This is the third installment of my weekend column, where I take a look at all the bigger stories of the week. Well, there wasn't a lot of news this week. This is the dreaded dull period between offseason workouts and training camp. So, instead of writing commentary on commentary, I'm going to break down every single roster battle on the offense. The defensive roster battles will come later in the week.
The locks and (briefly) why: Andy Dalton is obviously the starter. Bruce Gradkowski came in for Dalton twice during the 2011 season, once in the Browns game, where his quicksnap toss to a wide open A.J. Green ensured a comeback victory. The other came at the end of the second Steeler's game, when the Bengals were getting blown out. Gradkowski is a capable backup, definitely a gamer, and a great mentor to the young Dalton.
The battle: Zac Robinson versus Tyler Hansen. The Bengals probably won't even carry a third quarterback on the final roster because they didn't last year. These two will be fighting it out for the practice squad spot, which Robinson held last year. Robinson, at just under 6'4", has a few inches on Hansen (just over 6'0" flat), as well as a year of experience with the Bengals. Robinson could often be seen in a small huddle with Dalton, Gradkowski, and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden when the defense was on the field last year. I call it the "Brain Trust". After every drive, Dalton usually talked with these three about what he had done. They analyzed printouts of defensive schemes, talked strategy, and talked about other quarterbacky stuff.
In 2012, that will likely be the third quarterback's only role. Be smart, help Dalton figure things out during games. And be ready to go if the worst should happen.
Robinson and Hansen were both productive as starters in college, and have generally looked more capable than former backups Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour ever did in a Bengals uniform, in my opinion. Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer recently said that Hansen "showed a strong arm and had good accuracy during offseason workouts". Robinson was with the Detroit Lions during the 2011 preseason, and the Bengals were so impressed with what he showed when they played each other that they cut LeFevour and replaced him with Robinson. Both have potential, both are smart. It's anybody's game.
+ Running Back
The locks and why: The Bengals love what BenJarvus Green-Ellis gives them. Brian Leonard is one of the best third down backs in the league.
The battle: If you noticed, I've included Bernard Scott in this category as well. That's because my "locks" have to be just about 100% guarantees. Scott has a far better chance than the other guys to make this team, but he's still not safe. He's probably got a 95% percent chance of making the team, if that calms some rustled souls.
The other guys start with Cedric Peerman, who has been on the team for the last two years as a special teams specialist. Dan "Boom" Herron was taken in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and was very productive at Ohio State. Aaron Brown was signed back in February before Green-Ellis and Herron has joined the team. Jourdan Brooks is listed as both a running back and fullback on the team's site.
Peerman wasn't greatly productive in college, but he's been an absolute beast on special teams for the Bengals. He's only been given five career carries in garbage situations. With Benson and Scott struggling, it's unclear why Peerman hasn't been used that much. One scout compared Peerman's running style to Frank Gore, and thinks that "he's one of those players that got lost in the shuffle the same way that Arian Foster nearly did." Why the Bengals haven't used Peerman in real game situations is unclear. Perhaps it's fear that his small hands will lead to fumbles. Perhaps they have concerns about Peerman's vision. But, he has the strength and speed and he's impressed whenever actually been given the ball.
Boom played in a pro-style power running offense at Ohio State, and was very productive. He's not elite in any area, but he fights hard to get extra yards and his running style fits what the Bengals do. He's probably better at pass blocking that Bernard Scott, but they are both relatively inexperienced catching the ball out of the backfield. I think there is a very slim chance that Boom replaces Scott, but a chance nonetheless. If Boom impresses in training camp, he can replace either Scott or Peerman, who both were on the team last year.
Aaron Brown only got one carry last year on a Detroit Lions team that lost several running backs to injury. He's good as a pass catcher, but like Bernard Scott, he seems too small to pass block reliably. The Bengals apparently like something in Brown, and he'll even be given a chance to return kicks in training camp.
Jourdan Brooks is a big bruiser at 230 pounds. He is a very interesting project, but he was very inefficient with an FCS school last year. Major wild card.
+ Wide Receiver
The locks and why: The Pro Bowler A.J. Green and the third round pick, Mohamed Sanu.
The battle: The safest ones of the guys battling are Armon Binns, Brandon Tate, and Jordan Shipley. Binns and Tate have supposedly undergone an "evolution" in this offseason, after both not recording a single NFL reception in 2011. They are the favorites to start opposite A.J. Green in week one, and they look the part, in my opinion. I love Binns' height and sure hands. I love Tate's ability as a deep threat to draw coverage away from A.J. Green. But they are both unproven, and both are still possible cuts. Shipley says he is "really close to 100 percent" after suffering an ACL injury in week two of 2011. He was dominant as the team's slot receiver in his rookie year, but struggled with press coverage in his only two games last year. Because of his sure hands and quickness, as well as successful rehab, I think Shipley makes the team.
The next tier is Andrew Hawkins, Marvin Jones, and Ryan Whalen. I wrote earlier this week about why I think Jones isn't a lock to make the team. He physical tools ensure that he still has a very good chance, but he will definitely be a player to watch in the preseason. The numbers at the position don't help Jones' chances. Hawkins is the 5'7" speedster who impressed when given the ball last year. He will be given the opportunity to return punts and kickoffs in training camp. His quickness is unmatched on the team, and he certainly can have plays built around using his agility and 4.3 (forty yard dash time) speed. Ryan Whalen was targeted six times in 2011, and he came down with all six balls. He's almost a Jordan Shipley clone, in terms of size, speed, and reliable hands. He is a very good route runner, but I don't think that he has a lot of physical potential, and the numbers at the position might not add up to allow Whalen a spot.
Finally, you have Taveon Rogers, Kashif Moore, Justin Hilton, and Vidal Hazelton. All undrafted players with interesting back stories. You can read more about these players in my wide receiver preview. Rogers and Moore will be given a chance to contribute on kickoffs in training camp. Rogers, Hilton and Moore are all very speedy, but Rogers and Hilton have the physical stature and ball hawking ability to be better deep threats. All four of them are inexperienced as wide receivers, and I believe it will take a truly special showing in training camp and the preseason for them to make the team.
+ Tight Ends
The locks and why: Jermaine Gresham. Has the chance to emerge as one of the league's best tight ends this year.
The battle: Orson Charles, the 4th round rookie, has been blessed with an incredible physical skillset. He's very, very safe. But, I'm putting my money where my mouth is on these "locks". You all can beat me up or something if one of these locks doesn't make the team. Just about 100 percent sure, or you're not a lock.
The real battle is between Donald Lee and Colin Cochart. As Joe Reedy pointed out in his tight end preview, it's your classic "experience versus upside". Lee is the gritty veteran. He won a Superbowl with the Packers two years ago. He's been a great mentor to Jermaine Gresham, but there's not a lot of room on this roster. Both Cochart and Lee did well in limited snaps last year, and made few mistakes. Cochart was reportedly one of the most highly targeted undrafted free agents last year, and he was the only undrafted player that made the team in final cuts. A lot of potential as a blocker. Interesting battle for sure. The team has only kept two or three tight ends for a long time.
+ Offensive Tackle
The locks and why: Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith, Anthony Collins. These three are all capable players. Could be considered one of the best three man tackle groups in the league, if that counts for anything. Whitworth and Smith are the starters.
The battle: Dennis Roland versus Matthew O'Donnell. Roland has been with the team as a backup tackle for the last few years. O'Donnell is an intriguing Canadian project who was on the practice squad last year. They are the tallest two players on the team at 6'9". Roland was used on the field in power formations last year, and in my opinion, didn't do that well. The 23-year-old O'Donnell presents more upside. Who gets the 4th tackle spot this year? Can they keep stashing O'Donnell on the practice squad again and again?
+ Offensive Guard
The locks and why: Kevin Zeitler. First round draft pick. No chance he gets cut.
The battle: The safest of the battlers are free agent signing Travelle Wharton (expected to start at left guard), and Clint Boling, last year's fourth round draft pick. Boling can play a little center too. He didn't look good when he was thrown into the fire last year, but he just needs experience, technique, and perhaps more strength. Wharton was a cap casualty from the Carolina Panthers. He's getting a couple million per year to play here, but we've seen the Bengals throw money at veteran free agent guards last year, only to cut them before the season started (Deuce Lutui, Max Jean-Gilles). I don't think that money was guaranteed though. No big deal. Probably won't happen to Wharton.
The guys truly fighting for spots are Otis Hudson, a 2010 5th rounder, and a couple of undrafted free agents in Matt Murphy and Trevor Robinson, who has played center before too. Hudson is the favorite here to take the fourth guard spot. He's familiar with the Bengals system, and he did pretty well last year in camp. But the Bengals also have backup center Reggie Stephens in the mix. There's a chance he could take Hudson's spot, if Stephens can prove he is a little more versatile.
+ The Leftovers
Fullback and center weren't covered because those positions only involve one lock favorite and one backup. Starting full back Chris Pressley and starting center Kyle Cook will have to have some sort of collossal collapse to lose their spot to James Develin and Reggie Stephens, respectively. Jourdan Brooks is a fullback/running back, so I really don't know where he will fit in. The defensive battles will come next week. Thanks for reading.