Training camps are opening all around the NFL, and for virtually every team there is an air of optimism and hope that the upcoming season will turn out to be one to remember.
Nowhere is that optimism higher than in Cincinnati, where the Bengals are already a trendy pick by several experts to make a deep run into the playoffs and even—dare I say it—to the Super Bowl.
But any talk of playoffs is premature, especially when the team has yet to play a single game. Before the Bengals can think Super Bowl or playoffs—or even look ahead to the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens—they must first get their 53-man roster in order.
While much of the starting lineup for both sides of the ball is essentially set, there are still several intriguing positional battles to watch over the coming weeks. Not all of them involve starters, but all will be incredibly important to the Bengals’ success in the coming months.
A look at several position battles to watch as training camp opens:
In a perfect world, Leon Hall and Nate Clements would start while Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones rotate into the game in nickel and dime packages. But Hall, Clements and Jones are all coming off injuries, and now word has come down that Kirkpatrick—the team’s top draft pick—will miss training camp with his own injury.
That means that both starting corner positions are up for grabs. Hall and Jones both say they are ready to go, and Hall is the clear No.1. But Terence Newman, Jason Allen and Brandon Ghee will each be given a chance to earn starting spots, as will Clements and Kirkpatrick when they are ready to go.
It is a wide-open race that should be watched closely.
Almost as intriguing as the cornerback competition is the battle for the receiving spot opposite A.J. Green. Defensive coordinator Jay Gruden said it is wide open between the four players battling for the spot.
As training camp opens, it appears that Brandon Tate has the slight edge over Armon Binns, Mohammed Sanu and Ryan Whalen based on experience alone. But each will be given plenty of chances to earn the spot.
Jordan Shipley, who tore his ACL early last year, will see plenty of time in the slot, but probably will start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list—a serious blow to the receiving corps.
While the Bengals will undoubtedly spread the love around to all of their running backs, Gruden would prefer there be a true No.1 back to serve as the starter.
That means BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott will be battling it out to decide who gets the majority of touches. Green-Ellis appears to be the leader, considering his success in the red zone the past few years while with the New England Patriots, but Scott has the home run potential that NFL coaches crave.
In the end, both players will be crucial to the Bengals’ success. They must both produce in order to keep the pressure off of quarterback Andy Dalton and the passing game.
Arguably the weakest position on the field, the Bengals will be looking closely at the safety position. Reggie Nelson mans one spot, but at the other there should be a battle between Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles. Mays—a former first-rounder—has the edge, but the athletic Miles has been solid in OTAs.
Robert Sands, George Illoka and Tony Dye also figure into the mix, but will need huge camps—or injury—to break through.
Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap will both get plenty of snaps in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s eight-man rotation, but only one will start opposite Michael Johnson at defensive end.
Dunlap appears to have the ability to dominate a game with his pass-rushing abilities, but Zimmer has said that he is “immature.” The steady Geathers has the edge here.
The other battle on the line comes down to veteran Pat Sims and rookie Brandon Thompson. Sims has flashed when healthy, but Thompson will push him for playing time.