Tuesday night marked the final episode of HBO's Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, which means two things: The last preseason game is upon us, and the final round of roster cuts down to 53 players isn't far behind.
With the stakes as high as they can get during a football team's summer, this is a crucial week. Here's what we learned from the Hard Knocks finale as the Bengals head out of training camp and into the regular season.
Last week's episode of Hard Knocks also revisited the first round of cuts that trimmed the roster to 75 players. Among those released was veteran journeyman linebacker Aaron Maybin. However, Maybin was revealed to have a talent outside football that may hold the key to his future: art.
Maybin expressed no deep concern about not having a spot on an NFL roster, though he did admit he's keeping himself in football shape should the call come. Football is not Maybin's first love—it's a passion he's "nurtured [his] entire life—instead, it's art. This is clear from the number of his works that line his vast studio.
Since the airing of this episode, Maybin has had many offers from people seeking to purchase pieces. Though many football players don't have another passion to fall back on once the NFL dream dims, Maybin clearly has a bright future ahead.
It's not all car dealerships and pining for days of past glory.
The tightest training camp roster battles came to a head in this episode, with the cut down to 53 players looming. With the Bengals opting to carry just five linebackers on the 53-man roster instead of the typical six (owing to injuries in other positions), the fight between Jayson DiManche and Bruce Taylor for one of them became more intense.
While Emmanuel Lamur's season-ending shoulder injury helped their chances, it certainly doesn't mean either player's spot is safe.
DiManche and Taylor are both undrafted rookies and have known each other prior to joining the Bengals, owing to a shared agent. They're close friends, but the business of the NFL will dictate their futures.
Linebackers coach Paul Guenther met with Taylor early in the episode to hammer home just how important this last week of practice and final preseason game is to his chances to stick around. Both saw time in the final preseason game, with DiManche showing his typical flashes of talent but also the need to learn more.
Those flashes, among other things, saved DiManche. He got the call from head coach Marvin Lewis welcoming him to the team, while Taylor was summoned by the Turk to the Bengals facilities to turn in his iPad—with an assurance that his talent will allow him to catch on elsewhere.
All through this season's Hard Knocks, we've seen the development of the roster battle between free-agent fullback John Conner and incumbent Bengals tight end Orson Charles, who the team is trying to convert to fullback. Charles has struggled with the adjustment, while Conner has put on a clinic—but is that enough for Conner to get the roster spot?
In the Bengals' Week 4 preseason contest against the Indianapolis Colts, Conner and Charles both alternated snaps and took the field together (sometimes as fullbacks, sometimes with Charles as a tight end with Conner at fullback). Both had their hands in a one-yard Giovani Bernard touchdown run while Conner got the blocking credit later for a Rex Burkhead score.
Though Conner was the better fullback—all coaches agreed on this during their roster cut-down meeting after the game—the fact that Charles can play tight end and contribute on special teams keeps the 2012 fourth-round pick in Cincinnati.
Basically, the Bengals figured that because they aren't the kind of team that plans to run behind a fullback 20 or 30 times per game, Conner's services weren't needed. Conner is a true fullback, a position quickly falling out of favor in the NFL, but if any team needs one, it's clear he should get the call.
The numbers game simply caught up to him with the Bengals.
Another position battle we've been following during this season of Hard Knocks is that of backup quarterback, with Josh Johnson and John Skelton vying for a roster spot behind starter Andy Dalton.
Their workload increased in the final week of training camp, as the powers that be in Cincinnati looked for one of the passers to separate himself from the other.
The real test, however, came in the Week 4 preseason game against the Colts. After Dalton led a touchdown drive on the Bengals' first possession of the game, the backup signal-callers got their chance, with Johnson seeing action before Skelton.
Johnson put both his arm (a touchdown pass to Marvin Jones) and his legs (38 rushing yards on just two carries) on display. Skelton also came close to a touchdown pass of his own, completing a 22-yard pass to Dane Sanzenbacher.
Ultimately, Johnson's greater familiarity with Cincinnati's system won him the job—along with the Bengals' refusal to carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster with so many injured players to account for.
Skelton moves on, while Johnson holds the clipboard for Dalton in 2013.
Dane Sanzenbacher, the one-time undrafted rookie for the Chicago Bears, who earned a rare 53-man roster spot despite his pedigree, turned heads once again this summer with the Cincinnati Bengals.
From his Week 1 preseason performance against the Atlanta Falcons (two catches for 59 yards and a score, along with a 71-yard punt return for a TD) that had ESPN's Jon Gruden screaming his last name—a fact not lost on his coaches or teammates—to his 20 yards-per-catch average in the summer, Sanzenbacher has proven himself an asset for the Bengals in the slot.
With the team's starting slot receiver Andrew Hawkins on the injured reserve-recall list for half of the season, a replacement was necessary. Sanzenbacher has shown during the summer how hard he's worked to earn that job. His coaches love him, his dedication is greater than ever and it was an easy choice to keep him on the 53-man roster for the year.
Bengals defensive end DeQuin Evans was among those players vying for a roster spot—something that's especially difficult to earn on Cincinnati's defensive line, considering the talent and depth they possess at both end and tackle.
Though Evans is the man with the quick hands and has put forth a lot of effort over the summer, he was less than impressive in the Bengals' Week 3 preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. He saw extended playing time in Week 4 against the Colts, though he exited the game with what was later diagnosed as the dreaded high-ankle sprain.
To make matters worse, a violation of the NFL's banned substances policy stemming from over a year ago finally resulted in an eight-game suspension for Evans (he had previously served a four-game suspension).
Though placed on injured reserve, the eight-week ban means that Evans cannot rehabilitate at the Bengals' team facilities until the suspension is over. By that time, Cincinnati may opt to release him rather than use another spot on the troubled defender.
Without question, this is not how Evans wanted his summer to end.
After the Bengals preseason Week 4 defeat of the Indianapolis Colts came the day most dreaded by players and staff alike—final cut-down day. The Bengals needed to reduce their roster by 22 players to reach the league-mandated 53 they will carry for the 2013 season, and as usual, Hard Knocks walked us through that process.
It was simple, really: If a player receivers a phone call from head coach Marvin Lewis, they made the team; if the call came from someone else on the staff, requesting that they head to the team's facilities with their iPad playbook, they are cut.
Beyond quarterback John Skelton, fullback John Conner and linebacker Bruce Taylor, the Bengals released talented vocalist and defensive tackle Terrence Stephens (the Bengals are keeping only four defensive tackles on the roster and it's the most talented position group they have).
Other cuts included tight end Bryce Davis, safety Tony Dye, tackle Reid Fragel, receiver Cobi Hamilton, running back Daniel Herron, corners T.J. Johnson, Chris Lewis-Harris, Shaun Prater and Onterio McCalebb, defensive end Dontay Moch, receivers Taveon Rogers and Roy Roundtree, linebacker J.K. Schaffer and guard John Sullen.
Some landed on the team's practice squad; others become part of the pool of available players that may or may not find a home elsewhere in the league.
There's one final bit of business the Bengals have to take care of before they can confidently head into the 2013 regular season—securing star defensive tackle Geno Atkins for the long term
On Tuesday, they managed just that, extending his deal for five more years, giving him $55 million in the process. Before the ink on the contract was dry, Atkins' teammates already knew about the deal thanks to the power of social media.
Atkins is the league's top defensive tackle and the anchor of Cincinnati's impressive defensive front. Now, Atkins can be penciled in as a Bengal for the foreseeable future and the team avoids any distracting "will they or won't they" discussion during this important season.
Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals re-airs on HBO on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.