The Cincinnati Bengals have been “practicing on air” as Tyler Eifert described the early portion of the team’s offseason workout program, but they will take it up a few notches beginning this week when they begin Organized Team Activities.
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Up until this point, Cincinnati was mainly focusing on individual drills and conditioning.
Although there is still no live contact allowed during OTAs, players look forward to this phase of the program because they can now go into offense versus defense drills. For the Bengals, it’s a chance to see how the new playbook under new coach Zac Taylor actually looks when put into action.
Here are five things to watch going into the three-week period of OTAs.
1. Shaping of the O-line
This is when the offensive line roles really should begin to take shape.
Taylor has indicated he would like to have the offensive line positions pretty much sorted out with a depth chart by the early part of training camp so players aren’t waiting until right before the season to know where they stand.
Of course, it can always change even once he has it mapped out, but last year when the offensive line was re-tooled, the players didn’t have a chance to develop enough chemistry with one another coaches were still figuring out roles up until the first week of the season.
Taylor would like to avoid that so there isn’t any guessing come August. The Bengals drafted tackle Jonah Williams and guard/center Michael Jordan and added guard John Miller this offseason, so there definitely will be some movement even with all the other main players from last year returning. It will be interesting to see how those guys fit in and whether veterans like Cordy Glenn could end up in new positions. (It’s been suggested Glenn could move to right tackle or guard, for example, if Williams is ready to step in at left tackle).
The 6-foot-4, 302-pound Williams and the 6-foot-6, 312-pound Jordan pass the eye test but will they look the part on the offensive line?
2. Development of Ryan Finley
There has been a lot of talk about the backup quarterback spot since Taylor came in and immediately supported Andy Dalton as the starter. Now, the attention is on fourth-round draft pick Ryan Finley to see how quickly he can develop behind Dalton.
Dalton has two more years left on his contract, and the Bengals will want to see how he does this year before considering an early extension. Finley’s progress also could play a factor in that, but he got off to a rough introduction to the NFL with a lot of bad passes made during the first day of rookie minicamp on May 10.
Nerves could have played a factor so perhaps this week he shows a little more control, but if not, there still isn’t need for concern. Taylor had said before the draft one of the things that hurts quarterbacks coming into the NFL is the amount of throwing they are doing in preparation for the Combine during what normally would be more of a down period for players. Finley showed good command of the huddle during minicamp, which was a good sign on Day 1, Taylor said.
3. Linebackers stepping up
The Bengals are looking for some linebackers to step up and show they can fill roles vacated with the departures of Vontaze Burfict and Vinny Rey this offseason.
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It’s a chance for players to start making a good impression, and two players to keep a watch on will be rookie Germaine Pratt and second-year player Malik Jefferson, who didn’t get much of an opportunity before going on injured reserve late last season.
Pratt was drafted in the third round after just one full year as a starter at N.C. State, where he transitioned from safety to linebacker and showed dominance as he grew comfortable his senior season. Jefferson played special teams as a rookie but could get more of an opportunity in Lou Anarumo’s defense.
4. Back on John Ross watch
Wide receiver John Ross started to show flashes during OTAs last year and got people excited for his second season. While he made an impact in the red zone with seven touchdowns, Ross still never established himself as the No. 3 receiver the Bengals are hoping he can be.
Now is the start of an important year for him. It’s time to step up and show if he can be reliable and a consistent target between the 20s. A good showing in OTAs could go a long way in building up his confidence, especially playing in a new system and in front of a bunch of new eyes.
5. The running game
Taylor and the Bengals placed an emphasis on the running game this offseason and added some better protection up front, a run-blocking tight end and two new backs to compete behind Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard. Now we will get a small glimpse how that translates in the new playbook.
Rodney Anderson is still rehabbing a knee injury that sidelined him two games into the 2018 season at Oklahoma and won’t be participating, but Trayveon Williams brings a lot of confidence to the group after leading the SEC with 1,760 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season at Texas A&M. Tight end Drew Sample was a surprise pick in the second round, so eyes will be on him to see just what the Bengals saw from him as a highly touted blocker who can also evolve into more of a passer role if needed.
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