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Updated look at the Bengals’ offensive line

The bulk of Cincinnati’s free agency spending went to giving the o-line a makeover. Here are the end results.

In what was one of the craziest weeks in the history of NFL free agency, the Cincinnati Bengals had their offensive line enhanced like they were the winners of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

When the metaphorical bus was moved, a new center, right guard, and right tackle to start and block for franchise quarterback Joe Burrow was revealed. Those three spots were the weak-links throughout the 2021 season; three positions Burrow and had to physically maneuver around and the coaching staff schematically maneuver around.

Things just got a whole lot easier for both parties.

It’s not just that Burrow’s jersey will feature fewer turf marks and grass stains every Sunday. Head coach Zac Taylor can now open up his playbook more liberally without accounting for a faulty protection unit.

A good portion of the fanbase still holds reservations against Taylor the play-caller, but with a line that boasts multiple above average starters, we might just see the full version of Taylor’s aggressive vision that would oftentimes dissipate against quality pass-rushing opponents.

So what does the line look like now? Free agency isn’t technically over and the NFL Draft is still over a month away, but let’s look at where it currently stands.

Bengals’ projected 2022 offensive line

  • Left tackle: Jonah Williams
  • Left guard: Jackson Carman/D’Ante Smith
  • Center: Ted Karras
  • Right guard: Alex Cappa
  • Right tackle: La’el Collins

As previously mentioned, the right side of the line has been completely upgraded, and that’s not just from a relativity perspective. Collins is a high-quality player whose development is attributed to none other than offensive line coach Frank Pollack. Before Pollack arrived for his first Bengals stint in 2018, he oversaw the growth of Collins with the Dallas Cowboys from 2015-2017. Their reunion inspires much-needed confidence that the team will get the most out of the rest of Collins’ prime.

While Collins’ primary occupation will be to protect Burrow, he’s one of the truly elite run-blocking tackles in the game, and he will help form a destructive duo with Cappa to the left of him at right guard. The highest-paid guard in Bengals history had zero stars attached to his college recruiting profile. He played collegiate ball at a place that longer has a football program. The first time he squared off against Division 1 talent was at the 2018 Senior Bowl, and his work there helped him get drafted in the third round of NFL Draft three months later. Cappa looks for any and all glass to consume when the ball is snapped. He and Collins should get along nicely.

The combined improvement Collins and Cappa provide over their predecessors is staggering on its own. It almost makes the Karras signing underwhelming in comparison, but that’s not a knock on the Bengals’ new center. Karras brings a jack-of-all-trades skillset and proven experience at multiple positions. He’s never been a liability at any point as a starter, but his physical and athletic limitations keep him from ascending to a higher level. That’s perfectly fine for the Bengals, who are just craving solidity. It’s actually quite fitting that the most stable and consistent linemen in this new iteration stands in the middle of it.

What’s left is, well, on the left. Williams is the only one remaining at his spot from last year, and rightfully so. The fourth-year player has two seasons of quality play under his belt and his arrow remains pointed in an upwards direction. The slope of said arrow may not be too steep, but there’s reason to believe Williams can still grow into a more complete left tackle. And even if there isn’t, it’s still hard to find a better option than him at that spot. The good left tackles cost the most money or the most draft picks, or sometimes both.

Finally, we’re left with but one question: Who’s going to be at left guard? It’s not going to be Karras by virtue of a J.C. Tretter signing, and while drafting Tyler Linderbaum could also be the move that has Karras sliding over, that scenario is still rather unlikely.

No, it’s Karras at center and an unknown to the left of him. And the probable unknowns are Carman and Smith. But which one has the inside track?

Conventional wisdom points to Carman, who was drafted higher and played more last year. As a high school and college left tackle, going back to that side of the formation should help his progression into his sophomore season. He’s got the tenacity and raw power to succeed, he just needs the technique to match it, and that comes with commitment, which is what he apparently lacked for most of last year.

The same can’t be said for Smith, who was a favorite among the coaching staff as the offseason came to a close. Had he not gotten injured in late August, Smith could’ve easily been the Week 1 starting right guard over Xavier Su’a-Filo. And had he not gotten injured again in October, he could’ve made a case to start over Hakeem Adeniji at the position to close the season out.

It’s far too early to say which player will be given the first crack at the job, but unless an early-round rookie is injected into the mix or Quinton Spain makes a return in the near future, these two are set to battle it out. And this may be an unpopular opinion, but that’s how it should be.

I do understand the argument for the contrary. They’re so close to having zero handicaps at offensive line it’s too tantalizing not to desire. They didn’t even have that in 2015 because Russell Bodine was the center.

The truth is, we knew at least one spot was going to be like this. The odds of them signing four quality veterans from other teams was miniscule. Hell, I think three might’ve exceeded my expectations. Left guard is the ideal spot to leave open because that’s where Carman and Smith should have the best chance at developing into solid players. The likelihood that they’re ever going to be guys who take home lucrative second contracts is minimal, sure, but they need one to just be okay.

And the staff needs to give them a chance at becoming that, because you can’t just buy someone at every position. That’s not how great teams are built, and more importantly, that’s not how greatness sustains itself. Eventually, you need to balance out free agent problem solving with good ole draft and develop. What’s the point of holding onto picks if you can’t give the players more than a year to prove themselves?

On top of that, here’s something to consider: There is no offensive line in the NFL, great or terrible, that doesn’t have some kind of unknown or liability slotted to start at one of the five positions. The Bengals having an unsolved problem at left guard should not overshadow the fact that they have reliable assets at the other four spots. That’s something very few other teams can boast about.

Offensive lines are only as strong as their weakest link, but if one of Carman or Smith is the runt of the litter, they’re sitting mighty pretty entering 2022.