Bengals.com's Five Best Storylines For Training Camp

The two Joes are ready to camp out.
The two Joes are ready to camp out.

The five best Bengals' storylines heading into next month's training camp:

5. The Darrin Simmons Daily

For the first time in his 19 seasons as the Bengals special teams strongman, Simmons is getting a rookie kicker ready for Opening Day in fifth-rounder Evan McPherson. The only time Simmons drafted a kicker, the Bengals opted for a camp kicking derby in 2017 that fifth-rounder Jake Elliott lost and Simmons has indicated there'll be none of that.

Of course, Simmons doesn't need a whole camp to get a guy ready. It will be recalled he lost his kicker, Neil Rackers, in the 2003 preseason finale and had just four days or so before the opener to get journeyman Shayne Graham off waivers and ready for Marvin Lewis' debut.

Graham, one of McPherson's coaches at Florida, naturally, had worked with Simmons in Carolina the year before and despite the short notice the combo would go on to produce a Pro Bowl and the Bengals all-time accuracy record.

Can't make this stuff up. Now here comes the rookie schooled in Simmons by Graham with six weeks to get ready.

It's been done before. Three of the best Bengals kickers were Opening Day rookies in Horst Muhlmann, Chris Bahr and Doug Pelfrey. And the last one to do it, Rackers in 2000, kicked for a dozen years and is in the top 50 in all-time NFL scoring.

Then there's the Route 52 Simmons is taking at punter. He's indicated he won't use 13-year franchise leader Kevin Huber all that much during camp to get the McNicholas High School and University of Cincinnati grad ready for a season that would leave him tied with Kenny Riley for the most Bengals games played if he works in all 17 for 207.

That means LaSalle High School's Drue Chrisman, via Lawrenceburg, Ind., and Ohio State, is going to get several punts on tape, which makes you wonder if they can get the strong-legged athlete to the practice squad without losing him.

4. Mike Hilton and The Cornermen

If there is a player that represents what the Bengals are trying to do on a defense seeking to set the edge and amp up pressure, it is their new slot cornerback plucked from the dreaded Steelers in a second straight spending spree in free agency.

First of all, Hilton is a new starter, making him one of six new ones on defense, including the top three cornerbacks. That means backup fifth-year linebacker and special teams maven Jordan Evans has the most Bengals games on defense with 60.

And the 5-9, 184-pound Hilton brings a feisty heat to a defense that not only finished last in sacks last season but has allowed the most rushing yards in the league the past three years. Hilton has 9.5 career sacks as one of the NFL's best blitzing slots and his 30 tackles for loss are going to be huge relief for a run defense that has been trying to find itself on the edge.

Plus, Hilton has seven career interceptions in his four seasons (Darius Phillips leads Bengals cornerbacks with five in that same stretch) and brings some no-nonsense reliability in crunch time that he takes from always contending Pittsburgh.

3. Joe Mixon Getting the Game Ball Back From Frank Pollack

Mixon, the Bengals' two-time 1,000-yard running back, thinks Pollack can get him a third after a foot injury limited him to six games last season. As head coach Zac Taylor changed up his staff after the season, Mixon lobbied up and down the Paul Brown Stadium elevator to get Pollack to return as offensive line coach and he got his man.

"He's an interesting man. I like his style. He gets after it," Mixon said that day Taylor hired Pollack in January. "The thing about Frank is that no matter who is out there on the field, we're going to run that little ball. He's committed to the run."

It will be recalled that after the Bengals won Taylor's first game over the Jets in 2019, Mixon went across the field to give his touchdown ball to Pollack, then the Jets offensive line coach. Mixon later talked about how much of an impact Pollack had on him mentally and physically during the 2018 season when he ripped off a career-high 4.9 yards per carry while winning the Bengals' first ever AFC rushing title.

Talk about protecting Joe Burrow. Five yards per carry would be as valuable as an $80 million guard.

Now in camp with the pads on, we figure to see one of the biggest changes to Taylor's playbook in three seasons with Pollack's signature wide zone play that sums up his philosophy and underlines Mixon's strengths.

"It's a stretch run that allows you to take advantage of the defense and makes them wrong. They can never be right if you are doing it the correct way," Pollack said back in January. "It's something that really allows you to have more margin for error. The back can make the line or a linemen correct and vice versa. I think it adds a little more flexibility in that regard and it promotes the unit to play better."

2. Reunion of Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase (and it looks so good so far)

"Reunited and it feels so good," went No. 1 more than 40 years ago when Peaches and Herb sang it and now another duo is hoping to take it to the top of the charts. But then, Burrow and Chase have already made beautiful music together.

While Burrow won the Heisman Trophy with an NCAA-record 60 touchdown passes two years ago at LSU, Chase caught an SEC-record 20 of them to go with another league record 1,780 yards.

After the Bengals took Chase with the fifth pick two months ago, Elias Sports Bureau said it was the first time in the 54 years of the common draft that an NFL team has selected a quarterback-receiver combo from the same school in the top five during consecutive drafts.

And even though the Bengals basically went through ten up-tempo walk-throughs in the spring, it looks like these two are still in sync. Along with Burrow's rehab, Chase's play was the talk of May and June. From his inside-outside versatility to his vise-strong hands to his icy pro's pro learning of the playbook, he has had them buzzing.

There's going to be so much scrutiny of the long ball during camp that the scribes are going to need telescopes instead of binoculars. The deep ball was the one category Burrow struggled in last season and it was the one category with Chase in Baton Rouge where they went off the charts.

(How many times are we going to see this stat in August? Pro Football Focus graded Burrow with a staggering 98.2 when he targeted Chase on throws 20 yards or longer two years ago. The web site had Burrow for just 61.5 on those 20-yard throws last year.)

There's also the there's-only-one-ball sub-plot. Not only is Chase re-united with Burrow, but he's hooked up with his fellow collegiate game-breaker in Tee Higgins, the guy that came within a whisker of setting the Bengals rookie records for catches and yards last season. Not to mention two-time 1,000-yard slot receiver Tyler Boyd.

With Higgins as his running mate and Boyd inside, Chase has a shot at breaking the 67 catches of Higgins and Cris Collinsworth and the 1,057 yards of A.J. Green. Just think, when Collinsworth and Green did it 30 years apart, the second-leading receivers were tight ends.

Let the countdown begin.

1. The Burrow Watch

Now that he looked so good in the spring, it looks like it can officially move from "The Rehab" to "The Watch."

Will there be anything else? During the spring, his every move was followed and documented as if he were a Cold War spy. Never had there been so much attention paid to the pre-practice stretch and the height of the knee pumps.

When did the knee brace come off? What did he do during water breaks? How can he be back when they won't let him hand it off?

That was just the spring. Imagine when the pads come on.

But, hey, he looks terrific. His passes are just as crisp and accurate, maybe even more so after fine-tuning some mechanics.

It's looking to be as on target as the Carson Palmer Rehab in 2006, without the Sports Illustrated cover of him on the underwater treadmill. It also looks like there won't be a definitive moment like Palmer had on Aug. 28, 2006, when he returned to the field for the first time in ten months and lit the Packers on nine of 14 passes for three touchdowns in the third preseason week and was then anointed the Opening Day starter moments after the game.

Maybe Burrow's moment comes during intrasquad work because Taylor has hinted that Burrow may not play in any of the three preseason games. And no one seems to mind given that last year he came out firing and was in the Rookie of the Year conversation right away even without a preseason.

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