The Cincinnati Bengals have done a pretty solid job of getting younger and faster across the roster this offseason, but one major question remains. After losing offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, the success of 2017 could very well hinge on the unproven group up front on the offensive line.
Mike Brown and his front office have relied on two main principles in making major roster decisions this offseason: don’t overpay for players and trust the draft-and-develop strategy. A respective combination of cost, age and playing at non-premium positions played led to the Bengals’ decision to let Whitworth and Zeitler leave. Those determinations have led to the offensive line being the biggest issue potentially keeping the Bengals from returning to the postseason in 2017.
The crux of this year’s plan to stick with promising and more affordable youngsters resides in the usage of Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. They are (and have been since the day they were drafted) the replacements and contingency plans for Whitworth and Andre Smith getting up there in age, but in the limited time they’ve been given, it’s been rough to watch.
Ogbuehi is particularly key this year, as he seems to be the only true left tackle currently on the roster, while also attempting to fill the massive shoes left by Whitworth. It’s a particularly tenuous situation, given Ogbuehi’s struggles at right tackle in 2016 and some that occurred at left tackle while at Texas A&M.
Scott Schulze and I spoke with ESPN Cincinnati’s James Rapien about Ogbuehi’s performance in training camp on this week’s Orange and Black Insider, as well as the status of the rest of the Bengals’ offensive line. Rapien mentioned signs of improvement from Ogbuehi, as well as other early signs of better play than most expected from the group.
“I hear Ogbuehi worked out with Jay Glazer this offseason—toughness was a thing for him last year,” Rapien said. “He just wasn’t tough—if you ask people around him, that’s what they’ll say. So, does MMA training make you more tough and physical (for football players)? Maybe, maybe not.”
After a decent start to camp, there have been conflicting reports on Ogbuehi and the rest of the line. Two great former linemen who played for Cincinnati, Anthony Munoz and Dave Lapham, recently praised Ogbuehi, with Munoz claiming he has “all of the tools”.
However, in a bittersweet turn of events, we’ve been hearing more and more about how rookie edge rusher/linebacker, Carl Lawson, is getting the better of Ogbuehi in practices. It isn’t just Ogbuehi who is under the microscope though, either.
Zeitler’s departure has also left a void at right guard. Cincinnati brought back Smith on a one-year rental deal to see if he could man the spot until the team figures out more long-term options. He’s had familiar nagging injuries, which has also forced the team to continue to explore the possibilities with Trey Hopkins.
What once seemed like a settled line in the wake of the losses of Whitworth and Zeitler, is seeming a bit more unsettled. Because of that, there is one critical question the team must answer: weather the storm with possible early struggles (and possible long-term dividends), or make immediate changes, should they be deemed necessary once the preseason gets underway.
Should the Bengals continue to keep their options open?
Even though they let two of their best linemen from 2016 walk in free agency, the Bengals seem set to move forward with Ogbuehi and Fisher, as well as Smith, Clint Boling and Russell Bodine as their starters on the line.
Now, with some struggles popping up as practices continue, the Bengals might want to use their periphery to see who else might be available on the open market, or even via a trade. If others on the interior of the line struggle, the Bengals have recently invested some mid-round picks (Christian Westerman and J.J. Dielman) in which to turn to for relief.
If the struggles in subsequent practices and preseason games come at the hands of Fisher and Ogbuehi, the Bengals may have their hands forced to make a move. Smith and Eric Winston could potentially shuffle over to the right tackle spot, but only Fisher seems to be a viable option on the left, if reorganization needs to occur. And, that wouldn’t be ideal either.
There are some veteran options out there for the Bengals to pounce on, but are they truly upgrades? Orlando Franklin was one name being kicked around in fan circles and he was released just a few days after signing with the Saints, while only having pro experience as a guard and right tackle. The Bengals know who’s on the market, and haven’t made a move yet, making it seem like those available are not of interest.
If struggles occur, how long will Marvin Lewis wait to make changes?
Last year, Marvin Lewis stuck with Mike Nugent through 13 games even though he was massively struggling and partially costing the team wins. For all of the good attributes and characteristics Lewis has brought to the Bengals in his now 15-year tenure, he has shown a penchant for sticking with rather unproductive veterans who “do things the right way”, over possible upgrades on the roster or on the outside market.
This season, Lewis is currently in “lame duck status”, as he is coaching in the final year of his contract. Brown has been a bit of a fence-rider on the topic of an impending Lewis extension, but as of now, Lewis appears to be using 2017 as an audition tape to potentially get another contract either in Cincinnati or elsewhere.
Because of his current contract status, Lewis might not be using as much of a future-forward-thinking process as he has done in past years. If he is truly coaching for another contract with the Bengals, he’ll need to have a rebound season that is a far cry from 2016’s 6-9-1 result. The success of the 2017 Bengals largely hinges on the offensive line, so Lewis might be inclined to shuffle things up earlier than he usually does because of his unclear future.
Though the team is largely quiet in free agency, they have swung summer trades and grabbed guys who were late cuts in recent years. If Lewis doesn’t like what he sees from the offensive line this summer, we might see another similar move.
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