INDIANAPOLIS _ Yes, the Bengals are looking at upgrading the offensive line. Yes, there are options in both the draft and free agency. Yes, they like the three O-linemen they drafted last year and think they are still very much in the improvement equation.
A lot of yesses, but not a lot of answers because the NFL's acquisition season only just opened Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine. But the one thing we do know is any additions are going to have to go through offensive line coach Frank Pollack's tight security line that is looking for sharp objects.
"I'd love to have more leadership in the room, love to have more alpha males in the room, can't get enough of those guys," Pollack said Wednesday during a break from his Combine break of watching free agents on tape. "I'd love to have more of what I call glass-eaters in the room. Can never have enough of those guys. That's what this league requires. Those are the kind of offensive linemen that we're looking for."
The Bengals' Super Bowl run got caught on the jagged edges of the Rams pass rush a few weeks back in Los Angeles and they are conducting due diligence in the wake of a 70-sack season that also encompassed several record-breaking performances for quarterback Joe Burrow's offense.
Even before the Bengals watched the O-line prospects work out or listened to them in the 18-minute formal interviews, Pollack was in his hotel room watching video of veteran offensive linemen as the Bengals prep for the start of free agency two weeks from Wednesday.
He's like a tourist walking the beach looking for a glint in the sand.
"A guy that's relentless in his finish," is how Pollack defines "a glass-eater." "A guy that's going to give you the last shove. A guy that wants to rip your F'ing face off. Football is a violent game and I tell my room all the time that it's not for everybody.
"They're trying to take that out for good reason for safety issues and whatnot, but at the end of the day it's a violent game, it's not a contact game. It's a violent game, it's not for everybody."
So that ought to narrow it down. After talking to Pollack, head coach Zac Taylor, director of player personnel Duke Tobin and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, among others the past two days, here's what we can deduce on the offensive line as of now:
_Nobody's job is safe.
_The Bengals feel like while they are looking to protect Burrow better, the offensive line they put out there for 2021 doesn't get enough credit in a season Burrow broke all the franchise's major single-season passing records, wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase became the all-time single-season rookie receiver leader in the regular season and postseason and running back Joe Mixon became their first 1,200-yard rusher in more than a decade.
"There's a lot more to it than just the sack numbers," Tobin said this week. "We weren't the only ones to get sacked by Tennessee, Oakland, Kansas City and especially the Rams. Those guys did a lot of good work this year but in terms of analysis and whether we can improve, we're obviously going to look to improve but it's not just that position. We'll look to improve everywhere. "
_Despite rough rookie seasons for second-rounder Jackson Carman, fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith and sixth-rounder Trey Hill, they are, as Tobin said, "bullish," on them. Callahan thinks they all have the potential to start at some point.
"I think so. I like our young players," Callahan said Wednesday. "Hakeem Adeniji had his moments of really nice play. He took his lumps, but there were positive signs. You watch the last Cleveland game where (D'Ante Smith) had a chance to play against some good starting NFL players and played well.
"To sit here and say we're just going to bank on those three guys for improvement to get better, no. We're going to do our due diligence and evaluate in free agency and the draft and if we see an avenue that makes us better, we'll pursue it … But … it does take time to become a good NFL offensive linemen."
_The Bengals aren't looking to chase long-in-the-tooth offensive linemen on the market. If there's a guide, it's the signings on defense last year, where they signed no one older than 27.
"Any time you get a chance to improve the team, we'll take it. But you still have to develop. Development is a part of the league," Callahan said. "It's part of your team, it's how you get depth, it's how you get better. You usually have to do that with your young players … The defensive side of the ball is a good example of that. We signed some (veterans) and they came in and meshed really well (with the young players.)"
_Moving anyone, say Jonah Williams from left tackle to inside is challenging, particularly to center, but not deemed hair-brained by Pollack.
"I don't think anything is crazy talk," Pollack said. "You should always look to improve on wherever those discussions take you to think outside of the box to do stuff like that. Not at all (crazy)."
_If you're looking to plug in a rookie from the 2022 draft and forget about it, don't hold your breath. It's not like a decade ago, when the college game played a style more conducive for rookie offensive linemen breaking in almost immediately. Now it's flipped. Because colleges are basically playing seven-on-seven and throwing pretty much every play, it's the wide receivers who no longer need a year or two to get settled. They're coming out ready made while O-linemen have to grapple with new stances and sets.
"It's such a tough position to play," Tobin said. "There aren't enough superstars and top level guys to go around to 32 teams. There just aren't. There's not enough to service all the colleges. It's just a very demanding, tough position. It's big athletes, and those are the rarest people on the planet. So yes, we want big athletes, but we know that they're hard to come by and hard to find. It's our job to try to get the best ones that are available."
When you look at it, the O-linemen drafted around Carman, Smith and Hill in the second, fourth and sixth rounds, didn't exactly take off last season. Whether it was because of injuries or the transition or whatever, it lends credence to the theory that unlike wide receivers, the big guys just aren't making the jump right away.
Carman, the 46th pick out of Clemson, played 462 snaps in six starts while playing in all 17 games. The pick before that in the second round, the Jags took Stanford tackle Walker Little, who worked 225 snaps in nine games and three starts. At No. 51, Washington took Texas' Sam Cosmi and he played 474 plays in nine starts. The Titans took North Dakota State tackle Dillon Radunz at No. 53 and he had one start in 12 games while getting in on 124 plays.
The fourth round turned out to be more fertile. The Bengals took D'Ante Smith, the East Carolina tackle, with the 139th pick and injuries limited him to two games, a start and 50 snaps. At 138, the Cowboys' Josh Ball, out of Marshall, went on IR at the beginning of the season.
At No. 128, the Steelers got 16 starts and 1,080 snaps out of Texas A&M tackle Dan Moore. At No. 142, the Packers got 16 starts and 1,084 snaps from Mississippi's Royce Newman.
The Bengals took Hill, the Georgia center, at No. 190 in the sixth round and he got into 13 games and started two for 211 snaps after getting pulled in his first start that came at guard and not center.
Three picks later the Panthers went with Alabama guard Deonte Brown and he played in three games, no starts and 30 plays before going on injured reserve in Week Six. At 197, Colorado's William Sherman played in one game and had no snaps for the Patriots while at No. 206, Saints tackle Landon Young started one game of the ten he played and took 67 snaps.
The college game and how it has impacted the development of pro linemen is a hot button for Pollack.
"I've got my own personal views of college football these days. I'm not going to go into it," said Pollack, who then kind of did.
"They're in a two-point stance a lot of times in college football and in the NFL you're going to have to be in a two-point stance, but you've also got to play in the three-point stance. And the schemes are different. College football you might play two guys that are really good and in the NFL you play everybody is good every week. And that goes for the SEC.
"I've seen guys that come out of that conference that were the player of the year offense and defense and they came in and fell flat on their face in the NFL. You can't underestimate the jump. It's a big jump no matter what school you're coming from and the level of comp matters, too."
Tobin agrees there is something to that, hence the premium on patience.
"Some of the techniques that we're using in some of our game, you don't get to view a lot on the college level," Tobin said. And they come in and there's different techniques that they have to learn. And sometimes there's a learning curve. Some guys do it a little faster than others.
"But really, truly, it's the speed of the game, the strength of the game, the physicality of the game and the fact that you're one year older or two years older than the guy you're playing or one year younger or two years."
While the Bengals aren't putting on all their eggs in the basket of the three '21 draft picks, they are hoping to get the same kind of year-one-to-year-two leap they got from the 2020 linebackers they took in rounds three, four and seven.
As he made the switch to NFL guard from college left tackle, Carman lost his job a couple of times but also played well in stretches. Even though Adeniji struggled mightily in the postseason and Carman was on the field for the decisive drive in the AFC title game, Carman got no scrimmage snaps in the Super Bowl despite his sore back not being an issue.
Until Smith hurt his knee early in the season, he had been, maybe, the most impressive lineman in training camp. Hill struggled when he switched to guard but played well when he started at center in the finale in Cleveland.
"I was impressed with the way Jackson came along. He matured quite a bit over the course of the year," Callahan said. "Trey Hill got to play some. He's done a nice job. D'Ante Smith got better and better as the season went along. I'm excited to see what those guys look like in year two after a year of understanding what NFL football looks like in a year of getting technique work and getting a full offseason."
Pollack agrees that Carman has matured in preparation and getting his weight and body right. He also says he knows Carman is going into the weight room to get stronger as well as working on his balance. Pollack won't say if he thinks Smith is a guard or a tackle, but he does think he can play both and the club thinks he has a high ceiling after playing just one game in his last year at East Carolina. He also thinks Hill can challenge for time at center with more seasoning.
"His biggest thing is I'd like to see a little more comfort running the group, as far as making calls, making IDs," Pollack said. "It's not the easy, vanilla stuff, it's all the adjustments, all the variety of exotic fronts and pressure pickups, or if you get movement and safety rotation and the picture changes, instantly you've got to make a new ID in the run game and quickly get out the word and be able to process like this (quick) and go have confidence in that.
"He's shown some flashes of that. He's got some physical tools. He played in the SEC. Quality talent. I saw a lot of good stuff as far as picking up middle crosses in the run game and protection. Can he do it now in the NFL level?"
Which is how all offseasons begin.