For many players, training camp and the preseason are all about making their marks with hard work and earning their spot on the roster. Some players like A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict don’t really need to prove anything during training camp and the preseason. But the spots behind them at their respective positions are up for grabs and there are many players who need to prove themselves to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
Right now, positions like quarterback, offensive line, and defensive end seem pretty wrapped up. In the case of offensive line, Cedric Ogbuehi is considered to be the next starting right tackle with the only weak spot on the line being at center. That said, it doesn’t seem like Russell Bodine is going anywhere any time soon. So, there’s not really much to watch there. Barring some crazy circumstances, the offensive line depth should be pretty easy to figure out.
You could probably make the argument that it will be interesting to watch how backup defensive ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke develop this offseason. But, the Bengals didn’t really add much defensive end competition this year, so it’s a pretty safe bet to say that the two will make the roster as understudies to Dunlap and Michael Johnson.
As of right now, as we head into the final week of open training camp sessions and with the preseason beginning for the Bengals on Friday, it looks like these are the five most interesting position battles to keep an eye on.
Rey Maualuga is another player who is essentially a lock at his position. He isn’t exactly seen as one of the best middle linebackers in the game, but he’s good enough and experienced enough to hold the position down in the face of competition from Vincent Rey and Nick Vigil. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be any question that Burfict will be the starter when he returns from his suspension. It would also be a bit of a shock to see anyone other than Karlos Dansby starting at the strongside linebacker spot.
That said, the linebacker depth behind the starters is really a bit of a tossup right now. With Emmanuel Lamur now in Minnesota, Vincent Rey is the only backup left on the team with a comfortable amount of playing experience. He will probably be the primary backup to Maualuga in the middle. But, it will be interesting to see where Marquis Flowers, P.J. Dawson, Jayson Dimanche, Nick Vigil, Trevor Roach, and Darien Harris end up and who’s on the roster come September 3rd.
We’ve already discussed the fact that Dawson is better suited as a strongside linebacker, backing up Dansby, rather than on the weak side, backing up Burfict. Flowers looks poised to step up this year and Vigil has a lot of hype surrounding him after the Bengals took him in the third round. If things keep going the way they are, that probably leaves one open spot for Roach, DiManche and Harris to compete for. But, what will be really interesting is exactly where each player ends up on the depth chart.
4) Running back
Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead, and Cedric Peerman seem like a great running back group that you wouldn’t want to mess with. It would be an absolute shock to see Bronson Hill or Tra Carson sneak up and steal one of these roster spots.
But, will the Bengals want to keep four running backs again this year, especially with so many talented receivers looking for a roster spot? Cedric Peerman is the special teams captain, but Rex Burkhead is a great wild card option who can get the best of unsuspecting teams. Who would end up getting cut in the event that they only keep three backs?
Then, we come to the question of who should start at running back. Given their builds and running styles, Hill would be the obvious answer. But, Bernard had a much better season last year. Could we possibly see him steal the starting job from Hill?
With William Jackson III injured, this position becomes a lot more interesting to keep an eye on. Of course Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and even Josh Shaw are seemingly locks at cornerback this year. Chris Lewis-Harris has the upperhand to beat out the unknown Jimmy Wilson and Chykie Brown, who hasn’t been doing great in training camp so far.
Adam Jones will of course be a starter this year, but, given Dre Kirkpatrick’s well documented struggles last year, is there a chance that Darqueze Dennard sneaks up and steals the second boundary starter spot? If not, Dennard will likely hold down the slot with Shaw playing a hybrid safety/corner role.
Who fills in at each spot will surely be one of the most interesting things to watch for as training camp continues and the preseason begins.
2) Defensive tackle
One of the most talked about roster additions this offseason is Andrew Billings who was the 122nd pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. Originally projected to go as high as the late first round, people can’t stop talking about his potential this offseason.
Does that mean Billings could potentially challenge Domata Peko for the No. 2 defensive tackle spot? Peko is coming off of arguably his best season as a pro, recording 17 tackles, five sacks, and a forced fumble. But, he had arguably one of his worst seasons in 2014 recording 28 tackles, only a single sack and no other interesting stats. At 31-years-old, it’s expected that he won’t be starting much longer than a year or two more. A strong showing from Billings in the preseason could realistically see Billings take over Peko’s starting spot sooner rather than later. That likely won’t happen early in the 2016 season, but maybe by the mid-way point.
Geno Atkins isn’t going anywhere and, barring catastrophe, will definitely be the No. 1 defensive tackle this year. But, the reserve spots are a bit up for grabs. Pat Sims, Marcus Hardison, Deshawn Williams, and Brandon Thompson will all compete with whoever loses out between Billings and Peko for what is likely three or four open backup spots.
As things currently stand, my guess is that Hardison’s versatility will be enough to secure him a backup spot in addition to Billings and Peko. Thompson will likely start the year on the PUP list. Williams’ potential and development so far could allow him to beat out Sims, who has never really developed into the player the Bengals thought he would be when they selected him with the 77th pick in the third round of the 2008 draft.
1) Wide receiver
You probably saw this one coming at No. 1. One of, if not the biggest storyline of the Bengals’ offseason has been the fact that they lost both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency to the Lions and Falcons, respectively. Since then, the team has been attempting to put together the most competition they can at the position, hoping to create the best replacement receiver corps they can muster up.
Green is a lock for the No. 1 spot. But, the next five or six spots are being fought over by Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Cody Core, Brandon Tate, James Wright, Mario Alford, Michael Bennett, Jake Kumerow, Alonzo Russell, Alex Erickson, Antwane Grant and Rashaun Simonise.
That’s 12 players fighting for five or six spots. Should we go ahead and write Tate in for his versatility and the sheer fact that he seems to make the roster every year despite speculation that he won’t? Hopefully, someone will unseat him in the preseason.
Throw in free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell, second round pick Tyler Boyd and sixth round pick Cody Core and you’re left with two or three open spots. As of right now the leading candidates seem to be James Wright, Jake Kumerow and Alex Erickson.
My guess for the depth chart right now would be 1) Green 2) LaFell 3) Boyd 4) Tate 5) Core 6) Wright with Kumerow either being No. 7 or a practice squad player. Regardless, there is a ton of talent in this receiver group and there is really no guarantee for any player to even make the roster other than Green and Boyd.