7-13-04, 3:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
**Bengals.com takes a look at each position as the first practice of training camp on July 31 closes in. Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson leads a field of 13 candidates on the offensive line. With no depth chart yet released, this is merely a thumbnail sketch setting the field. (Years of experience in parenthesis.)
Tentative starting lineup:** LT Levi Jones (3), LG Eric Steinbach (2), C Rich Braham (11), RG Bobbie Williams (5), RT Willie Anderson (9).
Veteran reserves: C Larry Moore (7), G-T Victor Leyva (4), T Alex Sulfsted (3), G-T Scott Kooistra (2), C-G Thatcher Szalay (2), T Pete Lougheed (1), C Mike Mabry (1). **
Rookie reserve:** RT Stacy Andrews.
Probable roster number: Nine or 10.
Its still a seasoned crew that came off the ball following the bye week to a tune of 146 yards rushing per in the last 11 games. They lost six seasons and 67 starts when right guard Mike Goff left for San Diego via free agency, but they hope the bulk and experience of Bobbie Williams (11 starts for the Eagles) and the promise and athleticism of second-year man Scott Kooistra and fourth-year man Victor Leyva fill the void.
The 6-4, 330-pound Williams is a formidable run blocker and his challenge is to show his feet are quick enough to protect rookie quarterback Carson Palmer. Last year, Williams helped the Eagles allow less than two sacks per game in the second half of the season and he's one of the nine players head coach Marvin Lewis has brought in who has played in a conference championship game.
You wouldn't want to call the 6-6, 320-pound Kooistra a poor man's Eric Steinbach, but the seventh-round draft pick in '03 is a guy who has impressed them with his agility, strength, and tough demeanor, and should make things interesting if he plays like they think he can. So can Leyva if he stays healthy and they give him some time.
Leyva, the fifth-rounder from the 2001 draft, has been hampered by pre-season injuries as a rookie (ankle) and last year (chest muscle). All 10 of his game appearances came in 2002, and he is working on a one-year contract. But he's also been in the system longer than Williams and Kooistra, and he began the spring camps as the starter.
Steinbach and fullback Jeremi Johnson were probably the club's co-Rookies of the Year last season and were big reasons why Rudi Johnson rolled up many of his 957 yards on pure power plays. Steinbach ought to be better this year because he'll be playing with two arms. He didn't have that luxury as an Iowa senior or as a NFL rookie because of a problem with elbow ligaments, but Tommy John surgery over the winter should let him bring the high heat at camp.
Steinbach's athleticism is going to be put to use as the first option behind Levi Jones at left tackle. Jones admitted in the spring camps that his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery is a "work in progress. There is a way to go," and his status is probably going to be monitored heavily at training camp so he doesn't overdo it.
Jones is a budding star with an eye on the Pro Bowl after an excellent season in which he won a tremendous amount of respect in the locker room for playing just six days after the knee scope. How good did the Bengals tackles play last season? Schematically, they didn't get much help, if any, on passing situations from tight ends or running backs, but they protected quarterback Jon Kitna well enough that he was the third best passer in the AFC on third down and the offense's third-down efficiency of 44.7 led the AFC.
Those numbers helped Anderson get to his first Pro Bowl after consecutive seasons as a first alternate, and now he'll try to be the first Bengals offensive lineman not named Anthony Munoz to go to back-to-back Pro Bowls since guard Max Montoya in 1988 and 1989.
Trivia question. The player who has been on the Bengals the longest? Braham, picked up on waivers from Arizona at the height of Blakemania on Nov. 18, 1994. In '03, he may have saved his best for what many thought was his last when he came off the bench in Week Two and rescued the Bengals from the experiment that put Goff at center. Braham's toughness and smarts stabilized the line and earned him a healthy raise at age 33 (figure he's at about $1 million now for this year), and you couldn't find anybody in Bengaldom that didn't think he earned every cent.
The Bengals went on the market and got an experienced, winning backup in Moore, 29, who has 72 career starts with Indianapolis and Washington, including 32 for the Indy team that went 23-9 in 1999 and 2000. Moore also gives them depth in the interior, because he has also started games at right guard.
One guy who is probably going to make it, but not see much light of '04 day is fourth-rounder Stacy Andrews, the 6-7, 346-pound specimen out of Mississippi that looked impressive enough at the spring camps for Anderson to call "a beast." Andrews, off a career as an elite Olympic-caliber thrower, certainly looked the part in May and June at right tackle as the Bengals' coaches watched a guy who has just seventysomething college snaps.
But because of that lack of experience, this is a project year. They love his feet and size, but they know that line play is based on reaction and recognition of stunts, blitzes and other various alignments, and that he simply needs the time to see those things.
Sulfsted, 26, is working on his fourth stint with the Bengals since 2001 (his third since July 28) and the Greater Cincinnati product is looking to get into his first game for his hometown team. His lack of practice squad eligibility hurts him, but his brains and ability to play left tackle (where he has one NFL start) help him.
Szalay is another guy who can play both guard and center, and he knows the system because he's been here since 2002. The 6-5 Lougheed, out of Purdue, hasn't played since getting cut as a free agent from his rookie camp in Chicago last year, but has the size you seek at tackle. Mabry, a seventh-round pick by Baltimore in 2003, didn't make it out of training camp but got picked up by the Bengals' practice squad for the final three weeks of the season and is coming off a NFL Europe stint.