The Cincinnati Bengals will make their 2017 debut on Friday night at Paul Brown Stadium. Okay it is the preseason, but it is our first chance to see this year’s version of the Bengals on a football field for live action.
Since it is the first preseason game, don’t expect to see too much, or much of the starters. Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and A.J. Green will probably play for a series or two, but the large majority of the game will feature backup and bubble players looking to earn their spot on the 53-man roster.
We should see plenty of new faces like linebacker Carl Lawson and defensive end Jordan Willis, the Bengals’ new rookie pass rushers. Also if the Bengals’ first depth chart holds true, we should see plenty of Joe Mixon since he is fourth on the current pecking order.
What we will certainly see a lot of is the players who are on the bubble competing for their right to a spot on the 53-man roster. It is a good chance for players who have struggled during camp to prove themselves during an actual game and for players who have shined to prove the hyper surrounding them is real.
Here are five players we’ll be paying significant attention to as the preseason kicks off.
1) Jeff Driskel
Since Dalton will likely only play a series or two at most, we should see plenty of AJ McCarron and Driskel on Friday night. Driskel isn’t really competing for McCarron’s spot as the backup, but what he is competing for is a spot on this roster.
It isn’t a secret the Bengals are overloaded at several positions like wide receiver and defensive tackle. Since the Bengals may try to keep more players than normal at those positions, they will have to make more cuts at other positions. The first one they would probably look at is the third quarterback. Many teams around the NFL only carry two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster so they can keep an extra player at another position. The Bengals have rarely kept three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster during the last five years, but Driskel stuck as the No. 3 guy for all of 2016.
This year, Driskel needs to prove he is more valuable than keeping, say, a seventh receiver. If he really impresses maybe it’ll also make the Bengals reconsider trading McCarron away before the season begins.
2) Jake Elliott
The Bengals used their fifth round pick on Elliott to the surprise of many. He also gave us all quite the scare last week during the team’s scrimmage when he missed a field goal and extra point in front of 11,000 fans inside Paul Brown Stadium.
Elliott rebounded toward the end of the day by making his final three field goals and he also seemed very eager to get back out there and move past it. Nothing will help him get past it faster than hitting an actual in-game field goal. It will also help prove he deserves the spot over Randy Bullock who had a very good training camp with just one miss recorded.
3) Christian Westerman
Westerman came into training camp as almost a lock to make the roster after being drafted in the fifth round last season. That was before Trey Hopkins balled out and earned the position of the “first offensive lineman off the bench.” That means Westerman is competing with players like J.J. Dielman and Alex Redmond for one of the last spots on the offensive line.
Westerman can really prove his worth more in actual games than in practice, and he’ll need to do that after sitting on the bench for the entirety of his rookie year. He was inactive for all but one game in 2016 and didn’t play a snap in the one game for which he was active. A good showing in the preseason could force the Bengals into a tough decision with with another offensive lineman. We’re also sitting on the edge of our seat waiting to see what he has to offer after news on Westerman has been sparse during the offseason.
4) Alex Erickson
Erickson was the feel good story from last year’s preseason. He finally made Brandon Tate expendable, and was productive as a returner last season, despite never scoring a touchdown. This is a new season though, and it looks like Erickson will have to earn his spot again.
The Bengals drafted John Ross and Josh Malone in this years draft. They also re-signed Brandon LaFell. Not to mention they still have A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Cody Core. It seems like the Bengals won’t be parting ways with any of those receivers, which leaves Erickson possibly on the outside looking in.
It is true Erickson is a really good returner, but the Bengals have other options at that position with Adam Jones, Ross, Boyd and Mixon, who the team has listed as a kick returner on the depth chart. Erickson may have to show he has improved as a receiver to prove he is worth keeping as a seventh receiver.
5) Chris Smith
The Bengals made a surprising move before the draft when they traded for the former Jaguars defensive end. They only had to send Jacksonville a conditional seventh rounder to get Smith, so the Bengals probably don’t feel like they are overly committed to him if he doesn’t earn his spot.
Still, Smith has come in and looked impressive. His efforts have impressed Marvin Lewis and the coaching staff, as well as training camp attendees. The competition at defensive end is fierce and will be a top preseason battle to watch. The starters are already in place with Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson holding down their spots and the team drafted Willis in the third round and Lawson (who played defensive end at Auburn) in the fourth round.
Smith likely has to beat out Will Clarke, Marcus Hardison and Wallace Gilberry for what likely will be the final defensive end spot on the roster. Clarke has been a major disappointment, Gilberry is aging quickly and Hardison has yet to play an NFL snap after back-to-back preseason injuries in his first two seasons. It is up to Smith to show the Bengals the grass may be greener on the other side.