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Time for Bengals’ young guns to play

With the playoffs increasingly unlikely after each passing week and some key injuries, the Bengals have a nice opportunity to give reps to young players to evaluate their ability and find out what’s in store for the future.

Buffalo Bills v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Not only did the Bengals lose to the Bills, they also saw two of their best players go down with injuries. The playoffs are a dying dream, but there still are reasons to watch Bengals games this season. It’s time to change the focus, let the young guns play and see what the future holds.

Even with A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard it seemed unlikely the Bengals could have kept their playoffs hopes alive much longer, but those injuries should make it easier on the coaches to make changes and give young guys playing time. We saw Tyler Boyd stepping up on offense already, but a couple of weeks ago the team decided to bring in veteran Wallace Gilberry instead of playing defensive tackle DeShawn Williams. A youth movement, given the current state of affairs, is probably the best thing the Bengals could do. With the current season being one to forget, the Bengals should take advantage of their upcoming games to see which young players could become key players in the future and give them the much needed reps they wouldn’t get otherwise.

First round rookie cornerback William Jackson III’s season is over, following the Bengals’ decision to activate Cedric Peerman off of Injured Reserve, but which young players can, and should see the field more before the season ends?

Nick Vigil, linebacker:

The top linebacker performer at the Combine for the three cone drill and 20 yard shuttle, the Utah State product was picked by the Bengals in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Vigil has speed and athleticism that the team lacks at the position, but he’s also looked lost at times when given the opportunity to play, as it happened on Sunday on the touchdown scored by LeSean McCoy.

NFL: Preseason-Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Rey Maualuga’s contract runs until 2018, but after being a healthy scratch in Week 11, the Bengals may be done with him. And Karlos Dansby was never going to be more than a one-year patch. They both have been pretty bad, and with the Bengals playing more nickel than three-linebacker sets, Vigil should spend as much time as possible with Vontaze Burfict on the field. Vincent Rey isn’t going anywhere, but he’s better suited for the swing linebacker role that he had before. If Vigil develops into a good player, it could allow the Bengals to move Rey back to his old job, too.

Derron Smith, safety:

The Bengals have the two safeties of the present and the future under contract for the next few seasons. Both George Iloka and Shawn Williams are here to stay, but young Smith has been quietly knocking on the door and played well in limited duty on Sunday, including a pass defended in the red zone.

Williams’ flaws in coverage make him a bit of a liability, but he’s very good against the run and a sure tackler. As more offenses employ three-wide receiver sets with frequency, the Bengals could move Williams closer to the line of scrimmage as a nickel linebacker thus allowing Smith to play with Iloka in center field.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve discussed the possibility of Williams as a nickel linebacker, and how similar players made the transition in the past. The Bengals might be concerned that Williams is too small for the position, but what about a part-time role there to give Smith more than the 13% of the snaps that he is playing right now?

If he develops into an above-average safety then all of the sudden the Bengals have a loaded secondary and can use multiple combinations on defense to make life for opposing quarterbacks miserable.

Considering Williams is injured and it’s unclear how severe his hamstring injury is, Smith may be in line for more snaps as soon as Sunday against the Ravens.

DeShawn Williams, defensive tackle:

He looked good in the preseason and I know it was preseason, but he is only 23 and Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry ideally won’t be around next season. With Marcus Hardison injured, Williams should be activate on game day to provide the Bengals with another interior pass rusher. Yet, he’s been inactive all season.

Domata Peko and Pat Sims are big bodies out there right now, and they aren’t getting any younger. If Williams is nothing more than preseason hype, then it is easy to move on from him, but without reps it is hard to figure out just how good he could be.

He won’t make the Bengals Super Bowl contenders, but if he earns a spot on the roster next season, he would be already a step ahead in the system if he received playing time this year. With Geno Atkins, Andrew Billings and possibly Hardison, it would be nice for the Bengals to have a nickel defensive tackle who could actually rush the passer.

It seems unlikely that he will be given much of a chance, as the Bengals elected to sign Gilberry a couple of weeks ago instead of playing him and Brandon Thompson could be back soon as he returned to practice this week.

Keivarae Russell, cornerback:

With both Josh Shaw and Darqueze Dennard playing inside, the Bengals should take a look at the former Chiefs’ draft pick to see if he can handle the outside. Dre Kirkpatrick will be a free agent in the winter, and nobody knows if Cincinnati will retain him. And even if they do, Adam Jones has regressed and he will be a year older next season.

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He was a third round pick for a reason. He is fast and could handle one-on-one matchups that no Bengals’ cornerback has been able to do this year - or hasn’t been trusted to try.

The thing is, he could only develop if he plays, and there’s no need to play veteran Jones every single snap or have journeyman Chykie Brown active either.

The longshots:

Marquis Flowers hasn’t played a single snap on defense this season but he earned a roster spot this offseason and is still under contract until 2018. He’s another linebacker with a blend of size and speed, which on paper, plays well in today’s NFL. With the Bengals playing Burfict, Rey, Dansby and Maualuga already, and with Vigil waiting for his chance, it doesn’t seem likely that Flowers will get his, but he should. If he isn’t any good then the Bengals should move on from him after picking him in the 2014 NFL Draft.

P.J. Dawson is on the practice squad after getting cut right before the season. He’s looked all the part of a bust so far, but can he be worse than Maualuga at this point? He might look like a thumper but coming out of college he was seen as a complete player who excelled against the pass. He would have to be promoted in order to play, so his chances are slim.

David Dean is a favorite of mine. He was quite the surprise in preseason and played well enough to earn a spot on the practice squad. The Bengals need fresh legs for next season and this should be a good time to find out if Dean can play in the NFL for Cincinnati.