Bengals' Never-Ending Search for Linemen Continues

Cincinnati Bengals OL Cordell Volson and Jonah Williams, and also a QB
Cincinnati Bengals OL Cordell Volson and Jonah Williams, and also a QB
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - In these editions of Four Downs, we'll review the biggest hole on each team in the division and then give a short look at each team's major free agents for 2023.

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Need: Wide Receiver

Of course Lamar Jackson and his contract drama dwarfs all other needs and news coming out of Baltimore these days. For the purposes of this piece, we can safely assume that even if Jackson winds up elsewhere, the Ravens will get a quarterback out of whatever deal they make, be it a veteran or a newly drafted passer chosen with draft capital exchanged for L.J.

So that leaves the Ravens' perennial area of need: wideout. The situation isn't quite as dire as it was last offseason, when despite dealing "Hollywood" Brown the Ravens chose not to draft or sign a receiver of note. At least a couple of unproven wideouts showed flashes in 2022, including Devin Duvernay, who had a career season in the slot (not that high a bar to clear, but still). Rashod Bateman has played in just 18 games his first two seasons but has first-round pick pedigree. Demarcus Robinson gave the team some juice off the street in midseason.

Todd Monken is in for Greg Roman at offensive coordinator, and he likes to chuck it deep, so finding a perimeter threat or two is crucial. Alas, the free-agent market is weak, though a player such as JuJu Smith-Schuster might be in play, and the team will surely sniff around DeAndre Hopkins if he is indeed available. The draft is deep but lacking top-end talent, which frees the team to pick the best available player (a cornerback, most likely) in the first round before hitting wideout in the middle rounds—Josh Downs of North Carolina and Jalin Hyatt of Tennessee would be targets, among others. Jackson's situation looms over every decision, but whomever is throwing passes in Baltimore in 2023, he will require better receivers on the other end.

Notable Free Agents: Lamar Jackson (QB); Ben Powers (G); Marcus Peters (CB); Justin Houston (ER); Jason Pierre-Paul (ER); Josh Oliver (TE); Demarcus Robinson (WR); Justice Hill (RB); Kenyan Drake (RB); Brent Urban (DE)

Jackson aside, there are other interesting decisions to be made in the Balmer front office. Powers is in the "we love him but he probably played his way out of our price range" column. Peters wasn't the same at age 30 coming off a bad knee injury, and the Ravens will likely draft his replacement. Houston led the team in sacks (9.5) at age 34, but with young 'uns Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo needing snaps, and pass rush in demand across the league, the Ravens may decide to fill their old-head quota with the less expensive and impactful but still decent Pierre-Paul. Would the Ravens keep four tight ends? Oliver's blocking may be worth it, though other teams will surely come sniffing around a 25-year-old with upside. Watkins will seemingly be on someone's roster in his age-50 season, but even a team as wideout-deficient as Baltimore is unlikely to keep him around. Robinson is the more likely keeper after his quality turn.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Need: Offensive Tackle

Here we are again. Tackle continues to be a need position for the team that has made consecutive AFC Championship Games. A late-season torn ACL suffered by La'el Collins, who was already into heavy load management due to previous ouchies, throws the right tackle spot into disarray once more—the position has been a wasteland in Cincy for going on a decade now. L.C.'s availability is in doubt for most of 2023, and he is a likely cut candidate given that uncertainty. On the left side, Jonah Williams has struggled with injury and top-end pass rushers. In general, Williams hasn't been the dominant force expected from a former top-15 draft choice. He's decent enough, but in a sign that the team is hardly committed to him, Williams will play in 2023 on his fifth-year option with no extension imminent.

Reserves Jackson Carman and Hakeem Adeniji have been responsible for enough Lombardi Trophy dream-destroying blown blocks to prove to Bengals Nation that they may be suitable for depth roles, but that's all. So what to do? Paying through the nose for a player such as Mike McGlinchey or Jawaan Taylor seems both unlikely and unwise—if they were truly high-end upgrades, they wouldn't be available. Yet another modest placeholder-type, such as Jermaine Eluemunor or Cameron Fleming, is a strong possibility. And of course one never knows when a player—such as Collins—will be a surprise cut and thus available to don stripes.

The Bengals have struggled to develop linemen of late, and at pick No. 28 Cincy won't be in a position to select an elite prospect. Still, several intriguing talents figure to be available in the draft, with an eye toward stepping in (on either side) as a 2024 starter. These prospects include Anton Harrison of Oklahoma, Tennessee's Darnell Wright, and Dewand Jones of Ohio State.

Notable Free Agents: Jessie Bates (S); Vonn Bell (S); Hayden Hurst (TE); Samaje Perine (RB); Germaine Pratt (LB); Eli Apple (CB); Tre Flowers (CB); Brandon Allen (QB); Drew Sample (TE); Mitchel Wilcox (TE); Trayveon Williams (RB); Max Scharping (G)

Bates and Pratt are as good as gone, and they will both have strong markets. Bell becomes a key figure for the Bengals—Cincy drafted Bates' replacement, Dax Hill, in the first round last season, but doesn't have an easy internal replacement for the unheralded and tenacious Bell. At corner, Apple is a player whose value to the Bengals likely exceeds any interest he would find elsewhere, and Flowers might be a similar case at an even cheaper price. With Joe Mixon a strong cut candidate, the gritty Perine is likely to be kept at a modest level, and Williams might come back too, though the Bengals look certain to draft a running back. At tight end, Cincy revived Hurst's career to the point he might be too expensive to keep, while there is only room for one blocking enthusiast between Wilcox and Sample, with the former having the edge due mainly to health.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Need: Defensive Line

The annual lack of quality upfront alongside Myles Garrett continues to plague the Browns. Garrett was his usual tremendous self, notching 16 sacks, but no one else stepped up. The rest of the team combined had just 18 sacks, with no one else managing more than three. The Browns were atrocious against the run (28th in adjusted line yards, dead last in EPA allowed per rush) as well, which had a deleterious effect on the team overall.

Jadeveon Clowney provides some good play that doesn't match the drama he stirs up, and after slamming the organization he was sent home before the season finale. Inside, the Browns have spent mid-round picks on the tackle spot in three straight drafts, but Jordan Elliott, Tommy Togiai, and Perrion Winfrey have all disappointed in various ways thus far.

Cleveland figures to be active in addressing their front, but the huge money allocated to Deshaun Watson likely prevents them from hunting big game such as Javon Hargrave, who would be a perfect piece for new defensive coordinator (and Hargrave's former coach in Philly) Jim Schwartz to use, or Dalvin Tomlinson. A more affordable piece such as former Ohio State Buckeyes star Dre'mont Jones or Khalen Saunders (who had a sack in the Super Bowl) could be had, along with a useful veteran-minimum type such as Carlos Dunlap. Cleveland doesn't draft until Day 2, when they are almost certain to use yet another mid-round choice on a lineman—tackles Siaki Ika from Baylor and Gervon Dexter from Florida and ends Nolan Smith from Georgia and Tuli Tuipulotu of Southern Cal figure to be on the Browns' radar.

Notable Free Agents: Jadeveon Clowney (DE); Ethan Pocic (C); Kareem Hunt (RB); Jacoby Brissett (QB); Anthony Walker (LB); Deion Jones (LB); Sione Takitaki (LB); Greedy Williams (CB); Chase Winovich (DE); Chris Hubbard (OT); Taven Bryan (DT); Ronnie Harrison (S)

Pocic was an afterthought depth signing last spring, but circumstances are everything in the NFL, and he made the most of his. Pocic played well enough to likely be beyond Cleveland's ability to re-sign him, especially given the paychecks doled out elsewhere on the line. The Clowney soap opera is at last over in Browns Town, and Bryan did little to impress during his shift in the Factory of Sadness. Brissett certainly deserves a starting opportunity and will likely get a shot to at least compete for one somewhere other than Cleveland. Hunt, Hubbard, Harrison—everyone whose surname starts with an "H"—won't be back. Greedy hasn't been healthy his entire career, but the physical traits that made him a high draft choice remain, and he will have a market as a depth corner. Winovich is required almost by default. That leaves linebacker, where Walker is an important piece but is coming off a bad quad injury and Takitaki tore his ACL late in the season. The future of both players is cloudy, so Jones will probably return out of necessity.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Need: Cornerback

It's a close race here between offensive line, defensive line, cornerback, and inside linebacker, but the O-line played better than its reputation in 2022 (10th in adjusted line yards, tied for 10th in adjusted sack rate), and while it needs talent and depth, the team could get by without a massive infusion of assets there. Inside linebacker is a wasteland but a less valuable position, and the D-line still has the venerable but beastly Cam Heyward.

That leaves corner, where the free-agency decision of Cam Sutton will inform the next flurry of moves. He wants to stay in Pittsburgh but the Steelers likely won't climb into the $13 million-to$-15 million per year range that Sutton may command. Even if they manage to keep him, more bodies are required to go with Levi Wallace. Backups William Jackson (high cap hit, poor play) and Ahkello Witherspoon (often injured, poor play) are hardly pieces the team can count on moving forward.

The draft seems the likely marketplace, and at No. 17 Pittsburgh is in a good position to grab one of the better corners available, be it Joey Porter Jr. of Penn State, Deonte Banks of Maryland, Kelee Ringo of Georgia, or Cam Smith of South Carolina (assuming Christian Gonzalez and Devon Witherspoon, the top two corner prospects in many eyes, are gone). Should a tackle be the choice there, Pittsburgh will probably hunt for a corner at pick No. 32 (thanks to Chicago, who gave them the choice for Chase Claypool). Buying one if Sutton re-signs will be extremely difficult, but if he moves on the Steelers could opt for a modestly priced replacement in Byron Murphy, who has a very similar play style to Sutton, or perhaps Rock Ya-Sin, late of the Raiders.

Notable Free Agents: Cam Sutton (CB); Terrell Edmunds (S); Demontae Kazee (S): Larry Ogunjobi (DT); Mason Rudolph (QB); Robert Spillane (LB); Devin Bush (LB); Chris Wormley (DT); Zach Gentry (TE); Derek Watt (FB); Tyson Alualu (DE); Benny Snell (RB)

Sutton had a breakout year while playing perimeter corner and is in line for a payday that the cash-strapped Steelers will be hard-pressed to afford. At safety, the team will probably have to choose between the solid if stolid Edmunds and the mercurial but ball-hawking Kazee. Ogunjobi is a risky signing due to his banged-up frame but is a quality 3-technique in a league that covets them (ideally he would sign with Baltimore to complete an AFC North quadfecta). Bush has been a disaster since the Steelers traded up to draft him in 2019 and needs a new home, though Spillane was quietly decent and should be a re-sign target. The cap savings earned by cutting Mitchell Trubisky are important for making moves elsewhere, and thus Rudolph, the ultimate survivor, could be in line for yet another season in Pittsburgh.


23 comments, Last at 08 Mar 2023, 9:59am

#1 by theslothook // Mar 06, 2023 - 2:31pm

This might be the most consequential season for the Cleveland Browns since I've been watching football dating back over 20 plus years.

In most of the time watching, The Browns have either been below average and forgettable, so horrible from jump that they didn't have a chance, or some kind of fake contender that I I needed proof of before I believed in them.

This was past season was interesting to me, but most everyone basically wrote them off because of the suspension. I argued with Pat that even with Brisette, they had a chance to stay alive until Watson got back. That kind of happened. Except Watson played so badly that it didn't matter. Even factoring in rust, I don't think anyone anticipated a minus 16 percent DVOA. 

Right now, The Browns are staring at two very different polar opposite universes. Either Watson goes back to being a tier 2 level QB, in which case they have are a secondary contender in a tough AFC. Or they are an even worse version of the Broncos. 


Points: 3

#3 by NYChem // Mar 06, 2023 - 2:48pm

he could also be a tier 3 husk of himself, on the same level as Baker or Jacoby, and the Brown wind up in 7-10 -  9-8 purgatory they've been in since 0-16 happened. I gotta say, though, where they stand on defense and draft capital, even the tier 2 level is not paritcularly scary.

Points: 0

#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 06, 2023 - 3:12pm

7-9 wins is actually quite good for the reborn Browns.

The last time the Browns had 3- and 5-year stretches as good as now, Marty was the coach and Bernie was the QB.

Points: 2

#4 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 06, 2023 - 3:10pm

I argued with Pat that even with Brisette, they had a chance to stay alive until Watson got back. That kind of happened.

Not really.

Brissett was 4-7. The Browns would have needed, at bare minimum, 6-0 from Watson, because they had already lost the tiebreaker with the 9-8 Dolphins and they beat the Ravens in real-life, so they still end up going 10-7.

Points: 0

#6 by Oncorhynchus // Mar 06, 2023 - 3:30pm

"Brissett was 4-7."


Gather round children, and let me tell you the tale, of QB WINZ that'll hollow your soul.

Jacoby Brissett was a mighty man. Mightier than mighty Sam Darnold and mightier than Mitchell "Mighty-Mitch" Trubisky. But he was never so mighty that he could beat the fearsome ghost of Joseph Flacco.  Nor Marcus Mighteous Mariotto. Nay, not even the Bailey Zappe could Jacoby Brissett defeat. Nay the only other men that Jacoby Brissett could topple to the turf were wee Joey B and pitiful puny Thomas Brady.

You see in the sport of football, QB WINZ are all about the QB. Never ye mind that it tis the opposing defense they face. And never ye mind that even the mightiest of mighty QBs can't do shit if their defense can't get off the field.


Points: -4

#7 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 06, 2023 - 3:35pm

I'm not debating the merits of QB Winz.

I'm just pointing out that the Browns weren't pining for the fjords when Watson took over.

Points: 3

#11 by IlluminatusUIUC // Mar 06, 2023 - 5:01pm

There were so many blown chances in that 7 though.

Up 13 on the Jets after the 2 minute warning, 5 yards from FG range down 3 vs the Falcons, throwing an endzone pick vs the Chargers down 2, and  utterly dominating Buffalo through the air to come away with only 23 points.

Points: 0

#8 by BigRichie // Mar 06, 2023 - 3:57pm

Last season was the "most consequential season for the Cleveland Browns since" their rebirth. And man oh man oh man, did they butcher it.

They won't have another consequential season till Haslam sells.

Points: 0

#2 by NYChem // Mar 06, 2023 - 2:45pm

venerable but beastly cam heyward.... solid if stolid edmunds... mecurial but ball-hawking kazee...

was someone sniffing around daddy's thesaurus cabinet last night whan they go to the steelers note?

Points: 1

#9 by BigRichie // Mar 06, 2023 - 4:03pm

Any team with Joe Burrow will always be looking for offensive linemen. Joe just doesn't read the rush well, and never will.

Any team with Lamar Jackson will always be looking for wide receivers. Lamar just doesn't throw the ball well, and never will.

Deal with it, dudes.

Points: -3

#10 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 06, 2023 - 4:16pm

Which Ravens WRs and Bengals Olinemen went someplace else and were good?

Points: 3

#12 by occams_pointed… // Mar 06, 2023 - 5:14pm

Two years in a row the Bengals lost their starting RT who was at least semi-competent. Two years ago it was Reiff and last year it was Collins. So in addition to being bad at finding OL they were also a bit snake bit.

Jackson Carman looks like he could maybe stick as a backup in the NFL, Adeniji looks like he never should have made a roster. Same with Isaiah Prince.

I think if you put Carman and Adeniji and Prince in front of Patrick Mahomes you get what happened to Patrick Mahomes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Points: 3

#13 by ImNewAroundThe… // Mar 07, 2023 - 12:42am

People lauded the Ravens draft class last. I get where people were coming from, truly. But it was so odd that people overlooked them trading away Hollywood (make of him, and the trade, what you will, but he's certainly rosterable) and drafting ZERO other WRs. Despite being deficient with Hollywood. Like, they doubled up on TE... with Mark Andrews already there! They also doubled up on CB... with Humphrey and Peters! And they drafted a punter too! All those picks and they couldn't squeeze in one WR instead of a RB?

Such a weird dismissal. 

Points: 2

#18 by rh1no // Mar 07, 2023 - 1:31pm

The Ravens are generally viewed as a well-run organization, so analysts usually gloss over their bad personnel decisions, trusting that the coaching staff knows what they're doing.

To their credit, the Ravens usually field a competitive team and can view for the AFC North and a playoff spot. But part of that is due to playing four games against the Browns and Bengals every year.

Now that the Bengals have a top-tier QB, Pittsburgh's rebuild appears to be on the fast track, and Lamar is looking like he may not be in purple and black much longer, people are going to approach the Ravens with more skepticism than usual.

Points: 0

#20 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 07, 2023 - 2:39pm

Baltimore still went 10-7 with half a Lamar and no WRs, despite both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati breaking .500.

Points: 0

#23 by kippers // Mar 08, 2023 - 9:59am

They looked at sky rocketing prices for WR and decided it would be more cost effective at TE. I guess they didn't like the WRs available in the middle rounds.

Points: 0

#14 by rh1no // Mar 07, 2023 - 9:49am

At this point, we should be talking less about Cincinnati's failure to find competent offensive linemen and more about their inability to develop and maintain lineman. Glad to see Rob acknowledging that.

Jim Turner was the offensive line coach for Zac Taylor's first two seasons; he's currently serving as the offensive line coach for Texas State in the Sun Belt Conference. 

Frank Pollack has held the gig for the past two seasons, and I guess we can say that the offensive line has improved each year under his watch. They went from allowing a career-threatening injury to the franchise quarterback in 2020 to allowing a record number of sacks en route to a Super Bowl appearance in 2021. Progress?

Free agent signings helped the offensive line achieve mediocrity, and comments from the coaching staff sound like they're happy with this status quo. The Bengals will back the Brinks truck up for Burrow, Higgins, and Chase, filling out the offensive line with a rotating cast of reclamation projects, mid-tier free agents, and late-round draft picks.

If they can hit on a hidden gem and/or luck into a healthy roster, they'll be primed for another Super Bowl run. If not, the Chiefs and Bills will be able to make them one-dimensional.

Points: 0

#16 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Mar 07, 2023 - 11:45am

The Bengals will back the Brinks truck up for Burrow, Higgins, and Chase, filling out the offensive line with a rotating cast of reclamation projects, mid-tier free agents, and late-round draft picks.


At some point, the Bengals would likely well served to let one of Higgens or Chase walk (likely Higgens).  Having a top QB and two high end receivers is awesome, but likely unaffordable outside of rookie contract territory.  Or more accurately, inefficient relative to allocating some of that cap space to other areas of the team.  Just as KC chose to let Hill go, trusting that Holmes and Kelce were enough to build a quality offense around, I think CIN would be better served to let Burrows and Chase be the stars of their offense, and use what it would cost to keep Higgens to patch up their talent elsewhere.

Points: 1

#17 by rh1no // Mar 07, 2023 - 1:22pm

I agree that "at some point" the Bengals will probably need to trade Tee for lower cost assets.

Keep in mind, though, that Mahomes had Tyreek and Travis his first five years in the league, helping the franchise win its first Super Bowl in 50 years. Tyreek was on his second contract when he was traded. 

The Bengals have signaled that they are not interested in trading Tee, and I think they are right to keep their talented trio intact for as long as possible. Burrow showed a Brady-like ability to bring the best out of role players when Chase was injured, but I don't see how losing Tee would make the Bengals a better team over the next two or three years.

Points: 0

#19 by ImNewAroundThe… // Mar 07, 2023 - 1:46pm

Sure you'd like to keep the trio together but at what cost? Burrow is now eligible to be extended. Chase will be next year. They won't be cheap but it's probably easier to stream WR2 than QB1 and WR1. If you're given a 1st to reset the clock, it might be worth it if Higgins wants WR1 money. Still keeping your best pass catcher (unlike GB).

Points: 0

#21 by theslothook // Mar 07, 2023 - 4:37pm

The Colts paid Wayne and Harrison. They also paid Freeney and Mathis and then cut everything to the bone. 

We can debate the merits of the strategy, but on some level, I'm inclined to pay the players that pan out because you have them in house. Draft picks are uncertain and free agency is usually an overpay for middle tier guys.

Points: 1

#22 by rh1no // Mar 08, 2023 - 8:42am

That's a great comparison!

I also think about the present-day 49ers, who paid top-dollar for playmakers Deebo and Kittle while stocking their lines with expe side talent in Trent Williams and Fred Warner ... and then they ADDED McCaffrey mid-season!

If Tee Higgins were playing for a cap-strapped rebuilding team like the Buccaneers, we'd be reading dozens of columns drooling over the prospect of the Bengals using their Jesse Bates savings to give Joe Burrow another weapon.

People just want something to talk about. Tee is already on the team, so the talking point becomes trading him. 

Points: 0

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Points: -5

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