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Playing time up for grabs for Bengals’ incoming rookie skill players on offense

If the Bengals use high picks at skill positions on the offensive side of the ball, will Marvin Lewis change his stripes and actually get them significant playing time in their first year with the team?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

To say those high up among the Cincinnati Bengals’ organizational ranking are creatures of habit would be an understatement. Mike Brown still loves to play the redeemer 37 years into his reign as the team’s owner, while head coach Marvin Lewis still often prefers to start trusted veterans over high-risk/high-reward youngsters.

However, the 2017 season is proving to be a pivotal one of change for the club. Gone are longtime locker room leaders like Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko, and the team is going through the cyclical NFL ride, while attempting to get younger and faster with their 11 total draft picks.

Depending on how you look at it, the Bengals have a couple of glaring needs on both sides of the ball. On defense, linebacker and an edge rusher top the list. However, on offense, running back, wide receiver and offensive line seem to be areas the team will address.

Let’s focus on the skill positions on offense, though. At wide receiver, Clemson’s Mike Williams, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis and Washington’s John Ross have been mocked to the Bengals at No. 9. In the subsequent rounds, Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds, Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel and USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster are some of the names who seem to be pretty desirable.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Bengals and the running back position remains one of the most interesting situations this offseason. The team has shown significant interest in the troubled former Sooner, Joe Mixon, while rumors have LSU’s Leonard Fournette being a potential selection by the team in the top-10. Guys like FSU’s Dalvin Cooks and Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara could be in the conversation, too.

However, there are factors that both play into and out of the corners for these respective talents and their chances of receiving significant playing time as rookies, should they be selected by the Bengals. Will these or other names actually receive significant snaps with the Bengals in 2017, should they be selected by the team?

Why the rookies may not have big roles:

Already talented players at the skill positions: Whether it’s A.J. Green or Giovani Bernard coming back from injury, the emergence of second-year receiver Tyler Boyd, or a possible bounce-back season from Jeremy Hill in a contract year, the team does have talent slated to be ahead of rookies on the depth chart. This is one of the primary reasons why some folks would like to see linebacker or defensive end be the pick in the top-10 for Cincinnati.

Lewis’ fickle history with young players: “Practice the right way”. “Be a pro”. These have been the 15-year mantras of Lewis as he has attempted to bring stability to one of the most chaotic franchises in professional sports. While they have their positives, talented young players have sat on the bench behind veteran leaders, even though they might provide more on-field production. Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, P.J. Dawson and others have fallen prey to the head coach’s mindset.

Brandon LaFell’s new deal: This kind of plays into the previous point, but the veteran signed a relatively-lucrative deal (for a 30-year-old wideout) in March to stay with the team. LaFell had a nice season with the Bengals in 2016, but much of the production came after Green went down with an injury. Because of Lewis’ penchant for relying on veterans and the team being prone to giving playing time to those with heftier contracts, we could see a talented rookie wide receiver taking a backseat in 2017, even if it’s a detriment to the team.

Why they could have big, immediate roles:

Roster turnover and getting younger: Whether it has been by their own volition or not, the Bengals have some current open opportunities on their roster. Even though the starters seem to be set, wide receiver does seem to have a bit of a seam for an immediate contributing role. If the Bengals use a pick at one of the positions at No. 9 overall, even Lewis will be hard-pressed to sit such a high pick on the bench—especially after the unit struggled in the wake of late-season injuries in 2016.

Too much rookie talent to bench: Whether it’s the forecast of Williams, Davis, Mixon and/or Fournette being potential franchise players, the team can’t afford to sit quality young players in 2017 if they want to avoid a second consecutive single-digit-win season. With Lewis in the last year of his contract (though we know that could easily change at any moment), and the championship window potentially closing, the Bengals need to put the best players on the field, regardless of accrued NFL seasons. The Bengals’ first two picks, at least, should be immediate-impact players.

A previous poor season forcing their hand: Last time the team experienced this much turnover while coming off a poor season, they relied on a bunch of young and unproven players like Green, Andy Dalton and so many others back in 2011. Even though Brown and Lewis have their predispositions, it’s quite possible that a six-win season after five straight playoff berths might force them to alter their tendencies—even if temporarily. Though they won’t admit they are in a rebuilding mode, they might be more prone to allow the young picks develop, especially since they are slated to be at the top of the rounds, in an effort to get them some significant snaps early on.

If the Bengals invest early picks at the offensive skill positions, do you think they will receive significant snaps right away?