The Bengals offensive line remains a work in progress even though some major issues have been resolved since free agency opened Tuesday.
With Anthony Collins reaching a five-year deal in Tampa Thursday morning and center Kyle Cook's Tuesday release, the Bengals aren't prepared to say who is playing where.
Also Thursday, SAM linebacker James Harrison tweeted a good-bye to Bengals fans, indicating his release is imminent. And, the Bengals finally got that elusive offer sheet from the Browns Thursday for wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, giving them until Tuesday to match what was believed to be a four-year, $12.2 million deal that has now been reported at $13.6 million. It looked it could go either way and that's the way the media reports have it. On Wednesday it was the Bengals would match. On Thursday it was they won't. But on Thursday afternoon it looked like they were debating it.
The offensive line is also in motion. "That's why Marvin doesn't give you guys a depth chart until training camp," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander of head coach Marvin Lewis' offseason routine of a personnel blackout. "We have to go through the process. After free agency and the draft, we'll have a better idea. But right now we haven't made any decisions about how we'll line up."
The leader in the clubhouse to replace Collins, of course, is Andrew Whitworth, coming off a Pro Bowl season at left tackle when the Bengals moved him to left guard for the final six games of the season in the wake of left guard Clint Boling's torn ACL.
"They haven't told me where I'm going yet. I'll wait to hear from the team," Whitworth said.
Whitworth said last month he prefers to play left tackle and believes his 6-7, 325-pound frame suits him at a spot he's made 87 of his 116 NFL starts. Given the Bengals didn't wade into the Collins negotiations even though they made an offer, that indicates they feel like the injured knee that took him out of a couple of games and hampered all season is healthy enough to put Whitworth back at tackle.
On Thursdsay he texted about his knee, "hopefully (it will) be good enough to be one of the top-rated guards and tackles, just like last season. But even better."
But he knows he's also valued at guard and, like Alexander he's waiting to see how the off-season acquisitions pan out.
"Working my butt off to be great at any position they put me at," Whitworth texted.
Collins is close with Whitworth, wife Melissa and their three children and Whitworth had high praise for his friend this week.
"Hate to lose him, but it's great to see him get to be able to play where there is going to be nobody in front of him," Whitworth said.
Collins' early career had been marked with battles with his coaches, but after working with him for six seasons Alexander couldn't say enough about him this week. A career backup, Collins took advantage of the knee injuries to Whitworth and Boling to shut some of the best pass rushers of this era and the last one this season, blanking the Bears' Julius Peppers, the Colts' Robert Mathis, the Dolphins;' Olivier Vernon, and the Vikings' Jared Allen.
According to profotballfocus.com, Collins was the only left tackle not to give up a sack in his seven starts last season.
"AC did a great job for us. He turned into one of the league's best pass blockers," Alexander said. "He was a good leader for us. He studied harder or as hard as anybody we had. It was really inspirational. I'm proud of him."
Even if they had re-signed the 28-year-old Collins, the Bengals would still be looking for a tackle in the draft. With two years left on his deal, Whitworth turns 33 in December and is coming off the knee problems, and right tackle Andre Smith also has only two years left on his deal. Tanner Hawkinson, last year's fifth-round pick, played well in spots at left tackle in the preseason but Alexander has said he's more of a guard.
It's a deep year for tackles and the Bengals may be able to get one later in the draft, not just with the 24th pick in the first round, and have time to develop him. But before the draft look for them to also check out some veterans at both guard and tackle who have been released and aren't unrestricted free agents.
It's believed the Bengals made Collins a four-year offer in the $20 million range. But with Whitworth already counting $6.2 million against the salary cap this year and Smith averaging $6 million, according to spotrac.com, they would have been in the tough spot of paying Collins and his 25 starts more than two guys that have started a combined 127 games at tackle. Collins reportedly took home $15 million guaranteed from Tampa on a five-year, $30 million deal.
Given the size of the deal and the fact he'll be starting for the Bucs, Collins figures to bring the Bengals at least a fourth-round pick and maybe a third, like deals for left guard Eric Steinbach in 2008 (wide receiver Andre Caldwell) and right tackle Stacy Andrews in 2009 (cornerback Brandon Ghee). Collins was their next pick after Caldwell in the fourth round in '08.