A lot of things had to go right for the Cincinnati Bengals to field competent offensive and defensive lines. A lot of things ended up going wrong instead.
The defensive line at least looked solid on paper heading into the season. Injuries to Geno Atkins, D.J. Reader, and nearly every other interior defender was disastrous, and Carlos Dunlap’s exodus only compounded things in the wrong direction.
As for the offensive line, let’s just say proper offseason evaluation is very important. That didn’t seem to be the case this time last year.
Both position groups became the unquestioned weakness on their respective side of the ball, but some bright spots managed to emerge from the ugliness. Here are our nominees for Lineman of the Year:
Trey Hopkins, center
A model of consistency for the better part of the last three years, Hopkins continues to do his job despite the mess surrounding him. This leads to unfair expectations for the Bengals’ center, as he is by no means a top-tier player at his position, but he’s really all they got along the interior. And he’s done his absolute best to keep the middle of the line stable.
Hopkins’ 64.3 pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus was second-best among Bengals who played the most games at each o-line position. His eight games with a pass blocking grade of 70 or higher led the team as well. As one of the more trusted voices in the locker room, Hopkins’ under-appreciated value was put on full display in 2020.
Sam Hubbard, edge defender
Year three for the Cincinnati native did not start very well. Hubbard had a pedestrian first five weeks of the season before he suffered an elbow injury that took him out for a month. He had a rough couple of weeks after he returned to the field, but things started to click for Hubbard in the final month of the season.
Hubbard was the Bengals’ highest-graded defender (89.7) out of 15 defenders to appear in all four games from Weeks 13-16. This included 11 total pressures and 15 defensive stops, and the latter led the defense in that timeframe. Hubbard actually led the NFL in run stop win rate (34%) for all edge defenders during the 2020 season. That is his forte and he proved it again during the team’s late-season resurgence.
Carl Lawson, edge defender
Lawson wasn’t responsible for every sack the Bengals recorded, but it certainly seemed that way. The 25-year old finally emerged as a starting edge rusher and balled out in the first contract year of his career. From Week 5 on, when he was promoted over Carlos Dunlap, Lawson earned the fifth-highest pass rushing grade (87.1) from PFF. He may’ve only recored two sacks in that timeframe, but he was winning more than most edge defenders around the league.
All of Lawson’s work culminated in Week 15’s upset over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lawson racked up nine pressures and a sack in what ended up being the best game of his career thus far. That night will help Lawson get paid this offseason, be it by the Bengals or another club.
Jonah Williams, left tackle
There were definitely some rough moments during Williams’ first year at left tackle, but the good considerably outweighed the bad. Williams was by far the best pass blocker on the Bengals with a season-long grade of 75.8 in that regard. He gave up just 20 pressures in nearly 500 pass-blocking snaps and allowed three-or-less pressures in eight of his 10 games.
Injuries and inconsistent run blocking prohibited Williams from a truly high-quality season. In his final three games before his season ended with a knee injury, Williams could only muster a run blocking grade of 30.3. He also suffered a stinger injury earlier in the year that caused him to miss two full games. But like we said, the positives were more prominent than the negatives.
Who gets your vote for the 2020 Bengals Lineman of the Year?
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