- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the offseason here, we've been spending the last week taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.
2014 free agents: Mike Pollak
The good: Much like the Bengals' tackles, the centers and guards also had strong showings in 2013. When it came to pass protection, Pro Football Focus rated the Bengals as having the NFL's best offensive line during the regular season. Run blocking wasn't as good, but the Bengals still were able to move piles at times when they attacked the interior of the line of scrimmage. The deeper into the season, the better the line's interior was at providing enough push for running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. When left tackle Andrew Whitworth moved from left tackle to left guard, the Bengals' inside running game made certain strides, as well. Whitworth's versatility was a good thing for both the interior and exterior portions of the line. There were times late in the season when he played both tackle and guard in the same game.
The bad: Even though the Bengals were rated as having the best pass protection in the league, some of their occasional issues with respect to sacks and stunts and missed blitz pickups came from their guard positions. One of the more notable sacks of the season came on the final play of the Bengals' 22-20 overtime loss at Miami on Halloween. Right guard Kevin Zeitler wasn't prepared for Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake to stunt inside. When Wake did, he pushed easily past Zeitler and tackled quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone for a rare walk-off safety. While the sacks weren't a glaring issue for the centers and guards, injuries were. Zeitler missed multiple games in the second half of the season with a foot injury, and Pollak was unable to play the first half of the season because of a knee issue. Left guard Clint Boling went down for the year in the Week 13 win over the Chargers, forcing Whitworth to be moved to his spot the remainder of the season.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Cook ($3.3 million), Zeitler ($2.1 million), Boling ($765,362), Trevor Robinson ($572,000), Tanner Hawkinson ($540,606). Cook will be returning as the team's starting center in 2014, but Robinson's rather solid, meaningful snaps in place of the injured Cook during the regular-season finale make him a good enough backup. Robinson will be playing the final year of his contract this coming season and could be playing for a chance to remain with the team more long term. Cook turns 31 just before the start of the season. Robinson will be 24 in May. Pollak's strong play in relief of Zeitler, as well as his ability to play center and guard make him a real candidate for being re-signed this offseason. If Pollak remains with the team, the Bengals could have a real logjam at guard with Zeitler scheduled to return for his third season, and Boling due to come back from an ACL injury at some point next season. If Whitworth is in the mix at left guard -- which is a distinct possibility -- the Bengals could have some tough decisions to make regarding which interior linemen they want to keep going forward.
Draft priority: Moderate. Just like offensive tackles, a team can never have too many guards or centers. It's possible that at least one interior lineman gets drafted to keep the Bengals' depth strong, but that decision is partially dependent upon what the Bengals do about Whitworth and Pollak. Cincinnati has spent the last three drafts shoring up their offensive line. So far, it's paid off.