AJ McCarron makes his NFL debut Monday night.
AJ McCarron, buoyed by what he called "a really good practice," on Friday, says he'll be a better quarterback than the one that won two national championships at Alabama when he makes his NFL debut Monday (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) in Tampa.
As usual, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is tight-lipped when it comes to publicly assigning players the number of snap counts they'll get. After Friday's practice he said McCarron would play some time after Andy Dalton but he wouldn't say if he'd be first or second behind his first-teamer. The thinking is McCarron, with his pulled rib cage seemingly healed, follows Dalton and gets most of the snaps.
There is a sense of anticipation as the Bengals get to see their 2014 fifth-round pick for the first time in a game after me missed all but three weeks last season with shoulder tendinitis. After all, McCarron is just one of five quarterbacks ther Bengals have drafted in this century to go with Dalton (2011), Carson Palmer (2003), Casey Bramlet (2004), and Jeff Rowe (2007).
Before McCarron tweaked his muscle on Aug. 9 and missed the next eight days, he had put together his two best practices of training camp and he's confident he's got the rhythm back.
"We did really well today. We had a good day throwing the ball around," McCarron said of the first closed practice in the wake of training camp. "We had a good two-minute session at the end. Good communication. We completed a lot of balls today."
The Bengals liked McCarron's intangibles in the draft process and that's what Lewis is looking for this Monday night.
"He seems to thrive on confidence and things going well and making a big play," Lewis said. "He's a good leader in the huddle, He really brings the best out of people, which is great.
McCarron is looking to slow the game down and run the offense briskly with no mistakes. After sessions at Dr. Tom House' s quarterbacks camp and countless of hours with Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, he feels like his game has developed in the past year even though he hasn't played in a game.
Plus, ever since he came back from a rigorous shoulder rehab that took about three months, he says it's the best his arm has ever felt.
"For sure,' McCarron says when asked if he's a better quarterback now than then. "Knowing more, but at the same time you're trying to evolve every year and trying to master your craft as much as possible from throwing the ball to just knowing the game more. It's two different types of games, college and here."
The one thing that really is going to be different is that McCarron plans to have dinner Sunday night with his family, which never happened at Alabama.
"We had no time. I saw them maybe before an hour the morning of the game," McCarron said.
McCarron's wife Katherine is going to be there, as well as his mother, father, cousin and uncle.
"Small circle," he said.
REAL MCCOY: The Bengals hope they can run the ball against Buccaneers Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy better than they did back on Nov. 30 in that 14-13 gut-check of a win in Tampa. It will be recalled they rushed for 112 yards on 28 carries, but Jeremy Hill was held to 40 yards on 13 carries and didn't break his longest run of the day until the last drive for 12 yards.
"They game-planned it pretty well," Hill said after that game. "They brought a safety down. Whenever we caught them in a two-(safety)-high, we ran the ball pretty well. When Andy made his checks, they kind of brought the safety down."
After Friday's practice, offensive line coach Paul Alexander raved about McCoy.
"He's one of the top five defensive linemen in football," he said. "A difference maker, explosive e player fast, great work for us."
But there won't be any kind of a game plan like there was last year and "we're more interested in how our guys do against them."
That would be guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler and center Russell Bodine and count Alexander in the camp that believes Bodine's snapping problems won't continue into the real stuff.
"He's working through some things. Everyone was all worried last year and it wasn't a problem," Alexander said. "He'll get it by the time he's there. You're out there working on new techniques. You work on the little things. You know, if it's a little bit off, it's a little bit off. I think he'll be fine.
"The first year you learn what to do, you run the show, you learn the offense, you're learning some technique as you go. The second year, as an NFL lineman, you're getting torn apart and you're trying to remake the whole thing. And with that comes some glitches. He'll get through that and he'll be better for it."
INJURY UPDATE: The roster of players available Lewis became somewhat clearer after the club opened practice Friday.
Except for right tackle Andre Smith, who didn't practice with an unknown ailment.
Still on the shelf were backup defensive tackle Pat Sims (unknown), backup left tackle Jake Fisher (shoulder), backup offensive lineman Trey Hopkins (leg), as well as backup cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Brandon Ghee and backup wide receivers Tevin Reese and Onterio McCalebb, all with what are believed to be hamstring issues.
It's not looking like they'll play. With Sims out, even more snaps now go to Devon Still and rookies Marcus Hardison and DeShawn Williams in the tractor pull on the defensive line. The Reese and McCalebb injuries are why rookie Michael Bennett is here. With Fisher and Hopkins out, it's another busy night for backup offensive lineman Dan France.
Also not on the field were defensive regulars Adam Jones and Brandon Thompson, but it is believed there are not major issues surrounding them and they are expected back soon even if they don't play Monday.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu also wasn't working, but he is most likely enjoying the arrival his baby on Thursday.
Running back Terrell Watson (unknown), who left Thursday's practice, was back on the filed in uniform but not working.
The rehab field was busy with Fisher, and three guys trying to get their knees back in rookie left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, and linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Sean Porter.
Burfict? If you go by his ability to chase and catch passes from rehab chief Nick Cosgray, pretty good.
Still isn't even sure how many snaps he played in the opener (27) but he knows he could end up playing more with Sims and Thompson not practicing. Sims played very well in 24 snaps, as did Thompson, with 27. Throw in fourth-round pick Marcus Hardison, and Still knows he's fighting for his roster life on the defensive line.
"I feel like I'm having a good camp and I've just to keep playing well,' he said Friday. "When I get the opportunity I've got to take it and show this team I can make plays."
If Thompson is also out, Still really gets a chance with a boat-load of snaps. He'll be ready. Tapered down to less than 300 pounds, he says he feels so much better than last year when he was closer to 320. Plus, he'll be eating his Wheaties.
After Wheaties announced that Leah Still is going to join some of the greatest athletes that ever lived on the Wheaties box earlier this week, Still got a box sent to him on Thursday. But it was in a case.
"She asked me if I had some Wheaties this morning and I said you can't take it out of the case," Still recounted. "I never dreamed my daughter would be on a Wheaties box. My dad used to buy it and I remember when Michael Jordan was on the box.
He hasn't had Wheaties in a while. But he's back on them.
"Have to,' he said.