Last week, I wrote an article that was intended to provide some hope for Bengals fans, that the tunnel with the light at the end of it may not be as long as some may think. While I am hopeful, I am also realistic, and I realize that it takes a lot of things going right for the Bengals to make a quick, one-year turnaround. However, some responded to the article with resistance to even entertaining the idea that the Bengals could be playoff contenders in 2020. Most of the concerns revolved around the bad offensive line, the lack of trust in the front office to make free agent acquisitions, and the lack of a ‘plan.’ While all of these concerns are legitimate, I think there are some signs that show that the franchise COULD be headed in the right direction in each of these areas. In this three part series, we will look at these in greater detail, one at a time.
In the second installment in this series, we look at our problematic offensive line. If you think about it, the Bengals really have TWO first round picks in 2020. Presumably Joe Burrow, and then Jonah Williams. Obviously, Williams was drafted 11th overall last season but did not play during the season due to a shoulder injury. However, let’s not forget the kind of prospect Jonah Williams was coming into last year’s draft. He is a versatile player that started 15 games at right tackle, and 29 at left tackle during his college career. Some of the honors bestowed upon him include Freshman All-American, a unanimous First-Team All-American his senior year, and winner of the Jacobs Trophy (awarded to the best blocker in the SEC). Williams allowed just 5 sacks while playing over 1,300 career pass block snaps. NFL Analysts Bucky Brooks and Daniel Jeremiah were high on him last spring, with Brooks dubbing Jonah as a top-3 tackle and Jeremiah ranking him as a top-20 overall prospect among all positions. Those were just two of the many experts that believed Jonah Williams could be a star.
I would hope that the Bengals would be willing to spend a little on upgrading their offensive line, which is one of their weaker position groups, and one that can have a major impact on a team’s potential to reach their ceiling. There are top lineman available in Brandon Scherff, Bryan Bulaga, Anthony Constanzo, etc. but they will demand top dollar (most likely anywhere between $10 – 15 million per year). However, some of the lower-tier guys would still be upgrades for an offensive line that had every starter graded below the top 50% of their position, with Tre Hopkins’ PFF grade of 62.8 leading the way.
Michael Schofield or perhaps even Andrew Whitworth (although a reunion is probably unlikely given the terms on which things ended previously) would be a couple of guys I would expect the Bengals to consider. Cincinnati may use a 2nd or 3rd round pick on an offensive lineman but lately the Bengals have struggled to get the most out of their draft picks along the offensive line, and after Round 1 of the draft, it is hard to find an impact rookie to play tackle or guard. Consider though, that it will only take average-level play to see an improvement for that unit.
So other than adding Jonah Williams, if we assume the front office fails to make a splash in free agency, the offensive line may look a lot like it did in 2019. However, it is important to note that the hog-mollies up front performed much better down the stretch last season. After Andy Dalton returned to replace the disaster that was Ryan Finley, the offensive line allowed an average of 1.6 sacks and paved the way for 121 rushing yards per game. In addition, there have been teams able to overcome weak lines and make the playoffs. Most recently, the Seahawks (27th), Bills (21st), Texans (20th), and Vikings (19th) all made the playoffs with below-average graded lines, according to PFF (the Bengals ranked 30th). While no one can argue that the Bengals line is good as-is, I think having playmakers like Joe Mixon and Joe Burrow can help mitigate that weakness and prevent it from holding the team back too much in the same way we have seen with other teams.