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Bengals mailbag: Roles for faces, both new and old

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Between the influx of 10 new rookies and the implementation of a new coaching staff, many Bengals players may be in for specific roles in Zac Taylor’s scheme.

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We’re getting into the dog days of summer, but some clarity is beginning to emerge with this enigmatic Bengals team. Position battles are to be waged during training camp, but this new coaching staff is starting to give us hints as to how certain things may look as the 2019 regular season rolls around.

We’ve already discussed the elements of each selection and some grades for this year’s class, so the questions now are more about implementation of the new guys. Might the Bengals use the rookies in some ways that we didn’t see in college?

These and other questions were on the minds of fans recently.

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Much of the reason behind the Bengals selecting Germaine Pratt in Round 3 was the fact that he was one of the most well-rounded linebackers in this year’s class. A converted safety who has some range, Pratt is arguably the best tackler at the position in this year’s group and should provide an immediate boost to the team’s defense.

An unheralded part of his repertoire is in his ability to get to the passer. After failing to notch a quarterback sack in his first three collegiate seasons, Pratt had six of them in 2018.

Was this simply an anomaly, or is it a facet of his game that the Bengals need to exploit early in his career? We were asked on this week’s OBI on the viability of Pratt’s ability as an edge rusher.

On one hand, the big spike in quarterback sack production last year could point Pratt’s continued development and rounding out to being a complete linebacker. And, with the team essentially investing in only Kerry Wynn so far this offseason as a true pass-rusher this offseason, they may look to Pratt as an ancillary quarterback pressure piece.

But, Bengals fans have heard this song and dance before.

The fitting in of square pegs in round holes is nothing new in Cincinnati. After drafting Carl Lawson for his pass-rushing prowess, the team has flirted with him getting a little work as more of a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, which isn’t his strength.

And, remember big Jason Shirley, the defensive tackle they grabbed out of Fresno State in 2008? They attempted to get cute with him and transfer him to the offensive line. Neither area worked for Shirley, and he was out of the NFL by the time the 2012 season rolled around.

For those wondering, this isn’t/wasn’t necessarily a Marvin Lewis thing, either. Remember the 2009 “Hard Knocks” stint where owner Mike Brown suggested that defensive end Chris Harrington get some looks at tight end? Yikes.

The Bengals would probably be best served to have Pratt play a more traditional role in the defense with the infrequent blitz, but he shouldn’t be asked to put his hand in the dirt with regularity. He will get the occasional sack, no doubt, but Pratt isn’t a true edge rusher, despite the spike in sacks last season with the Wolfpack.

Let’s be clear, though: there is a fine line to walk. Of course, if the Bengals’ coaches believe that Pratt’s growth in the pass-rush area is a sign of instinctual maturity, you don’t want to stunt that growth. But, we’ve also heard from innumerable rookies who say they are shocked at the speed of the NFL game, as compared to college.

Pratt seems to be one of the class’s most obvious immediate impact players, so the Bengals would probably be best-served giving him positional responsibilities he’s most comfortable with—namely tackling and other traditional linebacker tasks. He can shoot through on a blitz here and there, but this defense needs to start over by retooling the basics after scraping the bottom of the barrel in most major statistical areas last season.

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Ever since the Bengals flirted with the idea of bringing in a Rams assistant for their head coaching vacancy, Who Dey Nation’s collective mind began running wild with ideas as to what Cincinnati’s offense could look like in the near future. Los Angeles’ offense was one of the most explosive and innovative units, so with players like A.J. Green and Joe Mixon at two of the skill positions, optimism began to spring out of a three-year drought.

One of the specific questions that has arisen after Zac Taylor was officially named Bengals head coach was how the roles of players like Green, Mixon and others would resemble that of the Rams’ skill position stars.

First, it’s important to temper expectations to reality. While the Bengals have quite a bit of talented players on offense, their transformation to one of the league’s better offenses may not occur as quickly as the one that took place out west. Still, because of the collective talent, the learning curve in The Queen City should be less steep than with other clubs.

And, while there will be similarities between the systems, they won’t be total carbon-copies of each other. Given the team’s prioritizing the offensive line and running back positions this offseason, the run and play-action games could be an even more prominent facet of the Bengals’ offense than that of Los Angeles.

How will Cincinnati’s skill position players fit into similar roles to those with the Rams, though?

The easiest correlation to make is in Joe Mixon and Todd Gurley. Most would agree that the Rams’ back is a superior option to Mixon, but the Bengals’ back is on his own track to stardom, given his ability to run and catch in a heavy role.

And, even though Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks had similar statistics, Woods was more of their “go-to” guy in 2018. As John Sheeran put it on our podcast, “Woods was more ‘the X’ or ‘Alpha’ wide receiver”. Obviously, that role would be designed for A.J. Green, and if he’s healthy, he very well could surpass the 86-catch, 1,216-yard, six-touchdown season Woods had last year.

The slot guy who is moveable to the outside, a la Cooper Kupp, could be one of two players in the Bengals’ receiver group. The one that springs immediately to mind is Tyler Boyd, given his versatility and ability to make tough catches in the middle parts of the field.

However, Alex Erickson has also recently risen to sudden prominence with the club, given some recent rumors. Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi actually labeled Erickson Cincinnati’s version of Kupp when recently reporting on the Bengals’ turning down of trade offers for the receiver. Take what you want from that tidbit of information.

So, that brings us to Cooks. It may be a stretch, given the career disparities, but John Ross should be penciled in for that type of role this year. The Rams standout has a lot of gadget plays and underneath routes throughout a given game, and just as he begins to bring a defense up a bit, a long ball is dialed up in his direction.

While the Rams’ offense isn’t overly-focused on the tight ends, one could equate second-round pick Drew Sample’s role to that of Tyler Higbee. The Rams lined Higbee up as an H-Back on occasion, while also hitting him out in the flat from his traditional tight end spot. Sample should be an outlet for Andy Dalton from varying areas.

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