You know what a Super Bowl appearance does? It attracts 60,000 fans to watch a football game without any starters playing.
60k for a Cincinnati Bengals preseason contest is a wild concept, but it was the reality Friday night against the Arizona Cardinals. With the entire starting lineup watching in street clothes, nearly two dozen first-year players took the field for the very first time in their careers. Less than half of them will make the Week 1 roster, and that’s where the drama lies with August football.
Despite the 36-23 defeat, more rookies impressed than not. Let’s go overview those first.
With Jessie Bates looking on from the suites, Dax Hill got over the rookie jitters quickly and played as fast as his 40 time indicated.
The highlights spoke for themselves. Hill nearly recorded a leaping interception on an overthrown ball in the end zone whilst defending a corner route. A couple drives later, it was his recognition from a deep alignment that allowed him to break up a third-and-three pass.
As one of the highest draft picks on the field, Hill’s talent and athleticism was extremely evident. His ability to break on the ball when he trusts his eyes is what makes him as versatile as he can be. And the Bengals made sure to put him in multiple spots. He was in the box, slot, out wide, and in a deep half for 42 total snaps.
Hill is starting as long as Bates watches from afar, but even when (not if) Bates returns, Hill is proving valuable enough to find the field.
If you’ve been paying attention to training camp, you would’ve heard Kendric Pryor’s name being thrown around before Friday. The undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin has been turning heads with his high-pointing ability out wide. Maybe it’s a No. 19 thing.
Pryor validated the camp hype against the Cardinals with four receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown from fellow rookie Drew Plitt at the end of the game. He led the offense in all three of those categories as well as targets (seven). That obviously bodes well for him going forward, but the targets he hauled in were something special. From dragging his toes on the sideline, to going up with one hand after turning his back to the defender, Pryor put on a show in his first-ever game.
#Bengals WR Kendric Pryor had an impressive showing last night. Three of his receptions were highlight reel-worthy plays.— Steve Frederick (@SteveFrederick_) August 13, 2022
The UDFA out of Wisconsin led the Bengals in all receiving categories. pic.twitter.com/R9xZ8Hr37Z
For as impressive Pryor was as a receiver, he’s not the first Bengals receiver to light up the preseason. We’ve seen this before many a time. It certainly doesn’t hurt his case by making plays on offense, but considering he isn’t in the mix as a returner, how fe fares on special teams will ultimately determine if he makes the initial 53. He recorded nine snaps with kickoff and punt units.
Luckily for Cordell Volson, offense is all that matters. And he brought it in his first game—even his first snap.
The traits we’ve heard about showed up for Volson in full force. There’s little wasted movement, plenty of grip strength, and doesn’t even let the whistle stop him. The sheer difference in pad level between him and Jackson Carman is staggering sometimes, and Volson is a taller person!
Volson looks like the better player, but he was also facing the bottom of the Cardinals depth chart. Relativity always matters, and for Volson, he’ll need to prove himself against tougher competition if he wants to solidify himself as the starting left guard. Fortunately for him, it may not take much with how Carman looks entering his second year.
The scouting report for Jeff Gunter was on full display Friday night. A strong downhill rusher that is explosive off the ball, Gunter pushed the pocket and challenged the edge all night. Late in the second quarter, he stressed the right tackle vertically before disengaging and ending up with a sack. But his disruption exceeded beyond that play. Earlier in the quarter, it was his penetration on the outside that allowed Clay Johnston to register a tackle for loss.
Cincinnati seems to know what kind of player they have in Gunter as well. There’s not a lot of bend to his game, but the power is there in spades. This makes him an ideal piece to use for twists, and sure enough, this was how he notched his first pressure. Gunter recorded three pressures for the game. Only Noah Spence (four) was responsible for more.
Gunter and Zach Carter make for a powerful duo. With his new playing weight at 290 pounds, Carter looked mighty strong at the point of attack, holding his gaps in the run game and made his presence known against the pass with a batted pass at the line. One of his two defensive stops came on a quarterback draw, where he caught Cardinals QB Trace McSorley just behind the line of scrimmage and drove him to the ground.
Carter is on the right team for playing time. He finished with 61 snaps, the second-most on defense behind Allan George (66). That’s great for the development that comes with it, but considering Carter’s the main 3-technique behind B.J. Hill, there is a concern for exposing him to injury. We’ll see if his snaps decrease as the season draws near.
When he was drafted, Cam Taylor-Britt was thought to be a true competitor to Eli Apple at cornerback. Through two weeks of training camp, it’s been clear that Apple is ahead of the rookie, and this supposed “battle” is now all but over.
Before kickoff, Taylor-Britt was declared out with a core muscle injury that will sideline him for the next few weeks. Both Alex Cappa and Samaje Perine have dealt with similar injuries this offseason and have ended up returning, but the timing of Taylor-Britt’s injury might put him out for the entire preseason. That’s not good at all for a rookie looking to make a case for playing time.
Taylor-Britt shouldn’t be worried about falling short of the 53 as a second-round pick, but his development has taken a step back for now. It’s Apple or nothing at cornerback once more.
Kwamie Lassiter II didn’t do anything to hurt his opening roster chances, but Pryor and Trent Taylor shining at receiver certainly doesn’t bode well for him. Lassiter is in a direct competition with Taylor at punt returner, and if Taylor is making plays at receiver and doing just enough on special teams, it’s going to take a herculean effort for Lassiter in the return game to flip the script. Thankfully for him, the preseason is far from over.
- Tycen Anderson was one of eight defenders to take 40 or more snaps for the defense. Half of those snaps came with him as a deep safety. He also ended up with 15 snaps on special teams and showcased the aggression that made him a special teams fiend for Toledo.
- Desmond Noel and Ben Brown played well next to Volson with the second team o-line at right guard and center, respectively. Brown was able to generate solid push in the run game, and Noel, a Cincinnati native, graded out with an 81.4 in pass-blocking from Pro Football Focus.
- Clarence Hicks, the edge-turned-linebacker, got to showcase his rushing skills and ended up with a fourth-quarter sack as a stand-up A-gap blitzer.