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Virtual offseason, scaled back preseason hasn’t altered Bengals plans for top pick Burrow

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor speaks to reporters after a NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 23-17. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor speaks to reporters after a NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 23-17. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The virtual offseason and cancellation of preseason games hasn’t changed Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s plans for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow.

Burrow has yet to get on the field with the Bengals since they drafted him No. 1 overall in April, but his place as the team’s starting quarterback entering training camp remains unquestioned.

The former LSU quarterback agreed to terms Tuesday on a reported four-year, $36 million contract, pending a physical, but with a gradual easing into training camp, Burrow is not expected to begin practices with the team until next week.

“We’re going to put a lot on Joe right out the gate, and obviously we’ve got weeks to sort out who’s starting and all that good stuff, but Joe’s going to walk in and take the first snaps at quarterback,” Taylor said Wednesday in an online news conference when asked if he would consider easing Burrow in as a backup. “He’s prepared for that. We drafted him because we have a lot of confidence in him and what he’s going to bring to the table. Even with the uniqueness of what this training camp is going to look like, we’re going to give him plenty of opportunities to play in Week 1.”

Taylor said Burrow has been “as advertised” so far in meetings, and the baseline expectation for him is just to “play well in Week 1 – that’s the starting point.”

There might be some added pressure on Burrow to compete at a high level despite the unusual circumstances of this offseason, but Taylor said the Bengals drafted him knowing he could handle adversity and that doesn't change.

“We took him because we have high expectations for Joe,” Taylor said. “Everything I have seen about him and know about him he has high expectations for himself. He’s going to do everything he can to put himself in position to be successful. I trust that.”

Taylor is trying to look at the bright side of not having any preseason games for Burrow to get live reps against an actual opponent. The NFL Players Association was against preseason games during the negotiations with the league to form a plan of return amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and now coaches have to find ways to get players prepared without them.

The Bengals especially need to get creative while trying to get their offense set up around a quarterback new to this level with only about five weeks to settle in on the field before the season opener Sept. 13. Cincinnati also has several newcomers on defense after an active offseason in free agency.

“There’s a lot of advantages that we’re finding right now, just the way we’re going to be able to structure practices and create more scrimmage situations,” Taylor said. “You consider in a preseason game maybe Joe Burrow wouldn’t have gotten to play with a couple of guys that you’re holding out or don’t give many reps to. Whereas you can protect those guys in a scrimmage that you control a little bit better. It’s changed the way we have to approach some of our practices because you’ve got to do a lot more live tackling to put these guys in situations they’re going to be missing out on.”

Veterans reported Tuesday and can begin physicals Sunday at the earliest, assuming they pass COVID-19 testing. Teams will spend Days 7-14 of training camp doing conditioning work and won’t put pads and helmets on until Day 15.

Taylor said it was difficult developing the team’s plan for training camp with so much uncertainty as to what it could look like until Friday when the NFL and players union came to an agreement on protocols. His main message for the players coming in is just focused on making them feel safe so they can focus on their jobs.

“That’s the number one priority for us right now,” Taylor said. “... We’ve got really good people in place who have done all the legwork to make sure we’re all safe -- you’re talking about (director of operations) Jeff Brickner and (director of security) Mark Herren, (director of coaching operations) Doug Rosfeld, (equipment manager) Adam Knollman, (head trainer) Paul Sparling and (strength and conditioning coach) Joey Boese. Those guys, just being around the building, it’s eye-opening the work they’ve done to make sure when the players and coaches come in they’ve got confidence they are being taken care of the right way and we’re following protocols the right way.”

The Bengals haven’t had any players opt out of the season yet, according to the NFL wire transactions, and Taylor declined to say whether there have been conversations about that possibility.

“Those are personal decisions for those guys and certainly we’ll support those decisions,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of reasons for them. But again, I don’t want to speak for any player in this league that’s going through those conversations with their loved ones. If those guys want to announce things, they can. But we’re not going to make any comment on it.”