Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban is looking at a nice brew of veterans and youth.
There is no fooling on this April 1 in Bengaldom. Maybe in no other year has the Line of Demarcation been so clear. March is for free agency. April is for the draft, set for April 28-30.
The Bengals capped off one of the NFL's busiest free-agency periods this year on Thursday when they signed wide receiver Brandon LaFell to a one-year deal on the last day of March. He was the Bengals'10th player to sign or re-sign in the last three weeks and it put them among the league leaders.
According to spotrac.com, the Bears had signed 14 free agents, followed by the Vikings with 11, and the Bengals were tied with the Lions and Falcons. The site had the Bengals for six signings, but that didn't include the signing of Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby and the re-signings of safety George Iloka, tackle Eric Winston, and wide receiver Brandon Tate.
The salary cap count for all 10 in 2016 figures to be in the $25 million range and has them able to line up veterans in virtually every key spot come Opening Day. The concern that the Bengals wouldn't be able to return as a contender this season after sending so many players into free agency seems to have abated with the signings of a starting safety (Ilolka), a starting cornerback (Adam Jones), two starting caliber linebackers in Dansby and Vincent Rey, and a starting wide receiver in LaFell who has varied experience playing both the slot and outside.
The line cutting off March and April was symbolized Thursday in the office of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. On his screen he watched Dansby work against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage. At the blackboard waited a list of college prospects he was set to start watching on Friday.
"I like veteran players that are smart and know what it takes to get there. He's been to a Super Bowl," said Guenther, who is banking on Dansby's experience opening up the playbook. "He fits in with our guys. They study and are great communicators and this guy is a great communicator."
To give you an idea how well they have added to their roster, former Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, Dansby's teammate in Cleveland, says his old team has not only come up with another good locker room guy but a zealot when it comes to work ethic.
"He takes the game very seriously. You have to to have played as long as he has," Hawkins said Friday. "He's as committed to playing as anyone I've seen while I've been playing. He'll eat the exact same meal at the exact same time for weeks, it's that important to him. He's literally 24-7. He'll sleep in a hyperbaric chamber. He and James Harrison are neck and neck when it comes to preparing themselves.
"He's a motivator," Hawkins said. "He's just not going through the motions when he goes out there and plays."
It's unclear if LaFell sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, but it's clear the Bengals offensive coaches feel like they've got a sleeping giant in the former Panther and Patriot. They look at his production in 2014 before he broke his foot last year and they see a 6-2 bruiser who can score in the red zone (he scored a TD for every 10.5 catches that year) and helped lead New England to a Super Bowl title with 74 catches.
At the very least they feel like they've got a smart, resourceful seven-year vet who played in the slot with Cam Newton in Carolina and ran outside for Tom Brady and that he knows enough and is good enough to give quarterback Andy Dalton close to what he had in Marvin Jones outside and Mohamed Sanu inside. Enough so they don't have to put a lot of pressure on a draft pick or one of their young guys.
On the last day of March, the day that LaFell signed, Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban was on the road scouting pro days. But he knows how a signature can affect a game plan.
"It's hard for rookies to play early. It's such a big adjustment," Urban said. "But whoever it is, now we've got a Brandon LaFell who has played at a high level in this league and he'll give us all he's got.
"It was very attractive to us he had played so many different spots. That's something we can take advantage of."
Now it's April and their eyes are turning to the draft. The march of the allotted 30 college prospects that can visit Paul Brown Stadium begins next week. In two more weeks will be the local day, a workout at PBS for high school and college prospects from the area. In less than three weeks the veterans begin their voluntary workouts.
"When we came back in 2015, we had everybody hurt when we lost in the playoffs the year before," Guenther said, "and everybody was saying, 'Oh, they'll be the first team that won't make it back to the playoffs.' Then we had the second toughest schedule in the league and went 12-4. I don't see why we can't do that again. These players know what it takes."
The NFL is even going beyond April. The league released the Bengals' voluntary off-season schedule Friday, leading off with Phase I in the weight room on April 18 at PBS.
After the draft they hold their rookie minicamp the next Friday through Sunday on May 6-8. Then the veterans and rookies hit the field in Phase II in 10 practices during three weeks: May 24-26, May 31-June 1 and 2, and June 6-9. Then it all ends in a mandatory minicamp June 14-16.
None of the sessions are open to the public. Players don't report back to PBS until the last week of July and training camp, which is open to the public.