Great Expectations

The Bengals start practicing for real Thursday, so let's get a leg up on some of the themes, sound bites, headlines, blogs, posts, links and tweets that are going to inundate the landscape for the next week or so:

Lewis welcomes most talented team in his eight seasons:

All but three starters are back for a division winner that won 10 games and swept the AFC North. Every starter returns for the NFL's No. 4 defense. And this just in from Dave Razzano, a former 49ers scout that prepared for the '88 Super Bowl Bengals.

"On paper this is the best Bengals team in the history of their franchise," Razzano recently told Playmaker Mobile. "They are absolutely loaded with talent. They got a lot better at wideout. They obviously have the franchise quarterback. They got a lot better at tight end. They have solid corners. They have great defensive line depth and linebackers. This team, their offensive line is a little above average, doesn't really have any weaknesses. I think their biggest weakness might be their average offensive line, and I wouldn't even say that's a weakness."

Head coach Marvin Lewis, of course, isn't as bombastic. But he realizes that a big advantage is that the rookies aren't being asked to do very much.

"We're not majorly putting them in there and saying, 'Boy you have to do this from Game One,' " Lewis says.

The exception is first-rounder Jermaine Gresham, the Oklahoma tight end that looked too good to be true in the spring. How deep are the Bengals? Lewis jokes that when Gresham couldn't go in the last practice of the rookie camp, he wondered to tight ends coach Jon Hayes how they could possibly work since Gresham was the only reason they were having the camp.

"In preseason we're doing these things for certain," Lewis says. "We always know how certain guys are going to perform. It's just a matter of (getting) them into the niches of playing certain plays and schemes. But we're trying to get the (young players) out there to play against different colored helmets and to see how they'll do with live blocking and tackling and running and catching and defending. That's the thing we have to see, but with the other guys we're pretty sure how they're going to react."

Despite the Bengals' talent's and '09 AFC North title, the pundits can't help but paint the Bengals as the red-headed stepchild to the Ravens and Steelers with a lot of third-place predictions:

"Until you brought it up," Lewis says, "I didn't know that was the case. It doesn't really matter, does it? Where were we picked a year ago?"

About the same, so this under-the-radar-lack-of-belief-chip-on-the-shoulder seems to work well for the Bengals. Classic Lewis. When asked his North favorite, he says the team that wins the most games.

"We know it will be a hard-fought deal" he says. "It will change a little bit. Cleveland will be an improved team from where they've been. They'll rely on how their quarterback play is and how that works out. Their defense is very similar to the situation we have with ours with the evolution of their maturing players. That will help their team.

"Baltimore tried to gain ground back on offense and maybe they lost a little bit last year midway through the year, but they found a way to win in the playoffs and obviously had a great finish to their season until the last game. Pittsburgh got their feelings hurt a little bit, so they'll be back and ready to go. They'll play for awhile without their quarterback, but they've got a good team with good leadership and those guys will be up and ready to rise to the occasion. It will be a hard-fought season, but I think our guys are excited. We had a good offseason with the acquisitions and things we did in the draft and I think the way our guys competed in the offseason has been outstanding."

Even though quarterback Carson Palmer engineered the '09 magic with seven last drives that either tied or won the game, questions continue to swirl if he's still the thrower he once was after a disappointing passing effort in the Wild Card loss to the Jets:

For years the Bengals had been banged for making Palmer do too much. After turning to the running game last year to largely bail out an inexperienced offensive line, the Bengals got ripped for taking the ball out of Palmer's hands.

Confused?

One thing we know is that Lewis is solidly behind him.

"Last year at this time we had all these questions around Carson and that he was damaged goods and obviously he wasn't," Lewis says. "'He needs to have surgery.' He didn't need to have the surgery. Just stay the course. We struggled with (pass protection) early on, but we found other ways to move the football and win games and that's what counts."

If the Bengals are going to win the AFC title, the weapons around Palmer have to improve by leaps and bounds and they have to come from a receiver group that is looking for redemption after struggles here and around the league:

The best, most intense, and most public roster battle is at wide receiver, where Lewis says all 10 guys have a shot to make what will probably be six spots. Besides The Ocho, newcomers Antonio Bryant and Matt Jones are trying to overcome falls from grace while the 2008 draft duo of Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson are trying to overcome labels. Caldwell as a fumbler, Simpson as a bust.

"It's a real advantage of having five preseason games for those guys," Lewis says. "We're really going to get an opportunity to see who's going to execute and catch the football and block and execute the offense. They all have an opportunity to make the team. I don't know if I've ever seen that opportunity always being there like that."

Bryant caused some concern in the last few weeks of last month's on-field sessions when he missed some time with the knee problems that limited him in '09 for the Buccaneers. But Lewis is confident enough to say the Bengals aren't looking to add at receiver, and that includes Terrell Owens.

"I'm not concerned about (Bryant's) knee," Lewis says. "We've had lots of guys that have had different things. You have to treat them specific to them, make sure they get the work in and get the rest and rehab they need."

Lewis calls Caldwell the team's most improved player and has been heartened by Simpson, a second-rounder that has been long on enthusiasm and work ethic but short on development.

"I'm encouraged by him," Lewis says. "I think he continues to work very hard at it. We've kind of moved into different areas of (uncertainty), which is a good thing. His confidence level leaving here in June was a lot higher than it has been. I think now he's at the point, shoot, he's going to have an opportunity to go prove he can play in the preseason."

With five preseason games in 25 days, thanks to the Aug. 8 Hall of Fame Game, Lewis' biggest concern between now and the Sept. 12 opener is to get as many people as he can to Foxboro healthy:

You have to hand it to Lewis as of late. You have to say he gets his club prepared for a season as well as anybody. In the last four seasons that Palmer has been healthy (2005-07 and 2009), the Bengals are 11-5 in the first four games of the season.

He could have had them report to Georgetown as early as Saturday because they play the league's first game, but he kept it Wednesday because he's already going to have more practices this year than before last year's regular-season opener.

"There was no reason to take advantage of three or four extra days we would have had," he says. "You don't need any more time. You're going to balance that out anyway. There's going to be a time I hope we have a big-time storm come through and we can't do any work and we can spend the day in the classroom catching up.

"We're starting earlier, but the (regular) season starts at the same point. They still have more time on the field at this point than a year ago and we're still trying to budget that time and make sure we get to Sept. 12 healthy. ... After that first week it's going to be a one-a-day mode. We might be more in the in-season-type mode even though we're (doing) installation and things like that. It enables us to hone the football part, to have good meeting time, insertion time, on-field time."

The last time we saw the Bengals safeties, they were decimated with injury and Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez dismantled them with bootlegs and bombs. But the return of a healthy Roy Williams and the addition of a seasoned Gibril Wilson to a corps that already has Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe provides one of the more formidable groups the Bengals have had in a long time:

The key is Williams, the five-time Pro Bowler who had to put his reclamation project on hold when he re-broke his forearm before the fourth game of last season. But before he got hurt, he was a big factor and looked to be a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. After playing just seven games in the last two years because of the arm, Williams is confident it is healed and he's got a nice new pad to prove it. Not to mention to protect it. Maybe the Comeback Player of the Year Award is for 2010.  

"The vision for him is to stay healthy and continue on the track he was on last year before he injured the forearm," Lewis says. "He helped calm the rest of the group back there, the cornerbacks in particular, as Chris has done. Chinedum had a great spring. Gibril has come in here and done just what we expected him to do and that's to compete to start. I think we're in a great situation there at safety. I hope and pray all four guys are able to stay healthy and make the team and we'll be a much better group back there than we have been."

Getting better means a tough road for safeties that made it last year, like Kyries Hebert and Tom Nelson. Hebert is really going to have to grind to make it even though he's the special teams captain and Lewis indicated that Nelson might not be ready for the start of training camp as he comes back from his knee injury.

The stage has been set for the first Georgetown kicking derby since the media spent the first couple of weeks squinting at the goal posts trying to decide the good and bad kicks when ever veteran Doug Pelfrey lined up against rookie Neil Rackers in 2000:

With Shayne Graham, the franchise's most accurate kicker of all time, thinking about the Bengals home opener as the Ravens' potential new man, this job is left to local favorite Mike Nugent of Ohio State and Dave Rayner, the only man besides Graham and The Ocho that has kicked a point for the Bengals with Lewis as coach.

With the roster one player over at 81, Lewis has said he wants to take both kickers to camp. At the mandatory minicamp, Nugent and Rayner missed only one field goal from 24 kicks during the team session and that was a 50-yard plus attempt by Rayner.

"Dave was injured (hip flexor) much of the spring and didn't get a real opportunity until at the end, so we'd like to go through game situations," says Lewis, explaining how special teams coach Darrin Simmons has brought both along. "Darrin has done a great job with both of them. You've seen so much improvement with Mike from the time he signed (draft weekend) and he's been working with Dave since February. ... We've got to look for the same things and we'll play it out and see what happens. Both have the abilities much like when we brought Shayne in here. We're having a whole (off)season to work with them and that's a good thing."

Because the Bengals look to be stacked at so many positions and because they have former college quarterback Matt Jones as one of the receiver candidates, is this the year they go with just two quarterbacks?:

Lewis indicates he may think about it, but it doesn't look very likely at all because neither backup - J.T. O'Sullivan and Jordan Palmer - has practice squad eligibility.

"There's a lot of ways to put the 53-man roster together and that's one of the ways. Our only slight drawback is we don't have a fourth young guy that can go right into that practice squad niche. So you'd be bringing somebody in and having to teach them that in case of emergency. You could at least elevate (from the practice squad) if one of the guys got injured (and) where he was at least in the position to be second. We don't have that guy currently on our team."

The problem there is if there is a guy good enough to be on the practice squad, he's probably good enough to be poached by another team to be a No. 3.

With Jeremi Johnson not returning, the biggest hole on offense looks to be at blocking fullback where an untried Fui Vakapuna sits as the starter without any NFL experience:

If the Bengals didn't keep two fullbacks last year when they cut two talented guys like Vakapuna, a seventh-rounder, and free-agent Chris Pressley, don't look for them to do it this year. They lost both. Vakapuna went to the Arizona practice squad for the first seven games when the Bengals opted to sign Pressley to their practice squad, but re-signed Vakapuna for the second half of the season when Pressley bolted for Tampa Bay's active roster.

Vakapuna was never active, but he will be now. Lewis thinks his stint in the desert with head coach Ken Whisenhunt and run game coordinator Russ Grimm was a nice reinforcement.

"I think Fui needed that little bit of a shock to his system," says Lewis of cutting him. "Going in there with the Cardinals was a good thing. Being in there with Kenny and Russ, he learned what we were looking for. He came back here and was a different guy. Now I think we're reaping the benefit of what we had a year ago. ... In today's NFL, you're probably not going to have two fullbacks on your 53-man roster and you're certainly not going to have two on the 45 unless one guy is really a special-teams player.

"I feel good where we are, but we obviously don't have the depth there. Other than (using tight ends as backup fullbacks). We used an extra offensive lineman last year, so we have other ways to do it and I think last year we showed the creativity to do those things to get us in position."

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