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Volunteering some big questions

Posted May 21, 2012

The Bengals open their voluntary workouts Tuesday morning in Paul Brown Stadium to start a stretch that ends June 12-14 in the mandatory minicamp.

They'll go three days this week, three days next week, and four days the next week before the minicamp. And while nothing is going to be decided without pads (the players will be in helmets and shorts), it does give us a head start on answering 10 questions. And it is a bit of history. Thanks to the lockout, it is the first spring workout in the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton era. 

Who Lines Up At No. 2 Wide Receiver?

Not that it matters given that training camp opens in 66 days, the preseason in 81 days, and the regular season in 112 nights.

Tuesday figures to be the Armon Binns coronation when he lines up with A.J. Green. Binns had a great late season on the Bengals practice squad and looked crisp during the rookie camp 10 days ago.

But Brandon Tate also figures to get a lot of work at that spot, particularly early on. And with head coach Marvin Lewis saying that third-round pick Mohamed Sanu is in the mix to play a lot and possibly start, he'll also be getting a lot of looks at the No. 2.

With slot receiver Jordan Shipley recovering from his Sept. 16 ACL injury, it's doubtful the team will clear him for this week and that will be an interesting first snap when the offense goes three receivers. Andrew Hawkins, Ryan Whalen and Sanu would all be candidates in the slot.

Fifth-rounder Marvin Jones got a look at both outside spots at the rookie camp and the Bengals are very high on him given the way he tracks the ball and can run with his 4.4 speed. But at a slight 6-2, 200 pounds, he may need some time to develop physically.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Sanu and Tate.

In his first matchup with NFL DBs, how does Sanu compare to Binns? How close is he to contributing right away, if not at No. 2 but in the slot?

And, two years ago Tate averaged 18 yards per 24 catches with the Patriots. He hasn't caught a ball since, but at just 24 years old and in his second year in this system, what exactly have the Bengals been sitting on?

Who Lines Up At Cornerback On The First Snap?

Not that it matters right now and the club probably doesn't even know yet, but it gives us an idea what the coaches are thinking as Leon Hall rehabs from his Achilles surgery.

Hall can be a candidate for the physically unable to perform list (PUP), which means he couldn't start practicing until the week of the Oct. 21 game against the Steelers. So the next month is going to be key trying to see where guys are. If guys look the way the coaches hope they look, the Bengals don’t have to rush Hall and they can PUP him.

Hall says he's shooting to be back on the field for the first snap of training camp, but to remain a PUP candidate for final cutdown he can't practice at all during the preseason.

The Bengals have drafted two corners (Dre Kirkpatrick and Shaun Prater) and added a former Pro Bowler (Terence Newman) and a playoff third corner from last season (Jason Allen) to join Adam Jones and 2010 third-rounder Brandon Ghee.

What we know is that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has high regard for Newman, the 33-year-old cut by Dallas. He also likes Allen's ability to cover and play physically from what he's seen on tape.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: It’s a big month for Jones and Ghee with the rookies jamming the roster.

Jones started in place of Hall last season and struggled at times, but he had a lot of rust and he was coming off two surgeries. Now that he's healthy and is going to have a full spring followed by a training camp, he's got a chance to show his formidable skills. Plus, the coaches love him returning punts, which can't be seen in the spring.

Ghee simply hasn't played very much in his first two seasons and got cut last year before going on the practice squad and then getting promoted. A very fast guy, he showed enough signs of improvement during the practices late in the year that the Bengals think they may have something.

Prater sat out the last couple of rookie camp practices with an undisclosed ailment and it's believed he won't be available this week.

Who Lines Up Opposite Reggie Nelson At Safety?

Chris Crocker, who did it last season, has been cut and is working out for other teams but the door wasn't completely shut.

Still, the Bnegals feel it's time to see if the kids can play, too. Third-year man Taylor Mays, who played 60 snaps last year in his first season with the club, figures to get the nod Tuesday. Another thing to keep in mind is that if all those corners stay healthy, there might be one of them that could end up getting some snaps at safety. Keep the 10 best DBs, right?

Certainly starting corner Nate Clements has the tools to be a terrific safety, and so does Hall. And maybe Newman. Allen has already played safety in the league. They're all smart and physical with superb ball skills. But we're probably only talking as a swingman.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: A big month for Mays, Robert Sands and Jeromy Miles. The Bengals are still looking for a starter and can the two big guys cover well enough to do it? The 6-3, 230-pound Mays and the 6-4, 209-pound Sands both have the knock that they just can't break down and cover receivers in space.

Mays, a second-round pick who was the fifth safety taken in the 2010 draft, looked like he was coming on before he injured his hamstring and missed the last two games of the year. Sands, a fifth-round pick, played just one game as a rookie last year after his truncated preseason. Like Mays he's a big, physical guy and he'll get his shot this month with another year in the system.

The 6-2, 210-pound Miles, a free agent out of Massachusetts, is a hard guy to discount because he can run and he clearly has range. In 22 NFL games the past two seasons he has 20 special teams tackles but virtually hasn't played from scrimmage.

What's The Deal at Linebacker?

An intriguing bunch under first-year coach Paul Guenther making the move from versatile assistant. The starters look to be set, as well as the first guy off the bench in Dan Skuta, the special teams ace that can back up both the middle and SAM. And it's believed that 2010 fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy, who missed all last season when he tore his Achilles in the first 30 minutes of training camp, has been cleared and is ready to get back to backing up the middle and playing the SAM in a pinch.

A report over the weekend that 2011 third-round pick Dontay Moch, a backup SAM, may be suspended for a banned substance has caused hardly a ripple on the depth chart because the Bengals don't know what they have in Moch. Between a foot injury and frequent headaches, Moch never saw the field as a rookie and the coaches just don't have a feel for him. If he is suspended on appeal, it wouldn't take place until the regular season and he could practice until then. And it won't be officially announced until final cuts if there is a suspension.

Moch has plenty of company at SAM. Besides Skuta and Muckelroy, Michah Johnson, a late practice squad addition last season, had a good rookie camp at SAM and also plays the middle.

Special teams ace Vincent Rey is going to get a lot of snaps at backup WILL, as is Emmanuel Lamur, a free-agent rookie out of Kansas State that impressed enough to stick during the rookie camp tryout.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict.

Maualuga was supposed to have his breakout year in 2011 when he was switched back to his natural position in the middle. He was headed that way until he severely sprained his ankle in practice five games into the season, missed the next three, and was never really right. As Maualuga heads into his fourth year following ankle surgery, he's healthy as he tries to implement a new style. He's focusing on focus in an effort not to think about too many things. The coaches feel at times that has prevented him from playing at his reckless best.

Burfict, the free-agent rookie from Arizona State, got solid reviews from Lewis and Guenther after the rookie minicamp.  At 6-1, 248 pounds, he's got the NFL middle backer body, but questions about instincts and fundamentals were just some of the things that led to him not getting drafted. Yet the coaches said he responded well in the camp when he ran the huddle and made calls.

Where Will We See Kevin Zeitler?

Let's not get too excited about line play without pads, but it is going to be interesting to see where the coaches play these guys, as well as how they move and how the new guys are picking up the offense.

And maybe you can get a sense for how Zeitler is adapting to the Bengals style of pass protection. Zeitler, the second of Cincinnati's two first-round picks, comes out of a run-oriented Wisconsin offense. He's got the strength and smarts, so the key to his NFL transition is going to be picking up the technique.

Zeitler figures to be the starter at right guard Tuesday, but he'll also get work at center in the upcoming month. One of the reasons the Bengals had him rated so high is because they believe he can play all three inside spots. Plus, with Anthony Collins and veteran Dennis Roland battling practice-squadder Matthew O'Donnell, the team is pretty set at backup tackle.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Travelle Wharton, Clint Boling and Otis Hudson.

Wharton's next NFL start is his 100th, the 99 previous coming with Carolina, and with his Bengals debut Tuesday at left guard the club feels like it has upgraded over the last several seasons. Boling, a 2011 fourth-rounder, is a smart, athletic guy that figures to also get some snaps at center as well as right guard. He may also get some snaps at left guard, too, since the Bengals want their backups to play as many spots as possible. Before Hudson, a guard who was a fifth-round pick in 2010, hurt his knee in last year's training camp the Bengals saw him and Andre Smith as their most improved linemen.

What Kind of Rotation Will We See From the Defensive Line?

Again. No pads, so no declarations. But the rotation is going to be often and constant. The interesting thing is which combos do the Bengals use in the pass rush? The kids will obviously get a lot more work than a nine-year veteran like left end Robert Geathers and a seventh-year tackle like Domata Peko.

Look for third-round pick Brandon Thompson to get a lot of snaps at Peko's nose tackle spot because the coaches also figure to go easy on Pat Sims early as he comes back from an ankle injury that wiped out his last six games. And second-rounder Devon Still figures to take a lot of snaps behind Geno Atkins at the three technique. Although Still played both end and tackle at Penn State, he's staying put at tackle as the Bengals see if they can get some more push up the middle to help Atkins, coming off a Pro Bowl season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:  Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson.

Consecutive No. 8 picks in the 2007 and 2008 drafts, respectively. Both are making their Bengals practice debuts Tuesday as the club tries to reboot the duo's pass-rushing careers. Harvey is probably going to stick mainly at end, but the 6-6 Anderson, also an end, is an interesting option to swing inside on passing downs.

What Is This About The Bengals Having Doubts About Andy Dalton's True Upside?

You've got them. People on all floors at Paul Brown Stadium were perplexed by a report on Yahoo.com via ProFootballTalk.com Monday that quoted NFL Films producer Greg Cosell saying, “I can tell you that those in the Bengals organization have a few doubts as to what his true upside is."

In fact, the people you talk to are quite excited at how Dalton has come out of the box this spring with about eight added pounds of strength and the zip on his passes. The Bengals also think he can be that much better with what he never had last year as a rookie and that was 10 OTAs and time with his receivers.

Cosell says Dalton has arm-strength limitations, but it's hard to find anybody that thinks that at PBS. Especially after last season's 55-yard bomb to Green in St. Louis that he whistled about 60 yards in the air.

He has been working on his long-ball accuracy, but it's been a mechanical issue and not one of arm strength.

"Cosell needs to watch more tape," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "He had a good year last year. He wasn't a superstar. But he had a great year for a rookie. The difference between a good quarterback and a great quarterback is the ability to improve every year and he's shown that he can. He accomplished some great things. Of course he needs to get better ... (but) he proved he can make every throw."

And Gruden was saying it before the 2011 draft and the week after the 2011 draft. That first week in May, Gruden sat down with Bengals.com to watch tape of Dalton and when he was asked about arm strength he immediately went to the tape of Dalton's pro day at Texas Christian. On the screen came a pass 59 yards in the air off a seven-step drop.

"This is what sold me on his arm strength," Gruden said 13 months ago. "I want you to watch his demeanor and his body while he's throwing it. There's no strain. That's 59 yards off play-action. Nothing. The body stays right there."

What Will We See From Jermaine Gresham?

The Bengals would like to get their Pro Bowl tight end more involved in the passing game, particularly down the field, because they feel like he can be a weapon that can take heat off Green.

The club is hoping Gresham is a big beneficiary of the spring work. He's one of these guys that had to learn two systems his first two years in the league, kind of what Vernon Davis struggled with in San Francisco before he broke out.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Orson Charles.

Charles, the fourth-rounder from Georgia, should give the Bengals another pass threat at tight end. Is he going to line up with Gresham in the first double tight end set on Tuesday? Or will it be veteran Donald Lee, the hero of Tennessee? Or second-year man Colin Cochart? The Bengals probably haven't got that far yet, underlining how informal it all is and how much time is left before the players put on pads and how they're going to be looking at everybody everywhere by the end of the mandatory minicamp.

Have The Bengals Upgraded At Running Back Even Though They Didn't Draft One Early?

This is one you don't know until they get the pads on. With Patriots free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Bengals are getting a reliable, solid runner that gets big yards but not big runs. The Bengals want to be more explosive than they were with Cedric Benson and they hope getting Bernard Scott more touches than he's had in the previous seasons helps them in and out of the backfield. Plus, it will be interesting to see The Law Firm don his orange-and-black 42 because the word is he's looked pretty nifty when the players have worked with their position groups on the field. The thing about BJGE is he's got a rep for meticulously following his track to the line. 

Who Is The One Player That Will Emerge In The Biggest Way This Month?

Well, nobody is going to shock anybody without pads, that's for sure. The evaluations that come between My 22 and June 14 to have to be confirmed in training camp and the preseason games.

But we'll go with Gresham having a monster month. How can you go with a Pro Bowler, you ask? Everyone, most importantly Gresham, thinks he's better than six TDs and 10.6 yards per catch, his numbers last year. This spring is his first time as a pro where he's had the same QB and the same coordinator in an OTA, a solid formula to tap that vat of big-play potential.

 

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