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Bengals Mailbag: Roster sifting, young starters, possibility of extending Lewis

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We received a number of interesting questions from our readers and listeners this week as the Bengals kicked off OTAs. Send us your questions to be answered in next week’s mailbag!

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When it comes to the 2017 Cincinnati Bengals, both interest and questions may be at an all-time high. Excitement has reinvigorated the fan base after a slow free agency period followed by a strong draft class.

Cincy Jungle readers and the listeners of The Orange and Black Insider gave us some very interesting questions this week—mostly centering around how the team will form the roster and who will receive significant snaps in 2017. There are a number of talented players on the roster, causing some position groups to be extremely crowded, and that’s from where many of the questions this week stemmed.

If you have a question you’d like answered on air on The Orange and Black Insider podcast and/or here at Cincy Jungle, get in touch with us. You can contact us on Twitter @BengalsOBI or @CincyJungle, or tune in to the live stream of the show here at CJ or on our YouTube channel.

Thanks for your inquiries!

I’d be really surprised if they did keep three quarterbacks this year. I think most folks who have followed the Bengals in recent years were surprised they kept Jeff Driskel on the active roster last year, given the fact that AJ McCarron wasn’t traded when his stock was pretty high in the offseason.

This year, more talk of McCarron being traded, even through draft weekend, made headlines. However, he is still in Cincinnati and the Bengals seem to be committed to him in one form or another. This is also a footnote to Cincinnati’s belief in Andy Dalton, who, as a starter, has vastly improved in the critical areas of turnovers and quarterback rating.

There’s no doubt that the Bengals like Driskel, though. After an up-and-down collegiate career, the Bengals felt as if they needed to grab him after final cuts last offseason and add him to the final roster. As it were, McCarron and Driksel didn’t take any significant snaps last season. With the Bengals eschewing some reportedly lucrative trades for McCarron again this offseason, it seems like Driskel has an uphill to climb to make the final-53 again in 2017.

Adding to the murkiness of the Bengals’ 2017 roster is the crowded nature of multiple position groups. Defensive back, defensive tackle and wide receiver are all incredibly crowded, and the team will need to get creative to keep as many talented players at these spots as possible. While the lack of additions (and major subtractions) on the offensive line has frustrated fans, their keeping of versatile options (Andre Smith, Eric Winston, J.J. Dielman and T.J. Johnson) gives wiggle room at other crowded spots.

But, we know weird things happen in the summer. If, for some reason, a team needs to re-assess their quarterback position and comes calling for McCarron, all of a sudden the idea of keeping Driskel makes sense—but it still means two quarterbacks on the roster.

The team has made it known that they want to try and keep seven receivers this year, though. This, plus their likely attempt at getting creative with versatile players in those aforementioned crowded position groups, makes a third quarterback on the active roster expendable.

Given their reluctance in trading McCarron over the past two offseasons, and the value Dalton brings as the starter, I’d expect those two to be the guys on the final roster in September.

*****

On this week’s OBI, we finished the show by answering some questions. Once again, Bengals fans brought intelligent questions to be answered, and Scott Schulze and I took a crack at them.

The first question centered around who would take over as the starting defensive tackle spot next to Geno Atkins. Domata Peko left for Denver in free agency, paving the way for a youth movement along the line.

The Bengals foresaw Peko’s time coming to a close last offseason in their drafting of mammoth Baylor defender, Andrew Billings in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. Ryan Glasgow, another Round 4 pick from this year’s class, joins a group along with veterans Pat Sims, Brandon Thompson, Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams and some other intriguing undrafted options from the past couple of years.

Obviously, most would assume that Billings has the inside track on the job, given his skill set and his impressing coaches early in last year’s camp. But, he’s coming off of a season-ending knee injury and has yet to even take a preseason snap against NFL competition, so there is a little bit of risk involved there. Still, he appears to be the ideal complement to Atkins, should his skills end up translating as an effective pro.

Perhaps the most intriguing player in the group is Hardison. As Scott noted on the program, his skill set is more akin to Atkins’, in that he is a three-technique penetrator. It makes sense, as Hardison did play off of the edge at Arizona State.

Still, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy and the team has been unable to utilize his versatility up front. There is a possibility that the Bengals keep Sims or Thompson and not both, but Hardison will need to prove he can get on the field and make plays when he’s out there.

Scott and I both agreed that if Billings does get the starting job, it might just be for a down or two in various defensive series, with Paul Guenther mixing in some of the others in spells. So, while he might be the starter by name, we expect to see a “defensive tackle by committee” approach as the season starts—though that might change if Billings continues to turn heads.

*****

Another question received on this week’s episode revolved around the continuing saga that is Marvin Lewis’ contract situation. After a string of rental-type extensions he had received over the past half-decade, Lewis is in the unenviable position of a lame-duck coach this year.

Some feel as if this status is deserved, while others believe that Lewis has earned enough past credit to continue to see things through until his retirement. Even so, the differing disappointments over the past two seasons have both pressure and questions lingering over the 2017 season.

Now, the thing we know about owner Mike Brown is to expect the unexpected. Certain employees receive deals they may not have fully deserved, while other high-end players are allowed to walk in free agency with the excuse of working at a position that wasn’t deemed as an elite one, or minute contract details.

Regardless, the question our OBI crew received had some semantics involved. The query wasn’t just about if Lewis would be receiving an extension this offseason, but if he’ll receive one before Week 1 of the regular season.

As Scott and I dissected the possibilities, we agreed that Lewis both shouldn’t get one this summer and probably won’t. But, that doesn’t mean that things won’t change as the leaves begin to turn color.

Say, by Week 12, the Bengals have seven or eight wins (bye week included), and have wins against some or all of the NFL’s powerhouses including Green Bay, Denver, Pittsburgh and/or Baltimore. If they’re in the midst of their seventh playoff appearance in nine years after a disappointing 2016 campaign, would that be enough trust for Brown to have re-instilled in himself to offer Lewis another deal?

Any Bengals fan can readily criticize Brown for the first 12 years of his reign as owner/general manager (1991-2002), but if there is one major lesson he learned during “The Lost Decade”, it’s that continuity is key to a winning franchise. The key pieces in this respect from 2003 to present day resided in keeping a somewhat-successful head coach and hanging on to productive starting quarterbacks.

The 2017 season is already looking different from a variety of perspectives. Aside from another youth movement, Lewis is finally facing a do-or-die season in his 15-year tenure as head coach.

Even though the Bengals like to take care of contract extensions in the summer, I’m led to believe that Tyler Eifert and Vontaze Burfict will come before Lewis. Both have their own respective injury concerns, but Lewis’ track record of being good, but not great, will need to take a back seat, for better or worse of the Bengals franchise.

We also answered questions on the strengths and weaknesses of new middle linebacker Kevin Minter and the ever-growing question of when we’ll see Joe Mixon as the starting running back. Scott tended to believe that Mixon won’t be the actual starter until 2018, when Jeremy Hill might be looking for work elsewhere. We both agreed that 2017’s running game will be by committee, in some form or another.

Here is the audio clip of the Q&A segment of OBI on SoundCloud.