The Cincinnati Bengals are coming off a fairly successful 2012 campaign, having made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1981-82. However, that elusive playoff victory was able to slip past the team once again.
As the team attempts to add missing components to reach the next level, more questions have begun to arise. Questions that should be answered over the duration of training camp.
These are the Bengals biggest positional battles.
1. Wide Receiver Depth
Possibly one of the most intriguing roster battles is the last two spots at the wide receiver position. The first four spots will be taken by A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Andrew Hawkins, respectively.
This leaves a good amount of talent left on the roster to secure only two remaining spots.
The candidates to fill these positions are Cobi Hamilton, Brandon Tate, Ryan Whalen, Dane Sanzenbacher, Roy Roundtree, Tyrone Goard and Taveon Rogers.
Hamilton has impressed the coaching staff immensely throughout rookie minicamp and OTAs, thus far. Even offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has expressed his satisfaction with the way Hamilton has performed to this point.
He'll challenge to make the squad and become a player. Cobi's an exciting guy. He's bigger than I thought he was. He's taller. He's got good stride to him, he's got good hands, he's tough. In Arkansas he ran a lot of crossing routes so we knew he wasn't afraid to go across the middle. We like Cobi. We're impressed with what he's done so far.
It seems as though Hamilton could be the favorite for one of the remaining two positions.
A case could be made for Tate, the incumbent return specialist. The coaching staff still seems to have a fair amount of faith left in this receiver—despite his tendency to make poor decisions when fielding kicks.
Whalen could find his way onto the roster as well. He has a good rapport with Andy Dalton and is one of the best route-runners on the team. He also has tremendous hands, which only adds to his reliability.
Sanzenbacher comes over from the Chicago Bears as another option at slot receiver. He has a total of 283 career receiving yards and three touchdowns—most of which came during his 2011 rookie season.
Roundtree and Goard are the undrafted rookies this season. Both are good athletes, but will have to be extremely impressive in training camp to jump past some of the veterans on this roster.
Rogers spent his rookie season on the reserve/injured list. He has moved back and forth between cornerback and wide receiver. He has the most difficult path to make the final roster this season.
2. Running Back Depth
It seems as though the Bengals face the dilemma of deciding which running backs to keep during training camp each year—a happy problem to have. This year is no different.
In addition to incumbent starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Bengals added Giovani Bernard, a second-round draft pick from 2013. Those two backs will be featured this season and are currently the only ones that have already solidified a roster spot.
The Bengals should be keeping four running backs this season—conventional wisdom says they are moving away from a traditional fullback and will not keep one on the roster. Despite that change in philosophy, the Bengals still have a tough decision to make regarding the final two roster spots.
The candidates for these positions are Cedric Peerman, Dan Herron, Bernard Scott and Rex Burkhead.
Peerman served as a special-teams ace last season and has a great shot at making the 2013 roster because of his expertise in that area. He was re-signed in early March as a key element to keep the Bengals' special teams unit intact.
The same argument could be made for Herron. He proved his worth last year on special teams despite his struggles in the backfield. Peerman is the better runner of the two, but Herron is younger and could have more of an upside.
Scott is back in the mix this year after he was supposed to be the change-of-pace back to Green-Ellis last season. A rash of injuries led to his inability to stay on the field, that could ultimately be his undoing.
Burkhead was drafted by the Bengals in the sixth round in 2013. He may not be the most exciting runner on the roster, but he could serve two great purposes. First, he is big and fast enough to contribute on the kick and punt coverage teams. Second, he could find time in the H-back position, which would give the offense a huge amount of versatility.
Ron Brown, Burkhead's position coach at Nebraska has had some kind words regarding his former running back according to Bengals.com.
You can stop the film at any point and whatever he's doing and you seldom see his face looking down. If you slow motion his moves in the hole and see him make people miss in the open field, his face was always up and his knees were always bent and his hips were low. He has the confidence to play with his face up and that takes discipline.
Even the guys that will have a difficult time making the final roster at the running back position are not even close to being ruled out at this juncture.
3. Linebacker Depth
The Bengals made some moves at the linebacker position over the offseason. The most notable was the signing of former Steeler and 35-year-old veteran James Harrison. Another move—that proved surprising to many—was the re-singing of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Both of these additions gave the Bengals their starting lineup for the 2013 season when adding in incumbent weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Aside from these three starters, the athletic, coverage specialist Emmanuel Lamur has a stranglehold on a roster spot, as well as 2013 fourth-round draft pick Sean Porter.
These are the five linebackers that should have solidified their roster sports by now; however, the Bengals typically keep seven backers, which means the remaining players must fight for the last two spots.
The candidates for these two spots are Vincent Rey, J.K. Schaffer, Jordan Campbell, Brandon Joiner, Aaron Maybin, Jayson DiManche and Bruce Taylor.
This puts the Bengals in a difficult situation due to the amount of talent that currently remains on the roster.
Rey may be the favorite to win the next spot. His value is tremendous on special teams, and he could be a key replacement for the loss of Dan Skuta in free agency.
Maybin is a former first-round selection. He was initially considered a bust, but did have a solid season in 2011 when he recorded six sacks for the New York Jets. If the defensive coordinator can get that talent out of him, he could become a favorite to make the final roster.
Joiner is an interesting case. He served time in jail due to crimes committed in his youth. He has now been released and looks to reclaim his once promising future as an NFL linebacker. If he can regain his athleticism that he showed years ago, he could be in the mix to make this roster.
DiManche is an interesting story. He was an undrafted free agent; however, he was very highly regarded by the Bengals. In fact, he was given the second-highest signing bonus of all undrafted free agents in 2013. He possesses great burst, quickness and athleticism, and could be the future edge-rusher for the Bengals.
Schaffer is a local Cincinnati product that went undrafted in 2012. He has been on the Bengals practice squad since November of last year which could give him an advantage with his familiarity of the playbook.
Campbell seems to be a fan favorite. After transferring from USC to small New Mexico Highlands University, where he flourished. It is tough to tell exactly how much of an impact he will have at this time, but we will find out soon enough during training camp.
Backup Quarterback: This will be a battle between two veteran quarterbacks brought in as free agents this offseason—Josh Johnson and John Skelton. Both will be entrenched in a battle that should come down to the final preseason game. According to Bengals.com, both men have been struggling, thus far.
Free Safety: 2013 third-round selection Shawn Williams is the favorite to start at this position. However, it is too early to count out Taylor Mays, who has more experience in the defense. If Mays can clean up his game, he could give Williams a run for his money.
No.2 Cornerback: It will certainly be interesting to see if second-year player Dre Kirkpatrick has the ability to beat out Terence Newman for the starting cornerback position opposite Leon Hall. Newman had a great 2012 campaign and was ranked 19th overall out of 113 eligible cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). However, Kirkpatrick made his intentions known earlier this offseason on Bengals.com.
I'm going to start. That's my goal. That what I believe and that's what I stand behind.
The Bengals certainly have some great roster battles going on during training camp this year. The fact that all of this excitement will be nationally televised on HBO's Hard Knocks is simply icing on the cake.