Nov 30, 2013; East Hartford, CT, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights tight end Tyler Kroft (86) makes the catch for a touchdown against Connecticut Huskies safety Obi Melifonwu (20) in the first quarter at Rentschler Field. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The Cincinnati Bengals had a very good offseason. It featured a shockingly active free agency as well as another great draft. Much like in years past, the Bengals seem to be the only team that can find undrafted gems on a yearly basis during the chaos following the draft. Cincinnati brought in a lot of young rookie talent, but now comes the question who will be the most impactful rookie this season?
Marvin Lewis and Co. like to employ a redshirt year to all rookies. This is usually the reason why the Bengals very rarely have a candidate for Rookie Of the Year. Regardless, we always seem to have at least one productive rookie. Last year it was Ryan Hewitt and Jeremy Hill, who was selected to the All-Rookie team.
This year should be no different. Barring an injury, Cedric Obueghi and Jake Fisher will not play much. The Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith tackle duo will still be in effect for at least another year. Fourth-round picks Josh Shaw and Marcus Hardison may not see much playing either being buried on the depth chart behind much talent at their respective positions. Fifth-round pick C.J. Uzomah will also be buried, as Tyler Kroft seems to be the player penciled in to replace Gresham. With the safety duo of Reggie Nelson and George Iloka holding onto their starting positions, Derron Smith may not see much playing time beyond special teams.
This leaves third-round picks Tyler Kroft and Paul Dawson, and seventh-round pick Mario Alford. As for undrafted free agents, Chris Jasperse is my candidate amongst this group to make an impact in 2015.
At the tight end position, there is a chance for a big impact. With the exit of five-year veteran Jermaine Gresham, there is a gaping hole to fill. Tyler Eifert is going to be the top tight end this year, but the Bengals like to employ two tight end sets. As the Bengals’ top tight end prospect coming out in this year’s draft, Tyler Kroft should have the best opportunity to replace Jermaine Gresham’s production.
Kroft is not only a good receiver, but he is a great blocker as well. The Bengals seem to be very high on him, therefore Kroft should have the best chance to make an impact. In a division like the AFC North, having a tight end that can block and catch is vital, having two is a luxury.
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On the defensive side of the ball, Paul Dawson couldn’t have been selected to a better team. Dawson is in the perfect position to come in and produce right away. He comes into Cincinnati drawing comparisons to Bengals Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Unfortunately Burfict is coming off a serious knee surgery, Rey Maualuga is a liability is pass coverage and Emmanuel Lamur is coming off a very bad season. Although each linebacker in this core possesses a great quality, Dawson should enjoy ample amounts of opportunities to make an impact as a three-down player.
Paul Dawson may have been the best linebacker in the draft, but slid all the way to the end of the third round. If he starts this season, he could legitimately be a candidate for Defensive Rookie Of the Year. Depending on Burfict’s health, Burfict could be a candidate to start the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. This would leave the WILL position open, leaving a perfect opportunity for Dawson to play early. Even if Burfict is ready to go by Week One, having Dawson on the field with him is essential. Together they could form the best linebacker duo in the NFL.
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I truly believe seventh-round pick Mario Alford is Andrew Hawkins 2.0. When Hawkins left to sign with the Browns, Cincinnati lost a productive player, a teammate, a slot receiver and most importantly an X-factor. Much like Hawkins, Alford is a matchup nightmare. He is to fast for a linebacker to cover and to quick in-and-out of breaks for safeties to come down and cover. This is evident by his 4.27 40-yard time. Also, like Hawkins, he is a touchdown machine credited by his 11 touchdowns as a wide receiver.
Although the receving core is crowded with talent, Alford may have an advantage over the others rookies to make a big impact. Not only will he handle slot duties, but he will also return kicks if he beats out Brandon Tate for the job. Alford returned kicks at West Virginia and took two back for touchdowns during his last season.
Lastly, center Chris Jasperse may be in for a productive season as well. Russell Bodine struggled last year as a rookie and is far from a lock to keep his starting gig. Jasperse was a four-year starter at Marshall and, to some analysts, was the second best center in this year’s draft. Jasperse is a player of consistency having never missing a game as a collegiate player. If he could beat out Bodine for the starting spot, he could make a big impact this upcoming season.