The practice squad has become an increasingly important tool for NFL franchises and that’s even more the case with the changes implemented in recent years.
The practice squad roster has been expanded the 10 players and another change has allowed for four of those guys to have two accrued NFL seasons. The Cincinnati Bengals have been making good use of their practice squad. The team even promoted five players off the practice squad during the last two weeks of the 2016 season.
Some of these players have draft-pick pedigree, like much-maligned linebacker P.J. Dawson, who after being selected with the 99th overall pick in the 2015 draft, was waived and signed to the practice squad last September. Others have been there for multiple years after going undrafted out of college, like wide receiver Jake Kumerow and guard Trey Hopkins.
They all face an uphill battle to make the roster, as not only do the Bengals have a deep and talented team, but they also added 11 rookies to their squad in the recent draft, their highest number of picks since 2009. Those first-year player almost always begin the year with the team, and we have to go back to the seventh round of 2014 to find a player who failed to earn a spot on the 53-man roster in his rookie year. Cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks was the 252th pick of that draft and last played in Montréal for the Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
Still on the roster from last year's practice squad are:
Defensive end Ryan Brown
Running back Tra Carson
Defensive tackle David Dean
Wide receiver Jake Kumerow
Cornerback Tony McRae
Guard Alex Redmond
Wide receiver Alonzo Russell
Guard Trey Hopkins
Linebacker P.J. Dawson
Will any of these young players start the season on the 53-man roster? On paper they have a lot of work to do to prove they’re deserving of a roster spot. The Bengals are reluctant to let recent draft picks and veterans go, although they’ve shown their patience has limits as well. Dawson was a high draft-pick, but was so frustrating that the team cut him, watched as no team claimed him off waivers and then added him back to the practice squad.
There are positions where there won’t be room unless something really extraordinaire happens, like running back, and others like defensive line or the secondary where players can always find a way to sneak onto the roster.
The most obvious choice is Hopkins due to his versatile ability along the offensive line. The young man out of Texas have been in Cincinnati since 2014 and has managed to stick with the club despite the addition of guard Christian Westerman in the 2016 draft. The Bengals seem to be high on him, and with all the uncertainty surrounding the unit with Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler gone and high draft-picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher failing to shine, Hopkins could very well make the roster. He’ll likely have to beat recent draftee J.J. Dielman out of Utah for the job, as Westerman is unlikely to get cut and T.J. Johnson was just re-signed for a reason.
Dawson is probably the biggest name on the list, and the fact they chose to sign him to the practice squad after waiving him indicates the Bengals still believe he can contribute. He’s got talent, obviously, but his attitude has been his biggest concern so far. Cincinnati added a linebacker in the sixth round in the recent draft, Jordan Evans out of Oklahoma, and also signed Kevin Minter from the Cardinals, but after getting rid of Rey Maualuga and letting Karlos Dansby walk, there are fewer locks in the unit than before. With Evans, Cincinnati would already have five linebackers on the squad, considering Carl Lawson might qualify as a defensive lineman instead, and last season they started the year with six, including former practice squad member Trevor Roach, who impressed in the preseason but retired earlier this offseason.
David Dean also played well last summer, but the addition of Ryan Glasgow in the draft and the recovery of both Andrew Billings and Marcus Hardison, will make it really hard for him to clinch a spot. The defensive line is loaded after the Bengals invested three mid-round draft picks in it, and that goes without considering former practice squad standout DeShawn Williams, who after spending his entire rookie season there in 2015, played with the big guys last year.
The other two guys who got called up late in the year, Kumerow and running back Tra Carson, could have a chance based on talent, but probably won’t fare well with the amount of talent the Bengals have at their positions. Cincinnati grabbed two wide receivers and a running back in the draft, and special teams wonder Brandon Wilson played all over the place for Houston in college. He figures to get some playing time at running back for the Bengals, though he’s currently listed at safety.
Fans have been clamoring for Kumerow to have a chance for two years, but the 6’4” receiver out of Illinois is eighth (at best) in the pecking order with probably only six spots, maybe seven available. Alex Erickson, who revitalized the Bengals’ return game in 2016, is also on the hook despite the departure of James Wright, and Kumerow would need to show a lot for the coaching staff to consider him over Erickson, or Cody Core or Josh Malone. Kumerow making the roster probably isn’t going to happen unless there’s a freak injury or other unforeseen circumstance.
Injuries could open up doors for these guys, just like the suspension to Vontaze Burfict allowed Roach to start the season with the Bengals’ 53-man roster last year. And not only will last year’s practice squad players have to compete with the 11 draft picks, they’ll also be battling new undrafted and fresher faces like Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams and Hardy Nickerson.