- By Laurel Pfahler Contributing Writer
Some of the last spots up for grabs on the Cincinnati Bengals’ 53-man roster could come down to who stands out in the preseason finale Thursday against Indianapolis.
The majority of the starters will sit, as backups from both teams battle to prove they belong.
Cincinnati (3-0) is coming off a 26-13 win over Buffalo, thanks to a 20-0 halftime lead produced by the first-team units, and the Colts are 2-1 this preseason after collecting a 23-17 win at San Francisco last week. The teams will meet 10 days later in the regular-season opener Sept. 9 in Indy.
Here is a look at the top position battles to watch Thursday:
1. Right guard
It seemed at the beginning of training camp the whole right side of the line was going to be up for grabs, but Bobby Hart has started all three preseason games at right tackle and now it seems only the guard spot is undecided. Alex Redmond got the start at right guard Sunday but was replaced by last year’s starter Trey Hopkins early after getting called for two penalties. Redmond later returned with the second team offense.andrew
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Christian Westerman, playing as the backup at left guard, has been the highest-graded lineman for the Bengals this preseason, according to ProFootballFocus.com, but doesn’t seem to be an option at right guard unless Marvin Lewis is just waiting to see how Hopkins and Redmond do before giving Westerman a look there. Lewis seems to be ranking him behind those two for now, and Westerman came up with a back injury Sunday so if Thursday was going to be his chance on the right side, that could be in jeopardy.
“It doesn’t matter if you play left or right,” Lewis said. “You have to prove you deserve the opportunity. If he was the best guard, he would be at the right guard or left guard spot.”
The offensive line is probably the one spot where the first-team unit, or at least part of it, could play Thursday.
2. Backup quarterback
With AJ McCarron leaving during the offseason in free agency, the backup quarterback spot is up for grabs. Jeff Driskel, who the Bengals claimed off waivers from San Francisco at the start of the 2016 season, is competing with sixth-year veteran Matt Barkley for the job and seemingly has the edge based on the first three preseason games.
However, Lewis said he is still evaluating both.
Driskel has never played a regular-season game but has been the more consistent of the two so far, while completing 24 of 38 passes (63.1 percent) for 334 yards. Barkley, who has appeared in 11 games with three teams (including six starts for the Bears in 2016), has completed just 17 of 33 passes (51.5 percent) for 230 yards this preseason. Both players have thrown one interception and one game-winning touchdown.
Starter Andy Dalton will sit Thursday, so Driskel and Barkley both should get plenty of snaps.
3. Wide receiver
Rookie seventh-round pick Auden Tate could be pushing third-year player Cody Core or even Alex Erickson (if the team decides Darius Phillips is the better option as a return man) for the last spot. Tate, at 6-foot-5, 228 pounds, is a big target who has been impressive in practices but has just one catch this preseason – a 33-yard touchdown against Chicago – and a drop he would like to forget at Dallas.
It could help Tate that Core has been injured and isn’t expected to play Thursday. Lewis said Core has missed out on important development time, and if Tate’s efforts in the kicking game come close to what Core brings to special teams, that could push Tate over the top.
4. Defensive tackle
The last spot on the defensive line seems to be between 2017 undrafted college free agent Josh Tupou, who played one game last year, and 2018 fifth-round pick Andrew Brown. Both tackles missed the first two preseason games because of injuries but returned Sunday at Buffalo and are getting an extra look with the release of Chris Baker on Friday.
Tupou is listed on the depth chart as a second-team nose tackle, while Brown is third-team at the other inside spot, but Ryan Glasgow sits in front of him and can play either position.
5. Defensive backs
Tony McRae’s camp has been clouded by injury, and he is likely one of the players on the bubble at cornerback. He could play his way onto the roster Thursday, but that decision could come down to whether the Bengals want to keep the struggling but versatile Josh Shaw or if they are comfortable with just four safeties. McRae could sway that with a strong performance.
“He has done a nice job with always being game ready when he’s had the opportunity,” Lewis said of McRae. “He soaks up everything that is given to him.”