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How the Bengals Should Account for a Third Quarterback

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May 26, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (5) throws the ball during OTAs at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In the years since drafting Andy Dalton, the Cincinnati Bengals haven’t made a habit of carrying three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.  That trend began to change towards the end of the 2014 season when A.J. McCarron returned form the PUP list.  The team wasn’t ready to employ McCarron as the team’s primary backup, but also didn’t want to risk losing McCarron by placing him on the practice squad.

This year, the Bengals could enter 2015 with three quarterbacks on the roster.  They must begin focusing on McCarron’s development, yet it remains to be seen if the second-year quarterback is ready to be the team’s primary reserve.  If he proves this offseason he is, then it’s entirely feasible that the Bengals carry only he and starter Andy Dalton on the final roster.  But if McCarron, who is entering essentially his rookie season with regards to actually playing and practicing, proves he needs some time (and work) before he can be relied upon, then Cincinnati could opt to keep a third quarterback to act as Dalton’s backup while McCarron continues to improve.

This offseason, the Bengals signed former quarterback Josh Johnson and veteran Terrelle Pryor.  The buzz around Pryor has been noticeable as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been positive about his presence and work thus far.  Although neither of these players will likely prove themselves to be great developmental options going forward, both could prove to be more capable of handling backup duties than McCarron.

May 26, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Terrelle Pryor (3) during OTAs at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

With a loaded roster yet again this year, finding a way to carry a third quarterback won’t be easy.  Many positions simply possess too much talent to justify “going light” at the position.  Injuries will also be a factor in the decision-making process, as the “injury bug” has has struck Cincinnati severely in past years.

On offense, the Bengals could choose to go light at wide receiver or on the offensive line.  They could also choose to only keep four running backs on the roster (including a fullback) keeping their fifth player on the practice squad.  On defense, the Bengals could go light along the defensive line or at linebacker, but again, there would be ramifications to such a decision.  So where should the team sacrifice a player in order to keep a third quarterback.  Let’s start with the defense.

This year, the Bengals added to their defensive line by signing Michael Johnson and Pat Sims while also adding Marcus Hardison via the draft.  With five “locks” at defensive end (Johnson, Dunlap, Hunt, Clarke, Gilberry), and another four at defensive tackle (Atkins, Thompson, Hardison and Peko/Sims), it seems the team would have a hard time dropping a player from this group.

Linebacker could be a better option, but injuries should preclude the team from cutting a player. Vontaze Burfict is still recovering from offseason surgery and Rey Maualuga has been hurt in past years.  Would the team be willing to enter the season with only six linebackers on the roster?  Given how often they use the nickel set, six linebackers would initially seem like enough, but when considering health and special teams contributions, going with only six linebackers could come back to haunt the team both on defense and special teams.

The more natural decision when accounting for a third quarterback seems to be to do so on offense.  The Bengals really struggled on defense last year, so why take a player away from that unit to add a player to what could be a very capable offense (on paper at least).  Starting with the offensive line, after adding two players to the line during the draft makes going “light” particularly difficult.  The Bengals could keep eight and have a player like Jake Fisher cover both tackle and guard, but the team would then likely have to cut Trey Hopkins who looked great prior to a leg injury during last year’s preseason.  Is the team really going to cut a player who seemed to be a roster lock last year?

Health is also a huge issue for the receiving core.  The team typically carries at least six receivers, and will likely continue to do so in the coming season.  Although the Bengals will primarily run the ball this year, injuries to Marvin Jones and A.J. Green will compel the team to keep their usual number of receivers to ensure they don’t suffer like they did in 2014.

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Finally there’s running back. The Bengals have two highly capable running backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.  They also have a highly talented fullback in Ryan Hewitt.  After these three, Cincinnati has the versatile Rex Burkhead.  But is keeping just four players enough?  Would the Bengals be willing to move on from special teams captain Cedric Peerman to keep a third quarterback?  It seems possible, but certainly not without consequences.

The Bengals will face a difficult decision this offseason and A.J. McCarron will be key.  If McCarron isn’t ready to act as the team’s primary backup, then Cincinnati will have to find room for a third quarterback.  Should they take a player away from the defense?  Should they from the offense?  It’s too early to tell where they would sacrifice a player at this point, but training camp should be all the more competitive because of this potential decision.

If the team must cut a player to make room for a third quarterback, where should they do so?  Let us know in the comments section below.

Next: The Bengals Could Have A Viable Tight End Pairing in 2015

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