Since 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals have started 18 different players at offensive guard. Six of them were drafted by the franchise. Three of them were signed in free agency to be starters.
The other nine were players who made near the league minimum oror were undrafted free agents.
Over the last 15 years, the Bengals have let guards like Kevin Zeitler and Eric Steinbach walk in free agency and replaced them with inexperienced options and internal candidates. As a result, Cincinnati has gained a reputation as a franchise that didn’t invest in offensive guards.
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Here’s a look at how much the Bengals have actually invested in that position and how it compares with other teams in the NFL.
Fact: The Bengals have typically paid guards below market in free agency
In 2020, the average starting NFL guard made $5.85 million. The Bengals had five offensive guards on their roster in 2020. Combined, those five players made $5.55 million, according to Spotrac.
With Cincinnati paying five guards less than what the average starting offensive guard made in 2020, the Bengals allowed 48 sacks and rushed for just 4.1 yards per carry.
The same thing happened in 2019 – the average NFL starting guard made $4.93 million, the Bengals only had one guard making more than $1 million and the offensive line struggled.
Of all the offensive guards the Bengals have acquired in the draft or in free agency since 2005, the average salary for that player is $1 million, which is well below league average.
Over the last 15 years, Cincinnati has signed three starting guards in free agency. In 2004, the Bengals signed Bobbie Williams, who had started 11 games for the Philadelphia Eagles the previous season. Williams solidified the Bengals right guard position for eight seasons, making around an average salary for his position and establishing himself as one of the better guards in the NFL.
After Williams, the Bengals didn’t sign a starting offensive guard until 2019. In one of the first moves of head coach Zac Taylor’s Bengals tenure, Cincinnati signed guard John Miller to a reported three-year, $16.5 million contract, which was just above league average for a starting guard. In 2019, Miller started all 13 games he was healthy for, but the Bengals cut him after the season.
In 2020, the Bengals used some of their $4 million in savings from cutting Miller and signed Xavier Su’a-Filo to a three year, $9 million contract. Su’a-Filo is currently the 41st highest paid guard in the NFL, and last season he made more than the rest of the guards on the Bengals roster combined.
Fiction: The Bengals don’t retain their guards in free agency
More often than not, the Bengals sign their own starting guards on an expiring contract to a new deal.
The notable exceptions came in 2006 and 2016 when Cincinnati let Steinbach and Zeitler walk in free agency and replaced them with a young Andrew Whitworth and Trey Hopkins, respectively.
But over the last 15 years, the Bengals have re-signed a starting guard six different times. The biggest investment came in 2015, when the Bengals signed Clint Boling to the biggest contract a guard has signed in recent history, a five year, $26 million contract.
The list of re-signed guards also includes two deals to Williams that gave him an annual salary of $2.8 million. Cincinnati has also re-upped with spot starters Evan Mathis, Mike Pollak and Alex Redmond.
Fiction: The Bengals don’t invest in guards in the draft.
While the Bengals have only drafted four offensive guards since 2005, that’s just a hair below the league average of 4.75.
In the last 15 years, Cincinnati has selected four offensive guards – Dan Santucci (2007 7th Round), Boling (2011 4th Round), Zeitler (2012 1st Round) and Michael Jordan (2019 4th Round).
Santucci never started a game for the Bengals, but Boling and Zeitler anchored Cincinnati’s offensive line for 12 combined seasons.
The success that duo had with the Bengals explains why Cincinnati has given Jordan so many opportunities. Jordan is one of the 10 most highly-paid guards the Bengals have had in the last 15 years, and Cincinnati moved up in the 2019 NFL Draft to select him.
The average NFL team has selected 3.5 offensive guards in the first five rounds of the NFL Draft over the last 15 years. A fourth round pick at guard is a major investment for any NFL team, the kind of investment that only happens once every four years on average.
Since the Bengals got so much production from the other two guards they drafted highly, Boling and Zeitler, it’s understandable why Jordan has been such a priority over the last two seasons as a former fourth round pick.
Fact: The Bengals have leaned on undrafted free agents at an unusual rate
Alex Redmond. Fred Johnson. Trey Hopkins. Scott Brumfield. Ken Moyer. The list goes on.
Over the last 30 years, there have been 4,346 games where a team started an undrafted free agent at offensive guard, according to Football Reference. So during that time span, each NFL team on average has started an undrafted offensive guard in 135 total games.
The Bengals have started an undrafted free agent at offensive guard in 267 games over the last 30 years. As a result, the Bengals have started an undrafted offensive guard nearly 50 percent more often than the average NFL team.
What does this mean for the 2021 offseason?
Since 2005, the Bengals have spent $23 million on external free agents who play offensive guard. For Cincinnati to be a player for the top available offensive guards in 2020, the Bengals will have to spend much more than that.
The top two free agent guards, Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney, were the two highest-paid guards in the NFL last season and were on contracts that paid them close to $15 million per year. Over a multi-year deal, Scherff and Thuney are expected to command at least $50 million.
The next tier of free agent guards includes the Arizona Cardinals’ J.R. Sweezy, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Matt Feiler, the Buffalo Bills’ Jon Feliciano and the Bengals’ Quinton Spain.
In the 2021 NFL Draft, it would be a departure from the norm if the Bengals drafted a guard in the first two rounds. Over the last 15 years, only 31 guards have been selected with one of the first 64 picks.
Northwestern University’s Rashawn Slater could be an interesting first round draft pick because of his ability to play any position on the offensive line, including guard and tackle. In the second round, Cincinnati’s options could include Alabama’s Landon Dickerson and Alex Leatherwood, or Ohio State University’s Wyatt Davis.
The 2021 NFL Draft has a deep class of offensive linemen, and Cincinnati could also use a mid-round pick to bolster the interior offensive line for the second time in the last three seasons.
Since Su’a-Filo, Jordan and undrafted free agent Keaton Sutherland are the only Bengals guards under contract for the 2021 season, Cincinnati will certainly address the position over the next six months.