Joe Burrow was consistently hit last season due to a bad Cincinnati Bengals offensive line. After Burrow sustained his devastating knee injury, the criticism of Cincinnati’s offensive line only turned up a notch.
Many begged for the Bengals to draft the offensive tackle Penai Sewell with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Instead, the Bengals added another offensive weapon — Ja’Marr Chase — in the first round, signed the former Viking Riley Reiff after his career season, and drafted both Jackson Carman and D’Ante Smith.
Even after signing Reiff and adding young, intriguing talents, the outcry about Cincinnati’s offensive line did not stop. Instead of panicking, Bengals critics need to see the product before criticizing Cincinnati’s offseason moves. The Bengals could be weak in the interior of the offensive line still, but the performance at both offensive tackle spots could take a big leap.
Riley Reiff is a major upgrade at right tackle for Bengals
The acquisition of Reiff was a sneaky signing by the Bengals. He is not the most well-known offensive tackle, but he was very impressive last season.
Number one, Reiff has displayed consistency in the last three seasons with three straight seasons with a PFF grade above 70.0. There has been way too much inconsistency all over Cincinnati’s offensive line over the last couple of seasons. Reiff being a stable, solid blocker will be a huge help.
Last season, Reiff had the 17th-most Sports Info Solutions points among offensive linemen. Sports Info Solutions measures players by “points”, points are earned on a play-by-play basis. In short, Reiff was the 17th-best offensive lineman when measured on a play-by-play basis.
Reiff also gave up only one sack and 21 pressures last year. Meanwhile, Bobby Hart gave up 44 pressures and four sacks last season for Cincinnati. Clearly, Reiff is a huge upgrade at right tackle. He will not be some All-Pro force, but having Reiff’s consistency will be so vital for the Bengals.
Jonah Williams could establish himself as a premier left tackle this season
With all the disapproval after Cincinnati selected Chase over Sewell, people probably forgot the Bengals selected Jonah Williams in the first round in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Injuries have unfortunately postponed the start of Williams’ career. Williams missed the entire 2019 NFL season with a shoulder injury. Then in the 2020 season, he missed some time with a neck injury and then missed more time later in the season with a knee injury. Williams has only played 10 games in his career. If Williams stays on the field this year pending good health, he could breakout.
First off, he is still only 23-years-old. Williams posted a PFF grade of 70.1 in the 10 games he played last season, which was among the best rookie tackles in the league. Another interesting piece of Williams’ rookie season was how dominant he was against the bull rush. Among all offensive tackles in the NFL, Williams had the second-highest PFF grade versus the bull rush.
Williams is in elite company here, all of these offensive tackles had good seasons last year. He is above both Duane Brown and David Bakhtiari, that is not something to just shrug off. This of course is a very specific situation, going against bull rushes, but this is still telling of Williams’ ability.
Pro Football Focus composed a list of offensive linemen that could breakout in the upcoming season, Williams was the first to appear on the list. The main critique PFF gave was his run blocking, which is fair.
"The clear area for growth in 2021 for Williams is as a run-blocker, as he ranked below the 20th percentile in the percentage of positively graded run blocks. Those are the plays where the offensive lineman creates movement along the defensive line and opens up holes for the running back."
PFF went on to state improved run blocking combined with good health could vault Williams into the top-half of starting left tackles in the NFL.
Williams was drafted 11th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft for a reason — He is very talented. His entire season will depend on his health, it could be a great upcoming season for Williams.
The improvement of offensive tackle is the first step
Even though it is only the preseason, the Bengals have already shown their improvement in pass blocking. Cincinnati did not give up one sack through three preseason games. The Bengals’ offensive line was not doing this last year.
Even if the interior offensive line continues to struggle, improved play from the offensive tackles is a big step. Offensive tackle, especially left tackle, is one of the most important positions in football. If the Bengals end up being set with Williams and Reiff, more attention can be directed to the interior of the offensive line.
Cincinnati will not have elite pass protection this year (it would be a big surprise if they did), however, there is plenty of reason to think it can improve. The potential of Williams and Reiff at left and right tackle is intriguing and exciting. Both Williams and Reiff can help the Bengals’ pass protection tremendously this year.