One of the biggest questions facing the Cincinnati Bengals entering the start of training camp remains unanswered four days shy of the season opener in Cleveland.
Who is going to slide into the Samaje Perine role as the third-down running back after the veteran signed a free agent deal with Denver?
Who Is Getting the Third-Down Role in Cincinnati?
What began as a three-way battle shrunk to two when Trayveon Williams sprained his ankle during the fifth practice of training camp on Aug. 2 and did not return to full participation until last week. That left Chris Evans and rookie fifth-round pick Chase Brown to go head-to-head.
Neither Evans nor Brown seized the spot, leaving the decision of whom to trust as the last line of defense for quarterback Joe Burrow unanswered. Evans has improved but is not yet where the Bengals need him to be, and Brown has inherent trust issues simply by being a rookie.
Those reasons, coupled with a couple of recent clues, point to Williams getting the first shot, which makes sense given that he has the most experience in the role, as limited as it may me, as he enters his fifth season.
The first hint came last week when the question about the third-down back role came up during Zac Taylor’s press conference. The first player he mentioned was Williams.
“The way it has played out, especially with Trayveon’s injury that limited him, he was a guy that was making really great progress in a lot of areas leading up to that,” Taylor said. “We want to see what he is all about. He still gets an opportunity to do that.”
When the Bengals released their first official depth chart of the regular season Tuesday, Williams was slotted as the backup to Mixon, followed by Evans, then Brown.
First official #Bengals depth chart of the season
Trayveon Williams as the backup to Mixon.
Charlie Jones PR
Chris Evans KR pic.twitter.com/bTcZiMdcAK
— Jay Morrison (@ByJayMorrison) September 5, 2023
But with Williams’ ankle injury postponing the full royal rumble for the spot, Week 1 in Cleveland is just a continuation of a battle that could last until the bye week, maybe longer.
“I’m not going to say it’s nailed down, and this is the way it is going to be all season once we make the Game 1 decision,” Taylor said.
“It needs to be a fluid situation for us where these guys know there is potential to continue to improve, to get more opportunity. The game doesn’t always present a lot of great times to be able to work on that and win that battle, but we are going to do our best to factor in every rep, every bit of preparation, every question they can answer on the protection in protection meetings. That’s all stuff we will continue to weigh in as we go week to week.”
On Monday, Taylor threw more support behind Williams, who will be a full participant in practice all week.
“He’s in a good place. He’s healthy,” Taylor said. “He’s ready to help us. Just continue to get him all the reps we can to get him up to speed. I like where Trayveon’s at.”
A wild card in the mix could be Demetric Felton, whom the Bengals signed to the practice squad last week. A sixth-round pick of the Browns in 2021, Felton admitted he was blindsided when he was let go on cutdown day.
Felton appeared in 24 games for the Browns the last two seasons but did not log a single pass-blocking rep. Still, he said that was one of his biggest priorities during OTAs and camp.
“It’s something I worked on a lot this year because I thought it would keep me in the running back room,” he said. “I definitely feel like I improved. When I first started, I had my hands too low. Now I’m just trying to shoot my hands and make contact at the line of scrimmage instead of letting the defender run up to you. The things I worked on in Cleveland are definitely going to carry over here.”
Almost as interesting as who wins the spot for Week 1 is the question of who will not even get a chance to dress. With four running backs on the 53-man roster, the assumption is only three will be active against the Browns.
With Evans appearing as the starting kick returner on the depth chart, the assumption is Brown will be inactive, especially with Williams and Evans having experience on multiple special-teams units.
Every year of the Taylor era, there have been multiple rookies who were selected on the third day of the draft and were active for the opener. That should continue this year regardless of Brown’s status, with sixth-round punter Brad Robbins being a lock and either Charlie Jones or Andrei Iosivas (or perhaps both) expected to be active.
Day 3 Draft Picks Who Have Been Active for Week 1
2022 – Cordell Volson (fourth), started; Jeff Gunter (seventh), 20 special-teams snaps
2021 – Cam Sample (fourth), 29 defensive snaps, five special-teams snaps; Evan McPherson (fifth) started; Chris Evans (sixth), eight special-teams snaps; Trey Hill (sixth), did not play
2020 – Akeem Davis-Gaither (fourth), 20 snaps on defense, 19 snaps on special teams; Khalid Kareem (fifth), 10 snaps on defense, four snaps on special teams; Hakeem Adeniji (sixth), did not play
2019 – Ryan Finley (fourth), did not play; Renell Wren (fourth), two snaps on defense; Michael Jordan (fourth), started
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