With minicamps behind the Cincinnati Bengals, the team has a brief hiatus before the rigors of training camp. There were quite a bit of positive vibes coming out of The Queen City, ranging from rookies looking great in drills, to the avoidance of major injuries, and a lot of interesting storylines are set to take place in just more than a month.
Of course, on the forefront of fans’ minds are the position battles that are set to ensue. With many new faces taking on more prominent roles this year, any early signs of progress from young players supplies hope for the Bengals to get back to the postseason.
On this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider, we received some very interesting fan questions. One of which that Scott Schulze and I answered on air was about the development of second-year linebacker, Nick Vigil.
The strong side linebacker spot has a number of candidates for playing time, and even though I said on the show that Vigil may not be more than a “rotational player” in 2017, he does seem to have the inside track on a “starting” role at the position. However, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther likes to keep things diverse at the front seven on the defense, so guys like Carl Lawson, Vincent Rey, Jordan Evans, P.J. Dawson and Marquis Flowers may have shots at getting sizable regular-season rotational snaps.
Some felt as if Vigil was a little bit of a reach when he was selected in Round 3 last year, but rumors had the Packers, who picked right behind the Bengals at No. 88 overall, interested in the former Utah State standout. Interestingly enough, they took Vigil’s college teammate, Kyler Fackrell with their pick.
What drew Cincinnati to Vigil was not only his tackle numbers in college (282 total tackles his final two NCAA seasons), but also his impressive numbers in pre-draft agility drills. The hope is that Vigil can become a three-down player at some point in his career, but he’ll likely be sharing time in 2017.
Lawson, who has looked promising in the early practices, will definitely be vying for time, as Guenther attempts to keep up the creativity. So, even though Vigil might be out there early and in nickel pass coverage, there will likely be a number of guys switching in and out, depending on the down and situation.
In terms of his development this offseason, it sounds like it has been going well. Not only is it good news because of a supposedly expanded role in 2017, but also because he finished 2016 on somewhat of a high note with increased snaps at the end of the year.
Also on the program, we received a very interesting question on the discovery of the team’s identity in 2017. It’s an especially interesting question with all of the high-potential players they added in this year’s draft.
Are the Bengals a ground-and-pound team? Are they a bombs away offense?
Andy Dalton once again surpassed 4,000 yards last year and the team features so many passing weapons in A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Co. However, in terms of pass attempts, the Bengals have been 25th, 26th and 20th in the stat category since 2014, respectively.
The team has also been trying to ramp up its running game of late, as they have added three running backs in the second round since 2013 (Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill and Joe Mixon). While it’s early, Mixon has reportedly looked awesome in practices, so the team may prefer to rely more heavily on the run game this year, as well as the defensive unit which still has a number of high-profile veterans.
The ground-and-pound approach makes a lot of sense with the trio of quality backs, but uncertainty along the offensive line calls the efficiency of the ground game into question. Cincinnati lost its two most effective linemen in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in free agency this offseason, so the new faces on the line have to step up in big ways this year.
With the addition of John Ross, the Bengals added more explosiveness in the passing game. Again though, the line must give Dalton enough time to be able to use the massive amount of weapons at the skill positions.
For now, we’re not sure how the identity of the 2017 Bengals will shape up. Heck, maybe the Bengals aren’t even sure. But, on offense, balance will be key, as will the usage of the explosive rookies.
On defense, getting more of what we have largely seen from the group over the past six years will need to take place. Solid coverage by the corners and getting after the passer with regularity from different areas are also musts this year.
With Eifert's injury history is he worth big money? He is a monster when he is on the field. But is he there enough to draw the big check?— Brian (@bArtbow) June 19, 2017
@CincyJungle why not take a flyer on barnidge? He could be cheap, provide great back up to Tyler . And could be a weapon in the red zone— RaunchyCaptainMerica (@RaunchyMerican) June 19, 2017
We’ve talked about Eifert, his injuries and impending free agency a bit here at CJ and on the OBI podcast, so we won’t dive into great detail once again, but it is a very important question for the future of the club. I think we can all agree that Cincinnati should be attempting to reach an agreement with Eifert this summer, as they often do re-up their core stars in the year before their contracts end, but they’ll need to get creative with Eifert’s contract structuring because of his injury history.
Eifert has missed 28 games in four seasons, including the postseason, which nearly outweighs his 20 career touchdown receptions. So, the Bengals’ front office, which has done well in creating contracts that are both lucrative and team-friendly (see Dalton’s extension back in the 2014 offseason), will need to work more magic with Eifert.
The question is if the Bengals want to potentially spend significant money on him before this season only to see him miss games in 2017 should he get injured again. While that could very well be a frustrating scenario, they could save a little money and not allow him to smell free agency, which would be the case if he has another Pro Bowl season akin to 2015 and the team passes on agreeing with him on a deal before the season.
If you watch the game tape and are a metrics guy, you know Eifert’s effect on the offense—whether or not he’s actually targeted. Pro Football Focus recently noted his effectiveness in 2016, despite missing eight games.
Thanks to his ability to win downfield, Tyler Eifert was a top five tight end in 2016. pic.twitter.com/bTr9101h2I— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 18, 2017
So, yes, he deserves a big contract, but one that is incentive-laden based on production, games played, etc.
As for Gary Barnidge potentially joining the Bengals, the 2017 offseason is one that has pointed to a youth movement. So, in that sense, an addition of veteran free agent tight end at the end of his career doesn’t make sense right now. He’s entering his 10th season, and while the last two seasons have been his most productive in his career, one has to wonder how much gas he has left in the tank.
Though it was a low investment in the form of a seventh-round selection this year, the upside seems to be there with Mason Schreck, while C.J. Uzomah showed some nice progress last year in relief of Eifert in those first eight games. Even so, Uzomah missed six games with his own injury last year, making the position group very talented, but injury-prone.
And, that’s why an addition like Barnidge could make sense a little bit down the road. Tyler Kroft is looking to re-invent himself in his third year after disappointing in his first two seasons, while Uzomah is still rounding into form and they have something to prove in training camp. Eifert missed minicamp practices as he rehabs from offseason back surgery, so both upside and questions are prevalent in the group.
If there’s any inkling of Eifert having a setback in his recovery, Barnidge is the first call I’m making, if I’m the Bengals front office. Not only is he coming off of two productive seasons with major quarterback limitations in Cleveland, but he’s a guy who is familiar with how to make plays at the position in the rugged AFC North.
Barnidge isn’t Eifert, even though they both made the AFC Pro Bowl squad in 2015. The Bengals have a lot of firepower at the skill positions, but injuries in those areas could limit the offense’s potential, as it did last year. For now, the Bengals should sit tight, but if Eifert can’t go to start the season, or he gets injured once again during the year and Barnidge is somehow available, that’s the route to take.
If you prefer the audio file over the video above, you can check out audio from the listener questions segment on iTunes and SoundCloud. Remember, you can submit your questions to be answered in this feature on Twitter @CJAnthonyCUI and @CincyJungle. You can also have them answered on the air on our OBI podcast by tweeting @BengalsOBI, or by joining us live on YouTube or the live stream here at CJ.