Dennis Roland (T/G) and Anthony Collins (T) are incumbents, and despite the hype surrounding the rookies, they still maintain the best chance of keeping their names on the roster. If the new offensive line multi-tool Tanner Hawkinson wants to earn a space on the roster, it may come at the expense of one of these veterans who at 30 and 27 year of age, respectively, and they may prove to be difficult to usurp. Further, many believe Reid Fragel may be a better prospective tackle than Hawkinson anyway, regardless his being a seventh rounder.
The two dark horses in all of this are rookie TJ Johnson (C) and veteran Mike Pollak (G). As mentioned, center was easily the weakest point in Andy Dalton’s protection last season, and Johnson has the least competition at his position. Meanwhile, Pollak is a real X-Factor in that he hasn’t played a snap since a shoulder injury in practice during Week 2 last year with Carolina. Prior to that, Pollak was a stellar pass protector who comes with a lot of championship experience. But with Robinson and Roland both comfortable at guard and favorites to make the roster at least for now, the Bengals are potentially five guards deep already, meaning that Pollak would need to prove he was at the same level he was in 2010 when he was part of the Indianapolis line that gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL that year. Otherwise, he’s a long shot to make the roster come August.
Some have made the argument recently that it would be wiser to cut Wharton in favor of the younger talent in Hawkinson and Fragel. It is important to remember that offensive tackles and guards must mature to the NFL before taking to the trenches in earnest unless they are natural talents. Case in point: the Pittsburgh Steelers adding David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Adams in the past two years. All of these linemen were first rounder talents, and while individually they may have been immediate impacts for the Steelers individually, collectively the immediate impact has largely been on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he accepts that part of their learning curve. True, Wharton is 32 years old… but he’s only six months senior to Whitworth. Fragel will have to scrap it out against the current tackles if he doesn’t want to make the practice squad, which he is likely to do until next season when both Collins and Roland will be unrestricted free agents. Meanwhile Hawkinson’s best chance would be to come in and compete at center against Cook.
As a final note, Cook is also slated to earn $3.4M this year with a contract that takes him through 2015. While Wharton may be unproven as a Bengal as of yet, Cook has shown himself to be a bust over the past 4 years. If the argument is to be had about contract-cutting for longevity, cap space, and retaining prospective talent, then it needs to begin with Cook before any other member of the offensive line.