Every team has its superstars. The players who give the team that extra boost with their nearly superhuman style of play. For the Cincinnati Bengals, players like A.J. Green and Geno Atkins fill those roles. Around those pillars, the team has a system of starters ranging from very good to underwhelming. In a few cases, there is a lot of instability at certain positions that requires more contributions from the backups than would otherwise be expected.
Luckily, the Bengals have plenty of lesser-known players who step up when it counts. Whether it be filling in for a veteran starter, or simply coming in for the sake of stability, these Bengals players are guys who don’t sell many jerseys, but are still extremely important and often underappreciated.
To be fair, Rey was rewarded with a seven-digit contract extension before the 2016 season due to his immense ability as a rotational linebacker. Still, he has never been recognized as an indispensable member of the lineup, despite starting 33 games during the last three seasons. Most thought of Rey Maualuga as the starting middle linebacker last year, despite Maualuga only starting six games. Perhaps that is also what the Bengals expected at the beginning of the year, further explaining why Maualuga was released this offseason. Regardless, Rey has started enough games to qualify as a ‘starter’ for the last few years, yet he is often discussed as a backup. With so much turnover in the Bengals’ linebacker corps this offseason, that narrative might need to change soon. On top of that, Pro Football Focus ranked Rey as the NFL’s 14th best linebacker in the NFL with an 84.9 grade last season.
When Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower allowed a reception in 2016, it didn't go very far pic.twitter.com/Z5EGa1ldRq— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 2, 2017
Winston doesn’t make quite as much impact on the offense as Rey makes on the defense, but he is still called on, fairly often, to save a right tackle position that has seemed unstable ever since he showed up. Following the departure of Andrew Whitworth this offseason, Winston is now the most senior member of the offensive line as well as the player with the most starting experience. Don’t forget - he was a full time starter with the Texans, Chiefs, and Cardinals before he landed in Cincinnati.
Without the stability Winston provides, there is a good chance the Bengals’ right tackle position would have been in full-on crisis mode in 2016. Cedric Ogbuehi struggled mightily to adjust to the position and Jake Fisher didn’t fare much better. The only time the position was somewhat stable was when Winston was brought in to help. He only accrued two starts on the season, but was likely the best option the Bengals had despite the team leaning on Ogbuehi for too long.
Shaw fell in the 2015 NFL Draft due to concerns about his character and maturity, as well as his ability to keep up with athletic receivers. None of that has surfaced as an issue with the Bengals. In fact, he was a 12-game starter in 2016, despite the Bengals’ cornerback position being crowded by Round 1 draft picks. His opportunities to start were certainly helped by injuries to William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard, but he still performed admirably in the process, recording 47 combined tackles, three pass deflections, and an interception. It is hard to say whether he will retain his role with Jackson’s return and Dennard running out of time to prove himself, but we do know he has what it takes to rise to the occasion if necessary. On top of his ability at cornerback, he’s also shown potential at safety, which is an area at which he’s likely to see more time this season.
Honorable Mention: Clark Harris
Long snapper is a position a lot of people take for granted, but the Bengals have been lucky to have Harris. The Bengals signed him in 2009 to replace 10-year veteran Brad St. Louis, after he bounced around the Packers’, Lions’, and Texans’ practice squads. Since coming to the Bengals, he has held down a very important, if not often forgotten position. He has had a few struggles, but largely has been the model of consistency. The Bengals would be extremely lucky to have players as reliable as Harris.