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Bengals training camp 2017: 3 winners from first week of practice

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One of Cincinnati’s veteran pass-catchers is making a lot of noise on offense.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp Kareem Elgazzar/The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cincinnati Bengals have completed half of their training camp practices and it’s time for a look at who the biggest winners of camp have been so far.

These guys haven’t necessarily been the best players or even locked up a starting spot, but they are the three who’ve done the best job of ensuring they keep a prominent role going forward.

3. Brandon LaFell

I’ll be the first to admit, in hindsight, I wasn’t a fan of bringing back LaFell this offseason. With the Bengals spending the ninth overall pick on John Ross, LaFell just seemed unnecessary for this roster at an already crowded position, especially after Tyler Boyd and Cody Core showed some nice promise last year. Though, LaFell was of course re-signed before the team drafted Ross.

The team’s draft activity could have eventually led to LaFell being behind young guys while getting paid $5 million this year. However, LaFell has not only answered the challenge of younger competitors, but he’s been one of the best offensive performers in camp thus far.

At various points, LaFell has beaten Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, KeiVarae Russell and William Jackson III for big gains. The veteran receiver has seemingly made at least one big play in each camp session thus far as he looks to secure his starting boundary spot.

Even with all of the younger, potentially more high-ceiling guys behind LaFell, it’s still great to see him ballin’ out in camp. You want the best guys to be out there starting or getting a lot of snaps. The Bengals have consistently given those opportunities to veterans, even if there were younger guys who were better, so it’s great seeing LaFell actually earning his spot and outshining others at the position.

2. Trey Hopkins

Coming into the offseason, Trey Hopkins wasn’t even someone likely to make the final roster in 2017. But after the Bengals let Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler depart, that opened up a pair of spots on the offensive line.

However, one of them was filled by Andre Smith’s return, as who the team hopes he can be the starting right guard. Smith’s signing put Hopkins back to just fighting for his roster life as offseason workouts began, but it was there the third-year lineman started showing he’s more than just backup candidate.

Hopkins did well enough to enter training camp as a darkhorse candidate to win the starting right guard spot, and he’s only boosted his case with a good showing in camp. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander went out of his way to praise Hopkins and say he could be the first lineman off the bench, if not a starter.

Smith has been battling some nagging injury that led to him missing some practice time, which only helped Hopkins get more first-team reps and impress with them. Even when Smith was healthy, Hopkins was still getting first-team reps, a clear sign he’s very much in the running for this spot.

If nothing else, Hopkins is one of the biggest winners thus far by just securing his roster spot, or least appearing to. There’s no guarantee Smith will make the transition to right guard after spending his entire career at right tackle, so Hopkins could be the main benefactor.

There’s also the fact that Hopkins can play either tackle spot in a pinch, With Whitworth gone, there’s no clear-cut backup left tackle, somewhere Hopkins has worked this offseason.

1. Giovani Bernard

There’s really no question who the biggest winner of camp has been thus far. Just by simply avoiding PUP and being cleared to practice on Day 1, Bernard became a big winner.

In most cases, ACL tears take closer to a full year to fully recover from than the amount of time after which Bernard was able to get back on the field. He tore his in late November and it took him just eight months to be fully cleared for practice, marking one of the more amazing ACL rehabs in recent memory.

But Bernard isn’t just some guy out there either. He’s already shown that quick twitch and explosiveness that made him dangerous in one-on-one scenarios prior to his injury. He also looks like the third-down specialist he’s spent much of the past two years as, a role he looks well on his way to keeping in 2017.

With Jeremy Hill and Joe Mixon in the same backfield, it would have been very easy for Bernard to fall behind on the depth chart and not see the field as much in 2017. Now, it looks like he’s ready to rock and keep a prominent role in the offense.

At this rate, it’s not crazy to think Bernard could actually win the starting job, while Hill and/or Mixon spell him enough to remain fresh and healthy, something Bernard has had trouble doing since 2014. Though, with that said, Mixon has also been impressing in camp and has been turning heads of those in attendance, too. It looks like the Bengals’ running back unit may return to being one of the best in the league this year.