Aug 28, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back James Wilder Jr. (34) scores a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 35-7. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
In recent years the Cincinnati Bengals have done a nice job of building a deep and talented roster. It’s been vital towards the team making the playoffs the past four years; a statement that engenders fans’ chagrin, yet is impressive nonetheless.
Cincinnati has built this team through its ability to find talent in all available manners. They’ve retained and signed players via free agency, drafted well over the past handful of years, and even struck gold in the madness following every team when teams scramble to sign those prospects who unfortunately didn’t hear their name called across seven rounds.
2015’s offseason has been impressive thus far, and with the draft still to go, and the undrafted free agency period that follows in the hours after, one can reasonably assume that the Bengals will host one of the league’s competitive training camps, and hence one of the league’s most talented roster yet again.
This presumed strong 90-man training camp roster would likely create an impressive practice squad. With so much time yet to pass prior to the formation of this roster, nothing is really certain. Nonetheless, I wanted to take a moment to laud what is likely to be the beginnings of such a talented, and vital squad. This group of players helps ensure the team’s depth when injury strikes and pushes fringe players to work hard to get better: A necessity if a team hopes to improve the entirety of its roster.
Starting with the offense, the Bengals must ensure they have a powerful running back they can call upon if anything ever happened to Jeremy Hill. Giovani Bernard has proven to be ineffective in such a manner, though the team could seemingly block a bit better for him, and neither Rex Burkhead or recently re-signed Cedric Peerman features such a skill set.
Enter James Wilder Jr., an undrafted free agent signed following the 2014 draft. Wilder was part of a three-headed running game at Florida State, which led the team to a national title. With little “wear on the tires,” Wilder could turn into a talented runner and productive piece for the Bengals. But the only way he can make the roster is if he proves he can play on special teams, something all reserves must do. It’ll be difficult considering the special teams production both Burkhead and Peerman have offered the Bengals, but regardless of how it shakes out, having Wilder around ensures the Bengals have a power runner they can look to.
At wide receiver there’s Tevin Reese. Reese is a slight, yet ultra fast and quick receiver out of Baylor who made a living creating yards after the catch and by burning defenses deep. His production was bloated due to the spread offense Baylor employs, but his skill set could be interesting in an offense as creative as Hue Jackson’s. Although his skill set actually fits much of what the Bengals are looking for in a quick slot receiver, his issue, like Wilder, lies in his ability to play special teams. At 5’10’ and only 170 pounds, can Reese consistently produce on a unit that requires taking big hits one way or another? If Reese could prove himself to be an effective gunner, he could have a shot, but many other players will vie for that role, so he’ll face an uphill battle there.
On the offensive line, Cincinnati will likely use one of its two veteran slots on the practice squad for Tanner Hawkinson. The Bengals will likely draft a tackle this year, so unless Hawkinson has proven himself worthy of a reserve swing guard role, he will likely fall to the squad. Hawkinson was drafted for his nimble feet and versatility along the line. His issue has been his strength, though he has made strides in this area. It’s possible the team moved on from veteran guard/center Mike Pollak because they are comfortable with Hawkinson taking over his role, but with little experience on his resume, drafting a guard remains a possibility. Either way, heading into his third season, Hawkinson knows this team’s game plans and has undergone much coaching. He would be a very solid piece on the practice squad.
Also on the line is Trey Hopkins. Hopkins offered much promise during the preseason in 2014, but a “fibula injury” caused him to miss the season. If he recovers well and reclaims his prior form, Hopkins could very well make the 53-man roster. If not right away, some work with the practice squad could help him live up to his “steal” billing following his signing last year.
On the defensive line, Cincinnati has a couple of interesting pieces in Sam Montgomery and Kwame Geathers. You’ve likely heard about Montgomery’s strange exit from Houston after supposedly smoking marijuana, yet he passed a drug test shortly thereafter. Regardless of the reasoning, Montgomery hasn’t lived up to his third round draft selection. If he focuses on his craft, he could develop into a nice player. But with so much depth at defensive end, he likely remains a practice squad player for 2015; he’s an intriguing talent at such a low position.
Kwame Geathers is the most intriguing of any potential practice squad player to me. He has everything you could possibly want from a run-stuffing defensive tackle. When watching him on tape, his potential cannot be denied. But at 6’6″, 355 pounds, Geathers is all talent and little refinement. The “devil is in the details” for Geathers. If he can put it all together, he could turn into a steal and find himself on squads for years to come. But like Montgomery, he faces a very tough situation, as the Bengals are loaded at his position. Also like Montgomery, he’s an incredibly interesting player to have on a practice squad. Geathers could very well end up the second of two veteran players who the Bengals placed on the practice squad per the new rules agreed upon last year.
As for the rest of the defense, the Bengals’ roster is littered with young, talented linebackers. If the Bengals draft another one this season, it’s possible a players like Jayson DiManche, Marquis Flowers, or Nico Johnson are attempted to be placed on this squad, but any of these players would likely be signed away by an opposing team quickly. The unit may not boast the biggest stars, but Cincinnati’s linebacking situation will present them with an interesting situation. Vontaze Burfict‘s health will play a big role in the equation. If healthy, the Bengals linebacking room could prove to be a bargain-shopping outlet for opposing teams.
Finally there’s the perpetual offseason intrigue of Onterio McCalebb. The Bengals signed him following the 2013 knowing he would be a huge project. The team wanted to transition him from running back to cornerback due to his size, speed, and quickness. McCalebb is now two years into that development and will be heading into his make-or-break year. Although it’s evident that McCalebb isn’t likely to find grand success, his potential three-way skill set, he has returner experience from college, can’t help but intrigue fans and the team.
There is much time and things to do prior to the formation of Cincinnati’s practice squad. After how badly the Bengals were hit with injuries in 2014, taking a moment to reflect upon the deepest of depths on this team should ensure fans that the organization is being prudent by trying to keep players who offer both promise and something this team relies upon. Although practice squad players rarely rise to stardom, it’s a vital unit, which come September should feature some exciting talent for the Bengals.
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