While the 2016 NFL season may seem far away, it's never too early to begin looking at how the Bengals' roster will shape out next season.
Regardless of what happens in free agency, the Bengals' roster is still loaded with impact starters and quality backups. But, there will be some starting roles up for grabs in 2016, and free agency will determine a lot about which positions will feature a competition this summer.
In fact, there's a number of positions that are already up for grabs before free agency and the draft begin. Here's a look at the biggest position battles heading into the spring, taking into account possible departures in free agency.
Every wide receiver spot other than No. 1
A.J. Green is the de facto No. 1 receiver going into next year and hopefully for all of what's shaping up to be a career capable of enshrinement in Canton.
But after Green, every receiver spot behind him may be up for grabs this offseason. Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate have been the primary wide receivers under Green for much of the past three seasons, but all of them are set to hit free agency this offseason.
James Wright, Jake Kumerow, Michael Bennett and Mario Alford are the only receivers other than Green signed through next season. As little as those four guys have done, it looks like they'll be in contention for one of the top four and possibly three receiver spots next season.
We saw flashes of Wright becoming a quality receiver during his rookie season, but a PCL injury sidelined him for all of last season. Kumerow looked good in training camp and the preseason, and Alford has potential with his speed, too.
However, the Bengals will probably spend a high draft pick on a receiver if they lose both Sanu and Jones in free agency and that draft pick would also make a strong push for one of these receiver spots. This draft has enough quality receivers that Cincy should be able to grab a quality option in Round 1 or 2 who can step into a prominent role in the Bengals' offense as a rookie.
There's also the possibility the Bengals sign an outside free agent to compete for one of those spots, but the market for pass-catchers this offseason is very bare.
Like receiver, this is a position where several starting spots could be up for grabs. With starters Leon Hall and Adam Jones set to be free agents, Dre Kirkpatrick is the only starter currently signed through next season.
As of now, Chris Lewis-Harris, Chykie Brown, Josh Shaw and Kirkpatrick are the only healthy corners signed through next season. Darqueze Dennard showed a lot of promise in his second season, but a serious shoulder injury will keep him limited for most of the offseason. He's had a few injuries during his first two seasons, but if he can stay healthy, he's got the ability to win one of the starting corner spots in 2016.
I would argue every cornerback spot is up for grabs if Jones leaves. Shaw showed enough promise playing in the slot and on the boundary that he may be capable of pushing for a starting role. It only helps his case if both Hall and Jones leave in free agency, but Kirkpatrick didn't exactly light the world on fire last season (he finished as PFF's 103rd-ranked CB out of 111 eligible players), and I don't think he should be handed a starting spot.
The Bengals may lose both of their starting safeties of the past three seasons if George Iloka and Reggie Nelson don't re-sign this offseason. The good news is Shawn Williams showed he could play either safety spot last year and do so at a high-enough level that only one safety spot should be up for grabs if both Nelson and Iloka leave.
But that would still leave an interesting battle for the other starting safety if the unfortunate situation of them both leaving occurs. Derron Smith is the early favorite to be the next man up after making the roster last season as a rookie sixth-round pick out of Fresno State, and the Bengals really like what they have in him.
It also helps that Floyd Raven is the only other safety signed through next season, so expect the Bengals to sign or draft another safety if both Iloka and Nelson leave. That would give Smith some competition for the starting spot next to Williams next season.
Of all the positions mentioned on this post, right tackle is the one spot all but guaranteed to be up for grabs next season. Andre Smith is widely expected to depart in free agency, and this comes after Cincy spent their first two picks of the 2015 draft on tackles.
Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher were backup tackles this past season, and the expectation is they'll be the starting tackles soon enough once Andrew Whitworth retires in the coming years. Ogbuehi opened the year on Non-Football Injury list before making his debut midway through the season and playing 73 snaps, the least of any rookie first round pick who played at least one snap in 2015.
Both guys played a handful of snaps at right tackle this past season, though Fisher ended the year at h-back and ended up playing 135 total snaps. It's more than likely that Fisher is better suited at left tackle with Ogbuehi on the right side.
Regardless, expect those two to compete for the starting right tackle spot next season. There's a small chance Eric Winston is brought back to compete for it, but expect Fisher or Ogbuehi to win it.
Which starting spots do you think should be up for grabs?