Five Questions Heading into Cincinnati Bengals Training Camp
The Bengals have been a good, but not great team for much of the 21st century. Since Marvin Lewis took over as head coach in 2003 they are 118-103-3 with just four losing seasons to go along with four division titles. In 2017, Cincy fans hope the team takes the next big step, and that all starts this week with the beginning of Bengals training camp. Here are five things I will be watching for as their 2017 campaign begins.
1. A Tough Hill to Climb
With Giovanni Bernard recovering from an ACL injury that figures to sideline him for a couple more months and the departure of Rex Burkhead (Patriots) in free agency, the Bengals needed help at the RB position, for positional depth and roster construction, if nothing else.
What they got in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft is an RB that offers much more than just depth. Perceived by many to be the best overall talent at the position in this year’s class, Joe Mixon poses an immediate threat to incumbent starter, Jeremy Hill.
Though Hill’s efficiency has trailed off as of late, at a glance his range of outcomes for 2017 seems very narrow. In three years, Hill has never had fewer than 222 carries, nor more than 223. His lowest TD total is nine, his highest is 11, and he’s averaged 1,075 total yards per season. Obviously, Mixon will be involved in 2017, but remember that Hill has managed these numbers with a very capable Giovanni Bernard and Rex Burkhead on the roster to steal away touches.
This August, I am watching to see how quickly Mixon picks up the playbook and learns his pass blocking assignments. To a lesser extent, I want to see how he handles media pressure regarding his off-the-field transgressions. Hill isn’t going away, but I would love to see Mixon earn some early playing time as an exciting prospect who could make a big splash.
2. A.J. Green and …
Adriel Jeremiah Green has been a fantasy monster for years without much in the way of weapons around him. Cincinnati has made a concerted effort to rectify this over the last couple seasons. Rookie picks John Ross and Josh Malone join veteran Brandon LaFell and second-year man Tyler Boyd in the competition for the No. 2 spot in this receiving corps.
Unfortunately, we may not see much from the record setting speedster, John Ross, in camp. His shoulder surgery looks like it will prevent Ross from being a full participant to start training camp and it has yet to be seen when he will return, as Ross doesn’t exactly have a strong track record of being durable. Sophomore Tyler Boyd projects best as a slot receiver in this offense, as he lacks the top end speed needed to stretch the field. In my opinion, this leaves Josh Malone as the biggest threat to Brandon LaFell’s role in 2017. A big play specialist in college, Malone has the combination of size and speed (6’3, 4.40 40-yard dash) that can make him a legitimate threat in the pros. I want to see if Malone can build an early rapport with Andy Dalton and take advantage of the extra reps he will get in camp in Ross’s absence.
3. The “Other” A.J.
A.J. McCarron is one of the most interesting backup QBs in the league and seems to be consistently tied to trade rumors with QB-needy teams, not unlike Jimmy Garoppolo. Like Garoppolo, McCarron is a talented QB, with one year left on his contract, who is stuck behind a pro bowl caliber starter. Unlike Garoppolo, however, McCarron is behind a young QB in Andy Dalton. Additionally, McCarron isn’t an unrestricted free agent after 2017. A.J. will instead be a restricted free agent at the end of the year which gives the Bengals additional bargaining power in any potential trade talks.
If the Bengals are smart, they will use this training camp and preseason to not only see what they have in McCarron but to also showcase him to other teams. It is unlikely he will return in 2018, but what truly remains to be seen is what the Bengals can get in return for his departure.
4. Lay Some Pads on Somebody!
Much has been made this offseason of the free agent losses along the Bengals offensive line, and for good reason. LT Andrew Whitworth ranked as the fifth best offensive lineman in the NFL in 2016, while RG Kevin Zeitler ranked 23rd. These are two stud offensive lineman and any team would be lucky to get their hands on just one of them. In 2016, the Bengals had both and still only managed to finish as the 13th best offensive line according to Pro Football Focus. Taking a middle of the road offensive line and then gutting it in free agency without any legitimate replacement strategy spells disaster for the season to come.
Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese will have his hands full scheming a way to shore up this blocking unit, which will surely be the weakest link in his offense. Will the Bengals use more two-TE sets? Will they keep RBs in to pass protect? Or will they attempt to spread defenses out with three to four WRs and a quick passing game to slow down opposing defenses? Time will tell. But the offensive scheme is much more intriguing and easier to observe in camp as opposed to monitoring offensive lineman and their techniques.
5. The Buck Stops Here
This one extends beyond training camp. Head Coach, Marvin Lewis, is the longest tenured coach in the league, besides Bill Belichick (wow, there sure are a lot of Patriots in an article about the Bengals). However, Lewis’ winning percentage of .533 (118-103-3) is the worst mark among any head coach with more than three seasons under his belt with his current team. 2017 will be Lewis’ 15th season with the Bengals and the last year of his contract. The owner, Mike Brown, has made it known that the team is not in any rush to extend Lewis’ contract. As a lame duck coach without much in the way of excuses (he has a good QB, elite offensive weapons, and a solid defense) Marvin Lewis needs to rally his team and get his first playoff win.
In fact, Lewis may need to get a couple playoff wins to secure an extension with the team, as his current playoff record is 0-7. Not ideal for a coach who has been given the time and opportunity that Lewis has gotten from the Bengals.
For more updated news, notes and analysis on the Bengals training camp, check out Bengals.com and follow the team writers as they break down the above issues and many others.