Cincinnati Bengals: 8 Things We've Learned from Training Camp So Far
Can you believe it? The first preseason game is a mere three days away.
As training camp prepares to turn into game time, the city of Cincinnati is poised and ready to get its beloved Bengals back on the field—especially given the Reds' recent three-game performance.
Even from the single week of training camp, we can deduce a few things so far. I know it's never smart to assume, but let's examine what we've been able to take away from the earliest start to the season.
Watch Out for George Iloka
I don't know that it was ever a foregone conclusion for anyone else, but in my mind, Shawn Williams would be the starting strong safety the day he was drafted.
Not so fast, kid.
Second-year safety George Iloka has "really emerged" in the words of Marvin Lewis. It seemed, for awhile, that the big competition to start beside Reggie Nelson would be between the rookie, Williams and oft-demoted Taylor Mays.
So far, it's been an interesting race and Iloka's memory of the playbook may be the strongest tool he uses. His game has really stepped up, and I'm excited to see if he can continue to improve and make noise.
Kirkpatrick Is Hot on Newman's Heels
While veteran Terence Newman has a lockdown hold on the starting cornerback position, don't expect him to hang onto it so easily.
Second-year corner Dre Kirkpatrick is back on the field and is blowing everyone's mind—even that of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who is reportedly impressed with Kirkpatrick's 2013 training camp performance.
A 2012 first-round pick, Kirkpatrick was the ideal man to take over for Johnathan Joseph once he split for Houston. Unfortunately, injuries riddled his rookie season, and Newman took over and did well enough to keep a strong hold on the starting job.
For now, it's great to see Kirkpatrick improved from last season and at full strength.
Mohamed Sanu Is Capable of a 1,000-Yard Season
Second-year receiver Mohamed Sanu is the odds-on favorite to be the No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green. Thursday's practice showed exactly what kind of role he will be playing.
It was said that Sanu was used extensively, particularly his ability as a big, physical receiver. He evidently lined up in several different positions and was used on a lot of routes. It's still difficult to get a gauge on him with Green not on the field, though.
Going into 2012, Sanu had a decent amount of expectations, which were put on hold due to a season-ending foot injury. During his rookie season, Sanu caught four touchdowns on 16 passes and even threw one in Week 3 against the Washington Redskins.
It's possible the team may even use him in the backfield at some points.
There's no question that the team's main target will be green, but Sanu will be a nightmare No. 2 for opposing defenses.
Rex Burkhead Could See Some Action
It would be nothing short of a miracle if anyone were to take a spot from second-round selection Giovani Bernard, but fellow rookie Rex Burkhead is doing his best.
Nothing in particular seemed to stick out (or has stuck out) during training camp last week, but Burkhead saw most of the action on Thursday with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, while Bernard saw some time practicing with the special teams.
This could be a huge step for Burkhead. He's been embroiled in a battle for the No. 3 running back spot with Cedric Peerman and Bernard Scott—not much of a battle, considering neither man has seen the field yet.
Regardless, the former Cornhusker is attempting to get himself on the 53-man roster and just may start stealing some third downs from Bernard.
Linebackers Are Turning Heads
If no other part of this Bengals team has been interesting, the linebackers have been.
Vontaze Burfict came out of his massive shell last season and had a tremendous rookie year. The team signed James Harrison from Pittsburgh and chose to (in controversial fashion) re-sign Rey Maualuga.
Veteran Terence Newman and head coach Marvin Lewis had high praise for the entire corps of linebackers, including the three starters, and namely, another undrafted free agent from 2012 (like Burfict), Emmanuel Lamur.
There is a lot of speculation that collectively these linebackers could be the most improved middle of the defense of anyone in the league. There were certainly issues last season, but it would appear they are all focused and ready to go.
Let's hope that translates better this time around.
Andy Dalton's Troubles Will Continue
All in all, it doesn't seem like fans are going to see a vastly improved Andy Dalton in 2013. That's not to say he had a ton of them to make in the first place, but there's no arguing he could stand to work a few kinks out.
While he's been very successful overall throwing balls to his two tight ends and Mohamed Sanu, he has been making a myriad of bad decisions to go with them. How bad?
Taylor Mays picked him off in one practice. That's something I thought would never happen—even if it was at practice.
Dalton seemed to attract pick-sixes in 2012 and that's a tendency we would all like to see stopped. Unfortunately, a big knock on Dalton coming out of TCU in 2011 was his ability to throw downfield and to throw into coverage.
They look like they will continue to be problems.
Tyler Eifert Will Live Up to the Hype
Back in April, the name "Tyler Eifert" came over the speakers as the Bengals' first-round pick. I was irate.
I swore up and down that I'd be a Steelers fan. I was never going to forgive the Bengals for doing something so stupid at such a key time.
I guess that's why I'm not an NFL GM. Eifert has turned out to be quite a good selection for Cincinnati, though not understood by all of us up front. The Associated Press reported last week that Eifert was "making a good first impression." Terence Newman said that the big man from Notre Dame was going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Out of the gate, the Eifert-Gresham project is looking promising. Andy Dalton is a guy who definitely needs to utilize his tight ends and thus far, this team has done a good job building a plan for Eifert.
Perhaps his first-round hype will be realized, even if he is splitting the field with one of the league's better tight ends in Jermaine Gresham.
Fear the Injury Bug
The injury bug seems to be highly contagious these days, both around the league and at the Bengals training site.
More recently, Bengals starting slot receiver—and an "X-factor" of sorts for the offense—Andrew Hawkins reportedly suffered a high ankle sprain and was carted off the field last week. He's not expected to miss any regular-season time, but should be out the entire preseason.
Second-year nose tackle Brandon Thompson suffered a sprained knee and is expected to be out for an extended period, while starting defensive end Carlos Dunlap suffered a concussion.
The most troubling injuries are those to Andrew Whitworth and A.J. Green. Whitworth, the team's starting left tackle, has missed most of training camp recovering from offseason surgery. Green, the star receiver, suffered a bruised knee and isn't even expected to make the trip to Atlanta this week.
None of these guys outside of Thompson are expected to miss regular-season time, but I recall hearing similar reports about Dre Kirkpatrick's training camp injury last season—a season that saw him only play in five games.
I'm not saying we need to be alarmed; I'm just concerned that these injuries may continue to strike.