With the preseason now halfway over, it’s time for a look at the Cincinnati Bengals who’ve raised and lowered their stock the most since the exhibition games began. On the bright side, a few Bengals who were on the outside looking in at the 53-man roster are now in great position to make the roster, while some backups have boosted their positioning. On the less positive side of things, two veterans have been struggling and may no longer have their roster spots locked up.
The offensive line has been firmly under the microscope this offseason. Every starting lineman has been squarely under pressure, though Trey Hopkins wasn’t expected to be one of them.
After all, Hopkins has spent most of his three-year NFL career on Injured Reserve or the practice squad. No one was even sure early this offseason that he’d make the final roster this year, but that changed in a big way in training camp. He was the star of camp, so much that offensive line coach Paul Alexander essentially said Hopkins was locked into his roster spot.
Now, he’s well on his way to locking down a starting spot. Hopkins has played so well that he actually got the start at right guard vs Tampa Bay and Kansas City over Andre Smith.
Against the Bucs, Hopkins played very well and opened up some nice holes for Jeremy Hill and Joe Mixon to get big runs. His player was a little more uneven against the Chiefs, though it was still one of the better games a Bengals lineman had.
Hopkins is now the favorite to be the starting right guard come Week 1, ensuring he has a major role in an NFL offense for the first time in his career. That’s why his stock has arguably risen higher than any Bengal in the preseason.
While Hopkins may have a starting spot within his grasp, if we’re just going off players who’ve impressed the most, that honor goes to defensive end Chris Smith. For the second straight week, Smith was Cincinnati’s highest-rated player by Pro Football Focus after getting a sack, five quarterback pressures and a tackle for loss versus the Chiefs.
Against the Buccaneers in the preseason opener, Smith generated seven total quarterback pressures, an absurd rate for any pass rusher, even against second and third-string lineman. That earned Smith reps with the starters against the Chiefs, and he notched one pressure against Eric Fisher, which is no easy task.
Unfortunately, even with his two standout performances against the Buccaneers and Chiefs, it’s no lock he makes the final roster. The Bengals prefer to keep their own veterans like Wallace Gilberry and Michael Johnson, though Smith looks like the superior player to both. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Smith prove such against Washington this week.
I think the Bengals find a way to keep Smith regardless of what happens. He’s been too good to let go for nothing while keeping aging, fading vets like Johnson and Gilberry.
The pass rush was easily the Bengals’ biggest weakness on defense in 2016, but it now has the potential to be a strength if training camp and the preseason are any indicators. That’s thanks in large part to the addition of Jordan Willis, who was regarded among the best pass rushers in this year’s draft class.
Wills did plenty of good things in camp, and his first two preseason games were much of the same. Against the Chiefs, Willis racked up two pressures on 13 pass-rush snaps, earning him an 80.2 overall grade, which came after his 82.2 grade versus the Buccaneers.
He was a menace off the edge and also made several nice chase-down tackles from behind, the kind you normally see from linebackers. But Willis’ greatest asset is his pass-rushing prowess, which led to him getting the first sack of the preseason for the Bengals. Where Smith is more of a speedy, finesse pass rusher, Willis can simply bulldoze through blockers to pressure quarterbacks, though he has some great burst as well.
Willis is also a big winner simply from Michael Johnson looking like a shell of himself, so much that Willis may be taking his starting spot sooner rather than later.
Going into training camp, Tra Carson was a player no one was talking about in the Bengals’ backfield. In addition to Hill, Giovani Bernard and Mixon getting all of the praise, promising undrafted free agent Boom Williams was viewed as someone who could push Cedric Peerman for that fourth running back spot.
However, Carson was far and away the fourth-best running back in training camp and through two preseason games. Boom has even been waived, and fellow undrafted player Jarveon Williams has seen limited opportunities. Meanwhile, Carson has shown a dramatic increase in confidence, patience and burst through running lanes, which has led to him breaking off several big runs through two games. He leads the team in preseason rushing with 56 yards on 16 carries to go with two catches for 24 yards.
The Bengals liked the former undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M last year, and rewarded him with a year on the practice squad and even signed him to the 53-man roster before the final regular season game against Baltimore.
Carson didn’t have a good preseason last year, so it was tad surprising to see the Bengals have so much faith in him, but they’ve been rewarded for their patience. The question is, do they like Carson enough to give him Peerman’s roster spot, or will they risk waiving the second-year back in hopes he’ll make it to the practice squad again?
The Bengals need a major upgrade at defensive end, which is almost certainly going to involve Johnson going to the bench, or even free agency. The former star pass rusher had a great 2012 season when he racked up 11.5 sacks and looking like one of the NFL’s best young pass rushers.
However, things have slowly gone downward since then. He’s racked up a whopping 16 sacks in 61 games from 2013-16. Sure, pass rushing is more than just sacks, but his ability to even pressure quarterbacks has decreased significantly, so much that’s he’s essentially what Robert Geathers was for this defense at the end of his career; a great locker-room leader who wasn’t good at anything else besides that.
Johnson has been so bad this preseason that he’s now in real jeopardy of being cut, though I still think Cincinnati keeps him and parts with him next year. However, I fully expect him to lose his spot as the primary starting right defensive end. He may still officially start, but I expect guys like Willis and Smith to get more and more of his snaps as the season rolls on.
In an almost identical situation to Johnson, Eric Winston looks like a shell of what he once was. The problem is, Winston was never great with the Bengals. His days as a stud right tackle with the Houston Texans were long behind him when he joined the Bengals late in the 2014 season.
Since then, he’s been a spot starter at right tackle who also got some work at right guard. While he’s performed admirably, he’s never been a lineman the Bengals could rely on for long stretches.
Now, they can’t rely on Winston to even block second and third-string lineman. He’s looked worse than ever while getting abused by guys who may not even make a 53-man roster. The thought of him taking a regular-season snap against someone like Terrell Suggs, Myles Garrett, Von Miller, Brian Orakpo or Everson Griffen is horrifying.
What’s even more horrific is the Bengals may actually keep Winston and cut a young, promising lineman like J.J. Dielman or Christian Westerman to keep a guy who has no business being on an NFL field at this point in his career.
Even though the Bengals gave Winston a one-year, $1,080,000 contract this offseason, the Bengals will have just $80,000 in dead cap space if he’s cut. In comparison, the Bengals are on the hook for $201,937 if Dielman is waived, and $173,772 for Westerman if waived.
Money talks, and for a penny-pinching owner like Mike Brown, the smart money should be on Winston losing his roster spot.