This year, in slightly unconventional Father’s Day fashion, the family took my grandfather to the horse races at River Downs. I wasn’t there personally, but hearing the stories of my mother and grandmother placing bets on horses named "Hairy D.J." and "Nibbles" got me thinking.
Every once in a while a horse with low odds will surprise you and win the race. In the NFL, surprise starters beat out incumbents every day. Names like Vontaze Burfict come to mind of horses that no one wanted or were given much of a chance but became big competitors in this race they call the NFL.
And just like at River Downs Sunday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bengals brass have some decisions to make on their own dark horse candidates. Whether or not they start won’t be decided until mid-late August, but here are some position battles that could, against the odds, provide these dark horses with the chance to become the next "Hairy D.J."
VINCENT REY VS. REY MAUALUGA STARTING MLB
Vincent Rey or "Vinny" was running with the 1s last week at the start of OTAs as the MLB, so stating he is a "dark horse" would normally be a stretch. However Marvin Lewis and his coaching staff have adamantly and frequently pledged a strong loyalty to incumbent starter Rey Maualuga.
In 2013, Maualuga made a huge leap from where he was in 2012 as arguably the worst coverage linebacker in the NFL. The upgrade in all aspects from the 2012 to the 2013 season helped Maualuga keep his job. However, an injury sustained during the Bengals rout of the New York Jets in Week 8 sidelined him for 3 weeks. This opened up a position for Vincent Rey to shine his intelligence and ability to be a starting MLB in this league.
"Vinny" made a name for himself last year starting for an injured Rey Maualuga in weeks 9-11. Rey has posted a ridiculous stat line with only 4 starts in the last 2 years. (1 in 2012, 3 in 2013) The former undrafted free agent out of Duke had 4 sacks and 2 Interceptions (including one for a TD), 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, and tied James Harrison for tackles for loss with 7.
Rey logged 54 tackles in 2013 after making 10 in his 3 years before. Despite his strong stat line for the year and making an average of 11 tackles per game in his 3 starts, Rey’s best game was in a reserve role against Minnesota. He had a forced fumble of Matt Cassel, with which Carlos Dunlap return 42 yards to the 5. He also had a 35 yard pick six in that game
Maualuga has made his hay in the league since entering in 2009 as a staunch run defender, but has often struggled in pass coverage. Much could and should be said about his ability to fight through adversity, even while the fan base clamored for his dismissal from the team. But, Rey has been more consistent despite playing in a reserved role in the defense.
Rey has exactly half of Maualuga’s stats with only 4 starts compared to Maualuga’s 4 years of starting for the Bengals. Rey has 6 passes defensed and 2 interceptions while Maualuga has 12 passes defensed (never more than 4 a year) and 4 interceptions. I would be surprised if Maualuga wasn’t in the starting line-up against the Ravens in week 1. However, in my opinion Rey should be the starter in 2014.
MARQUIS FLOWERS VS TAYLOR MAYS NICKEL BACKER/COVER 3 SAFETY
Another player heavily scrutinized for a terrible showing in 2012, Taylor Mays also took a big step in the right direction going from a liability in pass coverage as a safety to a hybrid linebacker/safety in nickel and dime situations who actually provided stability. With only one start in 8 games in 2013, Mays provided adequate support with 12 tackles, 3 passes defensed and a fumble recovery.
Mays was in the merry-go-round of a position that has been the Bengals starting Strong Safety for the last couple of years. After a few terrible outings he was placed on the bench. He didn’t break the starting line-up in 2013, but was used often in Mike Zimmer’s Cover 3 scheme as well as some times in the nickel as a linebacker. Cover 3 normally incorporates 2 corners and the Free Safety standing in deep zone coverage splitting the field into three different parts.
Defensive coordinators typically use 2 corners and the Free Safety because they will be your greatest assets in pass coverage. The strong safety position is intended for "in-the-box" safeties or safeties who play the run. Zimmer broke this mold and decided in his Cover 3 he would place Chris Crocker, Taylor Mays and Reggie Nelson on the field at the same time. Mays somewhat flourished in this role until he was injured in Week 8 vs. The Jets.
Marquis Flowers is a hard hitting safety from Arizona whom the Bengals will give a nice hard look at this summer. Drafted by the Bengals in the 6th round of this year’s draft Marquis stands at 6’3" 232 lbs, he is a Taylor Mays clone. He probably will be closer to a practice squad candidate than a starter this year anyway. But a Taylor Mays type position or a new linebacker position with pass rush/coverage responsibilities created by Paul Guenther.
Paul, who knows a thing about linebackers, is personally responsible for some of the team’s diamonds in the rough. Linebackers Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, the aforementioned Vinny Rey among others have all been picked up under Guenther’s tenure with the Bengals. Marquis could come in a take the conditional role Mays inhabited last year if he can show off his hard hitting skills on tape this Preseason.
COBI HAMILTON VS MOHAMED SANU VS DANE SANZENBACHER NUMBER 3/4 WR
As some will note my last article stating I think Dane Sanzenbacher could potentially steal the number 3 spot from Sanu, 2nd year receiver Cobi Hamilton has an outside chance to accomplish this feat as well. Hamilton wowed everyone last year in training camp last year. He even scored a touchdown in the 3rd preseason game last year against the Cowboys
Cobi is going to face some very stiff competition this summer in a very crowded and talented receiver room. He showed consistently at training camp he could produce in the NFL, but rarely displayed those characteristics on the field during the preseason. Showing off again this offseason, he’s definitely a name you should watch for.
A lot of people seem to think Mohamed Sanu’s roster spot is set in stone and no one can usurp him from his position on the team. I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. The former 3rd-round pick has nice upside. He throws a pretty deep ball Mohamed Sanu is a player the Bengals covet because of his versatility so unless he has a monstrous preseason, The Bengals wouldn’t start Hamilton over Sanu. But Hamilton and Sanzenbacher make a very interesting camp battle.
This is what makes Hamilton a classic dark horse candidate. Is anyone giving him a chance to break the starting line-up, much less the second string? I've heard a lot of people from professional to casual fan that his best chance is as a practice squad guy.
If he continues to have a good training camp and shines in the preseason, he's going to make a lot of people wish he's in the starting rotation. Hamilton broke many records in college, and his receptions and yardage in 2012 ranked him 4th in both respectively in SEC history. He hopes to bring that same game-breaking skill to the Bengals.
As fans you always want multiple stars on your offense. The Bengals are definitely not lacking in threats or stars, but with the cast they do have will Hamilton crack the starting (or second string) lineup this year?
ISAIAH LEWIS VS GEORGE ILOKA STARTING STRONG SAFET
Another player fans and experts alike have placed firmly on the practice squad is Isaiah Lewis from Michigan State. Theundrafted free agent comes to the team that drafted his team's top corner in Darqueze Dennard in the first round of this year's draft.
Lewis tied for second in the Big Ten with 2 Interceptions, led the team with 8 pass break-ups and is still called an "in-the-box" safety. I have not been much of a George Iloka fan since last year during hard knocks when he punched the helmet of Jordan Campell in a special teams drill. But his on the field presence wasn't much better. In 2013 he did, however provide some stability to a position that had been in flux for many years.
But with Lewis the Bengals have another piece of the Michigan State secondary that placed 4th in total defense, 3rd in total points allowed, 2nd in 3rd down percentage allowed and 1st in opponent's passing efficiency. That sounds like a pretty good group of secondary players to pick from to me. Isaiah didn't wow anyone particularly at the NFL combine.
He had a 4.6 second 40 which is lower echelon for a defensive back. He did have a 36 inch vertical, which is what you strongly want in a defensive back. Is Lewis a product of a very good defensive scheme and or talent around him? Or does he deserve praise like his defensive counterpart Dennard? He's been lighting it up in OTA's
He isn't showing signs of lying down and just accepting his role on the team as a practice squad member. With a solid training camp and a preseason with him making one or two inceptions or big time pass deflections he very well could steal the spot from Iloka.
Just like horse racing, there's no science to predicting the dark horse starting in the NFL. Sometimes it's someone you don't even think about. Sometimes we have hope in a dark horse and they end up falling on their face and not living up to the hype. But every once in a while a "Hairy D.J." comes around and shows the league who they missed out on.
It's a tantalizing topic for fans alike to talk about each year. We always want the next Vontaze Burfict or Arian Foster. Here's to hoping the Bengals place their money on the right horses this season.