The Cincinnati Bengals will open training camp on Thursday with a 3 p.m practice; not open to the fans, only the media. However, the pep rally will kick things off for most of us later Thursday evening and celebrate the opening of training camp. Here are a few storylines.
SAFETY IS WIDE OPEN
The Cincinnati Bengals are having what amounts to be an open addition with a handful of players on the team's roster. The quest. Find the starting strong safety that will play opposite of Reggie Nelson. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who believes that the solution can be found in-house, has praised the offseason work of George Iloka, Taylor Mays, and rookie Shawn Williams. Keep your eye on that position battle.
There are other position battles to be aware of, from backup cornerback, running back, wide receiver, quarterback, and center. But to me, safety is the only position where players are competing for the starting job. And that includes center (more on that later).
DON'T FORGET ABOUT ATLANTA
From August 5 through August 9, the Bengals will be in Atlanta for a two days worth of practices with the Falcons prior to their preseason game on Friday (Aug. 9). This session between the two teams makes too much sense. Falcons head coach Mike Smith worked under Marvin Lewis in Baltimore, as a defensive assistant and defensive line coach for three seasons.
But it's more than that.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is a future Hall of Famer, which could leave a motivating impression for Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert (not that either need it). Julio Jones and A.J. Green were both selected early in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, so there's a certain bond (and maybe internal competition). And there are seven players currently on Cincinnati's roster from the University of Georgia -- Michael Johnson is also from Georgia Tech.
We're not sure how close the teams will interact, save for two practice sessions. But this is one of those deals that influences growth between two teams with significant connections. The Bengals will be back in town the next day (Aug. 10) for a practice that starts at 3 p.m.
ROOKIES SET TO PREVAIL AND DEVELOP
Tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard figure to apply a significant impact on Cincinnati's offense this year. Either one could be candidates for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, despite initially playing behind two starters in Jermaine Gresham and BenJarvus Green-Ellis respectively.
Yet while Eifert and Bernard are on relative paths to become stars, the team was far more impressive building their depth with role players and development projects.
Margus Hunt, the other second-round pick during the 2013 NFL draft, figures to be more of a development project but should make an immediate introduction on special teams.
Williams, as we've already pointed out, will battle for the starting safety job opposite Reggie Nelson. Running back Rex Burkhead, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and offensive linemen Reid Fragel and Tanner Hawkinson should make an impact on the team's depth chart, as should linebacker Sean Porter, who also figures to be a special teams contributor.
SECOND-YEAR PLAYERS READY TO MAKE THEIR IMPACT
Even more intriguing is the story-line with second-year players like wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, as well as safety George Iloka, who is making enough of an impression to be a factor.
Dre Kirkpatrick, who wasn't listed on any of the team's injury lists on Wednesday, is expected to challenge for a significant role on defense after a red-shirt rookie season. Devon Still, Brandon Thompson, and even Shaun Prater will have their opportunities. We didn't mention Kevin Zeitler because, well, he's kind of made an impact already. But it's exciting.
THE NUMBER ONE OF THE TWOS < DYNAMICS OF PHILOSOPHY
Much is being made on whom will be the No. 2 receiver this year; a question that's been asked since the departure of Jerome Simpson (of all people). I have a feeling that this is a question that won't be answered during training camp, and probably not until the end of the season.
But the question I ask: Does it really matter? Go with the hot hand, or the player that fits best in certain scenarios (aka, Sanu in the red zone). You already know that Tyler Eifert is versatile enough to play every position in football, hockey, and basketball. If you listen to Hue Jackson, Giovani Bernard is the world's best running back... in the 4.54 billion-year history of Earth. And what about Orson Charles in the backfield?
Their goals are going to be finding mismatches and that may predict a rotation behind A.J. Green.
THE FULLBACK/H-BACK STORY
Orson Charles is moving to a unique position called "H-Back", which in Cincinnati terminology is a former tight end playing fullback to provide versatility, especially in the passing game. More interesting is that Chris Pressley will be on the team's Active/PUP list at the start of training camp, giving Charles plenty of opportunities to grow and even displace Pressley when the final roster is set.
It would seem more likely that Pressley is a candidate for the Reserve/PUP list, forcing a player to miss at least six weeks before that player is eligible to return onto the 53-man roster. I imagine that's the same philosophy that the team might be using with Bernard Scott, currently rehabilitating a knee, as a contingency in case there's an injury later in the season.
OH, QUARTERBACK DEAR QUARTERBACK
This is my basic conclusion on the backup quarterback. It's so weak right now that if Andy Dalton gets hurt, we're going into a deep depression no matter who wins. Maybe that's ignorance on my part, being somewhat unfamiliar with the true nature in John Skelton's production (please don't ask me to watch every Cardinals game he was in) or the relatively limited exposure for Josh Johnson.
Either way, we're in trouble if Andy Dalton goes down. You've read the arguments for and against both players during our month-long training camp preview. Zac Robinson could factor, but he's off to a bad start on PUP with an elbow.
RETURN HITHER O' WHIT OF DOMINANCE
After playing in his first Pro Bowl this year, Andrew Whitworth had his knee scoped that dealt with "some scar tissue" which forced him to sit during the team's offseason training program. Like Kirkpatrick, Whitworth isn't on any injury lists and he's already warning everyone that he's never felt better.
"I thought it was a thing I could tough out, but it kind of wears on you," Whitworth says. "It was time to get it fixed and I feel great. I don't feel any different than the first day I played in the NFL."
If Whitworth returns to 2010 form, this could be one of the scariest offensive lines since 2005, provided that...
THE CENTER OF THE LINE
After sitting out for the entire offseason with a shoulder, Trevor Robinson is expected to return when the Bengals conduct their first training camp practice on Thursday. Kyle Cook, who participated during the offseason workout program, appears as the front-runner for the starting job.
And that's only because he actually practiced during the spring and summer. We imagine there is enough fluidity here over the next month, but if I were writing an "I believe", this battle is now Cook's to lose.
Though personally not concerned about Andre Smith being on PUP right now, this will be a major storyline. Daily updates with exasperated keyboards are likely until Smith returns, with increasing anxiety the longer that he's out. And then once he returns, the question will be if he's ready to play the regular season opener.
The first episode of Hard Knocks featuring the Cincinnati Bengals will begin on Aug. 6 at 10:00 p.m. and continue each Tuesday through the series finale on Sept. 3. Encores will play every Wednesday at 11:00 p.m.
We won't see it live, but once the videos go online and Hard Knocks airs that episode, the highlight of training camp will be when the team conducts Oklahoma drills.