The Cincinnati Bengals saw enough promise in third-string quarterback Jeff Driskel last year that they kept him on the 53-man roster for the entire season rather than exposing him to waivers in an attempt to stash him on the practice squad.
But the Cincinnati roster this year doesn’t have the depth or experience it had a year ago at this time, which means the team may not be able to afford the luxury of keeping three quarterbacks, especially one like Driskel, who remains somewhat of an unknown commodity having never thrown a pass in a Bengals game.
Friday night, he should get the chance he’s been waiting for when the Bengals open the preseason against Tampa Bay at Paul Brown Stadium.
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“You can’t really simulate game reps,” Driskel said. “Even Saturday (in the Bengals intrasquad scrimmage) had a different feel than a normal practice, and a preseason game is going to have an even different feel. So I’m really looking forward to getting out there and carrying over what I’ve learned so far and cutting it loose.”
With Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron on the roster, the Bengals were not in the market for a quarterback in the 2016 draft. But when the 49ers released Driskel, whom they selected in the sixth round, on cutdown day, the Bengals claimed him off waivers and invested an important roster spot in his potential.
“When a guy like that becomes available, you try like heck to get him,” Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese said. “And it worked out. It timed up right. The guy’s doing a good job. He’s got poise and toughness, strong arm, willing.”
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Driskel’s arm is so strong, the former center fielder got drafted by the Boston Red Sox after his junior year at Florida in 2013 despite having not played baseball since his junior year of high school in Orlando.
“It was surprising,” Driskel said. “I was following it on my phone, watching for my friends and I saw my name go across and I was like, ‘Man, there’s another Jeff Driskel out there?’ It said University of Florida, and I said ‘That’s weird. That’s me.’
“They called, and I said ‘What are you guys doing?’” Driskel said. “They just thought it was worth taking a 20-something rounder, someone who had the potential to maybe get there if I chose to do so.”
Not only did Driskel, the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country coming out of high school, not chose to pursue baseball, he ultimately decided not to stay at Florida, where he started 10 games as a sophomore and six as a junior.
After graduating in 2014, he transferred to Louisiana Tech for his final season of eligibility and threw for 4,026 yards with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also carried 92 times for 325 yards and five touchdowns, displaying the kind of athleticism NFL coaches and scouts love.
“(His athleticism) shows up every practice,” Zampese said. “He’s got a lot of speed, a lot of size, arm strength. It’s great to have. Great combination.”
But is it good enough to stick around with two proven quarterbacks ahead of him?
Driskel said can’t answer that.
“I’m not making that decision,” he said. “Obviously if I was making that decision I would pick me. But that’s not how it goes and you can’t worry about that. That’s when you start to press, that’s when you start to do things that are uncharacteristic. You just have to go out and play and see how everything unwinds.
With Dalton likely to play only one or two series Friday night and McCarron having value as not only an experienced backup, but also as a potential trade piece — either this year or next — Driskel could get more reps with the Bengals this year than the few he had in San Francisco last year, when he only threw 31 passes in the preseason.
Still, no matter how well he plays, there may not be room for him come Sept. 2.
Asked if that was a tough position to be in, where he might not control his own fate, Driskel said it’s not.
“I think it’s a good situation, actually,” he added. “I get to learn from Andy, who’s very willing to help out, which not everyone would be. AJ is doing the same thing. They’ve been in the system for a long time. They help me out, and in that sense it’s a good thing. But you just have to worry about what you can do and go out and get better and maximize your reps.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he added. “It’s such an interesting thing, and everything moves so fast. Just from last year you kind of know how it goes. Got released and then ‘what am I going to do? Am I going to come back here (SF)? Then I got picked up here (Cincinnati) and it was a blessing to be here.”
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