The Bengals mandatory mini-camp starts Tuesday, June 11th, and the team has now completed its first 9 Organized Team Activities (OTAs). Here are 9 observations from the first 9 days of OTAs.
1. Andy Dalton will Air it Out in 2013
The Bengals offense is changing in 2013 despite retaining its 3-man core of Dalton, Wide Receiver A.J. Green, and Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden.
The Bengals want to air it out more in 2012 and that has been a focal point of OTAs so far. Dalton’s arm strength is pretty average for an NFL QB but the team has a handful of big receivers that they hope will make plays downfield in the vertical passing game.
2. Josh Johnson is the Favorite to be Dalton’s Backup
The Bengals Backup QB race looks like a 3-way battle between Johnson, former Cardinals QB John Skelton, and 2-year Bengals Practice Squad QB Zac Robinson.
Johnson is the favorite for a few reasons. First, he’s the only mobile QB the Bengals have, and if they are interested in running a read-option package they’d need Johnson to do it. Second, Johnson was drafted by the Buccaneers when Jay Gruden was in Tampa Bay working for his brother John. He’s always been a QB Gruden has liked.
Skelton has the best arm of the 3 candidates but he showed in Arizona that a strong arm doesn’t guarantee much success. He’s capable of making some “Wow” throws but is unlikely to beat out Johnson because even though both are in their first season with the Bengals, Johnson has experience in Gruden’s system, whereas Skelton is a novice in the West Coast Offense.
Robinson is a former Patriot who has been in Gruden’s system as long as anyone on the roster. His two years on the practice squad give him an advantage over Skelton in the experience department. If Skelton has too much potential to let go, the Bengals may waive Robinson in hopes of bringing him back to the PS. If not, look for Robinson to earn the 3rd string job and for Skelton to be cut.
3. High Draft Picks Eifert and Bernard Will Add Another Dimension to the Offense
No one is happier than OC Jay Gruden that the Bengals spent their first two picks in the 2013 draft on offensive playmakers. Well, except for maybe Andy Dalton. Both the OC and QB have gushed about the ability of their two new toys, Tight End Tyler Eifert and Running Back Giovani Bernard.
Eifert gives the team the ability to run 2-TE sets with Jermaine Gresham, as well as line up Eifert in the slot or out wide at Wide Receiver. Not only can Eifert present a mismatch physically against a corner in jump ball situations out wide, he also can dominate as a run blocker in space against Defensive Backs.
Bernard will be a change of pace back to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and is a much quicker and explosive player than “The Law Firm.” Bernard is an excellent pass catcher and will be an asset on third downs.
With Eifert and Bernard in tow, the Bengals have experimented with running some no-huddle in OTAs. With their ability to play all 3 downs, Eifert and Bernard could excel in those packages.
4. O-Line Shuffle
The Bengals Offensive Line has been a real “Rubik’s Cube” for the coaching staff thus far. With starting Left Tackle Andrew Whitworth out recovering from knee surgery and starting Right Tackle Andre Smith away from the team dealing with personal issues, the Bengals have mixed and matched their personnel in search of the right combination. Projected starting Left Guard Travelle Wharton and Center Trevor Robinson were also out with injuries, leaving Right Guard Kevin Zeitler as the only sure starter present and healthy.
Guards Clint Bolling and Mike Pollack earned a lot of first team reps for being veterans, as did incumbent starting Center Kyle Cook. However, the youth movement was also in effect for the Bengals on the O-Line in OTAs.
Rookie 5th round pick Tanner Hawkinson worked at LT, RT, and Left Guard at times, and 7th Round rookie Reid Fragel saw time at both Guard spots as well as RT. 7th round rookie T.J. Johnson saw time at G and at Center. All three rookies had some first team reps, with Hawkinson easily getting the most.
The Bengals O-Line is a question mark until they have all parts accounted for, but they have to be pleased by the play of Hawkinson thus far. Plenty of guys have had a chance to make an impression on the coaching staff and the result has been a very competitive group.
5. Wide Receiver is the Most Competitive Offensive Position
The Bengals have major questions at WR. First being the hierarchy, and second being who to cut. Starting, A.J. Green is the obvious #1 WR, and opposite him second-year Mohammed Sanu is a breakout candidate as the #2 receiver. The third and fourth spots appear to be destined for slot-specialist Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones in some order. Then it gets really murky.
Last year the Bengals kept 7 Wide Receivers and 3 Tight Ends, but this year it looks like they’ll return to the usual 6 WR, 4 TE roster most NFL teams keep. So that means there are 2 spots left.
6th round rookie Cobi Hamilton of Arkansas looks like a near-lock to make the team. He’s been the biggest surprise at OTAs in the entire draft class. Brandon Tate also seems to have a spot locked down unless he is beaten out for kick return duties. If he is, Dane Sanzenbacher and Ryan Whalen would then likely be battling it out with Tate for the final spot, but Taveon Rogers Tyrone Goard, and Roy Roundtree would also have a small shot to make the team.
6. This Could Be “The Year” for Carlos Dunlap
Dunlap is a very talented Defensive end entering his 4th season in the league, but he’s never put it all together and become a star. The team has never listed him as a starter and this year appears to be the year he finally bumps Robert Geathers on the depth chart at Left End. Make no mistake, Dunlap played plenty of snaps last year in the D-Line rotation, but he’s never been a full-time player. With Geathers and 2nd Round Rookie Margus Hunt behind him, Dunlap will need to realize his full potential to earn the most snaps of his career in 2013. It looks like the Bengals are giving him every chance to do so.
7. James Harrison is Adjusting Just Fine
Harrison is transitioning from being a 3-4 Outside Linebacker his entire career into a 4-3 Sam Linebacker with the Bengals this year. The transition was a question mark because of Harrison’s declining physical gifts at age 34. However, Harrison has told reporters several times that the adjustment is much smoother than he expected and he thinks he may actually end up rushing the passer more out of the 4-3 than he did in the 3-4 in Pittsburgh.
8. Dre Kirkpatrick is the guy to Watch in Training Camp
Kirkpatrick was a first round pick in 2012 but struggled to contribute last year due to several nagging injuries. He has not participated in OTAs thus far but is expected to finally be healthy in time for training camp on July 25th. If Kirkpatrick is healthy, there’s no question he’d be the favorite to start opposite Leon Hall at Cornerback, and could slide inside in Nickel packages. He’s a major breakout candidate for 2013 on an already stacked defense.
9. The Safety Position is a Question Mark
Reggie Nelson appears to have one of the starting Safety spots locked down for the Bengals, but the team has no idea who will play next to him. Taylor Mays is a tantalizing athlete but hasn’t ever been a good NFL player. George Iloka was a 5th round pick in 2012 but has zero experience and is a similar player to Mays. 3rd round rookie Shawn Williams may actually be the favorite to win the job. The Georgia product has been solid in coverage in OTAs and may be the best in a shaky situation right now for the Bengals.