Bengals begin youth movement amid winless season

CINCINNATI -- Dropped hints along the way indicated something might happen to Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Preston Brown.

Brown's percentage of snaps in each game had dwindled considerably in recent weeks. During last Friday's frigid practice at Paul Brown Stadium, Brown played the role of a scout-team running back during drills while the others in his position group worked on their assignments.

Rookie Germaine Pratt replaced Brown in the starting lineup last Sunday against Baltimore. Two days later, hints were no longer needed. The Bengals waived Brown, the veteran who was signed to a three-year, $16.5 million deal in the offseason.

The move might have as much to do with the current youth movement across Cincinnati's roster as the abilities of Pratt and Brown. As the losses pile up, the NFL's lone winless team (0-9) is at the beginning of a necessary rebuild. That means evaluating the young players on the roster and taking the lumps that come with them.

"With all of these young players, you're going to see some positives and some things they need to improve on," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said on Monday.

The youth movement was apparent early in the Bengals' 49-13 loss to the Ravens. Rookie quarterback Ryan Finley was making his debut as Cincinnati's starting quarterback. Tight end Drew Sample, a second-round pick in 2019, had a rare first-quarter catch. And then there was Pratt, a recent fourth-rounder who started over Brown for the first time this season.

It was the biggest impact the Bengals' rookie class has had all season. And at this point, it's necessary. With a loss on Sunday at the Oakland Raiders (5-4), Cincinnati would set a franchise record for consecutive losses, with 12. It would also match the Bengals' worst start to a season, 0-10 in 1993.

When Taylor benched veteran quarterback Andy Dalton in favor of Finley, Taylor told him part of the reasoning was figuring out what the Bengals have in the rookie ahead of the 2020 draft.

But evaluating the state of the current roster isn't just about the quarterback. When it's this bad, everything will be scrutinized, as the Bengals are at risk of not having a position player selected to the Pro Bowl.

Pratt made his first career start on Oct. 13 at Baltimore as Cincinnati's third linebacker. When defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was asked how Pratt covered a Baltimore tight end, the answer was brief and to the point: "Not so good." But Anarumo was willing to live with it because of the mistakes that come with youth.

"It's not, ‘Hey, I'm a rookie. I have a chance to make an error,'" Anarumo said in October. "Whether they are a rookie or not, at this point they are going to go out there and play."

Pratt didn't play at all in the Week 2 loss against San Francisco. He played a season-high 46 percent of the defensive snaps against the Ravens on Sunday. He was again inconsistent but made plays that showed his progress.

"I think I'm just getting more comfortable each and every week with the system and playing fast," Pratt said leading up to the game.

Sample earned his playing time by stacking up good performances in recent weeks. However, his development might be delayed by an ankle injury that could keep him out for a few games.

But expect the Bengals to keep looking over their roster for any young talent that can help a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 1991.

"This is one of the things we have to go through right now, unfortunately," Taylor said of the winless start. "We're going to fight through it, and there are going to be some positive things as this season comes to an end."