It was hardly a surprise, but when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis let it be known Saturday that left guard Travelle Wharton appeared to have suffered a "season-ending" knee injury Friday night against the Jets, the disappointment was just as acute.
After signing him to a three-year, $10 million deal back in March that reportedly counts $3.7 million against the salary cap this season, the Bengals watched Wharton go down on the third snap of the year when his knee got rolled into while he was on pass protection. He crumpled to the ground with what looked to be a torn ACL in his right knee.
As for the status of left end Carlos Dunlap, Lewis is being more cautious about what he called a knee sprain. Given that Lewis indicated Dunlap's injury is more severe than Rey Maualuga's knee sprain and that the average return for some kind of ligament sprain is two to four weeks, Lewis is probably going to keep everyone guessing on Dunlap's availability for the Sept 10 regular-season opener in Baltimore.
Maualuga said he could practice this week, but it's going to be a surprise if the Bengals even play him in Atlanta this Thursday (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19).
Wharton, 31, a nine-year pro, was exactly what the Bengals were looking for on the left side when they decided to move on from Nate Livings. Wharton is athletic enough to have played two seasons at left tackle and strong enough to help the Panthers to the NFL's rushing top five in three of the last four seasons at guard.
But even before Wharton went down there had been buzz that backup Clint Boling had looked better than any of the guards in camp and was pushing for playing time. Boling, a fourth-rounder in 2011, started the first three games as a rookie at right guard while Bobbie Williams served his NFL suspension. Told he needed to get stronger and play lower as he went into the offseason, the 6-5, 311-pound Boling pleased the coaches with both when he returned in the spring.
The question doesn't appear to be who is going to start at left guard. That is Boling in a move that may have been coming in a year. But the question is who can replace Boling as a backup that plays both guards and center since Boling has been the first reserve for all three.
While the Bengals may eventually have to fill that spot from the outside, there aren't indications they are currently pursuing guards-centers and they would most likely prefer one of their own people to step up. And with the next game already on top of them (Thursday at 8 p.m. in Atlanta on Cincinnati's Channel 19), they'll get plenty of chances to back up Boling.
Otis Hudson, a fifth-rounder from 2010, hasn't progressed as far as they thought he would, and Reggie Stephens, a seventh-rounder in 2010, struggled on one shotgun snap Friday night that he fired low. But both have also played well in stretches before this season and they figure to see a lot of time against the Falcons. Rookie free agent Trevor Robinson, who played guard at Notre Dame, is a good prospect but may not be ready yet.
Other in-house options are backup tackles Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland that could move inside. Roland played a few snaps Friday night to get into the mix.
If the Bengals don't like what they see over the rest of the preseason, then they could do what they did last year on cutdown day and claim a veteran.
It was Mike McGlynn, a center that ended up backing up both guards and started the last month of the season and the Wild Card Game when Williams dislocated his ankle. The Bengals then decided not to re-sign him.
All signs were safety Taylor Mays suffered a concussion Friday night and the Bengals are going to follow the protocol they began 10 years before the NFL adopted the same criteria. Once he's cleared to play by an independent neurologist he'll be eligible.