All the telltale signs of a move to training camp are in place at Paul Brown Stadium.
Moving boxes on the coaches' floor. Trucks perched on the loading dock. Travel bags poised in front of every locker. (Yes, Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco both get bags.)
Everything but players. And they are expected not long after the NFL owners meet Thursday in Atlanta to presumably ratify a new collective bargaining agreement that the players may approve Wednesday in their own meeting in Washington.
How long before players arrive after that no one seems to know exactly, but the latest would seem to be Monday. Team employees can't talk to players during the lockout, but even if they could there doesn't seem to an answer for when it ends in the wake of an approved agreement. Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals player representative, told The Cincinnati Enquirer that he has simply instructed his teammates to stay by their phones and e-mail Wednesday.
It can't be too soon for guys like Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, heading into his ninth season on the job but like everyone else in the NFL also dipping into the unchartered waters of a post-lockout season in which there have been no supervised conditioning, practice and meetings, along with no free agency or roster moves.
"If we wanted to do it all day and beat your head into a wall, I could do 100 different depth charts for 100 different scenarios," Simmons said Tuesday. "I think every special teams coach in the league is going through the same thing on the same level. It's just hard to prioritize guys at certain spots when you don't know if you'll have them.
"I think the guys that you really have to pay attention to are the young guys. The rookies, because you haven't seen them."
Simmons has other issues. He's not sure if last year's special teams captain, outside linebacker Brandon Johnson, is going to be back in free agency, as well as another top special teams player, running back Brian Leonard. Simmons's top tackler from last year and a core special teams player, Dan Skuta, could be in the mix to play a lot of SAM backer. His kicker, Mike Nugent, is coming off reconstructive surgery on his kicking knee and while he made all of his field-goal tries during the one day the lockout was lifted back in April, Simmons has no idea what he can do now because of the no-contact rule.
But the rookies and newcomers have to be his top priority because they've always been a pretty big factor on Simmons's depth chart. Last year three rookies, linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy (second in special teams tackles), cornerback Brandon Ghee (tied for fifth), and safety Jeromy Miles (tied for seventh) gave him a lot of production.
In 2009, college free agent rookie Quan Cosby had the team's best punt return season in 25 years. In 2008, newcomer Kyries Hebert was the leading special teams tackler, and in 2006 rookies Herana-Daze Jones and Ethan Kilmer finished 1-2 in tackles for Simmons while Kentucky wide receiver Glenn Holt emerged from a rookie camp tryout for a three-year run as the club's kick returner. Miles, Cosby, Jones and Holt came out of that CFA crop the Bengals can't sign until after the lockout, never mind not coaching them before heading to Georgetown College for training camp.
With everyone geared up on the fast track for a regular-season opener now 55 days away, it is the rookies that figure to take the biggest hit physically and mentally. There is no time to find the Glenn Holts, only the Torry Holts.
"Time is obviously much more limited this year; it's more difficult to find that guy," Simmons said. "That's the line you walk. Who gets the reps and when they get them. Sure (the opener) takes priority. Time is of the essence. That's why we have to do a good job of evaluating not only the load they can handle mentally, but put it in conjunction with what they can do physically."
Reiterating what head strength coach Chip Morton said last week, Simmons believes the most important goal of this camp is getting to Opening Day healthy. "Get the horses to the gate," he said. But no one knows how they'll respond to a lot of reps without seeing them since January.
Hence, walking the line.
"The rookies have never practiced a snap of NFL football," Simmons said. "You have to be able to manage it. Are you installing too much for these young guys to handle, or too little? I know they're going to get loaded down with install stuff of offense and defense. So for me it becomes even more critical because I have to watch the amount of information I give them."
And Simmons has high hopes for this year's drafted rookies.
On paper third-round pick Dontay Moch, a guy with the workout numbers of a decathlete, looks to be a 250-pound potential wrecking ball on special teams. But he'll also be faced with trying to make the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker in this truncated preseason.
Fifth-round pick Robert Sands, a safety from West Virginia, and seventh-round pick Korey Lindsey, a cornerback from Southern Illinois, also project to be possible contributors. And sixth-round pick Ryan Whalen, a wide receiver from Stanford, has some Kevin Walterish qualities that translated well several years ago when he became one of Simmons's top guys.
"They did some certain things I liked on tape last year," Simmons said. "But they haven't set foot inside the stadium yet. We'll have to watch them closely."