2019 NFL Training Camp battles: Bengals' emergent linebacker, the receiver plan, overcoming O-line losses and more
Germaine Pratt has become the talk of Bengals training camp
Jonah Williams, Cincinnati's first round pick, is out for the year with an injury. A.J. Green, arguably the Bengals' best player, is slated to miss several games this season after sustaining an injury a the start of camp. The Bengals do have rookie inside linebacker Germaine Pratt, a second-round pick who has become the talk of Cincinnati's training camp.
For years, the Bengals have been looking for a dominant inside linebacker that can solidify their defense. While Vontaze Burfict, who is now in Oakland, had his moments, his skill set did not fit the current inside linebacker prototype NFL teams are looking for.
It appears that the Bengals have found that player in rookie linebacker Germaine Pratt, the 72nd overall pick in this year's draft. Pratt, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound defender who filled the stat sheet during his time at N.C. State, has been the talk of Bengals' training camp. Pratt, who was hailed as a complete linebacker (he saw time at both inside and outside linebacker at NC State) that can make plays in both run support as well as pass coverage, has displayed that versatility throughout the first month of Bengals camp.
Those traits were never more apparent than this past Saturday's practice, with Pratt intercepting a pass during a red zone drill and running it back for a score.
With a strong preseason, Pratt could unseat Jordan Evans as Cincinnati's starting weak side linebacker.
"He's talented. And he looks like he's gonna be a physical dude," Bengals linebacker Nick Virgil recently said, per Cincinnati.com. "He's a big dude. He's athletic, he's fast, he's smart (and) he wants to learn."
Pratt is motivated to make an early impact.
"Each and every day I'm trying to get better," Pratt said after a recent practice. "I'm trying to improve each and every day because I'm trying to be game ready. Practice makes the game easier, so I just got to keep going hard each and every day and keep continuing to get better. That's my main focus."
While Tyler Boyd and John Ross III are Cincinnati's top two wideouts with Green on the mend, there is an extremely competitive position battle playing out with regard to the rest of Cincinnati's wideouts.
Damion Willis, an undrafted rookie out of Troy, has enjoyed a strong start to training camp while earning the support of veteran quarterback Andy Dalton. Nicknamed "D-Will" by his new teammates, the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Willis pulled down an impressive one-handed grab during a recent practice that only raised his current status in Cincinnati's receiving pecking order.
Auden Tate, a tall target at 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds and Cincinnati's seventh-round pick in last year's draft, has had an especially strong camp entering Cincinnati's first preseason game.
Tate, who caught 10 touchdown passes during his final season at Florida State, made arguably the best play during Cincinnati's practice this past Saturday when he pulled down an underthrown pass from Jeff Driskel while after beating Darius Phillips in single coverage. Tate's biggest challenge is finding a way to create more separation between himself and the defender on a consistent basis. If he does that, he has a legitimate shot at joining Boyd and Ross in the starting lineup.
Josh Malone, a third-year veteran, has a chance to start in place of Green as he continues to enjoy "the best stretch of his career," according to the team's official website. A former fourth round pick out of Tennessee, Malone has just seven career regular season receptions entering the 2019 season.
"I think Josh has been more consistent this fall than he was in the spring, to be quite honest with you," first year head coach Zac Taylor said earlier this week. "You know, we tell those guys it's still early in camp. You're consistent now. You're making good impressions, but we're asking you to keep that up through these games and we can't see a drop-off. So there's a lot of competition at those receiver spots and those guys all know it."
Replacing Williams, Boling
Williams' injury has caused a shuffling of sorts on Cincinnati's offensive line. While the Bengals are confident that Cordy Glenn, an eight-year veteran, can fill Williams' place at starting left tackle, the issue is that Glenn was slated to move over to left guard, a position that is currently up for grabs after Clint Boling recently announced his retirement. John Jerry, a 10-year veteran who didn't play during the 2018 regular season, is currently No. 1 on Cincinnati's depth chart. Behind him is Christian Westerman, a 2016 fifth-round pick who has never had a chance to truly compete for a starting job until now.
Westerman will also have to hold off veteran Trey Hopkins and rookie Michael Jordan. Jordan, a fourth-round pick in this year's draft, received first-team reps during Tuesday's practice. And while he is currently listed as the team's No. 2 center, Hopkins, a five year veteran who started in nine games last season, has also received snaps at Cincinnati's No. 1 left guard during camp.
Key battle emerging on D-Line
Since 2010, Cincinnati has had two of the best defensive linemen in the NFL in tackle Geno Atkins and left defensive end Carlos Dunlap. This season, the Bengals are hoping two other players can emerge while helping to take some of the weight off Atkins and Dunlap's shoulders.
Nose tackle Andrew Billings, a 2016 draft pick who slipped to the fourth round due to his history of knee issues, had his best season as a pro in 2018 after an injury-riddled start to his career. The big position battle to watch is at right defensive end between Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson. Hubbard, a second-year pro out of Ohio State, is currently tabbed as the starter on Cincinnati's depth chart. Last season, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defender recorded six sacks despite not starting in a single game.
Lawson, a 2017 fourth-round pick out of Auburn, enjoyed a solid start to his NFL career, recording 8.5 sacks as a rookie despite not receiving a start. Lawson is looking to bounce back after missing half of the 2018 season with a torn ACL.
Alternative plans for Eifert?
Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati's former Pro Bowl tight end, is currently No. 2 on the depth chart behind C.J. Uzomah, a five-year veteran who is coming off his best season as a pro. While Eifert -- who suffered a broken leg four games into the 2018 season -- has been having a strong camp, there's a belief that he will be used more on a situational basis this season to help preserve his body.
While the plan is apparently calling for more Uzomah, fans shouldn't rule out Eifert winning back his old spot just yet.
"I feel as good as I can possibly feel," said Eifert, who has played in just 14 games over the past three years. "It's constant maintenance stuff with all I've been through to make sure everything feels good and working the way it should. That's something I work hard at."
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