While the game of football will always be focused around the glamorous skill positions like receiver, runningback, and of course quarterback, the unsung heroes of any good football team are the offensive lineman. They open the holes for the backs to find running lanes, and they protect their QB so he can find his receiver streaking down the sideline for a highlight-reel touchdown.
The Cincinnati Bengals are coming off back-to-back playoff berths for the first time in over 30 years, and much have that has been due to the strength of their o-line, who Pro football Focus ranked earlier this offseason as the 8th-best o-line in the NFL:
8. Cincinnati Bengals (13)
PB – 2nd, RB – 22nd, PEN – 10th
Stud: What a year from Andre Smith (+26.9). Our top-graded right tackle was the only player on this unit to consistently generate movement in the run game, while (Brandon Graham beating aside) holding his own in pass protection.
Dud: Whoever played center. That’s a little unfair to Trevor Robinson (-1.8) who looked the best of a bad bunch, with Jeff Faine (-13.0) completely done, and Kyle Cook (-5.0) far from his best.
Summary: If not for how bad things were at center then you’re realistically looking at a Top 5 line. The big problem is they’re far better on their heels than they are going forward, and outside of Smith don’t do a good enough job of creating space for their running backs.
I’ts worth noting that Cincinnati had a better ranking than their two AFC North rivals in Pittsburgh in Baltimore, but the Cleveland Browns actually had the best line of any AFC North team, coming in at #5. If they can find a serviceable QB, they could become one of the surprise teams of 2013, and make an already stacked division by-far the best in the NFL.
What’s even crazier is the Bengals played half of the season with emergency replacement Jeff Faine starting for half the season at center, because Kyle Cook suffered a serious ankle injury during training camp, and never appeared to be 100% even when he did reclaim his starting role. If he can be healthy going into the 2013 season, that ranking should definitely increase now that the best lineman on the team in Andre Smith is signed for the next three years. Losing him would have left a missive hole on the right side of the line
Don’t forget about Travelle Wharton returning from a season-ending knee injury. He was projected to be the starting left guard coming into the season, but Clint Boling wound up starting every game, and performed admirably. Still, expect to see Boling have to battle with Wharton to retain his starting spot.
All of this competition will only keep the lineman hungry to keep improving.