The Cincinnati Bengals are set to open training camp on Thursday. Here are some of the interesting battles that will take place in scorching temperatures on the fields adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium.
In years past the key battles have been at the back end of the roster, with players fighting for spots 50-53 on the roster.
Those still will be in play this year, but so, too, will be a handful of starting jobs.
Here is a look at the five position groups that should provide the most interesting position battles during training camp.
You can lock in A.J. Green, but the starting job on the other side of the formation is up for grabs. Brandon LaFell started 15 games last year, but he’ll turn 32 during the season and the competition will be to not only hold on as a starter, but to make the 53-man roster.
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With John Ross healthy and showing flashes this spring of why the Bengals used the ninth pick on him in 2017, and with Tyler Boyd riding the momentum from a strong ending to his sophomore season, it’s easy to envision those two lining up for the first snap – Ross out wide and Boyd in the slot – Sept. 9 in Indianapolis.
Josh Malone showed promise during his rookie year. Alex Erickson, who took Brandon Tate’s job in 2016, has emerged in that same role as a dependable kick and punt returner who also can come up with the occasional big play on offense. And rookie seventh-round pick Auden Tate opened a lot of eyes during the offseason.
Plus there’s still Cody Core, who has plenty of value on special teams, and an intriguing prospect in undrafted rookie Ka’Raun White. All of them are younger and cheaper than LaFell, but the Bengals love his experience and professionalism.
The Bengals typically keep six wide receivers.
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The assumption is that Jake Fisher, who is fully recovered from the heart surgery that ended his 2017 season in November, will be the starter at right tackle, but Bobby Hart and – yes – Cedric Ogbuehi are going to have something to say about that.
Ogbuehi spent most of the offseason working with the starters, but the Bengals were taking things slow with Fisher. And Hart spent some time with the ones early in the offseason. That should be the most interesting position battle of camp, but it’s not the only one worth tracking on the offensive line.
The right guard job is up for grabs as well. After Alex Redmond and Christian Westerman played well in December, they both have a chance to unseat Trey Hopkins, as will T.J. Johnson.
The other spots are set, with Cordy Glenn at left tackle, rookie first-round pick Billy Price at center and veteran Clint Boling at left guard.
The Bengals typically keep nine offensive linemen, which means one of the aforementioned 10 could go into camp aiming for a starting job and end up leaving with a pink slip.
The other six linemen on the roster, including seventh-round pick Rod Taylor, will be trying to show enough during camp to stick around on the practice squad.
The Vontaze Burfict suspension alone makes this group interesting, as someone will make the 53-man roster who wouldn’t otherwise, and one of the backups will be a starter for the first four games.
Rookie third-round pick Malik Jefferson didn’t show much during offseason workouts, so look for Jordan Evans and Vinny Rey to be the key battle to start the opener alongside Nick Vigil (SAM) and Preston Brown (MIKE), unless you buy the notion that defensive end Carl Lawson will be switching to linebacker, which doesn’t seem likely based on how poorly that experiment went and how quickly it was shut down last year.
Also, it will be worth watching whether Rey, who turns 31 prior to the start of the season, will be battling Father Time as much as anyone else.
The Bengals usually keep six linebackers, so assuming Rey makes the cut, that leaves Hardy Nickerson, Brandon Bell and undrafted rookie Chris Worley to fight for the final spot.
It’s a close race between the D line and wide receiver for the position group with the most overall depth and talent.
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Geno Atkins are starters, but the two spots on the right side of the line are up for grabs, although defensive end Carl Lawson appears poised to take the next step from a nickel rush specialist to an every-down player after a breakout rookie year.
If Lawson does make the switch to linebacker, look for Jordan Willis to move into that spot with long-time starter Michael Johnson sliding to an inside rusher in nickel packages, where he excelled last year.
As for the other starting tackle, Andrew Billings, Ryan Glasgow, Chris Baker and rookie Andrew Brown could all be in play. The interesting thing here is that one of those four likely won’t make the 53 if the Bengals continue with their trend of keeping nine defensive linemen because rookie third-rounder Sam Hubbard would seem to be a lock.
Rookie second-round pick Jessie Bates is going to play this year, and play a lot. The biggest question is whether he can unseat George Iloka as the starter.
Iloka, Bates and Shawn Williams are locks to make the roster, and Clayton Fejedelem’s special teams prowess (Pro Bowl alternate last year) should earn him a spot as well.
The Bengals typically go with six corners and four safeties, although that count has been muddled the last few years with Josh Shaw’s ability to play both. Shaw has struggled as a slot corner, so his spot could be in jeopardy with charges from 2017 sixth-round pick Brandon Wilson and rookie undrafted safeties Trayvon Henderson and Tyrice Beverette.
Bates and Beverette are the only players the team lists as defensive backs on the official roster while all others are specified as corners or safeties.