GEORGETOWN, Ky. — With the Bengals staring at the start of the Andy-A.J. era Friday night in Detroit, head coach Marvin Lewis is expected Monday morning to release the most scrutinized depth chart of his nine years.
That's because he's had only two weeks to put it together instead of seven months, so it's going to be more like a chalkboard than a stone tablet. Never have the preseason games meant so much to the players. Unless it's the coaches, who have to balance getting their Opening Day regulars ready with getting a good look at the young players.
And this rookie class is showing up after their 2010 brethren became the most productive first-year crop in franchise history. First-rounder A.J. Green has captivated a camp like no other rookie in recent memory, second-rounder Andy Dalton is playing quarterback with the poise of a No. 1 overall pick, third-rounder Dontay Moch has been all over the field while making the transition to linebacker, and fourth-rounder Clint Boling has emerged as a factor at two spots on the offensive line. At tight end, undrafted Colin Cochart is raising eyebrows with his blocking, a needed ingredient with pass catchers Jermaine Gresham and Bo Scaife in the first two spots.
A roster look with the number of players traditionally kept at each position under Lewis, along with each player's years of experience:
QUARTERBACKS (3): Andy Dalton (R), Bruce Gradkowski (6), Dan LeFevour (2), Jordan Palmer (4).
It looks like it is Dalton's job to lose. Gradkowski is the classic No. 2 systems quarterback. The battle is at three, where Palmer's experience has given him the edge. First question: Dalton needs all the snaps he can get, so does that mean the first offensive line plays all the way with him? And will Palmer and LeFevour get enough snaps to figure it out?
WRS (6): Andre Caldwell (4), Quan Cosby (3), Landon Cox (R), A.J. Green (R), Andrew Hawkins (R), Jamere Holland (R), Bart Johnson (R) Jerome Simpson (4), Jordan Shipley (2), Ryan Whalen (R).
Green is the Real McCoy. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden thinks Simpson is a good No. 2. Shipley looks set in the slot. Cosby is a core special-teamer. That would seem to leave two spots and one of them has to go to Caldwell. He's had a terrific camp, he's a versatile guy that played all three spots in the old scheme, he's made some huge catches, and his speed is still a big plus. Whalen has come as advertised. He knows the offense coming out of Stanford's West Coast scheme, has good hands, and has made some catches downfield. The big test for him starts Friday on special teams. It looks the competition is for the practice squad among the kids.
RBS (3): Cedric Benson (7), Jay Finley (R), John Griffin (R), Brian Leonard (5), Cedric Peerman (2), Bernard Scott (3), Jonathan Williams (R).
It looks like Benson won't be disciplined by the NFL, but no one seems to know for sure. What is for sure is that he's the bell cow, and it would take a surprising performance to knock out Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard as his backups. If Benson did get disciplined, the Bengals would have to go to the waiver wire or practice squad to get a guy and all of them are eligible for the squad and two of them might end up there.
They're all chasing Cedric Peerman, who has looked explosive and quick in the red zone. But Finley, the seventh-rounder from Baylor, and the pair of free agents, Griffin from Massachusetts and Williams from East Carolina, bring something to the table. Williams has the best burst, Griffin is hard-nosed between the tackles, and Finley can make defenders miss at times. The Bengals can take their pick for the practice squad after four games.
FB (1): James Develin (1) Chris Pressley (3), Fui Vakapuna (3).
With Vakapuna out with a muscle injury since the first practice, Pressley is running away with it. He's been fearlessly banging people on the goal line and he's showing good hands, which Gruden has to like since he throws it to everybody.
TE (3): Colin Cochart (R), Chase Coffman (3), Jermaine Gresham (2), Garrett Mills (6), John Nalbone (2), Bo Scaife (7).
With the No. 1 Gresham and the No. 2 Scaife pass catchers, the Bengals are missing a big blocker in the Reggie Kelly mold. Coffman is getting a lot of reps as he tries to show he can do it. Cochart a 6-4, 254-pounder out of South Dakota State, has shown to be physical and effective as a blocker.
OL (9): G Clint Boling (R), T Anthony Collins (4), C Kyle Cook (4), T Andrew Gardner (R), G Otis Hudson (1), G Max Jean-Gilles (6), G Nate Livings (4), T Mathew O'Donnell, G Chris Riley (R), T Dennis Roland (4), T Andre Smith (3), C Reggie Stephens (2), G Mark Wetterer (R), T Andrew Whitworth (6), G Bobbie Williams (12).
Next to linebacker, this may be the team's most improved spot. The Bengals are hoping Smith holds up so they can start him with Dennis Roland backing him up and Anthony Collins backing up both tackles. Jean-Gilles is a backup vying for a starting spot with 24 starts already in Philadelphia and Boling has been a nice addition as another backup guard. He's got smarts and balance and he showed both the last three practices working at center. That would give Cook his backup if Boling continues to improve. Next to Smith, offensive line coach Paul Alexander says Hudson is his most improved player. Keep an eye on the guard scrum.
DL (8): E Victor Adeyanju (6), Geno Atkins (2), E Carlos Dunlap (2), E Robert Geathers (8), E Michael Johnson (3), T Tank Johnson (8), T Clinton McDonald (2), T Lolomana Mikaele (R), T Domata Peko (6), E James Ruffin (1), E/T Frostee Rucker (6), T Jason Shirley (2), T Pat Sims (4).
Two outside forces may be factors here. The Bengals are not sure when Sims (knee) is going to be back and they're still trying to get a deal with swingman Jon Fanene. Clinton McDonald played enough last year that he's not eligible for the practice squad. Dunlap has been all over the place this first week, but look for Lewis to keep Geathers as the starter early on at left end. One development: Adeyanju has looked quick and agile in a very good camp.
LBs (7): OLB DeQuin Evans (R), Stephen Franklin (R), OLB Thomas Howard (6), OLB Brandon Johnson (6), OLB Manny Lawson (6), OLB Dontay Moch (3), LB Rey Maualuga (3), LB Roddrick Muckelroy (2), LB Vincent Rey (2), OLB Keith Rivers (4), OLB Dan Skuta (3).
The buzz is it's the most improved position on the team with Maualuga in the middle and the two free-agent pickups on the outside in Lawson and Howard making an immediate impact. Behind them, Johnson is the seasoned pro, special teams captain, nickel master (he already got a hand on a pass his second practice), while Moch is intriguing. He won't be able to help much from scrimmage this season unless he's rushing the passer, but his speed and athleticism can be a factor on special teams. Skuta has moved inside to back up Maualuga while trying to defend his special teams tackling title. Rey has taken the No. 57 of mentor Dhani Jones and offers the same kind of smarts and professionalism on the outside and special teams.
The big question here is the status of Rivers with his injured wrist. It's in a cast after recent surgery and there is some concern he might not be ready until October, which means he could start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and miss the first six weeks. Muckelroy (Achilles) is headed to season-ending IR.
DBs (10, five CBs, five S): CB Fred Bennett (5), CB Brandon Ghee (2), CB Nate Clements (11), S Chris Crocker (9), CB Leon Hall (5), CB Adam Jones (5), Brian Lainhart (R), Korey Lindsey (R), S Jeromy Miles (1), S/C Rico Murray (2), S Reggie Nelson (5), S/C Tom Nelson (3), CB David Pender (1), S Robert Sands (R), CB Morgan Trent (3), CB Jonathan Wade (5), S Gibril Wilson (8).
The Bengals feel good about their first three corners in Clements, Hall and Trent. But after that, it's thin. They don't know if Jones (neck) is going to be ready for the opener and no one after the first three has really showed up yet. Ghee has to get on the field after missing the last few practices with what looks to be a hamstring pull and playing in just six games as a rookie. Before he went down for the last couple of days with an unknown ailment, Pender impressed with his speed.
Safety is a melting pot behind the starters Crocker and Nelson. Two young players in Sands and Miles have flashed with athleticism but what happens under the lights and they have to think? Wilson has 80 starts and played well last preseason, but he's coming off ACL surgery. Murray and Tom Nelson play all the spots and could be swingmen, but they have to produce in the games. Tom Nelson has looked good in his three practices and he won the job as a rookie in '09 with poised play in the preseason.
SPECIALISTS: LS Clark Harris (3), P Kevin Huber (3), K Mike Nugent (7), K Thomas Weber (R).
Weber has a great leg, but it's going to be hard to move Nugent out of there. Considering he has yet to miss and a powerful kickoff leg has been neutralized by the kickoff rules changes.