Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) runs a play during the first OTA practice of the year, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. GREG LYNCH / STAFF

Cincinnati Bengals: 7 players to watch at mandatory minicamp

The mandatory part is all that will be different from the offseason team activities held to this point, each of which was voluntary.

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But even though the practices – one each day – will be unpadded and free of contact, they will continue to provide insight into how the rookies are adjusting to the new system and faster speed of the NFL, as well offer a glimpse at how the depth stacks up behind the starters.

This is the last chance the younger players have to show what they can do before the team takes a six-week break leading up to training camp.

The minicamp practices are closed to the public but open to the media, so here are 7 players we will be keeping a close eye on during the sessions:

Mario Alford

He has top-end NFL speed, but the second-year wide receiver’s short stint with the team has proven why he lasted until the seventh round. The knock on Alford last year was he was slow to grasp the offense, which prevented him from unleashing his full athleticism. He seems to be doing a better job of that this spring, but drops have been an issue during the few practices open to the media.

RELATED: Bengals receiver says 2016 is ‘my time’

Andrew Billings

Most fourth-round draft picks aren’t projected to make major contributions as rookies, but that’s not the case with Billings. The Bengals expect him to be heavily involved in the rotation on the defensive line, and that expectation has manifested itself in the form of some tough love from position coach Jacob Burney during OTAs. Burney isn’t afraid to get in a player’s face and light him up, which Billings is finding out. The more we see of Billings, and less we hear of Burney, will be a good sign for the D line.

RELATED: Bengals draft Billings in fourth round

Andy Dalton

Everything about Dalton was better last year until he broke his thumb in December. And while Dalton deserves the bulk of the credit for his improvement, there is no question that former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson played a significant role, specifically in pushing Dalton to get out of his comfort zone and take more control and be more vocal. Watching Dalton three days in a row will show whether he’s continuing to grow in that role or slipping back toward the quieter side with the more reserved Ken Zampese running the offense.

RELATED: Thumbs up for Andy Dalton

Jake Fisher

The second-year tackle participated in the first practice open to the media during the three weeks of OTAs but has missed the last two. Injuries are rare in non-contact OTAs, but they can happen. Fisher missed two games late last season with a concussion, and it would troubling if that is the issue again. With Andre Smith gone (Minnesota) and Andrew Whitworth entering the final year of his contract, the Bengals need Fisher on the field to develop into a player capable of starting in 2017 if Whitworth is not extended.

William Jackson III

As the team’s first-round pick, Jackson is going to be watched closely from now until the season ends. He has had his ups and downs during OTAs, showing flashes to illustrate why some considered him to be the best cornerback in the draft. But he’s also been beaten by some of the undrafted receivers at times. A strong minicamp would send Jackson into the six-week break with an even healthier dose of confidence. Jackson is the only pick the Bengals have not signed.

RELATED: Bengals first-round pick a quick study

Tyler Kroft

The second-year tight end didn’t get to show off his hands much last year when he was used primarily as a blocker while Tyler Eifert was having a Pro Bowl season. But with Eifert recovering from ankle surgery and expected to be out until at least late August, Kroft will get a chance to showcase more of his pass-catching skills – he had an acrobatic, juggling catch while going to the ground last week in OTAs – during mini camp and into training camp.

RELATED: Eifert injury creates opportunities for young tight ends

Josh Shaw

Limited mostly to special teams as a rookie, Shaw is splitting his time between nickel corner and safety this spring. The non-contact practices will be especially key for Shaw, who has to prove he has the skills to diagnose and communicate on the back end of the defense if he is going to make a successful switch to safety.

RELATED: Shaw gets boost in shift to safety

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