Tom Nelson's battle to make the roster continues Thursday against the Colts in the preseason finale. (AP photo)
Posted: 9:05 p.m.
The NFL is a funny game. Just look at DeDe Dorsey as he heads into the Bengals preseason finale Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
His scrum with Brian Leonard for the last running back spot leads a list of roster battles. Rookie free agents Quan Cosby and Tom Nelson gun for the punt return job. Seventh-rounder Fui Vakapuna and free agent Chris Pressley try to make the club keep two fullbacks. Veteran safety Kyries Hebert attempts to stick as head of special teams again.
But the backdrop changed Tuesday when rookie right tackle Andre Smith broke his foot. The Bengals now may have to keep an extra offensive lineman and go light in the secondary or elsewhere. If they opt to keep Smith on the roster and don't put him on injured reserve for an injury they don't know how long will keep him shelved, that may mean they sacrifice a healthy player at another spot.
These guys will get plenty of chances. Nelson says he's been told the first-team cornerbacks are only going to play a series or two Thursday, so everyone else should to.
And Dorsey is a living example of what can be waiting out there beyond the preseason when the numbers don't work.
When he was a rookie free agent back in 2006 out of tiny NAIA Lindenwood ripping it up with 149 yards on 20 carries in the first three games, he missed the last one against the Colts with a leg injury. The Bengals didn't keep him on the 53-man roster as they tried to sneak him through waivers to get him to the practice squad, but those same Colts picked him up on their 53 and he ended the season running down the field on special teams in their Super Bowl victory over the Bears.
The Colts let Dorsey go early the next season and the Bengals wasted no time claiming him. Just when he seemed ready to take command of his career late in '07 (his 8.7 yards per rush are a Bengals record for a back with more than 20 carries), Dorsey missed the rest of the season with a high ankle sprain. Then a hamstring injury limited him to five carries in '08, and he came into this spring and summer trying to show he could stay on the field.
Now here come the Colts again after another impressive preseason with 87 yards on 11 carries. And this time Dorsey will play. But now the problem is he's not the only hot, quicksilver rookie running back from a non-Division I school.
Three years later that guy is sixth-rounder Bernard Scott, a roster lock with 90 yards on 19 carries. He provides the same thing Dorsey does: Explosiveness, outside speed, and the big play. That's why Leonard has a slight edge heading into Thursday. He brings different things to the table than Scott/Dorsey such as size and the ability to play fullback and on third down.
But Dorsey keeps smiling. He says he doesn't think about any of it. As a Bengal in preseason and regular season he averages six yards per carry with 485 yards on 81 carries.
"I feel like I've been doing pretty well; I think I've shown them I've gotten over my little problem (injuries)," he said this week. "I think I have to continue to do what I've been doing. Make some big runs and make some big plays."
He says he's not thinking about Leonard or Scott. "I'm just trying to show them the value I've got. Nothing you can do but play hard and let the chips fall," Dorsey said.
Vakapuna has been getting the same advice from his mentor, who just so happened to play in that preseason finale against the Colts that Dorsey missed back in '06. Fullback Naufahu Tahi, a free agent out of Brigham Young, moved to tailback for the first time as a pro in the final moments because of injuries and finished with 54 yards on 11 carries.
Like they usually do, the Bengals decided to go with one fullback that year and tried to keep Tahi on the practice squad. But the Vikings came calling and he's still there when Minnesota matched the Bengals offer sheet on Tahi in restricted free agency back in March.
Vakapuna was watching in '06 because he has always watched Tahi ever since he watched him play high school football in Glendale, Utah. Vakapuna is younger, played on the other end of town, and followed Tahi to Brigham Young. They became great friends and workout partners, and Tahi helped him get ready for the scouting combine.
"A great mentor," Vakapuna said. "He told me there's nothing you can do. It's out of your control. The only thing you should do is what the coaches tell you and pay attention to detail."
Jeremi Johnson, that one fullback, is still here. But there is talk about going with two fullbacks after the season-ending injury to tight end Reggie Kelly erased one of Cincinnati's best run-blockers. Pressley is massively big and a good blocker. Vakapuna is more of an athlete. If the Bengals keep one of the rookies, it may say what they think of their run game with which one they keep.
"I'm a banger, but this is the most I've ever banged. I usually did it when I got the ball," said Vakapuna, who has no carries this preseason. "I have to turn that energy into being a fullback. I've had to concentrate on the little things. Getting my head on the outside, on the inside, rolling my hips."
Nelson, a free-agent rookie out of Illinois State, hasn't had time to concentrate on the little things because he's been doing so many things. He's been playing both safety and cornerback, as well as returning punts, and he has been told he'll play more on kick cover and at punt gunner against the Colts.
Nelson is no doubt one of the guys Lewis had in mind when he spoke so exultantly earlier this week about lining up guys against each other for those last few roster spots.
"They're going to get an opportunity -- some guys side-by-side, one guy behind another guy," Lewis said. "Just look to your right to see who you're competing with. It's real simple, and that's a good thing. They have an impact on Sundays. That's probably the biggest adjustment. The college player comes here to the NFL and gets to a Sunday in the regular season, and there are only 45 guys and the third quarterback on the sideline, and that's not a lot of people.
"Your ability to adjust and play different spots, when it gets to fourth down in the kicking game or on offense or defense, really adds to your value and adds to your opportunity both to stay on the 53-man roster and to make your way onto the 45-man roster. A lot of hard decisions will be made (if) we don't see a way to get a guy onto the 45-man roster on Sundays."
So really it's a cut to 45 and does that give a guy like Nelson an edge over Hebert? Hebert hardly ever plays from scrimmage, but yet he is so important to special teams.
But what if Cosby pops another touchdown like he did last Thursday night? Can the Bengals keep two punt returners if they have such a logjam at safety between Nelson, Hebert, Marvin White and Corey Lynch? Probably not.
"I guess that's what it comes down to," said Nelson when asked if it's between him or Cosby. "But I can't worry about it. If I just go out and keep making plays, everything will take care of itself."
When Nelson tore off a 44-yard return of his own last week, he had the help of a running start on a poor kick and some big blocks. Most notably running back James Johnson and linebacker Darryl Blackstock and other guys that are vying for those same last few spots.
"Everybody did a great job," Nelson said.
It really can be a funny game.
As in strange.