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Comprehensive Bengals 2018 rookie preview

Everything you need to know about the first-year players the Bengals decided to keep on the 53-man roster.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals are a young football team, even if head coach Marvin Lewis doesn’t want to truly admit it.

The return of defensive end Michael Johnson 24 hours after he was a part of last week’s final cuts bumped the team’s average age just above the Cleveland Browns, but 30 teams remain older than Lewis’ 16th roster in Cincinnati.

After two straight losing seasons, it’s okay to be as excited as you may be nervous about that fact.

Despite the recent downturn of Bengals football, the draft classes of the previous two years are not to be faulted. 16 of the team’s 18 draft picks from 2016 and 2017 have made this year’s final roster, and eight of this year’s 11 draft picks will be making the trip to Indianapolis this weekend for the season opener as well.

Let’s review each one of those eight rookies, plus those who may be asked to play this year who aren’t currently on the 53-man roster.

The 2018 Draft Class

Billy Price, C, first-round pick (21st overall)

Russell Bodine’s replacement at center is heading into the beginning of his rookie season with expectations that he won’t be the liability his predecessor was. There’s more gray area in the world of player evaluation; players aren’t automatically true assets if they aren’t liabilities, and the intermediary space is where Price will likely reside this season.

Will we see him get bull rushed in pass protection multiple times a game?

No, nothing in his tape signals that being a likely scenario.

Will his snapping issues from training camp re-occur when the snaps actually count?

There may be one or two unfortunate incidents but nothing to constantly worry about.

The facts regarding Price haven’t changed since he put down the scarlet and gray garb and donned the orange and black. He’s an agro-pile driver who is quick on the move and as cerebrally advanced as they come for being just 22-years-old. His aggression can and will lead to missed blocks due to overly-bending at the waist, and his hands have to reach his landmarks faster off the snap when reaching shaded nose tackles in zone concepts.

These inefficiencies have to be cleaned up in order for Price to fully compensate for his lack of ideal length at the position, and they will pop up from time to time. But Price is still relatively new to the position, and progress should start to show the more he’s snapping to quarterback Andy Dalton.

Jessie Bates, S, second-round pick (54th overall)

Price was supposed to be the only rookie starter this year; at least that’s what everybody thought from outside the organization. He’s now joined by Bates, who is fully entrenched to start at free safety, among an extremely young secondary. Bates is the first Bengals rookie defender to start a Week 1 game since Rey Maualuga in 2009.

At the start of OTAs, Bates was getting time next to George Iloka when Shawn Williams was sidelined with injury. From the very beginning he was exposed to the first-unit, but was still behind Iloka when Williams returned. But he wasn’t hidden, as the beginning of the preseason saw Bates come in for Iloka starting on the defense’s second series for the first two exhibitions.

Then, Iloka was released for what the team claimed as “financial purposes,” and all of the sudden, Bates became the guy.

If Bates proved to the coaches that he was going to be the starter over Iloka no matter what, then it made sense to do away with Iloka’s salary that recognized him as a starter. But it wasn’t obvious that Bates ever outplayed Iloka in practice or the preseason.

The confidence the Bengals have in the 21-year old is immense, and his skills as a rangy third level defender with clear ball skills is why the Bengals are rolling the dice with him.

Sam Hubbard, DE, third-round pick (77th overall)

The Bengals’ other rookie Buckeye who will be dressed on game days this year must’ve thought he would be playing a lot more with Johnson out of the picture for just a day. With Johnson back and keeping the same roles he had last season, Hubbard should expect a workload similar to Jordan Willis’ rookie campaign last season: an average of 20 snaps a game, with most of them in the base defense defending the run.

An identical year to last year’s third-round pick would be acceptable for the 22-year old pass rusher. Hubbard comes into the league with an ability to win around the edge with quick and nuanced hand usage, but needs to nail those strikes to make up for a lack of elite get-off speed and explosion. We saw him have success throughout the preseason with his flexibility around the edge, but he’ll have to do it against much better competition now.

Hubbard’s value will come in run defense, as the Bengals have two quality edge rushers in Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson, and Willis looks primed to improve there as well. When Dunlap gets rest during the game, expect Hubbard to come in for him when Willis doesn’t.

There’s also inside at the opposite 3-technique spot of Geno Atkins in the defense’s nickel personnel that Hubbard could get playing time at. He and Willis saw ample opportunity there in the preseason when Johnson was out of the game, and though Johnson figures to still man that role, Hubbard should see some time there as well as the year goes on.

Malik Jefferson, LB, third-round pick (78th overall)

Jefferson’s collegiate production, athleticism and age (he won’t be 22 until November) gives him arguably the highest ceiling of all the Bengals draft picks from this year. The reason why he won’t be dressed on game days a lot, however, is because his floor is as low as his ceiling is high. And that reality was very much proven this preseason.

With the absence of linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Jordan Evans has taken hold of his starting spot at WILL linebacker, and Jefferson has been taking reps behind him on the second-team. He’s looked promising when tasked with matching up with running backs and slot receivers in man coverage. The explosion he exerts when clicking and closing is evident, but for every positive play he made, there was a condemnable error he committed.

Jefferson is not quite ready to contribute with significant snaps. His mental processing as a run defender is still a hindrance to his top-tier movement skills, and it’s plausible this reasoning is why second-year linebacker Brandon Bell got more playing time in two of the first three preseason games.

But the investment the Bengals made in Jefferson and his massive potential is why he’s on the roster and Bell isn’t. Even with Burfict sidelined with a four-game suspension to open the season, don’t expect Jefferson to be active much, and if he does dress, expect more special teams usage than anything.

Mark Walton, RB, fourth-round pick (112th overall)

The decision to keep Walton was not a controversy among the team. The volume production of 22 carries and 21 yards this preseason was horrendous on paper for Walton, there’s no questioning that.

And Brian Hill’s play behind him made him the more attractive option to round off the running backs room. There was simply more to the story for Walton last month.

Walton experienced what running back Joe Mixon went through all last season: running with a line of scrimmage reset well into the backfield. The vast majority of Walton’s carries were busts from the beginning, and it’d be unfair to judge Walton on such a sample when his college tape showed true playmaking ability and the vision to create for himself at Miami.

The stigma that Walton will have to shake isn’t that he’s a better running back than Hill. He has to prove he was worth the investment of a fourth-round pick when the Bengals had ample talent at the position besides him, but still had major questions on the offensive line. Walton seemed like a luxury pick when he was drafted, and the preseason seemed to validate that.

Regardless, Walton’s here to stay and should provide adequate depth for Mixon and Giovani Bernard. He’ll presumably be active to play on special teams, something the coaches specifically raved about him when he was drafted.

The nature of the NFL now is that successful running backs can be acquired anywhere throughout and after the draft, so to have a fourth-rounder just be a special teamer isn’t quite ideal. But he’s an injury away from being plugged into the offense full-time.

Davontae Harris, CB, fifth-round pick (151st overall)

After suffering a knee injury against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2 of the preseason, Harris missed the rest of the month and was destined for a place on injured reserve. But Harris made the initial 53-man roster, so he could be placed on injured reserve with an option to return later in the year.

Harris is the only player of the seven on the Injured/Reserve list who can play this year (which includes this year’s seventh-round pick OG Rod Taylor, who was injured at the start of training camp).

Even with that possibility, Harris may end up sitting the year out so he can come back stronger in his second year. Coming from Illinois State, Harris struggled early in training camp and the team would likely prefer if he could gain a little more strength to handle the physicality of the position.

If he does come back, he’ll be mainly a gunner on punt teams, and would likely be in that position because of other injuries forced him into the role.

Andrew Brown, DT, fifth-round pick (158th overall)

One of the two draft picks waived on Saturday (the other being seventh-round pick QB Logan Woodside, who has since signed with the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad), Brown missed most of August with a hamstring injury, and missed the first two preseason games and a ton of practice time as a result. The valuable time he missed put him in an unfavorable position. Despite that, his roster spot was still up for grabs until the very end with the release of defensive tackle Chris Baker coming a few days before he returned to the field.

The former five-star recruit and high school player of the year ultimately lost to fellow defensive tackle Josh Tupou as the final defensive lineman to make the roster, but we’re still talking about him because he went unclaimed on waivers and was signed back to the Bengals as a member of their practice squad. Brown can make up for lost time this year working on better pad level and getting more comfortable with play recognition.

Brown was my favorite pick of this year’s class, and it was unfortunate that he missed all that time with his injury. But there’s still a plethora of natural ability in him, and he should remain available in case anything bad happens to the defensive tackles on the roster.

Darius Phillips, CB/KR/PR, fifth-round pick (170th overall)

After sporting No. 38 on his jersey for the entire offseason, Phillips officially switched to No. 23 after he made it through the final cuts. But his role this season should mirror the former No. 24 for the Bengals had last year.

Adam Jones had the option on the final year of his contract declined this offseason, and the Bengals needed a return man to challenge wide receiver Alex Erickson and depth at cornerback to compensate for Jones’s departure. Phillips will be expected to do both of those things. As of now, he’s Erickson’s backup at returner (though he took the majority of kickoff and punt returns this preseason) and Darqueze Dennard’s backup at slot defender.

Phillips looked like the better option for both return man duties, and that’s where he’ll be relied on the most. Tony McRae is likely the first cornerback off the bench ahead of Phillips, but Phillips could use reps this season with Dennard becoming a free agent next year.

Auden Tate, WR, seventh-round pick (253rd overall)

A receiver, not a tight end. On the roster, not the practice squad. The notion that Tate would be converted to a tight end was wishful thinking from the start, but his cumulative work from OTAs to the preseason paid off and forced the Bengals to keep seven receivers when nearly everyone who made a prediction had six as the number. Now the question is: what’s next?

The presumed battle was between Tate and Cody Core, and conventional wisdom stated that whoever won the battle would’ve earned it from performance on special teams. Core didn’t play after Week 1 of this preseason, giving Tate ample opportunity to prove he deserved his spot. Even still, Core was kept on because they continue to value his presence on special teams due to Tate’s less than stellar showing there.

Special teams was so important for Tate because if he couldn’t prove himself valuable there, his skills as a receiver wouldn’t be recognized on game day and he’d have to watch from the sideline as the team won’t activate all seven receivers.

And despite the flashes he showed in his three catches for 66 yards this preseason, Tate still has plenty to work in his route running and timing. He’s just 21, and the receiving room looks strong besides him, so there’s no need to rush him now that he’s on the team.

Undrafted free agents on the practice squad

Quinton Flowers, RB

The Bengals tried to get Hill back on the practice squad, but the Atlanta Falcons, the team who drafted him last year, won him over instead. The Bengals got Flowers on the mini-squad, though they would’ve preferred Hill.

There was buzz early in the offseason that Flowers would be a surprise name to make the final roster because of his versatility and special teams prowess, but the running backs room became too crowded when Tra Carson started showing out. Flowers was one of the odd men out, but his future with Cincinnati is still alive. And just like Carson, he’s talented enough to work his way up onto the roster eventually.

Jordan Franks, H-B

With the release of veteran Ryan Hewitt and with Cethan Carter being placed on IR, the Bengals opted to go without an H-back this year for the first time in recent memory. Franks was behind both at the position in the earlier depth charts released in the preseason, and just like Hewitt and Carter, Franks got time at tight end as well.

The team ended up rolling with four true tight ends, but if one of them goes down during the season, Franks may get called up to the active roster. If that doesn’t happen, Franks could be back and compete with a healthy Carter for a spot next year.

Brad Lundblade, C

The starting offensive line for the Bengals will trot out against the Colts this Sunday will feature four different starters from last year. The depth at each position features nearly all familiar names, but neither center from last year is still with the team now after T.J. Johnson was cut last week. It’s Billy Price, then Trey Hopkins, and then Lundblade on the practice squad.

Lundblade may sport the stricken No. 61 on his practice jersey, but he played well enough on the third-team at center to earn a call back to the Bengals practice squad. Hopefully, he isn’t asked to come up from it.

Chris Worley, LB

Brandon Bell and Junior Joseph made reasonable cases for a spot on the practice squad at linebacker. In the end, it was Worley, who was used as a pass rusher more than anything, claiming the spot.

With Worley, the three rookies the Bengals brought in from Ohio State this offseason all made the team in some capacity, and Worley’s development as a versatile stand-up edge rusher with open-field capabilities will be something to watch going forward.