While this weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, thoughts of the fall are never far away for the Cincinnati Bengals, who will begin three weeks of Offseason Team Activity practices Tuesday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals had near perfect attendance for their voluntary workouts, which gave the new rookie class a chance to begin assimilating with the veterans. The team will work out Tuesday through Thursday for the next three weeks before wrapping up its offseason work with the June 16-18 minicamp.
Unlike the voluntary workout practices, a portion of the OTA field work will be open to the media, beginning with Tuesday morning’s first session.
Here is a look at five things we’ll be keeping an eye on as the Bengals take their first steps toward trying to end their 25-year drought without a playoff victory.
Cornerback competition: The departure of Terence Newman leaves an opening in the starting lineup, and all signs point toward Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard waging a spirited battle for the job.
Kirkpatrick, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, appears to be the front runner based on the way he played late last year when Newman was battling illness and injury. Kirkpatrick’s two interceptions of Peyton Manning, including a pick-six, in the Week 16 Monday Night victory against Denver cemented him as the favorite.
But Dennard, the team’s first-round pick in 2014, impressed the coaches every step of the way during his rookie season. His inexperience and the fact that there were four other first-round corners on the roster kept him off the field. And he’s made it clear he has no intention of watching this season from the sideline.
It’s not necessarily and either-or option. With Adam Jones turning 31 in September, it’s not out of the question that Kirkpatrick and Dennard could start opposite one another at some point this season.
Arms race: The starting job at quarterback may not be open, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be an intriguing battle at that position.
The signing of Terrelle Pryor after rookie camp coupled with the return of Josh Johnson and AJ McCarron’s clean bill of health will keep things interesting when the 2s and 3s take the field.
The Bengals have gone with just two quarterbacks on the roster the last couple of years, but they are likely to keep three in 2015 given their situation. McCarron is the likely No. 2, but he has zero NFL inexperience after spending most of last season on the Non-Football Injury list.
When McCarron was added to the 53-man roster in December, the Bengals went with three quarterbacks for the final three weeks of the season.
That leaves Pryor and Johnson to fight for the No. 3 job in what could be both players’ last chance at sticking on an NFL roster.
Return rotation: Rookie wide receiver Mario Alford, the team’s seventh-round pick, saw a lot of work as a returner during rookie camp, and that should continue in OTAs. It’s one of the main reasons the team drafted him after watching him run repeated 4.2-second 40-yard dashes at his pro day.
Adam Jones will still be in the mix as well, but his usage will be determined by his role on defense, which could be significant.
Giovani Bernard could be in play as well. He hasn’t returned punts in a game, but he has taken reps in practice. And with Jeremy Hill supplanting him as the featured back, Bernard’s dynamic open-field running could make him an option worth considering.
The Bengals also have Brandon Tate back after re-signing him as a free agent in the offseason.
Unsung undrafteds: Every year the Bengals seem to get significant contributions from players who went undrafted such as Vontaze Burfict, Wallace Gilberry, Ryan Hewitt, Vinny Rey, Jayson DiManche.
While a few guys such as Oregon corner Troy Hill, Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams and Mount St. Joseph tight end John Peters looked impressive during rookie camp, it’s the OTAs that give the undrafted guys their first real shot at impressing the coaches.
Fisher’s fit: Most of the attention tends to gravitate toward the first-round pick, but with tackle Cedric Ogbuehi still recovering from ACL surgery, he won’t be on the field for OTAs.
That will make second-round pick Jake Fisher the focal point. While he’s not expected to step in and start with incumbents Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith still on the roster, it will be worth watching to see how offensive line coach Paul Alexander uses Fisher, who is capable of playing any position on the offensive line.
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