One of the Bengals’ biggest strengths in recent years has been their offensive line. It has provided Andy Dalton ample time to make passes and the running game with quality blocking. But with several changes potentially coming to the unit in the next few seasons, if the line wants to continue being as effective as it’s been, then investing in a couple of linemen this year would be an excellent idea.
Continuity and experience is key to the success of a line. This year, the Bengals must re-sign Clint Boling for this very reason. More than this, his retention is key because when 2016 rolls around, tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith will be free agents along with right guard Kevin Zeitler. It’s likely the team will want to make Zeitler a priority considering his age and performance. If the Bengals manage to re-sign both Boling and Zeitler, the line’s interior will be in tact for several years (along with center Russell Bodine).
The interior of the line is bolstered by its depth. Veteran interior linemen Mike Pollak has been a great example of this. He’s a player who can effectively perform at each of the line’s three interior positions; he’s performed well at each of the guard positions when the team experienced injuries in the past and though he hasn’t been employed at center, he was a highly-rated one coming out of college so he does have experience. Let’s also not forget how good 2014 undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins looked prior to the start of this past season. While Clint Boling was recovered from a torn ACL and Mike Pollak was receiving from off-season surgery, Hopkins worked with the first-team offense sporadically throughout the preseason. His addition to the 53-man roster seemed imminent prior to his season-ending fibula injury. If Hopkins returns to his prior form, he could certainly add to the depth along the interior and help the Bengals in the run game, a strength of his.
As for the tackle positions, things aren’t burgeoning quite as much. Andrew Whitworth will turn 34 next season and is likely in the twilight of his career. This isn’t to say the team should move on from him next season when he becomes a free agent, but it is reason to begin thinking about selecting and training his replacement in the coming season.
Andre Smith’s future with the team is also uncertain. Like Whitworth, Smith becomes a free agent in 2016. He has been largely productive for the Bengals, but has frustrated fans when missing off-season activities in the past. Nonetheless, when in the lineup, he’s done well, but he has experienced a few injuries now. It would be unsurprising to see him test the free agent market as he did in 2013. After not receiving any significant offers, Smith re-signed with the Bengals during the draft to conclude a likely standoff between the two. Smith may find more success in his next trip to free agency, but his torn triceps injury may keep him from landing the big deal he seeks. The 2015 season will act as a “weathervane” for Smith’s likeliness to return to Cincinnati. With this as a presumed reality, it should motivate the Bengals to seek depth at tackle in the upcoming draft.
The upcoming draft will offer talent at the tackle position throughout the early to middle rounds. With as many as six or seven tackles potentially receiving a first round grade, it’s very likely the Bengals could find a good fit in the first or second round. Players like La’el Collins, T.J. Clemmings, and Ereck Flowers will require some coaching, but should prove to be quality players with tutelage; coaching isn’t a problem for the Bengals as Paul Alexander has proven capable of coaching up prospects.
But selecting a player in the first round would likely mean the Bengals would be moving on from one of their tackles in 2016. If they aren’t sure about doing so, prospects like Rob Havenstein and Cedric Ogbuehi would make for good investments after the first round. They are prospects that will require some refinement in their first year, but they wouldn’t have to be rushed into action in 2015.
If the Bengals’ offensive line is to continue to be as productive and dominant as it has been in past seasons, restocking its depth will be key. Luckily the upcoming draft will offer a plethora of tackles that should be available throughout its early rounds, so finding the right fit shouldn’t be a problem. All the more reason the Bengals should selected at least two linemen in the upcoming draft.