CINCINNATI — The Bengals reported to training camp Tuesday and will hold their first practice Wednesday as they begin official preparations for the 2023 season.
Zac Taylor is entering his fifth year as head coach, quarterback Joe Burrow is heading into what could be his first full NFL training camp four seasons in and there will be plenty of storylines to follow in the buildup to the Bengals’ three preseason games.
The two-time defending AFC North champions are scheduled to hold 10 practices open to the general public, including the first three days (gates open 1:30 p.m.) at the Kettering Health Practice Fields across from Paycor Stadium before an open “Back Together Weekend” practice Saturday in the stadium.
Here is a look at five questions facing the Bengals this preseason:
1. What’s the next step for the offense?
The Bengals had one of the best passing offenses in the league the past two years, and this might be the last time Burrow has all three of his main weapons -- Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd – together, as Higgins and Boyd are in the final seasons of their current contracts.
Coaches and front office personnel have said the believe “the window” for a Super Bowl title is open as long as Burrow is around, but the Bengals will be looking to cash in on the weapons they have now. And that means figuring out how to get the offense to that next level in 2023.
There are some changes in personnel that will impact that, including at the offensive tackle positions, starting tight end and third-down running back. The addition of left tackle Orlando Brown is considered a big upgrade, and Irv Smith’s ability to stretch the field gives what offensive coordinator Brian Callahan calls “a little bit different element” than what the Bengals previously had at tight end.
The only other questions outside of who wins the right tackle job is what the third-down running back role looks like without Samaje Perine.
“There’s a lot that goes into that,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t have to be one person. It can be multiple different people that have all proven that they can handle it, but the No. 1 piece for us is always going to be understanding of the protections and being a part of those five offensive linemen in front of you when needed.”
2. How do changes on the O-line impact the group?
Callahan said this is the best offensive line the Bengals have had in his time in Cincinnati, and that’s in large part because the three interior guys all return, the addition of Brown, who is a four-time Pro Bowler for a reason, and belief there is much more depth now.
The Bengals had overhauled the line last year and now have all the same pieces back except La’el Collins, who is rehabbing from major knee surgery, so Callahan is confident the group will get off to a much faster start than last year when a lot of new pieces were trying to jell together.
“I think from top to bottom it’s as good a group and experienced of a group as we’ve had that has talent,” Callahan said. “I think we have good players. We have good, young players. I’m excited about that group. Obviously we haven’t put on pads yet. That group has to come together in some degree, we’re talking about two new tackles, but the interior has played together with those three. Hopefully that goes a lot smoother and quicker than it did last year getting ready to go.”
The Bengals aren’t worried about how Brown will fit in, as he’s a proven player who already is acclimating after a productive offseason, but the big question is how the battle at right tackle ends up.
Jonah Williams is making the adjustment from left tackle and needing snaps to “get up to speed,” so to speak, while the Bengals also will want to give Jackson Carman a fair shot as well. Taylor said that will be the challenge is making the right decisions about the workload and figuring out what works best for the group.
3. What does a young secondary look like?
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo got some idea this offseason what his defense looks like without Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell making up one of the best safety tandems in the league, but now is when he will find out exactly what he can expect from the duo of Dax Hill and Nick Scott.
Preseason games will be important for that, but the hope is those two can reach a similar level of understanding together as Bates and Bell did.
“I would certainly hope so,” Anarumo said when asked if that’s possible in a season. “Those guys build that chemistry through playing together and experience. Hopefully it will come faster, I would want it to come like yesterday.”
There’s also some uncertainty in the secondary as a whole while cornerback Chidobe Awuzie works back from his Oct. 31 ACL tear. He was actived Tuesday from the Physically Unable to Perform list. Cam Taylor-Britt is the other returning cornerback after starting the final 10 games of 2022, but otherwise there are several new pieces that will be working in at the cornerback and safety spots.
“We got a great core of guys that have played,” Anarumo said. “All the front guys for the most part. Chido, Mike Hilton, a good core of guys that know exactly what it takes to get to the level that we want to get to. They can help bring these other guys along. I feel good about where we are at.”
4. Will there be changes to specialist roles?
The other position battles will be on special teams, where draft pick Brad Robbins is competing for the punter role with Drue Chrisman and where the kick/punt returner jobs are up for grabs.
Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said after the draft he was looking forward to a true competition there, but Robbins does bring some things that Chrisman does not. Robbins is more experienced as a holder and is known for his hang-time on punts, which are both things Chrisman has been working on to improve.
As far as the return specialist jobs, rookie draft pick Charlie Jones was a Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year in 2021 at Iowa, and he is expected to make a strong push for a role there. Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans split the 2022 season at kick returner, and Trent Taylor served as the punt returner.
5. How will the Bengals handle contract distractions?
With Burrow’s contract still unsettled and that perhaps having an impact on the ability to extend other players, the Bengals will continue to face questions on that subject until something gets done.
Callahan said he’s seen contract situations elsewhere impact what the team is doing to prepare, but both he and Taylor said they are not worried about that being a distraction to the team because the players the Bengals have recruited have a little bit different mindset.
“That’s been the beauty so far in the time that I’ve been here is the players have done a great job going about their business and being a part of the team, handling that stuff separately,” Taylor said. “And that’s, we’ve just put our head down and gotten back to work.”
Ideally, at least Burrow’s contract will get sorted out before the season, and perhaps there’s a quick trickle-down effect for other players.