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After Red-Hot Offseason, Bengals Finally Gather To Find The Answers 

One answer the Bengals know. They want to extend Joe Mixon.
One answer the Bengals know. They want to extend Joe Mixon.

With the Bengals set to gather to Tuesday for the first time as a team this year, they got down to 80 players Monday with a couple of moves and that was the easy part.

Nothing is as easy it looks amid the panorama of a pandemic and for Duke Tobin, the club's director of player personnel, the tough stuff is just starting. If there was ever a season that could be decided by roster management, this is it.

And they don't even have all the roster rules yet as the NFL and the NFL Players Association find out that bargaining against a virus is just as formidable as a lockout or a strike.

Certainly the covid is more unpredictable.

But Tobin says they have enough of a framework to get a successful season in motion. (There are going to be more guessing games to go along with the game day inactives. Now you can try and guess the six veterans on the practice squad or the four practice squad players they'll protect every week.)

And Tobin knows after an offseason the Bengals gave their offense a facelift with overall No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow and overhauled their defense with their most expensive free-agent haul ever, improvement must be made.

"We are incredibly satisfied with what we were able to accomplish this offseason. We think we have a lot of really good pieces walking in the building today and tomorrow," Tobin said in his first media zoom since the draft days of April. "I think there are a lot of players in this building who expect a huge improvement. I think everybody in the front office expects that as well."

As for the hot-button topics, in no particular order, the Bengals are intent on extending running back Joe Mixon before the season, newly-signed Brandon Allen could qualify as the Bengals' first-ever quarantine quarterback and while observing the lack of positive Covid-19 tests at Paul Brown Stadium Tobin isn't sure if more than two Bengals are going to choose to opt out of the season.

"The people that are coming in the building and the people that are interacting with players and the players themselves have all tested negative for COVID," Tobin said. "That's a comforting fact when you walk around the building and you know everybody is getting tested on a daily basis. I've been really impressed with the health of our players and staff. We haven't, to this point, knock on wood, been hit hard with it. If everybody does their part and holds each other accountable and holds themselves accountable, hopefully we'll be able to stay safe together. "

Tobin says he respects the opt-out decisions of back-up nose tackle Josh Tupou and reserve tackle Isaiah Prince while acknowledging the Bengals are in the market for depth on the defensive front after tackle Ryan Glasgow was waived following a failed physical. After all, Tupou was probably their best player against the run last year while playing 44 percent of the snaps, but it's hard to go get guys off the street at the moment.

The Bengals can't bring free agents in for workouts and a physical until they get below the 80-player limit. Plus, said player is looking at a five-day covid testing period before he can get that tryout and physical. Throw in the fact that the Bengals have the No. 1 waiver claim in a preseason of no games and upgrading once camp is underway is a lot tougher now.

"Maybe it's not the best year to be there because we will have less to evaluate," Tobin said of the top waiver spot. "But some of the young guys we'll go back to our college evaluations and we'll just roll off of those, which isn't a bad way to go because it's not too far from where they are now. But it'll be a challenge identifying bringing other guys in for sure."

But while the undrafted rookies have it tough, the quarterbacks may be treated with kid gloves. The Bengals brought in Allen over the weekend to cover their bases with four quarterbacks in opting for a five-year veteran journeyman backup grounded in Taylor's system.

 Tobin says it's a possibility one of them will be quarantined away from the other quarterbacks, but he's not sure how head coach Zac Taylor going to play it.

They're not sure a quarterback can just sit at home and be ready to play without being involved in some practices. But the next five weeks are all about adjusting.

"That's the hardest position to get up and going to play on a short notice, and we want to have enough guys to get us through the season that know what we do and how to operate our offense," Tobin said. "And that position is so vital that we felt like it was necessary to have another guy in the fold, learning our system, being able to operate it and being able to call our plays and being able to give us a chance, if it comes down to that. "

Last year the Bengals kept three quarterbacks on the active roster so they could develop college free agent Jake Dolegala without fear of him getting plucked from the practice squad. But this year the squad has been expanded from 10 to 16 players and what was once the fiefdom of young players before they hit free agency, the practice squad can now include six veterans no matter their time in the league. (And it looks like if a team plays just one game this season, each player gets an accrued NFL season.)

Plus, four practice squad players can be protected each week, meaning another team can't sign them. That would seem to be the spot to put at least one quarterback, but Tobin says there are about 48 hours every week when every practice squad player is eligible to be signed by other teams, starting after Sunday's game and ending some time Tuesday.

"This year will be very important to have a 16-man practice squad that we feel good about," Tobin said. "That'll be our primary source of players as the season goes on just because of the restrictions of bringing free agents in, working them out, getting them cleared from a testing protocol standpoint. So, it'll be a challenge but that that practice squad will be very valuable to us and a lot of those young guys will be competing for a spot there."

Mixon doesn't want to be protected. He just wants to be extended and as he goes into his contract year, it's always a raging debate about what to pay a talented running back in a passer's league.

But the debate gets even hotter now as the NFL world braces for next season's shrinking salary cap and an alluring 2021 draft class of backs like Oklahoma State's national rushing champion Chubba Hubbard, Alabama's Najee Harris and Mississippi State's Kylin Hill.

But Mixon turned a mere 24 last week (Harris and Hill will be 23 next season) and he's already the NFL goods with two 1,000-yard seasons, receiver hands out of the backfield and an unquestioned leadership role in the locker room. While A.J. Green was shelved the last two seasons, Mixon was their MVP.

Tobin gets all that. That's why they want Mixon long term.

"I think no matter the position, if the guy is valuable to you and helps you win and is an ascending player with a lot of career ahead of him, I think you look to extend him and keep him around," Tobin said. "It's less about the positional evaluation and more about the importance of the player and the person. (Mixon is) a guy we'd like to have around. We're certainly cognizant of the market and how to take a slice out of your cap and how much you should keep for each position. But he's an important guy we'd like to have."

But, like everything else this season, there just isn't a blueprint. Usually, the Mixon extension would be a cut-and-dried proposition. Inked before the opener.

"(There is) some uncertainty with the cap this year, next year and even the year after and how to structure something that's agreeable to both sides. So there are challenges that we'll be working through," Tobin said. "You always take the bird in the hand and Joe's been a great player for us. We want him around here. We know what he is. He came in and earned it.

"He's a guy that we're proud of. Regardless of what's in the in draft next year or what's in free agent, we know that Joe's a piece that we want. We'll work to see if that can come together."

Like everything else this season, stay tuned.