With the Bengals set to open training camp Wednesday, Monday's annual training camp media luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium found them dealing with issues usually facing Super Bowl teams.
In one of his rare media appearances during the year, Bengals president Mike Brown talked about harnessing his young team's popularity and the challenge of keeping it together under the NFL salary cap.
With monstrous contracts rolling in for quarterbacks and wide receivers, Brown said his father would agree with the decision to sell the naming rights to Paul Brown Stadium.
"He was always for what's best for the football team," said Mike Brown of the Bengals founder. "It's a time now where we need a revenue stream that will help us as do such things as build the indoor facility. It'll help us perhaps handle the cap a little bit easier.
"We're a small-market team. We need the revenue streams that we can obtain. The fact that about 30 teams have naming rights and a revenue stream from that and they have more revenue than we do to begin with. We have to do some things just to keep up."
Foremost in everyone's mind is the impending contract for Joe Burrow. "We see that train coming," said Brown of a schedule that calls for Burrow to be eligible for a new deal at the end of the season.
But he's all for getting on board a trip that includes Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the $40 million-per-year man Burrow took down twice in a month to get to the Super Bowl.
"I like what Mahomes said," Brown said. "He wasn't bothered by all those big quarterback contracts that came after his because he had enough to set him up for a lifetime anyway. I can't tell you how this is going to unfold. I can tell you that we couldn't be happier with Joe Burrow. He's everything you would wish for, especially for a quarterback in Cincinnati. Our whole focus is going to be on keeping him here."
The Super Bowl certainly gave the Bengals a boost to sign not only Burrow, but wide receiver Tee Higgins. He's also eligible for an extension after this season. Not to mention NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja'Marr Chase, due for new at the end of 2023.
"Our season ticket sales went boom. It exploded. We are sold out," Brown said. "And that was from a season ticket base that had sunk to its lowest point in our history.
"There's more interest in the stadium. Perhaps it makes companies more interested in the naming rights, for example. All this is helpful."
ALL ABOUT BATES: Even though free safety Jessie Bates III hasn't signed the franchise tender of nearly $13 million, the Bengals not only expect him to play, they believe he'll be ready to play pretty soon once he gets into camp. Even though they haven't been able to sign him long-term for a year, he remains as popular with the coaches and front office as he does the locker room.
"I know the kind of guy he is. I know he's working his tail off," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. "Whenever he gets here, he'll be in position to be able to help us, I believe, in the first game. We'll see how it goes."
The media faced Anarumo with a hypothetical. Could Bates play against the Steelers if he didn't show up until a week before the Sept. 11 opener?
"Whenever he gets here," Anarumo said, "we trust and respect he will be in great shape and be ready to go whenever that is."
Head coach Zac Taylor said pretty much the same thing: "Jessie's a great player and great leader on this team. He'll be in shape ready for when he does show up … The communication with Jessie has been good and it will be up to him to decide when he comes in."
Count Brown as a fan of Bates, too, and he didn't exclude signing him after the season. But he admitted the future deals are going to make it tougher to sign him long term.
"Jessie's a good guy. We like him. He's been an excellent player. He fits with us. We're two years in trying to extend him. We weren't able to get there. I regret that we didn't," Brown said. "Keep in mind that we have a lot going on. We're trying to get ready for our cap as we go down the line. And we're going to need room for our quarterback, for our receivers and for some other people who are going to want to get paid at the top level, too. It's not easy to fit all these in."
Taylor indicated that the injuries to the new starting right side of the line won't sideline right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La'el Collins for a major amount of time. Cappa is coming off surgery and is on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). Since Collins hurt his back earlier this month away from the facility, it's classified as a non-football injury and is on the NFI list. Both can be activated for practice at any time.
"We're going to go slow. In a short time (Cappa) will be able to come back," Taylor said. "Same thing with LC. He's got an issue with his back … things he's dealt with before. His communication has been great. Those are two veteran guys that we want to make sure we ease into training camp slowly so that they're ready for the stuff that is vitally important down the stretch."
Collins, who turns 29 Tuesday, has had injury issues throughout his career. He didn't play at all in 2020 because of a hip problem and when the Bengals signed him back in March, the deal reportedly included $7 million tied to per game roster bonuses.
"He feels good," Taylor said. "It's on us to protect these players, especially these veterans who have accumulated a lot of reps. We need them for a 17-week season, plus the playoffs. So it's on myself and (head trainer) Matt Summers to make sure we protect these guys from themselves a little bit. We'll get them in at the right times."
The Bengals did get a lift with Higgins (shoulder) and edge Joseph Ossai (knee, wrist) not showing up on PUP. But Taylor said they'll take it slow with Higgins, coming off shoulder surgery).
CAMP DAX: Taylor also said that rookie Dax Hill, the first-rounder who took Bates' snaps in the spring, has to be ready to take advantage of his reps. And there are a couple of different plans, pending when Bates gets in.
Hill roams at free safety until he does get in and when Bates arrives he'll get some work at some other spots, too, although Anarumo said it won't be in the slot. He'll probably get a look at outside cornerback.
"We had that conversation yesterday. I think we have a pretty good plan for that as we go through practice," Anarumo said. "He's a smart kid so being able to do a number of different things I think he'll be able to handle it just fine."
RETURN GAME: Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons outlined it pretty well to fellow Kansas products Pooka Williams, Jr., and Kwamie Lassiter II:
"The only way you can make the team is if you're going to be the punt returner," Simmons said. "It would be very unique to see some fellow Jayhawks do something positive on the football field and not the basketball court."
Both Williams, who signed last year, and Lassiter, inked in May, are undrafted wide receivers who have to unseat veteran wide receiver Trent Taylor after he came off the practice squad down the stretch to handle the chores.
Simmons said Williams and Lassiter are also going to get a shot at the kick return job. But only if Brandon Wilson isn't healthy and right now he isn't. Wilson tore his ACL in midseason and is still rehabbing. Simmons said it's his job if he can come back, but while he's on PUP running back Chris Evans is going to pick up where he left off when he replaced Wilson.
"I like where he's headed," said Simmons, who's going to put him in the mix with Williams and Lassiter if Wilson isn't ready.
As for the battle between Bengals all-time punter Kevin Huber and first-year man Drue Chrisman, Simmons said he anticipates that decision coming after the third and final preseason game.