The Bengals made what looks to be their first move of the 2020 offseason rather than their last move of the 2019 regular season Friday when head coach Zac Taylor announced that rookie left tackle Fred Johnson is making his first NFL start in Sunday's finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) at Paul Brown Stadium against Cleveland.
The massive Johnson, all 6-8 and 325 pounds, off a solid pro debut at left tackle last week in Miami when he rotated with veteran Cordy Glenn, is the Bengals' fourth different starting left tackle this season. That hasn't appeared to have happened in the 40 seasons that have passed since Hall-of-Famer Anthony Munoz started 16 games there as a rookie in 1980.
Johnson has practiced at both tackles since the Bengals claimed him off waivers from the Steelers on Oct. 14. With 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams slated to be the Opening Day left tackle, Johnson looks to be looming as at least a back-up third tackle that can swing behind both Williams and right tackle Bobby Hart. Or maybe even a bigger role than that as the Bengals look to upgrade an offensive line undergoing its eighth different starting combination on Sunday.
"He's an asset for us," said center Trey Hopkins. "He played well last week and he's athletic and he's a very smart, smart guy. He picks up schemes quickly."
The Johnson move shows a glimpse into an offseason that has begun in earnest even as the Bengals look to avoid their only one-win season in history and head coach Zac Taylor mum on potential changes involving staff and roster, although it's believed there won't be massive changes with his coaches.
They are thought to finalizing plans to coach one of the teams in the Jan. 25 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The last time the Bengals coached the game in 2011, they held the No. 4 pick and spent the week practicing against Texas Christian quarterback Andy Dalton. Eleven months later they were in the postseason after taking A.J. Green with the fourth pick and Dalton in the second round. Now they hold the No. 1 pick and would love to repeat history, of course, with all eyes are on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow after his play-off run and whether he accepts a Senior Bowl invite.
But all Taylor talked about Friday is what he looks for in a back-up quarterback. No, he didn't really know Burrow and the Tigers were taking on Oklahoma Saturday. And, by the way, he's not giving up anything there, either. He says he's been in quarterback rooms where rookies were backed up by veterans (Ryan Tannehill and Matt Moore in Miami), as well as all-youthful rooms, like last season with the Rams' Jared Goff and his inexperienced backups. Either way, he says.
But he'll tell you he believes Johnson has a shot at upgrading the line after he played 62 snaps in Miami that marked Johnson's first work at left tackle in a game since his senior year at Royal Palm Beach High School in West Palm Beach, Fla. According to profootballfocus.com, Johnson and Bobby Hart were the only Bengals linemen that didn't allow any pressures in the 38-35 overtime loss to the Dolphins and Taylor is looking for steady improvement.
"The schemes can evolve from week to week. The matchups are different as a pass protector," Taylor said. "Last week (Miami) played a lot of jam front, so his guy was dropping a lot, so he's coming back and helping on the three technique (defensive tackle). This week it may be different. You just get a chance to see a guy a battle every series."
It's an offensive line that can help wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon make a bit of history against Cleveland as they both vie for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Boyd needs 13 yards receiving and Mixon 25 rushing and according to Elias Sports Bureau the 2019 Bengals become the third team in history to win two or fewer games with a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher. The last team to do it was the 2-14 Bengals of 2002 when Corey Dillon rushed for 1,311 yards and Chad Johnson caught 1,166. In 1983, the 2-14 Houston Oilers featured Earl Campbell's 1,301 rushing yards and Tim Smith's 1,176.
"I've worked my butt off," Fred Johnson said after Friday's practice. "I like playing tackle. Right or left. I like playing guard. I like playing."
That's one of the reasons the Bengals had a good report on Johnson coming out of Florida last season and why they followed his pre-season tape when he signed an undrafted deal in Pittsburgh. He likes to play and he's got a bit of a mean streak. And he's got those long arms and basketballish feet the Bengals seek in a tackle.
"Traits. He's got them," Taylor said. "Let's put it this way, he's the only left tackle we've got we sent out on a route. He's got good hands."
Other than a couple of training camp scrums, Johnson played only guard for the Steelers. But when he arrived in Cincinnati he was told he was a tackle.
"He's got good range," Taylor said. "He's adequate enough (athletically). Let's put them out there, see how they process things as they happen and how they communicate. And win their one-on-one matchup."
With starting cornerback William Jackson III going on injured reserve Friday, two practice squad players got promoted to the roster and it remains to be seen if tight end Jordan Franks is active for his seventh NFL game and rookie wide receiver Trenton Irwin for his first.
Johnson, left guard Michael Jordan and middle linebacker Germaine Pratt make it three rookies getting starts on Sunday and wide receiver Damion Willis figures to play with Stanley Morgan (concussion) doubtful) as Taylor closes out the evaluation process.
"Just continue to rectify those mistakes they've made during the season," Taylor said. "I want to see guys continue to play fast and play with confidence and that comes with the more reps they take. 'OK, the game is slowing down. I've had this rep before. I've been fooled by this. I've done a great job on this. I've got to continue to do it.' That's really what you want to see from the young guys."
Johnson says he wants to improve his run-blocking and eliminate the false starts. He had two last week, when he says he was caught leaning in his stance. He could be matched up against a familiar face in Browns defensive end Bryan Cox, Jr., a college teammate he practiced against at Florida. Cox got signed off the street six weeks ago and has been playing a bunch with Myles Garrett suspended and Olivier Vernon hurt. But if Vernon plays Sunday as Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens intimated Friday, Johnson gets second-year player Chad Thomas and his four sacks. Cox, a third-year player, has half a sack.
"I just want to be consistent," Johnson said.
In those 40 seasons since the Munoz draft, there have been a few seasons they've started three left tackles. The first was the first season after Munoz retired when Kevin Sargent, Joe Walter and Tom Scott all got starts there after Sargent broke his arm in the first series of the 1993 season. Last year was also one of those years when it was Glenn, Clint Boling and Jake Fisher.