Training camp is a time for NFL players to set the foundation of success and potentially even win favor with the coaching staff.
Halfway through training camp, the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting lineup is starting to come into focus, though, there are still some spots to be determined. The preseason will teach us much more than training camp has been able to, but as of today, here’s our best guess at what the Bengals’ starting lineup will look like on offense, defense and special teams when the Baltimore Ravens come to town on September 10.
Quarterback - Andy Dalton
Running back - Jeremy Hill
Wide receiver - A.J. Green
Wide receiver - Brandon LaFell
Slot Wide receiver - Tyler Boyd
Tight end - Tyler Eifert
Left tackle - Cedric Ogbuehi
Left guard - Clint Boling
Center - Russell Bodine
Right guard - Andre Smith
Right tackle - Jake Fisher
Dalton, Green, Eifert and Boling are all very safe in the starting lineup. Despite other talents at those positions, these players are so far ahead of the rest of the competition, it would be ridiculous to discuss any possibility of them losing their jobs.
And while LaFell and Boyd seem most likely to be the WR2 and slot receiver, respectively, John Ross could contend for one of those spots soon enough. As of now, he’s not cleared for contact, so until he is, he’s on the outside looking in.
What happens at running back could change from what’s anticipated now. It seems likely incumbent starter Jeremy Hill will retain the starting running back spot in Week 1, although he will have to contend against an already established Giovani Bernard (who’s back and healthy after ACL surgery) and a top up-and-coming talent in Joe Mixon (who has looked fantastic in training camp). It would be a surprise to see either Bernard or Mixon start in Hill’s place right away, but it wouldn’t be unfathomable. And even if Hill has the starting job in Week 1, he may not receive the majority of running back snaps and may not keep the starting job for long.
On the offensive line, the Bengals seem set with focusing on developing Ogbuehi and Fisher at tackle, while training Smith at guard. Though, Trey Hopkins has made some noise as a contender at right guard and if Smith can’t stay healthy, he may just snatch up the role.
At center, it would be a surprise to see a player like J.J. Dielman or even T.J. Johnson to break out enough to unseat Bodine at the starting spot. But, Bodine has been inconsistent in his career as a starter, so it would be foolish to say his spot is completely safe. The biggest surprise would be seeing another center develop quickly enough to allow the Bengals to feel comfortable replacing him.
Defensive end - Carlos Dunlap
Defensive end - Michael Johnson
Defensive tackle - Geno Atkins
Nose tackle - Andrew Billings
Outside linebacker - Vontaze Burfict
Outside linebacker - Nick Vigil
Middle linebacker - Kevin Minter
Cornerback - Dre Kirkpatrick
Cornerback - Adam Jones* (Darqueze Dennard for Week 1)
Safety - George Iloka
Safety - Shawn Williams
Guys like Dunlap, Atkins, Burfict, Kirkpatrick, Iloka, and Williams aren’t going anywhere in the starting lineup. To suggest otherwise would be completely erroneous.
However, the other starting spots have more room for a shake up. Johnson underperformed in 2016, putting his continued starting role under scrutiny going forward. Jones is suspended for Week 1 and either Darqueze Dennard or William Jackson III are likely to start in his place for that game. Until the preseason, Dennard likely has a leg up as he has starting experience—though, not much of it. And, if whoever takes over for Jones in Week 1 does well, maybe they’ll be playing more often than not as the season progresses.
Guys like Billings, Vigil, and Minter all seem to be on pace to earn the starting job at their respective positions, though, they’ll all be first year starters for the Bengals. Given their lack of experience starting for the Bengals, the team is likely to at least try to foster some sort of competition to prepare them for their roles this season.
That said, the only starting position that seems up in the air enough to merit real discussion is the nose tackle position. Billings is the favorite, but he has yet to take an NFL snap, while guys like Pat Sims and Brandon Thompson both have previous starting experience with the Bengals. That competition may be the most exciting to watch once the preseason gets underway.
Kicker - Jake Elliott
Punter - Kevin Huber
Long snapper - Clark Harris
Punt returner - Adam Jones
Kick returner - Alex Erickson
For the most part, the Bengals’ special teams unit should be pretty straight forward heading into 2017. Huber is the established punter for the Bengals with no competition for his spot, and the same can be said for Harris at long snapper. Kick returner Alex Erickson is also likely in that category of ‘untouchable’ players, given his outstanding 2016 performance, leading the AFC in average yards per kick return (27.9). Though, we’ll have to see if someone else emerges as a contender to steal his job in the preseason. Typically, that wouldn’t be the case but with 11 drafted rookies fighting for a roster spot, it’s not going to be easy for anyone to make the 53-man roster this year.
At punt returner, the Bengals could potentially work guys like John Ross, Brandon Wilson, or Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams in. But, Wilson has yet to practice as he’s on the Non-Football Injury list and Williams is unlikely to crack the roster. Jones is an established starter and not going anywhere, but he will be 34-years-old in September. His performance and off-field antics are both becoming bigger issues, although don’t expect him to give up the punt returner role easily.
At kicker, the Bengals are officially holding a kicking competition between Elliott, incumbent kicker Randy Bullock. The Bengals made Elliott the highest drafted kicker of the 2017 NFL Draft, so it would be a shock to see him lose the competition. But, that is not to say there is zero possibility of one Bullock putting together a solid run at the job.