The Cincinnati Bengals overhauled their offensive line in free agency last year before adding the final piece through the draft, and the difference was particularly noticeable while the same five started together the first 15 games.
Injuries took a toll in the playoffs, and now the offensive tackle position could be another area to address this offseason. The Bengals face uncertainty to how La’el Collins will bounce back from an ACL and MCL tear in late December and how that might impact the future for Jonah Williams, who dislocated both knee caps in 2022.
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said this week at the NFL Combine the team will need to get a better idea of how Collins is progressing before making any decisions on the right tackle spot, but the offensive line is a position of need every year.
In addition to Collins, the Bengals added Alex Cappa (guard) and Ted Karras (center) through free agency last season.
“We added some UFAs (unrestricted free agents) last year that came in and really did what we wanted,” Tobin said. “When you add guys and pay them good contracts, and have high expectations, you see what you want to see the results of and you see the results of it. It’s always a continual grind getting enough offensive lineman. … It’s a very difficult skill. They’re going against the best athletes in the world. NFL defensive linemen are big, fast, powerful, and they have real traits and it’s a difficult and demanding position and it’s hard to find. We’ll keep churning that.”
Collins injured his knee in the Week 16 game at New England on Christmas Eve, and with the surgery happening so late in the season, it seems possible the start of his 2023 campaign could be in jeopardy. A serious injury like that is difficult for even the best athletes to come back from and be able to play at a high level, but it can be even more challenging for an offensive lineman.
Former Bengals center Trey Hopkins rushed back from a similar situation to play in 2021 and wasn’t able to play at his previous level. Collins turns 30 in July and already has a history of injuries sidelining him, including a back issue that he played through and prevented him from being a true difference-maker.
“Any time somebody’s coming off an injury, you want to get them as far along as possible before you have to make any decisions and see if they’re gonna be able to fit the bill next year,” Tobin said. “LC’s gonna work super hard at it. He’s already doing that. He’s made of the right stuff. Time will tell, and I can’t sit here and tell you what the time will tell. I just know that time will eventually tell.”
Releasing Collins would save the Bengals $6.1 million against the cap, but either way, it seems the team needs to think about contingencies. Tobin said teams are “always looking for insurance plans” on the offensive line.
An injury settlement also could be something the Bengals have to work through. Tobin said there are injury protection benefits the players have, but the organization isn’t concerned with that right now.
“We’re concerned with whether he’s going to be able to get back and play effectively, and we’re concerned with trying to get him the best care possible to give him the best chance to do that,” Tobin said.
Hakeem Adeniji stepped in for Collins and had his ups and downs, but doesn’t seem like a long-term solution should Cincinnati move on from Collins. The other possibility is for the Bengals to move Williams to right tackle — something that potentially could be a good one for him as well, though he’s always been a left tackle.
Cincinnati picked up his fifth-year option last April, so Williams will be back one way or another.
“We think he’s a very good offensive lineman, very good left tackle,” Tobin said. “Again, when you play tackle in this league, you’re never gonna be perfect. Nobody is going to be perfect. People are going to get beat. You’re playing Myles Garrett. You’re playing guys that are rare, and they’re gonna win some. But Jonah is a very good player. We’re happy to have him. We think he played pretty well this year.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor was non-committal on whether Williams could move to right tackle, noting the team needs to get through more of the offseason and see where things stand.
Jackson Carman filled in at left tackle while Williams was out and both Taylor and Tobin thought he was effective in a small sample size. Asked if Carman could be a full-time starter, Tobin said it depends on the group and Carman’s continued development.
“I thought Jackson came in and played well in big, critical games, and that’s important,” Tobin said. “That’s what we want. If you’re not gonna be a starter, you have to prepare like a starter, and you better be able to go in and play well, and I thought Jackson did that. I thought Jackson showed that his development is continuing and that he’s got a future in our league. I was pleased to see him go in there and give us a chance.”
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