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Big-time campers


The stars have looked good, but the Bengal of the spring may be RB/WR Rex Burkhead.

As the Bengals head into their three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday, the best news is their best players are looking the way they should after nine voluntary workouts over the last three weeks.

Wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, with seven Pro Bowls between them, have looked sharp during the media sessions and have reportedly carried it off in other practices as well. Same with quarterback Andy Dalton, who seems to be benefitting from his two off-season stints at the quarterback camp of Dr. Tom House at USC.

The play of Green and Atkins has been particularly encouraging, given that injuries last season contributed to a decline in their usual production. As he came back from a torn ACL last year, Atkins managed just three sacks after a three-year run of 26. Green still managed to gain 1,041 yards, but he didn't have a catch in six games because of three different injuries, including a concussion that knocked him out of the Wild Card Game.

On defense, cornerbacks Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard have been flying around, veteran free-agent linebacker A.J. Hawk seems to have worked in seamlessly and 2014 third-rounder Will Clarke looks poised to play more than his 64 rookie snaps after gaining 20 pounds to 290 and looking more comfortable in the scheme backing up Michael Johnson at right end.

Also asserting himself is quarterback AJ McCarron, the 2014 fifth-rounder who is going through his first spring drills after recovering from shoulder tendinitis. McCarron is showing the strengths he had at Alabama, awareness and command of the offense, and looks to be getting more work than Terrelle Pryor or Josh Johnson.

But McCarron won't be able to solidify the No. 2 spot until pre-season games. With early signs they'll keep four running backs and four tight ends, it looks they'll keep two quarterbacks on the final 53. But things can change.

The best player on both sides of the ball the last three weeks just may be third-year running back Rex Burkhead, who is also catching balls as a slot receiver.

The mandatory camp the Bengals put on this week isn't going to be much different than the voluntary camp that went on for the past three weeks at Paul Brown Stadium.

The practices on the field are going to look the same, but the days are going to be longer because the voluntaries are restricted to the mornings. In the mandatory camp the Bengals are allowed to have their players on the premises longer, so on Tuesday and Wednesday they'll stage a morning walk through, an afternoon practice and an evening meeting. They'll break camp Thursday, which will be an earlier day, and won't convene again until the beginning of training camp late next month.

The personnel is also going to look the same, since everyone who was expected to show in the last three weeks showed. Backup defensive tackle Devon Still, attending to his daughter's health issues during the voluntaries, is expected to be in camp for the first time.

Since all three days are open to the media (not the public), it's a chance to see how often rehabbing players are practicing. The voluntaries were open to the media only once a week, so this week there'll be a better sense who is going every day.

For instance, two weeks ago wide receiver Marvin Jones, coming off two ankle/foot surgeries, went full go, but wasn't out there last week as the Bengals bring him along slowly. Wide receiver James Wright, who missed the last month of the season with a torn knee PCL, returned early in the spring but hasn't been on the field in the last couple of weeks.

It's a pattern that probably continues this week since head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't have any games to win right now and is simply trying to get people to training camp.

Right end Margus Hunt (back) and safety George Iloka (unknown) haven't worked at all this spring and don't figure to this week, but the indication is they'll be ready for training camp.

Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict probably won't be there that first day of camp, which has yet to be set, but defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is banking on his leader to be there for the opener in Oakland. Taped on the wall above Guenther's desk are a couple of sheets stapled together called, "The Burfict Plan,' which culminates with him playing Sept. 13 against the Raiders as he comes back from January's micro fracture knee surgery.

The plan calls for Burfict to be back in time to play a pre-season game or two in preparation for the regular season. That's an optimistic sign because if he practices just once, he's not allowed to go on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), which would keep him off the practice field for the first six weeks of the regular season.

The two drafted players that have shown up the most appear to be West Coast roommates, sixth-round safety Derron Smith of Fresno State and fourth-round cornerback Josh Shaw of USC. Smith has impressed with his ability to be in the right place at the right time and Shaw has been a physical presence as a 200-pounder who has been playing the slot as well as outside.

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