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Where the Bengals’ offensive line stands entering free agency

Taking inventory of what Cincinnati has at o-line before the spending begins.

Super Bowl LVI - Los Angeles Rams v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

No matter how their season ends, the Cincinnati Bengals are allergic to entering the offseason with a good offensive line. Locking up the first pick in the NFL Draft, losing the Super Bowl, or being stuck in purgatory, it has not mattered. This has been the Bengals’ grim reality for the last five years.

If now’s not the time to truly fix it, then when?

We asked this question last year while Joe Burrow was rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee. They had the cap space, clear need, and imagery of their quarterback leaving the field on a stretcher to release their inhibitions.

Two of those factors remain true a year later, the only difference being Burrow walking off the gridiron with just a minor knee injury after playing his last game.

Somehow, someway, the Bengals made the Super Bowl and were 51 yards from winning it despite the 70 sacks that Burrow took to get to that point. The 70th one resulted in his right knee being twisted and a weeks-old sprain re-aggravated. Cincinnati’s last play saw Burrow pressured and hit on the biggest fourth down of his young career. It wasn’t a sack, but it may as well have been.

Director of player personnel Duke Tobin and head coach Zac Taylor are absolutely in the right to include the o-line when crediting their team winning the AFC, but neither one goes to bed thinking the group is anywhere close to a finished product. Not when they failed to deliver their quarterback time when he absolutely needed it.

The central question as free agency dawns isn’t if the Bengals’ offensive line changes, but how much change will ensue? Who’s safe, who’s on the way out, and who’s learning a new position?

These are the answers we need to learn before we get a grasp on who’s being added to the overall equation. So let’s take stock on who’s currently on the roster and under team control.

Jonah Williams

  • 2021 snaps: 1,301 (all at left tackle)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 74.9 (67.5 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 25 (fourth league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $5,609,592

Williams turned in a very similar season to his first back in 2020 at left tackle. Compared to the rest of the line, he was fantastic. Compared to other left tackles around the league, he was a little above average.

There are offsetting beliefs when it comes to Williams’ immediate future. On one hand, he’s still very young for a player entering his fourth year, which indicates he still has the potential to grow his game. On the other hand, a player of his physique and athleticism may only achieve his current level of modest production during his prime.

For the second consecutive Spring, fans are entranced with the idea of moving Cincinnati’s best offensive lineman. But Williams is the safest player to remain where he’s at.

It’s not that Williams is so good it would be a disservice to move off that spot, it ultimately comes down to the difficulty of finding someone better. This position is still regarded as the most important along the offensive line, and most clubs begin building their units by finding their blind-side tackle.

It’s only logical that good left tackles are either rarely available, or bloody expensive when they are.

Much has been said about certain left tackles being on the trade block, including Laremy Tunsil and Mekhi Becton. When it comes to the Bengals and trades, they’re never going to sacrifice straight draft capital for talent. It has to be player-for-player or they’re getting picks in return as well.

Those stipulations make trade speculation tougher to believe, and after piecing everything together, left tackle is Williams’ spot for at least one more year unless a clear upgrade falls into their lap. Don’t expect them to go seek for one with haste.

Quinton Spain

  • 2021 snaps: 1,252 (all at left guard)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 66.4 (56.2 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 31 (eighth league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: unrestricted free agent

There was a time during the season when Spain was playing at a higher level than Joe Thuney was for the Kansas City Chiefs. Instead of paying Thuney $18 million in year one cash, Spain was making veteran minimum and still protecting Burrow admirably.

That time didn’t last long, though, as Spain soon fell back down to Earth and leveled out like you’d expect a 30-year old veteran to do on his third team. Before the Week 10 bye, his PFF grade stood at 75. PFF graded him at just over 60 from Week 11 through the Super Bowl, with his pass-blocking grade below 50.

His downward trajectory is why it won’t take much to retain Spain’s services for the upcoming season if the Bengals desire. He’s beloved inside the locker room and can feasibly win a battle at left guard again if they add no other options to that spot. How does one more one-year deal sound?

Trey Hopkins

  • 2021 snaps: 1,185 (all at center)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 51.9 (60.5 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 30 (seventh league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $7,112,500

Hopkins had a reverse season arc compared to Spain. He played his best football as the season wore on, which makes sense considering what he was dealing with.

Just nine months removed from a torn ACL, Hopkins made it back in time to be the Week 1 starter at center and the ironman never missed a game due to injury. Looking back, it’s fair to ask if he maybe should’ve been resting instead of playing before the bye week. His pass-blocking grade of 32.8 from Week 1-9 pales in comparison to the 74 he earned in the 10 games he played since that point.

When healthy, Hopkins can still play. The early-season struggles are hard to ignore, but the context is there. Unfortunately, the team doesn’t seem to value even the good version of himself at his current price. Hopkins is expected to be released at some point in the coming weeks as the team targets a long-term replacement via free agency. While this would remove one of the team’s better blockers, it would also create an avenue to insert an upgrade for more than just the upcoming season, as Hopkins has just one year left on his contract.

If this is indeed farewell, then it’s been one Hell of a ride. Hopkins has certainly earned your respect as a player and as a person. His next stop will adore him.

Hakeem Adeniji

  • 2021 snaps: 777 (all at right guard)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 43.0 (36.1 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 24 (third league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $947,972

When he tore his pectoral during OTAs last May, no one really expected Adeniji to play at all this past season. That he was able to return in October was shocking enough, but before anyone had time to react, the team put him at right guard and never looked back.

They probably should’ve looked back at some point.

Adeniji couldn’t string together two good games in a row at a position he’d never played before. He really never had a solid outing after his second start against the Las Vegas Raiders, but the team continued putting him out there like he was their last option. And perhaps he was, which tells you all you need to know about the state of the line.

It’s tough to be harsh on Adeniji who, again, never played right guard before. He’s not cut out to start, let alone inside where his skillset isn’t best utilized. If the regular season didn’t prove that, the playoffs did when he netted a 19.9 pass-blocking grade by allowing six sacks. Not great!

Adeniji could be back for his third year, but only as a backup and only at tackle. If he has any value, it’s in that specific role.

Riley Reiff

  • 2021 snaps: 711 (all at right tackle)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 67.3 (58.4 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 34 (11th league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $2,750,000 (void year, unrestricted free agent)

Ricardo Allen might not be the only Bengal to retire this offseason. Reiff is one of the oldest players still technically on the roster, but he enters free agency with plenty to think about.

Before an ankle injury ended his season in early December, Reiff proved to be a moderate upgrade over Bobby Hart at right tackle. The consistency was as expected. He was also a 32-year old going up against some of the best edge rushers on the planet. It wasn’t always pretty.

His injury also wasn’t clean and clear. He had been dealing with it weeks before it incapacitated him and his play declined because of it. The last full game he played was in Week 11, and he was placed on Injured Reserve right before Week 15.

Five years ago, maybe Reiff takes the offseason to get right and returns to his old self. But now, with 10 years of wear and tear on him, it’s entirely possible he’s had enough. Like it is with Spain, who knows if he even has another full season in him? This is something Reiff needs to decide for himself, and the Bengals should plan on being without him.

Isaiah Prince

  • 2021 snaps: 641 (591 at right tackle, 49 at inline tight end)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 47.2 (39.7 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 25 (third league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $965,000

Reiff’s replacement to finish the season became Prince, who started the year as an extra blocker when the team utilized heavy personnel packages for their run game. That would’ve ideally been his role for the entire season, but he was called upon to take over at right tackle for nine of the final 10 games.

Prince was at least playing his natural position, unlike Adeniji next to him, but the results still weren’t ideal and it became clear he wasn’t ready to be a starter. He had a solid starting debut in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers and it was essentially all downhill from there.

Considering the uncertainty with Reiff, it’s in the Bengals’ interest to hold onto Prince purely for depth purposes. He has starting experience and the tools to play in a pinch. There’s nothing wrong with keeping him around so long as he isn’t sniffing the starting job in a potential competition.

Jackson Carman

  • 2021 snaps: 501 (377 at right guard, 103 at left guard, 21 at inline tight end)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 54.2 (45.9 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 22 (second league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $1,693,173

The ultimate variable of the unit is also the youngest. Carman was drafted last year to be an immediate answer at right guard. The expectations didn’t match what transpired, to say the least. Carman spent the entire offseason working with the reserves and barely even sniffed the starting five during the lead up to Week 1. Reports of his alleged immaturity surfaced and the Cincinnati native was being painted as a bust before his first year even began.

An injury to Xavier Su’a-Filo opened the door for Carman to start. He was not great, but not terrible, either. At least that’s what it appeared from the outside.

Carman’s run at right guard ended once Adeniji’s pectoral healed and the rookie returned to the bench. He found a role as one of the first linemen off the bench and got to play in relief for five games to close the season. Interestingly enough, this is when we saw a decent version of Carman, as he earned a 77.2 grade from Week 12-17.

If that’s what Carman’s role is this season, he will undoubtedly be viewed as a letdown. He needs to assert himself as a starter somewhere, and it’s too early to assume they’ve ruled out right tackle as an option. Due to his draft status as a second-round pick, Carman will be given chances to prove himself. It’s up to him to capitalize on one.

Trey Hill

  • 2021 snaps: 210 (153 at center, 57 at right guard)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 53.3 (65.3 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 22 (second league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $873,089

The pressure may be on Carman, but Hill is in a different boat. There were no expectations for Hill last year. The sixth-round pick played well enough in the preseason to make Billy Price expendable, but with Hopkins healthy enough to play, Hill began more-or-less of a redshirt season. He made three starts (two at center, one at right guard) and came in off the bench in four other games.

Where Hill fared well in preventing pressure, he struggled with avoiding penalties. He averaged one every 35 snaps. In relation to all the issues surrounding him, this was at least predictable from the team’s perspective.

Hill’s youth and contract status make him a viable long-term backup. In a perfect world, he could take over for whomever the team adds this offseason in a couple years and become the next starting center. That’s years of hopeful development away, thankfully.

Fred Johnson

  • 2021 snaps: 90 (53 at right tackle, 20 at right guard, 10 at inline tight end, seven at left tackle)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 81.0 (61.3 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 25 (fourth league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: restricted free agent

The one game Prince didn’t start at right tackle with Reiff on I.R. saw Johnson at the position, and he played fairly well. It sparked a conversation as to why Johnson wasn’t starting ahead of Prince in the first place, and we never got a clear answer.

Conventional wisdom says Johnson was too inconsistent in practice to jump Prince in the depth chart. And if that’s the case for an impending free agent, then it’s reasonable to assume we’ve seen the last of Johnson in Cincinnati. There’s always a chance he returns or sticks around, but the writing on the wall is pretty legible.

D’Ante Smith

  • 2021 snaps: 62 (47 at left tackle, 15 at inline tight end)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 52.3 (43.1 pass-blocking grade)
  • 2022 age: 24 (second league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $949,836

Entering last year’s training camp, Smith was seen as an underweight tackle who needed at least a year of development before any significant playing time. It only took a few weeks for everyone to see he had a legitimate chance to start at right guard before an injury stifled his momentum. He rode the bench until hurting his meniscus in October and he wouldn’t see the field for the first time until Week 15 against the Denver Broncos.

It was clear that the coaches favored Smith’s work over Carman’s when the two were fighting for reps before the season. That gave Smith, a late fourth-round pick, an opportunity that he nearly seized, and it just might grant him another one at right tackle this year. If there’s an in-house favorite to take that job, the money belongs on Smith.

Lamont Gaillard

  • 2021 snaps: 35 (all at left guard, preseason only)
  • 2021 PFF grade: 37.7 (71.3 pass-blocking grade, preseason only)
  • 2022 age: 26 (fourth league year)
  • 2022 cap hit: $895,000

After a year on the practice squad, Gaillard returns this offseason on an inconsequential futures deal. His spot on the eventual 90-man roster seems safe, but his chances for reps when training camp ensues are slim.