From the moment the Cincinnati Bengals knew they were going to draft Jonah Williams, they envisioned a left tackle for the future of the franchise. That vision has not changed, despite the turmoil that Williams and the Bengals’ offensive line went through last year.
Williams had a shoulder ailment from his Alabama days that accelerated into a season-ending injury; throwing a giant wrench in the team’s plans along the front five on offense. Despite their active efforts to patch the line, the season’s derailment closely mirrored its implosion. Wounds were licked, and evaluations of those who did play were made.
Had Williams and other linemen not miss significant time (or just flat out retire) during 2019, it’s fair to wonder whether or not the Bengals would’ve added Fred Johnson.
A college free agent originally signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson was claimed off waivers by the Bengals after they dropped to 0-6 on the season. A roster spot became available when the team placed Kerry Wynn on Injured Reserve.
In Pittsburgh, Johnson was used at left and right guard during the preseason and rode the bench once the games counted for real. Six weeks into the season, the Steelers deemed him expendable and waived him. In college, Johnson played almost exclusively at right guard for Florida, but played a handful of games at right tackle. Mind you, he only played one year of varsity football in high school.
Not once did he ever play left tackle until he got to Cincinnati.
Johnson got that chance for the first time when he returned to the state of Florida to play the Miami Dolphins. A 62-snap outing in perhaps the most thrilling contest in recent Bengals history all but confirmed the outlook of Johnson and Cordy Glenn’s futures with the organization. Johnson took over for Glenn at left tackle after the first couple of drives and Glenn only took two snaps in Week 17 as a reserve.
Glenn wouldn’t have been benched had Johnson stunk it up, but he didn’t. He didn’t allow a single pressure in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus and looked like a perfect fit as a run blocker. It would be easy to say Johnson’s two performances looked fine when comparing them to how others at the left tackle spot played earlier that year, but they were commendable on their own in a vacuum. And he did it at a position he’s never played before.
The tape that they like of Johnson is at left tackle, but they seem determined to move him to right tackle so Williams can take over on the left side.
My question is: why?
Reviewing the left tackle narrative
Let’s backtrack. We all know why the left tackle spot is valued the way that it is. In Week 11 of the 1985 season, Lawrence Taylor annihilated Joe Theismann’s knee from behind and ended his career. The next 35 years saw the left tackle position rise in value so no more Theismann incidents occur. Look at the offensive tackles that have busts in Canton, Ohio; I bet you the vast majority of them played at left tackle.
Defensive coordinators aren’t stupid. They see offenses put their best pass protecting tackle on one side, where’s the ideal matchup for your best edge rusher? It isn’t against Joe Thomas or Andrew Whitworth! An influx of left defensive end and left outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes started thriving about 10 years ago.
If you polled a high number of analysts and coaches and asked them who were the three premier edge rushers of the past decade, you’d likely get J.J. Watt, Von Miller, and Khalil Mack as the most popular answers. All three of those guys made their money and still make their money going up against right tackles. All three of them made the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team along with Geno Atkins as well.
Who else made that list? Calais Campbell saw a career resurgence with the Jacksonville Jaguars mostly attacking the right side of offensive lines. Cameron Jordan is one of the most underrated players in football, period, and he’s almost exclusively been aligned on the left side of the New Orleans Saints’ defensive front; attacking right tackles. Chandler Jones began his career as a right defensive end, but has evolved into a weapon on both sides for the Arizona Cardinals.
This trend isn’t slowing down. Today, the best young edge rushers either consistently rush against right tackles or are used equally on both sides. Take a look at the best players from the last five draft classes.
- Danielle Hunter, one of the five most productive edge rushers of 2019, rushed the passer 95% of the time coming off the left edge last year for the Minnesota Vikings.
- The Green Bay Packers’ duo of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith often rotate sides and accounted for 148 total pressures last season.
- Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers and Matt Judon of the Baltimore Ravens took almost equal snaps from the left and right edges last season. Both players played more snaps against right tackles. They combined for 133 total pressures in 2019.
- First-overall pick Myles Garrett was productive from both sides in 2019 after being predominantly used on the right side for the Cleveland Browns in his first two years. 14 of his 49 pressures came from the left side last season.
- T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers might be the best pure pass rusher under the age of 26. Watt recored 81 pressures on his own last year, and 98% of his pass-rushing snaps came at the left edge.
- Sam Hubbard is regarded by most Bengals fans as the best edge rusher from the 2018 class. 75% of his pass-rushing snaps came from the left side last year. Marcus Davenport is objectively a better player right now, but plays right defensive end for the Saints because Jordan is still there. The Saints’ front four can get to the quarterback from either edge.
- Nick Bosa took most of his reps at right defensive end with Arik Armstead holding down the left side for the San Francisco 49ers, but he was still productive in his 103 snaps from the left. He recorded 18 pressures in those snaps. The 49ers have two destructive edge rushers they can hurt you with, and that doesn’t even include Dee Ford.
- Josh Allen was also a productive rookie last year for the Jaguars with the majority of his 49 pressures coming from the left edge.
Three players listed above play in the AFC North; Judon, Garrett, and Watt all either stay on the left side of the defensive line, or rotate there from time to time.
The point is, the right tackle spot hasn’t just become more important in building an offensive line, it’s replaced left tackle as the single most important spot.
Maybe that’s hyperbole, but if most of the top edge rushers are facing off against right tackles more often than not, wouldn’t you want your best pass protecting tackle to counter them? At the very least, it’s an absolute must that both of your tackles need to be competent pass protectors.
There’s the perception that a quarterback’s blindside needs to be protected regardless. Quarterbacks like Joe Burrow know that they can’t stand still for three seconds after taking a five step drop. Defensive linemen in general have become too dangerous to be taken out of games entirely, and offenses are being built for the ball to be out of the quarterback’s hands quicker than ever.
The folks at PFF have also come to the conclusion that pressures are more of a quarterback stat than an indictment on offensive line play. Burrow and other new-age passers also have the ability to move out of the pocket as much as navigate upwards inside of it.
Essentially, if your quarterback is taking a blindside hit in the year 2020, it’s likely his fault. Even if you can visually see the pressure when it’s coming from your right, it’s still damaging to the play as a whole. The rarity of a quarterback being completely unaware of an oncoming blindside rusher is extreme nowadays.
What the Bengals should do
This seems simple. If the Bengals feel as if Williams is better than Johnson, they should naturally want him to play the more important position. Based on what we know, that position is right tackle. It doesn’t mean that they can get away with a crummy pass protector at left tackle, but the mindset regarding which position is more vital needs to be flipped in today’s climate.
We know Johnson has only played left tackle in meaningful NFL games and hasn’t played right tackle since 2016 at Florida. Coincidentally, Williams hasn’t played right tackle since that same year in the same collegiate conference. He was an 18-year old true freshman protecting quarterback Jalen Hurts’ frontside while future second-round pick Cam Robinson guarded Hurts’ blindside.
His production at that age against SEC defenses in a 15-game season culminating in a National Championship appearance was nothing short of impressive.
Jonah Williams as a freshman at RT (among qualifying FBS tackles)— Evan McPhillips (@emcphil) May 5, 2020
1,014 snaps (510 pass-blocking)
76.2 @PFF grade (29th/101)
78.9 pass-blocking grade (35th)
73.7 run-blocking grade (34th)
15 total pressures allowed (4 sack, 3 hits)
98.1 Pass-blocking efficiency (T-28th/169)
Robinson left to be drafted by the Jaguars and Williams was moved to left tackle, where he would start the last 29 games of his amateur career. He was obviously tremendous at that spot as well, but it’s also the last we’ve seen of Williams. He’s yet to even take a training camp rep with the Bengals.
Why is it out of the question for him be anything but a left tackle? It’s been years since he played right tackle, but it’s been well over a year since he’s played left tackle. His slate is very much clean as a professional. He has muscle memory from playing both positions.
And it’s not like Johnson can’t play right tackle. Like Williams and most NFL tackles, he’s capable of playing both spots. But we’ve at least seen him at left tackle and the results were encouraging; albeit with a limited sample size.
The Bengals, like any other team, have initial scouting reports on players from when they first entered the league. We have every reason to believe that they evaluated Williams as a left tackle and Johnson as a right tackle. Even though they’ve played Johnson at left tackle out of necessity, they may still feel comfortable in their evaluation and projection of him at right tackle.
That’s understandable. But if they’re comfortable with both tackles playing either side and they possess a conviction that one is better than the other, it’s the smarter move to play the better one at right tackle. Whenever teams are allowed to practice together, the plan should be to institute this strategy and see how it unfolds.
Maybe Williams is a better left tackle than he is a right tackle. Maybe it’s vice versa for Johnson. If that’s the case, switch them back and move on from there. They need to find out as soon as possible to establish continuity.
In the defense of value, the narrative about left and right tackles needs to change. Making Williams the future at right tackle would go a long way of doing that, and the Bengals would undoubtedly reap the benefits.
One more thing: if this works, this should officially put Bobby Hart on the bench for good. Think on that.