Being a huge fan of the NFL evaluation process, I get really excited for exhibition games. This is one of the few times where players fighting for a job will actually see the field. Normally, you'll never see the third-string tight end catch a pass unless there's been a bunch of injuries. So what if the score doesn't matter? It's less stressful for us die-hard fans.
The preseason is all about finding the team's best 53-players. Forget the scoreboard and take your eye off the ball. Here are a few things to watch when the Jets come to Cincinnati in the Bengals' first preseason game of 2012.
Injury Progress of Leon Hall, Jordan Shipley and Roderick Muckelroy
All three of these players are coming off of serious season-ending injuries. Hall and Muckelroy are recovering from Achilles ruptures and Shipley is rehabbing a reconstructed knee. Hall has reportedly looked close to his old form and will start at CB on Friday. He may be rusty, but that's to be expected since the normal recovery time is 12-months. It's only been about nine months for Hall. Watch as he plants his back leg, then drives towards the ball. That's when he'll be testing that Achilles the most.
Shipley is having a slower recovery. He isn't up to speed yet and will likely need all 4-weeks of preseason before giving a fair evaluation of health. Right now, he's behind Andrew Hawkins on the slot WR depth chart. Shipley will need to show improvement in acceleration, cutting and getting separation. Even still, he may have to prove some special team's abilities. As a 5th-6th WR candidate, Shipley will have to play special teams in order to be active on game days.
Muckelroy didn't play much as a rookie and then went on Injured Reserve during last year's training camp. He's valuable to the teams because he can play every LB spot and has special teams experience. His best chance to make the team may be as the Bengals' starting Nickel LB, which is exactly the role he played during the mock Orange vs. Black game. When the depth chart was released this week, Muckelroy was the primary backup to Rey Maualuga. Right now, he has a role with the team. Let's see if he can hang onto it.
Nickel Defensive Replacements
The nickel defensive package has become almost the base defense for many NFL teams. Having five DBs to cover the offensive weapons is a must. The Bengals have lost Jonathan Fanene, Brandon Johnson and Chris Crocker from last year's unit that took 46% of their defensive snaps. How have they replaced these players?
The defensive line in nickel will need to replace Fanene as an interior rusher next to Geno Atkins. Devon Still and Jamaal Anderson were brought in for this role. Still has been taking these reps in practice but Anderson probably isn't far behind. Carlos Dunlap played this role in college and was very successful. He could see some snaps inside. With Dunlap and Michael Johnson starting, do they now get replaced in nickel? Dontay Moch has been taking nickel DE snaps and that's been primarily at LDE; the same side Dunlap usually plays. Keep an eye out for how the Bengals rotate their defensive line. It was their biggest key to success last year.
Losing Brandon Johnson will hurt in nickel defense. He and Thomas Howard made a very good coverage LB pairing. There's a drop off in talent from Johnson with Roderick Muckelroy, Rey Maualuga and Vinny Rey bidding for the job. Muckelroy may take the first snaps, but where is he athletically after an Achilles injury and not being the most athletic LB before?
Chris Crocker has been replaced by Taylor Mays so far in camp with mixed reports. There have also been very exciting reports that Nate Clements has stepped into a safety role in some nickel packages in practice. I'm very excited to watch this development as I could see it working out very well. Clements is a very physical CB that will instantly provide a coverage upgrade to Mays. I'm not sure the Bengals will show this in the preseason, but it would be nice to get Clements some game experience in this role. Clements also was the primary slot CB last year; if he moves to safety, who takes the inside CB spot? Hall has experience doing so and Terrence Newman did it earlier in his Cowboys career.
New Starters: Dunlap, Mays, Tate, Green-Ellis, Zeitler and Wharton
Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Zeitler and Travelle Wharton can all be watched together. If the interior running game succeeds unlike last year, you can point the finger at these three additions. With Bernard Scott out, we may see more "Law Firm" and may be able to get a better feel for him early this preseason. Zeitler is ready in the running game, but he's going to need time in pass protection. Watch his hands; if he's winning there, he's been working and improving.
Carlos Dunlap will now need to show he can be effective on every down. Can he handle a full load of about 50-snaps per game? Run defense hasn't been his strength but he has the size to do it effectively. He must stay low and play with proper leverage. Watch his stamina and see if the added snaps have an effect on Dunlap's 3rd down efficiency, because that's where he's most valuable to the defense.
Taylor Mays is known for being a liability in coverage. The team may want to give him preseason experience to hopefully improve this aspect of his game, but his stiffness and ball skills are natural abilities and usually not something a player can completely change. He can get better, but if he's getting picked on in coverage, how do the Bengals respond? If he makes a few plays in coverage, he'll have enough supporters to hold onto his current starting job.
Brandon Tate seems to only be a starting WR by depth chart only. Armon Binns has taken the majority of those snaps because Tate has been bothered by a hamstring. Plus, Jay Gruden has talked about a receiver by committee approach anyway. Tate needs to stay healthy and show he's regained some quickness and acceleration that made him a very dangerous play-maker as a prospect coming out of college. Has he finally regained that form?
The Evolution of Jay Gruden's Offense
The Bengals started as a very vertical-based offense in the first quarter of last season. Then injuries took their toll with Shipley and Andre Caldwell being sidelined for the season. Then, the offense took a more play-action, big-play identity for the bulk of the schedule. This worked with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green hooking up regularly. When the running game became the offense's weakness, defenses started playing to prevent the big play and between Green and Dalton. The offense sputtered and became very basic. How has it evolved?
The offense will go as far as Dalton goes, but finding a steady running attack is crucial. They need longer runs and better ball-security. Both can be found with the additions of Wharton, Zeitler and BJGE. In the passing game, getting Jermaine Gresham to become the number two target to Green will only create mismatches on the field. Gresham and Andrew Hawkins are the offense's chess pieces. The more ways Jay Gruden finds to get these two involved, the harder it will be for defenses to game plan against the offense. When it comes to the actual second WR, a rotation of Binns, Tate, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones should allow the Bengals offense and Jay Gruden to play to their strengths depending on which personnel they deploy. With a real offseason this time, look for an expanded playbook that could take this offensive unit to the next level.