Cincinnati Bengals Rookie Training Camp Progress Reports
With the preseason looming for the Cincinnati Bengals, it's time to give their rookies one last examination before the true tests begin. OK, so maybe the preseason can't be classified as a "true test," but it will be their first NFL game-time experience.
At this point, a lot of these rookies have gotten off to hot starts—Darqueze Dennard was receiving praises even at the start of OTAs, per Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com (h/t Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle), Russell Bodine has himself set up to likely start at center, and even UDFA Trey Hopkins made some noise by seeing first-team action during OTAs.
Where do these guys stand now? It was easy at the time to speculate that they were in a good position, but things may definitely have changed following a couple of weeks of training camp. Further, what about the guys I haven't mentioned, such as Jeremy Hill or James Wilder Jr.?
On a side note, how loaded is this team with talent? I was ready to write the season off after the loss to San Diego in January, but the Bengals have had yet another stellar offseason that saw them add a slew of young, talented players—hey, it can be a successful offseason without adding a big-name player.
How are the rookies fairing this far into the offseason?
Trey Hopkins, G
With the shuffling of the offensive line this offseason, Trey Hopkins found himself seeing some first-team action early on—an impressive start for an undrafted free agent.
In fact, with Clint Boling's injury keeping him from the Bengals' first preseason game, per Geoff Hobson's tweet:
Boling suited but not expected to play Thursday. Rookie LG Trey Hopkins probably starts in KC— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) August 5, 2014
Now this comes as a HUGE opportunity for Trey Hopkins, who did start some at both left guard and right tackle while in Austin. That's not to say there's any chance he takes over the starting job from Boling right away, but it gives him the chance to show his talents to possibly play at left guard down the line.
It's also worth noting that Andre Smith, the Bengals' starting right tackle, also will not be playing against the Kansas City Chiefs, per Hobson (h/t Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle). Is it possible we see Hopkins slide over to play a little there too?
At this point, Hopkins has certainly seized his opportunity. He needs to continue that during his first NFL showing.
Isaiah Lewis, S
Anyone who has read my work at this point knows that I am a big fan of Isaiah Lewis. I love his athleticism, I love his tenacity and I really love that he worked with Dennard at Michigan State. That means they already have some chemistry.
Like Dennard, Lewis was impressive during OTAs and has had some good training camp showings, but facing off against a corps of safeties comprised of mostly veterans works against him. Reggie Nelson and George Iloka will start, barring any sort of injury, and Danieal Manning, given his career, is likely a lock as well.
Taylor Mays is probably close to a lock because he took some steps forward, and Shawn Williams is a sophomore who needs more chances to shine.
That leaves Lewis likely on the outside looking in, but a big-time preseason can go a long way in proving the first depth chart wrong. Per CBSSports.com, Lewis is showing as the third-string free safety.
I won't take much stock in the first depth chart, especially since Lewis' strength will likely come at strong safety. In the coming weeks, Lewis will need to show something during the preseason. He may be performing against backups or third-stringers, but any impression you leave in the preseason is a lasting one.
Ryan Hewitt/Nikita Whitlock
At this point, it is hard to say what kind of role either of these guys would play on this team. Both are capable of playing fullback or tight end.
The tight end option seems out of the equation for both guys, at least for the immediate future, as the coaches have seen more work from Alex Smith and Kevin Brock during camp. However, with Orson Charles still trying to adjust to the H-back position, it's not impossible that Whitlock or Hewitt could become the team's true fullback.
On paper, if either is going to make the roster and/or start, it will be the college H-back, Hewitt. Hewitt played at Stanford and saw plenty of offensive success, while Andrew Luck was there during the 2011 season. He came out of the backfield to catch five touchdowns that season and caught a total of 34 passes
Whitlock, meanwhile, is a converted defensive player who will have to learn a lot in order to make the transition to the offense. He's quite a bit smaller in stature as compared to Charles or Hewitt, but it isn't improbable that we see him play down the line.
I don't see Charles losing the position outright, unless the preseason goes horribly wrong. However, since the transition from tight end to H-back isn't going as smoothly as expected (see last season for proof), I would expect the team to keep either Hewitt or Whitlock (or both) on the practice squad as insurance policies.
On a side note, Cincy Jungle's Jason Marcum seems to believe Hewitt has "all but passed Orson Charles on the depth chart" after catching another touchdown during Tuesday's practice.
James Wilder Jr., RB
Perhaps the most high-profile undrafted free agent in the NFL wears a Cincinnati Bengals' uniform, and this is that man. James Wilder Jr. is fresh off a solid season at Florida State, even if he wasn't what you would call a "featured back." With a quarterback like Jameis Winston, the running game was certainly option two.
Still, Wilder rumbled for 563 yards on just 81 carries, good for an average of almost seven yards per carry. He also found his way into the end zone eight times.
Unfortunately, there hasn't been much news regarding him throughout training camp. As the depth chart stands for the Bengals at the moment, Wilder is not on it, which wouldn't be altogether shocking.
However, if you assume BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be ousted by the time the season starts, the fourth (and likely final) running back slot would come down to Wilder and Rex Burkhead. While Burkhead has a year of experience under his belt, Wilder has more athleticism and would probably be able to play a bigger role on the offense.
For now, though, Wilder will have to up his game if he hopes to see the 53-man roster. The preseason is looming, and that will have to be his time to shine. Thus far, we've not heard much about him standing out.
Lavelle Westbrooks, CB
With the cornerback position pretty loaded up with talent, it will be hard for Lavelle Westbrooks to earn a roster spot for his rookie season. It isn't impossible, but if you assume Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick, Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Dennard will all be on the roster, that likely leaves one cornerback spot.
Westbrooks, during OTAs back in early June, was reported to have been playing in the slot-cornerback position behind Dennard, per Marcum of Cincy Jungle.
The Bengals' second seventh-round selection and final 2014 selection, Westbrooks came out of small Georgia Southern as a combination player, able to play both safety and cornerback. That may have been more useful for the team last season, but with Hall returning from injury, Dennard coming in, and the signing of Danieal Manning, spots are limited.
It's likely that Westbrooks lands on the practice squad to start the year, but it's feasible to believe he could beat out R.J. Stanford, Chris Lewis-Harris (facing a 2-game suspension to start the season) and Onterio McCalebb for the final spot.
James Wright, WR
ESPN.com's Coley Harvey has called seventh-round receiver James Wright "one to watch" this preseason, as the Bengals try to line up their receiving corps. Despite not having caught a pass for two seasons, it was thought that his prowess on special teams would be his main use.
However, Wright has evidently "chased down deep passes" from each of the Bengals' quarterbacks and is seemingly building quite the resume to be a part of this team. However, he will have to outperform Cobi Hamilton, Brandon Tate and Ryan Whalen to do it.
Should Tate end up being cut—my personal belief—that wouldn't necessarily mean Wright could take over the special teams duties. Yes, that's what he specialized in at LSU, but he wasn't a returner. Usually, he operated in coverage.
The belief in him seems to be there. It appeared that Hamilton seemed to have a lockdown on a roster spot, but if Wright performs at a high level during the preseason, it will be hard to leave him off the roster.
Marquis Flowers, LB
At Marquis Flowers' size, there's definitely a lot to love about him. He is very similar to Taylor Mays in terms of size, and the two could actually compete for time as the team's nickelback, a position filled by Mays last season.
Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle reported that Flowers has recently been taking reps with the first team as the weak-side linebacker. I know what you're thinking, and the answer is yes; that is where Vontaze Burfict starts.
However, his time there likely was used as a message as to who might be on the good side of the cut line at the moment. Flowers is competing with Jayson DiManche, Sean Porter, Brandon Joiner and possibly even Dontay Moch for one of the last spots at linebacker.
After OTAs and a couple of weeks of training camp, I'm beginning to like Flowers' chances more and more. His versatility and performances during practice have proven his desire to be on the NFL team.
AJ McCarron, QB
"A.J. to A.J. The future is now." At the beginning of training camp, that sign hung from a bridge near the Bengals' practice facility, eluding to the fans' desire to see AJ McCarron start for the team.
Now that Andy Dalton has signed a new deal, that seems to be irrelevant, at least for the time being. Even had he not signed, the idea of McCarron taking over this team at any point in 2014 is preposterous.
His numbers as a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide were impressive, no doubt. He has a good arm and showed that he can possibly manage the closest thing to an NFL offense. The issue is that he's not incredibly athletic, running a 4.94-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and he benefited from a star-studded cast in Tuscaloosa.
McCarron, at least for 2014 and maybe even into 2015, will be an NFL project. He has some good mechanics and a good NFL mind, but he couldn't come in and be as successful even as Dalton has been.
On top of this, McCarron has missed substantial practice time with a bad shoulder. He is probable for the start of the regular season, but he will miss the preseason opener against Kansas City, according to Mark Inabinett of AL.com.
Seeing McCarron in the preseason, should he play at all due to this injury, will probably be the only time you see him playing this season.
Russell Bodine, C/G
The Cincinnati Bengals actually traded up in the fourth round of the draft to be sure they were able to grab Russell Bodine. That is very uncharacteristic of this team, so you know they wanted this guy bad.
After seeing his work throughout OTAs and training camp, it's becoming very clear exactly why they were so adamant about getting him. Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson (h/t Jason Marcum Cincy Jungle) pointed out that Bodine was "their (the Bengals') guy at center" and that the former Tar Heel showed "a nice nasty streak and a real serious demeanor."
The downside, however, is that the center position comes with growing pains, as referenced by ESPN.com's Coley Harvey. Evidently, Bodine has had several bad snaps during training camp.
Despite the troubles, Bodine's place as the starting center should be mostly secure, so long as this trend doesn't become an even bigger problem. His main competition is Trevor Robinson, whose stock isn't tremendously high as it is, and veteran Mike Pollack, who has seen no time this offseason at the position.
Even with Kyle Cook, who was a solidified starter in Cincinnati when he was healthy, the center position has been a problem for the Bengals for years. They may have finally solved that problem.
Will Clarke, DE
With the Bengals' defensive line as stacked as it is, Will Clarke's rookie season is probably not going to be filled with a lot of opportunities. Margus Hunt, Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap will see the majority of the action at defensive end.
Take nothing away from Clarke, though—he's long and can move pretty well, which could not only play into his blitzing ability, but it could also assist him in being able to bat down a few extra passes at the line.
Unfortunately for Clarke, he really hasn't made a giant impact this far into training camp. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any key plays from him.
However, that's only a couple of weeks of training camp. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Clarke performs in the preseason, because that will be where he sees most of his action. If he's hoping to see any sort of consistent regular-season time, he will have to outperform veteran and longtime Bengal Robert Geathers in the coming weeks.
Jeremy Hill, RB
There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Jeremy Hill is going to get plenty of action during his rookie campaign, even with Giovani Bernard set to have a breakout season. On the opening depth chart, he is listed as the third-string back, behind Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Barring a catastrophic preseason, you can bet that is going to change.
Hill uses a power running game, similar to that of Green-Ellis, so he is likely to be in the backfield for short-yardage situations and at the goal line. Coming off a 1,400-plus-yard season at LSU, it surprised no one that he was impressive as a runner during OTAs and thus far in training camp.
Richard Skinner of Cincinnati.com reported that the bigger surprise came when Hill excelled in 1-on-1 blocking drills. Skinner called Hill "impressive" in two blocking attempts against upcoming linebacker Vincent Rey.
Is Jeremy Hill truly the full package? Is he going to help revive the running game in Cincinnati and be a solid pass-blocker?
Plenty of eyes are going to be on him going forward. Many were shocked when he was taken by the Bengals in Round 2, but there didn't seem to be anyone who was upset by it then—and they certainly shouldn't feel that way now.
It's starting to look more and more like Dennard wasn't the only draft steal the Bengals got.
Darqueze Dennard, CB
As of the Bengals' first released depth chart, per CBSSports.com, Dennard is slated to play behind Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick at left cornerback—that is not how things will look come Week 1.
It's very possible that Dennard is a backup when the Bengals open the season, but the notion that he is going to play behind the oft-injured Kirkpatrick is insane. The third-year corner from Alabama has missed time during training camp with yet another injury and is questionable for the start of the preseason.
Meanwhile, the Bengals' first-round selection, Dennard, has been in action daily, making quite the impact, as reported by Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle. Marcum said, "Even Marvin Lewis is impressed with Dennard's ability to play the deep ball without interfering with the receiver," referencing an interception Dennard made off Jason Campbell.
And don't take this as a hate rant against Kirkpatrick—I would actually prefer to see he and Dennard get more action than the veterans Newman and Adam Jones. Kirkpatrick seemed poised to break out after last season, and Dennard has been impressive this offseason.
With the former Michigan State Spartan making such an impact, it's impossible to believe that he'll be riding the bench as a third-string corner. For now, his preseason performance could decide whether he'll start ahead of Newman.