Cincinnati Bengals: 5 storylines to watch during training camp

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow celebrates a touchdown pass against Clemson during the College Football Playoff National Championship game at Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans on January 13, 2020. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images/TNS)
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow celebrates a touchdown pass against Clemson during the College Football Playoff National Championship game at Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans on January 13, 2020. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images/TNS)

The Cincinnati Bengals will get together for the first time as an entire group in 2020 with the start of training camp this week after the NFL and players’ association agreed last week to a plan to return to play.

Rookies already have reported to Paul Brown Stadium, but veterans are scheduled to arrive today.

NFL teams were limited to a virtual offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Bengals now will experience the same challenges of the 2011 season when then-rookie quarterback Andy Dalton came in during a lockout that canceled Organized Team Activities. Like rookie quarterback Joe Burrow will do now, Dalton practiced with his new team for the first time in training camp, and the Bengals went on to a 9-7 season and playoff appearance.

Here are five storylines to watch as training camp begins:

1. Burrow’s adjustment

Burrow already has earned praise from several veterans on the team for the leadership he showed during the virtual offseason meetings, but now it’s time to earn their respect on the field.

It’s his offense now, and he basically has five weeks to settle in and develop a chemistry with the new receivers and get his timing down with center Trey Hopkins. Backup quarterback Ryan Finley struggled with accuracy his first reps with the team last offseason but showed progress in the preseason that unfortunately didn’t carry into his first NFL action midway through the year when Dalton got benched.

Dalton as a rookie in a similar situation still thrived and earned his first Pro Bowl selection.

2. The impact of Green’s return

A.J. Green signed his franchise tender and is out to prove himself in 2020 so he can earn a new contract. He keeps saying he’s still the “same A.J. Green” that earned seven Pro Bowl honors, but he’s played just nine games in the last two years – none in since Dec. 2, 2018, because of toe and ankle injuries – so the Bengals need him to show that on the field.

Training camp will be important for Green getting back into action, especially with a new quarterback, and if he can stay healthy, the Bengals could have a dangerous receiving corps. Tyler Boyd has established himself as a strong No. 2, but there’s competition for the third receiver spot and backup roles. John Ross likely will be competing with rookie second-round draft pick Tee Higgins for a starting role, and Auden Tate also should be pushing for playing time after emerging as a capable backup in 2019.

3. Makeup of the offensive line

There should be some competition on the offensive line this training camp, and the 2020 starters could end up looking a lot different.

The Bengals are counting on 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams to make a big difference for a unit that saw third- and fourth-string left tackles getting most of the snaps last year while Williams missed the season with a shoulder injury. Line coach Jim Turner also is expecting a big jump for left guard Mike Jordan in Year 2 after he showed improvement late last season, but Billy Price will be looking to stay in the mix as well.

Free agent pickup Xavier Su’a-Filo is expected to start at right guard, while Fred Johnson could be pushing Bobby Hart for the job at right tackle. Johnson arrived midseason after he was waived by Pittsburgh, and he showed promise in the final few games.

4. Linebacker battles

The linebacker positions – the weakest part of the defense last year -- seem to be up for grabs with Jordan Evans and Germaine Pratt the lone returners from last year’s group.

Rookie Logan Wilson, a third-round pick, is a clear three-down option; free agent signee Josh Bynes is the lone veteran aside from Evans, who hasn’t proved to be a solution in the past; and fourth-rounder Akeem Davis-Gaithers and seventh-rounder Marcus Bailey have a chance to prove themselves worthy of higher draft status.

Shawn Williams also could fit into a linebacker role, as he likely has been pushed out of his safety spot with the addition of Vonn Bell. He spent some time in the box covering running backs last year in certain personnel packages.

5. Changeover in the secondary

The secondary also features some changes, where players will need time jelling together.

While Bell is expected to start at strong safety, there also two new cornerbacks expected to get significant playing time as the Bengals added Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander as free agents coming over from Minnesota. Waynes replaces Dre Kirkpatrick, while Alexander slides into the nickel corner role vacated by the departure of Darqueze Dennard and B.W. Webb. The Bengals also will be needing more consistency out of cornerback William Jackson III, who is entering the last year of his rookie contract.

Cincinnati’s defense needed overhauled, but the question is how quickly so many new players can get on the same page in such a short time.