<
>

Bengals mailbag 1: Fighting for spots

7/18/2014

Can you believe it? The summer is almost over and the end of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason is at hand.

Soon, the Bengals will have a chance to start washing out the bitter taste they still have in their mouths over January's 27-10 loss to San Diego in the wild-card round of last season's AFC playoffs.

Before they get to play any games, though, the Bengals first have to set their roster. The 89 souls who will enter their locker room Thursday morning must be cut down to 53 by the end of August. How will they get to the magical 53? And who will be among those to make the cut? Well, that's a question many of you had in Part 1 of this final, pre-training camp mailbag:

@ColeyHarvey. Thanks for the question, Andrew. Since you and others have pretty similar questions in this mailbag, I'm going to take the time now to shamelessly plug an item ESPN.com ran on each of its NFL Nation blogs Friday. All 32 team reporters broke down their teams' depth charts, and offered their best guesses at what each 53-man roster will look like when it's all said and done. Here is my Bengals projection. Along the same lines (another shameless plug coming, my apologies), I also spent part of the summer looking at the 11 Bengals players who I consider "on the bubble" entering training camp.

To fully answer your question, I would refer to the players outlined here: running backs BenJarvus Green-Eliis, Rex Burkhead and James Wilder Jr., receivers Cobi Hamilton, Brandon Tate and James Wright, defensive end Sam Montgomery, linebackers Dontay Moch, Jayson DiManche and J.K. Schaffer, and safety Taylor Mays. In the individual blogs on the players, I offered odds I felt they made the team. Each of them are at positions that will feature some intriguing battles to watch.

@ColeyHarvey. Moch certainly could bolster the Bengals' pass rushing presence, but I'd have a hard time saying right now that he's a better rusher than Wallace Gilberry or Margus Hunt. Cincinnati is aware of what Moch could bring to the table as a hybrid outside linebacker/rush defensive end. The organization signed him out of free agency for much that reason. As the Bengals try to confuse opposing lines with a series of defensive line rotations, having a player with Moch's versatility at the two levels of defense could be a big benefit. Sam Montgomery presents a little bit of that versatility, as well, although he's more of a true end than Moch is.

Right now I don't have Moch making the team, but you never know what could happen. His length -- he's 6-foot-2 with long arms and range -- makes him an intriguing option for the many rotations the Bengals hope to enact. But again, Gilberry -- who tied with Carlos Dunlap for the team lead in sacks last season -- can't be completely dismissed. Neither should Hunt, who ought to have greater playing time than he did a "redshirt" last year.

Interesting questions, Scott. If I had to choose between the two, I'd pick James Wright right now. That's primarily because of the special teams benefit he provides, as well as the impressive play he consistently had on offense during minicamps and organized team activities this spring. Coaches certainly like him, as they do James Wilder Jr. The problem for Wilder is that he's at a position that's already chock-full of versatile talent. Both Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead could factor into the Bengals' special teams plans, making them that much more marketable in the battle for the final running back roster spots. Wilder also has some special teams experience, playing on coverage units in college at Florida State, but it just seems that Wright's exploits in that area are universally accepted as being better.

To answer the second part of your question, right now, I don't think the Bengals can really afford to let either walk. In the event the Bengals hold on to Green-Ellis and allow him to play out this final year of his contract, it would be important to keep Wilder around. The young, physical runner would then be able to fill Green-Ellis' spot next season. Essentially, I could see them giving Wilder a year to "redshirt" to get a little more polished ahead of 2015. Wright's aforementioned abilities also make him an ideal candidate to remain part of the team.

@ColeyHarvey. You could come up with any number of answers to this question, Shawn. But I think we'll certainly see rookie running back Jeremy Hill break out this year. I could see first-round pick Darqueze Dennard play well in a backup cornerback role, too. That's particularly if a player ahead of him on the depth chart goes down with an injury (which, as we saw last season, isn't out of the realm of possibility) he would be asked to play a key role for the defense. His reputation as a shutdown corner helped him get to the NFL, and that style of play should help him turn heads in this first year. Tight end Tyler Eifert seemed poised for a productive year, as do the ends Dunlap, Gilberry and Hunt. Also, as I've said before, don't be surprised if quarterback Andy Dalton plays consistently better in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's system. Oh, and I might as well include former onetime-undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict since his two-year career has been defined by breakout seasons.