For as much optimism as there is regarding the Bengals’ offensive line, there’s an equivalent amount of uncertainty.
There are aspects that are objectively true and warrant legitimate buoyancy, the biggest example being Frank Pollack’s arrival and replacing Paul Alexander as offensive line coach. Pollack’s track record in Dallas under the same title was among the very best in the league and certainly more promising than the results Alexander produced of late. When Pollack became available for hire, no time was wasted in bringing him on board, and so far it seems the team’s aggressiveness in the matter has looked very wise.
The personnel additions that followed Pollack’s hiring can also be viewed with (albeit) cautious hope. Cordy Glenn is an upgrade from what Cincinnati had at left tackle last season, and the same can be said about first-round pick Billy Price at center. Similar to the Bengals adding Pollack to coach, the nature with which they brought in both players was extremely proactive and assertive. Swapping first-round picks with the Buffalo Bills to acquire Glenn via trade, and using the same pick to select Price has been highly commended, and the team can be comfortable with both players manning those spots.
But to the right of Price is still pretty much up in the air. And there’s one question I’ve been asked more than anything else this offseason: who ends up starting at right guard?
Of the three reasonable candidates, Christian Westerman and Alex Redmond are the hot names. Bengals.com writer Geoff Hobson recently stated that both players will be competing for that spot like we all speculated as soon as the offseason began. But they aren’t the only options at that spot, and neither one of them is probably the safest option at the moment.
That’s because Trey Hopkins very much has a case to make for himself.
When Andre Smith was brought back to Cincinnati last year in free agency, he was penciled in to start at right guard, replacing Kevin Zeitler. Over the course of OTAs, training camp and the preseason, Hopkins overtook the veteran Smith and straight up won the job, finally getting significant playing time along with it.
It took three years for Hopkins to see the field as a starter and there were clear rough patches in the early goings of the year, but players with useful ability tend to figure out how to maximize their ability as they receive time to manifest it. It took a good portion of the season, but you began to see Hopkins starting to feel himself physically and mentally.
Brandon Williams was a constant mismatch, he bends well for being that thicc. Mixon has that burst with balance though pic.twitter.com/uc7hDN3twf— John Sheeran (@John__Sheeran) September 11, 2017
Hopkins missed three games after starting Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens and inexperience then mixed with injury rust factored into shaky play from the fourth-year undrafted veteran. As the season went on, flashes from Hopkins became more and more frequent. Upon returning to the field in Week 5, he logged nine games with 100 percent snap participation, and finished the year with 707 snaps in 13 games, playing 12 of them as the starter.
This was one of Hopkins's best games— John Sheeran (@John__Sheeran) December 8, 2017
ACE block from Bodine and Hopkins completely seals off Hargrave. Ogbuehi and Boling obliterate the 3T. Bodine climbs and seals off the WILL. This is getting movement. pic.twitter.com/EFG5fIDN5U
This is the primary reason why Hopkins should not only be in the conversation for the starting spot, he should be headlining it. Experience is the trump card Hopkins has over Westerman and Redmond. For three years Hopkins waited patiently for an opening to see the field; he pounced at the opportunity and was rewarded accordingly. Granted, he didn’t play at a level where he should be unchallenged going forward, but he performed like a player developing in the proper direction.
Player development isn’t a universal process to me because every player’s shortcomings are different and require unique approaches. Some players need further mental preparation and sharpening before they’re ready to be thrown into the fire, some are ahead of the curve in that area and just need the experience to garner consistency in their craft.
For Hopkins, it always seemed like he was capable of contributing early on, but was never given the opportunity to do so. The coaching staff trusted him to man multiple spots on the offensive line in past preseasons, and saw him earn roster spots in the two years during which he was healthy prior to 2017. The talent was there, but the more he was kept on the sideline, the more his development was stunted. Even though every player is different, the one constant in the grand scheme of development is that you can’t get better at football by not playing football.
This was evident with Hopkins in the early half of 2017. After three accrued seasons and four full years since his college days at Texas, Hopkins had his fair share of technical and physical struggles. And the more he played, his consistency grew and the negative plays were far and few between. It was an indication of development paying off and an encouraging sign going forward. Those snaps mean something and Hopkins has the tape to prove it.
With all that said, Hopkins, Westerman and Redmond were not brought in and developed by Pollack. What they’ve done or haven’t done up to this point should frankly be irrelevant in his eyes and whoever starts at right guard is ultimately up to him. I’m confident in saying whoever plays the best from training camp to the final preseason game is going to start, and it could honestly be any of the three. But it should be, and is indeed a three-way competition; and one that Hopkins is not going to back down from.