If I had a dollar for every Twitter comment, story response or radio show question the past few weeks that included something about the Cincinnati Bengals “ignoring” the offensive line last offseason, well … I’d be writing to you from somewhere warmer than suburban Chicago.
Folks, it’s just not true. The Bengals didn’t ignore anything up front.
If you want to criticize them for not addressing it properly, by all means, go right ahead. We’ll back you up on that.
After all, this is not a pass-blocking unit that deserves a slew of bouquets after allowing 19 sacks and a total of 31 hits on Joe Burrow in four playoff games.
But to say that they ignored the line, that Mike Brown and Duke Tobin built their roster like a fantasy-football team, is just revisionist history. To say they didn’t prioritize the position simply doesn’t pass muster.
The Bengals tried. They just too often picked the wrong players.
Let’s have a look at some of the many additions they’ve made — and how too few of them panned out.
The Bengals tried to draft for OL help
Ever since personnel chief Duke Tobin took over running the Bengals’ drafts in 2011, the Bengals have drafted at least one offensive lineman in every single draft — sometimes more than one.
Last April, they drafted three, including one top-50 pick (guard Jackson Carman). Three of the Bengals’ past seven first-round picks have been blockers.
Some fans wanted it to be four of seven, with Oregon’s Penei Sewell the popular choice for the team’s top overall selection at No. 5. They were ready to embrace Sewell as the franchise’s next Anthony Munoz.
But the Bengals had eyes on Ja’Marr Chase — and arguing that decision now seems pretty moot. Chase had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever by a wide receiver. Nothing against Sewell (who played well down the stretch for the Lions), but the Bengals simply do not make the Super Bowl without Chase.
Since 2011, the Bengals have drafted 18 offensive linemen, with 12 of those picks coming since 2015.
Only five other NFL teams that can boast taking at least one OL prospect in each of the past 11 drafts: the Ravens (who also drafted 18), Browns, Broncos, Colts, Vikings. And only two teams, the Colts (19) and Vikings (22), have drafted more than the Bengals’ 18 over that span.
The Colts have a strong offensive line. The Vikings really don’t. The Buccaneers, who have drafted a mere eight offensive linemen over the past 11 drafts, have had one of the NFL’s best front fives the past few years.
The problem really hasn’t been the Bengals’ intentions. It’s been their execution.
Only one of the Bengals’ three first-rounders remains on the roster: left tackle Jonah Williams, who — if we’re being honest — might be a better fit at guard, although he was hardly the biggest problem with the line this year.
Carman got worked over when he got a shot and was benched. The two other 2021 OL draft picks, D’Ante Smith and Trey Hill, each got chances to play but also appeared to struggle. (Although Smith received some playoff action, suggesting he might be in the mix to play more next year.)
Another recent pick, 2020 sixth-rounder Hakeem Adeniji, had his hands full in the Super Bowl and was rated Pro Football Focus’ 81st-rated guard (out of 82 qualifiers). Yikes.
In short, the Bengals have addressed the O-line plenty through the draft. It just hasn’t been pretty.
They’ve also spent OL money in free agency
Do the Bengals win the Super Bowl if Riley Reiff doesn’t land on injured reserve in December?
It’s a question we’ve not heard asked a lot. But perhaps it carries a little more heft than the “is Matthew Stafford a Hall of Famer now?” schlock.
Reiff signed with the Bengals for one year and $7.5 million in March. Modest money, you say. Sure, but given that the Bengals pretty much revamped their entire defense in the 2020 and 2021 offseasons, there was only so much money to go around.
Reiff, a natural left tackle by trade, was moved to the right side. He was solid, not great, before his season ended prematurely. But would he have been a pass-blocking upgrade over Isaiah Prince? Absolutely. Prince was bad enough for the Miami Dolphins — a team whose O-line might actually be worse than the Bengals’ — not to want him.
The Bengals also signed guards John Miller and Xavier Su’a-Filo in 2019 and 2020. Neither of them panned out. They were essentially beaten out by waiver-wire pickups or slightly cheaper options.
None of the OL free agents the Bengals let walk the past few years went elsewhere and played really well. So it’s really not a matter of being cheap or biased against the position. Like with the recent draft picks, the Bengals simply need to scout the position better.
It just feels like free agency is the way the team will fix it. They likely can’t spend the way they did the past few years, but with Burrow on his rookie deal and the deal in good overall salary-cap shape, one or two significant OL additions might be the way to go.
Sure, continue to draft for depth. But for a team that was a few plays shy of a Super Bowl title, adding a big piece up front might have to be the way they go. And this is a good OL free-agent class: Terron Armstead, Orlando Brown Jr., Brandon Scherff, Ryan Jensen, Austin Corbett and others all will become available to sign in a month’s time.
The Bengals know they need help up front, even after spending so many resources there. They just need to shop smarter and better. It will be the storyline of the Bengals’ offseason.