Cincinnati Bengals: New offense starts first rookie left tackle since 1980

An inside look at how the Cincinnati Bengals rebuilt their 2019 offensive line. The plan includes starting a rookie at left tackle for the first time since hall of famer Anthony Munoz.

Heading into the 2015 season, the Cincinnati Bengals had tremendous momentum. The foundation of the roster constructed in the post-Carson Palmer era was entering its prime. The team was coming off four straight playoff berths and just a year removed from a 2013 AFC North Championship. The future looked bright for the men in stripes.

As is often the case in Cincinnati, front office failures played a role in their fall from grace. Heading into the 2015 offseason the team had concerns about both starting tackles, Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. Whitworth, an outstanding left tackle, was 33. Smith was in the last year of his deal. Though concerns were warranted, desperate measures were not necessary. Despite his age, Whitworth was named 2nd team All-Pro in 2015. The two were part of an effective, sometimes dominant offensive line that also featured guard Kevin Zeitler.

How it Happened

Rather than stay the course with their current offensive line and address other areas of the roster, Cincinnati spent their first two selections of the 2015 NFL Draft on offensive tackles with Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. Ogbuehi was coming off a torn ACL and not expected to offer much in his rookie season. Fisher was athletic but had questions about his overall strength.

The Bengals had found something rare: consistent success. A couple of impact players might have helped them advance to the next echelon of the NFL. Even with minimal production from Ogbuehi and Fisher in 2015, they had enough talent to win another AFC North title before suffering a devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a home playoff game. Ogbuehi and Fisher played a combined 12 snaps in the game. It was the last of five straight playoff appearances for Cincinnati.

Rock Bottom

The Bengals slide since that fateful 2015 playoff loss could arguably be tied to their offensive line woes. The combination of Whitworth, Smith, and Zeitler would never play together again in the Queen City. The team let Smith leave in free agency after 2015. Zeitler left for Cleveland the following year. Whitworth would continue his dominance in Cincinnati, making the Pro Bowl in 2015 and 2016. Despite his desire to return to the Bengals, the team declined to re-sign their longtime left tackle after the 2016 season. Whitworth would sign with the Los Angeles Rams and continue playing at an All-Pro level, playing in his first Super Bowl last February.

Their replacements, taken in the heart of the team’s five-game playoff run, were unmitigated disasters. Ogbuehi would start only 25 games in four seasons. The team declined his fifth-year option. Fisher would start just 12 in four seasons. He signed with Buffalo this off-season… as a tight end. That experiment ended last week when he was released by the Bills.

The Ogbuehi-Fisher offensive line the team envisioned when investing first and second round picks in 2015 was rated 27th last season by Pro Football Focus.

The Rebuild

It took three years for Cincinnati to realize the error in their ways. In March of 2018, the team traded for Buffalo Bills tackle Cordy Glenn. He stepped in as an immediate upgrade over Ogbuehi at left tackle. The following month they invested a first-round pick in Ohio State center Billy Price. Cincinnati returned to the Buffalo well again this offseason in signing free agent guard John Miller. He started 47 games over a four-year span where the Bills were a top-ten rushing team. Finally, the Bengals drafted Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams with the eleventh pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

What Now?

The big news out of this week’s minicamp is that Williams, not Glenn, is expected to start at left tackle for Cincinnati. With incumbent left guard Clint Boling out with an injury, Glenn has been moved to the interior of the line. He hasn’t played guard since 2010 when he was a junior at Georgia. Head coach Zac Taylor calls the makeup of the offensive line an “everyday conversation” and that the current lineup in mini camp is where they want to start, not necessarily finish. If Williams sticks at LT, it would be the first time the Bengals started a rookie at that position since Anthony Muñoz in 1980.

If Glenn struggles at guard, there is always the option to move Glenn back to left tackle and Williams to the right side. Current RT Bobby Hart signed a three-year, $21 million deal this offseason, but was serviceable at best in 2018. Williams last played right tackle three seasons ago at Alabama and could likely make the move, giving the team a potentially dominant pair of bookends. Currently, the most likely opening day lineup looks like this:

LT: Jonah Williams
LG: Cordy Glenn
C: Billy Price
RG: John Miller
RT: Bobby Hart

At least that’s what it looks like for now. If you take what the head coach says to heart, it is very much a fluid situation. Regardless of the eventual lineup, the players are an upgrade from the disastrous line from last season with roots that can be traced all the way back to 2015.