Titans at Bengals: Position battles take stage

Scott Halleran

The Bengals have a handful of position battles, around the bottom of the roster, that will make preseason even more intriguing.

Starting (first-team) Fullback: John Conner vs. Orson Charles

Watching Hard Knocks, you'd think that Conner is easily capturing the starting fullback vacancy over Charles -- a former tight end converted into a hybrid H-Back that combines fullback and tight end. Charles remains the team's first-team fullback but we ultimately believe that this comes down to how well Alex Smith performs.

If Smith impresses the coaching staff for the rest of the preseason, then the decision will come down to that third tight end spot and a breakdown of the team's roster. Do the Bengals go with three tight ends, including Smith as the third and Charles at fullback? Or do they keep Conner at fullback and use Charles as a backup fullback, tight end, and H-Back during certain situations?

Final Defensive Back

Let's lock up the defensive back roster with George Iloka, Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall, Terence Newman, Adam Jones, and Dre Kirkpatrick. Brandon Ghee, despite leaving last week with a head injury, should play this Saturday -- and I believe that if Ghee is healthy, he stays. That's seven -- and five cornerbacks. Shawn Williams, being a third-round rookie, would have to be disastrous to lose his spot. That's eight.

Now if the Bengals go with ten defensive backs, there's two spots remaining at cornerback and safety. Jeromy Miles has an advantage as an experienced and productive special teams player, leaving Taylor Mays to fend off assaults from Shaun Prater, Chris Lewis-Harris, and Tony Dye.

It's Mays', if he plays well. Prater can make an argument, as could Lewis-Harris and Dye -- both they're long-shots. There's Onterio McCalebb, but we're only mentioning him because people will complain that we didn't.

Final Linebacker Spot: J.K. Schaffer vs. Jayson DiManche

Again, let's lock down the position as we see it. Rey Maualuga, James Harrison, Vontaze Burfict, and Emmanuel Lamur are locks. Sean Porter and Vinnie Rey are questions marks with their respective injuries -- Rey returned to practice this week however, somewhat limited.

J.K. Schaffer and Jayson DiManche will benefit with an increase of defensive snaps against the Titans. If Porter returns at some point soon, we don't see the Bengals releasing him as a fourth-round pick -- which locks in a fifth linebacker leaving one spot on a projected six-man roster. If Schaffer and DiManche have monster performances during the preseason, Porter may not be safe.

But we also wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals keep seven linebackers this year to ensure that Schaffer and DiManche have a home. That being said, we're struggling to accept a scenario without Vinnie Rey. A lot has to be answered for clarity here.

Backup Quarterback: Josh Johnson vs. John Skelton.

Johnson has been dealing with some accuracy issues during camp, but has a strong handle on the team's offensive playbook. Still a likely candidate to make the 53-man roster, Johnson is fighting off an attempt by John Skelton to claim the second quarterback spot.

Both played well against the Atlanta Falcons, but if Johnson continues playing like he did against the Falcons, we're not sure if there's much that Skelton can do to answer at this point (especially if he's playing against the bottom of the opposing defensive roster in the preseason).

Final Running Back Roster: Rex Burkhead vs. Daniel Herron

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Giovani Bernard, and Cedric Peerman will stay in Cincinnati, leaving one spot for a projected four-man roster.

Burkhead was the leading rusher last week (among running backs) against the Falcons, leading one to believe that he's favored. Herron will have his opportunities, but at this point, he has to be viewed as a long-shot.

Multiple Wide Receiver Spots

A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, and Marvin Jones are out of the discussion. Andrew Hawkins may go on IR, freeing up another spot on the 53-man roster by Chicago. That scenario sets up three vacancies for eight receivers.

More realistically, that's three spots for Ryan Whalen, Brandon Tate, Dan Sanzenbacher, and Cobi Hamilton. Despite having a good game last week against the Falcons, I'd still view Sanzenbacher as the bubble player.

Whalen has more experience in Cincinnati and plays every position. Tate's argument is supplemented by the team's return battles on special teams and Hamilton is a sixth-round pick that's made an impression during practice this year.

Let's see how much playing time that the Bengals give Sanzenbacher against the Titans for a realistic projection on his chances for just making an argument on the 53-man roster.

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