State of the Cincinnati Bengals – Biggest Decision of Offseason Involves O-Line

The biggest decision of the offseason will be how the Cincinnati Bengals replace Jonah Williams at right tackle after he leaves in free agency.

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals started the same five offensive linemen in all 17 games this year, the first time since 1985 that the franchise has had the same lineup in the trenches for every game.

But it won’t be the same in 2024.

State of the Bengals Franchise | Offensive Line

There technically should be a “probably” in that previous statement because anything can happen in free agency. But Jonah Williams is heading into free agency with a desire to return to the left tackle position he played for three seasons before the Bengals signed Orlando Brown Jr. in free agency and forced Williams to switch sides.

The list of possible replacements who are under contract in 2024 is not inspiring. “Terrifying” would be the better description for the idea of relying on either Jackson Carman or D’Ante Smith to help get Joe Burrow through a healthy season, although a wild card could be Devin Cochran.

The Bengals have several holes to fill this offseason, but finding Williams’ replacement will be the single most important decision they make.

Previous Position Breakdowns

As we continue our series of positional breakdowns, let’s take a look at each lineman on the roster, followed by an overall assessment of the group, and where it could be headed.

Orlando Brown Jr. (Signed Through 2026)

It was a good-but-not-great first year in Cincinnati for Brown, who most likely will see his streak of Pro Bowl selections end at four (although he is a third alternate).

MORE: 2024 NFL Free Agents by Position

Brown’s cap number swells from $10.4 million to $16.4 million this year, and the Bengals are hoping his performance can make a similar jump after a year in the scheme.

Cordell Volson (Signed Through 2025)

The 2022 fourth-round pick took a step forward this season and should be the starter at left guard again in 2024. The Bengals don’t value the guard position, so any new pieces they acquire in the draft likely will be mid-rounders like Cordell Volson. There’s always competition in camp, but it’s hard to envision a mid-round rookie beating him out.

Ted Karras (Signed Through 2024)

An instant leader and team captain since the day he stepped in the locker room in March 2022, Ted Karras has started all 36 games (regular season and playoffs) since arriving and is the team’s nominee for the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award this season.

He’ll anchor the line again in 2024, but expect Cincinnati to target Karras’ eventual replacement in this year’s draft.

Alex Cappa (Signed Through 2025)

A solid veteran presence and mentor to Volson, Alex Cappa is halfway through the four-year deal he signed in March 2022. He has started all 33 games since joining the Bengals.

Jonah Williams (Unrestricted Free Agent)

The first draft pick of the Zac Taylor era, Williams made the switch to right tackle in 2023 and, in turn, made himself a lot of money. Williams heads into free agency as one of the top tackles available and with the proven ability to play both sides.

It was difficult to discern where things are headed while listening to Williams talk the day after the season finale.

Chance of return: 2%

Cody Ford (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Cody Ford signed a one-year, $1 million contract in March and quickly won the swing tackle job, impressing the coaches with his physicality as soon as the pads went on three days into camp.

Ford appeared in all 17 games, with most of his time coming on special teams. But he was the sixth lineman when the Bengals went heavy.

Chance of return: 80%

Max Scharping (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Pressed into action in the playoffs last year, Max Scharping started repping at center in training camp and earned the right to be Karras’ backup. That meant he didn’t get to play until Karras missed his first snap late in the season finale with the game in hand against the Browns.

MORE: Multiple Factors Point to the Cincinnati Bengals Being a Good Bet for an International Game in 2024

Scharping can play all three positions and would be an inexpensive depth piece for the Bengals to re-sign, but he would be third string at tackle or guard and a backup to Karras again at center. Thus, he could have interest in looking for a bigger opportunity elsewhere.

Chance of return: 33%

Jackson Carman (Signed Through 2024)

After a strong performance in relief of Williams in last year’s playoff game against Buffalo, Carman came into 2023 with some momentum. Yet, he again fizzled to the bottom of the depth chart.

The 2021 second-round pick was inactive for seven of the first 10 games and finished the season with just 13 snaps on offense and one on special teams.

D’Ante Smith (Signed Through 2024)

Expected to battle Carman for the swing tackle position, Smith instead was inactive for five of the final six games. The 2021 fourth-rounder has appeared in just three games during his three seasons with the team.

Devin Cochran (Signed Through 2024)

A member of the team’s 2022 UDFA class, Cochran, a tackle, spent the season on injured reserve (IR) and signed a one-year extension on Jan. 9.

Despite being on IR, Cochran was in all meetings and at practice doing rehab work every day. He will be 100% by OTAs, and the staff obviously see potential in him.

Trey Hill (Signed Through 2024)

The 2021 sixth-round pick was inactive for all 17 games this year after playing only seven offensive snaps in 2022, falling to the bottom of the depth chart among interior linemen.

Nate Gilliam (Signed Through 2024)

Signed to the practice squad midway through camp in 2022, Nate Gilliam spent 2023 on the practice squad and recently signed a Reserve/Futures contract.

Jaxson Kirkland (Signed Through 2024)

An undrafted free agent in 2023, Jaxson Kirkland spent the season on the practice squad and recently signed a reserve/futures contract.

What’s Next?

Taylor said in his end-of-season news conference there would be no changes on the coaching staff outside of guys leaving for bigger opportunities, which means Frank Pollack will be back as offensive line coach for a fourth consecutive season.

The Bengals beefed up their line after the 2021 season in which Burrow got sacked nine times in the Divisional Round game and didn’t have time to throw a title-winning pass to Ja’Marr Chase on the final play of the Super Bowl.

The focus on bigger pass protectors has led to Cincinnati being among the worst in the league at running the ball the last two seasons, with a low volume of run calls playing a role as well.

The Bengals are expected to lean more into the run and screen games next year after the success they had in those areas with Jake Browning at quarterback. Yet, Taylor and Burrow are always going to prefer a pass-heavy approach. So look for the needle to move a little toward more balance, but not much.

Everything starts with replacing Williams, and with as many as five or six offensive linemen having first-round grades, the Bengals could use pick 18 to find the guy.

But Cincinnati’s track record has not been great when it comes to drafting and developing offensive linemen, so it would make sense to sign a mid-tier tackle in free agency who can battle a high pick in camp.

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