Hobson's Choice: Reality Check And Other Camp Matters; Yes, The Defense Is Better And Here's Why

Logan Wilson is running an improved Bengals defense.
Logan Wilson is running an improved Bengals defense.

Which players should we be excited for in preseason game one? Who can benefit the most from playing well? Dan Morgan, Norwood, OH

DAN: How about the last two draft classes taking the next big step? Two guys from 2020, second-round wide receiver Tee Higgins and third-round middle linebacker Logan Wilson, look like they're about to take off and have monster years. Plus, fifth-round edge Khalid Kareem is having an active camp backing up Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson.

Then, looking at the '21 class, everyone wants to see No. 1 pick wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase play for the first time in nearly two years as he takes over for franchise legend A.J. Green, and second-round right guard Jackson Carman is getting a lot of attention in his bid for a starting job.

Carman already showed he's got all the tools in the first week of camp, but he's just 21 years old and is playing a new position in a new system at the highest level. So, if he doesn't come out looking like Max Montoya, relax, but game one is where he starts trying to put it all together.

Also, can't wait to see 350-pound defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin, a fourth-rounder from LSU. He's getting into shape, but he's doing it by being a problem to move in the middle. And I'm looking forward to see sixth-round running back Chris Evans catch the ball next Saturday night because his soft hands are as advertised. You figure fifth-round kicker Evan McPherson gets the first kickoff in Tampa and his leg strength has been a camp talking point. He's crushed it up here and you wonder what he'll do to the ball in the Florida heat.

The players who benefit the most from playing well in the preseason are the ones who are less proven, yet their talent is intriguing. That's why scouts and coaches love the preseason. For my money, a guy who has had an interesting camp and shows high-end potential is fourth-round pick D'Ante Smith. Could he push for a larger role with a solid outing?

Also, while the starting cornerbacks have grabbed all the attention in the first week, the young cornerbacks have contributed a lot to the defense's fine start. Brandon Allen isn't getting any easy throws, either. Can Jared Davis, Donnie Lewis, Antonio Phillips, or Winston Rose show that they can contribute on defense? Stay tuned for Saturday night.

Hi Geoff, great to read your stuff. Simple question...do any undrafted players have a legit shot at making this year's team? Thanks. John Montague, Newport News, VA

JOHN: Thank you for the kind words. The college free agent with the best shot is Kansas running back Pooka Williams, Jr., also getting a look at slot receiver as a hybrid player. But he'll only make it if he wins the punt return job and while vet Trent Taylor looks to have a leg up on that with his fine scrimmage play, let's just wait for the preseason games. Nobody thought undrafted wide receiver Alex Erickson would make it five years ago, but then he ripped off some long returns and by Labor Day he was a lock and now Pooka gets his shot.

Also, the way cornerbacks seem to come up with pulled hamstrings and the like during camp, that's always a numbers game, so a guy like Ball State's Phillips could work his way in. Only, of course, if he starts showing up in Tampa. 

I keep hearing how good the defense is looking during camp. My question; is our defense that much improved, or is it more a case of the offense hasn't started clicking yet? Bob Adams, Hilliard, OH

BOB: I'm going to tread lightly here because there have been exactly two practices in pads and to make any grand conclusions after the first week on the field would be ridiculous. 

But I think you're right. It is safe to say the defense is improved. To say much improved, let's play some games and find out. Clearly the upgrades they made at all three cornerback spots have improved the coverage. You can tell that whether the offense is clicking or not. And you're right, the offense hasn't started clicking yet. But the defense is one of the reasons why. Watchword for training camp is: the young linebackers are looking to be good. Logan Wilson can run and so can Markus Bailey, who has been all over the yard.

The bengals invested in the defense do you think that we will be a top 10 defense Lacey Powell, Alabaster, AL

The Bengals spent a 1/4 of a Billion dollars in FA over the last 2 Yrs. The majority of that $ was dedicated to building a stellar Defense. Looks like that decision is starting to pay off. What has been the difference and will it continue? M Bloomfield, Wilmington, NC

LACEY AND M: Top ten would be great, but that's a long way from No. 26 and the defense doesn't have to be top ten for this club to win given how much they've also invested in offense in the draft.

In the last three drafts, an offensive player has been selected with the first two picks each year. On paper, this is certainly a No. 17ish defense and if Burrow and Co. can score like they did in five of his nine full games (four games in the 30s and one with 27), they can win a lot of games with this defense.

Same thing, though: will they stay healthy? They have proven players at every starting position, but they have to avoid the injury bug. Also, everyone knows the team defense wins over talented individuals and there are differences emerging this year.

Strong safety Vonn Bell touched on one of them in his media availability earlier this week when he said there's not the finger-pointing that existed last year. Plus, Bell has had two other classy vets join him in the secondary in former Falcons Super Bowl captain Ricardo Allen and Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton and his experiences with a top five defense. Clearly they're communicating better and mixing well with each other. Not only in the secondary, but obviously in the class room.

Throw in that they had eight spring practices this spring as opposed to nothing last year, guys like Jessie Bates III and Sam Hubbard are in their third season in defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's system and the linebackers are faster, yes, there's no question. Better.

Looks like lack of depth on o-line is going to be the Achilles heel again. After watching Joe get his knee shredded last year why didn't they do more in free agency? And please don't say Johnson and Prince in your reply. Bill Huffman, Hamilton, OH

BILL: That's one of those grand statements I'm talking about. You just can't make it right now after one week. They made three huge moves on the line in the offseason when they signed Frank Pollack to coach it and 10-year right tackle Riley Reiff to anchor it and spent a second-round pick on Jackson Carman. Please don't say Fred Johnson is not a proven swing tackle as the first man off the bench. He is.

But, I get it, they have to do it first. Still, no NFL team is going to survive injured front-line tackles. How did Patrick Mahomes look in the Super Bowl?

Hello Geoff, I heard about a report on Joe Burrow favoring his repaired knee during a pass play. Is the knee ok or is it psychological reflex? Mike Gray, Grand Prairie, TX

MIKE: I haven't seen him limp, grimace or take a ride in a cart. Except to a news conference. Maybe he's looked awkward on a play or two. But one or two? Not exactly a trend. Maybe what one person sees as favoring is actually a simple gait in time.

Look, it doesn't look like he's favoring it to me. But, I also know when he takes the field on Friday, it's going to be just eight months and four days out of surgery. It's a nine-to-12-month injury. To think he was going to come out flinging it like last training camp is pure fantasy football. I'm sure he wishes the offense looked more settled, and it's probably more of a mental thing right now as he gets used to bodies around him in the pocket.

But I don't think he's had any setbacks. And there's no way the franchise would risk him if there were. Bottom line, he's easing it back in and they figure he's got plenty of time with the opener 38 days away. Sundays in September will answer all questions.

What have you seen in the RB battle between Samaje Perine Chris Evans, Pooka Williams, Trayveon Williams, and Jacques Patrick? Nick Nickell, La Crosse, WI

NICK: Perine is a solid No. 2 guy who can competently take Joe Mixon's carries if needed. I think there's a real battle for the third and last spot with Evans and vet Trayveon Williams. It may the best competition of camp. Evans is pretty smooth out there in the pass game and Williams is a former SEC rushing champion with two years in the league. Patrick is an intriguing big back who always looks good in practice and you'd like him on your campus, but can he break through this year? Pooka is working a lot at receiver in a hybrid role and I would think if they keep four backs it's only if he wins the punt return job.

What is the biggest difference in technique that Frank Pollack is teaching as compared to years past? What is the biggest difference in teaching style that Frank Pollack has as compared to years past? Thanks Geoff! Matt Stuckey, Columbus, OH

MATT: As Frank would tell you, everybody runs the same plays and there are only so many techniques to teach. He's known as a wide zone guy, a style of run game that is a little bit different than what they've run here in the past. But Mixon obviously flourished in it when he won the AFC rushing title in 2018.

Pollack calls former Bengals offensive line coach Jim McNally one of his mentors, so fans of a certain age recall how those Super Bowl offensive lines were schooled in the tiniest of details. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played for McNally, calls him "The Master of the Mundane," and he's been saying the same thing about Pollack. The club believes Pollack can do what McNally did and develop players to get better.

One thing McNally and Paul Alexander, the other long-time Bengals offensive line coach, didn't do is play in the league. That didn't stop them from becoming great position coaches or gain league-wide respect in the room. But this current group of linemen really seems to revere the eight years during the '90s Pollack played with the 49ers.

The offense is reportedly struggling over the last couple of days in camp. What do you see as the problem and is there a solution. James Barnett, Fredericksburg, VA

JAMES: I appreciate the question, but the offense hasn't really started playing fully installed, so the reports of its demise are overstated. I have to believe that Mixon, Boyd, Higgins, Chase and Burrow are going to be effective. If they struggle in September, then I'll worry. Right now, after the first week of practice, it's simply a slow start.

I love your work and anxiously wait for your next article. I think the Bengals have addressed most of the depth issues on defense. The offensive line concerns me though. Do you see anything at camp that would alleviate my concerns? Kevin Gathman, Devils Lake, ND

KEVIN: Thanks very much and you won't wait long for my next article. The thing I've seen from the line that's impressive is how Frank Pollack has them playing aggressively and how invigorated Mixon is in the wide zone. The wide zone is going to be Burrow's No. 1 protection. I also think left tackle Jonah Williams looks a little stronger and a little more confident in what has been a good camp for him and that free-agent right tackle Riley Reiff seems to be as advertised as a calming veteran influence. Another guy that also looks to be revived by Pollack's return is center Billy Price.

For sure, they need two guards to step forward, but as a line, they seem to working well with what Pollack wants them to do. And although D'Ante Smith is a project, he had an interesting day Wednesday. After he got handled Tuesday by Hubbard, he had a much better day Wednesday. So let's let them play some; let's let the coaches determine a starting order; and then let's see if they can't gel under Pollack's spell.

Hey Geoff, a lot of chatter about Burrow and offensive struggles in camp. Is the fan base being realistic about Burrow this year? I expect him to play wk1. This is going to be a process. He had a major injury that's going to take time. Maan Aboulhosn, Titusville, FL

MAAN: It was great meeting you on the phone a few weeks ago and I look forward to seeing you in person. You've got it about right. Over such a huge issue like this, there's bound to be chatter, speculation, guessing, hoping and not a lot of truth. But, yeah, he's still barely out of the saran wrap. And, as you know, with injuries like this, there are good days and bad days on the comeback trail. The idea is to get him ready for Sept. 13, not a 7-on-7 on Aug. 6. It happens every year in this league and the Bengals fully expect Burrow to return to form in a winning season.

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