Hobson's Choice: OL questions bubble

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Q: I'm struggling with this whole Levi Jones situation. He's been a solid tackle for years, blanking some of the NFL's best pass rushers. He has one down year, in which he played most of it injured, and all of a sudden everyone thinks his time is up. I understand we're short on tackles and must draft one early, but what's the deal with Levi? Are his knees that bad? Will he be on the team for 2009? Starter/backup cut/traded?
--Brad, Atlanta, GA
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BRAD: I'm a Levi guy myself. He's tough, plays with a great mean streak and never backs down. But what is documented is that he and the club have had disagreements on how to handle his injuries and he asked for a trade before last year's draft. Now there is Brad Biggs' report in The Chicago Sun-Times that the Bengals are shopping him, so it's been a debate for awhile.

Yet there was a time, not too long ago, (July 25, 2006 to be exact) when it was all good. That's the day the Bengals made Jones the highest-paid offensive lineman in club history after he got a six-year extension with $16.3 million in guarantees and $21 million in the first three years.

"I'm extremely happy with how they view me," Jones said that day. "That means a lot to me. I've played through a lot of pain and I thank God. I'm blessed. It's kind of the light at the end of the tunnel."

It was a good deal negotiated by agent Kenny Zuckerman and a good deal for the Bengals to lock up a 27-year-old left tackle coming off a season he had shut down everybody.

Tough?

Right there with Tim Krumrie coming back to start the 1989 opener after his grotesque broken leg in the Super Bowl and Carson Palmer starting the 2006 opener after his playoff ACL tear. Jones pulled off one of the toughest Bengals feats ever when he played six days after arthroscopic knee surgery down the stretch in 2003.

And he's continued to try and tough it out, but the injuries have been a problem. Since he signed the extension, he's played in 31 of a possible 48 games and he had to take himself out of last season's Eagles game because Trent Cole saw he could exploit his physical problems. No one ever got into the specifics of the injury

Because of this year's salary cap rules with an uncapped year in 2010, trading him entails taking a pretty significant shot into the cap, where the Bengals figure to have about $3 million left.

But according to Biggs, people in the league are telling him the Bengals' asking price isn't all that high.

There are frustrations on both sides. Hate to see it. When healthy, he's everything you want in a left tackle, including a chippy, take-no-guff demeanor you have to have.


Q: I'm concerned we have three really important positions of need and it appears that we are content gambling on the draft. If it works great, but a huge risk. First, OT, way too many question marks right now. Are we seriously waiting on the draft to dictate where guys are going to play? Second, center, same as above. Is it likely to move Bobbie Williams there since you need some experience? Third, not critical, but could have huge impact is MLB. Rey seems exactly what Marvin's always wanted, but at the risk of killing Carson? I think Rey is the best pick to finalize our defense, but take the next three on offense, including a running back. Our offensive line still scares me, and you hate to miss out on a top OT. Your thoughts?
--Sam, Worthington, OH

SAM: Not only is there a real serious question the two left tackles are going to be there at No. 6, but are they an upgrade over Andrew Whitworth, a solid left tackle? And what does that do to the rest of the line?

I'm with you. The questions surrounding the offensive line (and the MLB channel) keep me up all hours. Moving Whitworth from left guard to left tackle doesn't solve inexperience at right tackle, center, or left guard.

Which is why they can't move Bobbie Williams to center because that means they weaken right guard after already weakening left guard.

They've got some good young players there. But the emphasis is on young.

Anthony Collins can be a good right tackle and Kyle Cook and Dan Santucci have shown promise at center. But all that and a cup of coffee could blow up in your face in September against Baltimore. Promise doesn't help you on third-and-nine and Terrell Suggs has just lined up in his fifth different spot of the afternoon.

They need some experience now.

Problem is, there just doesn't seem to be any answers out there in free agency tackle-wise. Or center, for that matter, if you're talking about getting a guy that fits into their cap.

Really, I can't blame them for waiting until the draft to make the line concrete. They don't hit the field until two weeks later and, at that point, they ought to be able to get some veterans in here that fit into the cap.

Not ideal, no question. But I'm not sure what else they could have done in free agency given the holes they absolutely had to fill and the fact that they've already got competent people to line up at tackle.

And when they re-upped starting tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones before 2006, the spreadsheet didn't spit out that they would be healthy for just a combined two full seasons.

So they need to find some experience, but it also shouldn't stop them from drafting linemen until someone breaks into the draft room. First round. Second round. At least.

Think of it. Since they signed Jones and Anderson to those extensions, they've lost five O-line starters: Two centers (Rich Braham, Eric Ghiaciuc), two right tackles (Anderson, Stacy Andrews), a left guard (Eric Steinbach) and maybe a left tackle in Jones.

It looks they've got some good young players and will get some in the draft. But don't they need some vet bridges to those guys?

Still, they can't reach at No. 6. If Jason Smith and Monroe arent there, that's probably too high for Michael Oher and with Andre Smith now bandied about as maybe a guard or right tackle, it is too high for him, too.

And, while it's hard not to love USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, don't they have to get a pass rusher if they go defense at No. 6? Doesn't the first choice have to be Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji?

But, then again, there are no full-lock studs. The defensive ends (Brian Orakpo more than Everette Brown) scream tweeners and Michael Johnson is all potential. In this draft, it looks like you better make sure you get the safest pick at No. 6 because the immediate impact player isn't there.

If it is not Raji, then Maualuga, right?

As a footnote, there may be some out there that don't think Whitworth can play left tackle at a high level because of speed rushers. OK, as a rookie he had problems with Dwight Freeney and Elvis Dumervil. You can scheme for those rare times. Fact is, he started 10 games at left tackle in their last season as an offense that scored consistently.  

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