The Cincinnati Bengals have kept not one, but two undrafted free agents on the initial 53-man roster for the 2017 NFL season.
The Bengals usually have one or two UDFAs make the team, but both of these moves came as a bit of a surprise. The undrafted rookies who made the cut are linebacker Hardy Nickerson and tight end Cethan Carter.
The Bengals also kept two other young former UDFAs in Trey Hopkins, who will be the starting right guard, and Alex Redmond, who made it as a backup guard and center. Redmond and Hopkins both spent time on the Bengals’ practice squad in 2016 and Hopkins has had a brief stint on the 53-man roster before, too.
The Bengals have a great history of scoring with undrafted players. Fullback Ryan Hewitt, linebacker Vincent Rey and linebacker Vontaze Burfict all joined the Bengals via undrafted free agency and remain with the team today.
Nickerson, who finished his college career last season at Illinois, began college at Cal, where he was an All-Pac 12 performer in 2015 after registering 111 tackles. He would spend a postgraduate season at Illinois, where his father, Hardy Nickerson Sr. was named defensive coordinator in 2016. The younger Nickerson had 107 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions that season, which earned him All-Big Ten honors.
Nickerson Sr. was an All-Pro who spent the majority of his 16-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While he was with the Steelers, Marvin Lewis was his linebackers coach. Now, Lewis will go on to coach both the father and son.
Carter, a standout player during his college career at Nebraska, was voted honorable mention All-Big Ten in this past season. In 10 games played, Carter caught 19 passes for 190 yards and a score.
During Carter’s final two seasons at Nebraska, the Cornhuskers experimented with him as an h-back and would even hand the ball off to him. Carter had just five career rushing attempts, but he racked up 82 yards (16.4 per carry) and scored a 32-yard touchdown against Rutgers as a junior.
The Bengals love Carter’s ability to play fullback and tight end, specifically blocking. That made him more tempting to keep on the final roster. However, the Bengals are likely keeping Carter to account for fellow tight end C.J. Uzomah being out with a ankle sprain. Once Uzomah returns, Carter could see his roster spot disappear. It’s also possible, though not expected, that the Bengals could put Uzomah on Injured Reserve on Monday, making him ineligible to play in the first eight games of the season.
The same could be true of Nickerson, who made the final roster in large part because of Burfict‘s three game suspension. Once Burfict returns in Week 4, Nickerson may very well lose his roster spot.
Even if Carter and/or Nickerson are waived during the season, they both are eligible for the practice squad if they make it through waivers. As Hopkins and Redmond showed, spending time there isn’t a bad thing, as it allows players to develop and keep practicing while not appearing in games. And, when there’s an opportunity to make the roster, practice squad guys often get the call up whenever possible.