Going into the preseason many considered a veteran offensive line to be one of the strengths for the Cincinnati Bengals. That will be put to the test though after an injury to one of their starters.
On the third offensive play of a 17-6 win over the New York Jets, left guard Travelle Wharton was lost for the season when he injured his right knee. Wharton was the team's first signing of free agency during the recent offseason and was instantly plugged in at left guard.
For a team that is usually bit by the injury bug during the regular season, this is the first significant injury to a starter in three years. In 2009, tight end Reggie Kelly tore his Achilles four days into training camp.
Wharton was signed because his main strength was run blocking. The past two seasons the Bengals have been in the lower quarter of the league in average yards per carry. They also drafted Kevin Zeitler in the first round to take over at right guard and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to take the place of Cedric Benson.
The first option to replace Wharton will be second-year player Clint Boling, who took snaps at left guard in the Jets game after Wharton was injured. Boling has shown improvement during camp after struggling during his rookie season. When Bobbie Williams was suspended the first four games for a violation of the league's policy for performance enhancing substances, Boling started the first three games at right guard but struggled and was pulled. After Williams returned, Boling saw only one snap the rest of the season.
One reason for Boling's improvement during camp is that he has become better on his feet and is now more of a knee bender.
Another possibility is Otis Hudson, who is in his third year with the team but technically is a second-year player after being on the practice squad most of last year. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander thought Hudson was having a good training camp last year until he suffered a knee injury. It has also been a pattern of both the Bengals and Alexander's that their linemen who are picked in the later rounds don't develop until their third year.
Rookie free agent Trevor Robinson is also on the roster and has versatility at center. Another possibility is backup tackle Anthony Collins. Many thought that Collins would be moved to guard during the offseason because he is one of the better pass blockers on the team, but Alexander has repeatedly said Collins is better suited for tackle.
The last options would be to sign someone -- the top two current street free agents are Jake Scott and Montrae Holland -- or do like they did last year and wait until the final round of preseason cuts when they can claim someone on waivers. Mike McGlynn, who is now with the Colts, ended up starting four games last season after being released by the Eagles.
Wharton is in the first year of a three-year deal, but this is his second major knee injury. The other instance was in the 2006 regular-season opener with Carolina when he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee.
As for the other new starter at guard, Zeitler has struggled throughout training camp but did a better job against the Jets. One reason why Zeitler hasn't looked good in camp is that he is going up against All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins every day.
Said Zeitler in assessing the Jets game: "I don't have my football legs under me yet. Camp is one thing. I was just falling around too much. We had a drive that went pretty well. So everything was a good first experience, but a long ways to yet, and Atlanta will be a nice challenge."
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