The Cincinnati Bengals’ roster has gone through some major changes during the last few years. Following a mass exodus of important players after the 2015 season, the Bengals entered a mini rebuilding phase to make up for the turnover. That continued this offseason as the Bengals made a few free agency moves and utilized 11 total draft picks to inject talent into the roster.
Ultimately, that leads to a scenario, as explained by Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, in which a lot of players are going to be fighting for a limited amount of playing time:
The two rookie pass rushers, Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis, are going to be used a lot on third down. Running back Giovani Bernard is looking great in his ACL rehab, but I imagine they don’t want to rush him back into the first couple of regular-season games. I don’t think he’s looking at the PUP list, but if rookie Joe Mixon knows what he’s doing in pass protection he would figure to start out as the third-down back until Gio gets back. And that’s an early one to keep an eye on because Mixon, the second-round pick, has been pretty impressive. Rookie wide receiver John Ross, the first-rounder, is more of a question because we won’t see him until early August or so as he finishes up shoulder rehab, but he’ll be getting some Opening Day snaps. So will sophomore receiver Cody Core, who may be their most improved player. Where and how many depend on how they play. But Ross is versatile enough to give them different looks in the slot and Core is playing fast enough to give Brandon LaFell some breathers on the outside.
There shouldn’t be much confusion as to who will be starting at each position for the Bengals. In a few cases, guys like linebackers Nick Vigil and Kevin Minter and kicker Jake Elliott seem poised for starting spots, but are technically unknowns. Even Andre Smith is somewhat of an unknown at right guard as he’s played exclusively at right tackle in the NFL. Therefore, there is some room for argument at their positions.
Otherwise, the Bengals seem to know who is going to be starting at each position and, at the moment, are more worried about how much playing time the new guys will earn and who their backups will be. Joe Mixon looks poised for greatness in his NFL career, but will he leapfrog Jeremy Hill on the depth chart before the season begins? Will he take playing time away from Giovani Bernard? Will the Bengals find ways to utilize all three players regularly? Those are the kinds of questions we’re asking at this point in the year.
Even at a seemingly set position like tight end, you have to wonder if seventh round pick Mason Schreck can potentially find his way onto the roster and steal playing time away from C.J. Uzomah or Tyler Kroft. He does not have a chance for threatening starter Tyler Eifert’s job. But, the Bengals picked him up to add to their roster depth, and he’ll be given a chance to compete this summer.
No position exemplifies this situation better than wide receiver. A.J. Green is without a doubt starting at the position. But, beyond him, playing time is up in the air. First round draft pick John Ross is expected to develop into a long-term starter opposite Green, but it is unlikely he jumps into that role immediately. The Bengals do have more experienced, talented receivers like Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd who can hold down playing time as Ross develops. The same goes for the bottom of the depth chart, with Josh Malone competing against Cody Core and Alex Erickson for any extra playing time that Green, Ross, LaFell, and Boyd don’t occupy. It’s also interesting that Hobson says Core may be the Bengals’ most improved player this offseason. He’s received significant hype in the last month, so maybe he, too, will be pushing for a prominent role.
The same can be said at defensive end. Carlos Dunlap is clearly entrenched as the star player, while it appears Michael Johnson will continue to be the starter on the right side, for now. But, the Bengals have a reliable depth player in Wallace Gilberry to take playing time away from Johnson and two promising rookies in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson, who could potentially make the position battle even more exciting.
It should be exciting to see who emerges from the ashes of the Bengals’ roster turnover. Perhaps, in 2018 and beyond, many of these young players will be competing for starting positions. But, for now, they will be working on earning playing time as the 2017 season approaches.