Final cuts are nearly here and with the most talented roster of the Zac Taylor era, the Cincinnati Bengals will have a lot of tough decisions to make. John Sheeran, Drew Garrison, and myself (Matt Minich) weigh in on how we think the competition could pan out for the last few spots on the team in the most contested positions.
With Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, the Bengals have the best wide receiver trio in the NFL. Trent Taylor is a trusted punt returner who is likely a lock to make the roster.
The Bengals are likely to keep at least six wide receivers, but who will be the other two?
John Sheeran: These spots feel very much locked up. Mike Thomas didn’t even play in the first preseason game and looked fantastic on special teams this past weekend. There’s no reason to believe he’s in any danger of losing his spot, and the same should be said about Stanley Morgan Jr., who signed a two-year deal this offseason to be the special teams ace he’s continued to be this preseason.
If there is a discussion, it’s whether or not to keep a seventh, and that’s between Kendric Pryor and Kwamie Lassiter II. Both players have shown to be capable receivers, albeit against second-string defensive backs, but the tape has been promising. Lassiter II entered the month carrying extra value as a punt returner, but he’s done next to nothing to unseat Taylor for that role. Ultimately, this is about if one player has made a good enough case as a receiver. I lean towards Pryor, but not enough to say with conviction they’ll keep seven.
Matt Minich: Perception is a funny thing. The coaching staff seems to love Thomas for his special teams ability, but fans groan when they see him on the field offensively. Fans love Morgan for his play on special teams, but he can’t seem to get on the field with the offense. In the preseason, Morgan has seen action on offense, but he is not standing out, UDFAs Lassiter and Pryor are.
Pryor and Lassiter are very different players. At 5’11. Pryor is not big, but he plays big. He does an excellent job of tracking the ball and can win in contested situations. Lassiter is also 5’11”, but wins with quickness, creating separation. He has the ability to play on the outside, but could also provide an interesting change-up to Tyler Boyd inside. Pryor hasn’t seen a ton of work on special teams so far this preseason, but he flashed with one big play on the punt team against Arizona. Lassiter can return both punts and kicks, giving him added value.
I’ll concede that the Bengals are likely to keep Thomas. Even if they keep a seventh receiver, Pryor and Lassiter have done enough that Morgan could be on the cutting block.
The Bengals had a great one-two punch on the edge of the defensive line last season with Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Joseph Ossai returns from injury in 2022 and locks to make an impact as a rotational piece. Those three are no-brainers, and Cam Sample’s versatility means he likely sticks around as well.
The Bengals will likely keep one more defensive end, but who should it be?
Drew Garrison: The pass rush rotation is young and talented, but a bit unproven. With two draft picks in Jeffrey Gunter and Zach Carter, the Bengals may be in a situation where it will be one or the other.
Gunter has had moments where he’s flashed on tape, especially in the first preseason game. With a nice pass break up, a couple of nice run stops and the high motor he was known for, he has certainly made his case for the roster. As a seventh-round pick, he may be facing an uphill battle against Carter who was taken in the third round, but Gunter could make it through final cuts with a strong showing in the preseason finale against the Los Angeles Rams.
Matt Minich: Carter’s ability to play inside on every down will earn him a spot as a defensive tackle. Gunter’s biggest challenge is Khalid Kareem.
Gunter’s quickness makes him unique and could earn him some time in pass-rush packages. Kareem is a much more well-rounded player who can play on any down if needed. He’s just not quite as flashy.
Ironically, it is the lack of depth at defensive tackle that could earn both a roster spot. The Bengals could keep six defensive ends and going light at defensive tackle, knowing that players like Hubbard and Sample will need to contribute on the interior, particularly in pass-rush. If only one makes it,
I think it’s Kareem, with Gunter heading to the practice squad.
The Bengals linebackers are young and talented. Twenty-six-year-old Germaine Pratt is the group’s elder statesman. A year behind him in experience, Logan Wilson leads the class of 2020, which includes Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey.
That core is almost sure to return this season, but who will round out the group?
Drew Garrison: Clay Johnston should make this team. After a 20 tackle performance against the New York Giants in the second preseason game, it is hard to see the team going in another direction. As a reserve linebacker, you have to play special teams and Johnston has shown his ability there, too. In kickoff and punt coverage, Johnston has shown a willingness and ability to fly downfield and make stops. There are no easy decisions when cutting down a position group that looks to have great depth, but Johnston has put enough on tape in the month of August to come out on the right side of cutdown day.
Matt Minich: In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze Master Splinter says “You have youth, and I have experience, but only those who fight now have both.”
The Bengals have a lot of youth at linebacker, but after the four players mentioned above, there is only one with youth and experience: Joe Bachie.
Bachie started two games at linebacker last season and has done an excellent job as a reserve. He also played a heavy role on special teams. Bachie should be the fifth linebacker.
The Bengals finally have a group of starting cornerbacks that we can all feel comfortable with. Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Eli Apple returning to their starting roles. Tre Flowers plays a pivotal role in certain matchups, and once healthy, Cam Taylor-Britt will challenge for playing time as well.
A sixth cornerback is likely to stick around. So who should it be?
John Sheeran: I enjoy everything Jalen Davis brings to the table. I can’t think of a better backup for the role Mike Hilton provides on the field. He times his blitzes excellently and is stickier in coverage that you’d think. He’s a sound tackler in the open field who plays smart and fast. That’s the sign of a comfortable player. I know Dax Hill can be relied on in the slot as well, but Davis is a guy you keep around. I like Allan George developing on the practice squad.
Matt Minich: Davis has looked good this preseason and is a good backup slot corner, but he lacks the versatility to play effectively on the outside against top competition.
The Bengals have a lot of versatility, making a backup slot unnecessary. With the return of Jessie Bates, they could use their 1st Round Pick, Hill, in that role, which is similar to the one he played in college. They could also put their 2nd Round pick, Taylor-Britt, in the slot, once he gets healthy. Finally, there is Flowers, who would also fill in for Hilton quite nicely if called upon.
So why use a roster spot on a backup slot when you have all of this position versatility in the secondary?
George has had some nice flashes this preseason. They should keep him around and see how he develops throughout the season.
Hayden Hurst and his crimson locks join Drew Sample as the team’s TE1 and TE1a this season, but they have to keep at least one more tight end will make the squad. So who will it be?
Drew Garrison: Thaddeus Moss hasn’t had the best preseason. In the first game, he had two holding penalties at the worst possible times, costing Chris Evans a 70+ yard run and a five-yard touchdown run. While those aren’t helping him, he has shown progress in his route running and receiving. He hasn’t lit up the stat sheet, but one could argue he brings more athleticism and upside than Mitchell Wilcox. The hopes of recreating the LSU magic with Joe Burrow haven’t come to fruition like many had hoped, but Moss does have the ability to bring an element to the offense a guy like Wilcox might not be able to bring.
Matt Minich: Wilcox has not seen much action on offense, but his athleticism and blocking ability make him an adequate overall replacement. He compares to Moss favorably in both of these areas.
In 2021, Wilcox played just over half of the Bengals’ special teams snaps, making him the third most active player on special teams. It is that value that will be the biggest difference in this competition.