The Bengals will go into the 2017 season with one of the biggest influxes of youth they have seen since the reboot following the lockout in 2011.
That means if you’re a veteran on this roster and you’re asked to play tonight, it won’t be a good sign.
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Head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther have each hinted at changes in terms of roster turnover, and Thursday should provide a glimpse into which of the older players may be looking for new teams come Saturday.
“As an old coach, there’s something to be said for young guys,” Lewis said. “I like old guys, but our job as coaches is to develop young guys as quickly as possible. They’re going to last longer. It’s just proven. That’s the way of the league. It is what is.”
The battle between Randy Bullock and Jake Elliott comes down to the wire, although Bullock appears to have the edge over the rookie fifth-round pick.
Bullock is 5 for 5 this preseason, hitting from 54, 53, 49, 47 and 26 yards. He’s also a perfect 2 for 2 on extra points and has had six of his seven kickoffs result in touchbacks.
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Elliott is 3 of 4 on field goals after a 45-yard miss Sunday at Washington. His makes have been shorter, from 45, 39 and 32 yards. He’s made both of his PATs and has had 5 of his seven kickoffs result in touchbacks.
Kicking in the controlled indoor environment at Lucas Oil Stadium should be a benefit for the kickers. But the question is how many chances will each kicker get in a game that is typically low scoring. The Bengals and Colts combined for 23 points in the 2016 preseason finale and 15 in 2015.
Aside from performance, another element that could play into the decision is looking at the future. Even if Bullock outperforms Elliott, if it’s close the team may elect to go with the rookie they invested a draft pick in knowing they’ll have under their control for four years for a total of $2.6 million.
Bullock is signed for two years and due to make $775,000 in 2017 and $790,000 in 2018. Elliott is dues
The Bengals not only play their rookie draft picks in the preseason finale, they start most of them.
Last year all five healthy rookie draft picks played (Andrew Billings and William Jackson were hurt and placed on IR after the game).
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In 2015, all eight healthy draft picks played. Only first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi, who was recovering from ACL surgery, sat out.
So if, as expected, third-round pick Jordan Willis plays tonight, he will have a chance to do something no other player has done in the Marvin Lewis era: Record a sack in each of his first four preseason games.
With three sacks in three games, Willis also is within reach of the mark for most preseason sacks in the Lewis era, which is 4.5 set by Geno Atkins in 2010, most in the NFL that season.
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Margus Hunt had four sacks in 2014, and Chris Carter (2015) and Dontay Moch (2012) each had 3.5.
One rookie who is eligible but might play is rookie safety Brandon Wilson, the player involved in one of the strangest moves of the season so far.
The Bengals activated Wilson, the team’s sixth-round pick, from the Active/Non-Football Injury list Tuesday despite the fact that Wilson hasn’t had a full practice. Given that, it would seem unlikely he would play against the Colts. But the flip side of the argument is why activate him if you’re not going to play him.
The Bengals could have waited until Saturday at 4 to stash Wilson on the Reserve/NFI, meaning he wouldn't count against the 53-man roster but wouldn't be able to practice or play for six weeks. But activating him Tuesday, that option is off the table.
The Bengals will either need to carry Wilson the 53-man roster or expose him to waivers before bringing him back to the practice squad.
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Maybe with the fourth preseason game being so meaningless, the Bengals figure they can throw Wilson in cold and see how he does. They need depth at safety with Shawn Williams and George Iloka not expected to play, and perhaps top backups Clayton Fejedelem and Derron Smith won’t either given that one of the two will need to start for Williams until he’s recovered from his elbow injury.
Another option for Wilson will be to return kicks given that the other options at returner could be players the Bengals don’t want to expose to injury.
Not the Carson show
The Bengals offered a hint at how they plan to construct their roster in Sunday’s loss at Washington.
When running back Cedric Peerman went down with a shoulder injury in the third quarter, the Bengals gave Tra Carson one carry before letting undrafted rookie Jarveon Williams handle things the rest of the way with 10 carries for 26 yards.
The Bengals could elect to keep just three running backs on the 53-man roster (Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon), but the team’s reluctance to use Carson on Sunday and expose him to a possible injury would seem to indicate he’s in their plans. That’s probably even more true now than it was then given that the team ended Peerman’s season by placing him on IR and traded Marquis Flowers.
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Both Peerman and Flowers were special teams staples, along with linebacker Vinny Rey, whose role will be limited with him thrust into a starting linebacker spot while Vontze Burfict serves his suspension.
Carson plays all four special teams, so keeping him as a fourth running back makes sense. And if the team didn’t want to risk him to injury Sunday, it certainly won’t Thursday.
Assuming Mixon comes out after geting a few carries on the first couple series, it could be the Jarveon Williams show for the rest of the night.
Cincinnati Bengals (1-2) vs. Indianapolis Colts (1-2)
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
TV: Ch. 12, 22
Radio: 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM