Orlando Brown Jr. is the Bengals' answer, but his arrival creates ...
The contract agreement with Orlando Brown Jr. on Wednesday delivered the answers to a lot of questions, such as, “What are the Bengals doing?” and “What are they waiting for?” And the time-honored one that’s been dripping with angst and running on a loop for three years: “What are they going to do to protect Joe Burrow?”
After losing safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell, tight end Hayden Hurst and running back Samaje Perine in the first three days of free agency and not adding a single outside piece, the Bengals worked late into Wednesday night to secure a deal for the best offensive lineman and No. 4 free agent overall in this year’s class, giving Brown $64.1 million over four years. That falls just shy of Geno Atkins’ four-year, $65.3 million extension as the largest non-quarterback contract in franchise history.
The $31 million signing bonus the Bengals are giving the 6-foot-8, 360-pound four-time Pro Bowler is the most in NFL history for a tackle, who soon could be protecting the highest-paid quarterback in the league.
But while the swing-for-the-fences move answers the biggest question about how serious the Bengals are when it comes to protecting Burrow and maximizing the fleeting opportunity of having a franchise quarterback and elite weapons all playing under affordable cap numbers, it creates a new subset of questions.
Let’s run through some of the biggest ones.Where will Brown play?
The answer might seem obvious given that teams rarely invest that much money in a player and then ask him to switch positions, but Brown began his career as a right tackle. He only switched to the left side when Ravens All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley suffered a season-ending knee injury two days after signing a five-year, $98.8 million extension. And a lot of people believe it’s his best and most natural position. None of those people work inside the walls of Paycor Stadium.
News of Brown’s deal with the Bengals wasn’t five minutes old when the 26-year-old tackle told the NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo how thankful he was to have the opportunity to carry on his father’s legacy as a left tackle.
Just spoke to new #Bengals LT Orlando Brown Jr.: "I'm super thankful for the opportunity to carry on my father's legacy and be a left tackle. It was important to be able to play that position and play for a winning team and a winning quarterback. Who Dey!"
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 16, 2023
Then, Thursday morning, offensive line coach Frank Pollack made it clear that his vision aligns with Brown’s while appearing on Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham’s “In the Trenches” podcast.
“He’s gonna be our left tackle,” Pollack said. “He’s a unique guy. He’s played both sides and been to the Pro Bowl. That’s impressive. But we brought him here to be our left tackle.”
Brown’s desire to play left tackle, the position his father played for nine seasons with the Ravens and Browns, is what led to his departure from Baltimore. After replacing Stanley at left tackle and going to the Pro Bowl, Brown wanted to stay on that side, but the Ravens had nearly $100 million invested in Stanley, so they traded Brown to the Chiefs before the 2021 season.
Two more Pro Bowls followed, making Brown the only tackle in the league who has been voted to each of the past four. And the Bengals are hoping he can double that run during the four-year deal they are giving him to anchor the left side of a line that includes two other Super Bowl champions in center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa; a left guard in Cordell Volson, who started every game as a rookie; and an opening at right tackle with no shortage of options.
Orlando Brown Jr. takes Bengals' protection of Joe Burrow to the next level
It’s not as though pursuing Brown was some grand plan and the Bengals were playing coy at the NFL Scouting Combine when talking about how free agency was going to look a lot different this year. Pollack said the deal for Brown just kind of came together over the past few days. But every time Jonah Williams’ name came up in Indianapolis, the responses fell well short of anything you would consider an endorsement. There was lots of hemming and hawing, ifs and buts.
Pollack confirmed the plan is to move Williams to the right side. The 2019 first-round NFL Draft pick will make $12.6 million this year, all of which is guaranteed as part of the fifth-year option the Bengals picked up at the end of 2021. Williams dislocated both kneecaps last year and had surgery last month to repair the most recent one, which occurred in the wild-card victory against the Ravens.
Last month at the combine, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan downplayed the possibility of Williams moving to right tackle.
“It’d be tough. He’s spent his whole career, really, especially as a pro, as a left tackle,” Callahan said. “Moving him would probably be pretty difficult. It’s probably not something that he would be necessarily excited about, either. I’m sure as a team-first guy, he would do it if that’s what was best for us. But that’s a hard switch to make for a guy that’s played a lot of snaps at left tackle over the course of his career and very minimal at right. He did some at Alabama, but as far as a pro, that’s a pretty difficult switch.”
Those comments, along with Thursday’s signing of Cody Ford — a 2019 second-round pick who played tackle opposite Brown at Oklahoma — make you wonder if the Bengals will consider trading Williams. It doesn’t feel imminent, not with Williams and right tackle La’el Collins coming off surgery. But teams always are looking for offensive linemen, and if the Bengals get into training camp and Williams isn’t a clear-cut No. 1 option, Collins is ahead of schedule and another team has a tackle go down with an injury, the Bengals could clear $12.6 million off this year’s cap and get either a player at another position of need or a draft pick.
If the Bengals can turn Billy Price into B.J. Hill, imagine what they can get for a first-round left tackle with 42 regular-season and five postseason starts.
Throw Jackson Carman, D’Ante Smith, Hakeem Adeniji and Isaiah Prince into the mix and you have an incredibly crowded competition at right tackle. That’s not to say they’re all lining up as equals to start training camp, but the Bengals have invested a lot of time into developing that young core, and Carman’s performance in the divisional playoff win at Buffalo is proof that first impressions can and do change.Is a tackle still in play at No. 28 in the draft?
Absolutely. Whatever the upcoming season holds for Williams, those conversations in Indy suggest he is not in the Bengals’ long-term plans. And Collins might not be in the long- or short-term plans, either. Adding Brown narrows the pool of candidates at 28, where the Bengals no longer have to toy with the idea of drafting a left tackle and having him play on the right side for a year before moving back to left in 2024.
They can instead home in on someone who has played right tackle in college and keep him at his natural position and see how he compares with Williams in camp. Tennessee’s Darnell Wright and Ohio State’s Dawand Jones played right tackle last season, and if the Bengals want to keep the Oklahoma train rolling, Anton Harrison is a left tackle who might be better suited to playing on the right side in the NFL.
(Top photo: Scott Winters / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)