Bengals offensive line has the most to prove in training camp

Team must overcome losses of Whitworth, Zeitler

CINCINNATI -- Bengals owner Mike Brown was asked at the team's preseason luncheon what he likes to watch at practice.

“I like to watch the players when they practice pass protection,” Brown said. “I want to see if they can. That will interest me this year. I’ll admit to that.”

Brown won’t be the only one watching.

The team used its first two picks in the draft to take offensive weapons in John Ross and Joe Mixon. With A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard healthy, the Bengals have one of the more formidable lists of weapons in the NFL.

But quarterback Andy Dalton has to have time to get the ball to said weapons.

The Bengals offensive line was less than dominant last year. The two best players on that line -- Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler -- left via free agency.

The Bengals added free agent Andre Smith and drafted J.J. Dielman of Utah in the fifth round.

When the Bengals opened camp on Friday the projected line was Cedric Ogbuehi at left tackle, Clint Boling at left guard, Russell Bodine at center, Smith at right guard and Jake Fisher at right tackle.

Boling (73.0) and Bodine (70.5) were rated average by Pro Football Focus last season. The other three -- Fisher (47.8), Ogbuehi (44.1) and Smith (42.3) -- were rated poor.

Center Russell Bodine is a returning starter on the Bengals offensive line. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

When you consider Whitworth was the second-ranked tackle in 2016 and Zeitler was the seventh-ranked guard, according to PFF, there are huge holes to fill.

Things are in flux. While Smith was signed to play right guard, Trey Hopkins, an undrafted free agent signed in 2014, got most of reps there in the second day of practice. Hopkins was out there with the No. 1 unit again Monday. Smith was out with a scheduled medical day.

“We’re not ready to play tomorrow,” offensive line coach Paul Alexander said. “Thank God we don’t have a game scheduled. I see us getting better every day. I think we’re going to be OK.”

Ogbuehi and Fisher were taken No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the 2015 draft with hope that they would be the tackles of the future. They didn’t look up to that last year.

“They’re light years ahead of where they were last year,” Alexander said. “We've still got a ways to go. There’s a lot of football we have to play between now and September.”

Former Bengal and current radioman Dave Lapham says both Ogbuehi and Fisher have looked good early -- emphasis on early.

“You don’t really know until the rubber hits the road and you have the contact stuff,” Lapham said. “From what I’ve seen from Ogbuehi and Fisher is they committed themselves in the offseason to rework their bodies and work on the things they needed to work on, particularly with Ced, the speed to power, bull rush stuff. He went to that MMA boot camp deal. He spent some time out there getting beat up pretty good. The most important thing is for the player to realize he has to do something about it.

“I think physically, athletically, footwork, there’s no question these guys belong. You just have to see how well they can make plays in space.”

Tackles are key to pass protection, but Lapham says that’s changing.

“A lot of the pressure comes from the outside,” Lapham said. “But teams are so good across the board with pass rushing. There’s so many good pass rushers in the NFL that you have to be solid everywhere. Teams will put ends inside with their speed packages and they’ll put linebackers to get more speed on the field.

“It’s pretty important to have good pass protection throughout the line of scrimmage. A big question is how will the right guard situation play out.”

With the tackles, it will come down to Ogbuehi and Fisher. Veteran Eric Winston is only other guy in the mix. As far guards and centers, you’ve got Dielman, Christian Westerman (the fifth-round pick in 2015), Smith and Hopkins.

Hopkins, who has been with the Bengals for three years but has only played in one game, has emerged as a guy to watch.

“Hopkins is having a terrific camp,” Alexander said. “I think he is certainly going to be at least one of our first guys coming off the bench or -- who knows? -- he may crack the unit. He’s playing that well.”

The Bengals need some others to step up as well. If that happens and the unit melds together, Brown will get to see what he likes most in practice.

“I probably gravitate most to the passing game,” Brown said. “I dote on watching all that come together. When it hums, when it goes well, when the ball doesn’t hit the ground, that for me is form of beauty.”

It isn’t beautiful unless the big guys up front give Dalton the time to work his magic. 

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