance this year, it’s accurate. Were there better guards in the NFL this year? Yes. The upper echelon of the position is pretty damn good. Boling has never been at that level in his career, but he’s always been reliable.

That rock solid consistency was put to the test week in and week out this year as he had to manage the left side of the line without Whitworth for the first time in his career, while continuing to play next to the player we will get to in a minute.

Pulling around the formation on power runs, sealing off linebackers on wide zone runs, handling under tackles one on one in pass pro and dealing with constant stunts and twists; Boling was locked in for every rep for 16 weeks.

As the offense sputtered to move the ball, Boling would have a few miscues a game but always managed to bounce back and carry the group. Those games against Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh weren’t “perfect”, but he played about mistake free as a left guard could.

When Ogbuehi missed the last two games of the year and depth at the tackle spot was non-existent, Boling moved to left tackle for the first time since his college days at Georgia. He struggled on the edge against Detroit, but still flashed functional strength and calm footwork. Against Baltimore, he looked noticeably more refined at the blind side.

It doesn’t look like the Bengals want Boling to make the full transition to left tackle, and they shouldn’t with how consistent he is at the spot he’s held down since 2012. When Whitworth and Zeitler were here, Boling, to most fans was more of the unnoticed contributor in a rock solid unit.

Now, he’s the unquestioned leader and the standard amongst the group.

Russell Bodine

Best Game: Week 10 @ Tennessee (3.92% LQS, 51 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 1 vs. Baltimore (22.95% LQS, 61 snaps)

For the second time in his four years, Bodine finished the season without missing a single snap. He’s been one of the most durable players on the entire roster, and the continuity Bodine has helped maintain has been the single saving grace in his time snapping to Andy Dalton.

And it was good that he played as much as he did; players like Bodine only get better with in-game experience. The problem was, what he’s shown this year is about all you are going to get from him.

Bodine has always been, and always will be, a limited blocker. That was evident with his combination of short arms and timing with his hands in pass protection at North Carolina. It was evident with his underwhelming 3-cone and short shuttle times at the combine that he would have trouble blocking on the move.

To this day, it’s extremely rare to find an example of him getting out in front of a nose tackle on a reach block. And the biggest problem was, up until the later half of this season, the Bengals didn’t seem to notice his issues with standard things. You can’t really hide a center and his deficiencies, and defenses didn’t have to do much to clog the middle.

His season wasn’t all bad, as he had a handful of solid outings, but he didn’t do anything that a fourth-year veteran shouldn’t be able to do. And that’s what you’re always going to get with him. With Paul Alexander out and Frank Pollack in at offensive line coach, Bodine’s future with the team has never been in more jeopardy.

Trey Hopkins

Best Game: Week 17 @ Baltimore (5.26% LQS, 76 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 5 vs. Buffalo (17.95% LQS, 39 snaps)

Perhaps no one amongst this group had a more up and down year than Hopkins. After waiting three years to get his opportunity, Hopkins beat out Andre Smith for the starting right guard spot from the beginning of training camp. His debut start against Baltimore was shaky at best, and he left the game early with what was called a “major” knee injury at the time.

He ended up only missing three games and returned against Buffalo, which was his worst game by my account. But as the season progressed, his play started to level out into some consistency.

Hopkins works very similar to Boling, they are both great at targeting defenders on pulls and blowing them out of the edge, and they are able to lock and turn shaded tackles away from the gap.

Hopkins had most of his issues in pass pro as his hands would get noticeably too high and he wouldn’t be able to reset fast enough. He has solid anchoring capability, and that saved a number of reps from potential disaster.

While playing nearly every snap for the past four years has helped Bodine, the opposite effect may’ve occurred with Hopkins. Regression from inactivity is entirely possible for someone who’s obvious capable but wildly inconsistent like Hopkins was. He flashed enough to warrant a roster spot at either guard spot, but personally, the right guard spot should see competition.

Cedric Ogbuehi

Best Game: Week 13 vs. Pittsburgh (3.13% LQS, 64 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 9 @ Jacksonville (18.92% LQS, 37 snaps)

Last offseason, optimism for Ogbuehi was somewhat renewed for his true second year in the NFL, as he was making the switch to his “natural” position at left tackle. While I don’t doubt that Ogbuehi prefers to play at left tackle rather than right tackle because of the differences in footwork and technique, the same issues from 2016 popped up all season long, albeit on a slightly less consistent basis.

The bull rush was, once again, the go-to move for pass rushers coming off that right edge. Ogbuehi continued to utilize the hug technique that is good for absorbing and redirecting power, but he never managed to consistently anchor and ready his feet. When he got his hands locked on their shoulder pads, he could produce a stalemate with his length. If rushers tried to bend around the edge, he could mirror their arc in his kickslide and ride them out.

Honestly, it was run blocking that was Ogbuehi’s truest shortcoming. Multiple occasions per game, Ogbuehi would find himself lost in the second level or fail to get minimal push on a simple down block. Neither Joe Mixon nor Giovani Bernard found much success running off that left edge, and that really limited their running game.

Ogbeuhi still has a possible two years left on his rookie contract, so I don’t think he’ll be gone entirely. But if the Bengals want to find more success on the ground and consistency in protecting Dalton’s blindside, finding an upgrade at left tackle should be one of, if not the top priority.

Andre Smith

Best Game: Week 13 vs. Pittsburgh (4.69% LQS, 64 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 14 vs. Chicago (18.52% LQS, 54 snaps)

After losing the aforementioned battle at right guard to Hopkins, Smith officially became the emergency swing tackle. He first got onto the field in Week 3 against the Packers. It was the first week where the offensive line started to rotate all three tackles, giving Smith reps at both right and left tackle.

This wasn’t very beneficial to Smith, as he was just thrown into games against pass rushers who were already getting into rhythm. He showed signs of regression last season in Minnesota at right tackle before he got hurt, and those same issues re-appeared this year.

At 30 years old going on 31 and multiple injuries to his name, Smith’s foot-speed looked sluggish, but he managed to compensate it with good quickness getting out of his stance. With that came many instances where he would get beat inside because he sold out to win on the outside.

In both phases of blocking, Smith was serviceable with occasional lapses with his hands, and that’s the best you can expect out of him now. If the Bengals don’t bring him back, it’s fine. It wouldn’t take much to find an upgrade as a backup. If they do retain him as a backup, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Jake Fisher

Best Game: Week 7 @ Pittsburgh (4.65% LQS, 43 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 2 vs. Houston (14.06%, 64 snaps)

What we later learned about that rotation at both tackle spots was it had more to do with Fisher’s health than Fisher and Ogbuehi’s struggles. Fisher ended up leaving the game against Jacksonville in Week 9 to an undisclosed illness. He was soon thereafter placed on injured reserve for an irregular heartbeat, which he had been dealing with all season. He underwent successful surgery and has been rehabbing ever since.

We only got to see Fisher for about a third of the total snaps on the season, and it’s completely fair to assume his struggles could be attributed to his condition. While he didn’t have as many bad reps on a weekly basis as Ogbuehi, his losses were amongst the worst of the entire group.

The worst thing that can happen to a developing player is missing extended time, which is unfortunate for Fisher. 2017 is essentially a wash for him like it was in 2015 for both him and Ogbuehi. It’s hard to say what Pollack has planned for both tackles going forward this early, but most importantly, Fisher has to focus on getting healthy again for his contract year.

T.J. Johnson

Best Game: Week 3 @ Green Bay (5% LQS, 60 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 5 vs. Buffalo (30.43% LQS, 23 snaps)

Last offseason, Johnson was brought back on a two-year deal to be the first interior backup off the bench, which was required of him in Week 1 when Hopkins went down. Johnson started in Weeks 2 through 5, and he really only had one bad game against Buffalo where he was taken out for Hopkins. Johnson was always a passable pass blocker that wouldn’t give you much more than Bodine at center, but his shortcomings weren’t as disastrous either.

As far as looking at next season, Johnson to me is in the same boat as Smith. He’s still under contract for one more year, but I’d hardly call him a lock for the roster. If Bodine is on the way out however, Lewis will probably want Johnson to stick around to maintain some familiarity.

Eric Winston

Best Game: Week 16 vs. Detroit (3.57% LQS, 84 snaps)

Worst Game: Week 15 @ Minnesota (19.05% LQS, 42 snaps)

After Fisher went to injured reserve, Winston was picked back up by the Bengals after he was cut before the season. He didn’t see the field until Week 12 against the Browns, and didn’t have any significant snaps until Week 15 against Minnesota when he had to come in at right tackle when Ogbuehi went down and Smith switched spots. Winston would start the final two games there and was sufficient but unspectacular, a common theme with most of these players.

Winston is the oldest player on the roster and was first brought in four years ago for his veteran presence. It was to no one’s surprise that he was brought back to the team in an emergency scenario, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him get another one-year deal pending what their plans are at the position.

At some point, however, they have to look at new options that can actually push Ogbuehi and Fisher. At 34, Winston just isn’t that guy anymore.

Alex Redmond and Christian Westerman

Redmond’s Best Game: Week 16 vs. Detroit (0% LQS, 46 snaps)

Redmond’s Worst Game: Week 17 @ Baltimore (19.35% LQS, 31 snaps)

Westerman’s Best Game: Week 17 @ Baltimore (12.77% LQS, 47 snaps)

Westerman’s Worst Game: Week 16 vs. Detroit (15.38% LQS, 39 snaps)

Way back in Week 4, the Bengals were enjoying their first three-score lead of the season against the Browns and decided to see what the second-year guard Redmond had to show against fellow first-string defensive lineman. Redmond got 16 snaps against the Browns and performed alright, all things considered.

When Ogbuehi went down in Week 15, the Bengals decided to mix things up and put Boling at left tackle, opening up a spot at left guard for the final two weeks. Since Johnson was on injured reserve, Redmond and Christian Westerman were the remaining options.

Westerman would get the starts and play the entire first and third quarters, while Redmond would come into the game in the second and fourth quarters and finish the games.

The rotation aspect wasn’t preferable, but it was still great to see both players, especially Westerman, finally see the field in some capacity. Westerman was the team’s fifth-round pick in 2016 and most saw him as a steal coming out of the draft.

Yet it took 30 games of a struggling and injury-riddled offensive line to get him onto the field, and I still don’t think he’d have seen the field if Johnson didn’t go to injured reserve.

Having not played meaningful football in two years, Westerman’s struggles were predictable, but he flashed numerous times of his ability that had him labeled as a top-100 prospect coming out of college.

For both players, they showed enough to stand a chance at going after Hopkins’s spot at right guard, though if Pollack is to implement a considerably larger amount of zone blocking like he did in Dallas, Westerman might have the athletic edge over the heavy-footed Redmond.

Kent Perkins

Week 17 @ Baltimore: 16.67% LQS, 6 snaps

Finally, the 11th offensive lineman to take snaps for the Bengals this year was an undrafted rookie out of Texas in Perkins. On the field for sox snaps at right tackle in the last game of the year against Baltimore, he went in for Eric Winston who needed time to tape up his ankle that he injured.

It’s not nearly enough to make any definitive statements, but Perkins flashed at times in the preseason as well. He should be around next training camp.

Speaking truthfully, Boling is the only starter on this line that should feel safe about his job. The group as a whole naturally played more consistently as the season went on, but it was too great of a liability for the offense to progress to where it needed to be.

We’ll see how much influence Pollack will have in transforming it for next season.