April 23, 2014

Who Makes The Cut? OL Edition

I saved my favorite part of the offense for last. Because we naturally watch the ball, we rarely take a good look at what these guys are doing in live action. But what they do (or don’t do) has a lot of bearing on the success (or lack thereof) of a play.

The line needed of help at the end of the 2011 season, and the front office made a several moves to do just that. They did not heed the calls of fans to grab a dominant, expensive free agent, but they seem satisfied with what they have done. Are you?

Offensive Line
Starter On The Roster Camp Battle Long Shot
Andrew Whitworth
Andre Smith
Travelle Wharton
Kevin Zeitler
Kyle Cook
Anthony Collins
Clint Boling
Otis Hudson
Dennis Roland
Matthew O’Donnell
Landon Walker
Mike Ryan
Chris Riley
Ben Bojicic

A few days ago I noticed are article speculating that the Bengals may have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL in 2012. I want to believe that. I really do.

I will only go as far as to say that I think this group may be the best O-line since 2003-2005 which featured Levi Jones, Eric Steinbach, Rich Braham, Bobbie Williams, and Willie Anderson. I won’t say that the current group will equal that crew, but they have the potential to come close. If they do, Andy Dalton and the rest of the offense are going to turn the heads of some unsuspecting people. Whether or not they do depends on a rookie, a free agent and a guy trying to avoid the “bust” label.

Starting LT: Andrew Whitworth

Remember when the mantra on Whit was that he was nothing but a guard? He has shut down that talk. He never seems to garner much praise from the national know-it-alls, but he has been a stable anchor on the blind side for a few years now. When Big Bobbie was not playing last year, the modest success that the running game did find usually came when running behind Whit. He should be good throughout his current contract running through 2015.

Starting LG: Travelle Wharton

After Dallas blessed us by signing Nate Livings, the Bengals countered by signing Wharton away from Carolina. He isn’t Nicks or Grubbs, but Wharton is still a clear upgrade. His low PFF rating last year was complicated by a tough-to-score, crazy-legged QB phenom. Fan expectations are high, and the running game is in for a real treat if he can come close to them.

Starting C: Kyle Cook

Every year it gets easier to forget that Cook joined the team as a UDFA. He is tough, nasty and smart, making the right assignments while squaring up against tough AFC North nose tackles like Casey Hampton and Holati Ngata.

Starting RG: Kevin Zeitler

Now that you’ve gotten to know Zeitler, how many of you still think that the Bengals made a mistake by trading back and ultimately missing on DeCastro? He is smart, strong, and basically a wall. I like walls.

Starting RT: Andre Smith

If Smith finally plays to the potential that the front office saw in him and wanted so much (to our dismay), the O-line has a real chance to shine as a unit. (f he doesn’t, I truly hope that the coaches will have the stones to let Collins take over.) But I shouldn’t be down on Smith yet. He took a gigantic step forward last year, coming into camp at a reasonable weight and playing fairly well in his first real action after spending most of his first two years on the sideline in a boot.

Being in a contract year (since the Bengals declined to pick up the option for the two year extension), he knows that this is his make-or-break year. If he does well, he puts himself in a position to make money and win games. If he does not, the word “bust” will be permanently attached to his name. Will that prize, that fear and simple pride set him up for a big year?

Backup T: Anthony Collins

Despite being only a fourth round pick, Collins was asked to fill in due to injury at both tackle spots in his first two seasons. He did a stellar job. I have been a fan of the kid ever since. I have also been frustrated by how he has been buried him on the depth chart since then. Getting him back during free agency was an unexpected blessing, because he will be needed if Smith struggles.

Backup G: Clint Boling

When Bobbie Williams was suspended to start the 2011 season, Boling got the first three starts. He was not horrible, but he was not all that good either. However, with a year in the system and now his first full offseason, I expect him to do well enough to be the primary reliever for Zeitler.

Backup G: Otis Hudson

I expected Hudson to have to battle with Jacob Bell for the final guard spot, thinking he would ultimately beat out Bell. Perhaps Bell came to the same conclusion, choosing to retire this week. Hudson is a big, strong road-grader with good potential. He will benefit from being able to learn behind Wharton as he is prepped to eventually succeed him at that spot.

Camp Battler: Dennis Roland

Going into his fifth season with the Bengals, Roland has to be considered the front-runner to win the final spot on the line. He has been asked to fill in as a starter because of injury, with modest success. As a big body, he is used at times as a sixth lineman when Marvin wants to “go heavy” for a running situation. Can one of the young guys push him for his spot?

Camp Battler: Matthew O’Donnell

O’Donnell is a mountain at 6’9″, 340 lbs. Gotta love that kind of size. He played his college ball at Queen’s College in Canada, which isn’t exactly equivalent to an American power conference, leading him to spend the 2011 on the practice squad. As camp unfolds, we will see how much he learned and whether he needs another year of seasoning on the PS. If he is ready, Roland could be out.

Long Shot: Landon Walker

A teammate of Brandon Thompson at Clemson, Walker needs significant work to clean up his technique to last in the NFL. He isn’t bad, but he isn’t all that good yet either. For this year, he might hit the practice squad if coaches see enough potential, with a possible career as a backup player.

Long Shot: Mike Ryan

The Bengals like big linemen, and at 6’5″ and 330 lbs, Ryan is that. As a teammate of Kashif Moore at UConn, Ryan played both tackle spots and had a reputation around the Big East. But if the scouting reports are correct, he survived more on sheer size than technique, spelling trouble or an NFL career.

Long Shot: Chris Riley

Riley was signed by the Bengals as a UDFA in 2011, later signing to Tampa Bay’s practice squad when he didn’t make the cut in Cincinnati. But coaches remembered him well enough to bring him back in when Jacob Bell retired. However, he will have difficulty unseating Otis Hudson to make the roster.

Long Shot: Ben Bojicic

Bojicic was a four-year starter at Bowling Green (OH) where he anchored a team with a nice offense. But with Kyle Cook signed through 2015 and Kevin Zeitler able to serve as the backup center, there simply is no room for him.

The only real fight I see forming within this group is Roland v. O’Donnell. The other 8 guys are all pretty good to very good, and the rest will simply be scratching for a spot on the practice squad.