The Cincinnati Bengals open training camp today on the fields adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium, marking the second year they will stay home for the five-week session after spending the previous 15 years at Georgetown College in Kentucky.
Today’s practice is closed to public, but there will be a free pep rally for fans at 7 p.m. inside Paul Brown Stadium. And beginning Friday (3-5 p.m.), all practices will be free and open to the public.
Here are five things to watch as the Bengals try to make their fourth playoff appearance in five years and end a 22-season drought without a postseason win:
1.) Andre’s arrival: Offensive tackle Andre Smith signed a three-year, $18 million contract April 26 and then failed to show up for minicamp or any of the offseason team activity practices.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Smith’s absence was due to “personal reasons,” But because Smith struggled with his weight early in his career, there was speculation it could be an issue again after getting his free-agent deal done.
Lewis said Tuesday he expected Smith to be ready for the start of camp, but Wednesday night the team placed Smith on the Active/Non-Football Injury List. The injury is listed as a calf. It will be interesting to see what kind of shape he is in when he reports.
2.) Doctor-less Dre: Knee issues and a concussion limited cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to just five games after the Bengals drafted him 17th overall last year.
Kirkpatrick ended up with just two tackles on defense and two on special teams in what essentially was a redshirt season, but he has been pointing toward the start of training camp as his new start.
Asked about Kirkpatrick at Tuesday’s pre-camp luncheon, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said, “I feel very confident about him. He’s a great competitor. He’s learning. He’s another one of those guys who when he came in here he thought the world revolved around him a little bit. I think he’s finally woke up. I think he’s come a long way. We’ll see what he does on the field.”
3.) Position battles: With so many returning players, including 20 of the 22 starters on offense and defense, most of the battles will be for roster spots rather than starting jobs.
The two spots where the starting jobs are up in the air are at center and strong safety.
Center Kyle Cook enters his sixth season with the Bengals, but he spent most of 2012 on Injured Reserve. Undrafted free agent Trevor Robinson did a solid job in his absence, eventually unseating 10-year veteran Jeff Faine as the starter for seven games.
Cook started the final two regular season games and the Wild Card playoff loss in Houston, but the offensive line struggled in those contests.
The battle at safety would seem to be between Taylor Mays, George Iloka and rookie Shawn Williams. Mays is entering his third season with the Bengals and has been given multiple opportunities to establish himself as the starter. Iloka played solely on special teams last year as a rookie but was impressive during spring drills. The coaches also were impressed with Williams’ work this spring.
4.) HBO effect: The HBO series Hard Knocks returns to chronicle Bengals camp for the second time in five years, which means cameras and microphones will be following the players and coaches everywhere.
That could be unnerving for such a young team as two-thirds of the players were not on the roster the last time Hard Knocks filmed the Bengals in 2009. But most of the coaches have been through the process, and they repeatedly point to strong leadership in the locker room as a hallmark of this squad, so the hope is the film crews will not be a distraction and instead will simply blend into the background after a few days.
Even if the players are able to ignore the cameras on the field and in meeting rooms, they no doubt will be gathering about their television sets along with the fans to see what kind of storylines are portrayed on the Emmy-winning show.
5.) Crowd count: The Bengals were pleased with the crowd turnout in their first season of holding training camp downtown, and they have made some policy changes that should help boost attendance this year.
Fans will no longer be asked to come downtown in the morning to pick up a pass that will ensure entry to the afternoon practice. Instead, fans can start lining up an hour before practice and the first 1,500 will be admitted.
There also will be two family nights, where will practice will be held inside Paul Brown Stadium. There will be no limit on the number of people admitted to those Thursday, Aug. 1, and Sunday, Aug. 11 sessions.
Fans also are permitted to bring soft-sided coolers with unopened bottles of water and food to all practices. Other concessions will be available for purchase.