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Previewing an unknown and ever-changing Bengals training camp

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By the power of a Geno Atkins bull rush, we made it to training camp. We’ve got it all previewed for you here.

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NFL: AUG 22 Preseason - Giants at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clear eyes, full hearts—masks on—can’t lose.

Maybe that’s what the Bengals’ coach Taylor should tell his players if they make it out of this training camp with no interruptions from our dear friend COVID-19.

It sucks, it truly does. It sucks that right before the Bengals spent Jeff Bezos’ hourly wage in free agency and drafted a potential franchise quarterback with the first overall pick, a pandemic struck and halted everything we took for granted. In a normal year, the usual Summer excitement carries us into a regular preseason period with overhyped camp stars and zero calorie coachspeak. We’ll still get those two things, but it’s uncertainty that’s driving us into the season now.

Of course, in a normal year, we don’t normally see the Bengals acquire eight free agents from around the league and make a positive change at the quarterback spot. You take the bad with the good; knowing every other team is going through the same adversity.

It’s rather difficult to think about run-of-the-mill football topics to cover regarding training camp when it can all be shut down instantly by something we can’t see. But if we were to preview 2020 Bengals training camp in a mundane fashion, here is what we’d like to cover for you.

All eyes on Burrow

He’ll sign his contract. Now sit back down.

Joe Burrow and fellow rookie Tee Higgins are the lone Bengals draft picks that have yet to ink their signatures on their rookie contracts, but that will soon change. They’re the future of the offense and the two most important pieces in determining how successful the team will be this decade. Seriously, when you quantify the game position-by-position, quarterbacks are above all, and wide receivers follow on the offensive side of the ball. And offense is demonstrably more valuable than defense.

But the value of a quarterback still looks like The Sun compared to a wide receiver’s value that reminisces Jupiter. Fittingly so, Burrow is the defining star of the whole franchise. There’s a reason why Bengals fans on this website and all over the country now are chomping at the bit to see him walk into the stadium. If the team could pack Paul Brown Stadium with fans this season, they easily could just with Burrow putting on his No. 9 jersey week in and week out.

Before he does that, he’ll don the No. 9 orange practice jersey and try to take weeks of basement cadence calling and playbook study into a seamless on-field transition. It’ll be rough at times, there is zero doubt about that, but he’ll have help from the offense’s true elder.

A.J. Green isn’t so green anymore

This isn’t the first time A.J. Green entered a training camp after spending months away from the team facilities. Of course when that happened, he was just a 23-year old rookie, not a soon-to-be 32-year old hardened veteran. Of the 11 projected starters on offense, Green is by far the oldest. The closest is Xavier Su’a-Filo, who’s 29, and he’s never even worn a Bengals jersey.

Green’s gradual ascension into experienced leader has unfortunately been in the midst of the downturn of the franchise and of his durability. It’s no secret that the team does worse when he’s not on the field, but even in 2016 and 2017—successful individual seasons for Green—the team won just 13 total games.

Long gone are Andrew Whitworth, Clint Boling, and more recently, Andy Dalton. Green is the lone draft pick in the starting lineup from the first half of the 2010s, and an offense that is ripe with youthfulness will look to his guidance and lead-by-example influence.

The growth of Burrow’s chemistry with Green will have to be accelerated as they play catchup for all the time they missed this year. The further development of Auden Tate and John Ross III can also be impacted by Green’s health and presence, and of course Higgins, the rookie who modeled his game after Green, will be taking mental and practical notes of Green’s every move.

Luckily for the front office, Green signed his franchise tag and will look to play for the first time since 2018, and for the final big contract of his illustrious career. He hopes the contract is given to him by the Bengals just as much as the Bengals hope he eventually signs it. The first step is exiting camp with no injuries.

When will this damn line be fixed

The Bengals’ offensive line is bad until it isn’t. Signing a former second-round guard that has failed to become an established starter and waiting until the sixth-round to draft a tackle doesn’t move the needle too much. Su’a-Filo and Hakeem Adeniji present their own value. How much faith they restore in solidifying this unit is, well, questionable.

The biggest “addition” is 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams returning from a shoulder injury that wiped out his rookie year. He’ll make the most notable impact since the position he’ll play was occupied by the likes of John Jerry and Andre Smith last year. Hearing statements like that make it not so unbelievable that this team was the worst in football last year.

For this season, Williams just has to be half as good as the team thinks he’ll become to be an upgrade at the premier spot along the offensive line. This is his first active camp, and he’ll be preparing to play actual football for the first time since the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship.

Next to him at left guard is Michael Jordan, who enters camp as a starter after winning the job during camp last year. For him to maintain that position, he needs to play like he did finishing the season rather than how he did opening the season. The difference was pretty stark, and him being the best option there said a lot.

Trey Hopkins is back where he belongs at center and should remain there for the next three years as he plays out his first big contract. Back when the Bengals were a force to be reckoned with, the center position was the weakest link on the offensive line. Now it’s the strongest, at least relative to what’s around it. Having Hopkins finally be the unquestioned starter at a position he should’ve been at years ago gives the unit a stable base to build off of.

It’s what’s right of Hopkins where the collapse may occur. Su’a-Filo would normally be the worst lineman on an average group, but the ever disappointing Bobby Hart still penciled in as a starter eliminates that distinction from Su’a-Filo’s name.

Hart is a reserve—at best—playing a position that faces the top pass rushers in the game nearly every week on average. If the line hopes to elevate its status out from the bottom of every ranking on the internet, Fred Johnson must be given a legitimate shot at beating out Hart for the right tackle spot. A cancelled preseason may throw a wrench in those plans, but the coaching staff must be willing to improvise for the sake of the offense.

There’s a lot of baseless hope being thrown at this group. Some jobs may be saved or lost depending on how they perform, and the sooner the unit becomes finalized, the better.

What kind of defense did all that money buy

Burrow, as a single man, can change the offense’s entire identity. Things don’t exactly work like that for a defense, which is why the Bengals outsourced half of their projected starting lineup on that side of the ball.

We’ll see very quickly where D.J. Reader will do most of his damage and how his presence will help Geno Atkins when the season starts to wear on him. Reader has positional versatility in ways that Josh Tupou and Renell Wren have, as all three can play from the 0-technique to the 5-technique spot. Who plays where in base? Do any of them stay on the field in subpackages? He’s going to be the most notable change along the line and should fit well in the scheme defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will get to deploy from the get-go this time around.

Anarumo is a secondary coach at heart, so the secondary undergoing a vast amount of turnover wasn’t too surprising. Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, and Vonn Bell should give the back five a net positive in terms of talent and production compared to their predecessors. William Jackson III and Jessie Bates III should be cornerstone players, and they’re now complemented with appropriate personnel. It was communication issues that plagued this group for the past two seasons; camp is a prime time for those to pop back up amongst a group of mostly new players.

Finally, four new linebackers should exit camp as members of the Week 1 roster. Only four linebackers made the Week 1 roster last year. Self-awareness isn’t an attribute the Bengals often exhibit, but credit is due where credit is due.

Camp is where Day 3 draft picks Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey can shoot up the depth chart. Both players should’ve been drafted much earlier had injuries not been a factor. Will they claw their way to exposure on the third down unit, or will Logan Wilson maintain a stranglehold on those reps? Linebackers aren’t supposed to make or break a defense, but it certainly feels like that’s been the case in Cincinnati for years now. You throw enough speed at a problem, it’s bound to fix itself in time.

An unorthodox month of coaching & management

Nothing has been easy for Zac Taylor and Co. The tribulations of last year’s scramble-fest have been well documented, and a pandemic put offseason No. 2 in an unprecedented pickle. On top of getting a rookie quarterback prepped to compete in a brutally tough division, he and his staff have to chisel this roster down from 80 to 53 with just practice reps to go off of. There are no excuses exclusive to their team considering every staff has this same predicament, but the mettle of Taylor’s crew will continue to be tested.

The likelihood of us seeing a Damion Willis work his way from undrafted reserve to Week 1 starter has dropped considerably with no preseason for college free agents to shine during. You have to give those players plenty of practice reps, but you also have to make sure the starters are in sync with one another. Predicting the roster may be the easiest it’s ever been this year.

Predicting how this camp will unfold, on the other hand, is like leaving the house without a mask. It just couldn’t be me.