In the NFL, success is largely depended on health. And when your team doesn’t have it, it’s quality depth that compensates for it.
Just like most teams, the Bengals have dealt with numerous untimely injuries in their two losing seasons since 2015, but rarely did they find ways to adequately fill roles left vacant.
Slowly but surely, they’ve built a roster that now has an upsurge of young talent and is cultivating quality depth at numerous positions, though they still have more to do to get back to the talent level of 2015.
On the bright side, the Bengals ended the draft with eleven draft picks for the second consecutive year. 20 of their 22 draft picks since 2016 will compete for role on the roster, and most have shored up certain position groups in each draft to make them the deepest on the team.
Entering training camp, these are the deepest position groups on the Bengals roster.
Offensive line talent/performance has shown to be objectively more significant in a team’s running game compared to running backs, but teams still need two or three capable backs to share the load week in and week out.
Gone are the days of bell-cow backs that carry the ball 20+ times a game, running back touches are more evenly distributed between carries and receptions out of the backfield, and every back needs to be able to do both.
The Bengals are in great shape currently at the position, as they have a handful of multi-dimensional backs that fit perfectly in their offense. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard are set to handle the vast majority of the workload in similar fashion as former starter Jeremy Hill and Bernard operated in the past few years.
Despite an underwhelming rookie year, Mixon showed to be a superior athlete with a greater skill set than Hill in opportune moments. With an improved offensive line in front of both of them, the duo should allow the offense to be more diverse, and each will be interchangeable in their scheme.
Behind the top two, talent continues to persists. This year’s fourth-round pick Mark Walton was game-breaker for The U down in South Florida in his three years there, and he has a knack for creating for himself behind the line of scrimmage. His experience and versatility on special teams will keep him constantly active, and prepped to come in for Mixon or Bernard. He isn’t expected to exceed over a handful of touches per game, but he can expected to be relatively productive in his limited exposure.
Rounding out the group is second-year Brian Hill, whom was claimed off waivers by the team late last year, undrafted quarterback turned running back Quinton Flowers, and practice squad veteran Tra Carson. Hill is likely the favorite to claim the fourth spot if they decide to roll with four again due to the splash plays he provided when Mixon and Hill were both injured, but Flowers shouldn’t be counted out at his new position.
The team was enamored with Flowers in the pre-draft process and his ability running the ball and potential on special teams gives him a legitimate case to beat Hill.
Back in 2016, the Bengals front 4 lacked any pass rushing presence outside of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, and their run defense wasn’t much better. Two years later, things are looking much more promising.
Atkins and Dunlap still lead the way at 3-technique and left defensive end respectively; they are joined by free agent signing Chris Baker at 1-technique and long-time veteran Michael Johnson at right defensive end.
It’s the depth that should elevate this group this year. Second-year edge defenders Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis are poised for bigger roles and will continue to cut into Johnson’s snaps at right defensive end.
Lawson is the team’s clear best pass rusher off the edge behind Dunlap and will almost always be rushing quarterback’s blind side when the defense is in nickel. He’ll also be asked to rush from a two-point stance more as an outside linebacker and could push for Johnson’s spot all together, but it’s Willis’ prowess as an edge setter against the run that will also give him a chance at that spot. The more Lawson and Willis play and Johnson becomes more of an inside niche pass rusher, the better.
Joining them on the edge is third-rounder Sam Hubbard from Ohio State. An explosive and flexible player who has experience rushing from multiple techniques, Hubbard is primed to fight for the nickel 3-technique spot as well as rotate with Dunlap at left defensive end. High-end production isn’t the expectation for Hubbard this year, rather high effort plays and minimal mistakes is more reasonable.
On the interior behind Atkins and Baker are a pair of natural 1-techniques in Ryan Glasgow and Andrew Billings, each of whom logged Glasgow played mainly 3-technique last year and kept Atkins fresh but didn’t produce at all as an uphill penetrator. He’s a run defender that can hold his gap and get under guards and centers from a shaded alignment, and in that limited role, he’s fine.
Billings has more potential as a disruptor in the backfield and showed flashes last year, but his lows were much lower than Glasgow. It’s a wonder if he fully healed from his injury the year before, which shouldn’t be an issue this season. He could feasibly challenge Baker as the starter if the 30-year old doesn’t bounce back to his 2015-16 form.
The wildcard in this group is fifth-round pick Andrew Brown. A defensive end in Virginia’s odd front, Brown wasn’t truly utilized to maximize his ability yet still had admirable backfield production. He’s a true 3-technique and the only one the Bengals have behind Atkins. His making the roster would most likely mean the defensive line would house 10 bodies, and they usually go with eight or nine.
They could part ways with Johnson, the most likely cap casualty on the roster, but predicting the Bengals to move on from a player sooner rather than later is never a safe bet. With an inordinate amount of young talent on deck to hit their potential, it may be a move they would be forced to make.
The Bengals secondary as a whole is in pretty good shape, but the safety group is a little more solid from top to bottom with players who can be counted on for significant playing time.
Starters George Iloka and Shawn Williams are interchangeable back end defenders who can cover in two-high shells and come up field against the run. Iloka is the better deep safety but plays the run in the box much cleaner than coming downhill, while Williams can cover half the field and scream towards the box to make tackles.
To help each maximize their independent skillsets is second-round pick Jessie Bates. The rangy safety from Wake Forest will be asked to play a single-high role as well as potentially defending from the slot. His speed and ball skills brings a new dimension to the group as Iloka nor Williams have ever been regarded as players with those tools. Bates will also help the Bengals deploy more three-safety coverages and potentially increase their turnover total from a league low 15 last season.
Rounding out the group is Clayton Fejedelem and Brandon Wilson. Fejedelem was a pro bowl alternate for special teams last season and logged an average of over 20 defensive snaps a game. Though he doesn’t possess great coverage ability, he operates well in intermediate zones and is a frenetic run defender, which translates well in special teams.
Wilson is similar in build and play style to Fejedelem, though he didn’t get much opportunity to show it on defense. He’s a more natural and explosive athlete who could also play a little in the slot like he did in college at Houston, and is also a rising special teamer.
Ultimately, he could end up pushing a player like Josh Shaw off the roster as the safety/slot hybrid role player if he proves worthy this preseason.
Honorable mentions: Cornerback, Wide receiver
There is talent at the cornerback position, but its questionable if that talent is overrated as of right now. Behind William Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Darqueze Dennard there’s Josh Shaw, KeiVarae Russell and fifth-round picks Davonte Harris and Darius Philips. Shaw has been used in multiple roles in his three years here and has shown to be okay at most things but not really great at anything. Russell was a third-round pick two years ago and has looked serviceable in the time he was on the field, but if a scenario where Russell would have to start, could he be counted on to not be a liability?
Both Harris and Philips were better college players than their draft spot would indicate, but they both still have ways to go. Cornerbacks being positive contributors in year one are rare and it’s possible that one of them doesn’t make the final roster and gets stashed on the practice squad.
The narrative is pretty similar with the wide receivers. A.J. Green is great, and everything else is underwhelming or a question mark.
Brandon LaFell as of now is their next best option but he’s past his peak as a boundary receiver. He’s best used in the slot and shouldn’t be higher than fourth on the pecking order for targets, if he even survives camp.
Lafell is presumably safe for now because the rest of the group hasn’t proven to be better than him. Last year’s top-10 selection John Ross is extremely talented yet severely unproven to no fault of his own. Tyler Boyd, now in year three, regressed mightily in his second-year due to injury and off field issues. Josh Malone got playing time but was wildly inconsistent, and Cody Core never took that next step we were lead to believe he would take.
There’s Alex Erickson, who is a decent slot receiver and return man, but nothing more. Finally, seventh-rounder Auden Tate could be a solid niche red zone target, but is presumably behind all of those listed above due to his limited athleticism and special teams ability.