CINCINNATI — The Bengals have had a great locker room vibe over the past two seasons.
Yes, winning makes feeling good about yourself much easier. But any coach or player will tell you that developing that chemistry is a year-to-year proposition, requiring effort and attention to detail in developing personal bonds between teammates who become a brotherhood.
It’s that brotherhood bond that many Bengals players pointed to over the last two seasons as a source of strength that helped them weather many difficult situations, in and out of games.
Every year, the process of team building begins on the first day of offseason workouts. And Monday at Paycor was the first day of the 2023 season, as it relates to building bonds.
“It’s good but you don’t want to take it for granted,” Zac Taylor said Monday before addressing the players who showed up for the first day of voluntary workouts for about 10 minutes. “Last year was last year and this next year is this next year. It’s guys coming in. Some guys are in new roles some new players coming in the building and you lose guys.
“You just don’t want to take for granted that because we’ve always had in the past that we are continue to have it. We have great character in the locker room. In the back of my mind I do always feel good about it. It’s something you don’t want to take for granted. You want to get these guys together as much as you can.”
New to the mix so far are the six free agents signed so far. Five of the six were spotted in the locker room Monday, including tight end Irv Smith Jr., edge Tarell Basham, safety Nick Scott, offensive lineman Cody Ford and of course, starting left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
“I feel good about where they’re at. They’re excited to meet their teammates,” Taylor told me. “That’s what I’m excited about in the off-season portion of things is to get them going with the group, their position group, their unit, team, see how we do things so that when they show up and we put the pads on in training camp, they feel like they understand the routine of things here and how we operate, how we meet, where we practice, how you walk to the field, how you get to the indoor, how you get to the game field, all that stuff, and so they feel comfortable when really the lights are brightest once training camp starts so that’s really the process we follow here.
“That’s where I’ve mentioned the camaraderie and the chemistry part of the things. That’s where those six guys fit in now and then the draft picks come in usually the second weekend in May. And you know, they get going through as well.”
On Monday, there were two need ping pong tables in the locker room. There were players laughing and joking just like they were in the season. There were friendly hugs, veterans introducing themselves to newcomers. Literally, it felt like the first day of a new school year.
The first quiz won’t be until they get on the field in the second stage of the offseason, which starts with OTAs in May. The first real exam doesn’t come until the Bengals get on the field for training camp in late July.
When the new teammates are banging pads and helmets with each other, then the true bonds of the brotherhood are forged. For now, it’s all smiles and good vibes.
There were notable absences Monday for the first day of workouts, including all three starting wide receivers, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Also missing were defensive end Sam Hubbard, offensive linemen Jonah Williams and La’el Collins and linebacker Logan Wilson. The only of the new free agents not spotted in the locker room was defensive back Sidney Jones IV.
Again, it’s important to understand that these workouts are voluntary and many players choose to get their work in out of town, often at a training complex.
After tearing his right ACL in the Halloween nightmare in Cleveland, Chido Awuzie said Monday he hasn’t had any “plateau” moments, common regressions among those rehabbing from ACL repair. Awuzie said he’s made very good progress, going through mainly leg work right now as his right leg getting stronger and stronger, to the point where the right leg is actually stronger than his left right now. He has no timetable for a return to OTAs or training camp but is fully confident that he’ll be a go for the season opener in September.
Chido Awuzie says he's on track to be ready for the Bengals season pic.twitter.com/1BKO39XkVg
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) April 17, 2023
There has been endless speculation since the season ended about the fate of running back Joe Mixon on the 2023 Bengals roster. It’s widely assumed that the Bengals will either cut Mixon or restructure his deal for this season. Mixon’s cap charge for 2023 is $12.79 million. Despite that and his offseason legal issues and run-ins with local authorities, Mixon showed up Monday and declared, “Season 7, let’s get it!” but did not speak to reporters. As long as he is still on the roster, Mixon is considered one of the cornerstones of the locker room.
Jackson Carman was in the locker room Monday, playing ping pong and looking significantly more slender. (conservatively 10-15 pounds lighter). The offensive lineman entering his third season after being picked in the second round of the 2021 draft looks as if he’s gotten the message about making the most of his opportunity. Carman struggled badly with conditioning in his rookie season. He looked faster last year and won the trust of OL coach Frank Pollack and Zac Taylor to fill in when Jonah Williams went down in the middle of the season and when Williams was injured against the Ravens in the playoff win. Now, a trimmer Carman could signal that he’s taken the hint that he needs to take the next step if he’s going to keep a spot on a significantly improved offensive line, with more reinforcements likely in the draft.
Listening to Zac Taylor Monday, it sure sounds like the Bengals are ready to move forward with Irv Smith Jr. In three seasons with the Vikings, Smith caught 91 passes for 858 yards and nine touchdowns.
“We think he can come in and play that role for us,” Taylor said. “There is always competition in that room. But that’s the vision that we have for Irv is to come in and fit that role Hayden had for us.”
Irv Smith Jr can't wait to get with Joe Burrow and learn Bengals offense pic.twitter.com/peqyxQ9afH
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) April 17, 2023
Add to that the re-signing of Drew Sample, coming off knee surgery, and Devin Asiasi, Tanner Hudson and Nick Bowers, Taylor feels much better about the tight end room heading into the draft than at the start of free agency.
“Now you feel good about the guys in that room right now,” Taylor said. “That’s one of those things that allows you to take the best players that are out there on the team and help you win. I feel really good about adding Irv. We liked him coming out in the draft and the years he spent in Minnesota. Think he fits what we are looking for.
“Getting Drew back is important for us as well. He’s been so valuable for us. He got hurt in the second week and didn’t get a chance to play but we like what he has done throughout the years. Then we got all those guys, Devin and a bunch of other guys who really did a nice job last year on the practice squad or the 53. So guys that we are excited about their future also.”