There is no Sixth Man of the Year award in the NFL. Even if there was, they’d have to name it 12th Man of the Year, and they might run into copyright laws with the Seattle Seahawks, or Texas A&M if you stand by that (shout out Ben Baby).
But there is something to be said for a player who consistently performs well when called off the bench. Like a running back who adds a spark for 10 plays a game, or an edge rusher who specializes on third downs.
What about a rookie offensive lineman who was benched earlier in the year?
Jackson Carman is already being talked about like he’s another offensive line bust for the Cincinnati Bengals. That company is not pretty, and honestly, typing out the names associated with that would be painful to you all.
But he’s not a bad football player.
Per usual, expectations have distorted our perspective of how a player is actually performing on the field. We went through all those expectations after his debut game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once Carman got onto the field, the more we looked at him like the second-round pick the team hyped him up to be in the offseason, the more his obvious flaws were accentuated.
Carman would start four more games after Pittsburgh and dealt with COVID and apparent food poisoning in the middle of it all. They weren’t the cleanest four starts, to put it lightly. The offensive line was starting to find its groove during this time, but one too many mistakes were being made at the right guard spot. Growing pains for a growing player.
As mentioned in this week’s rookie stock report, Carman has a Pro Football Focus grade of 38 attached to his first five starts. His final start came against the New York Jets, when he suffered a back injury late in the game. Coincidentally, Hakeem Adeniji returned to practice a few days later and ended up as the starting right guard for the next game.
That was the first week Adeniji was able to play, and while Carman was listed with that back injury, he didn’t miss a practice that week. It seemed like the injury was just the public reason why Carman found himself on the sidelines.
But let’s go back to the week he dealt with COVID and another sickness. Carman didn’t start vs. the Detroit Lions because he missed too much practice time, but he was able to play eventually. His replacement, Trey Hill, was bad enough to be pulled mid-game, so Carman came in off the bench and played the best game of his young career. 23 snaps in relief of an overwhelmed Hill alleviated some concerns from his previous three starts, but not enough to keep Adeniji at bay a few weeks later.
Carman off the bench would soon become the norm for Cincinnati, whether it be occurring during garbage time at guard, or as an attached blocker for running plays, the rookie has played considerably better in these spots compared to a full workload as a starter, and has an 89.9 PFF grade to prove it. That’s not groundbreaking or anything considering the context, but he’s still putting positive film out. The value of work in these situations shouldn’t be diminished just because he’s not out there for the whole game.
Last Sunday featured no garbage time. D’Ante Smith assumed the role as the jumbo package blocker. Carman was going to watch the whole game on the sidelines and block for field goals until Adeniji sprained his ankle. It’s Week 6 all over again, only in a much more important game. But Carman, once more, stepped up to the challenge.
This game may not mean much in getting Carman back out onto the field this year. Adeniji has been praised so prominently for his play at right guard that he seems to be locked in so long as he’s healthy. At this point, that doesn’t matter for Carman. His rookie season didn’t pan out the way they hoped it would. They have three more years to make something work for him, and that all starts as soon as this season ends for Cincinnati.
That said, the outcome unfolding is objectively better than what many feared would happen near the start of the season when Carman was regulated to third-string duties. The fact that he’s producing in certain spots is a positive. He can be the sixth man for now. Go with what works. 2022 and beyond is when he leaves that role behind.