Cincinnati Bengals training camp kicks off on Friday and it’s time to get hyped. With so many young players fighting to see the field in 2017, every minute until the start of preseason will be key for a Bengals team looking to bounce back after a year out of the playoffs.
With a lot of veterans leaving the club in the past two offseasons, the focus this summer will surely fall on the first and second-year players who have a great chance to contribute early on and help turn this team back into a contender. Here are five things we’ll be paying close attention to as training camp starts on Friday.
Second-year players making an impact
The thing I’m looking forward the most, and I’m sure most of you feel the same, is the return of the team’s injured second-year players. Both cornerback William Jackson III and nose tackle Andrew Billings are de facto rookies - adding to an already deep and impressive collection of players from the 2017 draft class. That will provide the team with yet another pair of talented youngsters. The former was supposed to be one of the best, if not the best, cornerback of his class, while the latter somehow fell to the fourth round when his grade was much higher for many pundits.
We should also include oft-injured defensive lineman Marcus Hardison, another former fourth-round pick who’s yet to play a single regular season snap after back-to-back season-ending injuries. Will he be able to earn a spot on the final roster with so many other guys fighting for the job?
Real competition at center?
It would also be great to see real competition at the center position. Russell Bodine is the anticipated starter despite subpar production in the first three years of his NFL career, but T.J. Johnson was rewarded with a two-year contract extension this offseason and he should get a fair chance to get the job. We saw him in a limited opportunity in 2016, once when Bodine was briefly benched and then when Bodine was briefly injury. Still, he would have to show a lot this summer to beat out the incumbent. Rookie J.J. Dielman seems to be a long shot, but Johnson was drafted in the seventh round and is now a nice contributor for this team, so there’s hope for Dielman, especially as a fifth round pick.
Alexander usually sticks with his guys, so it’s hard to think there will be a real competition, but if the Bengals weren’t concerned letting Kevin Zeitler go, due to a lack of care for the interior of the line, why would they be afraid of going with someone else at center?
Vigil getting a bigger role
I also want to see more from second-year linebacker Nick Vigil. The former Utah State standout gave the team a spark in limited action last season and also offered something the unit was clearly lacking: speed. The Bengals added free agent Kevin Minter in the offseason and rookie Carl Lawson will probably take some snaps on the strong side, but Vigil can help turn a weakness into a strength.
Veteran Vincent Rey isn’t going to disappear, and Cincinnati didn’t give Minter a nice contract to sit him on the bench, so it’ll be interesting how the coaching staff handles the situation when their base defense only employs two linebackers.
Mixon showing he’s the best running back of his class
While the Bengals have a loaded rookie class—and even more outstanding if we include Jackson and Billings—Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon probably headlines the pack. If he’s half of what draft experts thought he was in college, he should send Jeremy Hill to the bench for the majority of the season. As head coach Marvin Lewis still believes in Hill, Mixon will need a great performance in training camp and the preseason to get a fair chance to take the job. Just ask Rex Burkhead. Mixon will go hard at it to show he’s the best back in camp, and it’ll be fun to watch him work.
What Zampese can do with so many weapons
The Bengals say they plan to keep seven wide receivers to make room for both Cody Core and Alex Erickson. How that impacts an offense that still wants to primarily run the football will be interesting to watch. Offensive coordinator Ken Zampese enters his second season as the man at the helm, and he’ll have multiple weapons at his disposal to come up with a creative offense that keeps opposing defenses guessing. Will they run out of the 10 - one running back and four wide receivers, formation, for example? In 2016 the offense was very predictable, although many key performers missed many games, and with an offensive line far from established Zampese needs to help the offense the best he can.
Let’s also not forget about John Ross, who’s more than a really fast dude. It’ll be fun to watch to finally watch him on the field... though it may be a few more weeks before we see that.