OTAs have begun for the Bengals and competition for spots on the roster is already underway. The Bengals have several positions with intense competition where the coaches may have to part way with some talented and veteran players.
Here are five players who need to make an impression early in order to ensure they stick around in Cincinnati for the 2018 NFL season.
1) Alex Erickson, wide receiver
Erickson has secured a spot on the Bengals’ roster the past two season mainly as the Bengals’ return specialist. He got some run at receiver last season as well, but his main focus was on special teams. The reason he is on this list is because he wasn’t good last season on punt returns and was just average at kick returns. First off, he has never returned either for a touchdown. Secondly, he didn’t even redeem that by being a consistently good returner in 2017 like in his first season with the Bengals.
I know we all have a soft spot for Erickson because he allowed the Bengals to part ways with Brandon Tate, but the Bengals seem to have put him on notice. The team drafted Darius Phillips who was a prolific returner, and they even had the rookie safety Jessie Bates III return some punts during rookie minicamp. Not to mention, Brandon Wilson will also likely have an opportunity at the return job as well. Erickson will either have to show improvement as a returner or build off of the few bright spots he had as a receiver last season. It is hard to believe the team will hold onto seven receivers again this season, so he’ll need to show a lot to stick and his fumbles are a negative that bring him down in addition to his subpar returning numbers.
2) Michael Johnson, defensive end
Johnson is getting up there in age at 31-years-old, and the Bengals have made a point to draft pass rushers for the past few offseasons with guys like Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis and Sam Hubbard joining the roster. The Bengals listing Lawson as a linebacker gives him a better chance and his two games last year with two sacks shows he still has something left to give. Aside from those games though, he had one single sack. Johnson could quickly find himself low on the depth chart, and if a college free agent impresses, that could spell the end for Johnson with the Bengals. Not to mention, the Bengals can save roughly $4.9 million in cap space by cutting him.
3) Josh Tupou, defensive tackle
Tupou spent most of last season on the practice squad after coming in as an undrafted free agent. The fact the Bengals added Chris Baker via free agency as well as drafting Andrew Brown pretty much kills most of Tupou’s shot at making this roster, imagining everyone stays healthy. The fact that he was arrested for violating his probation this offseason probably doesn’t impact much, but he needs a good camp in order to prove he deserves to even make the practice squad.
4) Josh Shaw, defensive back
Shaw is a former sixth round pick who has stuck around do to his versatility to play cornerback and safety. Although last season he showed his versatility to struggle at both positions, too. The Bengals tried to address their depth at each position by drafting Bates, Phillips and Davontae Harris this season. Shaw is really going to have to make an impact at one of his positions as well as probably contribute a lot on special teams in order to make this roster.
5) Ryan Hewitt, fullback/h-back
Hewitt is a great player who could easily earn a role on this team. The problem is, the Bengals haven’t been using him enough for it to make sense to keep him on the roster. Hewitt may have to fight for a roster spot by proving the Bengals still need need someone like him -- a real NFL fullback. It is no secret the NFL has slowly gone away from the fullback position. The Bengals’ lead back, Joe Mixon, rarely even ran behind a fullback at Oklahoma, and he did fine when the Bengals started running him from the gun at the NFL level.
Now that Bill Lazor has created a new offense instead of expanding upon Jay Gruden’s, there is a possibility that the Bengals could choose to forgo keeping Hewitt on the roster altogether in order to keep depth at another position. Or, Lazor could create a role for Hewitt that ensures he remains on the roster. A post June 1 release of Hewitt would save the team nearly $2 million in salary cap.
The Bengals could decide keeping four running backs and having two of them on the field at once could be more productive then keeping Hewitt who has had four catches over the last two seasons and played just 106 snaps or 11.02 percent of all offensive snaps in 2017. Hewitt signed a sizable deal back in 2016, but he will still have to show he deserves to stick around early on in order to keep his spot.