The Cincinnati Bengals have yet to make any cuts this preseason. Instead, the big decisions will be made after backups battle for final roster spots in the fourth exhibition game.
Cincinnati hosts the Indianapolis Colts in the preseason finale Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Some of the starting spots were determined after last week’s loss to the Giants, as head coach Zac Taylor announced Sunday the offensive line that will take the field first to open the season at Seattle on Sept. 8. He also named undrafted rookie wide receiver Damion Willis as the starting X receiver.
However, many of the backup spots are still up in the air, and the current 90-man roster will need to be cut down to 53 by 4 p.m. Saturday.
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Here are five things to keep an eye on as players try to make their case to stay:
1. Starters will sit
Starters won’t play, but it’s unclear whether the Bengals will put wide receiver John Ross on the field just to give him a little action before the season starts. Ross has yet to play this preseason while nursing a tight hamstring that limited him even back in the offseason workout program, but he finally joined the squad for his first practice Sunday.
Taylor expects him to play a big role this season but still did not want to say whether Ross will be ready for the opener. Thursday could be a chance to test that out, but it’s also a game in which coaches try to protect players from last-minute injuries, so the Bengals may just sit him with the other starters.
2. Wide receivers competing
Speaking of wide receivers, that group is one of the most difficult to sort, but three of the 10 on the current roster likely will be left out and Thursday will help determine the last couple of spots that might still be up for grabs. Cody Core and Josh Malone are the most experienced guys whose place could be in jeopardy, but Core’s valuable role on special teams makes it hard to cut him loose.
The preseason started out with Malone expected to be the first off the bench, based on the initial depth chart, but Auden Tate has impressed more lately and Willis’ emergence enabled him to claim a spot. He will not play Thursday. A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and return specialist Alex Erickson are locks, so Morgan Stanley and Hunter Sharpe will have to do something special Thursday to prove they belong over Tate, Core or Malone.
3. Defensive linemen stand out
The defensive line has looked strong so far, but a few of the interior spots still need sorted out. Andrew Brown, Josh Tupou and Renell Wren seem to be battling for jobs, and there was some speculation that veteran Jordan Willis’ future could be in jeopardy but that seems unlikely after he’s been the top-rated defensive linemen this preseason, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Taylor likes that he has so many options on the defensive line. Those could be tough decisions.
“It’s critical to have depth up front, and we feel like that depth has been created over the last couple weeks,” Taylor said. “Those guys have fought their tails off and put themselves in a good position.”
Brown, a 2018 fifth-round draft pick, was left out last year after dealing with injury in the preseason and ended up on the practice squad, but he’s been pretty consistent this preseason. Wren was a fourth-round pick this spring and leads the defense in snaps so he’s had every opportunity to prove he belongs.
4. Linebackers need to step up
Preston Brown, Nick Vigil, Jordan Evans and Germaine Pratt have solidified their spots, but no one has really stood out behind them. Hardy Nickerson, rookie Deshaun Davis and second-year player Malik Jefferson all need to have big performances.
Nickerson is probably the first one out at this point.
5. Backup quarterback show
Rookie quarterback Ryan Finley should get the start for the Bengals, but Jake Dolegala will get plenty of action as he tries to make a case for a practice squad spot. It’s unlikely the Bengals would carry three quarterbacks at this point. Jeff Driskel did not play last week and hasn’t been practicing and Dolegala has been impressive enough to make a case ahead of him.
As for the Colts, Andrew Luck wouldn’t have played Thursday regardless, but his sudden retirement Saturday now pushes Jacoby Brissett into the starting quarterback role for the Colts, so now the Bengals will be playing against third- and fourth-string quarterbacks.