Five Bengals battles to watch heading into training camp


The Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their offseason program earlier this week, which means the next time they come together as a group will be for the start of training camp next month.

And when the whistle blows to begin the first practice of camp on July 24, there will be as many as 90 players competing for 53 spots on the roster.

Or so the coaches would have you believe. The reality of the situation is that about 45 players are virtual locks to make the roster, leaving the other 45 or so fighting for the final eight spots.

The roster is arguably as deep and as talented as it has ever been, which should make for some compelling battles — both for starting jobs and backups — as the team winds toward the Aug. 30 cutdown deadline.

Here are five position battles worth keeping an eye on as the Bengals attempt to construct a roster capable of capturing a third division title in six years and winning a playoff game for the first time in 24 seasons.

Center

The Bengals traded up 12 spots to draft Russell Bodine in the fourth round and one of the first things offensive line coach Paul Alexander said about the center from North Carolina is that he has the ability to start as a rookie.

The coaches have raved about Bodine’s intelligence and strength, but he’s struggled some with snap accuracy during the spring workouts. That will be something monitor in the preseason, along with his ability to make the checks and calls at the line in game situations.

The ideal scenario would be for Bodine, who was given the majority of the first-team reps this spring, to prove himself ready, which would enable Mike Pollak to play left guard until Clint Boling recovers the torn ACL he suffered Dec. 1 in San Diego.

Pollak, a seven-year veteran, is more than capable of starting at center, but doing so would force the team to find another option at left guard until Boling is ready.

Trevor Robinson, who enters his third season after going undrafted out of Notre Dame, is the third option at center. However the team’s willingness to trade a draft pick to move up and get Bodine says plenty about the confidence the coaches have in Robinson.

SAM Linebacker

James Harrison’s single-season cameo in stripes is finished, and there appears to be a three-way battle to fill the void on the strong side of the defense.

Jayson DiManche, Brandon Joiner and Marquis Flowers have a combined zero NFL starts, but one of them is likely to be on the field for the first snap Sept. 7 in Baltimore.

DiManche played in all 16 games as a rookie last year, but it was mostly on special teams, where he excelled. He also performed well in his limited opportunities on defense and appears to have a slight edge entering camp.

The 25-year-old Joiner has yet to play single down in the NFL since the Bengals signed him as a college free agent in 2012. Shortly after signing, Joiner was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a robbery five years prior. He served eight months and rejoined the Bengals last spring, only to suffer a season-ending ACL injury in the third preseason game.

Bengals coaches speak glowingly about Joiner’s character transformation, and the fact that he’s still on the roster after all he’s been through proves they believe in his ability to play as well.

Flowers is a rookie out of Arizona whom the Bengals drafted in the sixth round. Linebackers coach Matt Burke loves Flowers’ athleticism, and without a proven starter ahead of him the rookie should get a close look in camp.

Strong Safety

George Iloka used a strong spring last year as a springboard to eventually win the job, and he he kept it throughout, starting all 16 games during his sophomore season. Iloka had a solid year, but he will have a lot more competition in 2014.

Shawn Williams, who played well on special teams and was impressive in limited action at safety, has his rookie season behind him and could push Iloka with his instinctive nose and hard-hitting style.

The Bengals also signed nine-year veteran Danieal Manning this spring. Manning has played in 112 games with 91 starts, and that experience could be the edge if it’s a close battle with the two youngsters.

Kick/Punt Returner

Brandon Tate has been more solid than spectacular, although some may be surprised to find out he ranks first in Bengals history in career kick return average (24.83) and second in career punt return average (9.87).

The question is whether the Bengals can afford to use a roster spot on a guy who solely returns kicks, especially when most kickoffs result in touchbacks. Tate is listed as a wide receiver, but he has just 14 catches in his three seasons with the Bengals, including just one last year.

That kind of specialization could be a luxury the team can’t afford this year when there are plenty of other capable returners (Adam Jones, Dane Sanzenbacher, Marvin Jones, Danieal Manning, Cedric Peerman), and when there figures to be one less roster spot available with the addition of quarterback AJ McCarron. The Bengals have only kept two quarterbacks last year, but they will need to keep three this year because there’s no way McCarron clears waivers if the team tries to sneak him through to the practice squad.

There are other factors in play as well. If rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard is capable of playing on third down, it would get Adam Jones off the field and keep him rested to return punts on a more regular basis instead of the platoon with Tate the team has used the last two seasons.

Wide Receiver

A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are locks to make the team, and Dane Sanzenbacher is the next closest thing.

While the Bengals have kept seven receivers each of the last two seasons, the depth at other positions could force them to go back to the six-man rotation head coach Marvin Lewis employed from 2005-11.

It’s one of the two deepest positions on the team (defensive line being the other), so there should be heck of a battle for the final two spots.

Cobi Hamilton spent his rookie season on the practice squad in 2013, but he’s shown great improvement and has the kind of size and speed that would make him a terrific complement to corps. If he shows anything at all during the preseason games, the Bengals can forget about trying to sneak him through the practice squad again this year.

Rookie seventh-round pick James Wright has been impressive this spring as well, and then there’s Brandon Tate (see returners above).

And the wildcard again is Ryan Whalen, who has been the seventh receiver kept the last two years. No one works harder or runs more precise routes than Whalen, but he has only 11 catches in three years, none of which came in 2013.


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