Cincinnati Bengals: 5 storylines to watch in training camp

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he feels an extreme sense of urgency going into Year 3.

Preparations officially get underway Wednesday with the start of training camp, and the Bengals are counting on a fully healthy Joe Burrow, improvement from the offensive line, the addition of wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, a new cornerback group and a retooled defensive line to be difference-makers in 2021.

The Bengals are coming off a 4-11-1 finish last year, following a two-win first season under Taylor, but every season, it feels more like his team, Taylor said, and the added comfort with the players and staff also could be an important factor.

“You can’t waste a day,” Taylor said. “That’s the approach that we have to take. Just because you add (players) … doesn’t mean they’re just going to walk out there and look exactly how they did on tape when you signed them. They’ve got to develop that chemistry within the system, with the guy lining up next to them. And that’s going to take a lot of work, and some extra work. We’ve added guys that have the right approach and are willing to do that. But again, there’s got to be an urgency to get that done sooner rather than later.”

The Bengals have plenty of things to sort out before the opener at Minnesota. Here are five storylines to watch in training camp:

1. Getting Burrow ready

The 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick didn’t get to experience a full season after tearing his ACL and MCL in Game 10 at Washington. Now, nine months later he is fully cleared to resume football activity and will be back to normal practices after being limited during the offseason workout program. However, the Bengals will still be cautious in the sense he most likely won’t be playing preseason games, so they will have to figure out other ways to prepare him for a live rush without his own teammates bringing him to the ground.

Burrow didn’t have preseason games last year but also had two healthy legs to stand on with confidence. Any simulation of a pass rush won’t be the same as when defenders are flying at him Week 1, especially considering there might be a mental hurdle to clear in learning not to baby his surgically repaired knee.

“There’s a battle,” Taylor said of the internal back-and-forth on how best to prepare Burrow. “Some of that comes in the first game. … I know coming off injury it’s different because he did miss the back half of the season there. So again, just finding ways to simulate that in practice and taking it week to week and figuring out how we’re going to utilize him, if at all, in any of the preseason games.”

Taylor said Burrow will not be coddled in practices more than any other starting quarterback because “at some point, you can’t be overprotective. It’s football. And you’ve got to let him get out there and experience it. So that’s what we’ll do.”

2. Sorting out the offensive line

Bengals owner and president Mike Brown described the offensive line in recent years as the Achilles heel of the team, and the organization added some new pieces but there are still spots to sort out at the guard positions and backup roles.

Free agent signee Riley Reiff will step in as the new right tackle while Jonah Williams returns at left tackle. Center Trey Hopkins has been cleared for full activity coming off a December ACL tear; however, he will be eased in more than Burrow, who was about a month ahead in the rehab process. If he’s not ready for Week 1, that job likely falls to Billy Price.

Rookie Jackson Carman made progress during the offseason workout program and could be in the mix to start at right guard, while Quinton Spain is penciled in at left guard. The team also has Xavier Su’a Filo and Michael Jordan, and even the backup jobs will be a competition. Cincinnati learned last year the need for more depth up front.

“We have some guys coming back who were hurt that have shown that they can play and they’re young in their career,” Bengals executive Duke Tobin said. “We’ve got three draft choices and we’ve got a free agent and we’ve got Frank Pollack back with them so there’s a lot of change in that group. What we have to find is five guys playing together and staying healthy. When you have to keep interchanging guys because of injury, it makes that unit that much weaker. So I think our year has to be coming where we can keep guys healthy at a better rate than we have and find the right five guys to be in there.”

3. Bolstering the pass rush

The Bengals signed defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and defensive end Trey Hendrickson to help improve the pass rush, but there doesn’t appear to be much depth capable of keeping that same level expectation when it comes to a rotation. That’s especially the case in the interior, where the pass rush was almost non-existent in 2020.

Mike Daniels returned for a second season but had no sacks in seven games last year and has totaled three over the past three years. Beyond that, Cincinnati will be looking at young players stepping in and relying on unproven talent. That will be a focus during the preseason.

“We’ll see how it plays out here in preseason,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “There are guys who flashed in the spring, but there’s no real evaluation part from a physicality standpoint. We’re going to play preseason games, that we didn’t last year, so it will give those young guys a chance to show what they can and can’t do. … I do thing we’ve got some pieces that can really help there.”

“It’s still an unknown to a degree, but we’ve got some guys who have proven it. Guys like D.J. Reader, Larry Ogunjobi have done it in this league from an inside rush standpoint. The rest we’ll see how it goes.”

4. Developing chemistry on the back end

With all new cornerbacks expected to start, the secondary has some work to continue this preseason in terms of getting guys comfortable playing together. That process began in the offseason workout program with Trae Waynes back in the mix after missing all of 2020 and newcomers Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Ricardo Allen and Eli Apple all settling in as well.

It helps the secondary that safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell return, but that’s a lot of new guys to expect a quick development of chemistry.

On the flip side, the depth there provides more flexibility, so Anarumo will be using the preseason to figure out how to take advantage of that with his schemes.

“Overall just the amount of flexibility the group will give us,” Anarumo said when asked what excites him most. “You can get pigeon-holed a little bit when you send a grouping of guys out there and you only do a few things and the offense knows. If you can leave the same guys out there and do a bunch of different things that adds to the offense’s issues. So just the flexibility and what these guys can bring, that’s what I’m most excited about.”

5. Other position battles

The other notable position battles to watch are at tight end and running back.

Veteran tight end C.J. Uzomah returns from an Achilles injury, feeling healthy after getting back to work with the team in the offseason, and the Bengals will have a decision to make between him and Drew Sample as the starter. Sample make big steps in Year 2 but Uzomah is a proven pass catcher who could fit a need for Burrow.

Cincinnati also needs to figure out who Giovani Bernard’s replacement will be. It seems the plan is for Samaje Perine to step into a bigger role this year behind Joe Mixon, but Mixon also could be relied on more in the passing game and could be on the field for a lot more downs.

“The third part of playing running back besides running and catching is protection,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said when speaking of Mixon’s importance. “They’re a huge part of protection on third down. Joe has grown and improved in that area, really through his career. It’ll be asked of him a bunch this year to be able to do that. He’s an advantage for us because he’s so big. A lot of those blitzing DBs don’t really wanna run through Joe. They don’t like tackling him, then they gotta blitz against him. So, there’s some things that he brings that his skill set allows you to have a little bit more of an advantage in pass protection.

“The expectations are high for Joe, as I’ve said before, to be on the field quite a bit. Obviously, he can’t play every snap of every game but he has the ability and the skill set to be a 3-down player. And a really good one.”

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