Cincinnati Bengals' Training Camp To-Do List
Unbelievably, the Cincinnati Bengals open training camp this coming Thursday, July 24. The free-agency period saw the team make very few moves, while it added plenty of pieces via the draft and UDFAs.
Amid all of the transactions that did transpire, question marks have been added regarding the roster. Despite not losing any huge names on the offensive line besides Anthony Collins, a preseason backup, the offensive line is a mess. Not "a mess" in the way that it isn't good, but "a mess" in the way that the team is trying to determine who will start because there's so much talent.
That sounds like a good problem to have.
Meanwhile, the linebackers are in quite a competition to see who will join Vontaze Burfict and Co. on the roster—maybe not because they're so good, but because most of the linebackers have something to prove.
The overall good news? The Bengals' problems—most of them, anyway—are problems that most teams would love to have. This roster is arguably the deepest and most talented in the league from top to bottom. What we've seen transpire is a constant struggle to perform well in clutch situations.
Will this list of things to do in training camp up the Bengals to the next level?
Name a Starting Defensive End
With Michael Johnson heading to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a void has been left on the Bengals defensive line. There is a three-way battle to start in his place on the left side of the defensive line.
Will Clarke, the Bengals' third-round selection from West Virginia, is probably the least likely candidate of the three. He's coming into the NFL with a lot to love, such as his ability to move around at his size. However, he'll need some coaching, as he's not quite as strong as he needs to be, among other things. He'll be on the field at times but not as the starter.
That leaves second-year athlete Margus Hunt and seasoned veteran Wallace Gilberry, who had 7.5 sacks to his credit in 2013. Hunt, from Estonia, stands a massive 6'8" and 290 pounds. At the NFL combine in 2013, Hunt highlighted his performance with a 4.60-second 40-yard dash and put up the bench press an astonishing 38 times. He is what you may call, a "super athlete."
However, that may not mean he's ready to be a starting lineman in the NFL. He's still very green and has a lot to learn about the NFL game, as it is different from the football he played at SMU. If he has a poor training camp and/or preseason, Gilberry will be there to step in.
Gilberry has had some relative success in both Cincinnati and Kansas City, but he set a career high with 7.5 sacks last year and tied his career high with 24 tackles. It's hard to make a guy sit after that performance, but make no mistake—even if he doesn't start, he'll be playing plenty. He is largely going to be used on the interior as well, especially if Geno Atkins is not 100 percent.
All three guys here are capable of stepping in and doing a good job, but it's hard to say at this point who the best option is. For now, Hunt may be the leader, but there's a lot of time left for that to change.
Establish the Starting Offensive Line
Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith, and Kevin Zeitler are all established starters for the Bengals. There is no doubt that those three will start, barring any sort of injury setback. Further, Zeitler and Smith are the starters on the right side of the line.
Now, it is very likely that Whitworth will be starting at left tackle, but keep in mind how last season went for him. Following the injury to left guard Clint Boling, he filled in at the position while Anthony Collins started at left tackle. That was a setup that worked out very well, particularly for Collins, whose showing earned him a contract in Tampa Bay.
This same situation could wind up happening for Marshall Newhouse, depending on how Hue Jackson sees this line. The far more likely scenario, however, is that Boling will be ready for the beginning of the regular season and thus take his starting position at left guard.
However, keep an eye on UDFA Trey Hopkins, who actually made some first-team appearances during OTAs. The former Longhorn may have a shot to start at left guard with both Mike Pollack and Boling recovering from injuries, and rookie Russell Bodine having other concerns (see below).
The center position is one of the most intriguing spots on the roster since it's still so unclear who will be the starter. It seemed for much of the offseason that Trevor Robinson would be the guy to start, but the Bengals traded up in the fourth round of the draft this past May to grab Russell Bodine.
Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com reported that the Bengals are of the impression that "Russell Bodine is their guy at center" (h/t Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle). The biggest competition for the rookie is the aforementioned Robinson and veteran guard/center Mike Pollack, who's struggling with a knee injury just like Boling.
For now, it is very unclear and certainly not written in cement as to who the starting five will be up front for the Bengals offense. There are definitely names we can speculate about, but who will actually be in front of Andy Dalton remains a mystery.
Who Are the Linebackers Worth Keeping?
There is no doubt about how much talent the Bengals have coming from the linebackers in 2014. Vontaze Burfict has proven his worth as a top-five linebacker, Vincent Rey had his breakout season in 2013 and while Emmanuel Lamur has yet to see substantial regular-season time, there's plenty of optimism surrounding him. Chris Wesseling of NFL.com recently said "get used to hearing Emmanuel Lamur's name."
Past these three and Rey Maualuga, the situation with the linebackers becomes fuzzy. Rookie Marquis Flowers will be competing for a spot, Dontay Moch is looking for a second chance in Cincinnati and veterans like Jayson DiManche and J.K. Schaffer have been on the team for multiple seasons now.
Then come guys like Sean Porter and Brandon Joiner, who don't have anything truly exciting on paper, but some successful training camp appearances and a few impressive preseason plays could get them a spot on the 53-man roster.
See where this becomes fuzzy?
The coaching staff will have a lot of tough calls to make here, and it's only fitting that Paul Guenther, the team's new defensive coordinator, was promoted from his position as the team's linebackers coach. This is a group he's familiar with, and thus he may be the best judge of this competition.
Up front, there's no way of knowing who the front-runners are—logic dictates that Schaffer and DiManche would be the picks since they're veterans who are putting in their dues just like Rey did. However, don't be surprised if the rookie Flowers uses his versatility to turn heads or if Moch successfully convinces everyone he's a player worth having on the NFL roster.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: In or Out?
When Jeremy Hill was drafted this past May, it seemed imminent that the clock on BenJarvus Green-Ellis' Cincinnati career was about to run out. As we enter training camp, he is still on the roster and, therefore, on the payroll.
Should Green-Ellis make the 53-man roster, he'll be a third-string running back getting a base salary of $2.3 million, per Spotrac.com. It's one thing if Green-Ellis were on the books for $1 million or less, but to let a veteran—who, truthfully, never played up to that contract even as a starter—ride the bench and chew up that cash is irresponsible for a couple of reasons.
First of all, that is money that can go toward the "re-signing" budget, as a lot of the big-name contracts on this team are coming to a close. The team has already picked up the fifth-year option on A.J. Green's rookie deal, but he'll need a big extension in the near future. Burfict's contract is up after this season.
Additionally, Green-Ellis' presence on the roster likely prevents potential contributor James Wilder Jr. from being on it. Wilder is certainly a project and has a lot to learn about the NFL game, but you have to believe that Hue Jackson would like a project more than a veteran who has already defined the type of running back he is. He isn't changing, and what he is just hasn't been all that effective in his two years in Cincinnati.
Still, the Bengals have a big decision regarding the powerful veteran, and it's a decision that doesn't need to carry over nearer to the regular season.
Figure out Andy Dalton's 2014 Status
The status of Andy Dalton's contract extension likely has nothing to do with the team's on-field performance, but whether he will be extended or not prior to the regular season needs to be decided by the end of training camp. It will wind up being a distraction that the team doesn't need.
Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com (h/t Ryan Wilson on CBSSports.com) reported that the heart and soul of the Bengals offense, A.J. Green, believes Dalton will have a new contract before the season begins, saying "that's my guy." I'm not implying that what Green says goes, but it may be a good idea to protect the interests of one of the game's best receivers while you still have him.
The unfortunate part of that is the quarterback position is the one a team must be sure about—ask the Minnesota Vikings about questionable quarterback decisions. Dalton has the numbers to earn an extension but not the postseason performance to warrant the type of deal he desires. Rumors have been flying on ESPN.com, per Coley Harvey, that Dalton would be okay with a clause-filled deal like Colin Kaepernick's extension.
While that statement likely has more to do with all of the outs the San Francisco 49ers have in that contract, the idea of Dalton making $18-plus million per year without a playoff win to his credit is something that the team cannot commit to at the moment. Putting that on the books hugely diminishes the likelihood of keeping perennial NFL All-Stars like Burfict and the aforementioned Green.
We can speculate and disagree all we want, but fans, writers and reporters won't be the only ones sidetracked by all of the contract talks. The Bengals front office must come out and define the quarterback's status prior to the season.
Deal? Or no deal?
To leave that question open throughout the season would be a distraction. Let him play for the money, or give him the money and let him play. The clock is ticking.