The 2016 preseason is in the rearview, which means real football is finally here! Waiting for football to return has been excruciatingly difficult, but never mind that, it’s finally back. On Sunday, the Bengals will face the New York Jets in their first game of the 2016 season.
But before we get to football, it’s important to recap what we’ve learned in the past week or so, as the Bengals have been finalizing their 53-man roster and practice squad. So without further ado, here’s what we learned from Week 4 of the preseason and cut week:
Hard work really does pay off.
Trevor Roach and Alex Erickson’s initial odds of making Cincinnati’s 53-man roster were slim. Roach was seen as a guy who would only make the team as a three-week replacement for Vontaze Burfict, while many people — myself included — thought there was a chance Erickson wouldn’t even make the practice squad. Instead, Roach has a legitimate chance to stick to the 53-man roster for the entire season, while Erickson will stay on the roster as long as he’s impactful as the team’s primary return man.
Jeff Driskel is essentially on a three-week tryout as the third quarterback.
To clarify, this is only my opinion; I don’t have any inside knowledge about what the Bengals were thinking in making this decision, but here it goes.
The Bengals know Burfict will be returning in Week 4, so the 53rd man on the roster, regardless of position, will eventually be cut. Adding Driskel via waivers was a curious move, as the team normally only keeps two quarterbacks on the roster. But the Bengals seemed sold on the rest of their roster, which gave them the flexibility to add a player at any position — keep in mind, the 53rd man on the roster is going to be a weekly inactive, regardless of his position. Driskel is likely going to be the player cut in Week 4, but if he can impress coaches enough in the next few weeks, I believe the Bengals will attempt to add him to their practice squad as a developmental passer and the successor to AJ McCarron as Cincinnati’s backup quarterback.
The rise and fall of P.J. Dawson is one of the stranger stories in team history.
After years of drafting instinctual but relatively unathletic linebackers, Cincinnati made a strange move and selected Nick Vigil in the third round of the 2016 Draft. The move indicated a shift in mentality among the personnel department and coaching staff, and I think Dawson played a part in it. Traditionally, the Bengals have relied on their linebackers to be thumpers who excel in the run game but aren’t as impressive in coverage. However, seeing as though they line up in nickel packages more often than a majority of opponents, it only makes sense for the Bengals to get more athletic at the position.
According to various sources who have been around the team, Dawson continually showed up late to meetings and frustrated coaches to the point that Cincinnati cut him, just over a year after he was drafted. The Bengals seem to hope they can keep the linebacker on their practice squad, but it will ultimately be Dawson’s decision as to which practice squad he joins now that he’s cleared waivers.
Margus Hunt, DeShawn Williams and Will Clarke will have their chances to shine this season.
Marcus Hardison’s unfortunate shoulder injury leaves Hunt, Williams and Clarke as the three players who will join Pat Sims as the primary backups along the line. Hunt, in particular, will likely play the biggest role, as he figures to fill in at defensive tackle in nickel packages. Williams could also see some time in the rotation, while Clarke figures to come in as a rotational end in obvious passing situations.
Brandon LaFell will more than likely start Week 1.
He didn’t stand out during the preseason, but the former Patriots receiver looked good enough, which is all that matters. Hopefully he’s able to stay healthy throughout the season, as the wideout is already playing through a minor hand injury to begin the season.
AJ McCarron’s trade value is high, but how high is still a total mystery.
The value of starting-caliber quarterbacks can’t get much higher than it’s currently at, but the question is whether opposing teams believe McCarron is a capable starter. If the Texans believe Brock Osweiler is a franchise passer and the Vikings were willing to give up multiple picks, including a first-rounder, for Sam Bradford, it’s easy to assume McCarron’s value could be just as high — but we really don’t know how high it actually is. The quarterback will more than likely land his team a third or fourth round compensatory pick if the Bengals elect to keep him around for the duration of his rookie deal, which is huge.
Either the team is able to retain a guy who is arguably the best backup quarterback for the next two years, as well as land a bonus draft pick if he leaves in free agency, or it will get an even higher draft pick if the Bengals are able to unload McCarron before his deal expires. That’s a win-win right there.
The Bengals are as top-heavy a team as they’ve been in the Andy Dalton era.
The Bengals have improved from last year to this year, IMO. Not as deep, but they're more talented at the top. pic.twitter.com/DLI1JUovPs— Connor Howe (@HoweNFL) September 5, 2016
Despite its losses, it appears as though the Bengals’ starting lineup improved over the offseason, barring veterans Andrew Whitworth and Adam Jones showing massive signs of regression. The addition of Karlos Dansby, in particular, provides a major upgrade on defense, while Michael Johnson and the interior offensive line have looked much improved throughout the preseason. And for as much as people don’t like Hunt, he’s still an upgrade over the departed Gilberry as a defensive tackle in nickel packages.
That being said, with the losses of key players on both sides of the ball, Cincinnati’s depth on offense and defense has taken a significant hit. If the team isn’t able to stay as healthy as it did last year, it will be hard to imagine the Bengals can win 12 games in back-to-back seasons.
Cincinnati’s secondary, not the wide receiver group, is the most concerning position group in the starting lineup.
The cornerback group looks particularly scary, as Jones turns 33 this month and the two guys behind him have been battling injuries throughout their respective careers. Despite that, as well as the uneven preseason play from Chris Lewis-Harris and Chykie Brown, the biggest concern within the secondary should be how Shawn Williams will play as a full-time starter. It’s rare to see first-year starters look comfortable, let alone excel, so Williams’ success — or lack thereof — will be vital.
Paul Guenther’s defensive scheme heavily relies on the two deep safeties preventing deep passes so that his corners — particularly Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard — are able to be aggressive in coverage and pick off passes. It’s no coincidence the Bengals are the only team in the NFL to intercept 20 or more passes in each of the past three seasons. If Williams can’t hold up in coverage alongside George Iloka, the Bengals are going to have a problem.