Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and each of his coordinators talked this week about how happy they are with the hard work and progress they saw this offseason from a young team that had a lot of ground to cover.
But there was one setback that thrust the team back to where it stood in March — scouring the list of free-agent tackles for help.
Hakeem Adeniji had surgery last week to repair a torn pectoral muscle, an injury that will cost the offensive lineman his second season in the league.
Adeniji wasn’t going to unseat left tackle Jonah Williams or right tackle Riley Reiff, whom the team signed to a one-year, $7.5 million contract at the end of the first week of free agency. But Adeniji showed promise as a rookie and would have been battling Fred Johnson to be the first tackle off the bench.
And for a team that started three left tackles and four right tackles in 2020, four left tackles in 2019 and, oh, by the way, a franchise quarterback who is returning from a devastating knee injury and in desperate need of protection, you can’t understate the importance of depth at tackle.
With Adeniji lost for the year, the options at swing tackle are Johnson, whose Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade of 47.4 last year ranked 86th among tackles who played at least eight games; Isaiah Prince, a 2019 sixth-round pick the Bengals claimed off waivers from the Dolphins at the end of 2019; and rookie fourth-round pick D’Ante Smith.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen from Prince the past five weeks.
“He’s getting a bunch of reps, but pads will be the great equalizer,” Callahan said. “That’s when you find out what you’ve got. There are things about him that are intriguing. Preseason games for a guy like him will be really important to find out if we have something or not. I’m thankful we get to play them.”
Waiting until the preseason to figure out the comfort level with the backup tackles on the roster may be too late.
But fortunately for the Bengals, the reduced salary cap resulted in a number of free agents going unsigned. The trick at this point is finding the right fit. There are tackles available who may not be interested in joining a team with established starters. There are starting-caliber tackles out there who have broached the idea of retirement, which would have to give pause to any team interested in signing them. And there are tackles who may or may not be better than the ones the Bengals already have and who have a five-week head start on learning the offense.
There’s also the issue of most of them being 30 or older, and the idea of going to a young team that’s won six games over the past two seasons to be a backup might not be the most appealing.
But the Bengals have five openings on the roster — soon to be six when Adeniji goes on IR — and space under the cap. So it makes sense to make a run at one or two guys and have them compete to see what they have before it’s time to pare the roster to 53 by the first weekend in September.
“Those are things that we’ll look at a couple of different positions to see what we need to add for training camp,” Taylor said. “Duke (Tobin) and his staff are always on the lookout for that and trying out players and putting guys on our radar. It’s certainly something we will keep monitoring.”
Here is a look at the best free-agent tackles remaining (with their age as of Sept. 1):
Morgan Moses (30)
Arguably the best free agent still available at any position, Moses has played seven seasons in Washington with 96 consecutive starts. Among tackles who started at least eight games in 2020, Moses ranked 41st with a 70.8 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus. His 84.7 run-blocking grade last year was a career high.
Mitchell Schwartz (32)
He had never missed a start in eight seasons with the Browns and Chiefs before suffering a back injury six games into the 2020 season. Schwartz has said he is considering retirement, but he’s also continuing to rehab from back surgery and should be healthy enough to play by the start of the season. In his two most recent full seasons, Schwartz was PFF’s ninth highest-graded pass blocker in 2018 and 13th in 2019.
Russell Okung (32)
The Bengals coaches never viewed Okung as an option when they were looking for a starting tackle in free agency in March, but bringing in the 11-year veteran as an injury contingency could be a different matter. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Okung’s play fell off in 2019, leading the Chargers to trade him to the Panthers. The No. 6 pick in the 2010 draft made just seven starts for Carolina last year because of groin and calf injuries.
Rick Wagner (31)
Another durable and dependable veteran in the mold of Moses, Wagner has appeared in 118 games with 96 starts for the Ravens, Lions and Packers. Last year in Green Bay was the first time since his rookie season in 2013 that he didn’t start at least 12 games. He ranked 23rd in pass blocking among qualifying tackles with a PFF grade of 69.3. Like Schwartz, Wagner is said to be contemplating retirement.
Demar Dotson (35)
After playing 11 seasons with the Buccaneers, Dotson missed out on the Super Bowl run last year when he signed a free-agent deal with the Broncos. According to reports, he’s received offers from multiple teams to play for the league minimum of $660,000 this season. He made eight starts last year and earned a 70.0 pass-blocking grade from PFF.
Dennis Kelly (31)
The nine-year veteran started all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2020, but he showed a marked dip in production in pass protection. PFF ranked Kelly 64th among qualifying tackles with a 60.2 grade, down from 77.4 in 2018 and 75.2 in 2019.
Marshall Newhouse (32)
He’s played for eight teams during his 10-year career, including the Bengals when he made five starts during the 2014 playoff run. But this is his second offseason as a street agent. The Titans signed Newhouse to their practice squad in November and elevated him to the active roster in December. He appeared in four games, with no starts.
Chaz Green (30)
Maybe the least likely candidate due to the shaky start to his career, Green also is the most intriguing as Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack held the same position in Dallas in 2015 when the Cowboys selected Green in the third round. Green has played for five teams during his short career, which is a giant red flag. But if Pollack and the Cowboys saw something in him in 2015, perhaps a reunion could be in store.