MORE POSITION ANALYSIS: Quarterbacks | Wide Receivers | Running Backs | Tight Ends* * *
Posted: 7 p.m.
If it all starts up front, then welcome to a Bengals offensive line that begins an intriguing roster battle at this weekend's mandatory minicamp that opens Thursday with two practices, continues Friday with two more, and ends with one Saturday morning.
Then the next time they meet, the pads will be on July 28 at Georgetown College.
With the first six O-linemen including the franchise's best ever right tackle (Willie Anderson) and the team's franchise player at right tackle (Stacy Andrews), it's a logjam to get to nine players at a final cutdown.
Among them are promising fourth-rounder Anthony Collins, proven top reserve Scott Kooistra, a pair of prospects battling for backup center in Dan Santucci and Kyle Cook, as well as emerging guard Nate Livings.
Long-time offensive line coach Paul Alexander offers few hints. He wants three guys that could play center on Gameday. He says the position won't dictate the decision because "we won't take a lesser player. We'll take the best guy."
When in doubt?
"Keep the tackles," he says.
Bengals.com continues to break down each offensive group in preparation for the mandatory minicamp, to be followed by a post-camp look at the defense and special teams.
**Willie Anderson** (6-5, 340, 13th season, 181 NFL games)
The greatest right tackle in the history of the franchise is confident he can come back from an injury-plagued 2007 season that cost him a streak of seven straight years of starts and limited him to five starts.
He looked good in the one spring workout the media saw last week, but the Bengals are hoping his foot and knee are healthy enough that he can string together practices and games on a consistent basis. If he can, the four-time Pro Bowler who is the voice of the locker room will no doubt regain the right tackle job that Stacy Andrews claimed while Anderson spent the spring in Atlanta tending to family business.
"We've got a lot of confidence in Willie," Alexander says. "We want to see him practice a lot. We're pulling for him and cheering for him and we're hopeful he can stand the whole physical part. He's played a lot of football."
**Stacy Andrews** (6-7, 342, fifth season, 47 NFL Games)
The Bengals have until July 15 to reach a long-term deal with Andrews, their franchise player, or else his one-year deal for $7.4 million counts against the salary cap for the entire season.
Andrews has three starts at right guard and three starts at left guard, but Alexander says the club has decided that his best position is right tackle and that's where he started 11 games last season in place of Anderson. So who sits? And would Anderson be content to sit?
"Someone is going to have to sit, but I don't know who. There is going to be a good football player not on the field," Alexander says. "The best approach going into training camp is let the guys do their best and at some point the coach makes the call and that's where you go."
**James Blair** (6-3, 323, Rookie)
A free agent signed after he made 27 starts in the last three years at Western Michigan (12 this past season), he's played mostly guard this spring. Alexander likes him for a variety of reasons:
"He's a tough, strong guy. He's the kind of guy who'll do better in pads than not because he's such a strong, solid player. I told him, 'Hey, we're glad we have you.' ''
**Justin Britt** (6-4, 302, Rookie)
Another free agent who is this year's version of Dan Santucci, a guy that played guard in college (Alabama) and is now learning center. The brother of third-year New England tackle Wesley Britt, the Bengals like his pedigree and his college program.
**Anthony Collins** (6-5, 317, Rookie)
With Levi Jones opting out of the voluntaries, the fourth-round pick from Kansas jumped into the pool head first. He's taken every snap at left tackle with the first group from day one and has impressed with his big-man athleticism and eagerness.
"He's a talented kid with a very good head on his shoulders," Alexander says. "I think if you have a guy that has talent and is receptive to coaching, you're going to get a good player and that's the track he's on."
But he's not on track for this year. Alexander wants to make him fluent at guard, and he won't do that until he's got tackle down pat.
**Kyle Cook** (6-,3 295, first season, 0 NFL Games)
Ever since he came here the first week of last regular season after the Vikings cut the rookie free agent out of Michigan State, Cook has impressed and Alexander says "he's had a tremendous spring" in his battle with Santucci for the backup center job.
"He's sharp and he's got the poise and leadership you're looking for at center. An interesting guy mature beyond his years," Alexander says. "That's going to be a very healthy training camp competition."
Cook played both guard and center in college and being a center should help with a guy like Alexander that insists on having three guys dressed on Gameday that can get the ball back to the quarterback. That stems from the 2005 win over Houston in which both centers got hurt within 10 minutes and left guard Eric Steinbach moved from left guard to play center for the first time in his life.
"You've got to have three centers somewhere," Alexander says. "On the roster, on the practice squad. Somewhere."
The emergency game snapper is right guard Bobbie Williams, but Alexander won't move him there full time because of one of the NFL line coaches' golden rules:
"Don't Move An Established Guy Out Of A Position He Plays Well."
**Eric Ghiaciuc** (6-4, 300, fourth season, 32 NFL Games)
Heading into his second full season as the starting center, Ghiaciuc, Alexander says, continues to get better and disputes a perception that he isn't physical enough for the Bengals to run the ball consistently.
"He's one of the bigger, stronger centers in the league. He does very well against the big noseguards in our division," he says. "He's quick and athletic and he's been getting better every year."
Alexander says it's a matter of development at a position with a lot of pressure because "you have the responsibility for how other guys play, too. You don't come out of the womb playing NFL center."
Plus, Ghiaciuc was nagged by a bunch of injuries last year in missing three of the first four games with thumb and neck injuries and the last one with a foot sprain. But Alexander says he had some problems cleaned up in the offseason and should be fit.
**Levi Jones** (6-5, 307, seventh season, 84 NFL Games)
After a preseason tiff with the coaches that turned into an offseason trade request and a nightmarish 17 minutes against Chiefs pass rusher Jared Allen, Jones recovered to play well enough to be a big part of the Bengals setting a franchise record for allowing the fewest sacks in a season during a year he was named a third team Pro Bowler.
Jones hasn't been at any of the voluntary workouts, but he's expected to be here for the mandatory in a good frame of mind and ready to recapture the health that allowed him to start 61 straight games from 2002 to 2005. At the end of the last training camp, Jones felt the knee injury that robbed him of much of the 2006 season had healed well enough for him to get more snaps and to start Opening Day.
But he didn't start until the fourth game.
"In my opinion, Levi had to get enough practice before I could see that he was ready," Alexander says. "He didn't play earlier in the year because to my eye he wasn't ready to play. Once he got over the first couple of games, he had a good run."
**Scott Kooistra** (6-6, 335, sixth season, 70 NFL Games)
One of the valued four-position backups. Tough enough that he replaced Anderson in the middle of the opener against Baltimore last year and helped keep Carson Palmer clean enough against the ravenous Ravens pass rush in engineering the victory. Smart enough that Alexander says he knows the offense as well as anybody on the line.
**Nate Livings** (6-5, 335, first season, 0 NFL Games)
One of the pleasant surprises of the spring, Livings is making a run at a roster spot after spending 15 of last year's games on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie out of LSU. Livings is a very powerful guy whose early development was hampered by injuries, but he's healthy now and making his presence felt with long arms and good anticipation. He's a guard, but the coaches also think he could be an emergency right tackle.
**Dan Santucci** (6-4, 304, second season, 2 NFL Games)
A tough Chicago guy who played guard at Notre Dame and has been impressive with a move to center that took place after the Bengals drafted him in the seventh round in 2007. They like his intangibles ("fiery" and "good temperament"), not to mention the initial quickness of a high school baseball and basketball player. His battle with Cook for backup center should get some good play at Georgetown.
**Dane Uperesa** (6-5, 315, First Season, 0 NFL Games)
The Bengals looked at him all last year on the practice squad after signing him out of Hawaii as an undrafted free agent and they love his measurables. Alexander says he's got NFL talent and is urging him "just to let it go," as he works at both guard and tackle.
**Andrew Whitworth** (6-7, 339, Third Season, 32 NFL Games)
Alexander calls his starting left guard "a rock," and why not? Whitworth opened the first three games last year at left tackle, moved to left guard for the final 13, and along with right guard Bobbie Williams has been a big-time mentor for Collins. And although Whitworth considers himself a left tackle, he isn't complaining that he's lined up at guard after the Bengals took Collins a year after they drafted him in the second round.
**Bobbie Williams** (6-4, 345, Ninth Season, 94 NFL Games)
Good run blocker, but not quick enough to protect the passer said the scouting report when he came over from the Eagles in 2004. But with Williams at right guard, the Bengals have set a franchise record for allowing the fewest sacks in a season two of the last three years.
"Bobbie is amazing because he keeps getting better and better," Alexander says. "Before he hurt his foot (in Game 13), he was having the best season of his career."