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Bengals vs Buccaneers: Top 4 storylines to follow in NFL preseason opener

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We take a look at the biggest storylines to watch unfold when the Bengals open the preseason against the Bucs.

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason football returns to the Queen City tonight when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This will be the first preseason action for either squad, meaning we should expect to see starters for just a series or two. Even so, those 5-10 plays will be the first live game action either team has seen in eight months.

Here’s a look at the biggest storylines surrounding the Bengals heading into Friday’s action:

1. The Cornerbacks

No one position on the Bengals’ roster has more draft capital invested in it than at cornerback. Between Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson III and Dre Kirkpatrick, that’s three first-round picks the Bengals have invested here since 2012. That’s not even accounting for Adam Jones, who is one of the team’s highest-paid players with a $7.7 million cap hit in 2017 and was a first round pick, too—though not by the Bengals.

However, Jones will be sidelined in Week 1 of the regular season while serving a one-game suspension. Even when he returns, Jones is a 33-year-old corner who will have just one year left on his deal after 2017. That could make him a cap casualty candidate next offseason, but the Bengals won’t move on if they don’t have a better option waiting in the wings.

That’s why it’s imperative that Jackson and Dennard have a good preseason so they’ll not only have big roles in this defense in 2017, but also so they can earn Jones’ starting boundary spot in 2018. Dennard will likely stick to the slot for most of this year, but he’s struggled mightily there at times, so he may be better off on the boundary.

Jackson missed all of his rookie season due to a torn pectoral muscle, so Friday will be the first live NFL action of any kind for him.

2. The Backfield

The Bengals enter 2017 with one of the deepest backfields any NFL team has to offer. Giovani Bernard has made a shockingly fast recovery from last season’s ACL tear. If he plays Friday, it will be interesting to see how spry he looks against outside competition, something he’s been in training camp against his own teammates.

Jeremy Hill is the early favorite to start Week 1 as he’s been consistent enough in training camp to keep his spot. Hill is also entering a contract year, so how well he plays this year will decide how big his payday is next offseason.

But while Hill has been the full-time starter for much of the past three years, he’s been wildly inconsistent, making it possible he loses his starting job if he doesn’t play well in the preseason.

Then there’s Joe Mixon, one of the most polarizing figures in this year’s NFL Draft. Friday will be the first time Mixon gets to showcase his talents to a worldwide NFL audience. He’ll also do so facing a tough Buccaneers defense that has enough depth to be stout when their second and third-string guys are in.

Mixon figures to get a big workload Friday and see time against starters and backups. If he performs well, Mixon will further increase the likelihood of a big workload early and often in his rookie season.

3. The Edge Rushers

The pass rush was easily the Bengals’ biggest weakness on defense in 2016. Now, this has the potential to be a strength if training camp is any indicator. That’s thanks to the additions of Carl Larson and Jordan Willis in the draft. Both were regarded among the best pass-rushers in this year’s draft class, and they did plenty of good things in camp, especially Lawson.

However, Lawson is being used as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. Where will he line up? Will he actually drop back in coverage? Is he going to be an end on passing downs, or will he actually be an extra edge rusher next to another end? We should get some hints to how he’ll be used on Friday.

As for the returning players, it will be interesting to see how well Michael Johnson does after a poor 2016 season. He was once a very good pass-rusher in this defense, but he has just 12.5 sacks during the past three seasons combined. That’s not going to cut it, so if Johnson can no longer be a capable starter, we’ll hopefully see different guys get a chance to take his job.

One other pass-rusher to watch is Will Clarke. Now entering the final year of his rookie deal, Clarke is facing tough odds of just making the 53-man roster this year. He has shown improvements in each of his first three seasons, so if he can make another small jump this year, he should be able to keep his job and hopefully positively contribute to the Bengals’ defense.

Elsewhere, keep an eye on Chris Smith, who the Bengals traded a conditional pick in 2018 to acquire this offseason. Can he do enough to unseat a drafted Bengals player? Early indications are he’s making a positive impression on the coaching staff, who had their eyes on him for over a year before pulling the trigger to trade for him.

4. The Offensive Line

The offensive line is the big question mark heading into the new season. After a down season last year, things only got worse for the offensive line during the offseason when its two best players — Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth — left to be paid handsomely elsewhere.

That left this unit in a major star of flux going into the 2017 season. Through three weeks of training camp, this was mostly an underwhelming unit that did little to silence the critics doubting them.

At left tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to replace Whitworth. Ogbuehi was far from a starting-caliber player at right tackle last season, but the team thinks he’ll develop nicely into a left tackle.

The only other real contender for that spot is Jake Fisher, who is penciled in as the starting right tackle for now. It’s possible we see an experimental lineup that has Fisher at left tackle and someone like Eric Winston or even Andre Smith at right tackle. Perhaps we’ll see some of this against Tampa Bay.

With Zeitler out at right guard, Smith is expected to start there after re-joining the Bengals this offseason. However, Smith’s one-year stint in Minnesota was a disaster at right tackle, and he’s never played right guard in his NFL career.

It didn’t help that Smith missed parts of OTAs and training camp due to various injuries and ailments, allowing Trey Hopkins to get first-team reps and make a strong push for this job. Hopkins should be used all over the offensive line Friday night, including offensive tackle.

What are you looking forward to watching in the preseason?