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This preseason, Bengals' Margus Hunt should expect early-game reps

Defensive end Margus Hunt, a second-round pick in 2013 who hasn't lived up to expectations, will need to prove himself in 2016. AP Photo/Gail Burton

CINCINNATI -- Make or break. Now or never.

Regardless of which phrase he uses, Margus Hunt knows that both apply to his pivotal fourth season as a Cincinnati Bengals defensive end.

"I'm a grown-ass man," the backup pass-rusher said during minicamp earlier this month. "I need to take hold of it in a hurry and be able to play. I know I can play and contribute to this defense."

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and the rest of the Bengals coaching staff are still trying to determine that. Their mission when training camp begins July 29 will be to give him and other players on the roster bubble every opportunity to prove their worth. In many cases, that will mean getting them more early-game snaps when preseason play begins.

"We have to get some of the guys that are backup guys and bubble guys, we've got to get them in the game early against the good players," Guenther said. "That's why it's going to be good for us to practice against Minnesota like last year when we had the Giants. We can see them going against their first-team guys because they are going to be playing against first-team guys on Sundays."

The Bengals and Vikings are holding a pair of joint practices at Paul Brown Stadium ahead of their Aug. 12 preseason opener. This is the second straight year the Bengals have held joint practices, partnering with the Giants last August.

Maybe Hunt doesn't end up in the starting lineup against Minnesota, but don't be surprised if he gets his share of first-quarter snaps while Teddy Bridgewater's offense is still on the field.

"We've got to get them into games early in the preseason and evaluate so when we make the decision on the 53 [-man roster], we are making the right decisions," Guenther said.

From a playing-time standpoint, preseason openers haven't been kind to Hunt the past two years. Still finishing his recovery from an offseason back injury, he didn't appear in the game against the Giants last summer. The year before that, he was part of just 21 defensive plays, the fewest he had in a preseason game in 2014. As a rookie in 2013, Hunt received 41 snaps in that opener, an amount that equaled 71 percent of the Bengals' defensive plays. He went on to take part in a career-high 66.3 percent of Cincinnati's defensive snaps that preseason.

So why is playing time so important?

The answer is that he simply hasn't had much of it since the Bengals made him a second-round selection in 2013. Comparatively speaking, he didn't have a whole lot of it before that, either. An internationally-acclaimed junior track thrower in his native Estonia, Hunt didn't play football until a year after enrolling at SMU. Since many of his peers have double the overall football experience he does, Hunt's first two seasons were essentially crash courses in rushing the passer.

But then injuries started creeping into the picture. In the past two years, he's battled through ankle, shoulder, rib and back issues. Now fully healthy, Hunt feels "the best I've felt in the last four years."

"I've seen flashes," Guenther said. "He just has to do it consistently, and he's got to stay healthy. That's been his biggest issue is as soon as we get him up and running, something happens ... and then it's like starting all over again when he gets back."

Guenther hopes that increasing Hunt's preseason snaps against opposing starters can help him stay on the field this regular season.