1. It’s tough to gauge exactly what you’re seeing in a spring NFL practice for lots of reasons; the players are wearing shorts, the offense is often installing things the players aren’t comfortable with, Chad is dancing with people who are presumably stars but not football stars and there are 80-plus guys in camp, etc., etc. But what I think I saw recently is a pretty good football team that knows it needs to get better to get where it really wants to go. It’s a veteran team but not an old one, and it’s a team that’s developed a true core of leaders and talent and has stuck with its systems and schemes. Translation: Expectations are and probably should be high in Who Dey Nation.
2. I like this Bengals defense. It’s fast, experienced and very well-coached. The Bengals are probably the only AFC North team that can honestly say it has quality depth in the secondary, and that’s important. The young front-seven players should be getting better, and though it doesn’t appear Rey Maualuga is at full speed yet, I really think he’s going to be a stud eventually. Maybe by November. Carlos Dunlap certainly looks like he belongs, too, and he’s getting extra reps as Antwan Odom watches from the sideline while rehabbing the injury that cut his big 2009 short. A defense with good quickness and a good command of its scheme can take the kind of chances that lead to big plays, and I think this unit enters the season thinking it will create a lot of turnovers again.
3. The offense wasn’t showing much of anything except a bunch of different formations it looked like the players weren’t yet entirely comfortable running. The emphasis heading into the season would figure to be on getting Carson Palmer back to throwing the ball downfield and making more big plays in the passing game, but he didn’t complete many (maybe any) deep ones that I saw. And Cedric Benson said after practice that he’s fine with the way things were last season, when he became the primary ball carrier and the top producer. Ideally, that power-type running game would open things up in the passing game, and new additions Antonio Bryant and first-round tight end Jermaine Gresham should help Palmer and Chad Ochocinco when he returns. If the Bengals are going to win the division again, the passing game is going to have to be better and more diverse and the Bengals are going to have to score more touchdowns before the final 30 seconds. You just can’t count on those bounces going your way two years in a row, not in this division anyway.
4. The best battles to watch, at least now, are for jobs and roles among the pass catchers. Gresham got some run with the first team and he certainly looks the part; how his body holds up and how well he blocks will be key going forward. He dropped a touchdown pass during an 11-on-11 session on a ball offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said “got on him a little quicker than he’s used to. But he’s shown a lot of positives. He’s just getting back from a long time being away from football.” Jerome Simpson, he of one career catch in two seasons, is running with the 1’s in Chad’s absence, and Palmer is trying to get him going while also developing a rapport with Bryant and Gresham. I watched Simpson not make about three plays I thought he could have made Tuesday, then leap and make an acrobatic grab along the sideline. Palmer said he’s “seen a switch go on” with Simpson, and that makes another fast and legitimate contender in a receiving corps that has 8 or 9 guys competing for 5 or 6 jobs.
5. The Bengals have one of the nicest and most spacious locker rooms in the league, but here’s what I liked most about it Tuesday. The rookies have small, metal lockers placed in the middle of the locker room while they earn their keep. Even Gresham, a first-round pick, has a small metal locker. For now, it’s veterans only for the nice wooden lockers around the perimeter. I like it. During my time with the Browns I saw plenty of rookies share lockers — a lot of them temporary but still nice — but the high draft picks usually had theirs in place. I think the Bengals’ method at least tempers any sense of entitlement in what’s a pretty important place of business.