The Bengals veterans reported Tuesday for training camp's first practice on Wednesday and that means free safety Jessie Bates III is the only defensive starter left from the last game before Zac Taylor became head coach.
That was the 2018 finale and while it's fine to ponder Joe Burrow's knee, the state of the offensive line and if they'll have three 1,000-yard receivers, the defense's big question mark has slid into Paul Brown Stadium this summer virtually unnoticed.
Even though in the last two offseasons they've committed more than $200 million to free agents on that side of the ball and promoted 2020 third-round pick Logan Wilson to signal-caller at middle linebacker as one of six new Opening Day starters.
"We have to keep them healthy," says director of player personnel Duke Tobin, knowing their best laid defensive plans have run afoul of injuries.
Cornerback Trae Waynes, a first-rounder in his prime and one of their hugest free agents ever, has yet to take a snap as a Bengal after getting injured in the weight room last year. Nose tackle D.J. Reader, their biggest free-agent ever until sack ace Trey Hendrickson's $60 million deal this year, got hurt in his fifth game as a Bengal. Perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins barely played because of injury. Their top four cornerbacks lost a total of 25 games to injury.
No wonder Tobin observed at Monday's training camp media luncheon, "We think we've got a defense if it can stay healthy and we don't have to play with our ninth and tenth defensive tackle and sixth corner and all those things."
Now the buzz words are "flexibility," according to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, and "communication," according to Bates.
"We think it will come together and they'll play as a unit this year," Tobin said. "The more they get comfortable and familiar with each other. We feel good about the talent over there and we've got some depth."
What the defense lost in talent last season, they couldn't make up for with comfort and familiarity because the pandemic made all that moot when it vaporized spring practices and an entire slate of preseason games.
But if they come in with a big question mark around their ID badges, the Bengals defenders also come in with eight spring workouts under their belts and are about to work out the kinks in three preseason games.
Bates, a rookie in that 2018 finale, has grown into a big reason why they were able to get on the field this spring. As the club's NFL Players Association rep, Bates helped his teammates and his coaches work out an amenable schedule and it turns out the newcomers, like those brand new set of starting cornerbacks in Waynes, Chidobe Awuzie and slot man Mike Hilton, were thinking the same thing.
Remember Bates' parting words last month when they broke camp?
"The guys that we brought in are very, very intelligent," Bates said. "I know they ran a couple things different where they came from, but how fast they picked it up and being able to ask questions is the main part of it when we're installing. When you're on Zoom, it is very easy to kind of listen to coach and not have notes down and stuff like that."
One of the reasons the Bengals feel like they're going to have a better defense is because they went out in free agency and grabbed one of the league's more productive slot cornerbacks in Hilton. The Bengals moved on from the slot corner they signed last year in Mackensie Alexander, now back in Minnesota. When Alexander came in last year, he and everyone else had no shot to get timed up.
Not like Hilton in this May and June, when Bates was able to ask him such things as what he's thinking when he's blitzing out of a stack.
"Just having conversations like that, will put me in a better position to do my job better," Bates said. "The new guys were the main part of the OTAs. I feel like that's why we decided to come in. The biggest thing I was very impressed with is that nobody was complaining. We didn't have guys not showing up that was supposed to be here. They threw a lot at us. You had to wait out there for 30 minutes after you got (COVID) tested. It just says a lot about the guys that coach Taylor has brought in here in free agency and through the draft and the guys that have stayed in the locker room."
After a season the Bengals were last in the league in sacks, Anarumo knows he has to amp up the pressure. Hilton, who has the most sacks of any cornerback in the past four seasons with 9.5, should help.
So, too, should the signing of Hendrickson's 13.5 sacks on the edge and the drafting of third- and fourth-rounders Joseph Ossai and Cam Sample, respectively, versatile defensive linemen that can rush from different spots. Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard on the other edge can also drop and give pass protectors pause.
Plus, Wilson leads a young and interchangeable linebacker group they feel is much speedier than in the recent past.
"Overall just the amount of flexibility the group will give us," Anarumo said at the luncheon about what excites him about camp. "You can get pigeon-holed a little bit when you send a grouping of guys out there and you only do a few things and the offense knows. If you can leave the same guys out there and do a bunch of different things that adds to the offense's issues. So just the flexibility and what these guys can bring, that's what I'm most excited about."
But when it comes to this defense, Tobin can hear the words of Pete Brown, the Bengals' late, great personnel man.
"The best ability is availability."
"We just have to keep them on the field," is how Tobin puts it for this camp.