- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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Examining the Cincinnati Bengals' roster:
The Bengals were content with having just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster last season, but expect them to take three this year. McCarron would be the odd man out, but since they drafted him this year and made him a de facto heir apparent to the position in case something happens with Dalton in the next few seasons, they probably won't cut him or place him on the practice squad. In Campbell, the Bengals also get a tried and true veteran who could step in if Dalton's play is unsatisfactory, or if he gets hurt.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
This grouping includes Hewitt at H-back, meaning the Bengals are more likely to take four half backs. Neither Burkhead, Peerman nor Hewitt is a lock right now to make the team, but there are compelling reasons for each being part of the 53-man roster. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and James Wilder Jr. also have real chances to be part of the full roster. Green-Ellis in recent days has gotten more opportunities, and even ended up as the No. 2 back on the Bengals' depth chart that was released Saturday. Still, I'm not sure right now if he remains in that spot through the end of the preseason. As for Hewitt, I included him over Charles here because he has seemed to impress more throughout camp, and seems more versatile. The undrafted free agent has been strong in blitz pickup and and has opened his share of holes in short-yardage work across the last week or so of practices. He's also been thrown to regularly as a tight end with Jermaine Gresham and Kevin Brock both injured. Nikita Whitlock also is competing for a fullback job.
The top three on this list are locks to make the team. The true battle during training camp will be for the other three spots. If this group holds, that means Jasper Collins, former Bengals practice squad player Cobi Hamilton, undrafted rookie Colin Lockett, and recently added free agents Jeremy Johnson and Conner Vernon won't make the team. Tate, who was left off earlier roster projections, has been impressive catching passes in practices, and was listed as the starting kick and punt returner on the depth chart the team released Saturday. Odds he sticks around for another year are increasing exponentially with each workout. Of the possible cuts listed here, Tate would be the real notable one after performing well as a kick returner and filling in at punt returner last year. Sanzenbacher hasn't necessarily wowed during camp, but he has been consistent in his routes and passes caught. Hamilton's size (6-foot-2) and leaping ability make him a possible pick to make the team, but performance would be a reason for cutting him. He hasn't been as consistent as the others, but closed out the last two days of last week's camp with a few nice grabs, including a diving catch against cornerback Terence Newman, who had tight coverage on him. Wright's special-teams background and his consistently strong showing in training camp make him a very real possibility to make the team, too.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
Gresham is entering a contract year, and expectations have never been higher for him. To meet them, he'll have to first overcome a back injury that has prevented him from practicing so far. Along with Gresham, Eifert and Smith should be part of the main roster. Kevin Brock also is competing for a spot at the position, but he's been on concussion protocol since Wednesday.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
It's possible the Bengals end up taking only nine linemen so they can fit additional players at other positions. For instance, they could end up taking another running back or another receiver. It's common for most teams to have nine or 10 linemen, and this group seems to provide the versatility coaches are seeking. Of the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed this year, Trey Hopkins -- a versatile guard who was used in a variety of ways this spring -- has the best shot to make the team, but even he's just barely left off this particular list.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9)
The only player on this list who wasn't on last year's 53-man roster is Will Clarke. The rookie was drafted in the third round in May. He effectively takes the roster spot of Michael Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason. This may be the most set group on the team. Another name to watch, though, is 360-pound LaKendrick Ross. The defensive tackle was added nearly two weeks ago and could give the Bengals an added run-stopping presence in certain situations. He hasn't played much football, though, so coaches have a tall task teaching him schemes and concepts, and reaffirming fundamentals.
Like the receivers, the top spots at linebacker are pretty much squared away. In this case, it's a veritable lock that Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga will make the team. The two remaining linebackers, on the other hand, will be part of one of the better position battles on the team. DiManche has the best chance of the remaining linebackers to make the team. Flowers could be in a scenario similar to McCarron, Wilder, Lockett and Hopkins in that he has tools the Bengals don't want to risk losing by placing him on the practice squad where he could be poached away. But with Lamur ahead of him, Flowers could be a good "redshirt" candidate. There's no need to rush him into his cover linebacker duties unless he really is ready to contribute. Like McCarron, I can't see the Bengals cutting Flowers. J.K. Schaffer was snubbed on this list at middle linebacker. Under concussion protocol for the past week, he's missed a lot of time to prove his value this camp.
The top four positions are effectively locked down. Kirkpatrick runs the risk of being cut for performance reasons, but it's unlikely he will be dismissed because the Bengals would take a $1.2 million cap hit if they let go of the former first-round pick. Victor Hampton had previously been the sixth cornerback on this list, but this week I removed a sixth corner altogether in favor of adding a sixth receiver to balance the roster. If I had picked a sixth corner this week I would have gone with R.J. Stanford over Hampton.
This may end up being one of the tougher cuts Bengals coaches have if they end up keeping just four safeties. Taylor Mays has performed better defensively this camp than Manning, but the elder Manning has a measure of versatility as a special teamer and a locker room presence that for now trumps Mays' play.
These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.