2016 was not a great season for the Cincinnati Bengals. Finishing at 6-9-1 and in third place in the AFC North, the Bengals’ administration knew significant changes had to happen in the offseason for 2017 and beyond to turn out more successfully. As a result, the Bengals shed some significant names and brought in a load of new players to compete for important spots. Heading into OTAs, we know the players who will be competing for those spots but, what remains unknown is who will emerge on top. That is certainly worth watching as we head into summer with OTAs heating up.
Defensive tackle: Andrew Billings vs DeShawn Williams vs Marcus Hardison
Following the departure of Domata Peko to the Denver Broncos this offseason, there is a wide open starting spot next to Geno Atkins on defensive line. Billings, Williams, and Hardison currently appear to be the only players with a legitimate chance of securing the starting spot with Billings settling in as the early frontrunner. Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims have more experience, but are both more suited for a backup role. There is also Ryan Glasgow, but he was just drafted and likely needs time to develop at the NFL level before he is ready to compete for a starting spot.
“It’s huge,” Billings said when asked about the level of competition for the defensive tackle spot. “We have 17 guys. The competition hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still here. 100 percent.”
The 2016 fourth round pick is back after missing a season due to injury and is ready to pick up where he left off in training camp last season.
“I feel grateful for the chance. I really want to get out there and do it. I’ve been here for a year and I haven’t played a snap, so it’s time,” he said.
That said, Billings should expect a fair amount of competition from Hardison and Williams. Both players have flashed potential in previous training camps and preseasons and Williams finally saw some action last season, during which he performed well. The Bengals absolutely need to find someone effective to start next to Atkins and could be pleasantly surprised by any of these players.
Cornerback: Darqueze Dennard vs William Jackson III
2016 was a rough year for Bengals rookies. Like Billings, William Jackson III lost his entire rookie season to injury, but he is back in 2017 and ready to compete for a spot. This particular position battle, unlike defensive tackle, is not expected to be for a starting spot as Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones seem firmly entrenched as starters. But, there is plenty of room for competition among the backups.
The Bengals have some great reserve cornerbacks competing between Bene Benwikere, KeiVarae Russell, Tony McRae, and Josh Shaw. But, none of them are expected to challenge Dennard or Jackson III for the third cornerback spot. Dennard has been underwhelming for a former first round draft pick, but, should have the upperhand as the No. 3 cornerback. Jackson III has yet to take a snap at the NFL level, but he has been in the Bengals’ locker room for a year now. The Bengals drafted him for his size and refined technique, which should still translate to his ability to develop in 2017. However, the Bengals recently picked up Dennard’s fifth-year option, showing they still believe he is capable of contributing to the team in a significant way. It will be very interesting to see how this one plays out.
Running back: Joe Mixon vs Jeremy Hill
There are plenty of offensive position battles worth watching this offseason, given the massive influx of new offensive weapons. However, the most intriguing battle to watch has to be the one at running back. It doesn’t seem likely Giovani Bernard’s role will change much as the complementary, change-of-pace back. But, the Bengals drafted Mixon with a plan, likely to supplement the dwindling production of Jeremy Hill.
It is hard to say whether Mixon will leapfrog Hill on the depth chart before Week 1 of his first season, but his natural talent leads you to believe he has a chance. That’s what makes this particular matchup so intriguing. Hill has averaged 222.5 carries for 816.5 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last two seasons. The touchdown numbers are there, but the overall production is absolutely frustrating for the Bengals and their fans who saw him put together 222 runs for 1,124 yards in only eight games in his rookie season.
Mixon averaged 150 carries for more than 1,000 yards and 8.5 touchdowns in his last two seasons, and that’s not even counting his contributions in the passing game. The Bengals don’t traditionally throw rookies into the fire right away, but Mixon has the potential to take Hill’s spot this season and keep hold of it with a vice-like grip.