Cincinnati Bengal 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors, More
After months of anticipation and anxiety, the Cincinnati Bengals have finally trimmed their roster down to 53 players. Naturally, there will be plenty of questions as to whether or not they made the right decisions, but it's good to finally know who we'll be watching next Sunday.
Or do we? While we know who is on the roster, it's time to start really getting down to business and figuring out exactly who will be on the field making the impact. Marvin Jones, Darqueze Dennard and Andre Smith are all dealing with injuries, so where does that leave them?
Likewise, who may have played his way into some game time? Just a month ago, I was sure Brandon Tate would be cut, and yet he's on the roster, likely to get some action due to the Marvin Jones' and James Wright's injuries.
How does the depth chart stack up with roughly a week to go until kickoff?
Starter: Andy Dalton
Reserves: Jason Campbell
Analysis: With Andy Dalton entering the year with a brand new, shiny extension, he is going to be the starting quarterback for a lot longer than a lot of fans may like. If you remember the beginning of training camp, signs hung just outside of training camp calling for the extension not to occur and for A.J. McCarron to start.
However, the former Alabama quarterback who didn't play a snap all season has been placed on the non-football injury list. That's not to say he had even a little bit of a chance to start anyway, but he'll be good to have on the team should injuries begin to pile up, assuming he gets healthy himself.
Anyway, I could sit here and point out Dalton's touchdown-to-interception ratio (80-49) through his first three seasons and also point out that he's accumulated over 11,000 yards. None of it matters is the sad truth of it—he has proven he can get the Bengals onto the brink of greatness, but we're still awaiting that next step.
Should Dalton struggle in a catastrophic fashion, veteran Jason Campbell is ready to step in.
X-Factor: The injury bug. The job as the Bengals starter is on lockdown for the future, so the bug is the only thing that may affect the position. Dalton's receivers have already been hit hard by injuries, so how will that affect him when it comes time to play?
What to Watch For: The month of January. The NFL season is a long one, and while each game counts and nothing is given, Bengals fans are well aware that this team can make it to January. It's how they play when they get there that everyone is waiting on.
Two things need to change if the Bengals make the playoffs again—the rushing defense and Andy Dalton. Both have been atrocious for the last three seasons, particularly Dalton, who has one touchdown and seven turnovers in his postseason career.
Starters: Giovani Bernard
Reserves: Jeremy Hill, Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead, Ryan Hewitt (FB)
Analysis: Giovani Bernard showed a lot of promise during his rookie season, collecting over 1,200 all-purpose yards while splitting time with veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis. While plenty of people take notice of his speed out of the backfield, many overlook how good he is in the receiving game—he caught 56 passes last season.
In addition to Bernard, expect to see plenty of opportunities for rookie Jeremy Hill. He will make for a good third-down and red-zone back, making him particularly valuable in that regard. Plus, Hue Jackson is quite the expert on the running game, so he should be giving the whole offense an overhaul.
Cedric Peerman is on the team mostly for special teams purposes and Rex Burkhead's impact will be interesting to see. He was a non-factor during his rookie season, but could have the impact of a Brian Leonard this season.
X-Factor: Ryan Hewitt could wind up being a huge x-factor for this team, particularly in the red zone. He has some experience catching the ball out of the backfield from his days at Stanford, so if teams don't recognize that he has talent and decide to overlook him, Hewitt could wind up surprising people week after week.
What to Watch For: Rookie Jeremy Hill has had several impressive performances during training camp and the preseason—see Richard Skinner's piece on Cincinnati.com for one such example—including the finale against Indianapolis in which he collected 90 yards on 20 carries. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis officially out of the picture, Hill is set to receive plenty of action.
He makes for a good complement to the speedy Bernard, so if he plays as well as he did at LSU, this running game could be among the best in the NFL.
Starters: A.J. Green & Mohamed Sanu
Reserves: Marvin Jones (injured), Dane Sanzenbacher, Brandon Tate, James Wright (injured)
Analysis: The Bengals receiving corps is a little depleted for the immediate future with injuries to Marvin Jones, expected to keep him out until at least Week 5, and rookie James Wright who suffered a concussion during the preseason. It's unclear what his role will be on the corps, but he was a special teams specialist at LSU.
That leaves A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Dane Sanzenbacher and Brandon Tate as the four guys who will definitely be on the field. The good news is that the Bengals have two catching tight ends, which will take some of the load off.
We know how good Green is, and it's why he's the second-best receiver in the NFL. Mohamed Sanu, expected to breakout last season, fell wildly short of expectations, giving way to Jones. Sanu is a very physical receiver and isn't likely to be heavily covered with teams double-teaming Green.
Sanzenbacher is an interesting receiver—he saw relative success with the Chicago Bears in 2011, catching 27 passes and three touchdowns. With Jones out, he'll likely get ample opportunity to step in to the slot position.
As for Tate, whose only real role on the team has been on special teams, he may have to step in and catch a few passes over the first couple of weeks. Granted, Hue Jackson is going to step up the running game, so the receivers aren't likely to put the same numbers they might have under Jay Gruden (except for Green, of course).
X-Factor: The performance of Dane Sanzenbacher coming out of the slot could wind up meaning more to this team than people think. Jones was fantastic in that role last year and is likely out until after the bye, at least.
The speedy Sanzenbacher can justify his position on the roster by taking advantage of the opportunity he's likely to get by Jones being hurt. Giving Dalton a solid slot receiver is important since the routes tend to be shorter passes, and hence easier to make.
What to Watch For: Is there a receiver on this team who is set to break out like Jones did last season? The favorite has to be Mohamed Sanu, who will be the No. 2 receiver while Jones is out. It may be do or die for Sanu, whose breakout season was expected in 2013.
Starters: Jermaine Gresham & Tyler Eifert
Reserve: Alex Smith
Analysis: Going into last season, fans were optimistic about having a two-headed tight end attack coming in the form of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. How did that work out? The two big men combined to score six times and racked up fewer than 1,000 yards.
This season, things need to change, especially for the veteran Gresham, who is in a contract year. It was bad enough that he set career lows in several statistical categories last season, but Gresham also missed time during OTAs dealing with hernia surgery. For now, Gresham's stock is way down, but there's hope he can return to 2011 and 2012 form.
As for Eifert, he has been dealing with a back injury, but is expected to play in the season opener in Baltimore. It's worth noting that Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle reported in early August that Eifert was, "destroying the Bengals defense in training camp" and said he'd been a "favorite target" for Andy Dalton.
That's just training camp, but it gives plenty of reason for optimism.
X-Factor: Gresham's contract. If Gresham is hoping to score a big contract in Cincinnati or anywhere else, he's going to have to heavily improve on what he did last season. A contract could be the fuel that drives him.
What to Watch For: Is Tyler Eifert ready for the NFL? The expectations were high for the rookie tight end from Notre Dame, but he underwhelmed during his first season in the NFL, only scoring two times. With nowhere to go but up, is it time for Eifert to break out?
Starters: Andrew Whitworth (LT), Clint Boling (LG), Russell Bodine (C), Kevin Zeitler (RG), Andre Smith (RT)
Reserves: Marshall Newhouse (T), Mike Pollak (G/C), T.J. Johnson (G), Tanner Hawkinson (T/G)
Analysis: Andrew Whitworth highlights a relatively above average offensive line, as he is one of the more underrated left tackles in the league. He's very versatile for such a big man and carries some speed, making him a good option to block Dalton's back.
Andre Smith on the right side is always a spot for concern. He's one of the best tackles in the NFL when he's on his game, but showed up out of shape in his rookie season and is currently an injury concern.
Kevin Zeitler has lived up to his first-round billing after two seasons, and we can't say much about Clint Boling until we truly see how he returns from injury. If he struggles, you might expect to see a similar setup that we saw from Whitworth and Anthony Collins last season. If you've forgotten, that would mean Whitworth will slide to left guard and Marshall Newhouse would step in at left tackle.
The interesting part will be fourth-round pick Russell Bodine, who the Bengals traded up to get. He's an impressive presence on the line, but has had troubles during the preseason, snapping the ball to be specific. Ultimately, expect solid play from this line if everyone is healthy and ready to play.
X-Factor: It could have been Trey Hopkins, but with him being sidelined with an injury, keep an eye on rookie Russell Bodine. He's big and physical, but raw. This line is used with Kyle Cook, who was well-versed in making changes at the line, so adjusting to Bodine, who still needs work, could come with some growing pains.
What to Watch For: See X-Factor. You may also want to keep on the right tackle position, as Andre Smith has missed most preseason activities due to injury. If he's rusty, or if Marshall Newhouse isn't a good fill-in, that will be a problem.
Starters: Mike Nugent (K), Kevin Huber (P), Clark Harris (LS)
Analysis: Mike Nugent, while not having a leg as powerful as Matt Prater's or Greg Zuerlein's, has been good enough during his Bengals tenure to keep his spot on the team. He converted 18 of 22 field-goal attempts last season but had a noteworthy season in 2011, capitalizing on 33 of 38 tries.
Kevin Huber, the team's punter straight out of the University of Cincinnati, has been among the league's best until he was obliterated against the Steelers last season. If he's healthy, he should return to form.
X-Factor: With Quinn Sharp out of the picture, there's no one who can really step in to steal a spot. However, since Brandon Tate has once again stolen a roster spot, he can make a huge difference on this team by upping his return game.
What to Watch For: See December 24, 2006 against the Denver Broncos. In a game that was key for the Bengals' playoff hunt, long snapper Brad St. Louis botched the snap on the game-tying PAT late in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati lost, and ultimately missed the playoffs.
Long snappers' names are only remembered for the mistakes they make. Clark Harris isn't a household name, and let's hope he doesn't become one.
Starters: Carlos Dunlap (DE), Geno Atkins (DT), Domata Peko (DT), Wallace Gilberry (DE)
Reserves: Margus Hunt (DE), Brandon Thompson (DT), Christo Bilukidi (DT), Robert Geathers (DE), Will Clarke (DE)
Analysis: This defensive line has been one of the most ferocious in the NFL over the past couple seasons, led by Geno Atkins, arguably the best interior lineman in the NFL. He's complemented by Domata Peko, a longtime Bengal who may not be a household name in the NFL, but he's a solid tackler who doubles as a fullback in red-zone situations.
Carlos Dunlap will make an impact as he usually does, fresh off a 7.5 sack season. The other side of the defensive line, likely to feature Wallace Gilberry as the starter, will be of particular intrigue as second-year defensive end Margus Hunt grows.
Hunt, whose NFL ability was called into question because of his short time playing, was compared by Mike Zimmer to J.J. Watt during Hard Knocks last season (per Cincy Jungle). If that is true, Hunt will certainly have taken over the starting reins by the end of this season.
Overall, this line should be the dominant force it has been recently, even after the loss of Michael Johnson. Gilberry and Hunt should be able to fill in nicely, and backups like Brandon Thompson and Robert Geathers are capable of making huge impacts off the bench.
X-Factor: Christo Bilukidi came on strong during training camp and had some solid showings during the preseason. With Devon Still moving down to the practice squad and Geno Atkins returning from an ACL tear, Bilukidi could have ample playing time to make a big impact.
What to Watch For: Is Geno Atkins going to be Geno still? He's expected to be ready for the opener this weekend, which is fantastic news for this crew, but after a major knee injury, you can't help but wonder if a player will be the same.
Starters: Emmanuel Lamur (strongside), Rey Maualuga (middle), Vontaze Burfict (weakside)
Reserves: Vincent Rey (middle), Jayson DiManche (strongside), Sean Porter (weakside), Marquis Flowers (weakside)
Analysis: The Bengals decided to hold onto seven linebackers this season, likely in an effort to keep more guys in rotation to cover the middle of the field against receiving tight ends, since those seem to be the flavor of the generation.
Sean Porter seems to be a little bit of a stretch, especially now having a hamstring injury, and he'll likely be used in emergency situations or special teams. Jayson DiManche's career has mostly been made up of special teams work, but he had some defensive opportunities in 2013. He'll get more in rotation this year.
Marquis Flowers will be interesting. He's built almost exactly like Taylor Mays and could even play safety in the nickel. How they use him this season is completely up in the air.
That leaves the starters and Vincent Rey. Emmanuel Lamur will be looking to make an impact in his first real chance to start and we all know what Vontaze Burfict means to this defense. However, I am of the belief that the middle linebacker position will feature a season-long battle between Rey Maualuga and Vincent Rey.
That would be a battle for 2015. Rey came on strong last season while Maualuga and James Harrison struggled with injuries, and that didn't come at a good time for Maualuga, who has been under a lot of scrutiny over the past couple years regarding his pass defense.
Can Rey follow up his breakout season?
X-Factor: Vincent Rey burst onto the scene in 2013 and is likely to see considerable playing time in 2014, despite the fact that he won't be the starter. That puts a lot of pressure onto Rey Maualuga, who now has plenty of competition breathing down his neck.
What to Watch For: What will Emmanuel Lamur produce? There's been hype surrounding him since he was signed as an UDFA in 2012. Unfortunately, injuries and a once-crowded corps of linebackers haven't really allowed him to see much time since he got to the NFL.
Jayson DiManche and rookie Marquis Flowers will be waiting if Lamur doesn't work out, but in what little bit I've seen from Lamur, he's a good cover linebacker, meaning he could pick up the slack that Maualuga leaves. His upside appears to be endless, so this season should circle around the strongside linebacker.
Starters: Reggie Nelson (FS) & George Iloka (SS)
Reserves: Taylor Mays & Shawn Williams
Analysis: Of all the positions on defense over the past two or three years, the safety position has overwhelmingly been in the most peril. You can ask Chris Crocker, who was repeatedly brought back to save the team in years past.
Now, that seems to be an afterthought, at least on paper. Reggie Nelson has been the team's solidified free safety since 2010 and has done a fantastic job. Last season saw him record 20 fewer tackles than in 2012 or 2011, but he was still wildly effective in a secondary that was injury-depleted. He'll be the starting free safety for as long as he wants to be.
George Iloka will be an interesting guy to watch as he enters his second year as the team's starting strong safety. Iloka proved to be a wise decision as he was competing with Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams for the job during the 2013 preseason.
Keep your eyes on Taylor Mays, too, a guy who makes for a solid nickelbacker and has incredible hit strength. He still has a lot of development ahead of him, and he is going to receive plenty of time to become the safety he was once thought to be.
Shawn Williams will make the occasional appearance, but will need some work after getting burned by Brandon Tate (per Cincinnati.com's Richard Skinner), a less-than-noteworthy receiver.
X-Factor: The development of Taylor Mays. After I was convinced that Mays would never have the football logic to play in the NFL, the former USC Trojan made huge strides in 2013 and finally looked like he may belong in the league. If he continues to get better, this corps of safeties may actually have some worth past the starters.
What to Watch For: George Iloka is entering his second season as a starter for the Bengals, and he responded well during his first. The former Boise State Bronco made 66 tackles, forced two fumbles, had a fumble recovery and defended six passes in 2013 starting all 16 games. Can he continue to progress? This secondary is on the upswing.
Starters: Leon Hall & Terence Newman
Reserves: Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones, Darqueze Dennard
Analysis: Back in 2010, the Bengals' cornerback position was highlighted by two stud corners in Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. Unfortunately, Joseph jetted Cincinnati for Houston, Hall has since had two major Achilles injuries and the cornerbacks have been in disarray ever since.
Now, it looks like everything might be back on track in the Queen City. Leon Hall is returning from last season's injury, and Terence Newman will be the starter opposite him. Yes, that may be a bit of an older starting tandem, but the experience and careers of these two men are, at the very least, noteworthy. Sure, Hall won't be putting up 70-plus tackles or 6-plus interceptions, and Newman likely won't be matching any of his best years in Dallas, but both guys will hold plenty of value in this secondary.
What's interesting is that Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick, both significantly younger than Newman, Hall and Adam Jones, are going to be waiting in the wings for their shots on the field. We're still waiting for former Alabama standout Kirkpatrick to break out since being drafted in 2012, and Dennard's preseason practices have been spectacular (see this example from Jason Marcum on Cincy Jungle).
There's both youth and experience on the squad of corners, which will make for an interesting season in the secondary. By this time next year, with all due respect to Hall and Newman, Dennard and Kirkpatrick could be the starters, which sounds like bad news for this season, but that would be good news if they both succeed.
X-Factor: This one is easy—Darqueze Dennard. He wasn't expected to be available at pick 24, but he was and the Bengals are incredibly lucky to have added such a talent to the roster. However, he's going to play behind the team's veterans in the beginning, but he will likely be on the field enough to make some sort of impact.
If he's as good as billed, this cornerback corps is arguably one of the best.
What to Watch For: Dre Kirkpatrick is likely to see more time this year than in any of the past two. Toward the end of last season, he started to show glimpses of why he was a first-round pick in 2012, highlighted by a two-interception game (one of which was a pick-six) in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens.
Will this be the year the youngsters of the group take over?