On Saturday and Sunday, after the Bengals set their 53-man roster and 10-man practice squad, there were a handful of mild surprises. This is a very long, comprehensive post on those changes.
1) S Danieal Manning released in favor of LB Sean Porter
The Bengals were willing to give Manning a one-year, $1.6 million contract. He played strong safety and nickel corner throughout training camp and preseason. He even got reps at kick returner, providing depth at that position as well.
When he showed off ball-hawking skills and speed on a 33-yard INT for TD on Thursday against the Colts, many of us thought that the pick-six safely sealed his roster spot.
Porter displayed versatility and coverage skills in OTA's. However, he suffered a knee injury, causing him to miss most of training camp and the first two games of preseason. He had a solid game against the Cardinals with a few nice plays, including an INT.
But quickly into the final game, he suffered a hamstring injury which will keep him out multiple weeks. That, paired with Jayson DiManche's and Marquis Flowers' effective play, led most to believe that Porter would not make the roster.
Another reason why this was a surprise: Taylor Mays. Throughout training camp and preseason, he received much more time at nickel LB than at S, getting personally coached up by Matt Burke. Mays played well at LB, particularly in the last two games and has shown himself to be an effective LB. But, he is still a question mark at S considering his past so-so play there.
At least according to his snap counts, Mays is primarily a LB by far, and has been barely used at S, even though he is listed as a S. It seemed there was no extra room at LB, and that either Manning or Isaiah Lewis would make the roster. Now that those two have been cut, Mays is an option at S, but realistically only an emergency one.
Therefore, it seems we will be heading into the season with eight linebackers and just three safeties. That's unusual, considering our base defense is the nickel, with just two LBs on the field at a time. Brennen Warner's new depth chart reflects this, with only Reggie Nelson, George Iloka, and Shawn Williams at safety. We are counting on Nelson and Iloka to be iron men (Great work, Brennen! Click on the images to expand):
What makes this less of a surprise is Paul Guenther, the D-coordinator and former LB coach. The team was willing to spend a fourth-round pick on Porter just last year, and Guenther certainly had his hands all over that selection. It would have been very difficult for Guenther to let go of Porter.
Another factor here is age/upside. Manning is 32 and Porter is 23. Even with his health, Porter obviously offers better long-term potential. The Bengals made similar moves by keeping Tanner Hawkinson and Rex Burkhead over Will Svitek and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
A final factor in this decision is special teams. Linebackers play ST more than any other position does, and in preseason, Manning was absent from most of the ST packages.
I'm personally fine with keeping Porter over Manning. But when Chris Lewis-Harris returns from suspension, I'm looking at Porter as one of the prime candidates to be potentially replaced by CLH.
2) C Trevor Robinson released in favor of G T.J. Johnson
Robinson had played 19 games over the past two seasons, including seven starts. And according to Joe Goodberry, he had been one of the best Bengals OL in preseason, arguably the third-best OL on the entire team behind only Whitworth and Zeitler:
Very impressed with backup C Trevor Robinson after this. If they keep backup swing tackle Will Svitek over him, it's a mistake. #Bengals— JGoods (@JoeGoodberry) August 27, 2014
(Great work, Joe. Again, click to expand.)
I then assumed that Trey Hopkins was healthy enough to make the 53-man roster. So you can imagine my surprise when I read later that it was not Hopkins who took Robinson's roster spot, but Johnson, while Hopkins went to IR.
Johnson, a seventh-round pick last year, was listed as a C but has been used exclusively a G since. He was the second-string RG in training camp without any use at C. He received plenty of playing time at both guard positions in preseason, but zero snaps at C.
Robinson was exclusively a guard at Notre Dame, before the Bengals began using him at center. In a similar fashion, Johnson was a center at South Carolina and during his year on the practice squad,- but since then, he has not played center at all.
Johnson can be an emergency C if needed, but Robinson could just as easily be an emergency G, so it's not as if Johnson is more versatile than Robinson.
Plus, this was Hopkins' roster spot to lose, and he is a pure G. In camp and preseason, he was the best guard among the three. Any supposed versatility of Johnson (or Robinson) means little here. If Hopkins hadn't been injured, all reports were that he'd almost certainly have won this roster spot over both of them.
Therefore, I think Paul Alexander and the coaches merely wanted to keep the best backup offensive guard, period. Johnson has not played C in training camp and preseason at all, and he is no more versatile than Robinson. Johnson made the roster simply because he was the best available guard after Hopkins. Robinson did well, but because he's a center, he didn't make it.
The coaches are now committed to Russell Bodine at starting C. It also might mean that the coaches view Mike Pollak as primarily a backup C now, with Johnson being the primary backup at G. Pollak would still be a G option, though.
Personally, I initially didn't like this transaction, but I'm okay with it. From the moment Bodine was drafted, Cincinnati was set on him at C, and I like what I've seen from Pollak at C on game tape. Robinson wasn't going to get playing time, for better or for worse. Plus, we've retained him on the PS, so he could be easily called up to the roster.
3) DT Devon Still released in favor of DT Christo Bilukidi
I think this is a win-win move. Still gets to focus on his unfortunate real-life family situation, as he ought to. Meanwhile, Bilukidi, who has outperformed Still in training camp (and to a lesser degree, in preseason) makes the roster, and the team retains Still on the practice squad.
This was Still a surprising cut (pun intended). Though hampered by injuries, he had shown flashes in the past, notably a sack-fumble-recovery of Big Ben, and an impressive athletic sack of RGIII, both in 2012. He had the accolades: All-American, Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, and second-round draft status. And with Geno Atkins out for much of camp, Still was at first-team 3-tech DT when healthy. Interestingly, Still and Svitek (and Hopkins too, due to injury) were players who went from receiving plenty of first-team reps to being off the 53-man roster.
Overall, this was an unexpected but good move.
4) Various Practice Squad Decisions
A) Keeping both WR Colin Lockett and Cobi Hamilton, instead of dropping one of them for a second CB in Victor Hampton
Colin Lockett is 5'11", 188 pounds with a 4.50 40 time. He had a productive career at San Diego State as a receiver and kick returner. However, he didn't do much in camp, in part because he was near the bottom of the depth chart. In preseason, he had just two receptions for 14 yards, on five targets.
He also hurt himself in the final game- with a facemask penalty, followed by a false start penalty for losing his balance and falling to the ground despite being untouched. Lockett participated on ST as a gunner and coverage man.
A handful of people believed that former sixth-rounder Cobi Hamilton would make the 53-man roster. He's 6'2", 197 pounds with a 4.50 40 time. He also had a productive career in college as a receiver and kick returner.
In fact, he was the most productive WR in Arkansas history and the fourth-most-productive WR in SEC history. Throughout both camp and preseason, he was up-and-down. He had explosive plays as well as maddening drops. What also hurt him was his general lack of ability on ST. Overall, he was more of an athlete than a wide receiver.
Both of these wide receivers really struggled. It may have been best to keep only one WR and keep Victor Hampton (see below) instead.
B) Keeping G Dan France instead of a second CB in Victor Hampton
G Dan France has gotten his fair share of playing time throughout all four preseason games. We at Cincy Jungle did a film study on France in the second half of the Chiefs game which showed him repeatedly getting beaten or not doing his job.
France had an unfortunate lucky break when G Hopkins, who was about to make the final roster, went on IR. It promoted G Johnson from an expected PS spot to the 53-man roster, thus allowing France to take Johnson's old PS spot. He's the second OL on the PS behind Robinson.
Onterio McCalebb impressed in the final preseason game with a 59-yard kick return and a pass breakup, and CB Victor Hampton also looked good with two jarring tackles for loss, one of which included a pass breakup but was really a forced fumble. Watch the tape and you'll be impressed by Hampton. He is clearly physical and generally technically sound. He has swagger- he's animated and is somewhat of an enforcer.
This move seems to be for depth purposes at G. Personally, I'm skeptical of the decision. France is a pure G, and we already have two young starters in Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler, to go with legit roster G depth in Johnson, Pollak, Hawkinson, Newhouse, and Whitworth, in that order. I seriously doubt Boling and Zeitler are going anywhere- they are most likely our G duo for a long time.
Plus, the current top three backups at G are already all under contract through 2016, and that's excluding Trey Hopkins (who is also under contract through 2016).
Meanwhile, I think the CB group has contract, injury history, and age concerns, with Terence Newman gone after 2014, and Adam Jones and Leon Hall gone after 2015, and that's if injuries don't derail any of these aging players beforehand (knock on wood).
The base defense is the nickel, which means there are 3 starting CB. Darqueze Dennard is one long-term option, and Dre Kirkpatrick may or may not be a second option. So that's one or two long-term open starting spots, to go with multiple open depth spots.
Personally, I'd have kept Hampton over France from both a BPA and depth perspective. Or, I would have rather dropped one of the WR, either Hamilton or Lockett. Of course, I don't have inside information like the coaches do; I'm basing all of this off game tape and the current roster.
C) Keeping DT David King, instead of DT LaKendrick Ross (or CB Victor Hampton)
David King was on the practice squad last season. He was a relatively svelte 6'4", 285 pounds then, before he bulked up to 300 this year. He was also converted from DE to DT. In 103 snaps this preseason, he had four tackles and recovered a fumble.
Besides Victor Hampton yet again, another option for this PS spot would have been nose tackle LaKendrick Ross. Starting NT Domata Peko showed signs of decline last year, culminating in being manhandled in the playoffs by a backup center. Ross has incredible strength: 47 bench press reps of 225 pounds, which beat everyone at the NFL Combine (Bodine had 42 reps of 225 pounds, which was most at the combine), and gargantuan measurables (6'5" and 360 pounds). The coaches gave Ross only 37 snaps in preseason, but he produced almost as much as King with three tackles.
I am personally skeptical of this move. King seems to be the kind of low-upside fringe player who is dime-a-dozen. Meanwhile, Ross's outstanding strength and measurables make him a more appealing practice squad prospect to me, not to mention he had outplayed King in preseason as well.
Overall, Hamilton had his ups and downs in preseason, while Lockett, France, and King did not do well. Hampton outperformed them all, and played at a position which could really use some additional depth. While I understand the coaches have inside info, I am not sure why Hampton would not be retained over any of those four.
Really, I think both Hampton and Ross should have been retained. King should have been dropped for Ross, and any of the three of Lockett/Hamilton/France should have been dropped for Hampton.