The benching of Billy Price in favor of Trey Hopkins signified the true shift in managerial approach Bengals fans craved after the hiring of head coach Zac Taylor. A promising seven-start stretch at the center position in 2018 made Hopkins the obvious choice at the position moving forward in 2019, and a quick and definitive competition between him and Price proved that. Hopkins took over in the middle of the Bengals’ weakest unit and wasted no time making a positive impact.
In Cincinnati’s first game of the season, Hopkins had perhaps his most impressive performance of his career. His grade from Pro Football Focus in Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks was a whopping 84.1, which was the highest grade any center earned that week. It was a lofty standard that the 27-year old set, and while he didn’t quite meet it week in and week out, Hopkins was unquestionably the bright spot on a troubled group up front.
Consistent issues had plagued the Bengals at the center position in recent years. What Russell Bodine and Price had in tenacity, they lacked in functional strength, length and movement ability.
Hopkins isn’t the golden standard for any of those traits, but the difference between him and past centers in Cincinnati is stark. His ability to cleanly and quickly reach A-gap defenders shaded away from him on the play-side of the formation is something the Bengals haven’t possessed since the prime days of Kyle Cook.
Hopkins is a natural athlete at all three interior offensive line positions, and that shows up when he has to reset his feet in pass protection and climb to the second level. Unfortunately, the latter was more of a struggle for Hopkins in 2019. Numerous times a week, opposing linebackers would have free lanes when the Bengals would try zone and stretch run concepts, and there would be noticeable miscommunication between Hopkins and one the adjacent guards.
This was a microcosm of Hopkins’ season. For as much good he did, the play of a solid center on an otherwise poor offensive line doesn’t hold much tangible value in the grand scheme of things.
Hopkins had to deal four different combinations at both guard spots. Not only was the persistent lineup changes difficult to handle, the guard play Cincinnati got was subpar at best. John Miller was often injured and serviceable at best when healthy. Michael Jordan improved towards the end of the year, but early on, he was just as bad as Price and Alex Redmond where when they played this year.
This isn’t even accounting for the issues the team had at left tackle, which only props up the continuity Hopkins gave his all to help provide.
Throughout this chaos, Hopkins stepped up as a leader on the field and in the locker room. The midseason shift in the run game helped take pressure off of everyone on the line, and Hopkins benefited from the increased opportunities to pull out in space and give running back Joe Mixon space to accelerate. With his stable work in pass protection persisting as well, the decision laid before the front office became an easier one as the year came to a close.
One day before their last game of the season, the Bengals signed Hopkins to a three-year extension that will pay him more than $20M in total cash. Hopkins was playing on a one-year deal after entering restricted free agency last offseason. Entering 2019, Hopkins’ career earnings were a measly $1.9M. Now, he’s their most expensive lineman signed beyond 2020 with playing experience.
In re-tooling the offensive line for 2020, Hopkins absolutely had to be apart of their future plans. It took four years for the organization to recognize the asset they had in Hopkins, but with their luck when it comes to the offensive line, late is better than never.