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Bengals 2021 Roster: Young On Paper, But Seasoned In NFL

Mike Hilton is one of the new Bengals with postseason experience.
Mike Hilton is one of the new Bengals with postseason experience.

The Bengals are younger than they were two years ago when head coach Zac Taylor cut down his first roster, but somehow it seems like they have more seasoning.

Even though they have 19 first or second-year players compared to a dozen in 2019. Or that the average age is 25.2 compared to 25.7 or that they have just six players who are 30 or who turn 30 during the season compared to 10 that first year.

Maybe that's because a total of 41 of the 53 players on this year's first try at finalizing the roster have arrived in the three seasons Taylor has been the coach. And their best defensive player, free safety Jessie Bates III, is just 24 heading into his fourth season. Or that the guy that helped Bates get the spring practices underway, edge Sam Hubbard, is a 26-year-old locker room staple.

Or that two-time 1,000-yard rusher Joe Mixon is 25 and two-time 1,000-yard receiver Tyler Boyd is 26. All were here before Taylor got here, but this is their third season with him.

"Guys that have been here a number of years, whether its four years or eight years, it doesn't really matter," said Taylor in Tuesday's media Zoomer, called moments after the Bengals had delivered their deepest but not final cuts. "When you have been here three years in the system, four years in the system overall … Sam, Jessie and Mixon and TB, I could name 25 guys … that probably makes them feel old.

"The leadership, age doesn't matter. It's about guys respecting the guy who is speaking. Because they respect their actions and what they show in the locker room and on the field and they don't just talk the talk. They walk the walk and we've got a locker room full of guys that exhibit all that."

And while those four have never been to the playoffs, a dozen of their teammates have been and bring a variety of ecstasy and agony. Backup safety Ricardo Allen signed a one-year deal, but the former Falcons captain brings a lifetime of wisdom when he talks about being up 28-3 on Tom Brady in a Super Bowl and how no task is ever done until it is finished.

Or take their biggest free-agent signing of last March, edge Trey Hendrickson, who has been in five postseason games at the grizzled age of 26.

"I really feel good about the veteran leadership on this team -- really, really, really feel good about it," Taylor said. "They push me in the right ways. They push the young guys in the right ways. They're helping to develop guys at their positions, and that's really encouraging for this season and our future."

But they are still young enough that they need those vets in a key spot. The Bengals kept 10 offensive linemen, but three of them have never played in an NFL game. The first players off the bench at center (sixth-rounder Trey Hill), and left guard (fourth-rounder D'Ante Smith) are rookies. And if Smith isn't ready for right guard, then that next option would be second-rounder Jackson Carman.

"Those guys have to grow up fast, and they have. Each one of them have improved over the course of training camp, when you talk specifically about the three rookies that were drafted this year," Taylor said. "And even (swing tackle) Isaiah Prince, who's not a rookie but he (opted out) last year. He's really developed over the course of this training camp.

"You feel like there's a lot of value there with those five guys there in that second wave," said Taylor, who counts third-year tackle Fred Johnson and his seven NFL starts in that. "They all bring something different to the table. They're all getting better. That's the encouraging thing."

They showed their faith in Hill when they traded backup center Billy Price to the Giants on Monday for three technique B.J. Hill. Despite starting center Trey Hopkins playing just three snaps this preseason and a mere seven months removed from ACL surgery and Hill himself suffering a hip flexor in Sunday's preseason finale.

"We really felt that they were pretty significant jumps for him that grabbed your attention," Taylor said of Hill's work in the first two preseason games. "His play speed, his strength and overall processing. He has a long way to go still but that is really what grabbed your attention. He just got better and better over the course of practice over the last couple weeks. You are really encouraged by his future. He was a guy we really liked. We felt like he fell in the draft to where we were at. We were fortunate to get him where we got him but he's on the right pace, development-wise."

As the dust cleared Tuesday, Taylor agreed the biggest facelift had come in both trenches with a total of 11 new linemen from all walks of the game, ranging from free-agent veterans (Hendrickson and right tackle Riley Reiff), high draft picks (Carman and fourth-rounder edge/tackle Cam Sample), waiver wire pickups (Prince) and trades (B.J. Hill).

Here they also opted for youth over the vet when Hill, a fourth-year guy with good tape in 18 starts for the Giants, was available and they cut 32-year-old Mike Daniels, a good player for them last year.

But the scouts are not only high on Hill's upside at age 26, but also his flat-out good tape. He played 20 snaps against the Bengals and generated three pressures on 17 passes in the Giants' win last season at Paul Brown Stadium, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF had Hill ranked last season 35th overall among D-Tackles, 27th against the run, better than any Bengals defensive tackle last season.

"B.J. is a guy that we had high grades on that we think highly of," Taylor said. "We played against him last year, thought highly of him when we played against him. He adds some good depth to that room that we're really excited about. It did lead to some tough decisions there in that room. But ultimately, we're excited to have B.J. and what he can bring to the table for us."

So meet Taylor's 2021 Bengals. Young on paper, but seasoned in the NFL.

"I like the overall football intelligence of the team right now. I think that that leads to faster play, better communication, more good things happen when guys are smart," Taylor said. "They understand the roles in the team, they understand what you're asking them in all three phases, and they can play faster and just more explosive plays happen, more turnovers occur from the defense and special teams."

Meet the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals. A look at the roster by numerical order.