Just. Stay. Healthy.
Never have those three words mattered more for an NFL season than this year. There are no winning and losing teams of the preseason, there’s only healthy and unhealthy teams. With the coronavirus still running rampant around the country, it’s just another obstacle for teams to work around as they prepare for what hopes to be a 16-game season.
After a week’s worth of padded practices next to Paul Brown Stadium, it’s simply who’s staying healthy, and who’s losing opportunities. Those who’re staying healthy are all winners in our book, but it’d be unfair to just list the fallen as losers. Sure, A.J. Green and Tee Higgins haven’t done much due to their respective injuries, but are they really losers when they’re guaranteed roster spots?
There are no preseason games to break up this year’s training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals. We can only gauge who’s doing well and who isn’t by what we hear, much less what we see, at practice. Here are the winners and losers from the first week of padded practices.
Joe Burrow, quarterback
Whatever your expectations were for Burrow, he’s exceed them so far. A training camp that’s been like OTAs, minicamp and scrimmages all wrapped up together has not been too big for the Bengals’ first-overall pick. He’s taken his minor lumps, sure, but what 23-year old rookie under center doesn’t?
We’ve seen Burrow form what feels like immediate chemistry with veterans Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate while also making Mike Thomas look like a potential free agent steal. Even before he lets loose consistently accurate passes all over the field, he’s making necessary checks at the line of scrimmage and being a responsive and communicative leader in the huddle.
He’s also taking the initiative to get better in every conceivable way. Things like talking to Josh Bynes right after the veteran linebacker intercepted him and asking what he saw isn’t normal for a rookie quarterback. Just ask Bynes, who said he’s never seen that before.
It felt like a year between the end of the college football season and the NFL Draft. It felt like two years between the draft and now. And all the hype that built up for Burrow to revive the Bengals seems to be warranted.
Auden Tate, wide receiver
No A.J. Green? No problem. The receiver Marvin Lewis didn’t seem to trust seems to be working just fine with Burrow. No, not John Ross. Another receiver Lewis didn’t trust.
Tate’s been a ball magnet since he was dunking on ACC cornerbacks at Florida State. The difference now is that he’s with a quarterback that knows how to utilize his go-go gadget arms to his own advantage instead of the other way around. He’s been the main attraction in the red zone, snagging perfectly placed Burrow rainbows over any cornerback tasked with out jumping his massive reach.
This may be a subjective observation, but the 23-year old receiver, who remains listed at 6-5 228 pounds, appears more nimble and quicker off the line than usual. Speed and explosion were the two weaknesses to Tate’s game and it impeded his ability to separate down field. Now, he’s creating space against William Jackson III in playing catch coverage.
It’s the little things that will make the Bengals’ biggest receiver a more dynamic threat in his third year.
Mike Thomas, wide receiver
Coming back down from the stratosphere at regular receiver height, Thomas is either here to stay, or he’ll find work somewhere else real quick. The fifth-year wideout stepped in for John Ross last week and looked like he belonged with the 1s; catching multiple Burrow touchdowns by the end of the week.
When the coaching staff has to painfully cutdown the wide receivers to about six or seven names, Thomas not being one of them would be a surprise.
Jonah Williams, left tackle
Silky smooth and perfectly patient. It’s impossible not to grin when watching Williams take a pass set.
When you wear No. 73 as a left tackle and every rep of yours looks the same, you have to fight every instinct to not make a Joe Thomas comparison. But snap-for-snap congruency is what Williams looks like he’ll be providing against the majority of pass rushers he’ll be facing. He’s been clean as a whistle in his first training camp, and we can’t say we’re too surprised.
John Jerry and Andre Smith. Man, I need a drink.
Darius Phillips and Winston Rose, cornerbacks
Trae Waynes’ torn pectoral is especially unfortunate in the sense that the Bengals will have to wait a few months to see the early returns of their $42 million investment in him. But at most other positions, the Bengals don’t have backups as good as Phillips and Rose are.
Phillips has predictably gotten the first crack at taking Waynes’ job for now and he’s been his normal playmaking self; getting his hands on passes again and again. But Phillips isn’t being handed anything here. Rose (and LeShaun Sims) has been taking reps with the starters as well and by most accounts has been holding his own. It speaks volumes for a guy who’s been out of the NFL for three years to be adapting so quickly.
If Rose ends up losing out to Phillips, it won’t be from a lack of trying. Rose has made his mark and should be sticking around for the months to come.
Trayvon Henderson, safety
The other notable injury to come within the secondary is Shawn Williams’ calf, which may or may not impact his Week 1 status. In his absence, it’s Henderson, not Brandon Wilson, taking the snaps as the third safety in their big nickel packages. Henderson went from spending his rookie season on Injured Reserve to spending his second year on the practice squad. We’re not saying he’s a shoo-in to make the final roster, but he’s not going to go away easily.
The organization’s COVID-19 plan
Truthfully, this should be a winner for every NFL team. The league announced on Monday that there have been zero positive tests among the 8,573 administered to players from August 12th to the 20th. The Bengals have no players on the COVID Reserve list at the moment, and while we’ve essentially just started the first quarter of this thing, the NFL and its franchises have shown the ability to contain and control the virus. Credit is due where credit is due.
Fred Johnson, offensive lineman
How hard is it to be better than Bobby Hart? Harder than it appears, apparently. Most reports from camp have Hart impressing early as the starting right tackle, but this was a competition that many expected Johnson to win and win decidedly. Now, it doesn’t appear to be a competition at all.
Hart has been taking all the reps at right tackle with the starters and Johnson’s just been with the backups. That’s not to say he’s been bad, since he did take some reps with the 1s at right guard this past Monday, but perhaps expectations were set a little too high for the second-year player.
Greg Mabin and Torry McTyer, cornerbacks
The Waynes injury doesn’t seem to be benefiting the lone cornerbacks the Bengals decided to retain this offseason. Mabin and McTyer can hardly be described game-changers at the cornerback position, but it’s been Rose and Sims running with the newfound available reps. These two are likely on the outside looking in when September comes around.