Updated: Apr 10
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La%27el_Collins_2017.JPG)
That all happened quickly. The NFL’s two day “legal tampering period” began last Monday, and before anyone could even look up the words “legal tampering period” on Google, terms were negotiated and contracts were signed. Somehow, the Bengals were the team to lead the free agency charge, agreeing to a deal with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineman Alex Cappa, the NFL’s first confirmed free agent signing.
As the Bengals move into the second week of free agency, the team has already made significant improvements to their biggest weak link of the 2021 season: the offensive line. It seems that of the quintet that started in Super Bowl LVI, perhaps two will start in 2022. With all of these new faces and moving parts, let me be the first to introduce you to the new and improved, 2022 Cincinnati Bengals offensive line!
At left tackle, we have one of our few returning starters. Jonah Williams has manned the left tackle spot for the Bengals for the past two seasons after being selected with the 11th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Head Coach Zac Taylor’s first-ever draft pick. Williams missed his rookie season after requiring surgery to repair a torn labrum suffered in training camp, but since becoming the full-time starter in 2020, he has been the Bengals’ most consistent and dependable lineman.
Now in his fourth year in the NFL, Williams looks to be entering his prime. He performed well protecting Joe Burrow's blind-side in 2021, earning a 77.1 grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF). With the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror and with Burrow’s knee ligaments firmly in place, Williams gets to have a full, and relatively normal, offseason with his quarterback. 2022 might be his best season yet.
Despite all the moves the Bengals have made so far this offseason, one position - left guard - still remains in flux. There is still a lot of time left in the free agency period, and we can’t forget about the upcoming draft, either, but it’s likely that the starter at left guard will be determined in training camp.
There are three (maybe four) contestants: Jackson Carman, Hakeem Adeniji and D’Ante Smith (also Trey Hill). Carman, as you may remember, was the Bengals’ second-round draft pick in 2021, following the dynamite selection of Ja’Marr Chase in the first-round. Carman started much of the season at right guard, but inconsistency and ineffectiveness led to his benching midseason for Adeniji. Adeniji, for his part, didn’t play much better. The two rotated snaps for the rest of the year and up into the Super Bowl.
Smith, who was also selected by the Bengals in the 2021 draft, is a project-sort of player. A tackle in college at East Carolina University, Smith received reps with the first team at guard in training camp, although he only saw action in two regular season games. If he develops nicely, he could be a potential option at left guard in 2022. Otherwise, the Bengals might be content to continue to allow him to develop at tackle. Given Smith’s length and athleticism and the Bengals’ other options at guard, some seasoning at tackle might serve the Bengals better anyway.
The last option for the Bengals at left guard is second-year player Trey Hill. While there is definitely a chance that Hill could win the training camp battle, it’s far more likely that Hill remains the primary backup at center. The former sixth-round pick out of the University of Georgia appeared in 12 games in 2021, mainly on special teams. He will look to continue carving out his role as a special-teams standout and dependable backup.
Here comes the fun part: the newbies. At center, the Bengals brought in free agent Ted Karras of the New England Patriots on a three-year, $18 million contract. Karras has excellent positional versatility, having started at all three interior offensive line positions in his career, and performing well each time. For the Bengals, Karras will man center, which means we’ve likely seen the last of longtime Bengal Trey Hopkins. Hopkins struggled early in the 2021 season after recovering from ACL surgery, but did manage to improve as the season went along. The Bengals will look to cut the seventh-year pro, and they will save about $6 million against the cap in doing so.
Karras brings more than just positional versatility, though. He is a tough-nosed, hardworking, lunch-pail kinda player. John Madden would have loved him.
Karras comes from a long-line of NFL players, including his father, Ted Jr., his grandfather Ted Sr., and his great-uncles Lou and Alex. The Alex-edition of the Karras family is not only in the NFL Hall of Fame, but also appeared as Mongo in the 1974 comedy-classic Blazing Saddles and as George Papadopolis in the television sit-com Webster. I remember Mongo being pretty intimidating, so hopefully the modern-Ted Karras still has some of his great-uncle’s menacing charisma.
At right guard, the Bengals secured the services of Alex Cappa, the former Buccaneer who helped Tom Brady win his seventh championship back in 2020. As I mentioned previously, Cappa was the first signing announced during the “legal tampering period,” which suggests the Bengals had early-eyes for the fifth-year pro out of Humboldt State University. The 27-year old agreed to a four-year, $35 million contract to become Burrow’s meanest new bodyguard.
A former third-round pick, Cappa has blossomed into one of the league’s young studs at guard. He hasn’t missed a regular season game in two years and didn’t commit a penalty in all of 2021. Given all of the craziness the Bengals went through at the right guard position in 2021, Cappa seems like an absolutely perfect fit.
When the offseason began, the Bengals’ offensive line coach Frank Pollack mentioned that he wanted his linemen to be “glass-eaters.” Well, that’s Cappa. The man tried to play in the Buccaneers' playoff game against the Washington Football Team with a broken leg. Let me say this a little louder for the back row: he tried to play an NFL game with a broken leg! Alex Cappa thrives on pain. He wakes up every morning and pours himself a bowl of nuts and bolts cereal and washes it down with sawdust. Alex Cappa doesn’t just eat glass, he bathes in it and uses it as toothpaste. He doesn’t put on cleats, he just nails the spikes to the soles of his feet. He only wears a helmet in games because the NFL is too scared that he’d start eating opponents if there wasn’t a facemask in the way.
To top everything off, on Sunday the Bengals managed to reel-in their biggest catch of the offseason. La’el Collins, the former Dallas Cowboy and one of the better young right tackles in the NFL, agreed to a three-year, $30 million contract with the Bengals, completing a stunning turnaround for a once-maligned unit. Collins received a 82.0 grade from PFF in 2021, which would have been the highest of any of the Bengals’ linemen in 2021.
While Collins is a great player and a fantastic addition for the Bengals, it should be noted that the signing doesn’t come without risk. Fairly or not, when Collins was coming out for the NFL draft in 2015, he was questioned by police in regards to a murder investigation. He was never considered a suspect, but the damage was already done in many respects. He went undrafted and was signed by the Cowboys, where he would meet the then-Cowboys’ offensive line coach: Frank Pollack.
Collins was also suspended for five games in 2021 for failing to appear for a scheduled drug test and attempting to bribe the drug testing official. But for the Bengals, this was a risk worth taking. Collins is a tremendous talent who already has a relationship with Pollack. He is also a former Louisiana State University Tiger. It just so happens that the Bengals have slowly been attempting to turn their team into LSU-North over the last two seasons after drafting Burrow and Chase. Seems like a natural fit.
Even after adding three new starters in a week, the Bengals still might not be done. The 2022 NFL Draft is in April, and the Bengals could find themselves staring at a starting-caliber lineman when clock starts for their #31 overall selection. Although it seems more likely that the Bengals will be looking into defensive players with this pick, namely defensive tackle or cornerback, more remarkable things have happened - like, for instance, the fact that the Bengals were the first team to sign a free agent in the offseason.
With Collins, Cappa and Karras in the fold, and with Williams returning, the foundation of a solid offensive line is in place. Even if the Bengals are content to go into the 2022 training camp with the offensive line as is, it is a much-improved unit from 2021. What was once a weakness is now, well, still maybe not a strength, but miles and miles ahead of where we were just one year ago. With this unit intact, Burrow looks to be the most secure he’s ever been. Now, we get to see what a Super Bowl-caliber offense looks like with a Super Bowl-caliber offensive line.