Two games down in the NFL preseason, two games to go for the Bengals. Coming off a 25-17 loss against the New York Jets this past Saturday, the Bengals head to Arizona this week for a Sunday night prime-time game against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals.
Preseason game No. 3 is routinely the game where the starters on both sides of the ball see the most extensive action. The starters for the Bengals have been impressive against Kansas City and New York. The backups? Not so impressive on the whole. The special teams, where many players make or break their roster chances, have also been less than stellar.
Teams have to cut rosters down from the maximum of 90 players to 75 by next Tuesday (Aug. 26). Cut downs to 53 players must be done by Aug. 30.
There hasn’t been much intrigue or drama with the Bengals this preseason. The most compelling question regarding a starting spot is whether rookie fourth-round pick Russell Bodine, who has had some snapping issues during camp, is ready to play right away at center or if veteran Mike Pollak gets a greater look at the position. It’s not exactly the sexiest of position battles as Bodine will most likely hold onto that spot.
So here’s a one look at the how the Bengals’ roster is shaping up. The numbers in parenthesis indicate the number of players projected to be kept at each position, but nothing is ever guaranteed. That’s especially so given the inevitability of injuries.
QUARTERBACK (2): Andy Dalton has been sharp the first two games, including completing all eight passes this past Saturday against the Jets. Jason Campbell wasn’t so sharp against Kansas City and didn’t play against the Jets because of an arm injury but was back practicing on Monday. Dalton has never missed a start in his three seasons and the coaches like the addition of Campbell as the backup in case that streak comes to an end at some point this season but this game will be important for him to show better than he did against the Chiefs.
Rookie A.J. McCarron hasn’t practiced all preseason because of a shoulder injury and could start the season on an injury list. The Bengals wouldn’t want to expose their fifth-round pick to waivers and chance losing him but roster spots are at a premium. It’s tough to keep three quarterbacks on the active roster. If either Matt Scott or Tyler Wilson is around this season it will be on the practice squad.
RUNNING BACK (4): Giovani Bernard is the No. 1 back. Rookie second round pick Jeremy Hill has a future here. Is there room for veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the roster? I think there is, especially after second-year player Rex Burkhead suffered a knee injury against the Jets and he could miss extensive time. Hill has potential but is unproven at this point. Green-Ellis is the consummate pro, a breathing example of what the coaches want and how they want it done.
Ditto for Cedric Peerman. He had a bad fumble against the Jets but he is one of the mainstays on special teams. That can’t be underestimated.
Rookie James Wilder Jr. will be a practice squad candidate as will fullback Nikita Whitlock.
WIDE RECEIVER (6): The final roster makeup will depend a lot on just how severe the Bengals believe Marvin Jones’ foot fracture to be and when they believe he can return to practicing. He’s an obvious candidate to be their player designated to return from injured reserve but if they believe he can be back before November they could keep him on the roster and simply count on him being inactive on game day until he’s healed.
A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu are the top two receivers. After them, it’s a free-for-all crapshoot. Brandon Tate, Dane Sanzenbacher and Ryan Whalen all have previous experience and bring special teams skills with them. Cobi Hamilton has impressive physical attributes but has had trouble consistently catching the ball. That’s an issue.
TIGHT END (4): Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert and Alex Smith formed a productive trio last season, with Smith doing a lot of the dirty work of blocking. More is expected of Eifert this season in terms of catching passes downfield. I’m throwing in the winner of the H-back battle between Orson Charles and Ryan Hewitt in this mix. Charles has experience on his side and he played a big role on special teams last season. Hewitt, a rookie undrafted free agent from Stanford, has had the more impressive preseason so far.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8): The return of left guard Clint Boling from knee surgery is an underrated plus for the line. Andrew Whitworth has moved back out to left tackle and got his first game action of the preseason against New York, playing 13 snaps. Andre Smith will be out at right tackle. He is expected to play at Arizona, his first action of the preseason. Kevin Zeitler will be the starting right guard with Bodine expected to start at center. Marshall Newhouse will be the top backup at tackle, with Pollak backing up the interior spots. There is the possibility of the Bengals keeping nine linemen but, if not, the last spot figures to come down to between veteran tackle Will Svitek, third-year center Trevor Robinson and second-year guard Tanner Hawkinson. First-year player T.J. Johnson and rookies Trey Hopkins and Dan France will be practice squad candidates.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9): This is the deepest and most talented position group on the team. Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry are the starting ends. Domata Peko is the nose tackle and All-Pro Geno Atkins returns to his tackle spot. Brandon Thompson was the beneficiary of playing time last season when Atkins went down with a torn ACL and earned his role in the rotation. Margus Hunt is expected to get a larger role in the rotation at end, with veteran Robert Geathers also in the mix after returning from an elbow injury that ended his season after two games last year. Devon Still can play inside and on the end, while rookie Will Clarke is a developmental project who will learn on the job.
The Bengals will face some tough cuts but will have a few practice squad candidates from this group, including rookie LaKendrick Ross and first-year player Larry Black.
LINEBACKER (6): The top five spots are set with Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur and Rey Maualuga starting and Vinny Rey and Jayson DiManche backing them up. The sixth spot is up for grabs. Sean Porter has been slowed by injury after spending his rookie season in IR but was back at practice on Monday. Rookie Marquis Flowers has impressed coaches. J.K. Schaffer suffered a second concussion of the preseason against New York. First and foremost is the concern for his long-term health. James Davidson, Brandon Joiner would be practice squad candidates.
SECONDARY (11): You can never have enough defensive backs, can you? No.
Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones make up one of the best cornerback trios in the NFL. Rookie first-round pick Darqueze Dennard, who suffered a hip injury against New York and didn’t practice Monday, has been impressive in his first camp. Dre Kirkpatrick will be fighting for playing time as the fifth corner.
George Iloka and Reggie Nelson will be the starting safeties, with Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams backing them up.
That leaves spots for veteran cornerback R.J. Stanford and safety Danieal Manning. The Bengals could always go with 10 players here and heavier in another group but at secondary players can bring plenty of versatility on special teams.
SPECIALISTS (3): Mike Nugent will be place kicking, Kevin Huber will be punting and Clark Harris will be snapping for both of them. Pretty simple.