Our series of Cincinnati Bengals training camp previews continues with a look at the offensive line and tight end positions;
The high hopes for the Bengals offense start with a budding superstar at wide receiver in A.J. Green and the continued growth of his quarterback, fellow second-year player Andy Dalton.
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Somebody has to block for Dalton. And Green’s impressive 65-catch rookie season overshadowed a 56-catch, Pro Bowl season by tight end Jermaine Gresham, who was in his second year in the NFL and second off major knee surgery. Gresham should be even better now that he has a year with Dalton under his belt and a year in which offensive coordinator Jay Gruden could learn his strengths and weaknesses and ways to attack with Gresham and Green. There’s not a defensive coordinator in the league who has a plan for those two leaping for fade routes in the red zone, but Gresham can still grow as an all-around tight end.
Longtime guard and leader Bobbie Williams is gone, but the Bengals signed veteran Travelle Wharton in free agency and used their second first-round choice on Kevin Zeitler. Andrew Whitworth has been a solid blocker and a valuable locker room leader who holds down the all-important left tackle position. He will continue to be valuable in keeping Dalton both clean and composed.
Center Kyle Cook signed a long-term deal last season, and Andre Smith was able to put together almost a full season at right tackle. This line has the makings of a good one and has a very nice mix of youth and experience. Now, it needs to produce.
Clint Boling, who played in five games and started three at guard last year, will battle with Otis Hudson for a backup guard spot, and Dennis Roland will try to again win a job as a backup tackle and occasional extra tight end. Reggie Stephens is back with the team for a third training camp and is trying to win a job at backup center. 6’9 Canadian developmental tackle Matthew O’Donnell is hard to miss and will try to impress the coaching staff in camp.
The Bengals have an interesting — in a good way — situation at tight end behind Gresham, as Donald Lee was a valuable veteran role player last year and re-signed in April, fourth-round rookie Orson Charles appears off to a good start and last year’s undrafted surprise, Colin Cochart, is probably the best blocker of the bunch.
Is there a way all four tight ends make the team? If Lee and Cochart use camp and the preseason to make solid impressions, there is.
A further look at the offensive line and tight ends is below…
ROLE PLAYING: On paper, the offensive line appears set with Whitworth and Smith at tackle, Wharton and Zeitler as the new guards and Cook at center. Gresham is the top tight end — and the one defenses will watch most closely — but it will be interesting to see how Gruden uses his tight ends and multiple tight-end formations.
READY OR NOT?: The Bengals think Zeitler is ready. His Wisconsin pedigree and high football IQ make him ready to slide right in as the starter at right guard. His journey won’t be without bumps, but the Bengals are expecting high-level play immediately and are excited about this line continuing to grow as a unit. Zeitler can play multiple positions, but the Bengals hope to keep him at right guard. Boling should be the top backup, and the Bengals should feel very good about the long-term prospects for this offensive line.
BACK FOR MORE: A year ago, Cochart was an undrafted rookie from South Dakota State who made the staff take notice of his blocks and effort. He should be more comfortable and confident in his second camp, but he’ll have to make an impression again. Charles is the type of player who should spell Gresham and see some receiving opportunities as he gets comfortable, and Lee provides valuable experience on and off the field. Gruden’s vision — and we probably won’t see all of it in camp — for how his tight ends will line up could determine how this battle plays out.
FINAL COUNT: Most teams keep eight offensive linemen, though the final count will depend on the health of the starters. It would be strictly a guess at this point to say how realistic the chances of Stephens and O’Donnell are. Offensive linemen generally don’t play on special teams except the field goal team, so the final count usually comes down to health, versatility and sometimes cost.
At tight end, three or four will make it. Cochart’s physicality should help him in a push to make the roster, but it’s too early to know if he’ll be good enough to convince the Bengals to keep four.