The Bengals' 53-man roster watch begins with the first training camp practice on Wednesday afternoon at the neighboring Kettering Health Practice Fields. When it begins to heat up six days later at the first padded practice, here are the five positions to check off.
The Setup: With La'el Collins on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and his return from ACL rehab following his January surgery unknown, the Bengals are staring at their third starter at this spot in as many Opening Days.
The Players: Jonah Williams and Jackson Carman are two left tackles who have yet to take an NFL snap at right tackle. Two other candidates have. Hakeem Adeniji, who has started at three different spots in his three seasons, started the last five games at right tackle after Collins went down. Cody Ford, signed in free agency, began his NFL career being pursued by the Bengals in the second round of the 2019 draft and when the Bills took him, they started him in 15 games at right tackle as a rookie before they switched him to guard. Ford hasn't played tackle since and Joe Mixon's old college blocker is looking to revive his career with the move back.
The Take: Williams and Carman look to be the leaders in the clubhouse. Carman, who practiced at right tackle last season, took the first-team reps in the spring while Williams rehabbed a dislocated kneecap. He's been cleared and head coach Zac Taylor talked up his attention to detail and work ethic at Monday's media availability.
While Williams is undersized, the Bengals like his smarts and his experience. They are 23-18-1 when he starts. They also like how Carman came off the bench last postseason after not playing in a game. But those are his only NFL starts at right tackle. Let's see how they divide the reps.
FOURTH WIDE RECEIVER
The Setup: In the wake of taking a major shot when slot receiver Tyler Boyd went down early in the AFC title game, the Bengals chose to attack the first receiver off the bench via the draft.
The Players: Incumbent Trenton Irwin went from a nice little story to a steady contributor over the second half of last season. After playing fewer than 100 snaps since he came into the league undrafted in 2019, he caught 15 balls last season for four touchdowns while averaging 15.4 yards. He's not particularly big (6-2, 207) or fast, but he's Stanford smart, always in the right spot and rarely drops a ball while winning some memorable contested catches in big moments. They could target him just twice without Boyd and he had just one catch for six yards against the Chiefs in the AFC title game, but he'll be a formidable roster opponent.
The Bengals have high hopes for fourth-rounder Charlie Jones, a 6-0, 190-pounder coming off a machine-like 110 catches at Purdue. He had the kind of spring they hoped for from their draft picks, which is to say he showed up and gave them what they expected. They also like the fact he returned a little heavier for training camp.
Jones also projects as a return man and if he can show he's reliable fielding punts in the preseason; that's going to open another spot at a receiver position they have kept seven at final cuts.
The Bengals also drafted Princeton wide receiver Andrei Iosivas in the sixth round and he may have looked even better than expected in the spring. The Bengals' first Ivy League draft pick of the century, Iosivas projects as a project. But his heptathlon skills of jumping and vaulting to go with his 4.4 speed and 6-3 frame showed up and are quite intriguing. On paper, you could see him making the roster but being inactive on game day. Yet, if he shows up on special teams in the preseason and throws in a couple of catches ….
The Setup: The Bengals opted for leg strength when they replaced all-time franchise leader Kevin Huber midway through last season with practice squadder Drue Chrisman. Now Chrisman is fighting for his job after his last punt of the year, a 54-yarder with 30 seconds left in a tied AFC title game sliced down the middle of the field and set up Skyy Moore's 29-yard return to put the Chiefs in position to go to the Super Bowl.
The Players: Even without that last punt, the Bengals still probably would have gone into the draft looking for competition to give Chrisman. They found one of the nation's best in the sixth round after they selected Iosivas when special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons grabbed Michigan's Brad Robbins.
Chrisman is a talented guy with a big leg and has already been through an NFL training camp competition. And he went shoelace to shoelace with Huber.
The Take: Robbins was drafted for his perseverance and leadership as well as his punting. He overcame injuries and ended up playing five seasons, two of them as a grad student, and he's the only Michigan player to ever win the Robert P. Ufer Award given to the senior who demonstrates the most enthusiasm and love for the school. But he was solid, too, finishing his career with the second-best punting average (42 yards) and second-best single-season average (46.3) in Michigan history.
Conventional wisdom is that the drafted specialist has the edge, which would be Robbins' job to lose. But Simmons is an innovator and after a very scientific 2017 training camp kicking derby he opted for incumbent Randy Bullock over fifth-rounder Jake Elliott using mostly data in an extremely close call. Since that day, Bullock is 84.8 percent on field goals and Elliott is 84.7. The move is usually criticized because Bullock isn't here and Elliott is still with the Eagles after they picked him up days later. But numbers say it's still too close to call.
Expect Simmons to go at it in the same exacting way. Like Chrisman, the old Buckeye, said, it's going to be Ohio State-Michigan every day in camp. And it's going to be just as important to these guys. They can both drill it, but it's going to come down to who is the most consistent. Preseason games count for more, but Simmons is going to take in all the work.
NO. 2 QUARTERBACK
The Setup: For the first time in the Joe Burrow Era, Brandon Allen, the pandemic QB, is not his backup.
The Players: Jake Browning, 27, the record-breaking California schoolboy who broke even more of them in college at Washington, has yet to roster since the Vikings signed him as an undrafted free agent. He has spent two full years each on the practice squads in Minnesota and Cincinnati.
In the what-goes-around-come-around category, Trevor Siemian, who won his first NFL road start in a 2016 game at Paycor Stadium while playing for the Broncos, looks to hook on at age 31. He has 30 NFL starts (he would be the Bengals' most experienced backup quarterback since Jason Campbell in 2014), but has made just six since 2019 and hasn't won one since 2017. But he also nearly led the Broncos into the playoffs with an 8-6 starting record in that 2016 season.
The Take: Classic matchup. Browning is athletic, can throw out of the pocket and on the run and is in his third year in the system. Siemian, pretty much a drop-back passer who has the nickname "T-Dot," on his resume, is drenched in experience. Exhibit A is that Bengals home opener in 2016 when he came in against a defense that had been giving up 60ish passer ratings at Paycor since the middle of 2012 and rung up a 132. Browning has had the playbook, but Siemian also broke into the NFL when Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan was in his quarterbacks room as a Broncos assistant. Both were told back in the spring the reps are going to be split evenly.
THIRD DEFENSIVE END
The Setup: Welcome to the deepest position on the two-time AFC finalists. They've already got Pro Bowler Trey Hendrickson and franchise staple Sam Hubbard starting on the edge, but they've got all kinds of people behind them, from first-rounders (Myles Murphy) to versatile veterans (Cam Sample) to first-year standouts (Joseph Ossai) to well-traveled free agents (Tarell Basham) to emerging late-rounders (Jeff Gunter).
The Players: Sample may be their most underrated player on either side of the ball. In two seasons he's played inside and out and the run and the pass while racking up 3.5 sacks and 12 QB hits to go with 39 tackles after playing 40 percent of the downs last year.
If he's not the most underrated, then Ossai is. After one of the most spectacular Bengals debuts ever was short-circuited with season-ending injuries in the 2021 preseason opener, he came back to make some huge plays in 2022. His third-down sack of Patrick Mahomes preserved the Dec. 4 win here. When he lined up inside on the first third down of the AFC Divisional, his rush disrupted Bills quarterback Josh Allen into an incompletion and the tone of a 27-10 win was set. He picked up a crushing late-hit penalty in the AFC title game when he chased Mahomes out-of-bounds on third-and-four. But he was the reason it was third-and-four because on second-and-four he forced an incompletion.
How they got Murphy with the 28th pick is anyone's guess. But the man's credentials (the only player in the nation to record at least 10 tackles for loss and at least one forced fumble in each of the last three seasons combined with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at 6-5, 268 pounds) are immense.
Basham, 29, who played for Joe Burrow's dad at Ohio University, has hit and sacked the quarterback a combined 46 times in his eight years with four teams and has set the edge with 146 career tackles. Plus, last year's seventh-rounder, Gunter, showed plenty of promise piling up seven pressures in the preseason.
The Take: When they talk about Super Bowl-winning depth, this is it. Expect to see very little of Hendrickson and Hubbard, but you'll see everybody else. It sounds like Murphy is going to get the first-round treatment and get plenty of chances, going off what defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said draft night.
"He'll be in a rotation right away. We play a ton of D-linemen, so he'll jump right in there and back up Sam and Trey," Anarumo said. "In the mix with those guys. (He'll) be in the third-down rush package and whatever (else) we come up with there. I'm looking forward to get him going right away."