Cincinnati Bengals fans know only too well the struggles the team had along the offensive line this season, especially along the interior line. While Bobbie Williams was suspended, the team tried a variety of solutions, signing Mike McGlynn and trying rookie Clint Boling alongside Nate Livings. The same was true after Williams was lost for the year with a broken ankle.
While Williams was healthy, the Bengals put together an impressive running attack and protected Andy Dalton well. They were 5-3 with Williams in the lineup, 4-4 without him. His importance was illustrated in the regular season matchup with the Houston Texans. With Williams out in the second half, the Bengals could get no push against the Texans' defensive line and ultimately surrendered a huge lead, losing the game.
Williams is likely to retire and Nate Livings is a free agent and probably won't return, leaving both tackle slots open for 2012. Kyle Cook is inked through 2015 at center, as is Andrew Whitworth at left tackle. Andre Smith is heading into the final year of his rookie deal, and after an impressive 2011, the team may redo his contract. That leaves only Otis Hudson, and Boling in reserve as Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland are also free agents.
The interior line must be a priority for the team. Ideally, they will pick up a starter each in free agency and the draft. Here are some of the candidates the Bengals might be after in free agency:
Carl Nicks: If Nicks and the Saints can't get together (New Orleans has to get a deal for Drew Brees and Marques Colston as well) he would be the slam dunk choice to go after. With the Bengals having $44 million in cap space to play with, they would be wise to go to Nicks with a blank check if he's available. He's that good. In his four years in New Orleans, he's won a Super Bowl and been named All-Pro twice.
Evan Mathis: Getting Mathis to return to the team that cut him would probably involve some groveling from Mike Brown and lots and lots of cash, so it's not likely. Without a doubt, Mathis is the biggest miss of the past few years of Bengals' personnel moves. Despite being the most dependable Bengals' lineman in 2009 and 2010, the team let him walk. He ended up winning a starting job in Philadelphia this season and was rated by ProFootballFocus.com as the best left tackle in the NFL after helping LeSean McCoy to an NFL rushing title. If the Bengals get a chance at a do-over with Mathis, they should jump at it.
Ben Grubbs: With Ray Rice being the Ravens' top priority, Grubbs could find his way into free agency. How great would it be if the Bengals could shore up the interior of their line by robbing the best interior lineman from a divisional rival?
Jake Scott: The veteran Tennessee lineman could be the perfect tutor for Clint Boling and a rookie draft pick. Scott has been a durable force who probably still has one more good contract in him. He's got a Super Bowl ring from his time in Indianapolis and has been out front of Joseph Addai and Chris Johnson in 1000 yard seasons.
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