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Camp from A-Z

Posted Jul 7, 2012


Mike Zimmer

With the Bengals expected to announce their training camp schedule next week, here's a cut-and-save A-Z primer on the first training camp ever at home:

A - A.J. Green: As in, As Advertised. He followed up the NFL's first 1,000-yard receiving rookie season in five years by becoming the first Bengals rookie to score a TD in the Pro Bowl and the expectations just keep growing. Head coach Marvin Lewis spent this spring raving about his leadership abilities and Green chose not to sit on his laurels after last month's mandatory minicamp and planned to work out with Cardinals perennial Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald in Minnesota before camp opens July 27.

B - Armon Binns and Brandon Tate: The biggest question mark of camp is the identity of Green's running mate at No. 2 receiver now that Jerome Simpson is a Viking. If it is going to be running back by committee, it sounds like Green's supporting cast is also going to be a group effort. Tate has never caught a ball as a Bengal and Binns has never taken an NFL snap, but offensive coordinator Jay Gruden came out of the spring talking about how Tate possesses stretch-the-field speed and the rangy 6-3, 210-pound Binns stretches to make those tough possession catches.

C - Center Kyle Cook: Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander, heading into his 18th season, gave Cook the greatest of all compliments last month when he compared his intelligence to former center Rich Braham. Braham, who moved from guard to center after the 1998 season and started the next seven Opening Days there, has been viewed as the gold standard in that department and Cincinnati's failure to replace it when he suffered a career-ending knee injury in 2006 was a big factor in the offense's fall from the NFL elite in '07. Cook doesn't get a lot of play nationally, but the coaches think his smarts and athleticism make him a top NFL center.

D - Darian Daily: Daily, the Paul Brown Stadium head groundskeeper, has had a whirlwind spring to get the place ready. After installing new synthetic turf in the stadium, Daily turned his attention to the practice fields and put in two Bermuda fields.

Bermuda grass is more durable, but it has a history of not holding up well in cold-weather climates. But the recent improvements in agronomy, as seen in the one Bermuda field Daily put in a few years ago, have now made it possible to go with it over bluegrass. And the call to go to Bermuda was one of the final pieces (which cost $800,000) that brought the camp to PBS.

E - End: The Bengals are looking for backups at defensive end to replace Frostee Rucker and Jon Fanene in the rotation. They combined for 10 sacks last season, although Fanene got a lot of those working inside on passing downs. The Bengals hope a former top 10 pick, Jamaal Anderson from 2007, can give them something like that moving between tackle and end. And another end that will get a lot of attention in camp is another young former top 10 pick in end Derrick Harvey.

Plus, he may not be working at end, but the Bengals are hoping that second-round pick Devon Still, the Penn State tackle, can also provide some inside rush.

F - The F tight end: He's the "move" tight end, the guy used all over the offensive formation, and is a skilled receiver. This camp is going to be a big one for that spot and we'll hear a lot about it. Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham heads into his third season as Green's running mate at No. 2 receiver if he can come close to reaching his potential as a gamebreaker down the middle and in the red zone. Plus, fourth-round pick Orson Charles out of Georgia showed in the spring the ability to run routes and catch, but Gruden also said he needs the tight ends to get more consistent and comfortable with the scheme before they can take the next step.     

G - Brandon Ghee: A third-rounder in 2010, he's barely taken any NFL snaps at cornerback and was cut last year after the preseason before getting revived on the practice squad. By all accounts he had a breakout spring where his enormous athleticism seemed to catch up with the football. Corner, of course, is right there at receiver for the camp's biggest number crunches. Don't forget, the Bengals are also impressed with fifth-round corner Shaun Prater out of Iowa, and we haven't even started talking about the six first-round corners.

H - Leon Hall: If he does meet his goal and takes the first snap of training camp at starting cornerback after blowing out his Achilles Nov. 13, it's the most impressive offseason rehab achievement since Carson Palmer lined up for the first snap of '06 camp less than seven months after he tore his ACL.

I - There is no I: That's what head coach Marvin Lewis says. There is no "I" in this team, separating it from its more talented but less accomplished predecessors. This is no Hard Knocks cast. Not when the most controversial guy, Adam Jones, is making news for teaching lessons to the rookies. HBO is now PBS at PBS.

J - Jay Gruden: The magic he wove with Green and rookie QB Andy Dalton last year made him a legit head coaching candidate overnight. Even more amazing is that he turned down two interviews, claiming he wasn't ready and he wanted to see the Dalton Gang through at least one more season. He was rewarded with what reports said was a three-year deal at more than $1 million per, but one gets the sense this guy isn't driven by the usual suspects. It's always nice watching a different drummer in a league that prides itself on marching in formation.

K - Dre Kirkpatrick: For the third time in seven drafts the Bengals took a corner with their first pick in the first round after never doing it in the first 38 drafts. But for the first time he doesn't have to be on the field the first time the foe goes to three receivers. Not with all that depth.

This camp will see a bit of a project. Kirkpatrick is adjusting to playing off coverage and getting used to techniques he never used in college. But at 6-2 and with his ability to be physical at the line of scrimmage, it's what Lewis says: "When you draw up what an NFL corner looks like, that's what he looks like."

L - Marvin Lewis: Lewis has a knack for getting his guys out of camp ready to go. Since '05 he is 12-9 in September and 4-3 in openers. It is December and January that have been the problems. In the same stretch he's 16-20 in the last two months.

M - Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga: It's his second camp in the position after a first year he passed muster running the huddle and making the calls. He's healthy after undergoing ankle surgery to correct the injury that dogged him the last half of last season. And he's responding to the call for him to shed being mechanical at times and go back to the instincts that got him named Defensive Player of the Year in college. In his fourth season, it would appear to be now or never.

N - Terence Newman: The Cowboys cut their two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, but at 33 years old Newman, says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, doesn't seem any different from the guy he coached in Dallas. Newman has pronounced himself "26 and a half" years old. That would be a nice get this training camp.

O - Matthew O'Donnell: You wouldn't think a 6-9 Canadian has a shot at making any NFL roster, but in his second camp O'Donnell may not be a longshot to make the final 53 after he was on the practice squad all of 2011. The coaches think he moves pretty well, love his bulk, and after he didn't miss a game in four seasons at Queen's in Canada the Toronto product was named a top 10 CFL prospect before he signed as a free agent with the Bengals.

P - Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP): The only way a player can get on it (and not be able to practice for the first six weeks of the regular season) is if he doesn't take a snap of practice all through the preseason. It's sounding more and more like Hall will be ready before then. One guy the club sounds cautious about is slot receiver Jordan Shipley as he recovers from an ACL injury. He's a PUP candidate, probably because the Bengals feel like they don't have to rush him because of the depth at receiver.

Q - Quality or quantity? That's the question facing the Bengals at the cornerback spot. How many do they keep? Five, six or seven? They first have to answer how many DBs do they keep? Ten or 11? Start ticking off the corners that have played safety (Jason Allen) and could play safety (Hall and Nate Clements) and it's a good place to start.

R - Red: Dalton is coming off a red-hot year as the only rookie QB in history to throw for 20 TDs while his team won at least eight games. But the only way his sophomore season is going to be deemed an improvement by the pundits is by beating his two top division rivals, the Steelers and Ravens, teams that he's 0-4 against. Palmer is 9-4 vs. the Ravens and 4-9 vs. the Steelers.

S - Slot receiver: Even if Shipley is PUP-ped, the Bengals are fraught with guys that can play that spot. Andrew Hawkins bolted out of the CFL and on to the roster when Shipley got hurt and used his quickness to provide favorable matchups for Gruden. Third-round pick Mohamed Sanu is big (6-2, 210) and has conjured up comparisons to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati's most effective third-down receiver of the past 20 years. Ryan Whalen, heading into his second season, has also been compared to Houshmandzadeh. They only have 27 NFL catches among them, less than half of Shipley's career 56.

T - Tebow: The circus comes to town Aug. 10 in the preseason opener, when quarterback Tim Tebow is expected to make his Jets debut at some point in the first quarter.

U - Underrated: The most underrated move the Bengals made over the offseason turned out to be signing Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He showed up every day of the spring, barely said a word, and quietly learned an offense where he's going to be splitting carries and catches with Bernard Scott, among others. But that's exactly why the Bengals think the guy will help. He's a team guy that brings no headlines, only hustle.

Well, they also got him because he hits the Bengals right where they've been hurting the last few years running the ball: short yardage, red zone and goal line. He may not have the flash and dash of, say, an Isaiah Pead, but Green-Ellis is extremely reliable at 4.0 yards per carry, never a fumble, and hardly a missed route, and that's what their offensive line has needed as much as anything in the run game.

V - Vontaze Burfict: Remember him? He came into the spring camps like Public Enemy No. 1 and simply left as No. 55 with a shot at making the team. Burfict signed as this year's most celebrated undrafted free agent with a lot of baggage when it came to fundamentals and maturity, but after a maze of interviews that first day he went about his business and impressed the club with how he learned the playbook and got in the right place. He's big (250 pounds) and provides an interesting, if not distant scenario, if the Bengals can get him, Maualuga and Thomas Howard on the field at the same time. But first Burfict has to make the team and his roster battle with guys like 2010 fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy is going to be a camp highlight.

W - Travelle Wharton and Bobbie Williams: The Bengals lost one of their leading lights in the locker room when their youth movement at right guard claimed Bobbie Williams. Williams, 35, has been the starter since '04 and, as Lewis called him when he opted to sign with Baltimore last month "one of my warriors" in the physically demanding AFC North.

But the Bengals also added a Williams-type at left guard when they signed Wharton in the first few days of free agency. A solid veteran of the past eight seasons for the Panthers, Wharton also brings the same traits of toughness, leadership and reliability that the "Bossman" brought.

The opener in Baltimore marks Wharton's 100th career start in an interesting career. A left tackle during a few seasons in Carolina, Wharton provides some athleticism the Bengals have been missing at left guard as well as the physicality of a guy that played inside for a perennial top five rushing team. Wharton and left tackle Andrew Whitworth make for some athletic big men.

X - The X Receiver: Whether it’s the simplicity of Gruden's scheme or because they have a different type of receiver, the Bengals have more receivers that can play all of the positions. So during the camp practices you won't be able to tell the wideouts without a playbook.

While Jerome Simpson and Chad Johnson could pretty much only play the X or split end (usually opposite the tight end on the line of scrimmage) while they were here, Green can play the X as well as the Z or flanker (usually lined up on the same side as the tight end slightly behind the line) and the slot.

Sanu played all three spots during his first practice and fifth-rounder Marvin Jones, the wideout from Cal, also played all three during the spring. Tate, Binns and Whalen have also proven to be as flexible with the thinking that defenses can't expect the same guy to line up in the same spot every snap. It's one of the reasons the Bengals used to be routinely criticized for being predictable on offense.

Y - Youth: If you read their national press clippings, the Bengals are the best young team in the NFL coming off a playoff berth with:

An NFL-leading four Pro Bowlers from the 2010 and 2011 drafts, plus one of the top-rated drafts from 2012.

Of the returning starters to a defense that finished ranked seventh in the league, eight are 28 or younger. That includes new safety Taylor Mays, who played 60 snaps last season.

Of the team's seven returning offensive starters, only one has appeared in more than 70 NFL games, left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Z - Mike Zimmer: We are living through a golden age in Bengals defense not seen since they had four top 10 finishes in the five seasons from 1972-76 with guys like Ken Riley, Mike Reid, Bill Bergey, Tommy Casanova and Lemar Parrish.

When Zimmer arrived in 2008, the defense under Lewis had trouble finding its footing with no finish better than No. 19 and no better than 27th in the previous three seasons, forcing Lewis to turn to his third coordinator. The hard-driving, confident and creative Zimmer not only changed the culture, but terrific draft picks like Hall, Johnathan Joseph, Domata Peko, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson along with free-agents like Reggie Nelson, Thomas Howard and Nate Clements have teamed the aggressiveness with talent.

It's no coincidence that since Zimmer's arrival the Bengals defense has been ranked 12th, fourth, 15th, and last year hit No. 7 after back-to-back No. 1 rankings earlier in the season for another golden age.

 

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