The Cincinnati Bengals move into the third phase of the voluntary offseason workout program this week with the start of Organized Team Activities.
The first of 10 allowed OTA practices will be Tuesday, which will be one of three open to the media, along with May 30 and June 6. The Bengals also will practice May 31, June 1 and June 7-9.
All practices, which are closed to the public, are voluntary. The only mandatory session prior to training camp will the June 13-15 minicamp.
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Coaches are allowed to be on the field for the OTA practices, and the players can wear helmets and shells, but full contact is prohibited. The team can do position drills and team drills such as 7 on 7, 11 on 11, but individual drills such as wide receivers vs. cornerbacks, are not allowed.
Here are five Bengals storylines to follow during OTAs:
The Bengals placed 11 players on Injured Reserve last season, and most of them are expected to be on the field for OTAS, including Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green , who missed the final six games with a hamstring injury.
Starting offensive linemen Clint Boling (shoulder) and Cedric Ogbuehi (toe) also are expected to participate, as are a pair of 2016 draft picks in first-round cornerback William Jackson (pectoral) and fourth-round defensive tackle Andrew Billings (knee) in what will be their first team drills since both were injured early in training camp.
The biggest question marks are tight end Tyler Eifert (back) and running back Giovani Bernard (knee). Eifert said last month he expects to be ready by training camp, but his status for OTAs was unclear. Bernard tore his ACL six months ago on Nov. 20, so it’s unlikely he will be cleared to practice this soon.
The likely absence of Bernard should afford second-round rookie Joe Mixon more reps this offseason. And the absence of first-rounder John Ross, who is not eligible to participate until his University of Washington class graduates June 10, will only put Mixon in a brighter spotlight during OTAs.
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No matter how fast Mixon moves, he’ll never outrun his past. But his goal of turning all conversations to football will be helped by a strong showing over the next month.
The OTAs will provide some insight into one of the most interesting position battles as the Bengals look for a starting defensive tackle to replace Domata Peko, who left for Denver via free agency, alongside Pro Bowler Geno Atkins.
Three leading candidates didn’t play a snap in 2016, and two of them have yet to play a snap in the league.
Brandon Thompson, who tore his ACL in the 2015 finale, appears to be the favorite with 39 games and seven starts under his belt. But Billings and 2015 fourth-round pick Marcus Hardison will be in the mix as well, along with DeShawn Williams, 2016 undrafted free agent David Dean and 2017 fourth-round pick Ryan Glasgow.
It’s never too early to start evaluating a position battle as wide open as what the Bengals have at kicker, with veteran Randy Bullock, rookie Jake Elliott and project Jonathan Brown in the mix.
Bullock only missed one field goal after replacing Mike Nugent last season, but it came on the final play of a 14-12 loss to Houston in Week 16. Elliott, a fifth-rounder who broke all of Stephen Gostkowski’s records at Memphis, is the first kicker the Bengals have drafted in the Marvin Lewis era . And Brown might have the biggest leg of the three, but the converted soccer player from Louisville has never attempted a field goal in any game at any level.
The plan the Bengals put in motion two years ago when they drafted tackles with their first two picks in 2015 goes into full effect this spring with Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher taking over as starters.
Ogbuehi started 2016 at right tackle but eventually was benched. He made his starting debut at left tackle in Week 16 but suffered a season-ending toe injury. Fisher started the final three games of 2016 at right tackle and demonstrated at times why the Bengals used a second-round pick on him.
It will be hard to fully evaluate their progress without contact, but these OTA practices will be valuable learning tools for the duo, especially Ogbuehi, who has yet to take part in an offseason program due to injuries.