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Exploring the depths

Posted Jul 25, 2012


Brandon Tate

Once upon a time, the training camp media luncheon arrived with The Depth Chart, ending the white-knuckled suspense that began at the final gun of the regular season.

Probably because as the years went by and coverage of the depth chart began to rival presidential conventions, head coach Marvin Lewis bagged it and left it to when he really had to give it up. Which is Monday Aug. 6, the first day the Bengals prepare for the preseason opener against the Jets.

So until then, we'll try to make our best guess in preparation for Friday's 3 p.m. first practice. We'll give the offense a shot Wednesday and then go defense Thursday.

Just a guess, mind you, off of what transpired in the spring. The receivers and guards have to play all the spots, so it doesn't really matter what side you put them. If there's a tossup on who goes in front of whom, we put the guy with more NFL experience:

(Years of NFL experience)

WR - Brandon Tate (4), Armon Binns (1), Jordan Shipley (3), Ryan Whalen (2), Mohamed Sanu (R), Taveon Rogers (R), Justin Hilton (R)

Technically, this is the split end spot, the receiver that lines up opposite the tight end on the line of scrimmage. But in reality, all the receivers have to learn all three spots (split, flanker and slot) and most of them can play all three. Tate, with his 24 NFL catches and solid spring, figures to start here early. But offensive coordinator Jay Gruden indicated this week that Tate and Binns are going to be splitting a lot of time.

"I think these guys have done some good things. Tate's done some good things; Binns has done some great things," Gruden said. "I really don't anticipate one guy really jumping ahead of the other. I think both will be very beneficial to us and both will be a big help to us.

"Whalen is out there also, he does everything we ask him to do. He runs every route at the right depth and catches every ball thrown to him. I don't know what else you want. Sanu has done a great job coming in here learning. Shipley, hopefully, he gets back."

Shipley appears to be a candidate to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) with his healing ACL, so the Bengals could be in the hole for his 56 career catches in the slot. But even though Whalen and Sanu have just four NFL catches between them, the club thinks both have a high ceiling in the slot when it comes to size, brains and instincts. Speedy Andrew Hawkins, a special teams staple, also provides an option inside.

LT - Andrew Whitworth (7), Anthony Collins (5), Mathew O'Donnell (1)

Collins figures to be the first tackle off the bench and the 6-9 O'Donnell could be a younger version of Dennis Roland as a massive extra tight end.

LG - Travelle Wharton (9), Clint Boling (2), Matt Murphy (1)

Wharton can play tackle and the backup guards are going to have to play both sides. Boling, a 2011 fourth-round pick, can also back up center.

C - Kyle Cook (5), Reggie Stephens (2), Trevor Robinson (R)

Versatility rears its head here. Boling and starting right guard Kevin Zeitler can back up Cook. Stephens, a seventh-rounder from the Bengals 2010 draft, was a May add. Robinson has some presence to him as a center/guard and looks to be a practice squad candidate.

RG - Kevin Zeitler (R), Otis Hudson (2)

The key in the preseason games is to watch how the powerful Zeitler, a first-round pick, adjusts to the NFL quickness. For the second straight year, the Bengals Opening Day right guard is a rookie. Last year it was Boling in place of the suspended Bobbie Williams, now in Baltimore.

The other Opening Day rookie guard in the Marvin Lewis era, left guard Eric Steinbach, has also worked out for the Ravens. Williams and Steinbach have a combined 21 seasons in the NFL. The Bengals have to like that their promising contingent of centers and guards has a combined 21 seasons.

RT - Andre Smith (4), Dennis Roland (5)

The Bengals are excited to see what Smith can do off his first fully healthy spring camp after an impressive first season starting full-time. Line coach Paul Alexander has always called Roland his best technician. The Bengals figure to keep nine linemen and it gets tight fast counting the five starters, Collins, Boling and Hudson. Could O'Donnell and Roland be grinding for that last spot?

TE - Jermaine Gresham (3), Orson Charles (R), Donald Lee (10), Colin Cochart (2), Bryce Davis (R)

With Gruden talking about the need to expand his playbook, this position is key. The drafting of Charles in the fourth round gives the Bengals an excellent receiver who may not have a lot of experience in blocking but is very strong.

"Orson came in here and has been a pleasant surprise for us," Gruden said. "He's a big, strong kid. Great leverage, he's got good quickness and very good hands. He just has to learn the terminology and training camp will be a huge, huge deal for him."

That could entice Gruden into more double tight-end sets if Charles can pick it up quickly enough.

"I think this day and age, the day of blocking and receiving tight ends, you are running out. There's not many of them in the world. We are fortunate to have two of them who can do that, really three, Donald Lee is not a bad blocker, either," Gruden said. "And Cochart did some good things last year as a rookie. Anytime you have the versatility to be an in-line blocker in the running game and as a pass protector and also stretch the field and get down the middle of the field that is a huge, huge benefit for an offense."

Gruden says Gresham's blocking is underrated and while the goal is to get him comfortable enough in the offense to unleash him as a wide receiver-type target, the Bengals also need his pass protection in the AFC North world of James Harrison and friends.

"He's got great feet. He's got good long arms and he's done a good job of protecting when he's asked to protect and done a good job in the running game," Gruden said of Gresham. "He's got to make sure he's blocking the right guy.

"I have always been criticized about having too many plays, but I would rather have too many plays than not enough, but we are going to continue to expand. From a daily, weekly basis we are going to add more things. But the core is in. Everybody feels very confident about the core of plays we have both in the running game and the passing game, the screen game."

With the Bengals trying to take the heat off Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, varying personnel groups are the key to life and tight ends are the linchpins because they have to be able to catch, block the run, and pick up the blitz. It's not that the young tight ends couldn't block last season. But they have to get more comfortable in the system to find the guys to block.

"You are trying to find ways to move people around and create matchups that you feel like you can attack a defense with. And not just put A.J. outside in one spot, find a way to move A.J. around," Gruden said. "Maybe find a way to move Jermaine Gresham just from an inside tight end to maybe put him outside. Formations, personnel groups, looking at ways to push tempo up to attack a defense."

Davis, a free-agent out of Central Oklahoma, is a long snapper that is going to get work with the tight ends. The Bengals usually keep three tight ends, so it looks like a classic veteran-rookie battle between Lee and Cochart for the spot behind Gresham and Charles.

WR - A.J. Green (2), Andrew Hawkins (2), Marvin Jones (R), Vidal Hazelton (1), Kashif Moore (R)

Say Shipley is PUPped. It's still quite a battle for what has always been six spots. Once you get past Green, Tate, Binns and Sanu, now where do you go?

After the Dez Briscoe incident two years ago, when the Bengals had no room for the sixth-rounder they really liked, they couldn't get him to the practice squad when Tampa Bay grabbed him off waivers. That could play into how they handle Marvin Jones. He may need some development physically, but he's tall and can run, so maybe he's the sixth receiver and inactive on Sundays. Hawkins would seem to be extremely valuable with his cover skills on special teams.

Moore and Rogers, free agents from Connecticut and New Mexico, respectively, are going to be entertaining all camp because of their sub-4.4 speed. With two receivers figuring to go to the practice squad, they could be battling with Hazelton, an impressive University of Cincinnati product.

QB - Andy Dalton (2), Bruce Gradkowski (7), Zac Robinson (2), Tyler Hansen (R)

The Bengals kept two last year and it would be an upset if Gradkowski again isn't the backup. He's probably reached his ceiling and Robinson and Hansen are interesting guys who look like they can grow. But Gradkowski is the classic solid NFL backup. Smart. Tough. Great guy in the room who can win games coming off the bench and has done it in a lot of different ways.

It's Robinson's first camp with the Bengals and it looks like he and Hansen are gunning for the practice squad QB spot. The 6-5, 215-pound Robinson is a smooth, athletic guy that had a prolific run at Oklahoma State. The 6-1, 225-pound Hansen is a little undersized, but he's got good makeup, is known for his toughness, and can get out of the pocket with good mobility and is accurate.

Gruden isn't looking for any computer printout prototypes here. It's pretty simple in his scheme. Get rid of it. And the guy that can unload the ball the fastest in the preseason games with the least amount of damage is probably the guy that makes it.

RB - BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5), Bernard Scott (4), Brian Leonard (6), Cedric Peerman (3), Aaron Brown (3), Daniel Herron (R), Jourdan Brooks (R)

Gruden has been talking about back-by-committee, although he did say this week if one back emerges, "fine." But rotating Green-Ellis and Scott while spicing it with Leonard's third-down abilities looks like the first option.

Asked if he'll go with the hot back, Gruden said, "Who knows?" It sounds like he's looking more at situations. In the past few seasons the Bengals have flailed for consistency running the ball on the goal line and in short yardage, and the red zone.

In the last four seasons the Bengals running backs have scored 27 rushing TDs. Green-Ellis has scored 29 in the same stretch since the Patriots signed him as a free agent out of Mississippi in 2008.

"Green-Ellis has been a great short-yardage goal line back in his career. So hopefully there will be an upgrade there," Gruden said. "He's done a good job (adjusting to the Bengals offense). He's got to expand his game. He's going to be asked to do a little bit more. They had great weapons at New England. He didn't get as many balls in the passing game as many backs do because of their two tight ends and all that good stuff. We expect him to do some good things in the passing game, but we'll see. We expect B-Scott to be more productive as well in all phases.

"Hopefully somebody will emerge as the No. 1 guy. If not, if they both do great things, then we will use them both. I think they are both right now worthy of getting the ball and getting enough touches in a game to try to get in a flow."

The Bengals usually keep four running backs, and behind The Law Firm and Scott there's not a lot of room. Leonard has that third-down niche and Peerman is a wrecking crew on special teams with 18 tackles the past two seasons. Theoretically Leonard and Peerman could be pushed, but they're pretty established. Still, Brown has looked nimble. Herron, a sixth-round pick, and Brooks, a free-agent rookie out of Morgan State that can also play fullback, may be trying to hook on with the practice squad.

FB - Chris Pressley (4), James Develin (1)

The Bengals usually keep just one fullback and that makes Leonard a value because he can swing in there in a pinch. Develin, who played for Gruden in the UFL in 2010, has some practice squad eligibility after spending all of last season on the squad, along with five games in '10.

The traditional thinking going into camp is the final 53-man roster has 25 offensive and defensive players each, along with three specialists. On offense that could break down into two QBs, four running backs, one fullback, three tight ends, six wide receivers and nine offensive linemen.

 

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