In the NFL, late July is the time of the year when change starts to become manifested. Training camp is when all 90 players of every roster start to fully gel and form a football team under the blistering mid-summer sun, and every team has specific aspects that are crucial for the season upon them being better than the last one.
The Bengals experienced considerable roster turnover this offseason, and such change have become catalysts to notable undecided roles for the final roster. As for the players who return to reclaim and build upon their contributions last year, their respective growth will begin to be noticed starting now. Every team has select stories to follow as July turns to August; we’ve isolated five for the Bengals, and start with perhaps the biggest.
An offensive line is not carried by its strongest piece as much as its dragged by its weakest link. Even when the Bengals had Clint Boling along with both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler playing at a high level together in 2016, the offensive line struggled a great deal due to the weak spots next to them. The problem expanded upon itself when Whitworth and Zeitler left in free agency, and everything surrounding Boling crumbled.
With new offensive line coach Frank Pollack in the fold, the goal this year wasn’t just to better up front, but become more stable. With new left tackle Cordy Glenn’s recent injury concerns and new center Billy Price’s inexperience being a rookie, it’s yet to be seen if stability will come from those two spots to the left and right of Boling at left guard. But they are being counted on immensely because of the uncertainty on the right side of the line.
At right guard, there are four players to watch, but perhaps two of them are the ones who’re important right now. Trey Hopkins started 12 games at right guard and played 73.6% of the offense’s snaps.
Now being five years out of college, Hopkins has stayed around longer than most undrafted players and waited through injuries for his shot at playing time. He looked like a player who didn’t play any meaningful football for a few years early on, and started to hit his stride late in the year, but his up and down campaign leaves the door open for his spot for the guys behind him.
The first blocker in that group is Christian Westerman, who most would say is right for the job in his third year. A fifth-round pick back in 2016, Westerman didn’t wait as long as Hopkins did for a chance to start, but 30 weeks is nothing to sneeze at.
Like Hopkins, rust attributed to some of Westerman’s lows in his limited two-week 2017 performance, but the highs were indicative of the prospect he was coming out of Arizona State two years ago. His quick feet and flexible ankles and hips will translate well into a zone system that Pollack has traditionally implemented.
When Westerman finally saw the field, it was Alex Redmond who rotated with him at left guard. Redmond was another undrafted player who came in with Westerman in 2016, but his attributes differ from Westerman. Redmond’s broader build and reach can help him become a serviceable road-grader, but it’s his heavy feet and lack of balance that needs to be better if he is to be trusted as a pass-protector.
Rounding out the group is seventh-round pick Rod Taylor, who has the toughest road to make the roster but is a likely practice squad candidate entering camp. These four will all likely get reps at the position, and it’s likely a two-way battle between Hopkins because of his experience and Westerman due to his natural ability.
If it’s Westerman that wins out, Hopkins may end up bumping backup center T.J. Johnson out of the picture due his ability to play all three interior positions. Redmond could surprise and make his case but a reserve spot would be more likely if he even makes the team.
To the right of these four are another three more young players looking to prove themselves in some capacity. Jake Fisher, Cedric Ogbuehi are joined by Bobby Hart, who was formerly with Giants for three years as seventh-round pick, to compete for the right tackle spot.
Back in 2016, Ogbuehi was given the nod over Fisher for the spot largely due to draft status with Ogbuehi being a first-rounder and Fisher a second-rounder. Three years and plenty of poor reps later, draft status couldn’t matter less.
Ogbuehi has two years of starting experience at right and then left tackle behind him, with neither being more than subpar. With Pollack’s fresh mentality and methods overlooking him now, he has a chance to take a productive step forward with the 1346 snaps under his belt. Athleticism and length have always been with him, he’s just been unable to utilize them with any consistency.
If you were to look at any positives from Ogbuehi and Fisher, you would find more from Fisher thus far. The ugly moments have had their fair share of screen time, and between them you’ll find more teachable reps and sense of awareness with Fisher.
A heart issue derailed his third season last year and caused turmoil at the position, and with that behind him, he has just as big, if not bigger, of an opportunity as Ogbuehi to showcase his ability in front of Pollack.
Hart is one of the handful of tackles who you could’ve argued were worse than Ogbuehi in recent years, yet received a chance from the Bengals in February in the form of no-guaranteed one-year deal.
There’s not zero hope for Hart to make the team, as he very well might make it as the swing tackle. But if he emerges as the best man for the right tackle spot, something funky happened in this battle.
Perhaps the most enticing aspect about these seven players fighting for these two spots is that we don’t know exactly who’re the favorites starting out. Last year, it was Andre Smith slated to start at right guard, and Hopkins just flat out beat him for it. The uncertainty isn’t quite a positive thing, but the unpredictability of it all is the reason why we’re invested in a football team practicing for a couple weeks in 90 degree weather.
We’ll be back with Part 2 tomorrow, and the rest of the series following in suit.