According to Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, final roster cuts aren’t always simply decided by who is the most talented player.
Heading into next week’s final roster cut to 53 players, Taylor said that decision is a complicated process. It involves the depth at each position, injuries in the starting lineup and practice squad eligibility.
The Bengals will have to cut their roster from 80 to 53 players on Aug. 31. Heading into the final preseason game, most of those 53 spots are well established.
Here’s a look at the remaining roster battles at the back of the roster.
Fifth edge rusher: Darius Hodge, Amani Bledsoe, Noah Spence
Before third round pick Joseph Ossai suffered a knee injury, the Bengals had a well-defined rotation established at defensive end. Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard were the starters, Ossai and Cam Sample would rotate into the mix and Khalid Kareem would compete for playing time.
Since Ossai is out indefinitely, the Bengals have available snaps for whichever fifth defensive end makes the team.
This week, the Bengals signed Noah Spence, a 2016 second round pick who hasn’t had a consistent role on an NFL roster since his rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. According to head coach Zac Taylor, the Bengals added Spence to compete for that last roster spot.
“There’s a lot of people in the mix there,” Taylor said. “We’ve got three big days here at practice and a game for guys like that coming up. It will be good to see how (Spence) handles all that.”
Hodge and Bledsoe have a head start with the scheme, and they bring opposite skill sets. Hodge, an undrafted free agent, is possibly the Bengals quickest edge rusher. He’s playing defensive line for the first time in his career. According to defensive line coach Marion Hobby, Hodge is still working on technique and run-game concepts.
Bledsoe played in rushing situations last season on the Bengals defensive line. But he didn’t record a sack or a quarterback hit last season over 312 snaps.
Tenth defensive back: Jalen Davis, Tony Brown, Trayvon Henderson
Since the Bengals use three cornerbacks as their base defensive coverage, they’ve kept more depth in the defensive backfield over the last three seasons. With Davis, Brown and Henderson, the Bengals have three defensive backs with different skill sets.
Davis is a nickel cornerback with a defense that almost always has a third cornerback on the field. During the preseason, Davis has forced two turnovers and shown improvement with his ability to make a tackle near the line of scrimmage. On Thursday, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons noted Davis’ talent as a gunner in punt coverage.
Brown is an outside cornerback with more size and strength than Davis. He’s likely the better cornerback in one-on-one matchups outside the numbers, but Brown never found a consistent role with the Bengals in 2020.
Henderson would have to make the team as a fifth safety. After spending most of the 2020 season on the Bengals practice squad, Henderson has played as much as any player on the Bengals defense during the preseason. The Bengals didn't use their backup safeties much during the regular season in 2020.
Third tight end: Mason Schreck, Mitchell Wilcox, Thaddeus Moss
According to Simmons, the third tight end spot will likely come down to which player can block the best and which player can cover the best on special teams.
Since 2017, Cethan Carter had filled that role on the Bengals special teams unit. After Carter left in free agency, Schreck, Wilcox and Moss are competing for those snaps. The position battle is going down to the wire in the final preseason game. Simmons explained where each tight end stands heading into Sunday’s game against Miami.
“Mason (Schreck) is somebody, as we know, who has been around here for a bit,” Simmons said. “I think there’s a great comfort in Mason knowing exactly what to do. There’s certainly comfort in having that.”
“(Wilcox) was on our practice squad last year, Mitch did great things in practice,” Simmons said. “There's hardly anybody that works harder than Mitch. Mitch is growing with his understanding of what it takes to be an NFL player (on special teams).”
“I don’t think Thaddeus (Moss) covered many kicks or many punts at LSU,” Simmons said. “He has been very open to learning all it takes to play those spots. I think he understands that’s where he’s going to have to separate himself from the rest of the herd there to earn a spot on our team. It’s not what he does at tight end.”
Last two spots on the Bengals offense
WR Trenton Irwin, WR Stanley Morgan, C Trey Hill, OT Isaiah Prince, RB Jacques Patrick, RB Trayveon Williams, WR/PR Trent Taylor
If the Bengals carry 25 players on offense, then there will be two spots on the roster for these seven players.
At least one of those spots –– and potentially both of them –– will be filled by a wide receiver. The Bengals carried seven receivers at the start of the season in 2019 and 2020, and Irwin, Morgan and Taylor are competing to be the sixth or seventh wide receivers on the roster.
Irwin has been the team’s most productive receiver during the preseason, shown the ability to make contested catches in the slot and shown consistency as a punt returner. Morgan is the most experienced special teams player and has stuck on the Bengals roster since 2019 because of his talent on special teams.
Hill and Prince have been competing for spots on the offensive line with Billy Price and Fred Johnson, respectively, unless the Bengals cut one of their second-string players or a recent high draft pick. Since the Bengals’ depth on the offensive line was tested in 2020, Cincinnati could choose to start the 2021 season with 11 offensive linemen, including Hill or Prince.
The Bengals have kept both three and four running backs on the roster since the start of the 2019 season. The Bengals have three locks to make the roster in Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine and Chris Evans. Whether the Bengals keep Williams or Patrick could come down to whether the team needs more depth at wide receiver or on the offensive line.