“He’s going through the motions. He’s finally healthy from injury. He’s in the best shape of his life.”
Cliches be damned, the days leading up to the preseason (better known as football is back part 2) that makeup what we call training camp, are all about teams getting their feet wet again. That takes form of being accustomed to taking on contact and the re-introduction to the constant collisions of the sport; but also, the mental aspect of the grind takes its toll on any player with something to prove.
The physical aspects of the Bengals needed improvement from last year, and you can argue that the team did not downgrade at any position from the end of last season to right now. The physical part has never been what’s truly held the organization back, it’s the mental side of things.
There’s only so much you can truly take away from training camp. And on top of that, you can only indulge so much into cognitive or psychiatric problems that may, or may not even exist. But that won’t stop us from expanding on our notes from the nine practices that have made up Bengals training camp so far.
The team is all in on the unproven talent at wide receiver
Being too complacent can be filed under those mental hurdles the Bengals find themselves never clearing. Perhaps in years past, players like wide receiver Brandon LaFell doesn’t find himself on the market in the beginning of August. But sure enough, the 9-year veteran was slowly being phased out as the team’s No. 2 receiver, and the buzz of his job being on the line turned into a reality this past Thursday.
LaFell embodied the classic veteran that was serviceable, but with that came limitations. His niche carried value, but not enough to keep at the expense of talent with higher variance behind him. The Bengals don’t often take the route they took with LaFell and the receiver position group as a whole, but they did, and that speaks volumes for them.
This decision doesn’t happen if receivers Tyler Boyd and John Ross don’t carry over their impressive spring practices into the early days of training camp, which has absolutely happened.
Boyd is practicing like how we expected him to last year coming off an impressive rookie season, but being a year late is better than never. The third-year pass catcher seems to have his sophomore slump all the way behind him, and from the looks of it, may top his rookie season production this year.
Ross’s camp has been more of a roller coaster. After starting out roasting Dre Kirkpatrick and company in just a jersey and shorts, he had issues hauling in passes near the tail end of last week.
There’s an amount of pressure on the ninth-overall pick from last year’s draft that no one reading this can comprehend after finishing his rookie year with no receptions, and it’s important that he embraces it without letting it crush him going forward.
The Bengals are banking on it, because with LaFell gone, there’s no one in his way to prohibit him from fulfilling his potential besides himself.
All options still on the table for the offensive line
Solidarity, more so than talent, was an attribute the Bengals didn’t possess along the offensive line last season. There’s just a handful of days remaining before the team takes the field against another franchise and offensive line coach Frank Pollack is still doing everything to establish that solidarity among the starting five.
We know who’ll man the left side, we have known for months now. New left tackle Cordy Glenn and not new left guard Clint Boling have looked the part in camp, but everything to their right has been a whirlwind. Some of it has been by design, some has not.
The rotation of starters at the right guard and right tackle position is something we haven’t a recent precedent for, but it’s still very much in progress. There are two sets of trios that have been getting near-equal work with the first unit at those two spots, and it’s still too close to call as for who’s beating whom.
Guards Trey Hopkins, Alex Redmond and Christian Westerman all have looked marginal in comparison with each other, and the same can be said about tackles Bobby Hart, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher.
It should be noted that Hopkins and Hart each got the start for the team’s mock game yesterday, maybe that’s indicative of what we’ll see Thursday night, maybe not. But the competitions have truly been, competitive.
In the middle of it all is rookie center Billy Price. 99 percent of what Price has done in camp has been positive. He worked through injury to get to this point, and in the limited contact we’ve seen, he’s impressed. The one percent of which has not looked promising is undermining all of that.
He can’t snap the ball.
I mean, he can, he wouldn’t be a first-round center in the NFL if he couldn’t. It’s true that he only snapped to a quarterback taking the snap under his rear-end three times before in his life. It’s true that expecting someone to do something immediately at maximum consistency after never doing it before can be irrational in the correct vacuum.
The NFL doesn’t wait around for you to get it right though, it finds someone who can.
Price has the unquestioned support of his teammates and coaching staff, as he should have, but with that support should come needed constructive criticism and motivation. His struggles doing the one thing that he has to do every play cannot continue not just for his sake, but for the guys around him.
If he can’t start the play, those who need the reps when he’s on the field can’t get to do their job. This has to be the message he absorbs going forward.
This maybe the best defensive line in the post-Zimmer era
On a much more positive note, the group that goes up against the offensive line has done nothing but thrive.
Naturally, the defensive line always ends up being like the wide receivers of training camp. The nature of minimal contact favors those rushing the passer than those protecting him in a one-on-one situation. The hype always surrounds these two position groups the most every year, and with the receivers, it may be more hype than tangible progress with the severe lack of experience that exists in that room.
But we’ve seen what the defensive line can do, and they’ve only gotten better.
In this league, you cannot survive without three quality pass rushers. In edge defenders Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson along with under tackle Geno Atkins, they have that trio. Dunlap and Atkins aren’t the players that would holdout for a new contract, which they’re going to get sooner or later, but they’re playing like they still have to earn it. Lawson is using that extra bulk to his advantage and is even taking Cordy Glenn back at times.
When Lawson is on the field, it’s still Michael Johnson inside in nickel. But with how much rookie Sam Hubbard has flashed on the edge, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him get reps there in the preseason and potentially make a Chris Smith-esque impact there in these next few weeks.
Run defense has diminished in importance in a league that’s replacing running the ball with short passes, but you still have to have competent bodies to plug up the middle. Andrew Billings looks like the answer to their problems at nose tackle, as he’s been playing next to Atkins with the first-team and looks every part of the player that was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year three years ago.
Behind him is a seemingly more explosive and stronger Ryan Glasgow, who has been making use of his reps next to Chris Baker with the second-team unit, who at the very least looks more interested in playing than he did with Tampa Bay last season.
There’s still some who need to start making noise, like edge defender Jordan Willis and defensive tackle Andrew Brown, who’s nursing a hamstring, but the group as a whole looks like it’s ready to carry the defense back to an elite level.
There’s still much to learn about this team and its “re-incarnation” under Marvin Lewis, but once again, the mental obstacles are what will attempt to shackle the Bengals. The earlier they can overcome them, the better.