The Cincinnati Bengals Have a Problem Drafting Offensive Linemen

Cincinnati Bengals Draft Linemen
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As the dust settles from the 2022 NFL Combine,  Cincinnati Bengals fans are drooling over some of the offensive line prospects. Names like Trevor Penning and Zion Johnson showed off their elite athleticism in what was already shaping up to be a deep offensive line draft. No doubt many are operating under the assumption that pick 31 must be a lineman, given the unit’s struggles all year. This of course culminated in the Super Bowl, where the unit posted only a 14% pass block win rate. But perhaps fans should pump the brakes on looking to this draft to solve all of the problems, as history shows the Cincinnati Bengals have a problem drafting offensive linemen.

The Cincinnati Bengals Have a Problem Drafting Offensive Linemen

The Bengals know that to continue the upward trajectory this past season showed they are on, they have to address the line. During the 2022 NFL Combine de facto General Manager Duke Tobin and Head Coach Zac Taylor were peppered with questions on what the team was planning to do to solve it. Offensive Line coach Frank Pollack spoke to the media at length about the type of player he wants to add to his line. 

“Would love to have more what I call ‘glass eaters’ in the room. Can never have enough of those guys. That’s what this league requires. Those are the kinda offensive linemen that we’re looking for.”

After a follow-up question, he clarified: “A guy that’s relentless in his finish. The guy that’s gonna give you the last shove. The guy that wants to rip your f—, effin’ face off.”

Clearly, the people in power have been made aware that the current unit, while deserving of praise from all three, needs to be bolstered to reach the Super Bowl victory the team came so close to a little over a month ago. 

A Decade of Draft Struggles

However, finding those pieces to upgrade the unit has proven to be difficult for the Bengals for some time. The line has been a problem since before Zac Taylor came to town three years ago. Since 2017 the line has been ranked by PFF:

  • 2017: 28th
  • 2018: 27th
  • 2019: 30th
  • 2020: 30th
  • 2021: 20th 

Prior to that year, the Bengals had a long run of good to great offensive lines. What changed? After the 2016 season, the team let both Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler walk to save money, instead preferring to build the line through the draft. This blew up in their face, as both Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, the team’s first two picks in 2015, failed to materialize as either starters or quality backups. This failure exposed a massive flaw in the Bengals front office: their apparent inability to evaluate and draft offensive line prospects over the last decade. 

The Bengals drafted Clint Boling in 2011 and Kevin Zeitler in 2012. Both players locked down a starting spot for the team for years. Both players consistently graded well, and Zeitler even made a Second-Team All-Pro in 2016. Zeitler ultimately departed for free agency as mentioned, and Boling retired in 2019. Since drafting those two, here are the Bengals investments in the offensive line via the draft:

2013

  • Tanner Hawkinson, T, 5th round
  • Reid Fragel, OL, 7th round
  • T.J. Johnson, C, 7th round

2014

  • Russell Bodine, C, 4th round

2015

  • Cedric Ogbuehi, T, 1st round
  • Jake Fisher, T, 2nd round

2016

  • Christian Westerman, G, 5th round

2017

  • JJ Dielman, C, 5th round

2018

2019

2020

2021

The 2021 draft class is too early in development to make final judgments on their performance; but the rest of the list is not great. If you exclude rounds 4-7 and only focus on day one and two guys, Jonah Williams is the only one who has proven any ability to be a reliable starter. And even he has been a mild disappointment, ranking in the middle of the road among tackles after being drafted 10th overall. 

Interior offensive line drafting has been especially problematic lately for a team that historically undervalues guards and centers when it comes to opening up the checkbook in free agency. Both Russell Bodine and Billy Price were given a shot to be the team’s center of the future, and neither managed to handle the role. Missing on them has been extremely consequential for the Bengals.

Athleticism an Issue

So what’s driving this lack of success? Bengals analyst Joe Goodberry recently had a great Twitter thread on this topic where he identified one potential underlying issue: athleticism. As Goodberry notes, last year’s draft picks on the offensive line either didn’t test athletically (Jackson Carman), tested poorly (Trey Hill), or tested middle of the road (D’Ante Smith). Here are the Relative Athletic Scores for the homegrown talent on the Bengals offensive line during the 2021 season:

  • Jonah Williams: 5.49: 
  • Trey Hopkins: 7.03
  • Jackson Carman: N/A
  • Hakeem Adeniji: 7.43
  • Trey Hill: 2.02
  • D’Ante Smith: 6.17

RAS gets talked about quite a bit during draft season. In short, it is a statistic that looks at how a player stacks up physically to their peers on a scale of 0-10, 10 correlating to the 100th percentile of all measured athletes at that position. Clearly, none of the players the Bengals drafted came close to being considered “athletic freaks” compared to their peers. Going back further, many of the failed picks highlighted above also either opted out of athletic testing or tested average or worse

The data shows that the Bengals have spent the last decade undervaluing athleticism and combine results and going somewhat against the grain in the NFL in the process. Fans are not the only ones to possibly recognize this, however. Pollack also spoke to this issue at the combine:

“We need guys who are athletic, who can run, who can play at the second level in the run game. Guys who can bend, who can anchor in protection.” Perhaps this means that the Bengals will emphasize athleticism more in this and future drafts. 

Offensive Line Development

Is athleticism the sole the issue? Unfortunately, draft problems do not make themselves that self-evident. Plenty of offensive linemen test somewhere between poor and average athletically. Moreover, many of those “unathletic” offensive linemen have thrived in the NFL: David Bahktiari (RAS: 6.74) and Orlando Brown (RAS: 0.72) are just two such examples. 

That fact may point to the Bengals struggling more with developing players on the line than other teams. Bengals fans can thus be encouraged by the team adding an additional offensive line coach, something previously unheard of for a franchise long-maligned as cheap. Derek Frazier will reunite with Pollack as an assistant, a role he held during Pollack’s tenure in New York. Zac Taylor commented on the hire at the combine, saying: 

“We’ve just got so many bodies in that room,” Taylor said. “At times, you have 15. In season, you have 10-12. It will be good to have some of the manpower there that can help Frank. Frank is certainly capable of doing all the work, but it’s good to have people who have been around him that can help him.”

“There’s a lot of teams in the league that have three guys at that position, and now we are one of those teams,” Taylor added.

Much like Pollack’s quote, perhaps this represents a shift in the thinking within the Bengals coaching staff. An extra man to balance the ratio of player to coach will undoubtedly result in more time spent on developing these young players. And Frazier has spent most of his career, including last season, coaching amongst the college ranks. Pollack is widely respected across the league for the work he has done, perhaps an extra set of hands is all he needs to fine-tune the team’s linemen.

So with this information, the question remains, what will the team do this offseason? Will they change precedent and lean on free agency to solve their problems up front? Will they again invest high draft capital in the line and hope for better results? Perhaps they follow the Kansas City Chiefs model from last offseason and seek to improve the line via a combination of free agency (Joe Thuney), trade (Orlando Brown), AND the draft (Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith). The next few weeks will certainly not be boring for the team or the fanbase.

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