Hobson's Choice: The big concern

Q: As training camp rapidly approaches, when do Bengals fans need to start worrying about our unsigned offensive line? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to have the Bobbie Williams deal already done, but with Levi, Willie, and Eric Steinbach still unsigned, I am getting nervous. It seems like the front office has a lot of work to do, but there has been relatively little back and forth between the Bengals and the players' agents. Do you think the start of training camp will really end negotiations, and could you see any last minute signings happening in late July? I hope the team can work something out, because I am hesitant to stake the future of this offense on our athletic but inexperienced second string.
**--Alex P., Dallas, TX

ALEX:** That's OK. The user name to get into Bengaldom is angst and the password is paranoia. It's always something. If it wasn't signing David Pollack on time last year, it was Carson Palmer replacing Jon Kitna in 2004 after a Pro Bowlish season, and if it wasn't that it was trying to find a replacement for Takeo Spikes in 2003. This year the something is the offensive line, but just because there isn't a deal yet doesn't indicate organizational apathy about the position.

If there's one franchise that knows the importance of keeping some semblance of the line intact, it's this one. The reason the Bengals sped into such a rapid decline from their last glory days to a 3-13 season in 1991 is that the line fell apart so quickly.

It all began when Pro Bowl guard Max Montoya defected to the Raiders in Plan B free agency, and when the other guard, Bruce Reimers, along with Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz and utilityman Brian Blados suffered nagging injuries, that's why the numbers for Boomer Esiason, James Brooks and Rodney Holman went up in smoke so soon.

As we've reported here over the last couple of weeks, from what can be pieced together the Bengals are negotiating pretty consistently with left tackle Levi Jones, but not so much with right tackle Willie Anderson and left guard Eric Steinbach.

Although there looks to be a lull in talks until after the Fourth of July holiday and nothing imminent, Jones agent Ken Zuckerman has indicated his desire to get something done before the July 29 start of training camp and that he and the club have been exchanging ideas.

Both sides know it's going to be a steep deal, ranging somewhere between the low end of around $7 million per year and the high end of about $9 million per year, which is what a one-year franchise tag is looking like if they can't get a long-term contract.

But if I had to guess, and that's all it is right now, it looks like they're going to make sure they have Jones back in 2007. That would be consistent with the recent organizational philosophy of giving the mega money to pass protectors, pass rushers, pass coverers, pass catchers, and passers.

Unfortunately, you can only spread it so far.

And you not only have the line to think about, but there is also the young core of guys on defense like safety Madieu Williams, defensive end Robert Geathers, and linebacker Landon Johnson that is up after '07 and has to be discussed soon as well.

But when the Bengals committed to Carson Palmer through 2014 back in December, they were also committing to protecting his blind side, too.

So even though it's not imminent, expect something to get done with Jones, with the last resort being the franchise tag doled out next February.

What happens with Anderson and Steinbach remains to be seen, so you can only take a look at history and tendencies.

In the wake of Shawn Andrews' $5.2 million per year extension in Philadelphia for a player with less experience than Steinbach, it's hard to see the Bengals paying a guard that much, and with Anderson two weeks removed from his 31st birthday, it's also hard to see them paying top dollar to extend a player into his mid-30s.

Just look at Montoya himself, not only a guard, but a 34-year-old guard in 1990. And when they used a second-round pick back in April to select LSU left tackle Andrew Whitworth, that seemed to suggest they didn't expect at least one of these guys to be back in '07 because you can't use a second-rounder as a backup for very long under the salary cap. Then Whitworth took to the left side and became the first rookie in offensive line coach Paul Alexander's dozen seasons to work at both guard and tackle.

More trends? Stacy Andrews, the backup right tackle, is now taking snaps at guard in order to broaden his portfolio. They've also got a versatile guard-tackle in Scott Kooistra, but, yes, you're right, these guys don't have a heck of a lot experience.

There's no question that the talent and character of this offensive line has been a major backbone for Lewis to build this renaissance. Can you imagine what the last 10 years would have been like without Anderson's grace, wit, intelligence, and talent?

You'd like to think the Bengals and Willie, in the end, could compromise on something like a three- or four-year deal. He certainly fiercely believes he can play until at least 36

But if there's anyone who knows it's a business, it's Anderson, the president and CEO of Think Big Enterprises.

If they can only keep Jones and right guard Bobbie Williams, they are still in a heck of a lot better shape than they were on the line in 1993.

A major factor in the 15-year slide was a neglect of linemen in the draft. From 1990-2002, the Bengals selected just seven linemen in the first four rounds, and one from 1998 to 2001.

(Anderson, Jones, Mike Brennan, Melvin Tuten, Rod Payne, Ken Blackman, Mike Goff are the seven.)

In the last four drafts, the number is four: Steinbach, Andrews, Whitworth and center Eric Ghiaciuc.

The key problem in the '90s was the lack of a solid left tackle. Anyone who saw Rob Burnett behead Akili Smith in Baltimore can personally speak to how that contributed to the lack of development by their young quarterbacks. But keeping Jones in the fold takes care of that.

You'd hate to see a changing of the guard, or even tackle, but if there is, the cupboard isn't anywhere near as bare as it was in another era.

Hey, it's natural to be a fan and to be sick with fear as the season nears. But, really, from Palmer to Chad Johnson to Jeremi Johnson to Rudi Johnson to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, they've gotten deals done when they've had to get them done, so you figure it will happen with at least Jones and maybe more.

But, if you didn't worry, you couldn't get into Bengaldom.

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