There were a few major storylines heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, one of the most divisive being what the Cincinnati Bengals should do with the fifth overall pick.
A year prior, they made Heisman-winning LSU quarterback Joe Burrow the face of the franchise with the first overall pick. However, Burrow was beaten and battered during his rookie season to the point where he was knocked out for the year in a Week 11 matchup against Washington. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor’s seat was also starting to get quite toasty after a 6-25-1 start to his head coaching career.
In short, nailing the selection at No. 5 overall was an absolute must.
Many felt it was obvious the Bengals needed to address their offensive line. The 2021 class featured two elite tackle prospects in Oregon’s Penei Sewell and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater. Since the end of the 2019 college season, Sewell had been considered a generational, can’t-miss, “whatever superlative you want to give” type of offensive tackle prospect, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Jake Long in 2008. As for Slater, his rise up draft boards leading up to draft day was so meteoric that some analysts even had him ranked ahead of Sewell.
So the seemingly Bengals had to take one of these guys at Pick No. 5, right? After all, the first three picks were almost guaranteed to be quarterbacks, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets needing one in the worst way and the San Francisco 49ers having given up a bounty of picks to take one. That left just the Atlanta Falcons ahead of the Bengals to potentially take an offensive tackle, but even they were already set at the position with Jake Matthews and 2019 first-rounder Kaleb McGary, all but guaranteeing the Bengals their pick of the litter.
There was just one complication.
This was also a particularly loaded wide receiver class, and the cream of the crop was Burrow’s former top target at LSU, Ja’Marr Chase. While the Bengals had a decent group of pass catchers, led by promising second-year player Tee Higgins and the reliable Tyler Boyd, they didn’t quite have that game-changer so many offenses coveted. Thus sprung the debate about whether the Bengals should shore up their offensive by drafting Sewell or Slater, or take the explosive Chase, with whom Burrow already had chemistry.
How did these picks pan out? Sewell has gotten off to a strong start to his career, posting pass-blocking grades of 69.4 as a rookie and 74.2 in 2022 while dominating in the run game. Slater dazzled as a rookie with an 80.3 pass-blocking grade, but his 2022 season was cut short in Week 3 due to injury.
Chase, on the other hand, lit the league on fire right out of the gate. He set the new standard for rookie receivers with 81 catches for a rookie-record 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns to accompany an 86.1 receiving grade. The Bengals got hot late in the year and rode that momentum to an AFC championship and a date with the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI.
However, despite the offense’s success throughout the season, the offensive line remained a major problem. Burrow was sacked a league-leading 51 times. On true pass sets (pass-blocking plays that exclude plays with fewer than four rushers, play actions, screens, short dropbacks and throws released in less than two seconds), the highest pass-blocking grade of any Bengals lineman was left tackle Jonah Williams’ 60.9.
Cincinnati's line as a whole earned a 53.1 pass-blocking grade, the fourth-worst mark in the NFL. Their failures in that department finally caught up to them in Super Bowl LVI, as the Rams racked up 26 pressures, including seven sacks on Burrow, en route to a 23-20 win.
Despite the success of the Chase pick, it was clear the Bengals had to upgrade their front five. They dedicated the 2022 offseason to doing just that, using free agency to add right guard Alex Cappa on a four-year, $35 million deal, center Ted Karras on a three-year $18 million deal and right tackle La’el Collins on a three-year, $21 million deal. In the 2022 NFL Draft, they used a fourth-round pick on North Dakota State’s Cordell Volson, who quickly took over as the team’s starting left guard. Only Williams retained his starting spot on the line from the year prior. One would expect so many additions, positive ones, would lead to massive improvement for the Bengals as a pass-blocking unit.
Well, that just hasn't been the case. Burrow was sacked 41 times in the regular season, the sixth most in the league. While Karras and Cappa were massive upgrades on true pass sets, earning grades of 72.5 and 69.2, respectively, Williams didn’t show much improvement with a 65.2 grade and surrendered a league-high nine sacks (13 if you count non-true pass sets). Volson endured the typical struggles you’d expect out of a rookie mid-rounder, finishing with a 56.5 grade, and Collins was a turnstile with a 40.6 grade. As a unit, the Bengals graded out to a 56.9 pass-blocking mark. Only the Tennessee Titans graded lower, but they were so ravaged by injuries that they had five linemen on injured reserve by the end of the season, including three starters.
In all, the Bengals spent $74 million in free agency to barely improve their offensive line. Yet, it hasn’t seemed to matter a whole lot, as the Bengals repeated as AFC North champions with a 12-4 record and, as of this writing, are preparing to square off with the Buffalo Bills in the AFC divisional round. So, how is it possible that the Bengals barely improved what was one of the worst offensive lines in the league but as a team are just as good as, if not better than, the team that nearly won the Super Bowl last year?
The answer to that may be a lot simpler than some think. It’s that Burrow thrives in the quick-passing game. In 2022, only Tom Brady got the ball out quicker on average than Burrow did, (2.31 seconds per throw vs. 2.50), and nobody was better on passes released in under 2.5 seconds, as Burrow’s passing grade of 89.7 and 18 big-time throws both led the league.
No, the Bengals didn’t really improve their offensive line this offseason, but with Burrow at quarterback, did they really need to?