The preseason is all about the unknown.
Every team has 50 or so players who aren’t guaranteed anything more than today in the month of August. We’ve seen the Bengals already dispose of a proven veteran in Brandon LaFell, and a promising undrafted rookie in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones in the middle of training camp. But there are plenty more cuts to come, and the preseason is where jobs unexpectedly get taken.
The first preseason game is important for these young players with high aspirations, but also for veterans who are coming off a season they want to build off of, or just forget entirely. Everything looks rough in that first game back, and the results aren’t the important thing. The execution, and structure of it all? That’s the good stuff.
There’s plenty of storylines to focus on in the Bengals first preseason matchup of the year against the Chicago Bears, here are five that have my attention.
John Ross catching a football
The action I’ve requested to witness has happened many times before, but just once in a Bengals uniform.
In Week 5 of last preseason, Ross caught a six-yard pass from former Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron. That target was one of five Ross received in his two preseason appearances before he sprained his left knee in that game against the Indianapolis Colts. For all we know, Ross could get that many targets in tomorrow’s game.
But I just want to see him catch a ball again.
After going through the entirety of the 2017 season with no receptions, and dealing with minor drop issues this training camp, Ross needs some actual catches to put on his resume. If he’s going to be the man opposite of the formation from A.J. Green, a healthy and productive preseason is nothing short of crucial for him.
And it all starts with just one measly catch.
Billy Price snapping a football
Just like I know Ross can catch a football, I know Price can snap one. Despite mishandling numerous snaps with Andy Dalton and company taking them from directly under him, Price is confident those mishaps are nothing to worry about going forward.
Second straight practice for Billy Price with no bad snaps, and it was a sloppy, wet day today.— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonCMG) August 7, 2018
"I think we've moved past that," Price said.#Bengals
It’s hard to find Price’s comments regarding the outlook of his struggles misplaced. This is the kind of statement you want your first-round pick—who’s starting at one of the most important positions on the field—to make. This is the guy that the Bengals were enamored with in the draft process, so much that they made him the team’s first center drafted in the top-75 picks since Dave Rimington in 1983.
Price, who won the award named after Rimington for the best college center in the nation last year, has a chance to start proving that statement to be true tomorrow. Price isn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t expect perfection from the 22-year old in his first NFL game. Our expectations at the position have dwindled dramatically thanks to Buffalo’s starter at the position.
But I want to see the upgrade fulfilled for real. And I think we will in the time that he’s out there.
Newfound athleticism from Bobby Hart
As if there wasn’t any more reason to watch the offensive linemen to the right of Price, head coach Marvin Lewis had to get off a take that I had to re-read a few times.
Marv on attraction of Hart at RT: a young player, athletic, chip on shoulder. Checks all the boxes— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) August 7, 2018
Okay, 23 years old is still young. One for one.
A chip on his shoulder? Yeah, getting cut by the team who drafted you after three years and going into a contract year can generate that. Two for two.
Athletic? That’s debatable. Two out of three ain’t bad for coach speak.
If Lewis was implying that Hart is relatively more athletic than himself? Sure, Hart is indeed athletic by comparison. Hart is not athletic relative to the offensive tackles that are in today’s NFL. The numbers don’t back it up.
Some disapprove of using ATHLETICISM TESTING to argue on-field ATHLETICISM, but it’s hard to ignore when the numbers match what the film shows us.
To Hart’s credit, he’s no longer just shy of 330 pounds. Per bengals.com he’s listed at 316, a much more reasonable weight to counter his lack of movement ability. Hart hasn’t exactly looked sluggish during training camp, but he’s no Lane Johnson out there.
Regardless, Hart’s been going up against Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson since he got here. He’s been tried and tested, and now is the first to get a crack at the right tackle spot. We’re going to find out really quick if he’s the same player casted-off of a bad New York Giants offensive line or not.
Jordan Evans picking up where he left off
The most surprising player of the Bengals preseason from last year may’ve been the team’s sixth-round pick from the draft just a few months prior.
Evans was let loose against second-string offense’s running the most basic version of their scheme, and he took advantage by leading the defense with 17 tackles. His stellar play didn’t exactly carry over into the regular season at first, as he struggled mightily in coverage, but he finished strong and made numerous splash plays as a run defender.
Something the Bengals didn’t know last season going into preseason play was that Burfict would miss the beginning of the regular season, a reality that will be replicated once more this year. The Bengals are more prepared to handle Burfict’s absence, and are expected to have Evans fill his role for the four games Burfict is suspended for.
Lewis confirmed that Burfict will not play against Chicago, so Evans could be in line for many reps too begin warming up for the regular season, depending on how long he’s left out there.
The youth in the secondary
Perhaps the position group with the most questions remaining outside of the offensive line is the defensive backs. We know who the five players playing the significant snaps will be, but we don’t know exactly who will fill out the rest of the unit. We may get a grasp on that in this game.
Who takes the first snaps at safety behind George Iloka and Shawn Williams? Second-round pick Jessie Bates will presumably be one of them, but who else? Is Josh Shaw in the driver seat for a roster spot, or is he trailing Brandon Wilson?
A guy who has gotten a ton of looks in training camp is undrafted safety Trayvon Henderson from Hawaii. When Clayton Fejedelem was out for a day of practice, Henderson was seen making the adjustments on kickoffs, and has gotten time with the second unit on defense.
Next to him at times has been fellow undrafted safety Tyrice Beverette from Stony Brook. How much we see from will also be something to watch.
The fifth-round cornerbacks Devonte Harris and Darius Philips have been gunners on punt teams in practice, and the second-team cornerbacks with third-year player KeiVarae Russell. Both of them may not make the roster, and if one plays more than the other tomorrow, we can get a glimpse of who may be left out.
As an added bonus, we get to see rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller’s debut against the Bengals starting cornerbacks. The Memphis product has looked very sharp in Bears’ camp with second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky establishing an early connection to him. How William Jackson and or Dre Kirkpatrick handle him will be fun to watch.
Honorable mention: Jonathan Brown’s debut
I couldn’t finish this without addressing the debut of a very unique player.
The story of Brown is nothing short of fascinating. After starting out playing soccer at a high level at Kentucky, he transferred to Louisville for a chance to walk-on and kick for the football team. His powerful leg got him a tryout for the Bengals in 2016, and he’s been with the team on an on-again off-again basis since.
But tomorrow, he could be kicking for the first time in the NFL in three years, and potentially kicking a field goal or an extra point for the first time ever. The only thing I want to see from it is if he can get the ball off the ground with all the nerves he’ll be dealing with.
What are you looking forward to watching tomorrow?