You know the old saying. You never know how the kids are going to play when the lights go on.
For the Bengals rookie class, from a first-round pick to the free agents, it looked more light than shadows after several showed up in Friday night's 17-6 victory over the Jets in the preseason opener.
Free-agent middle linebacker Vontzae Burfict said his prayers and ended up intercepting SportsCenter deity Tim Tebow. Throw in his team-high five tackles (co-leader with backup SAM backer Dan Skuta), a pass defensed, and a special teams tackle, and Burfict is off and running to secure a roster spot.
Second-rounder Devon Still and third-rounder Brandon Thompson, the defensive tackles from Penn State and Clemson, respectively, who are destined to be mentioned in the same breath for the next several years, both had a hand in Cincinnati's dominance in the defensive trenches. They served notice that they should be able to add to the D-line rotation. Still, a three technique, showed he can give provide some penetration on the pass rush with the hat trick of a tackle, quarterback hurry, and a tipped pass. Thompson, a nose tackle, had the good anchor while making two tackles and recovering a fumble.
It looks like Still could be a factor in the next couple of weeks. With left ends Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers shelved, Still is the kind of guy that can move out of tackle and out to end to give the Bengals some snaps on first and second down.
Fifth-rounder Marvin Jones had the biggest play of the night with one of those "go" routes he had trouble with early on in training camp. The one thing that separates Jones from the rest of the receiver group is his speed and he put it on display when he not only went deep for the 45-yard catch from backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, but the ensuing cutback.
First-rounder Kevin Zeitler looked like he came out of his debut in good shape at right guard. The coaches think he's going to be a solid, physical, upper-tier player and they saw nothing Friday that would deter them from that hope.
Free agent safety Tony Dye out of UCLA isn't backing down from his switch to cornerback to help out a depleted corps. Moving back and forth between the spots, Dye had the team's second-most tackles Friday with four and added one on special teams.
A look at the roster after the first preseason game with years of NFL experience in parentheses:
QUARTERBACKS: Andy Dalton (2), Bruce Gradkowski (7), Zac Robinson (2), Tyler Hansen (R)
Dalton looked sharp Friday night. There were a couple of drops and he didn't get a chance to go deep, but he made two nice throws on third down to keep the 15-play drive going. Gradkowski (5-of-10) still looks to be the No. 2, but the Bengals would like to get more than seven points in two quarters. Hansen didn't play Friday but should be back Thursday to continue his derby with Robinson for the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVERS: A.J. Green (2), Brandon Tate (4), Andrew Hawkins (2), Armon Binns (1), Ryan Whalen (2), Jordan Shipley (3), Mohamed Sanu (R), Vidal Hazelton (1), Kashif Moore (R), Marvin Jones (R), Justin Hilton (R)
Whalen (hamstring) didn't play and along with Jordan Shipley, recovering from ACL surgery, they're looking to get back in the mix. Shipley had a catch for four yards Friday with the fourth-quarter backups while Hawkins had a third-down conversion in the first drive and currently has dibs on slot receiver. Binns and Tate looked how they've looked—reliable—and Sanu didn't have a ball thrown his way. But he and Jones figure to make it. The nice thing about Sanu and Jones is they're not overwhelmed. Jones calmly made an adjustment with Gradkowski at the line before running the route.
LEFT TACKLE: Andrew Whitworth (7) Anthony Collins (5)
With left guard Travelle Wharton (knee) feared done for the year, Collins could be able to show his versatility and get some work inside.
LEFT GUARD: Clint Boling (2), Otis Hudson (2), Trevor Robinson (R)
Wharton, the free agent from Carolina, suffered what looked to be a season-ending ACL injury on the third snap Friday. Even before the injury there had been talk that the much-improved Boling was pushing for playing time and he made a nice block on running back Cedric Peerman's one-yard run.
The question is who is going to replace Boling as the first guard and center off the bench. Hudson has yet to play as well as he did last camp and he'll get plenty of work in the preseason to find out where he is. Robinson is a good prospect but may need time on the practice squad. All signs are the Bengals are trying to find a guy already on the roster.
CENTER: Kyle Cook (5), Reggie Stephens (2)
Stephens is going to have to show he can play guard in the preseason and on Friday he had one low shotgun snap.
RIGHT GUARD: Kevin Zeitler (R), Matt Murphy (1)
Zeitler played the role Friday night of a first-round draft pick set to become a solid player for the next decade. He pitched in on the smooth 15-play drive and gave quarterback Andy Dalton plenty of time on the right side. He and right tackle Andre Smith have to get more push in the running game, but for starters he's what the Bengals have been seeking.
RIGHT TACKLE: Andre Smith (4), Dennis Roland (5), Matthew O'Donnell (1)
With Wharton going down, Roland got some work at guard Friday as the Bengals seek some backups that can play a couple of different positions. They'll probably keep nine linemen and with Wharton expected to go on IR, that leaves them with the five starters and Collins that look to have secure spots. Zeitler can back up center, but the top priority is to find a guy that can play center and both guards coming off the bench. Is he here now or elsewhere?
TIGHT END: Jermaine Gresham (3), Donald Lee (10), Colin Cochart (2), Orson Charles (R)
In what looks to be a battle for the third spot, Lee keeps doing everything right and on Friday, Cochart showed why the Bengals think he can be a solid blocker on the edge. Charles had a catch for six yards in his debut.
Ever since Gresham talked about how he's a below-average tight end, he keeps making big plays. On Friday his 19-yard quick catch-and-run in the flat was the 15-play drive's biggest gain.
RUNNING BACK: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5), Bernard Scott (4), Brian Leonard (6), Cedric Peerman (3), Aaron Brown (3), Daniel Herron (R), Jourdan Brooks (R)
Green-Ellis showed up as advertised and his steel-belted reliability already looks to be a huge upgrade. He did what he was supposed to do when matched up on linebacker Bart Scott and made an 18-yard catch in space on third-and-10. And on a sweep left where there was nothing, he patiently waded through the backwash for a 12-yard gain instead of taking a one-yard loss.
Brown had 11 yards on six carries in his bid to capture the fourth and final spot. But Peerman showed how tough that's going to be with his one-yard TD run and blocked punt recovery in the end zone.
(That only happens about once every five years. The last time the Bengals blocked a punt for a touchdown in a real game, it was another running back, DeDe Dorsey, that did it against the Rams.)
FULLBACK: Chris Pressley (4), James Develin (1)
Develin, looking to make a return to the practice squad, got in a block on Peerman's TD run.
LEFT END: Carlos Dunlap (3), Robert Geathers (9), Micah Johnson (1)
Now what happens that Dunlap (knee) looks to be gone for about a month and Geathers (knee) is just nine days off a scope?
Options include moving backup right end Jamaal Anderson over to the left, as well as using rookie tackle Devon Still on first and second down. There are also converted linebackers such as Johnson, Dontay Moch and DeQuin Evans that can work on third down. Johnson was very active Friday with a half-sack, three tackles, QB hurry, and a tackle for loss.
NOSE TACKLE: Domata Peko (7), Pat Sims (5), Brandon Thompson (R)
Sims figures to practice for the first time this week. Thompson showed up very well against the Jets. With Dunlap hurt, that's probably going to enhance Sims's chances of making it even though they play different positions.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Geno Atkins (3), Devon Still (R), Nick Hayden (3), Vaughn Meatoga (R)
Atkins, naturally, played Friday like it was an AFC title game and was all over the place. Still looked very impressive and may now get some shots at left end. Hayden is also having a fine camp as Meatoga bids for the practice squad.
RIGHT END: Michael Johnson (4), Jamaal Anderson (6), DeQuin Evans (1)
The first defense only played about a quarter, but Johnson bounced around pretty well. Anderson may now move around a little bit with Dunlap out. Evans, a free-agent from Kentucky who played well as a rookie last preseason, had another active game Friday with three tackles and quarterback hurry.
SAM LINEBACKER: Manny Lawson (7), Dan Skuta (4), Dontay Moch (2)
A very productive group Friday. Lawson had a sack, Skuta had a sack and blocked punt, and Moch had a sack as an end and a half-sack as a linebacker. Moch may also be able to help alleviate the loss of nickel snaps from Dunlap. But he can't make the Opening Day roster because of an NFL suspension.
MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Rey Maualuga (4), Roddrick Muckelroy (3), Vontaze Burfict (R)
Another productive group Friday. Maualuga blitzed for a sack, Burfict had a pick and a team-high five tackles, and Muckelroy had three tackles, one of them on special teams. Figuring the Bengals keep six linebackers, would they keep both Muckelroy and Burfict? (They each had a tackle on special teams.)
WILL LINEBACKER: Thomas Howard (6), Vincent Rey (2), Emmanuel Lamur (R), Grant Hunter (R)
Rey, the incumbent backup, had tackle against the Jets.
LEFT CORNERBACK: Nate Clements (12), Terence Newman (10), Brandon Ghee (3), Dre Kirkpatrick (R), Shaun Prater (R), T.J. Heath (2)
With Ghee (wrist) and Prater (knee) feared to miss the season and Kirkpatrick (knee) just getting back on the field, the Bengals need the vets to step up and they did Friday. Newman looked as good as he has in practice and had a pass defensed.
RIGHT CORNERBACK: Leon Hall (6), Jason Allen (7), Adam Jones (6), Chris Lewis-Harris (R), Taveon Rogers (R)
Hall, coming off Achilles surgery, looked better Friday than he did in last season's preseason opener, when he struggled in Detroit. Throw in a vintage two tackles and the Bengals have to be ecstatic. Jones also looked pretty sharp after missing most of camp with some nagging muscle pulls. The corners must have done something right since the Jets QBs had a combined passer rating of 51.5.
STRONG SAFETY: Taylor Mays (3), Jeromy Miles (3), Tony Dye (R)
Mays left with what is probably a concussion, so he may sit out Thursday in Atlanta. Miles had two tackles Friday playing primarily with the backups in the second half. Dye is helping his cause for the practice squad playing both safety and corner.
FREE SAFETY: Reggie Nelson (6), Robert Sands (2), George Iloka (R)
After Nelson, which three safeties make it is always going to be the question because the CW is the Bengals will go with six corners and four safeties. If Skuta didn't block the punt, Sands probably would have.
PUNTER: Kevin Huber (4); KICKER: Mike Nugent (8), Thomas Weber (1); LONG SNAPPER: Clark Harris (4), Bryce Davis (R)
Huber had a good night dropping punts on the Jets 4 and 6. Weber had a tough night, kicking one out of bounds and missing a 37-yarder wide right, so the Bengals may be revising the phone list backing up Nugent.
PUNT RETURN: Brandon Tate (4), Andrew Hawkins (2), Adam Jones (6), Marvin Jones (R)
Hawkins, knowing "I'm a work in progress," fumbled his first one, and picked it back up but only got a four-yard gain. He looked to make a good decision on a fair catch. Tate had one for 12 yards while Marvin Jones didn't get a chance to return. Adam Jones was held out.
KICK RETURN: Brandon Tate (4), Andrew Hawkins (2), Adam Jones (6), Marvin Jones (R)
The Jets hammered three touchbacks so no one got a shot.