Five mandatory issues


Antwan Odom

Knowing that absolutely no questions are going to be resolved in the five mandatory practices of minicamp that take place with no shoulder pads, here are five issues the Bengals should have a better feel for by noon Thursday:

1. PLAYERS COMING BACK FROM INJURY

Remember back to that day a long, long time ago of Jan. 9, 2010 when the Bengals season ended in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

They lost, 24-14, to the Jets and not on the field for the defense were top sacker Antwan Odom (Achilles), starting safety Roy Williams (forearm), and starting SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga (leg), and playing at less than 100 percent were starting tackle Domata Peko (knee) and starting free safety Chris Crocker (ankle).

Throw in the ruptured Achilles of veteran tight end Reggie Kelly and if they can come back from the wear and tear of the AFC North title run, the Bengals will have some heavy duty players available for the Patriots in the Sept. 12 opener that they didn't have against the Jets.

So far so good. Only Maualuga won't be available when Tuesday's 10 a.m. practice starts things as he rehabs from a procedure earlier in the month that won't prevent him from being ready for training camp.

But Williams, Crocker and Peko have looked to be OK during their return to voluntary practices and Odom and Kelly look downright relieved. Both look to be pushing off their feet with no pain or limitations after the surgery wiped out both their seasons.

Like every other question, Williams' forearm that has been broken in each of the past two seasons won't meet the ultimate test until the pads go on next month. But he has probably already had it hit a couple of times just by virtue of the close proximity of bodies during 11-on-11s, and there looks to be no problems. Plus, some think he's looked at least as good as he did last year.

And the other guys, all who had surgery, look to have their legs under them. They'll be monitored this week to see how they recover and respond, but you've got to believe most of them aren't going to go all five workouts.

Why? They don't play for real for 90 days.

The one player that remains shrouded in mystery is right tackle Andre Smith (foot). He seemingly will be ready for training camp, but he hasn't taken a snap since Jan. 9.

2. THE PROGRESS OF THE PASSING GAME

The biggest concern is the same as it was at the end of the Wild Card game. It's not so much the absence of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco during the voluntaries. But there is a desire for the passing game to reach some kind of consistency with the guys that are here this spring.

It's not that much of a surprise considering the Bengals have made plenty of changes to the playbook with a batch of receivers that don't have a lot of experience with quarterback Carson Palmer. Of the roster of wide receivers that were here during the OTAs, only Andre Caldwell has caught more than one ball from Palmer in a game.

And while Jordan Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham have had impressive rookie springs, they're also dealing with the complexities of a pro offense while veteran free-agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant is adjusting to playing to a variety of spots for the first time in his career.

But the word is Bryant, like Gresham and Shipley, are getting better the more snaps they get. It just may have a hard time showing up during a week like this. With the defense concentrating on getting pressure on the quarterback and the offense still getting its feet wet, it could be like a baseball spring training where the pitchers are ahead of the hitters.

Yet while there has been some ragged play at times, there is also confidence the Bengals have more talent in the passing game than at this time last season, and they have used the spring to its full advantage by getting what they need to get in by the time camp starts.

3. THE SECONDARY

Who stays and who goes? With 18 defensive backs jockeying for position, a couple of them are going to be gone by the time they get the chance to put on pads. They could be gone by the end of Thursday if the Bengals do what they did last year and ease the roster crunch heading into the five-week layoff. Right now there are 89 players on the roster and only 80 players under contract can be brought to camp.

Here's one of the reasons the Bengals and other teams don't sign draft picks until after the spring camps: Teams can never have more than 80 signed players on the roster. With nine unsigned draft picks, that allows them to use the camps to look at many as nine extra players.

But when it comes to DBs, isn't it down to just finding the last cornerback? Figure the four safeties are Williams, Crocker, Chinedum Ndukwe and Gibril Wilson. Figure five of the cornerbacks are Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Morgan Trent and Brandon Ghee. Jones, by the way, has continued to impress with his immense physical skills.

4. JERMAINE GRESHAM

Even though a tight end's proper evaluation can only take place while wearing pads, there is going to be some serious scrutiny on what he does in the mental part of the game.

With Kelly looking good, the only way the coaches are going to feel good about getting Gresham in there right away is if he's able to pick up the offense relatively quickly and not make a slew of mental errors. They should have a better idea of where he stands in the playbook after five intense sessions.

5. THE OCHO

The Ocho is going to be under the microscope because he always is and because all of the receivers are.

With The Ocho now in place at his X spot on the weak side, there is now some old world order with Bryant at Z on the strong side and Caldwell and Shipley in the slot. Then you have outside guys like Matt Jones and Dez Briscoe looking to make a mark, as well as Quan Cosby vying for some slot time.

The last time we saw The Ocho was his 32nd birthday on Jan. 9 in the Wild Card game. He says he has been doing weightlifting, boxing and some football while keeping up his active TV sked, and the Bengals figure if he comes in like he did last year he'll be ready to go physically. 

But there is always some angst about receivers older than 30, no matter if they are The Ocho or Cris Collinsworth. Or Derrick Mason or Torry Holt, for that matter. Every Cincinnati school kid knows how Collinsworth turned 30 in the offseason and then suddenly showed up at camp unable to run or get open.

No one thinks that is going to happen to the lithe and flexible Ochocinco. But everyone will just feel a lot better when they see The Ocho run that first route Tuesday. 

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