The Cincinnati Bengals have been hard at work since the start of training camp. On Wednesday, the team will have a well deserved day off. It’s like a training camp half-time, if you will. This break in the action is a good time to evaluate the Bengals, and determine what stood out, for better or worse.
As fans, we can make predictions on what the team will look like once the year begins, though the coaches have other plans, given the wealth of information at their disposal.
Here are a few things that surprised me from my own observations in attending camp, as well as from reports I have read. But before we get to the top five surprises from the first five days of training camp, here are the honorable mentions:
- H-back Ryan Hewitt did quite a few drills with the tight ends while the running backs were doing their own drills. Are the Bengals testing him out to use more often at tight end? Did they just need an even number of tight ends in a drill? We will find out more come the preseason.
- Cornerback Josh Shaw has played pretty much every position in the defensive backfield. He played safety due to injuries to George Iloka and Derron Smith, as well as various cornerback spots. He probably will not start in 2017—save for injury—but he will still make an impact.
- Third string quarterback Jeff Driskel played personal protector on the punt team in camp. It was actually a little funny to see someone in an orange non-contact jersey running down a punt. At 6’4”, 231 pounds, he is the same height as A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell, but 16 pounds heavier. Again, we will see how this develops during the preseason.
- Green made every cornerback he lined up against look like a high school prospect. I don’t know why this surprised me. It shouldn’t have.
Now, on to to the real surprises. Note: I did not include injuries as even though they were surprises, there was no intentionality involved.
1. Joe Mixon
I expected Joe Mixon to be treated like Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill were treated during their rookie seasons. Bernard never started a game in his rookie year (though he did log a career-high 170 carries). He began to steal snaps away from BenJarvus Green-Ellis about halfway through the season. Hill didn’t start until Bernard suffered an injury halfway through the season. But once Hill became the featured back, he only missed four starts.
I thought Mixon would look like a rookie when he hit the field. With a struggling line and a new offense to learn, I expected there might be a learning curve to pounding the rock in the NFL.
Joe Mixon did not look like a rookie. Not even at all. He made an instant impact on Day 1 by taking one to the house.
Just look at that speed. He has the physical ability to be an NFL star, which has never been up for debate. His confidence, vision, and attitude reflect that of a veteran. Before camp, I thought Mixon would have to wait eight weeks before he had his first chance to start. But now, I am convinced he will get that chance much sooner and would not be shocked one bit if Mixon started in Week 1.
The other surprising thing about Mixon is how the Bengals fans have received him. Cincinnati’s fans are ready to forgive and move on as they have accepted him with open arms. Similarly, teammates have bonded with Mixon. He looks like a lifetime Bengal.
2. Trey Hopkins
Unless you are a serious fan, you have probably heard very little about the undrafted free agent from Texas. Trey Hopkins has spent the greater part of the last two seasons on the Bengals practice squad as a guard prospect.
Andre Smith has returned to Cincinnati after departing last offseason. Most thought he would shift over from right tackle, the only position he has ever played in the NFL, to right guard. This move makes sense, given that he is past his prime and has lost some quickness. His physique would match the guard position, plus his experience would help a young, developing offensive line. Plus, that’s what the Bengals have been saying since they re-signed him this March.
Trey Hopkins has played most of camp at right guard with the first team and Andre Smith has played right tackle with the second team several different times. He has been dealing with injuries throughout some of camp, so that could be a contributing factor to Hopkins’ sudden wealth of first team reps. However, offensive line coach Paul Alexander has hinted that perhaps Hopkins could crack into the starting lineup come the regular season. It would be interesting to see an undrafted free agent steal the starting spot from the former sixth-overall draft pick out of Alabama.
3. Randy Bullock
When the Bengals drafted Jake Elliott in the fourth round this year, I thought Randy Bullock’s tenure in Cincinnati had come to an end. Why would the Bengals waste a draft pick on a player who they would end up cutting at the end of training camp? Randy Bullock was only slightly better than Mike Nugent last year, so the kicking game desperately needed improvement. It is impossible to say whether or not the Bengals lost games due to bad kicking; the offense could have won more games by getting more yards or first downs. It is indisputable, however, that with better kickers, the Bengals would have won at least two more games. Elliott was the upgrade the team needed. The job would be Elliott’s to lose.
The Bengals are not just handing the spot to Elliott. He has to earn it. With the departure of Jonathan Brown, Elliott and Bullock are going to fight it out until the end of the preseason. What could be more surprising than that? Bullock missed his first field goal of camp on Tuesday, while Elliott has missed two (though he missed the first one due to the coaches icing him, so that miss isn’t being counted). Is Bullock improving on his career 81% accuracy? This is definitely a development to track throughout training camp, since it is highly unlikely the Bengals will opt to keep two kickers. While it is still too early to say who will win the job, don’t write either candidate off just yet.
4. Carl Lawson
Just like Nick Vigil last year, Carl Lawson was probably just meant to be a backup outside linebacker who would “redshirt” most of his rookie year and be an impactful player after a year or two of development. He has upside that could provide a pass rushing threat the Bengals’ linebackers were not equipped to handle in previous years. Even though he played defensive end in college, Lawson was going to shift to linebacker and either be a backup to Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil, or enter the game in certain scenarios when his pass rushing ability would become useful.
Lawson has actually played about as much defensive end as he has played linebacker in training camp. Since he was a defensive end in college, it makes sense to ease him into his new position while trying to learn a new defense. But the most surprising part is that he is playing some snaps with the first team’s defense.
Possible nickel front of Dunlap-Clarke-Geno-Lawson pic.twitter.com/8vrSyJj5oG— John Sheeran (@John__Sheeran) July 29, 2017
Perhaps the Bengals are trying to figure out a way to maneuver around the Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry injuries.
#Bengals DE Michael Johnson not in pads today, but Wallace Gilberry is suited up. They were on the side field yesterday.— Jim Owczarski (@JimOwczarski) July 30, 2017
Maybe the Bengals are trying to find a way to add more depth to the defensive line by having an extra lineman listed as a linebacker. No doubt, they still want to use Lawson as a linebacker, but he would be a valuable replacement if Johnson were to miss any regular season games. Backup defensive end Will Clarke has been playing defensive tackle as well, opening up a spot at defensive end for Lawson. Not to mention, Clarke is no lock to make the roster.
Clearly Lawson is a talented player, whether it be at defensive end or linebacker. There might be something that Marvin Lewis really likes and wants to see on the field, regardless of the position. Playing time might become more plentiful for Lawson than what we originally thought.
5. Vontaze Burfict
We were ready to see an in-shape Burfict report to training camp unencumbered by suspension. Not only is Burfict a skilled linebacker, but he is a dependable leader. He gets a lot of negative attention because of his roughness, but he overcomes all of the adversity to be a playmaker the Bengals can scarce live without.
Burfict is like a bad boyfriend; we stick with him throughout his rough patches because we think he will change. Historically, he has improved. Though he played only one more game in 2016 than he did the previous year, he decreased his penalty count from eight to two. He was down from four unnecessary roughness penalties in 2015 to only one in 2016. Is Burfict getting better about penalties?
He is still a hothead.
On Sunday, the first day with shoulder pads, Burfict hit Bernard a little too intensely when tackling was not permitted.
Marvin has chat with Burfict after he threw shoulder into Gio on 2nd play of 11s. #Bengals— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonCMG) July 30, 2017
We wish this was an isolated incident. However, Twitter exploded on Tuesday with some bad news.
Vontaze Burfict tackled Gio Bernard at his knees in non-tackling drill and RB coach Kyle Caskey shoved defender and yelled at Burfict. pic.twitter.com/4gPrzMxqq9— Richard Skinner (@Local12Skinny) August 1, 2017
Giovani Bernard got tackled by Burfict and it led to a scrum. Players weren't tackling. Gio was okay. It was ignorant move by Burfict. pic.twitter.com/Biq6A2yBe1— James Rapien (@JamesRapien) August 1, 2017
The unfortunate side effect is that a scuffle broke out—not the kind of team bonding you would like to see in training camp.
Fortunately, Bernard saw the transpiring event as an accident.
Gio Bernard and Vontaze Burfict were sharing a laugh at the end of the practice. Appears water under bridge. Gio: "He slipped."— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) August 1, 2017
It is easy to jump to conclusions knowing Burfict’s past. Is it a coincidence that Burfict “slipped” into Bernard? We’ll never know for sure but at least the two were amicable afterward. Tyler Eifert, though, wasn’t too happy with Burfict and let him know it.
In either scenario, the incident and the ensuing skirmish were surprising. Let’s hope we don’t see any more of this divisiveness as camp continues.
Camp picks back up on Thursday, August 3 at the practice fields just west of Paul Brown Stadium. Gates open at 2:30 p.m. ET, with practice beginning at 3:00 p.m.
What did you find surprising about the first half of training camp?