The Bengals open training camp Wednesday (2:15 p.m.) on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields as downtown Cincinnati prepares for a 12-day Jungle Fest welcoming back the AFC champions.
For the first time in the Joe Burrow Era the camp practices are open to the public and a glance at the training camp roster tells you why the Bengals are so hot with the fans and why the pundits are so bullish on the future.
Of the 17 returning starters from that day in Los Angeles they came within 39 seconds of winning the Super Bowl, 28-year-old nose tackle D.J. Reader and 28-year-old slot cornerback Mike Hilton are the oldest. Their three new offensive line starters are now their most experienced men up front. All their leading rushers, receivers, sackers and kickers are back.
But there are always enough questions to keep a training camp bubbling. Most of them just happen to be in the nooks and crannies of the depth chart.
There are some guys still coming back from injury and they may appear on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) early next week, but they can return at any point during camp once they pass a physical. They'll know more when injured players report Saturday, but for the moment it looks like they're in good shape for the Sept. 11 opener here against Pittsburgh.
Here's a look at some potential roster battles in camp. (Years in the NFL are in parenthesis.)
Brandon Allen (6), Joe Burrow (3), Jake Browning (1)
Welcome to Burrow's first NFL training camp without rehab and COVID protocols. Between Burrow and Allen, they are 3-2 against Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. In the age of two quarterbacks, Browning looks headed to the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVERS (12)
Tyler Boyd (7), Mike Thomas (7), Trent Taylor (5), Stanley Morgan (4), Tee Higgins (3), Trenton Irwin (3), Ja'Marr Chase (2), Pooka Williams, Jr. (1), Jaivon Heiligh (R), Kwamie Lassiter II (R), Kendric Pryor (R), Jack Sorenson (R).
Is there a better trio in the league than Boyd, Chase and Higgins? Do the Bengals have a more intriguing conundrum than what to do behind them?
Thomas, Morgan and Taylor are all reliable and valued special teams players. In this decade they have combined for just 32 catches and 322 yards, so is that enough if someone has to come off the bench? Maybe. Special teams were ranked in the top ten last year and those three were a big reason why. They have to balance going out and getting a receiver with better numbers against the value of core kicking game players knowing they'll probably keep seven receivers. Good debate.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Lassiter vs. the second three and Irwin: Does Lassiter, undrafted out of Kansas, have enough time and talent to carve out a niche on special teams? He's the one rookie with some punt return ability and looked to be in the swim enough running routes in the spring that he impressed the coaches. But the memory of Taylor's solid returning down the stretch and his lone playoff touch that tied the AFC title game on a two-pointer with 15:14 left is going to be hard to shake.
RUNNING BACKS (6)
Joe Mixon (6), Samaje Perine (6), Trayveon Williams (4), Chris Evans (2), Elijah Holyfield (2), Shermari Jones (R).
Mixon, who has the fifth most rushing yards since he came into the league in 2017, is set to become the first Bengal to have six straight seasons of at least 119 carries since Corey Dillon did it from 1997-2003. On 118 rushes as a Bengal, Perine averages 4.6 yards per pop and then there's that 41-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the last 65 seconds of the first half that revived the Bengals in the AFC title game.
Throw in Evans coming off a rookie year with two receiving touchdowns, 4.5 yards per his 17 carries and his emerging kickoff role and that's a pretty solid three.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Williams vs. the rest: You have to think that fourth spot is going to the practice squad and he's got a leg up with his experience.
TIGHT ENDS (7)
Hayden Hurst (5), Drew Sample (4), Mitchell Wilcox (3), Thaddeus Moss (2), Nick Eubanks (1), Scotty Washington (1), Justin Rigg (R)
Just a number to chew on. The departed C.J. Uzomah's career year came last season with Burrow on 49 catches at 10.1 yards per catch and five touchdowns. The free agent Hurst's best year was two years ago with Matt Ryan in Atlanta: 10. 2 yards per 56 catches and six touchdowns. Sample hasn't missed a game in the last two years.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Wilcox vs. Moss: After playing every game but one last year in his first season, Wilcox is the incumbent. But uneasy lies the crown for a third tight end on a team that uses three receivers 80 percent of the time. Moss is looking to get some luck after his first two seasons in the league have been marred by injury. He was all set to make his debut last season when he got the call from the practice squad, but injured his hamstring in pregame warm-ups before the Nov. 28 win over the Steelers.
OFFENSIVE LINE (14)
T La'el Collins (8), C-G Ted Karras (7), G Alex Cappa (5), T Isaiah Prince (4), T Jonah Williams (4), G Hakeem Adeniji (3), C Lamont Gailard (3), G Jackson Carman (2), C Trey Hill (2), T D'Ante Smith (2), G-C Ben Brown (R), T Devin Cochran (R), G Desmond Noel (R), G-T Cordell Volson (R).
You can see right away what free agency did to this spot. The three most experienced guys in the room signed in March. The biggest thing they bring besides long-proven reliability is a down-hill, aggressive mindset. Collins, in particular, has such a tenacious approach in practice that he can help offensive line coach Frank Pollack finish off the culture shift up front that began when he was hired before last season.
Collins has played 12 games in the last two seasons, so it's going to be interesting to see which tackle emerges as the swing man behind him. Prince has the playoff experience and Smith has the pedigree as a fourth-rounder with good athleticism and NFL body.
They usually keep nine and it gets tight fast with the five starters, Volson, the two backup tackles and a back-up guard that must also be a center.
CAMP BATTLES TO WATCH: Carman vs. Volson: Carman, last year's second-rounder, looked invigorated in the spring as the starting left guard. He's lighter than last year and he's now a year into the transition from tackle and seems more comfortable on the left side. They can't wait to get the fourth-rounder Volson in pads so he can show his strength and his 65-game knowledge from college that also includes a stint this spring helping coach the North Dakota line.
Hill vs. Brown: A summer skirmish between two SEC centers in Georgia's Hill, last year's sixth-rounder, and Mississippi's Brown, an undrafted rookie. Hill started three games last season, one at center in the season finale in Cleveland where he drew pretty good reviews and figures to have the edge. They like Brown's versatility and experience playing two seasons each at guard and center.
DEFENSIVE LINE (14)
T D.J. Reader (7), E Trey Hendrickson (6), E Sam Hubbard (5), T B.J. Hill (5), DE Noah Spence (5), T Josh Tupou (5), E Khalid Kareem (3), E Joseph Ossai (2), E Cam Sample (2), T Tyler Shelvin (2), E Wyatt Hubert (1), T Zach Carter (R), E Jeffrey Gunter (R), E-T Tariqous Tisdale (R).
This should be an eye-opening camp at this spot for depth. The back-up ends are looking to prove they're healthy and they seek a back-up tackle that can rush the passer. They could keep as few as nine and as many as 11 if they're worthy. So call it ten with five ends and tackles.
Sample played 310 snaps as a rookie and while he had just 1.5 sacks, he was relentless on the edge against the run. Kareem has had shoulder problems, but when he finally got on the field last year he might have saved the season when he wrenched the ball from Drew Locke in the red zone in Denver.
Ossai's journey has been well documented after last year's third-rounder sacked Tom Brady on his first career series and put up eye-popping numbers before injuring his wrist and knee later in the game and missing the entire season. If he starts camp on PUP, it probably won't be for long. Making his pro debut after he missed all of the spring, summer and fall of 2021 is last year's seventh-rounder out of Kansas State Wyatt Hubert. Which means while they've got young talent on the edge, they've got only 2.5 NFL sacks behind Hendrickson and Hubbard.
Inside they're set for the top three from last year's fifth-ranked run defense with what may be the top nose tackle in the league in Reader, inside pass rusher Hill and hard-to-move nose tackle Tupou.
But they also have to find a way to get near the seven sacks supplied by departed Larry Ogunjobi's inside pass rush and Carter, the current third-rounder, is going to get plenty of chances. Last year, Ogunjobi's backup wasn't here until they traded for Hill at the end of August, so there's that.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Shelvin vs. Shelvin: Last year's massive fourth-rounder struggled to get on the field. As he battled his weight and transition to the pros, he took just 49 snaps in three games. Word is he's been around and looking pretty good lately as he works to keep things at pretty much around 350 pounds. His resume on LSU's Saturdays is impressive and they hope he can bottle it in his second training camp.
Germaine Pratt (4), Joe Bachie (3), Markus Bailey (3), Akeem Davis-Gaither (3), Clay Johnston (3), Logan Wilson (3), Keandre Jones (2), Clarence Hicks (R), Carson Wells (R).
They'll probably keep five backers again and while Wilson, Bailey, Davis-Gaither and Bachie have been in some form of rehab, they figure to be ready for the Sept. 11 opener. Bachie seems to have the longest climb since he got hurt so late. He played really well backing up Wilson in the middle in nine games, two starts and 160 snaps before he tore his ACL, but there seems to be some optimism he'll be back for the opener.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Jones vs. Johnston: Depending on injuries, this could be for a roster spot or practice squad spot. They both provide special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons with speed and Johnston is already a folk hero in Bengaldom with his only play-off snap coming in the AFC Divisional in Tennessee when he went from edge to edge to King Derrick Henry on a two-point stuff.
S Michael Thomas (9), CB Eli Apple (7), S Vonn Bell (7), CB Chidobe Awuzie (6), CB Mike Hilton (6), S Brandon Wilson (6), S Jessie Bates III (5), CB Tre Flowers (5), CB Jalen Davis (3), S Trayvon Henderson (3), CB John Brannon (2), S Tycen Anderson (R), S Abu Daramy-Swaray (R), CB Alan George (R), S Dax Hill (R), CB Delonte Hood (R), CB-S Bookie Radley-Hiles (R), CB Cam Taylor-Britt (R).
Here's another spot where they could go as high as 11 players and with the talent back there and who they drafted, that's a pretty good possibility. But they do seem to have that built-in swing guy in the first-rounder Hill, a guy that allows you to keep ten and still have six cornerbacks and five safeties. That may not be how camp starts but at some point Hill would seem to be the guy who can back up Hilton in the slot.
They look pretty stocked at cornerback with Awuzie, Hilton, Apple, the tight end-stopper Flowers and the second-rounder Taylor-Britt. Bates hasn't signed his franchise tender, but when he shows he and Bell make up one of the best safety tandems in the NFL while Hill and the fifth-rounder Anderson have younged it up and made it faster behind them.
CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Davis vs. Thomas vs. Wilson: Maybe three guys for the last spot. If Davis plays as well as he did last preseason, he may make them keep six cornerbacks. But when healthy, Wilson is their best special teams player as a Pro Bowl-caliber kick returner and gunner. He may start camp on PUP as he rehabs a torn ACL. Thomas was a huge veteran presence for them last year on special teams down the stretch, bringing calm and experience to the key spot of the punter's personal protector. He was last seen in the spring showing Anderson the ropes at that spot.
LS Clark Harris (14), P Kevin Huber (14), K Evan McPherson (2), P Drue Chrisman (1), LS Cal Adomitis (R).
CAMP BATTLES TO WATCH: Huber vs. Chrisman: Huber struggled down the stretch last year, but Chrisman, in his second season out of Ohio State, has a huge challenge to unseat the incumbent. Huber, the Bengals all-time punter in his 14th season, believes he can rebound, which is half the battle. Plus, he knows exactly what Simmons wants in the directional game, an aspect Chrisman didn't have to deal with much until he got here.
And since this is now a unit headlined by McPherson's big leg that proved golden in the postseason, Huber's gifted hands on the holds for field goals and PATs are going to be tough to wrest away. But Chrisman gets a chance to show off that big leg of his own.
Harris vs. Adomitis: Another big edge for the veteran, the oldest man on the club who turned 38 two weeks ago.
If it's all about "The Operation," doesn't it all begin with the snapper? How tough is it for Adomitis, a truly talented guy who played at Pitt and was the no-brainer top at his position as the only long snapper at the NFL scouting combine? And here is Harris, who has never flung a bad one back at Huber in 201 games, coming off a postseason McPherson dominated. And when the pads come on, Adomitis is going to have to adjust to NFL blocking instead of snapping and running down the field.