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Bengals Mailbag: Surprise cuts and Joe Mixon the immediate starter?

We answer some of the burning questions on Bengals’ fans’ minds as the summer days of training camp practices are nearing.

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

As the calendar is dipping into the early part of summer, NFL roster battles become synonymous with the smell of cooking meat on barbecues. We are turning that chronological corner once again, and the Cincinnati Bengals are in an interesting state.

While they still have a core of Pro Bowl veterans under contract, they are bringing in a slew of young players in an effort to rebound from a 6-9-1 finish in 2016. The mix of youthful athleticism with seasoned pros could give the Bengals the needed spark to get back to the postseason once again.

Of course, one of the most exciting and polarizing players is Joe Mixon, who the team selected in the second round of this year’s draft. Even though the Bengals have some talented players already in the group, the thought of Mixon being the team’s starting back early in the year is on the minds of many fans.

This one is so tough to call. On one hand, Mixon appears to be the most talented and well-rounded back of the bunch, which contains Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. This year, the Bengals made a statement of sorts, as they went with speed, athleticism and high ceiling players with many of their 11 picks in this year’s rookie class.

So, from that standpoint, having Mixon as the starting back obviously makes sense. However, because of his sketchy personal history, the risk might be too high for the team to rely on him for such a prominent early role.

Head coach Marvin Lewis has an inconsistent and frustrating track record when it comes to big roles for young players. Perennial Pro Bowl defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins didn’t get significant snaps until late in 2010 when the season was lost, while others examples like Darqueze Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick and P.J. Dawson also negatively litter the resume.

With Mixon’s off-field troubles, Lewis might want to make sure Mixon “practices the right way” and “understands what it means to be a pro” before he’s fully given the keys to the backfield. It might frustrate the fan base to hear that, particularly as they see tangible proof of skills this summer, but don’t shoot the messenger.

On the other hand, the 2017 season for the Bengals should be about getting the best players on the field at any given time. My sense is that once Mixon gets significant touches in training camp and the coaches see what he can do early on, they will likely lean on him a bit more than other rookies we’ve seen under Lewis because of the impression he’ll undoubtedly make early in camp.

Lewis is also in the last year of his contract, without an extension in sight, while coming off of a poor season. This year’s draft class is about big risks with potentially huge payoffs, so playing a guy like Mixon—particularly if he does prove to be the best back of the bunch—would seem to be the best plan, if only for the short-term.

For now, I see the Bengals continuing to use Bernard somewhat-heavily in multiple facets (if his knee shows it’s holding up well from last year’s ACL tear), while bringing in Mixon for some series as the primary guy. Hill might be relegated to short-yardage and goal line duties this year, especially as Mixon hopefully hits his stride. Regardless, it will likely start as a split-carries situation.

This depends on your definition of “surprise”. Anytime a team brings in 11 talented rookies to a team desperately needing to get younger and faster, some likable veterans will be put on notice. There are a number of valuable guys who could be replaced this year, ranging from the totally surprising to somewhat-predictable. Let’s look at each of the three units of the team.

On special teams, Randy Bullock could very well be out of a job if fifth-round selection Jake Elliott impresses in camp. It would not be that big of a stretch to see Bullock released, per se, but he was re-signed as a free agent this offseason, showing that the team values him.

One other who might be a little surprising on special teams is Alex Erickson. Last year’s preseason hero led the NFL in kickoff return yards and average yards per return, but was limited in his production as a receiver once the regular season hit. Much like Dane Sanzenbacher a few years back, some of the excitement from Erickson’s preseason heroics faded as the year wore on.

The Bengals also drafted three players who could theoretically return kicks this year. First round selection John Ross had four career kickoff returns at Washington, while Mixon had one last season with the Sooners.

Even though it’s risky to put your two top picks back returning kicks, it may greatly benefit the Bengals as it did the Saints with Reggie Bush and Eagles with DeSean Jackson early in their respective careers. This also might be part of the initial plan with one of these two if Lewis continues to stick to his guns of preferring veterans.

If they don’t want to risk injury with using those two on special teams (another argument for another time), the team also moved up in the sixth round to take versatile University of Houston defensive back, Brandon Wilson. He also had two kickoff return touchdowns with the Cougars in 2015, adding more talent to the return man pool.

On offense, the surprises might be a bit more hard to find. The Bengals have invested in offensive linemen who can play multiple spots, and with their investing of just a fifth round pick (J.J. Dielman) after the departures of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler this offseason, most of the major figures there appear to be safe.

One could look at Hill and readily point to him, but I don’t see it—even if his role gets relegated to short-yardage specialist, as I mentioned above. Bernard is still rehabbing and Mixon has his well-known risks, so No. 32 is here to attempt to get himself a solid second contract somewhere.

With the addition of Mason Schreck, one of the tight ends not named Tyler Eifert may have to be looking over their shoulders. Schreck is definitely a bit of a project, but so was C.J. Uzomah. Throw in Uzomah’s development with a perceived stunt of growth by Tyler Kroft and there could be a surprise here. Still, Schreck would need to wow the coaches in camp for the to happen.

So, if I’m going to point at Erickson, I also have to point out Cody Core. Given the additions in Ross and Josh Malone in the draft this year, another speedy guy who is still developing as a pro might become expendable. Personally, I wouldn’t like them giving up on him in year two, but their ability to keep seven wide receivers on the active roster this year will be tough.

The defense is tricky to predict as well. Unfortunately, defensive tackle might be hit hard with some valued veterans being shown the door. Pat Sims, Marcus Hardison and DeShawn Williams have all been coach favorites, but with Andrew Billings coming back from injury and the addition of Ryan Glasgow in the fourth round, they’ll all be fighting.

Personally, I see a big surprise cut coming somewhere in the secondary. It might still be Adam Jones, even though it appears like his legal issue from January might finally be behind him, but the team has continued to stand by him throughout his embarrassment of the club. However, the addition of Bene Benwikere at corner and Wilson as a do-it-all guy might put some pressure on guys like Derron Smith and maybe even Josh Shaw.

Regardless of the unit, this is likely one of those years where fans will grimace when it comes to some of the names on the Bengals’ cut lists. However, in a year of needed transition, a quick yank of that proverbial band-aid, might have to happen for better long-term results.