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Ranking the Bengals’ roster: 21-30, on the cusp

These players still have something to prove, but that does not take away from their importance to the team.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Many players on the Cincinnati Bengals’ 90-man roster are fearing for their roster spots right about now. The guys we’re about to discuss don’t have to worry about that. They’re safe on the roster, though, they still have something to prove.

These are the players who are seen as key backups, guys who are sometimes mentioned among the starters, but are not expected to hold down a starting position long-term. Regardless, the contributions these players bring are vital to the team, providing key, reliable depth when something goes wrong among the primary starters.

Those types of players occupy the majority of this section of our ranking of the 90 players on the Bengals’ roster, in addition to a few starters with plenty left to prove. These are the ‘on the cusp’ players, ranked 21-30. Each player has a glaringly obvious reason why they are on this list, but it would be ludicrous to deny their impact to the team.

So far, we’ve ranked the #31-90 players on the Bengals’ roster:

#81-90, the little chance group

#71-80, the dark horses

#61-70, the tough cuts

#51-60, the roster bubble

#41-50, safe for now

#31-40, the core depth

Next, we move on to the players ranked 21-30, in no particular order:

Eric Winston, guard

Easily the Bengals’ most reliable backup offensive lineman, Winston arrived in Cincinnati in 2014, after spending the prior three seasons bouncing around the NFL between the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, and Arizona Cardinals. Before coming to Cincinnati, he was a 16-game starter with every team he played for, save for his rookie year with the Texans. Since coming to Cincinnati, he has only started two games per year, but he has been extremely reliable when asked to fill in at right tackle and has served as a leader for the young linemen.

Nick Vigil, linebacker

Vigil is expected to be part of the Bengals’ starting lineup in 2017, but he has plenty left to prove with only 14 total tackles and one pass deflection recorded in his rookie season. He could easily break into the next category on this list with a solid 2017 season, but right now, it is too early for him to be considered anything greater than ‘on the cusp’ of greatness.

Jordan Willis, defensive end

The Bengals made Willis their third round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft due to his incredible vision, decisiveness, finishing ability, and generally adept all-around technique. However, he slipped to the third round because he typically plays at one speed and can be overpowered by stronger tackles. He has the potential to earn a starting spot as he develops with the team, but until then expectations must be tempered.

Tyler Boyd, wide receiver

The Bengals’ second round pick in 2016 put together a solid rookie campaign with 54 catches for 603 yards and one touchdown. But, unfortunately he did not do enough to convince the Bengals he could turn into the ideal complement opposite A.J. Green. He fits in the Bengals’ receiving corps and should be a contributor for many years to come, but he will need to fight for starting time with John Ross’ raw talent and Brandon LaFell’s experience among the unit.

AJ McCarron, quarterback

Although McCarron has the potential to be an effective starter in the NFL, he cannot reach those heights as Andy Dalton’s backup. He is a very important member of the team, providing the Bengals with a fantastic insurance policy should something happen to Dalton. But, unfortunately he is stuck in a situation where he cannot take the next step.

Ryan Hewitt, H-back

The former undrafted tight end out of Stanford has solidified himself as the Bengals’ top option at fullback since coming to Cincinnati after the 2014 NFL Draft. He has been a consistent presence in the Bengals’ backfield for the last three years, a feat that had not been seen in Cincinnati since the Bengals parted ways with Jeremi Johnson in 2009. Hewitt has been considered one of the best fullbacks in the NFL in the past and, despite seeing less playing time on offense in 2016, he still contributed significantly on special teams (54 snaps).

Cedric Ogbuehi, offensive tackle

Ogbuehi is expected to start at left tackle this year, but without seeing him in action, we only have the results of 2016 as tangible evidence for what he can do. The right tackle position was an absolute mess in 2016, and a lot of it had to do with Ogbuehi adjusting to the starting role poorly and consistently allowing pressure from the outside, before being benched multiple times. Although it seems he is being handed the starting left tackle role, he needs to prove he can handle it before being ranked any higher on this list.

Vincent Rey, linebacker

Without a doubt the Bengals’ most reliable backup on the team, Rey would certainly be ranked at the very top of this particular category, if I was ranking the players in order. He earned a three year, $10.5 million contract extension before last season for his non-spotlight role with the team. He paid the Bengals back with 79 total tackles, a fumble recovery, seven deflected passes, and an interception in 12 starts. Those 12 starts primarily came due to various extraneous circumstances at linebacker last year, but it only goes to highlight his importance as a depth option at linebacker.

Jake Fisher, offensive tackle

The Bengals selected Ogbuehi and Fisher with their first and second round picks in 2015, respectively, knowing some big changes were coming to the offensive line. Fisher’s development so far has been slow, although he is expected to start at right tackle in 2017. Much like Ogbuehi, he will need to prove he can handle the position before he rises in these rankings, but the coaching staff has shown they believe in his ability and potential to succeed.

Michael Johnson, defensive end

Much like Hill, there was a time when Johnson was seen as one of the top up-and-coming players on the Bengals’ roster. In his fourth season, he absolutely went off with 52 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, and an interception. 2013 was less productive for him, but his resume was still enough to earn a sizeable five-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, worth $43.75 million. Unfortunately, injuries and poor play caused his stint in Tampa to flounder, although not before walking away with $24 million in guaranteed money. He re-signed with the Bengals in 2015 for nearly half the price, although his production has still been dwindling. It certainly feels like his days in the Bengals’ starting lineup are numbered, depending on how quickly Willis can develop.