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Actively looking at the opener

Posted Jul 8, 2013

Projections for an NFL 53-man roster a week before MLB's All-Star Game are a lot like a squeeze play. Or an all-out blitz. Or putting the winning run on base via a walk. Or a fourth-down pass.


Marvin Lewis

Projections for an NFL 53-man roster a week before MLB's All-Star Game are a lot like a squeeze play. Or an all-out blitz. Or putting the winning run on base via a walk. Or a fourth-down pass.

You can try it, but don't be surprised if you look bad doing it.

Want to look really bad?

Forget the 53-man roster. Try projecting the 46-man active sheet when the Bengals open the season in Chicago on Sept. 8. We'll do it here, but it is going to be filthy with guesswork, assumptions and, most of all, that 11-letter word called "speculation." That's one letter for every year Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals head coach and in his vocabulary "speculation" is as profane as any four-letter word picked up by the Hard Knocks mikes.

Coming up with The 46 is even tougher because the slew of factors that go into making up a Game Day list aren't even on paper yet. Three of the leading components for The List are injury, opponent and development of young players.

With the pundits calling the Bengals roster among the deepest in the league, cutting to 53 is going to make their training camp as intriguing and as heated as any of Lewis's previous scrums. So just imagine the cut to 46 the week of the opener.

Here's what The List could look like when Lewis hands in his lineup card 90 minutes before the kickoff at Soldier Field. With the emphasis, of course, on "could."

QUARTERBACKS (2)

THE BIG QUESTION: Isn't it looking like the backup job is Josh Johnson's to lose? He's the crop's best runner, he can throw it deep, and he knows the system. Meanwhile, John Skelton is adjusting to the West Coast offense and Zac Robinson is bouncing back from missing the last part of the spring workouts when he rested his arm. The Bengals have gone with just two QBs on the 53 in the Dalton era, but what we do know if the Bengals keep just two quarterbacks again that wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is the emergency No. 3.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)

LEADING CANDIDATES: Sanu, A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins, Brandon Tate.

THE BIG QUESTION: If someone is going to knock Tate out of the return role on both kickoffs and punts, he'll have to have a heck of a preseason. Cornerback Adam Jones is the club's best punt returner, but he's playing on most third-down snaps and isn't always available.

How much do the Bengals want to give rookie running back Giovani Bernard, who figures to catch 50 balls or so, as well as run it? They've toyed with Hawkins returning some punts, but he's yet to do it in a game. Rookie free agent Troy Stoudermire is an NCAA return record-holder at Minnesota, but he's got a steep climb to conquer at cornerback. It is the opener and Tate has given the Bengals two solid years back there even if '12 wasn't as spectacular as '11.

RUNNING BACKS (3)

LEADING CANDIDATES: Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman.

THE BIG QUESTION: Peerman figures to be in a tough derby with the last two sixth-rounders for one of four roster spots with Dan Herron and rookie Rex Burkhead. Although Peerman missed the spring camps, he's expected to be back for training camp and still has an edge with his seasoned and alert special teams play and last year's 5.2 yards per his 34 carries from scrimmage. And that's not including his runs of 48 and 32 yards on fake punts as Kevin Huber's personal protector.

But Herron also impressed during his rookie year on special teams. If Burkhead makes it, he'd probably be sitting early on. Bernard Scott? A candidate for the PUP list as he rehabs from ACL surgery.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

LEADING CANDIDATES: Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert, Alex Smith.

THE BIG QUESTION: It surfaced in the spring when tight end Orson Charles got some snaps in the backfield. Are the Bengals going to keep a fullback? Or are they going to have Charles or Smith be a lead blocker, as well as perform the other duties of a move tight end? Smith, a nine-year veteran the Bengals plucked in free agency, has game experience doing it all and broke into the NFL in the Grudens' system in Tampa Bay. The Bengals have high regard for both Smith and Charles and it's a real possibility they could keep all four tight ends on the 53.

OFFENSIVE LINE (7)

LEADING CANDIDATES: The returning starting crew of LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Kyle Cook, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Andre Smith. Anthony Collins can back up both tackle spots. Trevor Robinson, expected to battle Cook in camp, played 48 games at Notre Dame as a guard.

THE BIG QUESTION: A couple of them. Whoever doesn't win the center job would be the first guard/center off the bench, right? But what about fifth-rounder Tanner Hawkinson, who showed off his guard-tackle versatility in camp?

And then there's veteran backup right tackle Dennis Roland, the tackle eligible whenever the Bengals go with their "Big" package that has played in every game since '09. But if they go with three or even four tight ends, can't they play with three tight ends at one time in another form of a Big set?

As they say, it all has to play out in something called training camp.

DEFENSIVE LINE (8)

LEADING CANDIDATES: Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry at the ends; Domata Peko, Geno Atkins, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson at the tackles.

THE BIG QUESTION: How can you keep second-rounder Margus Hunt on the bench when the SMU defensive end was a field-goal blocking machine? That may be a question for later in the season. Hunt has developed at warp speed in playing just four years of football. He figures to have a learning curve at the highest level and is a candidate for the inactive list early in the year.

But what if he blocks two field goals in the preseason?

LINEBACKERS (6)

LEADING CANDIDATES: Starters James Harrison, Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict. Backups Emmanuel Lamur, Sean Porter and Take Your Pick.

THE BIG QUESTION: There's always a debate every camp. Six or seven backers on the 53? But given that it looks hard for the Bengals not to keep nine defensive linemen and 10 DBs, it looks like six backers and it figures they have to have at least six active on Sunday for effective special teams play.

SECONDARY (9)

LEADING CANDIDATES: Cornerbacks Leon Hall, Terence Newman, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Brandon Ghee. Safeties Reggie Nelson, Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles, Shawn Williams.

THE BIG QUESTION: With the ball getting thrown around like names for the royal baby, you have to have at least five corners. Who will they be? There should be quite a roster derby with Kirkpatrick, Ghee and a pair of 2012 fifth-rounders in cornerback Shaun Prater and safety George Iloka. And the team needs four safeties because they take such a high percentage of the special teams snaps.

SPECIALISTS (3)

LEADING CANDIDATES: P Kevin Huber, K Mike Nugent, LS Clark Harris.

Have the Bengals ever had a stronger trio at one time? Huber is coming off the best season ever by a Bengals punter. Nugent has hit nearly 84 percent of his field goals as a Bengal. Harris hasn't had an unplayable snap since he joined the club four years ago.

That's our 46, which is Harris's uniform jersey in a nice symmetrical finish.

But how would you do it?

If you want to get Hunt on the field, would you dress just five backers? Mays has got backer size and he really came on last year as a key special-teamer.

Or, if you want to get all four tight ends in the game because of the expected increase in double tight-end sets, do you risk going against new Bears guru Marc Trestman with just four corners?

And, would you just feel better with another offensive lineman instead of dressing just seven? But what if you get beat at the gun on a field goal and Hunt is reaching for the same towel as that eighth lineman?

Who are your 46?

 

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