A quick look at the Bengals running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends shows a team that is poised to produce stellar offensive numbers with Andy Dalton at the helm. When the offensive line is taken into account, the idea of offensive greatness is thrown into question. The key to the Bengals’ success this year will be the development of their offensive line. Can the offensive line improve enough to open up holes for the Bengals’ strong core of running backs, and provide Andy Dalton with enough time to deliver the ball to the Bengals’ wide array of receiving threats?
After an exciting draft in which the Bengals acquired multiple dynamic players with game-changing ability, it is easy to forget that the Bengals offseason started not with a bang, but with a groan. The Bengals lost two of their top players in free agency. To make matters worse, the two players in question (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler) were both offensive linemen. The offensive line struggled last year, but Whitworth and Zeitler were the exception.
Russell Bodine has been anchoring the Bengals’ offensive line from the center position ever since he was drafted by the team in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft. Bodine struggled early in his career, as is the case with many players who start as rookies. He has constantly improved over the years, but still has not turned the corner to solidify himself as the clear cut starter at the position. Is this Bodine’s year?
The Bengals also have veteran TJ Johnson and rookie JJ Dielman at the center position. Johnson has not seen much playing time in his career in Cincinnati, but has managed to hold onto a roster spot since 2013. Dielman was a late round value pick, who can also contribute elsewhere on the line. In all likelihood, Bodine is the guy at center for the Bengals in 2017.
One of the biggest issues with the Bengals’ offensive line in 2016 was Clint Boling’s injury struggles. Boling injured his shoulder early in the season and was not the same player after that. This led the Bengals to have to shuffle the deck on the offensive line, often kicking Andrew Whitworth into the guard position. Boling spent his offseason recovering from surgery and appears to be poised for a better outing in 2017.
To replace Kevin Zeitler at the other guard position, the Bengals turned to a familiar face. 2009 sixth overall draft pick Andre Smith is back in Cincinnati after struggling with the Vikings in 2016. The Bengals are hoping tor revitalize the former starting tackle by moving him inside to guard. Familiarity with the system should make this a relatively easy transition and guard could be a better fit for Smith, who has had his struggles against edge pass rushers. Another name worth nothing at the guard position is Christian Westerman. The Bengals drafted Westerman in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, which was much lower than he was expected to go. Don’t be surprised if Westerman is more involved this season, particularly rotating in to give Smith a breather.
The offensive line was the focus of the Bengals’ 2015 draft in which they selected Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round and Jake Fisher in the second. Selecting offensive tackles back to back, the Bengals were hoping to shore up the position for years to come. Both have had their struggles throughout the years, but have shown signs of development. They have both played their best at right tackle, but Ogbuehi showed improvements last year when he had the chance to play on the left side. For the Bengals to be truly successful in 2017, both need to turn a corner and become the players they were expected to be. Veteran Eric Winston provides depth at the position and can contribute in a pinch, but Ogbuehi and Fisher are the future at the position.
Clint Boling’s injury in 2016 had an obvious negative impact on the season, but may have been the catalyst for this season’s changes. Andrew Whitworth was forced to play a significant amount of time at guard, which allowed Ogbuehi to gain experience at left tackle and Fisher to solidify himself at right tackle. The Bengals wanted these two to be their tackles, and it is likely that if Whitworth had stayed, they may have tried to move him to guard full time. Seeing these two play and develop throughout the season gave the Bengals the confidence to move on from Whitworth. Only time will tell if this was the right move. What is clear is that the development of the Bengals’ offensive line is the key to their offensive success in 2017.
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