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Setting training camp table


Andy Dalton

Don't expect the three workouts at next week's Bengals mandatory minicamp (Tuesday through Thursday and closed to the public) to be much different than the nine voluntary field practices (OTAs) that have come before them.

Without players wearing pads and some depth chart question marks still unable to work until training camp (cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, center Trevor Robinson, guard Travelle Wharton), the focus remains on keeping people sharp and healthy and not much else.

T-shirt football seems to be on the rung barely ahead of fantasy football.

"We're practicing without pads where no one can tackle," head coach Marvin Lewis reminds everyone. "I like where our players are. My goal is to get through these things and continue to move ahead mentally and health-wise."

Earlier this week, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the guys not working until training camp as he rehabs minor knee surgery, put May and June in the freezer of expectations.

"Coaches love this opportunity to get back to being on the field," he said. "The real truth is this means nothing. Until you put pads on and strap something up and see each other in live contact the real players stand out. The guys that are actually legit show up.

"There are a ton of guys out there on the street that can mentally handle this game. As far as knowing what to do on an assignment. It's whether or not they can get it done. Until you put pads on and find guys that can do it in live contact it doesn't really matter."

But Lewis does have some use for it.

"You're setting guys up for competition is what you're trying to do," Lewis says. "You're trying to let everybody have a fair opportunity mentally so they know what to do and go out there and compete."

So here's a look at some of the best battles setting the training table for camp in seven weeks:

Both offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and quarterback Andy Dalton believe there has been improvement.

"The thing was the deep ball going into the spring. We wanted to work on timing and I think we've got a lot better," Dalton says. "I think I've gotten better throwing the ball. I think the timing is there. Those are some things we definitely got better at."

Gruden says they have literally spent long hours on it.

"We've thrown a lot of them. Some of them he probably wouldn't have thrown in a game, but we're just trying to work the trajectory and timing. I like how it's coming," Gruden says. "We're calling quite a few of them just to get them on tape and getting the receivers running at the right angles so the quarterback can see them. Overall, I think Andy's done a better job of throwing them, plus some really, really good ones. A.J. (Green) has made some plays, obviously, and we're trying to get other guys involved."

Which brings us to:

Last year the Bengals kept seven wide receivers going into the season, but with the potential of keeping four tight ends they look to be headed back to the traditional six. And if you figure that Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and Andrew Hawkins are locks and Brandon Tate is a virtual lock until someone else emerges in both return games, then that is quite a battle for the final spot.

At the moment, the completion looks heated between a pair of sixth-round picks, Cobi Hamilton (2013) and Ryan Whalen (2011), as well as third-year man Dane Sanzenbacher, last year's Christmas Day pickup off waivers.

"Cobi has done some good things; Ryan Whalen has made some plays. It's going to be tough to let any of them go," Gruden says.

The Bengals figure to keep four running backs, so we're talking about the two spots behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. It's a battle of a trio of sixth-rounders with Peerman by the Ravens in 2009 and Herron and Burkhead by the Bengals the past two seasons, respectively.

Herron, who flashed on special teams as a rookie last year when he partially blocked a punt and forced another one in his first two games, has had free run of the place. Peerman has missed the OTAs with what is believed to be a minor injury that won't keep him out of training camp and Burkhead has been slowed by a tweaked muscle that is thought not to be an issue when camp comes.

With a new two-year deal and a productive special teams résumé, Peerman looks to be the frontrunner. But Lewis says Herron has showed up this spring.

Herron was on the practice squad all last year until Peerman got hurt and played in three of the last four games, carrying just four times for five yards. Herron had no catches and Lewis doesn't remember him showing that skill set at this point last year.

"Danny has been able to show people things he can do," Lewis says. "He's impressed me with his ability to catch the football because you don't get much of that opportunity … Danny being on the practice squad when he was there. He worked extremely hard, so when he got his chance, what he did and how productive he was on special teams was really no surprise."

Undrafted Trevor Robinson made a huge impression last year when incumbent center Kyle Cook missed the first three months with an ankle injury and veteran Jeff Faine struggled physically. In Robinson's seven starts, the Bengals were 5-2 and averaged 144 rushing yards. When Cook came back for the last four games and started the last two, Robinson also worked in the mix. But the Bengals drew criticism when they opted not to play Robinson in the playoffs.

Now Cook, who had started all 48 games that included two playoff runs once he got promoted in 2009 before getting hurt in the preseason, is healthy.

"He's done well," Lewis says of Cook. "We have good competition there and I think he feels that. But there's no one sharper than him and I think he's better. He's had a chance to play and to totally heal."

With Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling also rehabbing and Smith out, the Bengals three drafted offensive linemen got a workout in the OTAs. Fifth-rounder Tanner Hawkinson has been working at left tackle and left guard and getting some shots at right tackle with the first group. Seventh-rounder Reid Fragel has worked at both tackles, and the other seventh-rounder, T.J. Johnson, has worked at center and guard.

Veteran Anthony Collins has been at both tackles as he preps for a camp battle against the kids for the backup spots belonging to him and right tackle Dennis Roland.

"We're in good position when we get into the real preseason games to have an opportunity for those (rookies) to go out and show that they're guys we can hopefully count on at some point," Lewis says. "They've made some progress.

"It will be interesting to see over the next six weeks how their bodies continue to mature and develop as we go into training camp. We know there'll be a huge jump over next offseason, like we've seen with Trevor Robinson and Boling ... and guys like that who as rookies have gotten to play. You see just a transformation physically from their first year to the second year. I think if those three guys are able to do that same thing, we'll really be feeling pretty good about things going forward."

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