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O-line runs deep


Tanner Hawkinson

The defense always looks good in shorts, especially a back-to-back-top-seven defense, and such was the case again in Wednesday's second workout of Bengals minicamp when Mike Zimmer's men batted down more leather than Armani.

Quarterback Andy Dalton interspersed some nice deep floaters to wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, and rookie Giovani Bernard kept the running game shaking and baking to places it hasn't been in years in Paul Brown Stadium's 90-degree sauna.

But there seems to be only one definitive answer in the offensive scheme of things as the Bengals prepare to lock up for the summer after Thursday morning's practice.

The answers for such critical matters as Dalton, the long ball, the consistency of the receivers, Tyler Eifert's period of adjustment, can't begin to be formulated until late August.

But when the Bengals return for training camp July 25, they'll do it with the deepest offensive line in head coach Marvin Lewis's 11 seasons.

"As a group, probably," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who should know as the line dean heading into his eighth season.

It's a major reason why the Andre Smith Saga hasn't turned into a breathless June soap opera a la Corey Dillon and Chad Johnson with Smith the only no-show getting fined.

The coaches look at the combined 110 NFL games of backup tackles Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland, the encouraging spring work of rookie tackles Tanner Hawkinson and Reid Fragel, and the presence of two playoff centers in Kyle Cook and Trevor Robinson, and there has surfaced a next-man-up-mentality that began to bubble up early last season after the Bengals lost left guard Travelle Wharton for the season and Cook for most of it.

"We've shown that injuries happen," Cook said. "Look at what happened last year and we still won games. It makes sense. The more experience, the more depth, the better."

Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played 10 years on the Cincinnati offensive line, agrees it is Lewis's deepest line because "they've got a little bit of everything. Some experienced backups, there are young guys starting to blossom and guys that have played multiple positions."

Lapham has been impressed by the three draft picks, which is what makes this training camp competition up front more heated and tighter than any in the past decade and beyond. He says Hawkinson, the fifth-rounder from Kansas, is showing he can play left tackle as well as all four other spots, and Fragel, a seventh-rounder from Ohio State, is showing he's strong enough to play right tackle.

And another reason this line looks so much different than years past is it is working against arguably the NFL's best defensive line.

"It's a great experience for the young guys because they're playing every day against guys that have played a lot of football," Cook said. "The Michael Johnsons, the Geno Atkinses, the (Carlos) Dunlaps."

Lapham played so long ago (1974-83) that being called "The Tool" was a compliment. Tagged by one of the Bengals coaches, it reflected their faith in his ability to play everywhere on the line and he did it all in one game a few times. The Bengals believe Hawkinson can be that guy now, although offensive line coach Paul Alexander has been able to work him only at left tackle and guard and some minimal time at right guard.

"I think he can do it eventually," Alexander said. "He's got good feet and he's smart. A lot like (Eric) Steinbach and he could have played all five but we never needed him on the right side."

It will be recalled that Steinbach, a left guard drafted in the second round of 2003, pinch-hit at left tackle a few times and in one memorable win in 2005 against Houston got called on to play center for the first time in his life.

"All he'd ever done is snap a couple of times before games, but he was fine and able to get us through when we had no one else," Alexander said. "I said, 'No shotgun snaps,' and he said, 'Why?' and I said, 'Have you ever done one?' and he asked me, 'How hard can it be?' "

"Hawkinson has shown good enough feet to play left tackle," Lapham said. "I think he can play them all. You won't know until you get in pads if he'll be overpowered, but he's got really good feet and I think he can give you good snaps in a lot of places."

Fragel, a converted tight end, has caught Lapham's eye at right tackle, and so has the other seventh-rounder, South Carolina center T.J. Johnson, a guy that Lapham thinks plays with some country strength, enough aggression to have "some stuff in his neck," and is his pick to be involved in the first training camp scuffle.

"I think he's at least a practice squad guy," Lapham said. "They put their bat on the ball with a lot of these guys.

"A lot of times when a tight end moves to tackle, he doesn't have the upper body strength. But (Fragel) has got strong hands and when he goes in there, he jams people. He's physical. He's not like a wisp. When he jams them with his hands, he shocks them a little bit. He punches them."

But as deep as the O-line is in potential, it has backups in Collins and Roland that have already been here when Smith wasn't and won. In 2009 when a holdout and broken foot derailed the start of Smith's career, the pair rotated at right tackle for a division champion. The Bengals record when Collins starts is 11-7.

"All I know is when A.C. has played we've been able to win a lot of games," Whitworth said. "He's always ready to play."

Collins, a fourth-round pick out of Kansas in 2008, says he doesn't get frustrated. When Smith gets here, there are up to $18 million reasons why he's going to play.

"My mother instilled in me that you don't get mad about not having something you never had," Collins said. "You have to prepare in every practice like you're the starter. You have to practice those habits, so when the game comes it's second nature."

With Roland and starting left guard Clint Boling now back from some health issues, the Bengals lined up Wednesday with Collins at left tackle and Roland at right tackle. Whitworth, who'll be ready next month after rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee, isn't concerned about the full line being out there now.

"Timing is not important for us because the offensive line is more about fits," Whitworth said. "It takes pads. Truly this time of year for us is all mental. It's more of knowing your assignment and moving your feet again. It won't be a big adjustment."

But going back to last year when Wharton was lost for the year on the preseason's third snap and the Bengals had three starting centers, adjustments have been a way of life for this offensive line.

"What I've heard is he's staying in shape, that he's doing really well," Cook said of Smith. "He's matured over the years. He'll hold himself accountable to us, himself, the coaches. I think he'll be fine. A lot of other guys are getting a chance to play. The game goes on."

Now the Bengals have to figure out with which four backup linemen.

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