Even though right tackle La'el Collins begins training camp on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) as his ACL rehab continues and his timeline is unknown, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan says this is pretty much the best offensive line in his five years on the job.
Certainly from the standpoint of drawing up plays, the addition of Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown with an intact interior has Callahan getting an earlier, better vibe. On paper, when center Ted Karras lines up next to Alex Cappa on his right and Cordell Volson on his left during Cleveland Opening Day, it marks the first time since 2015 and 2016 that the Bengals start a season with the same Opening Day center and guards from the year before.
(Russell Bodine at center and Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler at the guards were the last trio.)
Although Jonah Williams has never started an NFL game at right tackle, the Bengals are 23-18-1 in his 42 starts on the left. Others in the mix at right tackle are Jackson Carman, Cody Ford and Hakeem Adeniji, who replaced Collins in the last five games, is another option.
"This is as good as I've felt going into a season. Just schematically, putting the players in position to have success, the style of offense that we've started to run, it fits those guys up front," said Callahan at Monday's training camp media luncheon.
"I think from top to bottom it's as good a group and experienced of a group as we've had that has talent … That group has to come together in some degree, we're talking about two new tackles, but the interior has played together with those three.
Callahan is also looking at the depth. Carman, who played well at left tackle for the injured Williams in the playoffs, has nine NFL starts. Ford has 32 starts at right tackle and guard. Backup guard Max Scharping, who played for the injured Cappa in the postseason, has 33 starts and five more in the playoffs.
"Most of those guys have played with Cordell, Ted and Kappa and Jonah because they've all played for us," Callahan said. "Then you add Orlando because you see what Orlando has done in his career and hopefully those things continue.
"The guys that have played a lot for us. D'Ante (Smith) played a bunch, Jackson has played a bunch, Max Scharping has played a lot. I feel really good about what Trey Hill has done. I think from top to bottom it's as good a group and experienced of a group as we've had that has talent."
TIMELINES: Of the PUP players, it's believed practice squad tackle Devin Cochran has a season-ending knee injury, but it sounds like No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (ACL) and tight end Mitchell Wilcox are expected to be activated fairly shortly, according to director of player personnel Duke Tobin.
As for that right tackle job, finding out who will be the third starter in as many openers (if Collins isn't ready) won't happen until maybe Labor Day.
"We're going to let it play out. There's no date on that. As far as that, when we announced the starters it'll probably be September," Callahan said.
Although he has a bunch of candidates, head coach Zac Taylor isn't sure how he'll dole out the snaps on the right edge. But Williams seems to have helped himself with the work he put in on the right side in San Diego before reporting to last month's mandatory minicamp and with the injured players this past Saturday when he was cleared.
"That's the beauty with knowing Jonah, knowing how hard he's working on that for the last days that he has been healthy," Taylor said. "Putting him in the best position possible to not miss a beat playing right tackle. It's a challenge. Any time you have a competition among linemen, it's a challenge to make sure X guy gets enough reps. That's something we'll have to continue to look at as this camp goes and make those right decisions as we go."
PRESEASON PLAYTIME: Taylor hasn't played his starters a whole bunch in the preseason during the Burrow era and it certainly hasn't hurt them with a won-loss record of 27-13 the last two seasons. Burrow has only played a total of three snaps, but that's because he was on an ACL rehab in 2021 and he had appendicitis last year.
He has talked to some starters about it.
"I know Joe would always like to be in front of the crowd, be in the huddle, coaches removed," Taylor said. "That is really the benefit of the preseason. Whether that's a group getting one series, whatever it ends up being. Similar to what we did when we played Tampa (in the 2021 preseason opener). Our defense was out there for one or two drives and the offense got 10 plays. Just getting a chance to check the box of being on the field removed from the coaches, being in a stadium with fans cheering against you or for you, there are benefits that we weigh from year to year what the team needs.
"I'm open. Every year is different," Taylor said. "Last year we lost the quarterback. If you're not playing the quarterback, are you going to play the lineman? It snowballs from there. We've certainly had conversations with players about getting them a bit of playing time at some point in the preseason."
Taylor isn't putting last year's slow start in the regular season (0-2, 2-3, 4-4) on the lack of playing time. Instead, he looks at the turnovers in the first two weeks: Five to one against.
BACKUP QB BATTLE: Callahan says the most competitive backup quarterback derby they've had won't impact the number of Burrow's snaps in camp practices.
"Those reps won't change," Callahan said. "He'll get plenty of reps. And in the preseason games, we'll see what Zac decides he wants to do and how that looks. But it will probably look similar to years past."
It's a classic battle this year to replace Brandon Allen, Burrow's backup all three years. Jake Browning, 27, an athletic, mobile player, has spent four years on practice squads (the last two here), without playing in an NFL game. Trevor Siemian, 31, has won 13 of 30 NFL starts but is looking for his first win since he went 5-5 with the 2017 Broncos. Siemian shared a Super Bowl float with Callahan in Denver, where they worked together in Siemian's first two NFL seasons.
"They're going to split reps equally. They're going compete equally," Callahan said. "That was part of the deal when we brought Trevor in and part of the conversation we had with Jake. That you're both going to have every opportunity to win the job.
"I feel really good about where both of those guys are at. Obviously, Trevor's got a lot of experience. He's played NFL football and played well at times. Jake's a little younger and a little bit less experienced, but having been around him, I really like what he can do. So that's going to be fun for me as a former quarterback coach and quarterback. Those guys will compete, and it's going to be fun to watch. Generally speaking, when that happens, those guys raise their level of play quite a bit. I'm fired up for that."
THIRD-DOWN BACK: Right tackle. Backup QB. Third-down running back. Those are the biggest questions on offense heading into camp. Joe Mixon is back as the first and second down back, but gone are Samaje Perine's 448 snaps, many of them on third down. He also took 16 more snaps than Mixon in the playoffs, apparently because the Bengals circle pass protection as the most crucial thing a third-down back has to do.
Trayveon Williams had a big blitz pickup in the win in Tennessee last season when Mixon was injured, Chris Evans has three receiving touchdowns and fifth-rounder Chase Brown was one of the best in the country last year at Illinois making tacklers miss.
But there are about just 250 NFL snaps among the three.
"As far as recognition, execution, assignment football, you're going to see all that. And you should get a pretty good tell," Callahan said. "But always the tell is going to be what the preseason games look like and what those guys do in those games. It's a role that's undefined for who's going to do it and what it's going to look like, and that's going to be a big focus of training camp for us. Where that's going to come from? That will be a good one to follow."