Cincinnati Bengals: Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp
With every training camp come the always interesting position battles. Some of them aren't as high profile as a quarterback battle, but for the Cincinnati Bengals, guys could be going head-to-head over plenty of spots.
The first one that comes to mind involves Vincent Rey, who had a breakout season last year filling in for longtime starter Rey Maualuga. Is there potential for the starting job to change hands? Some may say that's ridiculous given how long Maualuga has been here, but it could be time for a change, especially if Rey outshines Maualuga in camp.
Some competitions don't even include starting positions. Yes, the ideal situation for every athlete on the field is to start, but sometimes you just have to make the roster and pay your dues. Such could be said for the fourth running back slot on the 53-man roster—that is a competition that will garner virtually no attention from the media, but it will be an important battle between Rex Burkhead and James Wilder Jr.
Some of these battles will come down to the final preseason snap, so what positions should we be watching this preseason?
Starting Left Guard
Competitors: Clint Boling vs. Mike Pollack vs. Trey Hopkins vs. Tanner Hawkinson
Over the last few weeks, a lot of speculation has surrounded guys like undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins and veteran Mike Pollack about the left guard position because of Clint Boling's injury suffered last season.
Now, according to Larry Hartstein on CBSSports.com, "Boling expects to be ready early in training camp and to start Week 1." This can come as good news or bad news, based on how you look at it.
Boling represents stability at the position, as he has started the majority of the games at left guard over the last two seasons. If you choose to take that as the good news, that's certainly one way to look at it. The down side is that overall Boling just isn't that impressive as a guard.
That's not to say he should be classified as "bad," but an upgrade wouldn't hurt. At this point, second-year guard-turned-tackle Tanner Hawkinson remains in the mix, but given the aforementioned transition to tackle, I wouldn't expect to see much from him in this sense.
That leaves Mike Pollack, who has been dealing with a knee injury of his own this offseason, and the newcomer in Hopkins.
Hopkins, a former Texas Longhorn, received some opportunities with the first-team offense during OTAs, and according to Geoff Hobson on Bengals.com (h/t CincyJungle.com), he was impressive in his time.
At this point, Pollack is probably more in the fold to compete at center, and if Boling is healthy, he'll be the likely starter. However, keep in mind that Andrew Whitworth could slide over to play left guard and let Marshall Newhouse play left tackle.
Fourth Running Back
Competitors: Rex Burkhead vs. James Wilder Jr.
This battle could wind up not having as much to do with who the more talented back is. Even if Rex Burkhead has more NFL-ready talent, it may be a big mistake to let James Wilder Jr. walk to another team.
Take nothing away from Burkhead, who had a fantastic career at Nebraska, but he doesn't seem to have as much potential as perhaps the biggest name on the Bengals' undrafted free-agent list. Wilder, who played running back for the reigning national champion Florida State Seminoles, averaged seven yards per carry last season.
While Burkhead has plenty of skill, his most accurate NFL comparison may be someone like Brian Leonard. No offense to Leonard or Burkhead, but the Bengals should be more willing to let that sort of back walk than someone like Wilder, who has the athleticism of a true NFL running back.
Overall, this spot on the roster—likely falling behind Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill and Cedric Peerman—will be one of the final ones selected for the 53-man roster. There may not even be a fourth running back spot, but if there is, Wilder has too much talent and potential for the team to let him walk away.
Competitors: Russell Bodine vs. Trevor Robinson vs. Mike Pollack
Prior to the drafting of Russell Bodine, and maybe immediately after, it was likely that the more experienced Mike Pollack would start. With his recent injury woes, that's starting to look more and more unlikely.
The same could be said of Trevor Robinson, who has been underwhelming in three seasons with the Bengals.
Meanwhile, buzz is circling around the Bengals' fourth-round selection, Russell Bodine, whom the team traded up in the draft to acquire. Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle reported a couple of weeks ago that the Bengals believe he is "their guy at center."
This makes for an intriguing situation at center. The Bengals have lacked at the position over the past several years, as the duties were performed by Robinson and the now-exiled Kyle Cook. Bodine possesses more athleticism than both of his predecessors, and he's coming in fresh, as opposed to Pollack who has been recovering from a nagging knee injury.
In the end, this may not be much of a battle in the coming weeks unless Bodine performs badly enough to hurt his stock enough to fall down the roster. Expect Pollack to be on the roster and Bodine to start.
Fifth Linebacker (and Beyond)
Competitors: Brandon Joiner vs. Dontay Moch vs. Marquis Flowers vs. J.K. Schaffer vs. Sean Porter vs. James Davidson vs. Jayson DiManche
The field is wide open for this spot—likely the last one or two available to the linebackers. Rey Mauaulga, Vincent Rey, Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur are surely going to make the roster, leaving the reserves in question.
Jayson DiManche and J.K. Schaffer's expertise lies on special teams, which could give them a small leg up on the competition. Additionally, DiManche received some quality playing time amidst the injuries to the linebackers last season.
Dontay Moch is back in Cincinnati and looking to revive his career after being shipped off to Arizona for a season. Back in 2011 when Moch was drafted, he displayed some incredible speed but never saw the field in a Bengals uniform. If he's hoping to get his career back on track, now would be the time.
That leaves three guys—Brandon Joiner and Sean Porter, both of whom have been on the roster for the last two seasons, and rookie Marquis Flowers, a sixth-round pick back in May. Flowers possesses the speed and size to be a solid Cover 3 safety or a nickel backer, which could be his upper hand in this competition.
As it stands now, it would seem that Joiner and Porter have to be on the outside looking in, but that only narrows the field by two. Watch the linebackers heavily during the preseason, because if they're on this list, they'll be competing to make the roster.
Starting Left Defensive End
Competitors: Wallace Gilberry vs. Margus Hunt vs. Will Clarke
Following a breakout season that saw Wallace Gilberry record 7.5 sacks, it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that he's the starter with the departure of Michael Johnson. However, Gilberry has largely been a backup player who would get a fair amount of plays throughout the season, similar to that of a pinch hitter in baseball.
That being said, second-year end Margus Hunt seems to be the favorite to get the spot for now, as he got a lot of first-team snaps during OTAs, while Gilberry actually received some time playing tackle. That also makes for an interesting story: What will his role be with Geno Atkins possibly still recovering from a torn ACL?
Gilberry and Hunt seem to be the two contenders here, but don't forget about third-round selection Will Clarke from West Virginia. Clarke is coming off a senior season that saw him record 50 tackles and six sacks. Unfortunately for him, he has some work to do before he becomes a starter, as he tends to get overpowered by offensive linemen.
Coley Harvey reported on ESPN.com that Hunt was pleased at the end of OTAs, which is possibly a hint regarding his positioning on the depth chart. For now, prepare for the powerful Estonian to be the starter for Week 1.
Starting Middle Linebacker
Competitors: Vincent Rey vs. Rey Maualuga
It remains unclear in the immediate future if this is even a competition worth discussing—Rey Maualuga has been the consistent starter in the middle since he was drafted in 2009. So why bring this up?
Well, Maualuga's struggles were heavily highlighted following the Bengals' playoff loss to Houston in 2013. Owen Daniels, the then-Houston tight end, caught nine passes across the middle during that game for 91 yards. Those aren't record-setting stats, but they played a huge role in the loss.
Maualuga has never truly been a threat against the pass—he has four career sacks and four career interceptions. Enter Vincent Rey, who after three seasons of mostly special teams work, burst onto the scene last season, setting career highs in tackles (57) and sacks (4.0), and recording his first forced fumble, first fumble recovery and first two interceptions (one pick-six).
Comparing the two in terms of who is better on the field, it's hard to argue that Maualuga is the better guy to have. In terms of stability, Maualuga may make more sense, but the most recent numbers tell a different story.
Fans are excited to see Rey this season, and he even got some first-team reps during OTAs. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Paul Guenther entertains the thought of this battle.