What the Bengals taught us this spring

The Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their offseason program Thursday with the final practice of their mandatory three-day minicamp.

The 10 weeks of work included voluntary workouts, OTAs (organized team activities), rookie minicamp and the full-squad minicamp.

It was a chance for the rookies and newly signed free agents to learn the playbooks and get familiar with their new coaches and teammates. But it also was more than just a refresher for the returning veterans as both offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer installed new elements and wrinkles that needed to be learned.

The offseason program also served as an educational process for the fans and media who follow the team. Here are five things we learned over the last 10 weeks.

Andy Dalton is a new man

The last time we saw Andy Dalton in action, his final two passes resulted in overthrowing A.J. Green on a possible game-winning touchdown and underthrowing the first down marker on a last-ditch fourth down play in the 19-13 playoff loss at Houston.

But Dalton has come back this spring looking more like a quarterback who has led his team to new heights rather than one who keeps tripping over the same hurdle. There is an aura of confidence surrounding him on the field, in the meeting rooms and, as coach Marvin Lewis pointed out, just walking through the hallways at Paul Brown Stadium.

“I’ve started every game since I’ve been here, and since I’ve been in the NFL,” Dalton said. “I have that going for me. As a leader on this team – not only playing quarterback, but being a guy that’s played quite a bit and understands what we’re trying to do – it makes it easier for me, and for guys to say, ‘OK, he knows what he’s doing. He’s obviously been out there. He’s played and knows what to expect.’ ”

It will be seven months before we know if the springtime sureness produces a positive postseason, but it’s an encouraging step.

Numbers mean nothing to James Harrison

It didn’t take long for Harrison to be asked about switching from a 3-4 in Pittsburgh to the 4-3 in Cincinnati after signing a two-year contract with his former rival, and it took even less time for him to answer.

Reporter: “Do we in the media make too much of switching from a 3-4 to……”

Harrison: “Yes!”

Harrison indicated more nonchalance about numbers in his introductory press conference when he disclosed he spends up to $600,000 a year on his body and employs six live-in doctors, masseuses and acupuncturists.

While that might have come as a surprise to some, Marvin Lewis says the five-time Pro Bowler – who also proved to be somewhat of a pro bowler with the day’s high score of 190 during a team-bonding field trip during OTAs – is showing to be everything the Bengals had hoped he would be.

“It’s what I expected,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “Obviously I’ve seen this guy play more football than anybody here, so I thought it was an easy plug-in here. People get a little bit leery of that because a guy did ‘that’ and you guys do ‘this’, but it all came from the same principles.

“I think (defensive coordinator) Mike Zimmer has become more and more comfortable with the versatility that (Harrison) does have and the ability for him to really do more things that I think even Mike envisioned.”

A.J. Green still has room – and the desire – to grow

It almost seems crazy to expect even more out of a receiver who has produced back-to-back 1,000-yard, Pro Bowl seasons in his first two years in the league, but A.J. Green still works as though he has something to prove.

“There’s always another level for everyone,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “When you’re great, you have to challenge yourself to be greater. He sees what Calvin Johnson and Jerry Rice have done and if he wants to be one of the greatest receivers of all time, he has to up his game. He hasn’t played to that level yet, and he has another gear or two or three or four to go to.”

Green caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns last year despite constant double teams and other defensive schemes designed solely to stop him. The Bengals used their first two picks in the draft on offensive weapons that could help free Green up to have a monster year.

Redshirts ready to contribute

The Bengals had nearly a dozen players who saw little to no action last year, either because of injury or more talented players ahead of them at their position.

Offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, one of the team’s two first-round picks last year, started all 16 games, but the other nine rookies combined for just 14 starts. Many of them, such as safety George Iloka and defensive tackles Brandon Thompson and Devon Still, already appear to be a bigger part of the plan in 2013.

“You’ve got the young guys, like (Devon) Still and (Brandon) Thompson on the defensive line, and in that situation, man, they’ve got to move now,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We allowed Pat (Sims) to move on because we had these two guys sitting here. They’re too big and strong to stand beside me on the sideline, not in uniform. So they need to get going, and I look forward to seeing them play.”

Eifert, Bernard as advertised

Yes, they’ve just been playing football in shorts and T-shirts, but first-round tight end Tyler Eifert and second-round running back Giovani Bernard have looked impressive in 11-on-11 situations.

And their versatility could prove to be as valuable as their talent. In addition to the standard tight end spot, Eifert has lined up wide, in the slot and even in the backfield, and there haven’t been many balls that have traveled anywhere near his vicinity that he hasn’t grabbed.

Bernard also has shown sure hands as a receiver out of the backfield as well as a quick burst and sudden change of directions as a runner.

He also has proven to be a good quote, with one of his best coming Thursday as the players were leaving for their six-week break. Asked what he was looking forward to getting out of the rookie symposium June 23-29 in Aurora, Oh., Bernard said, “It’s always good to know the union side of things. Now that we’re outside of the NCAA, we actually have a voice.”

There’s no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from Bernard, and Eifert, all season.

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