Bengals’ rookies gather, but offseason not ‘normal’ yet

Minicamp does offer glimpse of typical NFL routine for newest Bengals.

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor chuckled a little when asked how much he is looking forward to having a normal offseason.

After a completely virtual offseason in 2020 because of the pandemic, anything resembling the typical routine of minicamps and organized team activities is a welcome change, but the NFL isn’t quite back to “normal” even with COVID restrictions lifting.

That might not have been so evident Friday when the Bengals’ 2021 draft picks and college free agent signings – as well as a handful of players on tryout – took the field at Paul Brown Stadium for rookie minicamp. Normally minicamp takes place the week after the draft.

“It hasn’t been normal so far,” Taylor said with a laugh. “We’ve still been on Zooms. It would’ve been nice to have them the last couple weeks, but it’s been good. Our players have been great. We’ve been meeting with them the last couple weeks. It was good to finally get on the field this weekend. We’ll have some guys out there next week as well, which is going to be fun. But it is getting back to somewhat normalcy here, and that’s been fun for us.”

Taylor said the rookies will enter Phase 2 of the offseason workout acclimatization period next week before veterans report May 24 for the start of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) the following day. In Phase 2, the coaches can get more hands-on with the players, but right now it’s mostly just trying to see what kind of shape guys are in and where they are in their own training.

Once the veterans get in, more work can be done in terms of installing the offense and defense.

“It’s your first chance to see them,” Taylor said. “We’ve only been able to meet one on one with a couple of these guys. We haven’t really met with these rookies yet. I haven’t been allowed to. So you just get a chance to see what they’re familiar with as they go on the field for the first time. You don’t want to overreact to the first day one way or the other. But aside from that, you get a chance to look at your free agents and your tryout guys. That usually is what comes from the rookie camp. I think over the last couple of years rookie camp has really been scaled down. When I first came in the league it was a three-day adventure. It was like a real minicamp. You were having two-a-days and you were meeting all day. Now it’s ‘let’s get out there and see some of these tryout guys and free agent guys and form some opinions on them.’”

The Bengals signed six college free agents ahead of rookie minicamp and signed two tryout guys after Friday’s activities – former Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey and former Arkansas tight end Cheyenne O’Grady.

Dungey originally was a college free agent signee of the N.Y. Giants in 2019 and later spent time on the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad, but did not see game action for either team. He was not with an NFL team in 2020. O’Grady spent five seasons (2015-19) at the University of Arkansas and caught 80 passes for 858 yards and 10 touchdowns in 26 career games. Although he was eligible for the draft in 2020, he has not previously signed with an NFL team and will thus be classified as a rookie.

Other than those two apparently catching the Bengals’ eyes, Taylor didn’t want to comment too much on who stood out in minicamp Friday.

“We got bigger,” Taylor said when asked what stood out to him. “You look at some of those linemen on both sides of the ball, there’s some size there. It’s just fun to get those guys on the field. I don’t want to have any over-the-top reactions one way or the other based on one rookie practice. I know those guys are anxious, excited, nervous to get out there. It was a great day. It was fun being out there and I’m glad the weather cooperated with us. Again, we’ll get these guys next week, but I think it was a solid start for the rookies.”

The mental aspect of transitioning to the NFL is just as important as the physical part, but over the past year, the Bengals have gotten used to that being the easiest thing to work on, while doing so many meetings just virtually.

“Now you’re checking to see who’s in shape and how far we have to go with some of these guys,” Taylor said. “Training has been different these last two seasons with these guys. Yes, you want to get a feel for the mental, how well they do out there. You also want to get a feel for: ‘What’s each of their starting points right now and how do we make sure they’re in good condition as we get through the offseason program?’

Veterans around the league had expressed a desire to nix the entire offseason workout program for good after there was belief that not having it last year played a role in fewer injuries in some cases and actually improved the quality of competition during the season.

That didn’t prove to be the case for the Bengals, who dealt with numerous injuries and struggled out of the gate while breaking in a rookie quarterback.

“I’ve gotten great feedback from our veterans,” Taylor said. “We’ve been in constant communication over the last couple of weeks. Those guys feel like we have a lot of work to put in to be the team that we talked about being. To get some stuff done this offseason, I’ve been really impressed with the leadership on our team. Those guys have communicated to me that we feel like we have a ways to go and we gotta get on the field and get some work in. Excited for that week to come and we’ll get some good OTA work.”

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