NFL: Semantics aside, Cincinnati Bengals rebuilding as contender

By Jeff Wallner, The Sports Xchange  |  July 20, 2017 at 5:26 PM
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CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are not in rebuilding mode, according to the company line. They believe their window to win still is open, despite significant changes heading into the opening of training camp. Long-time veterans like left tackle Andrew Whitworth, linebacker Rey Maualuga, and defensive lineman Domata Peko are gone. But, quite a bit of continuity remains.

"We've got the core of our guys back, and we've got some new guys who can help us," said quarterback Andy Dalton during the offseason. "So, it's a new year, another year of experience for everybody. I said last year there was a lot of stuff that was new, obviously with Zamp (offensive coordinator Ken Zampese) taking over at coordinator and with a couple new receivers being out there. We really don't have that this year. Guys understand what we are trying to do."

During a dismal 6-9-1 season, the Bengals struggled to establish a consistent rushing attack and protect Dalton, who was sacked 41 times. They had difficulty converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Bengals missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.

"This was what this whole offseason has been for, to see what was done well and what we didn't do well," Dalton said. "We need to get better at things we do well and really improve on things we didn't do well. This offseason has been good for us."

The team's objectives during training camp are rather easy to define. The offensive line will be the primary area of focus since the team's success largely depends on it. Andre Smith will move to guard in his first season back with the team. Cedric Ogbuehi, who struggled at times last season, will take over at left tackle. Establishing a running game, protecting Dalton, and giving him time to take advantage of some added depth and speed at receiver with the addition of rookies John Ross and Josh Malone all hinges on the offensive line being able to replace Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler and developing some continuity.

The Bengals are hoping to avoid a repeat of last year's injury-marred training camp when top draft choices cornerback William Jackson III and defensive lineman Andrew Billings were lost for the season. Several key players are coming off significant injuries including wide receiver A.J. Green, tight end Tyler Eifert, running back Giovani Bernard, and first-round draft choice Ross. Green was full-go during summer workouts.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick recovered from a hand fracture over the offseason and is expected to be 100 percent by training camp. Second-rounder Joe Mixon lost 10 pounds in the weeks following the draft and has looked impressive.

With Whitworth gone, the focus turns to Dalton who passed for more than 4,200 yards and 18 touchdowns last season despite being under constant pressure, to assume more of a leadership role. It's something Dalton insists he's been doing already.

"Going into year seven now, I'm really comfortable with everything we have going here," said Dalton. "Now we have some of the new guys, just making sure everybody is up to speed on everything we're doing. Communication is big. Making sure they know exactly how I want it to be. Guys are willing to learn. Everybody's trying to be the best they can be. That's what this time of the year is for. Got to keep improving. Need to get to stop thinking too much and play fast. We've gotten better this offseason."

It's been 26 years since the Bengals last won a playoff game. Head coach Marvin Lewis did not receive a contract extension during the offseason for the first time since 2010, making this a pivotal season in many respects along the banks of the Ohio River.

TOP THREE TRAINING CAMP GOALS

--Evaluate the revamped offensive line. Free-agent departures of tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler have created plenty of questions for this group. The signing of former Bengal Andre Smith will help as he makes the move to right guard. Former No. 1 draft choice Cedric Ogbuehi, who struggled last year, is expected to fill Whitworth's left-tackle spot. Jake Fisher will take over the other tackle spot. Quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked 41 times and the Bengals failed to establish a consistent rushing attack, making this a pivotal training camp for the offensive line.

--Sort out the running game. Joe Mixon was a controversial draft choice out of the University of Oklahoma, arriving in Cincinnati with the cloud of a domestic abuse incident during college, but also having immense talent. Jeremy Hill has had two subpar seasons, but insists he's motivated to return to his 2014 form when he rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a rookie. Lack of a consistent running game was partly responsible for Dalton being sacked 41 times last season, And, with a revamped offensive line needing help, too, finding someone to step up in the backfield is a priority for Cincinnati during training camp.

--Settle on a kicker. Following the 2016 season, head coach Marvin Lewis promised there would be competition at kicker in training camp. The Bengals released veteran Mike Nugent during last season after several missed extra points and signed journeyman Randy Bullock who was re-signed in January. Jake Elliott was drafted out of the University of Memphis and is the early front-runner after a strong offseason.

PROJECTED CAMP DEPTH CHART

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Andy Dalton. Backups - AJ McCarron, Jeff Driskel.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Jeremy Hill. Backups - Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Cedric Peerman, Tra Carson, Stanley Williams.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Tyler Eifert. Backups - C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, Ryan Hewitt, Mason Schreck.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd. Backups - John Ross, Cody Core, Josh Malone, Alex Erickson, Jake Kumerow, Alonzo Russell, Chris Brown.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Cedric Ogbuehi, RT Jake Fisher, C Russell Bodine, RG Andre Smith, LG Clint Boling. Backups - LT Landon Lechler, LG Trey Hopkins, C T.J, Johnson, RG Christian Westerman, LG Dustin Stanton, LG Cameron Lee, RG Alex Redmond, LG Kent Perkins.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Carlos Dunlap, DT Geno Atkins, RDE Michael Johnson, LDT Pat Sims. Backups - DT Andrew Billings, DT DeShawn Williams, DE Jordan Willis, DT Marcus Hardison, DE Will Clarke, DE Wallace Gilberry, DT Brandon Thompson, DT Ryan Glasgow, DT David Dean, DE Chris Smith.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - MLB Vincent Rey, SLB Marquis Flowers, WLB Vontaze Burfict. Backups - MLB Kevin Minter, SLB Carl Lawson, SLB P.J. Dawson, WLB Nick Vigil, SLB Bryson Albright, SLB Jordan Evans.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Dre Kirkpatrick, RCB Adam Jones, SS Shawn Williams, FS George Iloka. Backups - RCB Josh Shaw, RCB KeiVarae Russell, RCB Darqueze Dennard, SS Clayton Fejedelem, FS Derron Smith, CB William Jackson, RCB Brandon Wilson, LCB Tony McRae, LCB Bene Benwikere.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Randy Bullock, P Kevin Huber, PR Adam Jones, KOR Alex Erickson, LS Clark Harris, K Jake Elliott, K Jon Brown.

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