What promises to be the slowest evolving training camp in Bengals history took some robust steps Tuesday with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's verbal contract agreement, the investiture of No. 85 to rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins and the arrival of the veterans for their first Covid-19 tests.
Veteran running back Giovani Bernard and wife Chloe' drove 15 hours straight from south Florida Monday and arrived in Cincinnati at 9:45 p.m.
"It's the longest I've been away from Cincinnati," said Bernard as he begins his seventh NFL season as the second-most senior offensive player. "Six months. It was good to get back and drive through and see it again."
Higgins, the Clemson wide receiver who was the first pick in the second round of the April draft and the exclamation point for an offense that took Burrow No. 1, signed a four-year deal in the Paul Brown Stadium V.I.P. Room tucked away just a few yards from the field.
"I've got some big shoes to shoes to fill," said Higgins after holding up the No. 85 jersey Chad Johnson told him to wear with his blessing. "It's going to be fun."
Burrow and the vets have yet to be in Paul Brown Stadium, but he's expected to make his entrance Thursday for a physical to be followed by his signing. The Higgins deal completes the contracts for the seven-man draft class headed by Burrow, LSU's Heisman Trophy winner that beat Higgins' Tigers for the national title.
The veterans undergo another Covid-19 test on Wednesday and Friday and if they test negative they'll get in the building for their physicals Sunday. At that point the entire team embarks on a strength and conditioning regimen that puts them on the field in helmets around Aug. 10. A week later, the pads come on.
Unable to go upstairs to sign his contract because of the PBS pandemic guidelines, the moment Higgins had hoped for since he can remember came quietly but still powerfully. He has long talked about how much he admires his mother, Camillia Stewart, for overcoming her drug addiction. Her 14th anniversary of being clean is next month.
"I know I'll get my mom what she wanted. She wants a car," said Higgins and the make and model doesn't matter. "She just wants to go pick one out."
He says hooking up with Burrow should be just as easy.
"I want to get that chemistry right. I don't think it's going to take long at all," Higgins said. "He's a good quarterback and he has great guys on the outside to throw it to."
The 6-4, 215-pound Higgins has a style and build that closely resembles the play of the Bengals' best player, 10-year veteran wide receiver A.J. Green. While Higgins tied the Clemson career receiving touchdown record set by such future NFL stars as DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, his favorite player in the league has been Green. He really is now. He's talked to Green just once since the draft, but that's enough.
"It's really cool to talk to him on the phone. He was my idol growing up," Higgins said. "He was just saying to me, 'Hey, enjoy this moment and we'll catch up.'"
Now's the time for catching. Higgins idolized Green, but he also knew all about Johnson and the exploits of the Bengals all-time leading receiver. When he discovered Johnson's No. 85 was available, he ran the route straight ahead.
"Out of respect I had to ask him if I could wear the number," Higgins said. "He was excited. That brought me joy. I'm ready to get to it. I always followed him just because who he was, how he came about and how he pursued the game."
Head coach Zac Taylor, wearing a mask, stood between the parking lot and the testing trailer Tuesday morning to greet the vets in social distancing fashion.
If guys adhere to the rules like Bernard, the Bengals should be pretty healthy. He and Chloe' plan to stay inside and keep to themselves while Bernard deals with the protocols.
"We weren't about to get on a plane whatsoever. Some guys took private jets. That's out of my pay grade," Bernard said. "I just want to be respectful of people's space. I don't want to get anybody sick and I don't want anybody to pass it on to anybody. Just sticking to the guidelines. I think that's kind of where our country is at right now. We should just try to follow the guidelines as much as we can just so we can get past this and get back to normalcy."
Bernard sported a black mask as he greeted the masked Taylor. And he says he crossed paths with only two teammates on his way to and from the testing trailer, running back Samaje Perine and wide receiver Mike Thomas.
"And Mason (Schreck) pulled into the lot as I was leaving. That's it," Bernard said. "I spent more time with the people doing the test than anybody."
The vets took their tests on a day the list of players around the NFL opting out of the season grew to 21.
"We know how serious this is. Especially for guys starting new families or their wives are pregnant or whatever. We don't know the long-term effects of this virus," Bernard said. "There is thought that needs to go into it. Can you financially do that? Can you miss a season? There are a bunch of variables. There is the health side of it. But I enjoy the game. The way I saw how they've prepared for the testing, you can tell they're really trying to make an effort to get this season up and going."