Heading into 2012 there is perhaps no unit within the Cincinnati Bengals with more to prove than the offensive line.
Back on January 7th the Bengals O-line was outmatched and outclassed by a top Houston Texans defense, in a sobering sack-heavy display that served to expose their mediocrity.
Andre Smith enters the 2012 season with the very real possibility that he will be looking for a new team at its conclusion.
2009's sixth overall pick is in a contract year and needs to put together another solid effort if he wants to get a new contract that looks anything like the $6 million, two-year option he is missing out on in Cincy.
The Bengals have all of the leverage right now with capable Anthony Collins signed up to a new deal behind Smith, through 2013.
Smith started in 14 games in 2011 and proved to be a solid pass-protector for the Bengals. It's also worth noting that he played alongside Mike McGlynn towards the end of the year, who was responsible for a large portion of lapses on the right side.
Smith needs to improve in his run-blocking, and with a renewed emphasis on the run via BenJarvus Green-Ellis, he will get that opportunity in 2012.
The O-line has both figuratively and literally experienced a changing of the guard with the addition of Kevin Zeitler and Travelle Wharton replacing Bobbie Williams and Nate Livings, respectively.
Zeitler's presence will be integral going forward, as Clint Boling and the disastrous Mike McGlynn did little to inspire confidence last year. Zeitler is used to a run-heavy Wisconsin offense, but could struggle in pass-protection early.
His and Andre Smith's strengths and weaknesses both somewhat balance each other out, and could make for an effective partnership.
Kyle Cook remains unchallenged at starting center, and while being a veteran in the lineup it would raise eyebrows to call him anything more than fairly average.
He needs a solid year if he wants to remain unchallenged. Center may not be a position of need right now, but as those positions become fewer, it certainly becomes worthy of an upgrade.
Andrew Whitworth is frequently referred to as being one of the best and most underrated tackles in the NFL. He is undoubtedly the leader of the Bengals O-line and is a defining presence in the locker room.
However, 2011 was a bad year for Whit, who did little to justify the praise he was receiving post-lockout.
While was the team's best pass-protector, giving up only three sacks on the season, three quarterback hits and 16 pressures, Whitworth was really disappointing in the run-blocking, which diminished praise significantly.
Continuity will be the key for the offensive line in 2012.
With so much change and injury in previous years, the Bengals line has made do rather than thrived. If new additions Travelle Wharton and Kevin Zeitler can contribute early, and Andre Smith continues to mature, the Bengals O-line could start to develop into a solid and enduring unit.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!