A group of rookies, first-year players and longshot dreamers will gather starting Friday for the Bengals’ three-day rookie minicamp. By May 22, the full team will be back for three weeks of optional practices and, finally, a mandatory, full-squad minicamp in mid-June.
Following is a look at five areas of question, need or priority for the Bengals as they prepare for a season of great expectations by looking to maximize the type of extra spring work they didn’t get a year ago.
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SOLIDIFY THE CORNERBACK POSITION
Dre Kirkpatrick was the first of the Bengals’ two first-round picks and he’ll be the highlight player at this weekend’s rookie minicamp. By the end of the month the full team will be on the field for organized team activity workouts, and it will be all hands on deck as the Bengals look for help, depth and playmakers at the cornerback position. Leon Hall is recovering from a torn Achilles, Kirkpatrick and fifth-rounder Shaun Prater are entering an entirely new universe and the Bengals are hoping to get something — hopefully more than just a little — from a group of veterans that includes Nate Clements, Jason Allen, Terrence Newman and Adam Jones. Brandon Ghee is in his third year but has played a very small role so far. With the quarterbacks on this year’s schedule, this becomes probably the Bengals’ most-pressing on-field issue.
“GROW” THE OFFENSE
The NFL lockout last year meant Andy Dalton barely met his receivers before training camp, and all of them were learning a new offense from a new coordinator. This year, Dalton will be treated like a seven-year pro and that coordinator, Jay Gruden, will hope the spring can be used to find strengths and expand the playbook. The Bengals now know they have a star receiver in A.J. Green and can tinker with new ways to get him the ball and to make defenses pay for slanting too much coverage towards Green. There should be a natural progression and increased comfort level for Dalton, and it will be on Dalton and Gruden to use that to benefit the 10 other players on the field when the Bengals have the ball.
BREAK ‘EM IN
Rookie minicamp is more about introduction than significant progress, but Kirkpatrick and fellow first-rounder Kevin Zeitler come in as expected starters, and the next three picks figure as immediate contributors as well. Devon Still and Brandon Thompson should earn spots in a deep and talented defensive line rotation, and Mohamed Sanu as a slot receiver should have a chance to be an immediate producer as well. The quicker these guys catch on, get used to their position coaches and get comfortable in their surroundings, the quicker they’ll be able to legitimately help when the real games start.
The Bengals hope they end up having more answers than questions at receiver, cornerback and safety, but for now they don’t know. The spring should provide an opportunity for the likes of Ghee, Ryan Whalen, Armon Binns, Vidal Hazelton, Robert Sands and Taylor Mays to prove they should at least be in the discussion, if not the plans. Dontay Moch can make up for lost time last year at linebacker and should be a key special teams player at least, and Bernard Scott is facing a now-or-never type of season in terms of playing more than just a bit part of the offense. It’s a coach’s cliche, but every practice does count.
TAKE A JUMP
On offense, Jermaine Gresham has a chance to put up big-time numbers patrolling the middle of the field and a veteran line can help both Zeitler and Dalton — not to mention BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the running game. Last year, the Bengals were best when the eight-man defensive line rotation was intact and making plays. Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey come in at defensive end looking to save their careers, and the draft picks should make a solid interior even better. The Bengals are going to have to prove they can handle success and are really ready for the big stage, but this is a solid roster that can make big strides between now and mid-June.