Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict confidently walks across the practice field, his eyes typically down, absolutely aware that a majority of fans have already zeroed on him. Burfict, along with linebackers Rey Maualuga and Sean Porter, pass through legions of fans, who are stationed between the primary practice field and the side field, where injured players rehabilitate and kickers practice work on their kicks.
Head trainer Chip Morton puts these guys through brutal conditioning programs, from the use of resistance bands, high-steps and even an impressive task of carrying heavy bags around the parameter of the field. These players are often seen walking with significant exhaustion, completely worn out as their conditioning improves and their target date for return closes in.
The Bengals are hoping Burfict returns by "the week of Aug. 22 or so", according to Bengals.com, confirming earlier reports that Cincinnati hopes their star linebacker is ready for the dress rehearsal against Chicago. Rey Maualuga was confident his absence would be minimal, though he's missed all seven practices since training camp began on July 31. Most of Sean Porter's career has forced him into an indefinite rehabilitation, placed on Injured Reserve twice and currently on the team's Physically Unable to Perform list.
The absence of Burfict, Maualuga and Porter, has opened doors for players like rookie P.J. Dawson, who has shown impressive instincts during 11-on-11 sessions, especially in pass coverage. Because fans have only watched three practices with full pads through Friday, with the defense working on the secondary field, far away from our obsessive observations, perspective on the rookie is somewhat incomplete. Plus, defensive players aren't tackling ball carriers, forcing observations to rely more on initial steps and instincts, as opposed to tackles, hits and the ability to shed blocks.
Indeed, coaches have been impressed with him, with Lewis saying that Dawson "has listened and heard well", but he's also still a rookie:
"He's got to learn to be consistent. Be a pro. Learn what it takes as far as being an NFL player. Studying," Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said via Bengals.com. "He has the talent to be a very good player. I've seen guys like this before. If he puts his mind to it, keeps his mind to it, he'll have a bright future. He's got to learn how to be consistent every day. His attention to detail. It's part of being a young player."
Dawson, who has seen significant repetitions as the weakside linebacker with backup units, isn't projected as a starter right now. Emmanuel Lamur has been joined by free agent pickup A.J. Hawk and Bengals veteran Vincent Rey on the first team defense. Burfict and Maualuga are expected to replace Hawk and Rey when they're ready, while Dawson plugs the middle of the linebacker roster with significant contributions on special teams.
Where he goes from here, is up to him. According to pre-draft scouting reports, his "issues" were never related to talent; it was more of a dedication to studying film and classroom work - a significant bridge for many rookies, who rely entirely on talent. He's a kid, a rookie, with nice upside and trusty veterans to learn from... with no shortage in confidence.
"It's me wanting to be the best player on this team. I have to learn from the guys who have been here. That's the only way I can overcome them," said Dawson on Thursday.