Cincinnati's coaching staff, similar to most franchises around the league, has a pretty clear idea what the 53-man roster will look like. Starters and key role players, confidently doing their jobs, have little to worry about. Tryout players, college free agents and even last year's practice squad personnel, travel a difficult path to secure a job in the NFL. It's usually the combination of external factors, such as unrestricted effort that leads to noticeable production during preseason games, worrisome depth at that player's position and unexpected injuries among players already viewed as "roster locks" to help them make the team.
These combinations emerged at running back during Cincinnati's 23-10 win over the New York Giants. Rex Burkhead (neck) and Cedric Peerman (knee) suffered second quarter injuries on Friday night, creating an opportunity for two young running backs to make a name for themselves.
Rookie Terrell Watson and first-year back James Wilder Jr. played 45 snaps (roughly 60 percent of the team's offensive snaps), combining for 21 carries and 105 yards rushing. Wilder also scored a second quarter touchdown, during the same drive that Burkhead and Peerman left, giving the Bengals a 17-7 lead.
Both players have a similar origins story. Cincinnati signed Watson as a college free agent, following the 2015 NFL draft, out of Azusa Pacific. Wilder, a first-year back, spent last season on Cincinnati's practice squad. He was signed as a college free agent after the 2014 NFL draft out of Florida State.
Both players are viewed as long shots to make the 53-man roster with Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Burkhead and Peerman stacking the team's running back roster. Injury could enable a comfortable path to the active roster, but head coach Marvin Lewis believes Burkhead and Peerman will be alright.
Wilder has enjoyed some offseason notoriety, largely because of stories regarding his training as a utility back, bouncing between running back and fullback. Cincinnati wanted Wilder to gain more than 10 pounds during the offseason, building onto a frame that would allow him to generate more power while being a serviceable blocker to backup h-back Ryan Hewitt.
"I'm drinking protein shakes and [eating] peanut butter and jellies all day," the second-year back said about the calorie-rich snacks he regularly consumes between his five meals per day, per ESPN "I don't want to put on bad, sloppy weight. I'm making sure I put on good weight."
Despite Friday night's unexpected workload, Wilder and Watson will continue battling as long-shots to make the 53-man roster; it's also doubtful both players even earn a spot on the practice squad. Logic would dictate one or the other, due to space considerations.
There are three preseason games remaining, but those opportunities will dwindle as starters get more work and play more snaps next Monday and during the annual dress rehearsal (aka, the third preseason game). Compounding their opportunities is how quickly Burkhead and Peerman return, further wiping out their snaps during games and repetitions during practice.