CINCINNATI – Now comes the hard part for the Cincinnati Bengals.
After a run to the Super Bowl that ended in mid-February, the Bengals offseason was compressed into a whirlwind of activity.
By all accounts and observations, they had a busy and fruitful free agency period that netted three new offensive line starters and a brand new starting tight end. In the draft, they added three potential rookie playmakers in the secondary and an offensive lineman they believe can compete for an interior spot.
They put second-year lineman Jackson Carman at the starting left guard spot in spring practices to go with established starters at left tackle, center, right guard and right tackle. Rookie Dax Hill was getting first-team reps at free safety, taking the place of Jessie Bates.
And yes, Jessie Bates. They placed a franchise tag of their starting free safety that has yet to be signed and, by all indications, will result in him sitting a majority if not all of training camp.
Training camp begins next Wednesday, July 27 and champions in the NFL are usually branded by the fire of internal competition camp brings. Here’s a look at what the Stripes need to get accomplished:
- Address the elephant in the room then move on:
Yes, Jessie Bates hasn’t signed his franchise tender of $12.9 million. The Bengals can’t control this. If Bates and his agent David Mulugheta want to play the waiting game and not sign until Bates feels he has time to get ready for the season, then that’s their prerogative. He won’t get fined if he doesn’t sign his tag and misses camp. All Zac Taylor can do is address it once and then move on. “We’re here to talk about the players on the roster and on the team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick would famously say when asked about players holding out or not reporting. Taylor’s demeanor is certainly different but after acknowledging Bates early in camp (likely Day 1) there’s no reason to dwell on it. Why? Because it’s critical for a head coach to deliver the message that there’s work to be done, with or without the player.
— NASDEY (@EliteSportsAll) March 24, 2022
- Find Bates replacement:
No contract extension is coming now after the July 15 deadline passed. So, it’s really just a matter of deciding when he feels ready to play and how much time he feels he needs to acclimate to the defense. All Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo can do is make do with the bodies they have at their disposal. James Palmer of NFL Network asserts that Bates is the second-most important player on the team after Joe Burrow, especially in terms of making defensive calls and putting everyone in proper position. There is no doubting that Bates is one of the most intelligent, respected and regarded players in the locker room. But if last year showed anything, Anarumo and the defense have a wealth of playmakers in the front seven that make picking up the slack for Bates, if he plans to miss regular season games, a reasonable mission. In the time being, the Bengals will find out who is best suited to fill the void. Will guidance of a veteran like Vonn Bell along with his advanced maturity as a rookie be enough to allow Dax Hill to step in and play at a first-team level? Don’t sleep on fellow rookie Tycen Anderson out of Toledo. The Bengals love his speed and freakish athletic ability and while he projects as a strong safety, this is a talent who could certainly find a role in nickel and dime defensive back packages.
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) May 13, 2022
- Veteran leadership takes the reins:
Nothing helps picking up the slack more for the absence of Bates than a core of leaders in the secondary that the Bengals have assembled. Mike Hilton, Chido Awuzie, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple and Tre Flowers bring a boatload of NFL experience that should help rookies like Hill, Anderson and Cam Taylor-Britt along. Don’t forget fifth-year safety/special teamer Brandon Wilson, who returns from a torn ACL in Week 9 against the Browns.
- All eyes on Jackson:
After being given first-team reps at left guard in OTAs, it’s now time for second-year lineman Jackson Carman to start earning the trust that the Bengals showed in the spring. The Bengals made their boldest moves along the offensive line in free agency, bringing in center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins, all projected starters. Carman has everything to prove to the Bengals after a rookie year that was, to put it kindly, uneven. It’s the off-field work as much as his effort on the field that must improve. And apparently, Carman has shown the Bengals enough in both areas this offseason to warrant the trust.
- Is Alex Cappa healthy?
After signing a four-year, $35 million deal in March, Cappa missed most of OTAs with a “core muscle deal” as Zac Taylor termed it but there was the understanding that some rest and rehab would have him more than ready for training camp. The Bengals clearly felt the need to upgrade the interior line after Joe Burrow was sacked a mind-numbing 70 times in 20 games.
- How does Joe Burrow look?
From all indications, Burrow looked leaner and stronger in spring practices. He wasn’t wearing a brace on either knee (surgically repaired left and sprained right) in OTAs. Burrow indicated that he’ll see how things play out in camp before deciding if he’ll start the season without wearing one. Entering his third NFL season, but his first with a full offseason of training under his belt, the franchise quarterback appears ready to take the next step on a path destined for stardom and multiple Super Bowls. The physical aspect is there. Will his chemistry with new tight end Hayden Hurst and a re-worked offensive line produce the kind of consistent offense fans and the team expects? The key for Burrow this season will be avoiding second-and-long and third-and-long situations where he’s throwing jump-balls downfield for Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Burrow has already shown he’s mentally and physically tough enough to excel at the most demanding position in the NFL.
It’s somehow possible to forget about the star running back in this offense. Most defensive coordinators won’t be. That’s because Mixon, after setting career highs in carries (292), yards (1,205) and total TDs (16), is hitting his prime with everything lining up for him to have another huge season. Consider: Three-fifths of the offensive line has been upgraded with new starters, the three star receivers return, there’s a new threat at tight end and the quarterback has already earned elite status. Given the opportunity to do damage, Mixon should be ready to roll. He looked fresh, fast and explosive in spring and OTAs. He looks relaxed and happy. No reason that shouldn’t continue in camp and preseason, setting up for another big regular season.
- How does Hayden Hurst fit in?
Early indications in OTAs are that Hurst will be an ideal option at tight end for Burrow after the loss of C.J. Uzomah in free agency to the New York Jets. In OTAs, Hurst showed bursts of his potential game-changing speed which could add another powerful punch to the offense.
- How do offensive line rotations shake out?
We know what the Bengals projected offensive line looks like at four of the five spots. It’s the left guard spot of the aforementioned Jackson Carman that is the lone battle. But beyond that battle, the depth of the line is something that bears some close monitoring. There’s the third tackle spot in jumbo packages and the back-up spots along the line that will be determined. Could rookie Cordell Volson challenge Carman? Will D’Ante Smith challenge Isaiah Prince as a viable third tackle or could Smith back-up Jonah Williams or Collins if need be? Hakeem Adeniji filled in for Alex Cappa at right guard in OTAs. Could that be a foreshadowing of the season? Has 2021 sixth-rounder Trey Hill grown enough to be a reliable back up to Ted Karras? And then there’s free agent center Lamont Gailard.
- Will Clark Harris and Kevin Huber keep their jobs another season?
The conventional thinking here is that there has to be significant falloff from both long-snapper Harris and punter Huber for the Bengals to make a change at two critical positions on special teams. Harris and Huber both joined the Bengals in 2009, and like their highly regarded coach Darrin Simmons, have been institutions on the team ever since. They were clutch last year in the playoffs as the snapper and holder played a key role in Evan McPherson’s perfect 14-for-14 effort on field goals and 6-for-6 on extra points. But if long snapper Cam Adomitis – regarded as the best college LS rookie out of Pittsburgh – and Drue Chrisman can show enough in camp and preseason, there always exists the possibility. The intriguing possibility is whether one or the other does enough to win a job, will the Bengals consider breaking up Harris and Huber?
- How will the Bengals linebackers shake out?
This has suddenly become a position of depth for the Bengals with Logan Wilson back from his shoulder injury and Germaine Pratt penciled in as starters. There’s Akeem Davis-Gaither who could find more playing time behind both Wilson and Pratt. Then there’s Markus Bailey, Clay Johnston and Joe Bachie, all of whom could find spots on special teams and be available in depth roles.
- Will Joseph Ossai pick up where he left off?
Last August in the preseason opener, the last we saw of the 2021 third-rounder out of Texas, he was cleanly beating one of the premier right tackles in football in Tampa Bay’s Tristan Wirfs and sacking Tom Brady. He had a monster first half and then suffered a knee meniscus injury and was sidelined all of 2021. He had a procedure in the offseason to facilitate a speedier recovery and Zac Taylor says the star edge should be ready to help Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard fortify the pass rush. Ossai, if healthy, could be a huge addition to a reserve edge group that already includes Cam Sample, Kareem Khalid and rookie Jeff Gunter.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) June 10, 2022
- Defensive line depth:
Perhaps the most underrated part of the Bengals defense is in its belly. Tackles D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill (rewarded with a new three-year, $30 million contract) return and will anchor the middle. Larry Ogunjobi will not. He’s in Pittsburgh after the Bears failed him on a physical after his foot injury in the playoff win over the Raiders. The depth behind Reader and Hill are Josh Tupou, rookie Zach Carter and Tyler Shelvin. Shelvin, the second-year massive 2-gapper tackle out of LSU is really someone to monitor during camp and the preseason. Will the 350-pounder be able to show more mobility and agility and respond to the demands of playing interior in the NFL to warrant more playing time? Keep an eye on rookie free agent tackle Tariqious Tisdale out of Ole Miss.
- Who backs up Ja’Marr, TB and Tee?
We all know the starters, but this is the NFL and the Bengals, like every other team, must have plans behind their three star receivers. Stanley Morgan and Mike Thomas filled in for Higgins as he rehabbed his left shoulder in OTAs. Trent Taylor is a trusted veteran slot receiver who caught the most important two-point conversion in franchise history in the AFC Championship in Kansas City. Trenton Irwin is another favorite of Darrin Simmons who continues to earn playing time on the second team. But the emergence of rookie Kwamie Lassiter II out of Simmons’ alma mater of Kansas is definitely someone to keep an eye on. If the speedy rookie, who earned first-team reps in OTAs, continues to catch the eyes of coaches, he could bump Irwin or Taylor off the bubble and earn a special teams role.
i’m going keep working . Extra motivation😌 https://t.co/0vZs4r5uFJ
— Ja’MarrChase (@Real10jayy__) July 18, 2022
- Watch the special teams starters:
Great teams have great special teams. Why? Because teams like the Bengals want to find roles for their biggest impact players when logjams like at wide receiver dictate that talent has to sit, or settle for special teams spots. In other words, if Chase, Boyd and Higgins are healthy and playing, and if Joe Mixon is good to go, you have to find places for the likes of Chris Evans, Lassiter, Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams, Morgan and Thomas. This is a championship-level team problem. Remember last year when Tre Flowers wasn’t on the field with the defense? He was making big play after big play on special teams, earning the respect of the coaching staff. Same with Chris Evans. The Bengals are blessed with a bevy of talent that can overflow to special teams and one of the best coordinators in the game in Darrin Simmons to coach them up.
- Coaching ‘em up:
If there’s one area Zac Taylor should be commended for more than any other, it’s the culture he’s built inside the building with an exceptional coaching staff. The staff, led by coordinators Brian Callahan (OC), Lou Anarumo (DC) and Darrin Simmons (ST), is among the very best in the NFL. Taylor has managed to keep them together and combined with position coaches like offensive line coach Frank Pollack, defensive line coach Marion Hobby, quarterback guru Dan Pitcher and wide receivers coach Troy Walters. Taylor has often pointed to the continuity of his staff as a main reason for the growth from his first two seasons, when he went 6-25-1, to the run to the Super Bowl in 2021. The energy of the coaching staff was evident throughout OTAs, led of course by the glass-eater himself, Frank Pollack.
Hydrate and get ready. Forget about contract negotiations. Starting on July 27, the focus will be where it needs to be – on the field.