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Offensive Line Help Is On the Way

In the wake of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 20 - 23 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, one thing was absolutely, fundamentally clear: the Bengals have to upgrade their offensive line. After allowing quarterback Joe Burrow to be sacked a league-leading 70 times in the regular and postseason, it’s past time for some better protectors.

This isn’t a new problem. Heading into the 2021 season, much of the preseason conversation around the Bengals boiled down to their o-line. With Burrow recovering from his traumatic knee injury, many assumed the Bengals would select Oregon lineman Penei Sewell in the 2021 NFL Draft. Today, we know that selecting wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the #5 pick was the right choice. That doesn’t mean the Bengals didn’t miss out on a desperately needed influx of talent.

With the fifth most cap-space available in the NFL right now, there is no better time for the Bengals to improve this area of weakness, and luckily for them, there are a lot of good options for lineman in free agency and in the draft.

As it stands, the Bengals offensive line could have as many as four new starters. Only left tackle Jonah Williams seems firmly entrenched, although there have been calls from some in the media that he might be a better fit at guard. Next to Williams is Quinton Spain. Spain joined the Bengals in the middle of the 2020 season after being released from the Buffalo Bills. Spain was immediately inserted into the starting lineup against the Tennessee Titans, a surprise 31 - 20 victory. Since that game, Spain has manned the left guard spot and given the team some stability.

With that being said, Spain isn’t exactly a world-beater. He turns 31 in August and doesn’t have a long track record of success. He is also a free agent. If the Bengals feel like they can find a definitive upgrade in free agency, Spain could be shown the door.

Trey Hopkins has manned the center position for the Bengals since 2017. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Hopkins has worked his way to becoming a fixture on the Bengals’ O-line. He also worked extremely hard to recover from a torn ACL in the Bengals final game of the 2020 season. It wasn’t always pretty when the 2021 season started, but by the end of the year, Hopkins had regained much of his previous form.

Like Spain though, Hopkins is not an elite player at the position. While he’s a little younger than Spain (Hopkins doesn’t turn 30 until July), the Bengals could view Hopkins as another player that could be easily upgraded. He is under contract for one more season, but the Bengals could easily cut him. Hopkins only carries a dead cap charge of $1.13 million, meaning the Bengals could save about $6 million by releasing him.

Right guard remains a position in flux for the Bengals. Rookie Jackson Carman started the year at the position, but due to poor play he was benched in favor of second-year player Hakeem Adeniji. That move didn’t work out either. They would play musical chairs at right guard the rest of the season and all the way to the Super Bowl. With both players disappointing in 2021, this is the most obvious position to address in the offseason.

Carman, for his part, doesn’t seem to be in any danger of being cut from the team. While he didn’t play well this season, the Bengals still invested a second round pick in the 22-year old from Clemson. He was also learning a new position in the NFL after playing tackle throughout his college career. Adeniji will also likely be a Bengal in 2022. He is still under contract and is inexpensive. Besides, he has already proven valuable to the Bengals as a swing-lineman who can play multiple positions. Is he going to be a future All-Pro at any of them? Probably not, but he can be a solid emergency option.

The Bengals also featured two different players at the right tackle position throughout the season, though not by choice. Riley Reiff, the long-time tackle for the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings, signed with the Bengals in the offseason to man the position, and he played well for the most part. Unfortunately, Reiff was placed on injured reserve on December 16, ending his season early and putting backup tackle Isaiah Prince in the spotlight. The former Buckeye did not play well. With Prince at right tackle and a revolving door at right guard, the right side of the line was a turnstile.

Reiff is now a free agent and will likely not be retained by the Bengals in 2022 due to his age (turns 34 in December) and recent injury history. Prince is not a starting-caliber option. With Carman having played tackle in college, I could see the Bengals giving him a look in training camp, but this is another position where new talent is needed.

Fortunately, the 2022 free agent class is filled with talented offensive lineman. Some of the headliners include Washington Commanders guard Brandon Scherff and New Orleans Saints tackle Terron Armstead. They are both former All-Pros at their positions who could give the Bengals a jolt of star power in their O-line room. Scherff, in particular, was looked at as a strong possibility for the Bengals in the 2020 offseason until he was franchise tagged. If the Commanders can’t get a long-term deal done with Scherff this offseason, he could hit the open market.

Armstead has manned the left tackle position for the Saints for the past few seasons. He famously ran a 4.71 40-yard dash at the combine, which remains the fastest time ever recorded for an offensive lineman. But his game isn’t just about speed. He has developed into one of the premier left tackles in the sport. If the Bengals bring him in, he could easily slide into one of the tackle spots and solidify that position for years to come. He could also allow Jonah Williams to slide to guard if that’s an option the Bengals are interested in. Either way, Armstead would be a massive upgrade.

Laken Tomlinson is another player who could make a huge impact for the Bengals in 2022. The free agent guard played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2021, helping the team reach the NFC Championship game. Tomlinson is an undrafted player who rose to become an important player for the 49ers. They won’t be happy to see him leave.

Tomlinson could be an especially good fit for the Bengals because of his familiarity with the Bengals’ offensive scheme. Having played under head coach Kyle Shanahan, Tomlinson is familiar with the wide-zone running running attack the Bengals employ under head coach Zac Taylor. Tomlinson could be a natural fit. He may also be less expensive than top guard option Scherff, which could allow the Bengals more flexibility with their ample cap space.

There are several other free agent guards who could interest the Bengals. James Daniels is a 24-year lineman who finally settled in at guard for the Chicago Bears in 2021. His youth and versatility could be intriguing for a young Bengals team that could use help at many O-line positions. Austin Corbett played against the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI as a starting guard for the Los Angeles Rams. Like Tomlinson, Corbett has familiarity with a wide-zone running scheme but also brings youth (age 26) to the position.

Andrew Norwell is a name that should be familiar to Bengals fans, if only because he is a native Cincinnatian, having played his high school ball at Anderson High School. The eight-year pro has been a solid starter for his entire career, even being named first team All-Pro in 2017. While he might be nearer to the end of his career than the beginning, Norwell is still a solid option at the position, and he could have plenty left in the tank to help his hometown team get back to the Super Bowl.

If the Bengals look to upgrade from center Trey Hopkins, there are some players who could fit the bill. Ben Jones is a long-time starting center, having played for the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans in his career. With the Titans, Jones helped pave the way for running back Derrick Henry to rush for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2020. More recently, Jones helped the Titans’ rushing attack not fall off a cliff when Henry went down with an injury midseason. The Titans currently sit at $6 million over the cap, so Jones might be on his way out. However, he does turn 33 in July. He might not be enough of an upgrade over Hopkins to justify the age-related risk.

Finally, Brian Allen is another former Ram who could give the Bengals a boost at the center position. He is only 26 and also brings the wide-zone familiarity that makes Tomlinson and Corbett so appealing. With the Rams currently sitting at $10 million over the cap, it seems likely that one or both Corbett or Allen will be available.

Aside from free agency, the Bengals can and will also utilize the draft to acquire new talent for their offensive line. However, this should not be their primary approach (see Jackson Carman). If the Bengals want real solutions, they need to go for proven talent.

At the same time, they can’t ignore the O-line in the draft. Like the Kansas City Chiefs proved last year, you can find starting caliber lineman beyond the first round. Creed Humphrey was the Chiefs’ starting center from day 1. He was selected in the second round and there were some in the NFL media who thought Humphrey was the best rookie lineman all year. Trey Smith started at right guard. He was selected in the sixth round.

There are several intriguing options for the Bengals in the 2022 Draft, including Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green, Iowa center Tyler Lindbaum, Boston College guard Zion Johnson, Louisiana-Lafayette tackle Max Mitchell, Minnesota tackle Daniel Faalele, Central Michigan tackle Bernhard Raimann, and Georgia guard Jamaree Salyer.

(For the purpose of this exercise, I am not including Alabama tackle Evan Neal or North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu. Both are highly regarded and seem likely to be selected within the first 10-15 picks.)

Green is a highly thought of prospect, ranking #17 among scout Daniel Jerimiah’s top 50 prospects. He is solid in pass protection and also brings versatility, having played every position for the Aggies along the offensive line except for center. If he is available for the Bengals at pick #31, they should not hesitate to call his name.

The same goes for Lindbaum. Lindbaum ranks #19 on Jerimiah’s board, but some, including Pro Football Focus, rank him even higher. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, “(Lindbaum’s) 95.4 overall grade this past year was the highest we’ve ever given to a Power Five center.” He could potentially be a massive upgrade over Trey Hopkins and could give the Bengals a boost in the same way Humphrey made a difference for the Chiefs.

Zion Johnson was a name that was making waves at the Senior Bowl. The three-year starter for the Eagles was considered a standout by many, including senior ESPN draft expert Todd McShay, who claimed, “Johnson was not only the best interior lineman this week. In my eyes, he was the best player.” He could be an option for the Bengals in round 2 if he falls.

Mitchell, Faalele and Raimann are all tackle prospects who have intriguing potential. Mitchell is a tall, athletic prospect who didn’t play the strongest competition at Louisiana-Lafayette, but scouts rave about his leadership and pass protecting skills. Faalele is a mountain of a human being, standing 6’8’’ and weighing in at a whopping 387 lbs. He is ready to handle some of the bigger, stronger defenders in the NFL right now, but will struggle against some of the speedier edge rushers, especially those who play in the Bengals division like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt. Raimann, like Mitchell, will have questions about competition after coming out of Central Michigan. But, by all accounts, the Austrian-born lineman is a quick study who has made great strides since converting from tight end. He is a developmental prospect who could turn into a high-level starter down the road.

Lastly, we have Salyer. Salyer isn’t quite as highly regarded as a prospect as some of these other names, but he has many of the qualities the Bengals seem to like in their draft picks. He was one of only four permanent team captains for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2021 and he helped the team win its first College Football Playoff championship. Given how the Bengals love to add team captains and college champions, Salyer could be a perfect fit in the later rounds.

In all, there are numerous options available for the Bengals to improve their offensive line. One option I didn’t even touch on was a trade. Sorry to keep bringing up the Chiefs but they also used this path to upgrade their O-line as well by bringing in tackle Orlando Brown, Jr. from the Baltimore Ravens. It’s hard to speculate which players might be available for a trade, but the Bengals must do their due diligence in all these areas if they are to fulfill their potential in 2022.

Just to reiterate, Burrow was sacked 70 times in 2021. That is unacceptable. Only two players have even been sacked more than Burrow in a season, Randall Cunningham in 1986 and David Carr in 2002.

(Just for fun, think about this: neither Carr nor Cunningham made the playoffs in those seasons. Cunningham, amazingly, wasn’t even a full-time starter - he split time with incumbent Ron Jaworski. Cunningham only attempted 246 passes in the 1986 season. Carr attempted 444 passes in 2002. Burrow attempted 520 passes in the 2021 regular season. If this doesn’t give you an idea of how much the NFL has changed in the past 10-20 years I don’t know what will.)

Carr, famously, led the NFL in sacks taken in his first three full seasons and was so beaten down that he lost the ability to be a competent starter in the NFL. If the Bengals want to avoid a similar fate with their #1 overall pick, they need to take major steps to fill those holes at O-line. Given the way the team has embraced free agency over the past two offseasons, help should be on the way (for the record, I want the Bengals to go all-in and add Scherff and Armstead and let the rest of the chips fall where they may).

The Super Bowl loss was disappointing, but unlike most teams this offseason, the Bengals have just one, very distinct need that they can fix in a single offseason. Multiple teams did it last year. If the Bengals can get an offensive line face-lift in 2022, back-to-back Super Bowl appearances could be on the horizon.

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