As the Cincinnati Bengals kick off OTAs this week, expect roster predictions to come fast and furious. Perhaps the most intriguing positions to forecast are linebacker and defensive end/edge.
First, the defensive scheme implemented by defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will go a long way in determining who makes the final 53-man roster. On the other hand, who makes the final roster could go a long way to determine what scheme will be used more by Anarumo.
When deploying their base defense, will it be more of a 3-4 (three defensive linemen, four linebackers) or 4-3 (four d-linemen, three linebackers)? How much of that will matter because, as Jeff Hobson of Bengals.com points out, the Bengals and the rest of the NFL “align in some version of a 4-2-5 (four d-linemen, two linebackers, 5 defensive backs) as much as 70 percent of the time to match personnel.”
Thus, 30 percent. It will matter about 30 percent of defensive snaps.
Second, who will be considered a linebacker? With the versatility of this defensive personnel, the lines have been blurred on who is considered a d-lineman or linebacker. Right now, the linebackers are listed as Markus Bailey, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Jordan Evans, Keandre Jones, Germaine Pratt, and Logan Wilson.
The defensive end/edge position is listed as Amani Bledsoe, Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Wyatt Hubert, Khalid Kareem, Joseph Ossai, Darius Hodge, and Cam Sample.
This will prove to be a bit of an oversimplification knowing that Ossai, Hodge, Sample, and Hubert can all play the outside linebacker role as well. And, in the case of Hodge, and Hubert, very well might have to in hopes of making the final 53.
Furthermore, we saw last year that Hubbard was used this way many times. How much this happens this year will depend on the roster construction around him.
Last but not least, special teams will undoubtedly add to this positional intrigue. Linebackers and athletic defensive ends will play an impotent role when it comes to kickoff, punt coverages, and returns. Lucky for coordinator Darrin Simmons, the Bengals have a plethora of athleticism at the defensive end position.
Special teams are another area where the linebackers and Hubert, Kareem, and Hodge must shine. If they indeed shine bright like a diamond, they could push for a spot and playing time at both linebacker and defensive end.
From this group of players, you should expect five or six linebackers and four or five defensive end/edge players.
So what will this group look like in September?
As of right now, the rosters for 2021 will remain at 53 with 12 practice squad spots. Based on that and the fact that the team will spend most of their time in Nickel, here is a way too early, pre-OTAs prediction of what the final roster will resemble at these two positions:
- Trey Hendrickson
- Sam Hubbard
- Khalid Kareem
- Joseph Ossai
- Cam Sample
- Akeem Davis-Gaither
- Germaine Pratt
- Logan Wilson
- Markus Bailey
- Jordan Evans
If during the OTAs and preseason the Bengals decide to go with more of a 3-4 base defense, that could push a guy like Ossai into more of an outside linebacker role and open the door for Bledsoe or even a defensive tackle like Renell Wren or Khalil Mckenzie to play the end position in a 3-4. That could prove to be bad news for Evans or Bailey.
What do you think the linebacker and defensive end positions will look like when the Bengals line up against the Minnesota Vikings? Are you expecting a 4-3 or a 3-4 base defense?
Either way, it will definitely one of the more intriguing roster battles to keep an eye on over the next few months.