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5 Bengals to watch for in Week 1

New and returning faces form up to kickoff the Bengals’ season in Paul Brown Stadium.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

As A.J. Green so bluntly put it in his press conference Thursday, it’s unbelievable that we’re even here, previewing an actual NFL football game amidst a pandemic. It took a minute to register this week when I realized that we’re back to producing game-week content again. Like how is this even allowed?

Looking past the bigger picture, the Cincinnati Bengals aren’t just playing football this Sunday, they’re home underdogs to a team that missed the playoffs last year. It’s just the first step in a (hopefully) 17-week long journey back to relevancy for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in half a decade. There are so many storylines to cover, so this is one of the simpler ones: Who’re the Bengals to watch for?

This week’s list could’ve been 10 players long, but we like to keep things consistent around here. Our five players to watch for are:

A.J. Green

652 days is a long time. It’s equivalent to 56,332,800 seconds. That’s how long it’s been since A.J. Green took a snap in an NFL game. It’s not even been two full years, but it still feels like an eternity. Because watching the Bengals without Green since they drafted him in 2011 has mostly been a dreadful affair. They’re 7-25-1 without him and 66-44-1 with him. That’s a split you would normally see with quarterbacks, not receivers. But that’s the reality when your franchise quarterback was actually a receiver for nine years.

Green starting year 10 on the right foot, literally, and figuratively, is something everyone wearing orange and black will be watching.

Jonah Williams

Let’s go back to the date duration calculator. 616 days converted to seconds is 53,222,400. That’s how long it’s been since Jonah Williams took a snap in any organized football game. It was the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship of course, but still. If we want to look through some rose-colored glasses, It’s almost like Williams just opted out of his last college football season, like 2021’s top tackle prospect Penei Sewell just did.

Williams is stronger and perhaps even more mentally prepared to make his NFL debut, but that all gets put to the test when Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram come rushing at your face for 40 snaps. Welcome to the league, even though you’ve been here for over a year.

D.J. Reader

When he became the most expensive free agent signing in team history, D.J. Reader’s intended purpose was to make Geno Atkins’ life easier. To start the season, Atkins may not play at all and if he does, he’ll probably be limited with a shoulder injury. The same goes for Mike Daniels, who’s got a groin injury standing in the way of his first game in Cincinnati.

With those two on the mend in some regard, Reader’s usage may be amplified in his first game. The importance of the Christian Covington trade may also be realized as he may have to play more 1-technique while Reader handles increased duties at 3-technique. It shouldn’t be indicative of how he’ll be utilized with Atkins and Daniels healthy, but it’ll be a good test to see how Reader fares at a lower playing weight of about 320 pounds.

Vonn Bell

It was no surprise to see Vonn Bell immediately take Shawn Williams’ starting job after he signed a three-year deal in free agency. Once it was known that Williams wouldn’t become a cap casualty, the plan became for him to be a rotational piece in the secondary. What does that look like now with Williams not expected to play?

Williams isn’t for sure out for Sunday’s game, but having not practiced in weeks doesn’t bode well for him. Bell and his captain’s patch will trot out there alongside Jessie Bates III nonetheless, and we will get to see what role the Bengals have in store for him. Is he to live in the box with the linebackers? Are the planning on implementing more MOFO (middle of the field open) coverage with Bates and Bell both playing deep? Charting his alignments per snap will be intriguing.

Joe Burrow

Speaking of new captains, have you heard of this rookie?

A lot of talk—pretty much all it of being justified—surrounded Burrow this offseason. He didn’t ask for it, but that’s what happened when you end your college career on the highest note possible. He’s the reason why the Bengals are worth talking about from a national perspective. How he does in this game will not determine how the rest of his rookie season goes, nor will it foreshadow the rest of his career.

But we just want to see him play. Whatever happens, happens.