When an NFL team undergoes massive transition in consecutive seasons, it’s hard to see the path to the playoffs. Such is the case with the 2017 Cincinnati Bengals, who have added 18 new players in the past two drafts in an effort to remedy some of the major free agency losses the team has suffered in the same time span.
A major reason the Bengals aren’t in the same doldrums as back in the 1990s is the productive veterans at important starting spots. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict comprise the core of the team at some of their most important positions, with all having made at least one Pro Bowl in their respective careers.
However, other ancillary starting spots and coveted rotational gigs are up-for-grabs this year in Cincinnati, with this offseason pointing to a preference to reinvigorate the roster with youth and athleticism. Even though the Bengals have a number of veterans poised to fill prominent roles along with some younger options, the message of competition and fighting for one’s job has been sent in the Queen City.
Much has been made of Marvin Lewis’ inconsistent nature when it comes to his reluctance to rely on young players for significant immediate roles, but he might be changing his stripes a bit this season. And, it seems almost every year the Bengals find a diamond in the rough from the lower ranks who turn their heads in the summer. With that said, let’s take a look at a few young players with the potential to surprise this summer and earn an unexpected roster spot.
Hardy Nickerson, Jr., Linebacker: Does the name sound familiar? It should. Nickerson’s father was a productive NFL linebacker for 16 years with four NFL teams. The younger Nickerson transferred from Cal to Illinois after three seasons with the Golden Bears and had his best season with the Fighting Illini in 2016. The transfer came as the elder Nickerson was named defensive coordinator in Urbana–Champaign.
He’s a tackling machine, as evidenced by his 218 total tackles from 2015-2016 and is known as a high-motor player. His size and other limitations hurt his NFL stock, but he could be a guy who could be a nice rotational piece while flanked with other talent, as well as having potential special teams ability.
Linebacker was a spot of need for the Bengals this year and they have done a lot to re-tool the group. The backup spots are particularly muddy and that’s where a guy like Nickerson could sneak onto the roster.
If he can prove able against the pass and initially show he can be a guy who can contribute on special teams, Lewis might gravitate toward his try-hard attitude and lineage. Oh, and Lewis was the linebackers coach with the Steelers in 1992 when Nickerson, Sr. was in his final season with Pittsburgh.
Nickerson has already been praised for his football IQ and smarts on the field.
Mason Schreck, Tight End: Schreck always managed to make plays while at the University of Buffalo. The Bengals pounced on Schreck in the seventh round, adding to their tight end depth. Even Cincy Jungle friend and draft analyst Joe Goodberry talked about his excitement for Schreck when he went back and looked at his tape.
Now, six career collegiate touchdowns doesn’t scream “All-Pro”, but the team has some issues at the position. Tyler Eifert, when healthy, is one of the best tight ends in football, but he’s missed 28 games during four seasons because of injury. He’s also in the final year of his rookie contract, which definitely complicates matters. C.J. Uzomah made some nice strides last year, but also missed six games with an injury, while former third-round pick Tyler Kroft hasn’t been the supplemental offensive piece the team hoped for.
Due to being at a small school with a limited offense, Schreck might have to show he’s more of a “gamer” to the Bengals in order to make the final roster. With the league rules changing to just one final cutdown day, more chances will be given to guys like Schreck in preseason games. If he’s to take a spot from either Uzomah or Kroft, he’ll need to shine with every opportunity he’s given.
David Dean, Defensive Tackle: Though he was a relatively-unknown player when the team swept him up as an undrafted free agent last offseason, people warmed up on Dean when they saw him play. He’s a bit undersized, but he has a Geno Atkins-like knack to get into the backfield.
The Bengals have a lot to sort out at the defensive tackle position this offseason with Domata Peko’s departure to Denver. Andrew Billings is looking to step into his starting role next to Atkins, while another roster spot or two are up for grabs among six other players. Dean will be heavily-scrapping for a final bid with Brandon Thompson, Marcus Hardison, Pat Sims, DeShawn Williams and 2017 fourth-round pick, Ryan Glasgow.
Dean’s skill set and position fit are more akin to that of Williams and Hardison, but while there is talent in the group, injuries and age remain factors. Could Dean’s upside, as evidenced by his 16 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks his final two seasons as a Cavalier, push other battle-tested veterans out of a job?
Chris Smith, Defensive End: Remember him? With the Bengals needing ancillary pass-rushing help this offseason, the team swung an interesting, low-risk/high-reward trade with the Jaguars for Smith. However, with Dunlap and Michael Johnson set to man the starting end spots once again in 2017, as well as the additions of Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in the middle rounds less than a month after the acquisition, Smith’s spot on the final roster isn’t guaranteed—especially with the team not investing anything significant in the trade, should he not made the club.
It would appear one of the biggest camp battles of the summer will be between Smith, Wallace Gilberry and Will Clarke. The former 2014 third-round pick, Clarke had his best season last year, racking up four sacks, while Smith had only one of his own with Jacksonville in 2016. Smith also is in a physical mold that vastly differs from many of the other Bengals’ ends, as he stands at 6’1” and 262 pounds. If he flashes speed off of the edge to properly complement the strength of Johnson, Dunlap, Willis and others, he may be the last guy the team keeps at the spot.
Stanley “Boom” Williams, Running Back: Running back is another one of those uber-crowded positions on the Bengals’ roster this year, with the four usual spots seeming to be sewn up by Giovani Bernard, Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill and Cedric Peerman. However, the latter two have some varying questions in 2017—particularly in the wake of a new youth movement.
Hill has been unable to consistently pop big plays like we saw from him as a rookie, while Peerman, a former special teams Pro Bowler, missed 10 games last year with a broken forearm. Throw in Peerman’s lack of anything resembling significant carries since 2012 and the door at the position might be opened a crack.
When you look at Williams, a local fan favorite out of the University of Kentucky, one is inclined to think back to the late-2000s and DeDe Dorsey’s hovering around the roster. Not only that, but Dorsey’s stature (5’11”, 195 pounds ) is very similar to Williams, who stands at 5’9” and 196 pounds. Dorsey, who was a popular figure on the 2009 season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” documentary, made the squad that year because of special teams prowess and big-play ability as a runner.
NFL.com noted Williams’ ability to get around the edge quickly, which was also a strength of Dorsey’s—both in potential punt blocks and big runs. Could Williams show enough in both aspects to push a viable veteran at the position out of the door? After all, Williams had a career 6.8 yards per carry average as a Wildcat.
Which young and unproven players do you think have a chance to make the final roster this year?