The Bengals have gone into training camp with a battle at left guard between Jackson Carman and Cordell Volson. After only two weeks of preseason action, this battle should be over: Volson needs to be the starter.
After a season that saw Joe Burrow get sacked seventy times between the regular season and playoffs, the Bengals knew going into this past offseason that they needed to completely reshape the offensive line. Gone were past starters in Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins, and Riley Reiff, and in came Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins to take those veterans’ places. Jonah Williams’ spot as the franchise’s left tackle was secure after a strong season in 2021, and after only a week of free agency, it looked as though Cincinnati had completely fixed their biggest weakness from the previous season. That is, except for one spot that was still a major question mark: the left guard position.
The spot that had previously been occupied by Quinton Spain was likely going to see a competition between second-year tackle-turned-guard Jackson Carman, who struggled as a rookie but showed occasional flashes, and a rookie draft pick that many assumed would come in the early rounds. Fast forward to the fourth round of the draft, and the Bengals had still yet to attack the line position, having gone defense-defense-defense in the first three rounds.
That wait ended when Cincinnati selected North Dakota State product Cordell Volson with the 136th pick, a pick that admittedly drew some head scratches from the fanbase. While there was no doubt that guard was a need, Volson had had a terrible combine which left many wondering if he would be able to play at the next level. These concerns were somewhat alleviated by the physicality that could make him one of Pollack’s “glass eaters” and his strong PFF grades from the past three seasons, but players with his measurables had not gone on to be strong professionals.
After one game of preseason action, those concerns were out the window, and after two games, they’re way behind in the rearview mirror. Volson has looked very strong in his preseason action to this point, and with Carman’s struggles, it’s fair to assume that Volson has come in, shocked the world, and stolen the left guard spot on the defending AFC Champions. While there is still one week of preseason action to go, and he has yet to play a meaningful snap in an NFL game, I believe that I’ve seen enough; Cordell Volson absolutely should be the Bengals’ left guard in 2022.
Carman’s Struggles Against Arizona Opened The Door
Jackson Carman had his moments as a rookie in 2021, but it’s worth noting that most of his best games that PFF evaluated came in reserve duty against teams like the Lions, Steelers, and Broncos. While he graded as an above-average run blocker on the season, his pass blocking grade at his new position was abysmal, logging an extremely weak 45.9 grade across his entire season. Those struggles continued in the first preseason game against the Cardinals, a game that Carman walked into as the favorite to take the left guard position. Not only did he receive a putrid 19.3 grade as a pass blocker, but one of his errors actually led to backup quarterback Brandon Allen being forced out of the game due to an apparent concussion.
Carman needed to come into this past offseason with a new drive to secure a starting spot, and needless to say, it has not worked out that way. The former second-round pick has had to navigate substantial allegations from his past that arose over the past few months while being entrenched in this battle, but that is no excuse for his poor performance against the Cardinals. On top of that, he contracted COVID-19 and was forced to miss the team’s second preseason game in New York, leaving the door open for Volson to come in and steal the spot many assumed would be Carman’s to lose. And while Volson’s first NFL “start” was certainly not perfect, we saw flashes of a player that can absolutely be a starter for Cincinnati in 2022, something we never really saw from Carman.
Volson Likely Secured the Spot Against the Giants
Volson didn’t play a ton against the Cardinals in Week 1, only logging 41 second-half snaps, but he certainly made the most of the opportunity he was given. Not only did he immediately look better both in the pass and run game than Carman did, he also graded better in both areas as well with a very strong 67.9 pass-blocking grade and a great 73.6 run-blocking grade. This was a very strong debut for the rookie, and with Carman missing a week of practice due to COVID, he had the chance to play every snap against the Giants, and he took advantage of his opportunity.
While Volson did have a few notable hiccups, including a missed slide protection at the end of the first half and one instance where he ran into his own teammate, he looked like a stabilizing force on an offensive line that is desperately in need of that. His pass-blocking grades took a major hit, plummeting down to 26.5, but he also made several fantastic plays in this area that should be taken into account. Volson has made a habit in the preseason of losing on initial moves but quickly making up with excellent recovery speed to prevent an overall loss on the play. Having a player that can win a rep even after getting caught off guard initially could be a big boost for an offensive line that lost a lot of reps extremely early in plays and did not give Burrow a chance, especially in their playoff games against Tennessee and Los Angeles.
Volson continued to be a standout in the run game, routinely getting to the second level and making plays on linebackers while driving his initial man into the ground. We can see this in particular on the Bengals’ last touchdown of the game by Jacques Patrick, where Volson drives his man three yards down the field and creates a massive hole for Patrick to run through.
Nothing like starting your Monday with a hot cup of Cordell Volson (LG). pic.twitter.com/Ff9fcXvJtG — Andrew Russell (@Andrew_Russell7) August 22, 2022
Volson also showed energy when he was out there, even well into the fourth quarter, that the past few years of Bengals’ offensive linemen have not really shown. Unfortunately, one play, which I don’t have a clip for, stood out in particular to me: it was a screen pass to the right side, and Volson ended up being the lead blocker for the back as he was coming out of the backfield. I repeat, the left guard was the lead blocker on a screen pass going to the right side. Volson came flying out into open space and was immediately able to seal off his man, and if the right side of the offensive line had done their jobs on the play, it very well could have turned into a big gainer.
Volson is also starting to turn heads in the locker room, which can not be understated for a rookie entering the league and trying to gain a footing. While coaches like Zac Taylor and Frank Pollock will have to layer questions about his performance through coach speak, it’s notable when veterans like Brandon Allen and La’el Collins have both sung the rookie’s praises over the past several days. Having the coaches behind you is one thing, but when your experienced teammates come to bat for you in the heat of a position battle, that starts to get the locker room’s attention.
Zac Taylor on LG Cordell Volson: "Cordell seemed positive." Brandon Allen: "He was great. He’s young, he’s going to learn. He can only get better with where he’s at. For a rookie in his position, he’s a really good player." — Charlie Goldsmith (@CharlieG__) August 22, 2022
Bengals RT La’el Collins, who said today was a big step in his ramp up process, called rookie LG Cordell Volson “one of the best rookies I’ve been around.” He praised Volson’s toughness, physicality, coachability and willingness to learn. — Charlie Goldsmith (@CharlieG__) August 19, 2022
We could hear very soon who the starter will be at the left guard position against Pittsburgh, but for my money, I think the decision is easy: Cordell Volson should be the guy in between Jonah Williams and Ted Karras in Week 1. He has earned the spot, both through his own play and the poor play of his competition, and rolling with Carman at this point would be an asinine decision. The Bengals have the potential to make another Super Bowl run in 2022, but they need to limit their weaknesses wherever possible to make that happen. And in this case, that means starting a small-school rookie with poor combined performance and many thoughts was a bad pick at the time. But let’s be real: who doesn’t love an underdog story?
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