8 Dark-Horse Candidates to Make Cincinnati Bengals' Final 53-Man Roster
The Cincinnati Bengals play their first preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 7, which means we are under a month away from the make-or-break points for some of the guys on the team. Some borderline players will be ousted during training camp, but for a lot of the guys, their preseason performance will be their big opportunity to make the final roster.
A lot of attention could surround the undrafted free agent who can wind up being interesting cases. Wes Welker and James Harrison were both successful as UDFAs, so I always get a little enamored with the performance of those guys. This means to keep your eyes on a James Wilder Jr. or Isaiah Lewis.
Likewise, later-round draft picks are potential dark horses. Not many fans seem to think much of most draft picks that fall in the fifth round or later, so they are worth watching as well.
Finally, even veteran players can be on the cusp. Who can play spoiler for some of the other guys on the team and steal a spot at the last second?
Isaiah Lewis, S
Anyone that has read my previous articles regarding the UDFAs on this team know how enamored I am with Isaiah Lewis. One of his biggest advantages—and the thing about him that interests me—is that he played at Michigan State alongside Darqueze Dennard. They already have chemistry together.
Additionally, Lewis showed great athleticism at the NFL Combine, showing off a 36.5" vertical jump and 122" broad jump, per NFL.com. If he is able to harness his athleticism to capitalize on tackles in the open field, which he struggled with in college, then Lewis can be quite effective against the run.
Against the pass, he will be more effective in a zone, but he is likely to learn a thing or two about the position from longtime NFL veteran Danieal Manning.
And therein lies one of the challenges for Lewis as it applies to making the 53-man roster—there's no doubt Reggie Nelson will keep his spot, so that means Lewis is against George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Taylor Mays, Danieal Manning, and possibly even Marquis Flowers for playing time at safety.
Should Lewis have a good training camp, it will be intriguing to see how well things go for him in the preseason. He'll likely have to show a lot since the majority of his time will come against third-string players.
Will Svitek, OT
For most of the "dark-horse" candidates in the league, they are so because they are rookies or young guys, in the league probably five years or less. That makes us forget that even seasoned veterans can be dark horses sometimes.
Will Svitek's veteran presence on the Bengals offensive line seems to be quite unique. Those that surround him include UDFAs Curtis Feigt, Dan France, Trey Hopkins and Chandler Burden, as well as three draft picks from the last three years in Tanner Hawkinson, Russell Bodine and Kevin Zeitler.
Despite his somewhat journeyman career, Svitek does possess some power and surprising agility for a man of his stature. For the time being, as the offensive line was shuffled up a bit during OTAs, Svitek's best bet may be as a backup to Andre Smith at right tackle.
If nothing else, keeping him around means there's a guy on the team who blocked for Tom Brady (two starts in 2013) last season, which means Bill Belichick trusted him at some point, albeit briefly. With the crowded offensive line, it's hard to think Svitek will make the roster, but anything can happen in training camp.
Rex Burkhead, RB
After being drafted last season in the sixth round of the draft, Rex Burkhead seemed to be the most interesting addition to the team. The selection of Burkhead came a few rounds after Giovani Bernard was picked, so there were a lot of questions regarding his role on the team.
Last season, his role was pretty much nonexistent. Do not let that fool you though—Burkhead collected 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground in 2011 with Nebraska. Yes, that's college football, but the potential certainly seems to be there.
At this point, it will continue to be difficult for Burkhead to find a roster spot. It seems a foregone conclusion that Jeremy Hill will make the roster with Giovani Bernard, but questions regarding BenJarvus Green-Ellis are still flying, and you can't forget about veteran Cedric Peerman and UDFA James Wilder Jr.
Overall, Burkhead seems to resemble the Brian Leonard-type back in the NFL, good for short third downs or even fourth downs. Additionally, having him come out of the backfield to catch a pass could be part of his role.
Keep an eye on him during the preseason, as he'll probably get plenty of reps.
Ryan Hewitt, TE/FB
With Jermaine Gresham questionable for the start of training camp, it could leave a spot at tight end in question. Gresham's injury was first reported by Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com back in late May, and that injury turned out to be a hernia, which he later had surgery on.
It doesn't seem the Bengals' starting tight end will miss significant time, but what time he does miss can open the door for UDFA Ryan Hewitt. Out of Stanford, Hewitt flashed a lot of talent as a fullback, using both the ground game and taking advantage of the fact that he had Andrew Luck as a quarterback.
Even out of the backfield, Hewitt showed over the course of his time in school that he can be effective in the passing game. It will be an uphill battle, as the tight end position now is composed of five total guys.
With Hewitt being able to play both tight end and fullback, he may have a slight edge. Still, with training camp and the preseason approaching quickly, he will have to make the most of his opportunities. At best, he seems to be a practice squad guy for now, but if he makes the 53-man roster, look for him in goal-line formations.
Marquis Flowers, LB/S
Former Arizona Wildcat Marquis Flowers makes for an interesting prospect—he is quick enough and has the size to play safety, but he is making the transition to be a strong-side linebacker in the NFL.
Despite his lean build, Flowers does carry a lot of power behind his hits and has the potential to be a decent pass-rusher. With his speed, he can get around the edge to get into the backfield and get after the quarterback. His biggest threat will be getting overpowered against the run given his lean build.
I don't anticipate Flowers being used as a safety on this team, especially with the depth at that position. Still, to have him around would be a nice insurance policy.
Flowers, a sixth-round pick this past May, has a bright future with some development. There's definitely the possibility he outshines some of his teammates at linebacker, but for now, I don't expect him to be more than a practice squad player.
Dontay Moch, LB/DE
After three full seasons of trials and tribulations, you have to wonder what is next for Dontay Moch. I can only speak for myself, but I recall being very excited for his arrival after he was selected in the third round of the draft in 2011. That excitement disappeared as Moch never found his way into a game in Cincinnati.
Now, he seems to be getting another opportunity in the Queen City, and if he still possesses the speed he had three years ago, he has a chance to make an impact and make the roster. It seems that if Moch wants to have some playing time, he'll have to outshine the likes of Jayson DiManche, Brandon Joiner and Sean Porter.
It seems that Emmanuel Lamur is a lock at the linebacker position along with Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga. However, keep in mind that Moch is capable of being at the defensive end position, though, that's crowded as well.
In the past, he has had some preseason success, but past injuries and past personal issues with performance-enhancing substances have derailed that success. If he can stand out in 2014, Moch just may be able to revitalize his career.
Nikita Whitlock, FB
Perhaps the most forgotten about position in the NFL and football altogether these days is the fullback. Nikita Whitlock actually attended Wake Forest and played on defense, but at only 5'10" and 251 pounds, his size largely prevented him from staying on that side of the ball.
That still makes him a pretty small fullback. His biggest competition, Orson Charles, comes in at 6'3" and 245 pounds, giving him a better frame for blocking. And this is not to suggest Whitlock is in a competition to start—in all likelihood, Charles' job is safe.
However, Charles did have some off-the-field issues back in April, as reported by Coley Harvey on ESPN.com. Should this become a pattern, it could be Whitlock's gain.
If Whitlock can attack the line of scrimmage on offense as he did the ball on defense in college, he will be an interesting commodity. He probably wouldn't be the greatest blocking fullback, but he certainly has the power and athletic ability to be an offensive tool in the field.
James Wright, WR
With so much speculation regarding where Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will end up, a lot of attention has been drawn away from 2014 seventh-round pick James Wright. Truthfully, Wright may have been drafted for his special teams prowess, where he played most of his time while at LSU.
Still, reports from Dan Hoard from the Cincinnati Enquirer (h/t Cincy Jungle's Jason Marcum) indicate that "If he can prove his worth as a receiver against the top DBs combined with his ability to contribute right away on special teams, he has an argument to make the 53-man roster."
Vincent Rey could serve as the biggest argument in Wright's favor. Rey was a special teams guy almost exclusively for his first three years in the league, and he may be parlaying his experience into a larger role on defense this season.
Wright, who carries an impressive amount of speed, will have a bit of work to do to perfect his hands. His lack of experience in the SEC certainly isn't a big leg up against some solid receivers in Cincinnati.
Wright possesses the speed to be a return man but likely won't begin there. Expect practice squad duty for Wright in the near future, but a little development could see him hit the main stage, even in the small area of special teams.