Projected Cincinnati Bengals' Final 53-Man Roster, Pre-Training Camp Edition
There are only days before training camp begins, so it is, of course, time to start speculating what the Cincinnati Bengals' roster is going to look like. The veterans on the team have an advantage (or disadvantage, in some cases) because of their prior experience on an NFL field.
That leaves a lot of questions surrounding the rookies on the team. What's to come of later-round draft selections such as James Wright and Marquis Flowers? Can any of the UDFAs appear on the roster? Those are the guys who don't often get much attention but somehow wind up working out better than anyone.
What has been difficult in trimming this roster to 53 men is how talented and deep the current roster is. It's hard to imagine that the team will go with more than four running backs—assuming that Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill and Cedric Peerman are locks to make the team, that leaves three talented backs in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Rex Burkhead and UDFA James Wilder Jr. Which of those guys will receive the nod? Will more than one, or will none of them?
That's what makes this part of the offseason so intriguing and enticing—how can we expect the 53-man roster to look at this point in time in Cincinnati?
|Who's In||Who's Out|
James Wilder Jr.
Orson Charles (FB/TE)
Mike Nugent (K)
Kevin Huber (P)
Clark Harris (LS)
|Quinn Sharp (K)|
Analysis: I doubt anyone will be shocked to see the three names of Dalton, Campbell and McCarron on the 53-man roster. Matt Scott making the roster would be the only potential "spoiler," but I'd bet my house that won't happen.
The closer we get to training camp, which opens on July 24 for the Bengals, the more it seems like a do-or-die season for the Red Rifle. There have been contract talks going on all offseason, but thus far, no deal has been made. Hue Jackson has already said he plans to reduce the amount of work Dalton does (per Fansided.com), so Dalton now has to impress with fewer opportunities.
This season could break his career, or this season make Dalton way overpaid just like Joe Flacco.
Expect Campbell to be the backup, but he will also help coach Dalton through the season. Rookie AJ McCarron will play third-string and likely also learn alongside Campbell—a wise move if his services become required next season.
What to Watch For: What else? The play of the Bengals' starting quarterback. Not to repeat myself, but with Dalton in a contract year and not having a lot of fans on his side anymore, he has to show a big improvement during clutch ball games. Truthfully, he has been fantastic on paper for the Bengals, but his playoff stats, a category that is highly regarded, are dreadful.
For Dalton, he must at least win a playoff game. No matter how poorly anyone around him may wind up playing, his career rides on 2014.
Potential Spoiler: None
Analysis: Allowing James Wilder Jr. to make the roster would simply be a move to keep him from other teams. There's a lot to like about Wilder, but he is a work in progress and likely will only see the field for minute amounts of time.
Giovani Bernard should be able to break onto the scene as a top-10 running back this season. He will, of course, share some time with the rookie Hill, but that backfield belongs to him at this point. Bernard proved to be a wise pick in the 2013 draft, showing incredible elusiveness and even the ability to work in the passing game.
Don't forget about Hill though—he's no slouch himself, having come off a season at LSU that saw him rack up 1,401 yards on 6.9 yards per carry and score 16 times. Those are staggering numbers, especially in the SEC, so Jackson will give him plenty of looks as well.
As for Cedric Peerman, his contributions on special teams will be the motivation to keep him around.
What to Watch For: How well is the Bernard-Hill tandem going to work? Hue Jackson is a man that likes to run the football, and as mentioned in the previous slide, plans to bring down the workload for Dalton. That means the quick-footed Bernard and powerful Hill will see a lot of opportunities.
There were points during OTAs when the two were even in the backfield together, which makes for an interesting scheme—defenses wouldn't know who to attack.
Potential Spoiler: The team decides to hang on to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There doesn't seem to be a need to hang on to a guy who will chew up a pretty decent size salary just for him to be a third-string running back, but being from Cincinnati, I never count anything out of the realm of possibility.
The only interest this would bring to anyone would be to see what his role would be. However, keeping him on the payroll would be an enormous mistake.
Analysis: This cast of receivers is arguably the best up-and-coming corps the game has right now. Of the players I have making the 53-man roster, the average NFL experience through last season is just over two years. Green and Sanzenbacher have each been in the league for three years, making them the most experienced receivers on the team (assuming Brandon Tate doesn't make the roster).
What's more impressive is how well they've performed. That mostly comes from the duo of Green and Jones, who combined to catch 21 touchdowns last season, but no one should be overlooking the physical Sanu or quick-footed Sanzenbacher, who just might be used in a larger capacity this season.
We all know what these guys can do—and there's certainly room for improvement with Sanu and Sanzenbacher. What will be interesting will be the play of Cobi Hamilton, who hasn't seen an NFL regular season game yet, and newcomer James Wright, fresh off being drafted in May. They probably won't see many touches, but there's a lot to love there too.
Everyone can ask questions about Andy Dalton and maybe even make excuses for him, but one thing they can't say is that he doesn't have anyone to throw to.
What to Watch For: Mohamed Sanu's progression. There's no doubt that A.J. Green is a top-three receiver in the NFL and Marvin Jones is becoming one of the best slot men around. Since we've established that, they aren't the ones you have to watch for.
Sanu, now in his third season with the team, has largely been underwhelming, particularly last season when he caught just two touchdowns as Andy Dalton's No. 2 receiver. Keep in mind—Sanu had 47 catches in 2013. I bring that up not because it's an impressive number (because it isn't), but because Marvin Jones, who has clearly been marked as the No. 2 receiver for the future, caught 51. There isn't as big a gap in attention as last season may have led us to believe.
Jones is the quicker of the two, but Sanu is by far more physical. Now, Sanu needs to use that, along with his versatility, to prove his worth. If he doesn't have a good 2014 showing, the Bengals may replace him.
Potential Spoiler: Brandon Tate finds a way back onto the roster, either by kicking out Hamilton or Wright or by kicking another UDFA off the roster.
Analysis: After the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, it seemed they were trying to build an offense around a two-tight-end set, similar to the former Hernandez-Gronkowski pairing in New England.
It seemed like a good idea and can still be one, but it definitely wasn't successful in the first year. The two combined for over 80 catches and six touchdowns, which aren't awful numbers, but they're way lower than what was expected. Eifert particularly began struggling during the latter portions of 2013, and he didn't even catch a ball in the playoffs.
Both Eifert and Gresham need seasons to rebuild their reputations. Eifert is a first-round pick who has underperformed, so that alone needs to be fixed. Gresham, fresh off hernia surgery and a season in which the Bengals' coaching staff was "unimpressed" with him (per CincyJungle.com), faces more pressure as this is the last year left on his contract.
The No. 3 tight end spot is a virtual toss-up for now, but Alex Smith will likely get it because he was on the team last season. There may be a new offensive coordinator, but Smith is already well-versed in the team's playbook and is familiar with the plays. That's something Ryan Hewitt and Kevin Brock have working against them.
What to Watch For: Jermaine Gresham's bounce-back. Gresham set a lot of career lows in 2013, and now that he is in a contract year, that's not something he can afford to do again.
It doesn't help that he is recovering from the aforementioned hernia surgery, which may not be serious, but you always have to wonder how players will bounce back from an injury. There is no doubt that Gresham has talent and lots of it, but whether or not he is in orange and black next season will rely on a stellar 2014 campaign.
Potential Spoiler: Either Ryan Hewitt or possibly Nikita Whitlock make the roster and boot Alex Smith.
Analysis: For the most part, the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive line shouldn't take any steps in the wrong direction, despite the loss of Anthony Collins and myriad of new faces on the team. Those new faces include former Green Bay Packer Marshall Newhouse, fourth-round draft pick Russell Bodine and a slew of UDFAs.
In the end, I see only one of the UDFAs making the roster, and that is former Texas Longhorn Trey Hopkins. Hopkins received some time with the first team during OTAs as the Bengals' coaching staff experimented with the offensive line. While at school, Hopkins started at left guard and made appearances at right tackle. He will continue to compete to start at left guard going forward.
Part of the catch for this group of guys will be if Clint Boling is healthy enough to start the season. It would seem that since he's been the team's starter for the last couple of years, he'll get the nod at left guard, but if he isn't ready, Mike Pollack, Trey Hopkins and maybe even Tanner Hawkinson will have an opportunity to step in.
Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith are surefire starters, as is Kevin Zeitler at right guard. Russell Bodine seems to be in line to start at center, as reported by Geoff Hobson on Bengals.com (h/t Cincy Jungle). However, don't be surprised to see Whitworth slide over to left guard and allow Newhouse to step in to start at left tackle.
On the surface, that doesn't look to be a strong possibility, but that was the setup for the Bengals after Clint Boling tore his ACL in Week 13 last season. Anthony Collins stepped in and was outstanding, and Newhouse could have the same opportunity to shine.
Mike Pollack and Tanner Hawkinson will serve as viable backups in the immediate future, but they may wind up winning over starting jobs if they perform well enough in training camp.
What to Watch For: Who in the world will start, and where will they do it? As I mentioned before, the Bengals' coaching staff did a lot of experimenting with the offensive line in OTAs, so the only known information appears to be that Zeitler and Smith will start on the right, and Whitworth will start—somewhere.
Will Svitek could make a splash with a solid preseason performance, but he's got a bit of a "journeyman" status attached to him, which is not an attractive stamp to have. UDFAs like Curtis Feigt and Dan France have yet to receive substantial first-team work unlike fellow UDFA Trey Hopkins.
At the moment, with Boling possibly being ready for the preseason, the starting lineup from left to right will likely be Whitworth-Boling-Bodine-Zeitler-Smith.
Potential Spoiler: Veterans Trevor Robinson or Will Svitek make the roster, likely sending Hopkins to the practice squad. Other spoilers on this slideshow may do the same to the former Longhorn.
Analysis: Special teams is pretty easily defined since a lot of teams only carry one of each position. If you wanted to take this slide a step further, I would say that Adam Jones and Dane Sanzenbacher will carry the load as the team's returners.
Mike Nugent was 18-22 in field goal attempts last season, successfully booting four 50+ yarders, tying a career high. He'll never have quite the leg that Matt Prater has or that David Akers once had, but he's a decent kicker who should get the job done.
Punter Kevin Huber is among the NFL's 10 best, and his value really showed in Cincinnati's final two games without him. That can be highlighted by Shawn Powell's 10-yard punt against Baltimore in Week 17 last season.
What to Watch For: Kevin Huber's face and neck. Terence Garvin of the Pittsburgh Steelers absolutely obliterated Huber on a block during a punt return last season, landing him in a neck brace. Garvin broke Huber's jaw and cracked vertebrae in his back on the blindside hit.
Considering it was a shot to the upper body, you can't imagine too much was hurt in terms of Huber's job, but who knows what kind of mental impact that had.
Potential Spoiler: Quinn Sharp beats out Mike Nugent to be the team's kicker. He is capable of kicking 50+ yard field goals, but he doesn't possess substantially more skill than the veteran Nugent.
Analysis: It came as a shock to no one when Michael Johnson bolted Cincinnati during free agency. It was assumed he'd be heading out after spending a season under the franchise tag.
There will be two interesting elements to this unit this season—one involves the well-being of Geno Atkins, and the other is who will be the starting defensive end on the left. Dunlap will start on the right, but there seem to be three viable options to start on the left.
Those options are Margus Hunt, the likely starter, Wallace Gilberry and rookie Will Clarke. Hunt is incredibly athletic, but there have always been questions about his NFL abilities since he's still so new to the game. Gilberry, meanwhile, put on a shining performance last year while helping fill in for Atkins, recording 7.5 sacks.
Should Atkins not be ready for the season opener, expect Devon Still to start in his place, with Wallace Gilberry being a distant possibility. Still will have a lot to prove after missing his opportunity to make an impact last season.
What to Watch For: Geno Atkins, or the defensive line's performance without him. As reported by Coley Harvey on ESPN.com in late May, it is "anyone's guess" as to whether or not Atkins will be ready by the regular season. Atkins, arguably the best interior lineman in the game today, had six sacks in nine games before tearing his ACL on Halloween.
Brandon Thompson filled in admirably, but he won't be able to replace the production Atkins can give. Thompson wound up seeing more time than assumed fill-in Devon Still, who missed six games with an injury of his own. That left a lot of work up to Domata Peko, who is a viable starter for the team. He may be on the career back nine, but he'll give some good production.
If Atkins is not ready, this defensive line is still filled with quality players to bring the pain, but quarterbacks will certainly be a little less afraid of the pass rush without him.
Potential Spoiler: Long-time Bengal Robert Geathers makes it to the 53-man roster, which will likely lead to Trey Hopkins' removal or possibly James Wilder Jr.'s. Additionally, things will be jumbled up if Geno Atkins is not ready for the beginning of the season.
Analysis: The corps of linebackers is going to come with some painful decisions since there is so much potential talent on the roster. Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga are definitely on the roster to cover the middle, Emmanuel Lamur will be in to likely start on the strong side and Vontaze Burfict will start on the weak side.
That leaves two spots maximum for the remaining competitors. It may be very optimistic and maybe even naive to believe Dontay Moch will be on the main roster. There's no reason to believe he will be successful, but there has to be something left in the tank for him. He was a very impressive prospect in 2011 and he should get one more shot to see some action and make an impact.
Marquis Flowers should also be on the roster because he makes for a good nickelbacker and is roughly the same size as Taylor Mays. That should imply he will be able to be a cover 3 safety. There's a great deal of versatility that comes with Flowers.
This means the Bengals may be saying goodbye to veterans Jayson DiManche and J.K. Schaffer, whose biggest roles have always been on special teams. Their roles are very undefined, which makes it difficult to project if they'll make the main roster.
What to Watch For: Vincent Rey's role. Rey did get some reps with the first-team defense as the middle linebacker, which makes for an interesting battle between him and Rey Maualuga. Is it likely that Rey is going to snatch Maualuga's starting job?
No, but anything is possible during training camps and the preseason. If he does not start, he'll definitely see ample time to play on a rotation. After Rey's breakout season, he definitely should have a big role on one of the league's toughest defenses.
Potential Spoiler: There are plenty. Jayson DiManche and J.K. Schaffer have a lot of Cincinnati experience, so it will be hard for Paul Guenther to let them walk. Sean Porter and Brandon Joiner don't make good impressions on paper, but they may still find their way onto the roster.
Analysis: For years, Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph were the stars of the Bengals' secondary, and it seemed that no one could crack the code as to how to get by the duo. Unfortunately for Cincinnati's defense, the team has never truly found a suitable replacement for Joseph after he jetted to Houston in 2011, and Hall has now suffered two Achilles injuries.
That makes for a bit of a mess in 2014, but for the first time, it looks as though there may be a solid starting cornerback to pair with Hall. Darqueze Dennard, a proverbial steal in the NFL draft this past May, should be the main guy to start, assuming he doesn't fall on his face in the preseason. Dennard, who very well could have been a top-10 pick, fell all the way to the Bengals at No. 24. Expect big things going forward.
Hall is in an interesting situation because we've seen that he still has wheels and can play, but after his injuries, there's no way he's the same guy he once was. That means Terence Newman and Adam Jones will have to pick up some slack as seasoned veterans.
And then comes the curious case of Dre Kirkpatrick. He dealt with injuries during the early-goings of his career but seemed to get it together as last season came to a close, finishing 2013 with three interceptions, a performance noteworthy of a guy who didn't get much starting time. Still, with the drafting of Dennard and signing of Victor Hampton, a direct message is being sent to the former first-round selection. He'll get more chances this year than either of his previous two and my suggestion to him is to capitalize on them.
What to Watch For: Will Darqueze Dennard shine? Jason Marcum of CincyJungle.com noted that Dennard "looked terrific" at the beginning of OTAs in early June and never slowed down as they progressed. With only six days before training camp opens up, it will be interesting to see how he continues.
Dennard played on the best college defense in the country last season, and that could lead you to believe he'll start Week 1 after the injuries piled up in Cincinnati's secondary in 2013. That should be the case—there's no doubt that veteran players like Newman and Jones will make the roster, but the idea that they should start over Dennard alongside Leon Hall is preposterous.
I have all the respect in the world for what Newman and Jones have given to the league, but they simply aren't the players they once were. Dennard, meanwhile, deserves his opportunity to burst onto the scene as he continues to impress this offseason.
Potential Spoiler: Victor Hampton, once projected to be a second or third-round pick, earns a spot on the roster, which could ultimately lead to Dre Kirkpatrick's demise.
Analysis: There is no doubt about the starting free safety until Reggie Nelson simply doesn't want to do it anymore. After spending three decent seasons in Jacksonville from 2007-2009, Nelson has shined in Cincinnati, being one of the more consistent pieces on the team.
The rest of the field is going to be interesting. The only odd man out right now is probably UDFA Isaiah Lewis, but that should simply be because of the stiff competition. George Iloka, last year's starter, will be on the roster as will long-time veteran Danieal Manning.
For now, I'm a believer that Taylor Mays will sneak back in after taking a giant leap forward in 2013. Up until last season, I was convinced that he would never be able to grasp the NFL game, but there were times last season where he seemed to have improved, so Paul Guenther will be willing to give him another chance.
Shawn Williams will be an interesting case too, as he very well was in the conversation to start after being drafted last year. He saw flashes of time on the field in 2013, but expect to see him a fair deal more this season.
What to Watch For: The further development of George Iloka. Iloka was drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft, and he earned his first starting gig last season as the strong safety. He collected 66 tackles, was involved in four turnovers and had six passes defended. Not too shabby for his starting debut.
With the carousel of talent behind him waiting to take his spot, he has to keep getting better. There's a lot to love about Iloka's tenacity, but it can sometimes play against him if he becomes too anxious, as it allows receivers to sneak by.
He is going to start again in 2014 and will be looking to continue on the same path after his stellar sophomore season.
Potential Spoiler: UDFA Isaiah Lewis makes the roster, certainly eliminating either Taylor Mays or Shawn Williams. I have been a fan of Lewis' since he was picked up by the team and would love to see how he works alongside his college teammate, Darqueze Dennard.
With seasoned veterans like Mays and Manning there, and Williams being a third-round pick, he's going to have to really stand out in the preseason.