While the Cincinnati Bengals’ options are slim along the offensive line, there is a clear starting lineup that would trump the rest.
In an uncharacteristic offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals spent big on their defense in free agency. Through the draft, they addressed their passing game with the additions of Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins. However, the team’s biggest weakness, the offensive line, was virtually unchanged.
This has been a cause for concern among fans. How will Burrow have a solid rookie season without protection? Will Joe Mixon be able to find open lanes in the running game?
These questions are impossible to answer until the season starts. The Bengals’ coaching staff and front office used this offseason as a show of confidence in their current guys on the line, but many on the outside aren’t convinced. In my opinion, there is one lineup that may just work out for the Bengals.
Left Tackle: Jonah Williams
The left tackle position is the most crucial piece of the entire offensive line. Luckily for the Bengals, they have 2019 first-round pick, Jonah Williams, making his debut in 2020 after a rookie campaign that was derailed by an injury.
The former Alabama tackle is set to face some major obstacles in his first season. In what is essentially his rookie year, he will be tasked with saving the Bengals’ notoriously weak line. Instead of having time to adapt to his new league, he will be busy trying to bail out those around him. Having not played football since early 2019, he will also be bound to have his share of struggles in the upcoming season.
Aside from these negatives going into his first year, he was taken with the 11th overall pick for a reason. His talent should shine through over the course of his career, even if his 2020 play does not reflect that.
Left Guard: Michael Jordan
At left guard, Michael Jordan deserves another shot. After an impressive training camp and preseason earned Jordan the starting job for the fourth-round rookie, his play was inconsistent at best and abysmal at worst in his rookie season. So why should the former Ohio State Buckeye be given another chance?
Jordan’s rookie year as a whole does not look good, but context matters. The young guard was the Bengals’ youngest player in 2019. As only a fourth-round rookie at such a young age, being thrust into a starting job can be a lot to handle for even the most talented players. The NFL is a whole new world for rookies and immediate success is not a given.
Additionally, the line around Jordan was weak. When the guy beside you can’t block, that makes your job even harder as a lineman. Perhaps the problem was never him, but his situation. Towards the end of the season, as the Bengals shook up their offensive line and schemes, Jordan’s play improved. That upward trajectory should continue in 2020.
Center: Trey Hopkins
Coming into 2020 as the Bengals’ only sure thing on the offensive line, Trey Hopkins is a seriously underrated player on the offensive line. The former undrafted lineman from Texas started all 16 games in 2019, earning himself an overall score of 62.4 on Pro Football Focus. As a pass blocker, Hopkins was graded as a 71.5.
With so much disfunction on the line in 2019, Hopkins was a diamond in the rough for the Bengals. Having been on the team since 2014, the sixth-year center finally broke out under offensive line coach Jim Turner.
After the season, Hopkins earned himself a 3-year, $20,400,000 contract. While much of the line should give cause for concern, you don’t have to worry about the center position.
Right Guard: Billy Price
In 2020, Billy Price should get one more shot. The former first-round pick has seemingly been a bust in his first two years, but the verdict is not in just yet. Although the third-year lineman is not the current frontrunner for a starting spot on the line, his talent could finally shine through in camp and get him one last opportunity.
Price’s time in Cincinnati to this point has been nothing short of a disaster, sure. However, the former Buckeye was drafted as a center despite being much better suited to play right guard.
While he hasn’t played well in his chances to line up at guard, an entire training camp dedicated to preparation at guard instead of center could be just what Price needs to finally break out in 2020.
He may not be the safest of the Bengals’ options at guard, but Price has the most potential of his competition. If Turner and Zac Taylor can reach his untapped potential, he is the best option at the right guard position.
Right Tackle: Fred Johnson
At right tackle, Bobby Hart is the presumptive starter at right tackle. However, after an impressive end to the 2019 season, Fred Johnson is a dark horse candidate to take the job.
Johnson earned an overall PFF grade of 62.6, with a 78.4 in pass blocking. When he was thrust into playing time toward the end of the season, the line was the best it had been all season. If the Bengals want to replicate the improvement of their line at the end of 2019, Johnson must be given a chance to start an entire season at right tackle.
If Johnson can put perform for an entire season as he did at the end of last year, he could be just the piece the Bengals need to finally fix their offensive line. One thing’s for sure, the coaching staff should at least try to put someone out there other than Hart.
This offensive line combination is the Bengals’ best chance for success on the line in 2020. Putting forth all of their high potential players in the early stages of their careers may sound like a risk, but it’s the most likely combination for the line to become a strength. If this group melds together well, the positive effects on rookie quarterback Burrow could be great.