If you’re an offensive lineman and you’re a free agent, the Cincinnati Bengals would gladly welcome your services.
As free agency inches closer to officially starting, Bengals fans have been eyeing the talent pool of offensive tackles and guards very closely. These two positions are likely to be addressed in the coming days for Cincinnati. But it wasn’t too long ago that center was the position in question.
The Bengals have a pretty solid center under contract in Trey Hopkins. Unfortunately, Hopkins is currently rehabbing a torn ACL, and when healthy, Hopkins is probably a slightly above average starter at best. For these reasons, it wouldn’t hurt the club to kick the tires on perhaps the best center in the game right now.
Long-time NFL analyst and former executive Gil Brandt gave his top 10 boom-or-bust free agent candidates recently on NFL.com. He rounded out the list by pairing Green Bay Packers center Corey Linsley with the offensive line-needy Bengals.
The boom scenario: After seven years with the Packers, the All-Pro center picks up right where he left off last season, serving as a stabilizing veteran force up front.
The bust scenario: The risk here is relatively low, but Linsley did lose time with a knee injury last season, and he is entering his age-30 season. I don’t personally think this will prove to be the case, but it’s conceivable that he begins the decline phase of his career next season, which would represent a disappointment for whichever team pays top dollar to land him.
Who should take the risk? Cincinnati Bengals. Trey Hopkins could shift to right guard (where he started 12 times in 2017) to make room for one of the NFL’s great centers, giving the Bengals another avenue for beefing up Joe Burrow’s protection (in addition to the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft).
As Brandt mentions, the Bengals could kill two birds with one stone here. The addition of Linsley would give them an upgrade over Hopkins at center, and Hopkins can retake his old job at right guard and fill that vacancy. That’s the upside of the proposition, but there is a downside.
For starters, Hopkins earned his three-year, $19.65 million extension with Cincinnati because he truly found his footing at the center position. The Bengals tried him at both guard spots earlier in his career and he never played as well as he did in the middle of the line. Center is probably where he’s meant to be, and no matter how much better he would be at right guard compared to whom they have, they should play him at his best position.
Linsley is a better center than Hopkins is, that much is certain, but is bringing in Linsley for north of $10m per year worth not being able to sign a high-quality guard or tackle? Brandt touched on Linsley’s age and recent injury history, but he should still be a quality player for the foreseeable future. This really boils down to finding the best way to improve the entire o-line, and forcing a quality player in Hopkins to change positions may not achieve that goal.
The Bengals will certainly invest in the trenches next week, but don’t expect Linsley to be a part of their plans.