The Cincinnati Bengals may be heading in the right direction overall as it pertains to talent, but in an offseason with multiple opportunities to upgrade the protection for franchise quarterback Joe Burrow, coming off major knee surgery, the offensive line is once again a major question mark heading into 2021.
A team that has a terrible track record when it comes to building the offensive line, decided to once again wait and bet on their ability to develop that position group, opting to take a wide receiver in Ja'Marr Chase over top offensive line prospects Peneii Sewell and Rashawn Slater.
Sewell, even if the Bengals put him at guard for a year with Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff at tackle, could've provided a significant upgrade and safeguarded Burrow, the one player that can save the organization. They might have been able to trade down from fifth pick, acquired additional assets and still taken Slater to play guard.
The Bengals are a team that has been defined by quarterback injuries throughout their history. Dating back to Greg Cook's torn rotator cuff, which led to the innovation of Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense to Carson Palmer's career-altering knee injury, Burrow is only the latest Bengals signal caller with a ton of talent that suffered a major injury. Hopefully, it doesn't prove to be the disaster that the previous two were.
Meanwhile, the Bengals went to the Super Bowl when they had Anthony Munoz protecting quarterbacks Boomer Esiason and Ken Anderson.
Imagine if the Bengals selected Sewell or Slater in the first round and took center Creed Humphrey in the second round. Four offensive line spots would be filled with just right guard to figure out in training camp and significant potential to improve.
None of that changes the fact that Chase is an exceptional talent and could prove to be a fantastic player that gives the Bengals an embarrassment of riches at receiver with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. For as long as Burrow is kept upright, they could put up prolific numbers.
Unfortunately, the interior of their offensive line is nothing but questions. The situation might not be as bad had the Bengals not suffered a catastrophic injury in their final game of the 2020 regular season when center Trey Hopkins suffered a torn ACL. In a game that meant nothing for the Bengals, they lost arguably the most consistent player on a unit that was genuinely awful.
Tee Higgins also got hurt in that game, so they must be thrilled at the prospect of another meaningless game with the expansion to a 17-game schedule.
With Hopkins still recovering, is Billy Price going to be the team's center? Their sixth round rookie Trey Hill?
After taking Chase with the fifth pick, the Bengals traded down from their second round pick. They added a pair of fourth round picks in the move down, but they also saw Teven Jenkins, Liam Eichenberg and Walker Little all go off the board before they selected Jackson Carman from Clemson.
The Bengals could prove wise with their calculation as Carman is not without talent, but he really seems like a player that could use a year to learn and develop before stepping in to start. They really need him to be good enough to step in and start as a rookie. Their other options at guard are Xavier Su'a-Filo and Quenton Spain, neither of which is ideal.
The fate of the entire Bengals season may rest on offensive line coach Frank Pollack. If they can't somehow find a trio that can produce average play, their season is basically over before it started with everyone holding their collective breath every time Burrow gets hit. And if either of their tackles suffer an injury, they have a rookie in D'Ante Smith and a player in Hakeem Adeniji, who should be a guard, in reserve.
This is all the more reason the Bengals should have invested in their offensive line. Even if everything goes right for the Bengals, they are at best the third best team in the AFC North.
The Bengals added some pieces like Joseph Ossai and Cam Sample to their defensive line, which is quietly a pretty talented group overall. Their secondary is solid and they have some young linebackers that can potentially step up and improve in year two.
For both the right and the wrong reasons attached to Burrow, the defense won't get much, if any attention and everything is going to be about Burrow's health, how he looks coming off the injury and avoiding repeating the same mistakes, despite only making moderate improvements to an offensive line that needed to be overhauled.
The Bengals were presented a rare opportunity to truly establish a group that could protect Burrow for most of his career and turned it down.
But what are the odds Burrow gets a major injury two years in a row?
It's definitely worth rolling the dice on the best thing that has happened to the Bengals in a decade two years in a row, right?
Surely, if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it's their woefully ill-equipped head coach Zac Taylor, whose mismanagement of the team not played a role in Burrow's injury but also created fissures in the locker room. If there was any bigger reason to idiot proof the offensive line, it was their head coach that should've been fired after last season.
Nothing the Bengals do matters if they can't protect Burrow and they blew it. Both Burrow and their fans deserve better than what this team is giving them, because they do have a genuine opportunity to become a great team down the line, but they refuse to get out of their own way or learn from their own history.