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Top Bengals position battles to watch in preseason

Though it’s not always the case, this year there are actually some good competitions taking place among Bengals players as the regular season nears.

Heading into Friday night’s preseason opener at Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals still have quite a few questions to answer as the 53-man roster takes shape.

Not many of those questions will be answered in Week 1 of the preseason alone, but during the next month, these questions will work themselves out, largely based on preseason play.

Here are the top position battles to watch as the preseason gets underway.

Starting cornerback during Adam Jones’ Week 1 suspension: William Jackson III vs Darqueze Dennard

With Jones suspended for Week 1, William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard are competing for the right to take his starting spot on the boundary for the home opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

So far, both cornerbacks have been making noise in training camp and though Jackson was ahead of Dennard on the team's first depth chart, which was released on Tuesday, that means very little to this battle. That's especially true as Dennard is expected to play predominantly in the slot after Week 1, and there's no slot designation on the depth chart.

Jackson missed his rookie year with a torn pectoral while Dennard has been a disappointment in his three years in Cincinnati. Both are former Round 1 draft picks with great potential and this will be a fun battle to watch as the young cornerbacks have been making great plays in camp.

Backup defensive end: Will Clarke vs Wallace Gilberry vs Marcus Hardison vs Chris Smith

The starting defensive end roles currently belong to Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson and that’s unlikely to change before Week 1. Elsewhere at the position, Jordan Willis, the Bengals’ third round pick this year is a lock. The rest of the defensive ends on the roster are likely competing for one, maybe two spots. That includes 2014 third round pick Will Clarke, veteran Wallace Gilberry, 2015 fifth round pick Marcus Hardison and the recently-acquired (via trade) Chris Smith, who was drafted by the Jaguars in 2014.

Clarke has served as a backup at the position for the last three years and in the final year of his rookie deal the Bengals may be done trying to get production out of him. He’ll need an incredibly strong preseason to make the 53-man roster.

Gilberry was re-signed this offseason after the Bengals let him walk last offseason and then regretted it. He was signed by the Lions in 2016 but only lasted in Detroit for a few games before getting waived, spending about a month as a free agent and then re-joining the Bengals after the team’s bye week. He definitely is not the player he used to be but he was (relatively) productive at the position (2.5 sacks, 8 tackles in five games) when he played for the Bengals last year.

Hardison is entering his third preseason after back-to-back preseason injuries forced him onto Injured Reserve in his first two NFL seasons. He’ll need to have a big preseason to ensure he doesn’t become a wasted draft pick. The defensive end position isn’t going to be easy to crack and we’ve just seen tiny samplings of what Hardison is capable of before injuries forced him off-the-field.

And then there’s Smith, who’s receiving a whole lot of praise from Marvin Lewis as well as reporters at practice. The Bengals gave up just a conditional Day 3 draft pick in 2018 to acquire his services this season. He’s deep in the hunt to make the roster and will be a key player to watch in each preseason game. It’s too early to say he’s the favorite to win the final defensive end spot, but, it’s pretty believable.

Starting right guard: Andre Smith vs Trey Hopkins

Andre Smith was brought back to Cincinnati this offseason to change positions and be the Bengals’ starting right guard, replacing Kevin Zeitler. He’s never played the position before at the NFL level, only playing right tackle since he was drafted by the Bengals No. 6 overall in 2009. Since Smith has returned to Cincinnati he’s battled an illness, an elbow issue and has missed numerous practices. He can’t learn a new position if he’s not on the field to practice. Meanwhile, Trey Hopkins has surprised nearly everyone with impressive training camp performances and the support of offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

Alexander has said he’s “at least” the sixth best lineman on the team and it seems he’s coming after the job that was intended for Smith. Each time Smith has missed practice, it’s been Hopkins practicing with the first team offense and as Smith missed Tuesday and half of Monday, it’s possible he won’t be playing at all on Friday. Every opportunity for Hopkins to see the field is a great one and it’s very possible he wins this battle, which is something we did not see coming back in March when Smith was signed.

Starting nose tackle: Andrew Billings vs Pat Sims

When the Bengals selected Andrew Billings in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, many saw it as the steal of the weekend. Then, he spent his entire first year on Injured Reserve with a meniscus injury. His rookie season was supposed to be an opportunity to learn and grow behind Domata Peko, with occasional playing time. But now, he’s attempting to win a starting job (Peko’s former role with the team) having never played an NFL snap. That’s something very rare for the Bengals and Billings will be competing with veteran Pat Sims for the job. Sims is no longer a starting-caliber linemen so the hope is Billings shines in the preseason, stays healthy and earns the starting job for Week 1. The team certainly is hoping he proves worthy of the honor, so now it’s time for him to do the necessary work and earn his starting role.

Final linebacker spot(s): Brandon Bell vs Jordan Evans vs Marquis Flowers vs Hardy Nickerson vs P.J. Dawson

The final linebacker spots on the roster will be another enticing preseason battle and likely the most crowded competition. Vontaze Burfict, Nick Vigil, Kevin Minter and Vincent Rey have their spots secured, as does 2017 fourth round defensive end/linebacker Carl Lawson, who has been the star of training camp. That leaves one, maybe two spots for guys like Brandon Bell, Hardy Nickerson, Jordan Evans, Marquis Flowers and P.J. Dawson, as well as Bryson Albright, who’s certainly on the outside looking in.

The team will want to keep Evans, a sixth round pick in 2017, but he’ll need to prove worthy, both on special teams and defense. That is the case for all of these guys as the final linebackers will be heavily relied on for special teams work. Bell and Nickerson were undrafted additions this year and both have shown a special ability in camp as well as in OTAs during the spring. If they don’t make the roster, they both could land on the practice squad.

Flower is entering the final year of his rookie deal and has shown little to believe he can be relied on at the linebacker position; the majority of his playing time has been spent on special teams and it’s possible his role will be given away if he doesn’t have a great preseason, in which he outplays the rest of this group.

P.J. Dawson has been among the Bengals’ biggest disappointments in recent years. A third round pick in 2015, Dawson failed to make the 53-man roster in 2016, partially due to his poor attitude and lackluster work ethic. No team claimed him off waivers and he ended up on the Bengals’ practice squad for all but the final two games of the year, after Burfict suffered a concussion, triggering his promotion to the roster.

May the best man (or men) win this job, which is sure to be a heated competition during the next month.

Starting running back: Jeremy Hill vs Joe Mixon

Currently, the team is saying Jeremy Hill is still the starting running back. But Joe Mixon has been stealing the show at training camp and the team did not draft him and take on all the PR baggage that followed to sit him on the bench. There’s every reason to believe Mixon is going to wow fans in the preseason the same way he has in training camp and when he does, he’s likely to give the Bengals more than enough reason to start him in Week 1.

Hill has proven unworthy of a starting role with the team and it’s time for the coaches to take a chance and see what Mixon provides the team as a starter. He’ll need to prove he can be a good pass protector and he can’t make many (if any) rookie mistakes in live action. But if he can do what he did in college, he may just earn himself a Week 1 start — or at least the majority of the running back snaps — when the season begins.

Final wide receiver spot(s): Cody Core vs Alex Erickson vs Josh Malone

It’s pretty safe to say both Cody Core and Josh Malone are going to win spots on the 53-man roster. And it’s hard to imagine Alex Erickson not making the cut after a tremendous rookie year as the team’s primary kick and punt returner. Not only that, but he led the NFL in kick return yardage and led the AFC in average yards per kick return. How could he not make the cut in 2017? Do you remember how long this team stuck by Brandon Tate?

Well, it’s going to be a fierce competition for the final roster spots this year (across the team) and the Bengals have A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell and John Ross locked into roster spots. Typically, the team keeps six wide receivers—some NFL teams only keep five—but they have indicated they’ll try to keep seven this year. Can they actually do that though? Is there room for seven receivers? Core has been praised as one of this year’s most improved players and Malone was drafted in Round 4 this year. So, what do the Bengals do? Can the team find room for a seventh wide receiver and will Erickson be No. 7, or can he prove himself to be better than guys like Core and Malone?

Which Bengals positional battles are you looking forward to watching when the preseason gets underway on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.