Among available options, the Cincinnati Bengals couldn’t have hired a better offensive line coach than Frank Pollack. The universal praise they’re receiving for rehiring Pollack combined with his already well-known track record speaks for itself.
But as Matt Minich pointed out in his latest film review of Pollack’s blocking scheme, a coaching change can’t be the only true change at that position group.
In 2018, Pollack’s first and only season with the Bengals, the offensive line was almost completely redone from the previous year. Cordy Glenn was traded for to start at left tackle, Billy Price was drafted to start at center, and Bobby Hart was signed as a low-cost free agent and emerged as the “best” right tackle battle like Alex Redmond did at right guard. Clint Boling was the only returning starter at left guard.
As it happens, Price, Hart, and Redmond all remain on the Bengals roster, with Redmond a soon-to-be free agent and Hart a likely salary cap casualty. Trey Hopkins, who started 10 games during that 2018 season, will also return as soon as he recovers from his torn ACL. These are the current lineman that head coach Zac Taylor referred right after Pollack was rehired.
“Frank will help us make great strides in the run game and protections,” Taylor said of Pollack. “He brings great technical skills in player development and his familiarity with some of our current offensive linemen will allow him to get to work right away.”
The specific work that Taylor mentioned should involve Pollack evaluating what he has to work with right now. Taylor’s hastily put together staff did a subpar job of evaluating the roster entering the 2019 offseason and subsequently made bad decisions in free agency and the NFL Draft. That specific process improved to certain degree in 2020, but the o-line was obviously a glaring omission.
Pollack did mention the self-evaluation process when he talked with local media, as well as being excited to work with some current players.
He says he hasn’t really drilled down into evaluations on the tackles like Jonah Williams and Bobby Hart.— Charlie Goldsmith (@CharlieG__) January 11, 2021
“I’m excited to work with those guys."
Because of how negligent the team has been at building the o-line, Taylor and Pollack can’t get this position group wrong in the coming months. Taylor citing Pollack’s abilities to teach technique and develop already rostered players is indeed good news, but it sounds a lot like the Bengals expect Pollack to make the vast majority of the current depth chart work.
“We’re close,” Pollack told reporters in regards to the current o-line. “Just based on our conversations there’s a lot there to keep and build on and continue and as I get into understanding a little bit more detail of what they’ve been doing and understanding verbiage and concepts and what they’re doing. What can I do to continue to promote it and build on it or modify on areas I find that need to be modified, but we’re close for sure.”
It sounds like coach speak, obviously, but it’d be foolish to outright dismiss it as such. This franchise has failed to field a competent unit in front of their quarterback for the last five years, 2018 included. The Bengals did have success running the ball that season, but they were 24th in both Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency metric and overall pass blocking grade. Quarterback Andy Dalton was also second among season-long starters in average time-to-throw, so the scheme only helped the o-line’s underwhelming production.
No matter how proficient Pollack is at enforcing technique and scheme simultaneously, they’re setting him and the rest of the team up for failure if they don’t plan to significantly upgrade the o-line’s personnel. They need to give him a clean slate like he was given three years ago and follow it up with actual solutions. That process includes recognizing the 2018 players for what they are.
For starters, Hart still needs to be cut. Plain and simple. When he first joined the Bengals, Hart just had to better than Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher to start at right tackle, and even then he was still a liability more than an asset. Despite the marginal improvements Hart has made since then, he’s not a starting-caliber tackle and is set to be paid far too much to be riding the bench. The Bengals can use the $5.9 million they would save by releasing him to help pay for an upgrade.
Price and Redmond aren’t quite in the same boat as Hart. Price’s value only increased when Hopkins’ knee injury was announced and that has made him a lock to return; he might even be the favorite to be the Week 1 starter at center unless they add someone else to compete with him, which is the right idea. Price has unfortunately only regressed since his rookie year under Pollack, so this is the perfect opportunity to finally hit his stride. That just can’t be the assumed outcome, and Pollack and Co. have to plan for the alternative.
I think our expectations for Price were skewed from the beginning. He was never a first-round talent (Bengals drafted for need instead of BPA there).— Andrew Russell (@PFF_AndrewR) January 12, 2021
But if he can turn Price into a serviceable OL piece, that’s a win.
Redmond, well, he might stick around for the veteran minimum if they really need bodies, but that shouldn’t give him any realistic chance to start again.
Then there’s the crop of players brought in by Pollack’s replacement, Jim Turner, with the most notable one being Jonah Williams. As a first-year left tackle, Williams’ 2020 season can be viewed in a positive light. There were some occasional struggles against quality competition, but that’s how it goes for most at that position with his lack of experience. He’s more than a viable option to remain at left tackle, but Pollack could see things differently.
Pollack was the assistant o-line coach for the Dallas Cowboys when they added Zack Martin with their first-round pick in the 2014 draft. Martin was a left tackle in college, like Williams, and immediately became an All-Pro right guard under Pollack and o-line coach Bill Callahan’s direction. Physically and athletically, Martin and Williams are very similar players, with Martin being more flexible and Williams having more length to him. Williams obviously isn’t on Martin’s level yet, but the potential is definitely there. Will Pollack see Williams as more of a guard like he and Callahan saw Martin as an interior player seven years ago?
Moving Williams around would obviously be a big change, and that could be too drastic for what the Bengals are already dealing with. Pollack did mention he didn’t want to switch things up too much, but giving him the freedom to adjust their personnel to what he sees fit is vital for a quick turnaround to happen up front.
“There’ll be some changes. Some things will be the same,” Pollack said. “You don’t want to have change for change sake. Those guys have a lot of good stuff already in our offense. I’m sure there’ll be a couple of things I’d like to maybe add. Working with Zac, if he feels good about it and think it’s the right direction for us, that’s what we’ll do. Whatever we can do to make our offense better, that’s what we’ll do.”
Other young players Turner added such as Michael Jordan, Fred Johnson, and Hakeem Adeniji may end up getting lost in the shuffle, but none of those three are good enough right now to make a claim as a starter under a competent coach like Pollack. There’s also Xavier Su’a-Filo and impending free agent Quinton Spain, who are both better suited at left guard. Will Pollack give these two the offseason to battle it out at that spot, will both be let go, or will both be labeled as reserve players?
Whatever the plan is, it needs to be progressive and open-minded. Real money needs to be spent in free agency, real draft picks need to be used, and realistic expectations need to be set for the players they already have.
They had the right idea three years ago, but simply didn’t invest in the right players.
This is their chance to do it correctly, as their season largely depends on it.