- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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Three months ago, I would have found it troubling that just three days into free agency the Bengals wouldn't be able to re-sign either Michael Johnson, one of their best defensive linemen, or Collins, their third-best offensive tackle who actually had the talent to start. I would have been particularly bugged that Collins wouldn't be brought back because he was the cheaper of the two and earned the right to keep contributing to the Bengals' offense.
But my, oh my. How enlightened one can become in a matter of three months. I can now confidently say that his departure from Cincinnati ought to be viewed as a good thing. With him out of the picture, stability will come to the Bengals' offensive line.
It's strange to make that admission, especially when you consider how valuable Collins was for the Bengals off the bench during the final quarter of the 2013 season, and when you read he hasn't allowed a sack since 2009, according to Pro Football Focus. Remember, just last year alone he kept the likes of Julius Peppers, Elvis Dumervil and Robert Mathis off quarterback Andy Dalton.
After Andre Smith restructured his contract last offseason, the Bengals were forced into this awkward dance when it came to playing -- and eventually paying -- Collins. With Smith as their starter at right tackle and Pro Bowl standout Andrew Whitworth as their starting left tackle, the Bengals simply didn't have the room to give Collins his share of snaps. He entered 2013 relegated to the same bench role he had since he was drafted in 2008.
But unlike the rookie version of himself, Collins had matured. He was with former Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson the day in Sept. 2011 when more than six pounds of marijuana was seized from Simpson's home. It was the only run-in Collins was associated with during his career in Cincinnati, and one he repeatedly said he learned from.
His on-field development began blossoming as well as he steadily improved his blocking techniques. When he filled in for Whitworth during the season opener and maintained a sturdy left edge against Peppers and the Bears, it became clear that the Bengals were going to have a real issue on their hands this offseason. Collins had the talent to be in the starting lineup, but he just couldn't fit.
Cincinnati's goal during this free agency period was to figure out ways to get him more playing time and to justify paying him like the starter other teams thought he was. After signing Johnson on Tuesday to a deal that will give him an average $8.75 million per year, Tampa Bay signed Collins to one that will pay him $6 million per year.
With Smith and Whitworth still committed to the franchise for at least another two years, the Bengals couldn't justify paying him a salary comparable to their other tackles. Unless they were going to move Whitworth to left guard and bump Clint Boling out of the starting lineup, that is.
Such a proposal was on the table after the way the Bengals' offense performed the last five games of the regular season. Due to Boling's season-ending ACL tear that came early in Cincinnati's Week 13 win at San Diego, Whitworth was forced to move to left guard, bringing Collins in to take his place at left tackle. In the five-game stretch that followed, the Bengals scored 40 or more points twice, and posted their second-highest rushing total of the season in 17-10 win over the Chargers.
With new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push this offseason about wanting to be even more physical, it made sense that Cincinnati would want to keep doing some of what made its rushing game and overall offense so successful.
Whitworth has contended since January that he considers himself a left tackle and wasn't moving to guard unless coaches felt that was the right course of action. It seems clear that Whitworth will now remain at the position that got him named to the Pro Bowl in 2012. Versatile tackles and guards still could be drafted in May to add depth, but for now the Bengals' offensive line plans are clearer.
Collins' loss is not one the Bengals will take lightly, but it is one that should be welcomed. Instead of spending the rest of the offseason answering questions about where Whitworth will play, or how Collins might fit into their scheme, or how they can justify paying Collins a salary comparable to Smith and Whitworth, team officials can focus on one thing: stability.