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3 things to watch for in Bengals mandatory minicamp

For the first time this offseason, all Bengals players are required to be in Cincinnati for practice. Here’s a look at what we’ll be watching for during minicamp this week.

The Cincinnati Bengals will hold mandatory minicamp this week, the final phase of practices before the team breaks for summer vacation. We should see the majority of the 90-man roster descend upon Cincinnati for three days of work.

There, they’ll work to get into football shape and fine-tune their game for the 2017 season before a five-week break until training camp opens in late July.

Here’s a look at some of the mandatory minicamp rules:

  • Contact work is prohibited in all workouts, including blocking, tackling, pass rushing, bump-and-run, etc.).
  • Intensity of tempo of drills should be at a level conducive to learning, with player safety at the highest priority.
  • Physicals take place on Monday but no practice.
  • Practice on Tuesday to Thursday with a day off on Friday.
  • Two practice allowed totaling 3 hours and 30 minutes on the field per day.
  • Third practice limited to walk through activities only.

Here’s a look at three things we’ll be watching for in minicamp:

1) Injury Updates

The Bengals have a host of players coming off major injuries and/or surgeries, though most of them are expected to be back by training camp, and some of them have already returned to practice.

Clint Boling (shoulder), A.J. Green (hamstring), Jeremy Hill (shoulder and knee), William Jackson III (torn pectoral muscle) and Andrew Billings (torn meniscus), George Iloka (shoulder surgery) have all been practicing in OTAs thus far. Though, some of them have been limited, which is fine as these are non-contact practices.

The real concern lies in several offensive players who are hoping to be back by the start of training camp, but are not yet cleared to practice. That includes first-round pick John Ross, who has been recovering from shoulder surgery. Ross just graduated from University of Washington this weekend and now is finally eligible to take part in practice. NFL rules require rookies whose colleges operate on a quarter system to graduate (or have their schools’ graduation occur — even if they’re not graduating) before they can take part in NFL OTAs.

As such, Ross wasn’t even in Cincinnati for OTAs thus far, but he should be in town this week for minicamp, though Marvin Lewis previously said the rookie would miss all of OTAs. Still, it will be good to see Ross working on the rehab field and just getting to be with his new teammates.

Running back Giovani Bernard is coming off a torn ACL, a procedure that could sideline him through training camp. He has gotten some limited work in during OTAs since it’s mostly light conditioning and drills.

Tight end Tyler Eifert is coming off back surgery that could sideline him right up until training camp. He too has gotten some light OTA work in, so expect more of the same at minicamp.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick missed time in OTAs due to a broken hand, so it will be interesting to see how much work he gets in minicamp. He said last week that he isn’t going to rush back onto the field, but will do whatever he can.

2) New Starters

The Bengals have a good portion of their 2016 roster still intact, but several starters departed this offseason. That includes Kevin Zeitler, Andrew Whitworth, Domata Peko, Karlos Dansby and Rey Maualuga. Who replaces these guys will be interesting to see in minicamp now that everyone will be in Cincinnati.

At linebacker, the early expectation is Kevin Minter will start at middle linebacker, while Nick Vigil starts at strongside linebacker. Vincent Rey will get some work at all three spots and could be one of the three starters, though he’s expected to be the first man off-the-bench.

At defensive tackle, Billings has been penciled in as the starter ever since Peko left. The mammoth tackle has a world of potential, but after missing all of his rookie season with a knee injury, Billings is still a big unknown at this point.

With Zeitler out at right guard, Andre Smith is expected to start there after re-joining the Bengals this offseason. However, Smith’s one-year stint in Minnesota was a disaster at right tackle, and he’s never played right guard in his NFL career.

It didn’t help that Smith missed part of OTAs while sick, allowing guys like Alex Redmond, Trey Hopkins and Christian Westerman to get first-team reps. It will be interesting to see if any of those aforementioned guys get more reps with the starters and push Smith for this job.

At left tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi is expected to replace Whitworth. Ogbuehi was far from a starting-caliber player at right tackle last season, but the team thinks he’ll develop nicely into a left tackle.

It helps that the only other real contender for that spot is Jake Fisher, who is penciled in as the starting right tackle for now. It’s possible we see an experimental lineup that has Fisher at left tackle and someone like Eric Winston or even Smith at right tackle, based on how things play out in practice.

Perhaps the most interesting rookie and potential new starter will be Joe Mixon. The superstar running back was drafted in the second round in hopes of becoming the featured back in the team’s offense, and he’s easily the most talented back on the roster.

Hill will probably get the first-team reps for now, but expect Mixon to make a strong push for this job. He has the potential to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and some think he’ll have a Pro Bowl-caliber season.

3) The Pass Rush

There’s no question the Bengals faced a major issue in 2016 with their pass rush, but it now has the potential to be a strength. That’s thanks to the additions of Carl Larson and Jordan Willis in the draft. Both were regarded among the best pass-rushers in this year’s draft class, and they’ll get plenty of chances to contribute as rookies.

Willis is a pure defensive end, so there’s really no concern as to how he’ll fit in. Lawson, however, is being used as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. Where will he line up? Will he actually drop back in coverage? Is he going to be an end on passing downs, or will he actually be an extra edge rusher next to another end? We should get some hints to how he’ll be used in minicamp.

As for the returning players, it will be interesting to see how well Michael Johnson does after a dismal 2016 season. He was once a very good pass-rusher in this defense, but he has just 12.5 sacks during the past three seasons combined. That’s not going to cut it, so if Johnson can no longer be a capable starter, we’ll hopefully see different guys get a chance to take his job.

One other pass-rusher to watch is Will Clarke. Now entering the final year of his rookie deal, Clarke is facing tough odds of just making the 53-man roster this year. He has shown improvements in each of his first three seasons, so if he can make another small jump this year, he should be able to keep his job and hopefully positively contribute to the Bengals’ defense.