The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This season, the Bengals added four new assistant coaches to the staff in areas that needed an upgrade. Bill Lazor was promoted from “interim” offensive coordinator to full-time offensive coordinator and was given full reigns to re-design the offense.
They watched defensive coordinator Paul Guenther leaving for Oakland for the same position and brought in Teryl Austin from Detroit to fill that vacancy.
The team even fired their offensive line coach of 23 years and brought in Frank Pollack from the Cowboys. There are new coaches, new schemes, and perhaps most importantly, new cultures in Cincinnati this year.
But at the end of the day, Marvin Lewis is still the head coach. Even after sitting on the “hot seat” last year, he lead the Bengals into his 16th training camp as head coach. Over the last decade and a half, Bengals fans should know what to expect from coach Lewis.
With the combination of Lewis and the new additions, how much of the scenery will change? It seemed like Lewis is turning a new leaf, but will that actually come to fruition? Or will we be reading the same book, just with different names?
As training camp concludes, we are one step closer to football season. The Bengals are one step closer to assembling their 53-man roster. The rookies are one step closer to their baptism of fire and the veterans are one step closer to a familiar opening day. Now that training camp is over, the preseason takes the spotlight, and before we know it, the games that matter will begin to commence.
We will have a good idea of what has changed and what has stayed the same by that point. Until then, we will just have to go off of what we know from training camp.
So, what have we learned?
The backup quarterback situation is questionable at best
After AJ McCarron left Cincinnati in free agency, the Bengals brought in Matt Barkley to be Andy Dalton’s backup. Barkley worked with Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor in Philadelphia, and the connection made Barkley an attractive option for the Bengals to bring in.
So far, Barkley has looked unconvincing in practice. At best, Barkley is the veteran who can learn Lazor’s offense and manage the game if his services were ever required. At worst, he is going be Matt Barkley, who has a 1-5 record as a starter and eight touchdowns to eighteen interceptions in his career.
Behind him is Jeff Driskel, who dazzled during the preseason last year. His season ended during Week 4 of the preseason, so he is still largely an unknown. He struggled during camp this season and looked like a far better athlete than a passer.
But in the Bengals’ first preseason game this season, Driskel turned on the gas and led an amazing four-play, 91 yard drive that ended in a gem of a touchdown pass. If he can get some reps with the second team in Barkley’s stead, maybe the Bengals will have an optimistic backup situation.
The third option is the seventh-round draft pick out of Toledo, Logan Woodside. Having a similar skillset to Dalton’s, many wondered if Woodside would ever be in the conversation for the No. 2 role.
But he has only started taking reps on the final day of training camp after not even dressing for practice several times. It's clear that the Bengals have no interest in adding Woodside to the 53-man roster.
But at this point, Barkley looks like he’s still in the driver's seat to be the backup quarterback on the roster. If Dalton were to go down for an extended period of time, the Bengals will be in trouble.
John Ross is back...
Last year’s ninth-overall draft pick is finally looking like the player the Bengals saw out of Washington.
Ross fought a couple nagging injuries throughout the course of the 2017 season, and saw little playing time as a result. He was even held out of contact drills for most of training camp during his rookie season, and when he finally was cleared to play, he had only one catch in the preseason and had none during the regular season. Ross finally hit the Injured Reserve list in December, which officially ended his rookie campaign early.
But when preparations for the 2018 season started, Ross was finally fully healthy.
This is really the first opportunity for the Bengals to see Ross at 100 percent since his days at Washington. Going up against NFL quality defenses, Ross is everything as advertised.
He started camp burning Dre Kirkpatrick for the first few days. Then when the Bengals cut Brandon LaFell, Ross finally got some first team action across from A.J. Green. He did start dropping catches a few days into camp, which is something he needs to fix, but he’s finally looking like the talented speedster we expect him to be.
...and so is Tyler Boyd
After a productive rookie year, Boyd regressed considerably and was largely unreliable for most of the season. The last two games saw a different Boyd and the second-year receiver was an integral component of the Bengals finishing their season on a high note.
Boyd is now building off of that momentum.
During camp, Boyd has been the most consistent receiver not named A.J. Green. He led the team in receptions in 11-on-11 drills on the first day of camp and has not looked back since. He is finally sinking into that No. 2 role that the Bengals wanted him to fill when they drafted him in the second round.
It looks like the Bengals will put him in the slot when Ross is on the field, but he will probably be Andy Dalton’s second-favorite target at wide receiver this year. Boyd has enhanced his route running and ball skills, so if he can stay healthy he will find himself open quite a few times over the course of the season.
A starting lineup with two first-round draft picks at wide receiver in Green and Ross, a second rounder in Boyd, and an other first rounder at tight end in Tyler Eifert will give opposing defensive coordinators headaches.
Josh Malone is the dark horse of training camp
The Bengals fourth round pick out of Tennessee was more or less an unknown factor in camp this year. Josh Malone only six catches last year, so the Bengals weren’t sure what they had in him.
Malone has looked like a viable deep threat in camp. He was very productive until he suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to miss some time. But his performance until that point was so good that the Bengals put him right back in the mix when he returned.
During the preseason matchup against the Bears, he was tied for the team lead in targets and receptions. The Bengals think he’s progressed quickly looks good and are he’ll provide quality depth behind Green and Ross on the boundary.
Its not every year that a player gets drafted with the 253rd-overall pick then gets first team reps in training camp. Tate is just that special.
Tate started turning heads during rookie minicamp, then again at training camp, and then again in the first preseason game. His only catch was the game-winning touchdown from Driskel.
Jeff Driskel 33-yard TD to Auden Tate with 2:14 remaining, giving the Bengals a 30-27 lead. pic.twitter.com/9TYnkZNTSO— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) August 10, 2018
He had two other another amazing catches, but they were offset by penalties.
Auden Tate with the crazy catch. pic.twitter.com/lFJvq3FZUa— Dadio McDuck (@dadiodefacto) August 10, 2018
It was only a matter of time before Tate would be given an opportunity to perform against greater competition, and on the final day of camp, he was given reps with the first-team offense.
All signs are pointing to Tate being one of the 53 players to make the team, and as of now, he more than deserves that distinction.
Tyler Eifert is healthy, but careful
The former first-round tight end signed a one-year deal bringing to bring him back this offseason, and it looks like he is going to be fully healthy for the first time in a while.
Eifert has been cleared to play football, but has rested up for most of camp. He has practiced some of the time but has shown up in street clothes at other times. He was held out of both the “mock game” and the preseason game as a precaution.
When he has practiced, he has looked good. But the Bengals don’t want to risk injuring one of their biggest stars during training camp, so they are bringing him along slowly. This probably means that he won’t play 100 percent of the offensive snaps this season. In fact, at the beginning, he may on play a small fraction. But if he stays healthy, and the Bengals are doing their best to make sure he does, he will add some weapons the Bengals arsenal.
The right tackle spot is locked down, the right guard spot is not
When training camp started, it was all but guaranteed that the starting line would feature Cordy Glenn, Clint Boling, and Billy Price playing on the left side. But the right guard and right tackle spots were still up in the air.
During training camp, offensive line coach Frank Pollack tinkered with the line every day. Each practice introduced a new combination on the offensive line and even shuffled the alignment from drill to drill. It looked like Pollack and Marvin Lewis were just throwing the lineman at the wall to see what stuck.
Bobby Hart, a free agent signing from the Giants, has come over and is currently the starting spot at right tackle. While many thought the competition would be between last year’s starting tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, Hart started the mock game and the preseason game with the first unit. Until further notice, he’s the bookend to left tackle Cordy Glenn
Trey Hopkins started alongside Hart in those two events. As the starter last year, he had to figure that the job was his to lose. But Christian Westerman and Alex Redmond have rotated in during training camp and are making the decision more tough.
Westerman looked especially good during the preseason game the day after Marvin Lewis said training camp “is not a true, clean evaluation,” though it’s been at left guard to this point.
If Lewis truly believes that the preseason is the best evaluation for linemen, then he is going to have to throw Westerman in the mix at right guard.
Jessie Bates is having less of an impact than hoped
For all of the good things George Iloka and Shawn Williams are for the Bengals, playing centerfield at a high level is not quite one of them. So when the Bengals drafted Jessie Bates in the second round, many thought that the Bengals would use him in that true deep safety role. His range and athleticism would be key to helping the Bengals force more turnovers on the back on of the defense.
So far, however, Bates has only been playing as George Iloka’s backup for most of camp. There have been no three safety sets so far like some predicted. When Bates is on the field, he is just being plugged into the same spot that Iloka normally plays.
Even though Bates brings a different set of skills to the table, the Bengals don’t seem to be using those skills to the degree that some thought they would.