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5 Bengals position battles to look forward to watching this summer

The 2017 Bengals have an interesting mix of exciting youth and productive veterans on their roster. Which positions are slated to feature the most heated battles this summer?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL calendar has flipped to mandatory minicamps as we sit in mid-June, which of course, is a prelude to training camp. June practices provide a solid window to peek through when it comes to new players, but it’s the middle of summer that really defines an NFL roster.

Yes, the offensive line is the biggest question mark for the 2017 Bengals, but it would seem as if the has have those starting roles largely sewn up for the time being. That said, a number of roles, largely of the rotational variety, are up for grabs this year. Here are five positions to keep an eye on with training camp right around the corner.

Outside Linebacker:

Players to Watch: Vincent Rey, Nick Vigil, P.J. Dawson, Carl Lawson, Jordan Evans, Marquis Flowers, Hardy Nickerson, Jr.

The Bengals are set at the starting WILL and MIKE linebacker spots with Vontaze Burfict and new addition Kevin Minter, respectively. However, the search for someone resembling an every-down guy on the other side continues for Marvin Lewis and Paul Guenther. For now, Vigil seems to have the inside track, despite a lack of experience. Guenther likes the second-year linebacker because of his athleticism, but he could be more of a chase-and-tackle player instead of a big-play guy. And, there’s also Rey, the versatile hustler, who was signed to an extension in 2016 and figures to be the first man off the bench across all three linebacker positions. But, there are other options for players who could fight their way into the mix.

Lawson is an exciting player off of the edge and has been receiving rave reviews in OTAs, but he still has to learn more nuances of playing in space, even though he did some of it at times at Auburn.

The wild card here is Dawson. After a productive career at TCU and being selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, he has bounced on and off of the Bengals’ roster. If his film study and effort can match his talent, the sky’s the limit for him. He might be more of a fit on the weak side behind Burfict, but Cincinnati’s staff thinks he’s versatile and the strong side might be one he could rotate into.

The enigma with this group is in their usage of players in various formations. The team believes Rey is a veteran option who could be out there often, but there are examples to both support and defy that notion. Vigil and Evans seem to be guys who who can cover the pass, but they’ll need to show more than what former favorite, Emmanuel Lamur did in his tenure with Cincinnati.

But, the pressure is on Dawson to have a solid preseason after two straight drafts netting players at his position. It’s also a big year for Flowers, as his athletic replacement may have been found this year in Evans, who has flashed big-time ability against the pass.

Wide Receiver:

Players to watch: Cody Core, Jake Kumerow, Josh Malone, Alex Erickson

This position battle is more about the back end of the group. Will the team make an unprecedented decision to keep seven players at the position? For six years, Brandon Tate hung on to a final roster spot because of his special teams ability. Will Erickson be that guy again in 2017?

Scouting reports show Core and Malone having similar skill sets, so it will be interesting to see if the Bengals keep both high-ceiling players with big, respective workout numbers. Cincinnati’s brain trust felt Malone was a second-round talent, so if it comes down to one or the other, this year’s fourth-round pick might take a front seat to last year’s Round 6 selection. Though, Core has received significant praise this offseason and the early word is that he’s the most improved player on the team.

And, as receivers coach James Urban recently noted, it’s a big offseason for Kumerow. He brings a 6’4” dimension that others don’t, but he’ll need to show that he’s more than just a possession guy. Or, if he can’t show that he’s a deep threat, he’ll need to be a red zone threat in the preseason, as that’s an area the Bengals are looking to vastly improve upon from 2016.

In addition to A.J. Green, the Bengals also have rookie John Ross, veteran Brandon LaFell and second-year slot receiver Tyler Boyd. Their positions are essentially locked in, though, behind Green the rest will be fighting for playing time.

Cornerback:

Players to watch: Josh Shaw, KeiVarae Russell, Bene Benwikere

It’s a pretty solid situation when the Bengals have a player who started games in 2016 (Benwikere) and a third round pick from 2016 (Russell) fighting for back-end roster spots. That being the case, Lewis loves big-talent corners and this is one of those spots the Bengals could load up on while going light elsewhere when it comes to the final roster.

Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones appear to be the starters, while Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson III and Shaw seem to have an inside track on the roster spots behind them. We are likely to see a lot of plays made in the preseason from this group and fans cringing with releases at the spot this offseason.

With Shaw’s versatility and athleticism—two traits the Bengals love—it’s hard to see him being shown the door. Benwikere is a guy who the team could hang on to because of his previous productivity, over that of a talented guy like Russell. Though, Benwikere spent time with three teams in 2016 and wasn’t able to stick with any. He’ll need to show a lot to force the Bengals into moving on from Russell or another young player this year.

Defensive Tackle:

Players to watch: David Dean, DeShawn Williams, Ryan Glasgow, Pat Sims, Brandon Thompson, Marcus Hardison

It’s often said that quality NFL teams are built on the lines and the Bengals fortunately have a number of talented players on the defensive front. While the edge has some rotational questions, the interior of the line has a plethora of talent.

Under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have struck gold in the middle rounds when it comes to defensive tackles. Domata Peko, Geno Atkins, Sims and others have been selected and supplied big dividends. But, with Peko’s departure to Denver, a roster spot has opened up and the team wants players who can rotate in and make noise.

Since going undrafted in 2015, Cincinnati has like what Williams brings to the table. However, Sims remains productive in this system and Hardison’s upside can’t be ignored. Glasgow is that “high-motor” guy, who remains scheme-diverse, so there’s a lot to sort out here behind Atkins and Billings.

Defensive End:

Players to watch: Will Clarke, Ryan Brown, Chris Smith

Even though the Bengals have Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap coming off of the edge, the team has been looking for ancillary help to get after the quarterback. With Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger comprising a quarter of the annual schedule, bringing them to the ground is key.

Clarke had a career year with four sacks last season, but he’s in a contract year and out to prove he can be a viable piece to the defense. Meanwhile, Smith is a guy the team made a low-risk/high-reward trade for right before the draft. He’s a stout, quick rusher, which should be a great complement to the other behemoths Cincinnati employs.

Is Clarke just another guy? Can other low-investment players bring the Bengals what they need? After being one of the top teams in sacking the quarterback in 2015, the Bengals finished in a tie for 19th in the stat in 2016. Jordan Willis and Lawson should definitely help in this aspect, but the team is looking for options behind Dunlap and Michael Johnson.