The first day of Bengals training camp went by like a blur. When I finally sat down on my couch at home, I thought to myself, "What just happened?". It had been 11 months since I last attended a camp practice, and apparently I forgot about the frenetic stop-and-go pace of these hot summer practices.
I arrived at the camp fields at exactly 2:30 p.m., when the gates open. A long line of several hundred Bengals fans had already formed at the front gate. In line behind me, a mom asked her young kid, "Who would you rather see: Mickey Mouse or Andy Dalton?" Without hesitation, the kid answered, "Andy Dalton!" That enthusiasm from young fans for even the most maligned Bengals players is one of my favorite parts of going to camp. They go ballistic when they see these players for the first time.
As the line advanced onto the fields relatively quickly, I made my first steps on the perfectly manicured Kentucky bluegrass and looked up a crystal clear blue sky. Combined with the vibrant greens of the grass and bright orange of the helmets, it was a picture-setting for Bengals football.
Every training camp practice always starts slowly. The players hang out as Darrin Simmons takes a few players through some special teams drills. Then, 15 minutes before practice officially starts, the offensive and defensive units go through some walkthroughs at half-speed. They'll run some plays that will be seen at full-speed later in the day. It's boring, but it's a good time to take note of the first, second, and third teams as they walk and jog around without helmets.
There were no surprises on the first team offense.
Quarterback: Andy Dalton
Offensive Line (left to right): Andrew Whitworth, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, Kevin Zeitler, Andre Smith
Starting Receivers: A.J. Green, Marvin Jones
Starting Running Back: Jeremy Hill
Starting Tight End: Tyler Eifert
That adds up to 10 of 11 starting players. A few players - WR Mohamed Sanu, H-back Ryan Hewitt, and TE Tyler Kroft would rotate in depending on the play. And, of course, Gio Bernard would rotate with Jeremy Hill at running back. These players essentially make up the first team offense.
So, for example, on third-and-long, you would have Bernard, Green, Jones, Eifert, and Sanu as your five eligible receivers. On third-and-short, you might have Hill at running back, with rookie Jake Fisher as the sixth offensive lineman, Eifert, Kroft, and Hewitt all run-blocking. Fisher took a few snaps with the first team on Friday and figures to be a big part of the Bengals' power-running unit this year.
This is all basic stuff. But, hey, it's the first day.
Nothing of note really happened at this point but, but Marvin Jones drew the first applause of camp with a leaping one-handed catch over the middle.
The second unit didn't have many surprises either.
Quarterback: A.J. McCarron
Offensive Line (left to right): Jake Fisher, Tanner Hawkinson, T.J. Johnson, Trey Hopkins, Eric Winston
Receivers: Denarius Moore, Brandon Tate
Running Backs: Rex Burkhead, Cedric Peerman, James Wilder Jr.
Tight Ends: Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah, Jake Murphy
Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson experimented with some two running back sets during this period, so only two receivers were used. Winston and Kroft seemed to be the only players who switched back and forth with the first and second groups here.
I'll cover the third team offense and the starting defense tomorrow.
The 3 p.m. airhorn blows and the players meander over to one side of the field to stretch. After a quick huddle, they break into positional drills. Then, the quarterbacks started working with the receivers and tight ends on some very short throws. Nothing really has happened for almost an hour by now, and it almost lulls you to sleep. Next, at 3:30 p.m., an air horn blows, and all the players move at once.
I know from past camps this means 11-on-11 scrimmages are about to happen. I scramble to a different set of bleachers for a better view and get there just in time. This is my first good look at the first team defense because they did their walkthroughs on the far field. I noticed the two starting cornerbacks were Dre Kirkpatrick on the left and Adam Jones on the right. This was a bit surprising because Leon Hall started at the right side last year, but I noticed he also rotated in with the ones at this spot later in practice. I'd guess this is an ongoing process where the right cornerback position is an open battle between the two seasoned veterans, Hall and Jones. Neither played left corner at all last year, so that spot appears to be locked down by Dre Kirkpatrick.
At safety, incumbent Reggie Nelson was paired with Shawn Williams. Apparently the team was choosing to ease George Iloka into the lineup after he missed all of offseason workouts with an injury. He had his helmet on, and joined the ones later in the day. At linebacker, Vontaze Burfict was out rehabbing and Rey Maualuga is expected to miss a few days with a minor injury. Veterans Vinny Rey and A.J. Hawk took their places in the starting lineup.
As I'm taking note of the defensive starters, the offense runs two successful reverses. One with Marvin Jones, and another with the speedy rookie Mario Alford. Dalton connects with Eifert for about six yards on a roll-out. A.J. McCarron rolls out and finds rookie tight end Kroft across the middle with a strong throw into a tight window. Then, as quickly as it started, the 11-on-11 is over.
They break into one-on-one's in three different spots on the main field. Wideouts faced off against cornerbacks, running backs faced off against linebackers, and tight ends faced off against safeties. With three things going on at once, it was impossible to keep up. I saw Eifert almost reeled in an errant Keith Wenning pass with one hand, but Reggie Nelson ripped it away at the last second for an interception that was very similar to one he made against the Broncos last year.
A few plays later Wenning also missed a wide open Jake Murphy, who had juked his defender into oblivion. The undrafted rookie tight end had a very solid day. Murphy impressed me with his fluidity, route-running, and hands. The other undrafted tight ends, both 6-feet, 8-inches, looked far more stiff and unathletic. Defenders were jumping their routes with ease. Murphy also made a nice TD catch over the shoulder on a very well-placed throw from McCarron.
As I'm watching the tight end and running back battles in front of me, I hear the crowd cheering to my left loudly on two occasions. I missed two long touchdowns, but I saw the recipients of both of them, Green and undrafted rookie receiver Jake Kumerow.
One of my favorite moments of the day came from my favorite player, Jeremy Hill. The sophomore running back absolutely burned his defender with repeated jukes on an option route across the middle. As he caught the ball and easily walked into the end zone, Hill looked back at his defender mockingly, seemingly saying, "You weren't even close to me!"
I also saw an interception of Josh Johnson by Marquis Flowers where he easily jumped Gio Bernard's out route. At the end of the drill, Darqueze Dennard showed some nice recovery speed with pass breakup on a deep ball.
After those 15 minutes of frenzied action, another 15 minutes of boring positional drills occurred. I moved my location in the stands again, this time parallel with the 20-yard line at the other end of the main field. I'm setting myself up for the best angle of the next round of 11-on-11. Having done this for four consecutive years, I know they don't want to tear up the same part of the field with live scrimmaging. At about 4 p.m., the next round of 11-on-11 starts up right in front of me.
On the first play of this round of scrimmaging, Dalton takes a long shot to Green. The ball goes about 55 yards in the air, but lands about one foot beyond the outstretched arms of Green. Everyone holds their breath a little bit as Green dives to the ground, but he gets up immediately.
A few plays later, Hill made a killer juke in the backfield on Jayson DiManche to save the play from losing yards. Later, from a zone defense, rookie linebacker P.J. Dawson broke on the ball quickly to force an incompletion. Defensive tackle Devon Still busted through the third-string offensive line to cut off an outside run for no gain.
I got to see a bit more from Jake Kumerow, the 6'5" undrafted wide receiver out of division III's Wisconsin-Whitewater. His routes and fluid hips impressed me the most. Going in, I knew he would have a great catching radius due to his long frame, but I was not expecting him to get in and out of breaks so quickly. He also has very consistent hands from what I've seen so far. He's an obvious favorite of the backup quarterbacks and he caught a couple balls from Dalton as well. I hope he keeps it up, because the Bengals need more depth behind their top three receivers and Kumerow simply makes plays.
One other major development was Leon Hall spending time at safety. It seemed to be a version of Guenther's base defense where he has three corners on the field and only one safety. Out of this 4-3-4 set, the defense could cover a 3-receiver set from the 4-3 base defense. The general idea here is to be as versatile as possible. You can see Hall at safety on this play in a 7-on-7. He is paired with Reggie Nelson in a cover-2. Hall breaks on the pass to Hill, originally covered by Emmanuel Lamur.
Toward the end of the practice, Dalton was able to make up for his earlier slight overthrow by hitting Green in stride on a deep TD pass with Chris Lewis-Harris on coverage. Dalton hit Green again on a 20-yard dig route with an accurate pass that just slipped by the deflection attempt by Adam Jones.
Eifert made several catches on the sideline where there wasn't a defender within 10 yards. Eifert really is a special talent. Watch him on the field in-person and you'll be reminded of his rare combination of size, speed, fluidity, and hands.
Then, with a final blow of that distinct air horn, the first training camp practice was over. The players massed together for one final huddle, and they sent the rookies out to sign autographs. It will usually be broken into offense, defense, or rookies for the rest of camp. A couple veterans also opted to sign autographs, which was a nice gesture. That group included: Margus Hunt, Dre Kirkpatrick, Sean Porter, Clark Harris, Mike Nugent, and Rex Burkhead.
I walked back to my car, mentally and physically exhausted. Standing in the 90-degree heat for three hours while multitasking as fast as possible will do that to you. My mind was vacant as I got in my hot car and chugged some water. My only thought was, "Gotta put sunscreen on the back of my neck tomorrow."