CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line knows what is at stake if there isn’t better protection for Joe Burrow this season, but who will be filling those spots in the middle of the trenches remains unknown. It is very much an open competition.
While veterans Quinton Spain and Xavier Su’a-Filo opened camp as the first-team guards, rookie Jackson Carman and third-year player Michael Jordan also have been getting opportunities to show what they can do, and even rookie tackle D’Ante Smith has been in the mix at guard.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Sunday he will know a lot more after the first preseason game, which takes place Saturday at Tampa Bay, but he doesn’t have a timeline for when the staff would like the starting offensive line to be settled.
“These games are going to show us a lot because we’re not on the field coaching them,” Taylor said in a press conference Sunday before practice. “They’ve got to get through the whole game. They’ve got to be able to make the adjustments. … (These games) will give us more information and then we can make better decisions going forward. Like anything, sooner rather than later obviously, but we’re not going to put any timeline on any of that stuff with the starters.”
Spain has been out for the last few days with what offensive coordinator Brian Callahan described as a minor injury, but could be back as soon as Tuesday, Taylor said. The team is off Monday, and Sunday was a lighter day for a lot of veterans because of an emphasis on special teams.
In Spain’s absence, Smith – a fourth-round pick out of East Carolina -- got some reps at guard, including with the first team offense, and could be climbing the depth chart for more opportunities because of his versatility and eagerness to learn.
Taylor said he has been impressed with Smith’s progress, especially in making corrections from one day to the next, and he earned his chance with the first-team unit.
“D’Ante Smith is a guy we obviously liked, that’s why we drafted him in the fourth round,” Taylor said. “He is physical. He’s got the right intangibles. He’s a smart football player. And he takes the coaching and makes himself better. So, he takes the coaching from a week ago, he takes the coaching from a day ago, and he uses that to become a better player each day, and you reward that. And so he ran in there with the ones and did a great job. There’s a couple things he had not done before until yesterday’s move-the-ball period, and he did them and he did them well. Not to say it was perfect, but I can guarantee you one thing about D’Ante is he’ll take the mistakes Frank gives him and he’ll correct them today, and he’ll be much better today. So, really excited about the progress he’s making and just his overall approach has been great to see.”
Smith had been thrown into the fire on the first day in pads last week when he stepped in at right tackle against veteran defensive end Sam Hubbard, while Riley Reiff was out with a minor injury. Reiff resumed practice Saturday, but Smith used a bad day against Hubbard as a springboard to show his ability to bounce back and fix mistakes.
Taylor wanted to see if he could do the same at guard, where the Bengals haven’t had a lockdown performance.
“You just want to find the best five guys you can put out there and play them, and if D’Ante proves to be one of those guys, let’s get him on the field and make it work,” Taylor said.
Smith also came in with a solid understanding of what it means to be a pro. During his interview with Taylor during the Senior Bowl, he revealed a plan for where he wanted to be with his weight at five different check-in points between the end of his senior season up until training camp. Taylor said he hit all five goals, which proved he knew how to execute a plan.
That’s something Taylor wants to see out of all the rookies but notably had emphasized that with Carman, a Fairfield High School graduate who was selected in the second round. Carman seems to have taken that challenge to heart, and Reiff said he has the tools “to be a dominant player for a long time,” but Smith’s opportunities indicate no one has nailed down a job. Taylor also noted some good things about Jordan but said he needs to show more consistency.
The Bengals had to address false starts and other corrections with the offensive line Friday night after an especially rough day for the offense, and Taylor said the offense responded well to adjustments Saturday.
“The chemistry is almost the most important thing with those five guys that are going to be playing next to each other, and that has been stressed every single day of camp,” Taylor said. “We lift together, we workout together, we eat together, everything should be done together on and off the field. Because then it’s going to matter when we’re on the field, and so you’re seeing that in doses. We’re not fully where we need to be yet. But ... I’m excited about the direction that whole room is going.”
NOTES: Taylor said Joe Burrow will not play Saturday’s preseason game but the team has not ruled out the possibility for him to get snaps in one of the other two games. … Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi has been out with a hamstring issue but is progressing according to Taylor, and could be back to work Tuesday. Eli Apple and Ricardo Allen also have minor injuries but should be returning quickly, and Trae Waynes (hamstring) was doing individual work Saturday and progressing toward team work soon, Taylor said. Fred Johnson (quad) is likely at least a week away from being ready to go again.