Go under the microscope for Friday's 7:30 p.m. preseason opener at Paul Brown Stadium against the Jets (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and it is pretty much the same conversation about new starters since the hot stove league ignited an hour after J.J. Watt returned the pick for the TD in the Wild Card Game seven months ago on Jan. 7.
Which wide receivers are going to make plays with the lights on? How are the safeties going to react to a New York team that likes to pound the running game? How do the Bengals set up at guard after making moves at both spots?
But the guy who may end up getting the most work of any Bengal on Friday is quarterback Zac Robinson, a practice squad player looking at potentially his busiest game in his two seasons as an NFL player.
With free-agent rookie Tyler Hansen not taking any snaps the past few days with an unspecified ailment and doubtful to play, and top two quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski probably playing into the middle of the third quarter or so, Robinson could very well end up matching the 15 passes he threw all preseason in Detroit last year.
It's a rematch of the 2010 Senior Bowl practices for the South team, where Oklahoma State's Robinson lined up next to a Florida quarterback named Tim Tebow. Tebow, of course, jets into town as the most heralded backup since Hillary Clinton went to the state department, and Robinson can feel the same old juices starting to jangle.
Tebow is supposed to play two quarters at most after starter Mark Sanchez, so there's a shot they don't even cross paths Friday. No matter.
"I loved it; it was a challenge," Robinson said of his practice duels with Tebow. "All eyes are on the quarterbacks and there were a lot on him. Throwing next to him and running stuff next to him, so you just pick your game up and try to elevate it compared to him, or compared to the rest of the quarterbacks.
"That's kind of the mindset at the Senior Bowl. You're competing the whole time. You're competing for draft position and showing teams you can do things better at whatever it is."
There could have been a lot of resentment. It will be recalled that week in Mobile, Ala., that Tebow couldn't even take a snap, much less throw it, and yet smoother guys like Robinson got drafted in the seventh round by New England while Tebow went in the first round to Denver.
"He's a great guy. You can't say anything about him because he's really a humble guy," Robinson said. "He's a a Christian guy and he's like that all the time. It will be fun. He'll get a lot of snaps. It won't be a quarterback vs. quarterback thing. You're just out there trying to execute the offense."
Since the Bengals figure to do what they did last year and keep only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, Robinson is more likely in a battle with Hansen to see if he gets back to the practice squad, like last year when the Bengals picked him up off waivers from the Lions. Robinson is a good athlete who can run, but he doesn't want to get into any track meets Friday.
"Obviously Andy elevates our game. The rest of the quarterbacks don't want to miss a beat whenever he gets out of there and it's our turn," Robinson said. "I'm just looking for there to be a smooth operation of the offense. Execute the run checks, pass checks, whatever it is, and obviously score some points."
THREE STARTING SPOTS TO WATCH
Wide receiver: The wait has been on since mid-April, when Jerome Simpson went to the Vikings and the race began to identify Pro Bowler A.J. Green's running mate on the other side.
As opposed to 2010, when the Bengals did what Seattle just did and opted to fill its vacancies with the experience of Terrell Owens, they've decided to stay young. Green's rookie 65 catches are the most NFL receptions on the team and the next, Jordan Shipley's 56, have been slowed by his ACL rehab.
The Bengals took Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu in the third round and Cal's Marvin Jones in the fifth round, and while both are going to make the roster, they probably aren't going to be ready for No. 2 on Opening Day.
That appears to be falling to Brandon Tate or Armon Binns. Even though Tate is No. 1 on the depth chart and has 24 more NFL catches than a guy looking to play his first NFL snap, Binns has been impressive as of late. After he had a productive mock game this past Sunday with five catches for 69 yards, he kept it going this week in practice with a knack for making tough catches in traffic while displaying a nice chemistry with Dalton. Four of his catches came in Sunday's two-minute drill.
Binns is not a newbie in preseason. Before the Jaguars cut him his rookie season last year, he had two catches for 20 yards, one for a TD.
That race figures to become more defined in the preseason. And does Sanu make a run at it? Or, does last year's sixth-rounder Ryan Whalen use his great hands and reliability to get into the mix?
"It's good, you always want your quarterback to trust you and you build that trust by just being there for him consistently in practice," Binns said after the mock game. "When he knows that I think he feels more comfortable in throwing those 50/50 balls up to us.
"I just want to take advantage of the opportunities given to me. When I'm on the field I want to make plays in productive series and I know that will put me in a good position once the season starts."
You get to six receivers pretty quickly. There is Green. Andrew Hawkins has emerged as the No. 1 slot receiver. Sanu and Jones look set. Binns and Tate look ready to split the No. 2 snaps. But the Bengals also have high regard for Whalen and Shipley in what has turned into a wild, competitive race.
It looks like Whalen may not play Friday with a hamstring pull that iced him last weekend. Shipley has been working with the backups as he tries to get back into shape after his rehab.
Strong safety: Taylor Mays is listed as the starter, but Jeromy Miles has also had a good camp and it's going to be interesting to see if there is a gap between them and if there is, how big is it? It would seem one of the two are going to start Opening Day.
The CW is the Bengals keep 10 defensive backs—six corners and four safeties—so it appears that this year's fifth-rounder, George Iloka of Boise State, and last year's fifth-rounder, Robert Sands of West Virginia, are locked in a battle for that final spot. You won't have long to wait to watch them work. Figure they're on special teams right away long before they play from scrimmage, and that's what is going to dictate if they make the roster.
Guard: Rookie Kevin Zeitler, the club's first guard drafted in the first round to play guard, makes his NFL debut in the starting lineup at right guard, and he has to be relieved he's finally not lining up against Bengals Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Atkins is maybe the quickest inside pass rusher in the league, so Zeitler's transition to the speed of the game has been magnified.
Former Bengals guard Dave Lapham, a 10-year player and long-time radio analyst for the club, has been impressed with Zeitler. He compares what Zeitler has had to do with Atkins to what Lapham faced 38 years ago in his rookie camp against Pro Bowl tackle Mike Reid.
"The games were easier than practice," Lapham said.
Travelle Wharton, a nine-year player from Carolina, replaces Nate Livings at left guard. The Bengals think their changes have left them more athletic at both guards than they have been in years. Maybe the lineman who's had the best camp is second-year guard Clint Boling, and he may be seen all over the place Friday in a backup role at both guards and center.
Backup Spots To Watch: Linebacker. The number looks to be six with a plethora of defensive linemen and battered cornerbacks, and there's a backer scrum after the first four of the starters and Dan Skuta. Free-agent rookie middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict makes his debut after what has been an impressive camp. Cornerback: Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Terence Newman look to be a solid first three. But Adam Jones, hampered by muscle pulls, is looking to get back into the mix after he returned to practice this week. Jason Allen has also been sidelined for a week by what is believed to be a pull or strain, but head coach Marvin Lewis thinks he might be able to go against the Jets. The vibe isn't good for the injured Brandon Ghee with fears he's out for the year.