While debates simmer about if, when and for how much the Cincinnati Bengals should redo quarterback Andy Dalton's contract, now in its fourth year, the fans weighed in when training camp began Thursday.
Shortly after practice began some fans hung a couple of signs over the railing of the bridge that rises above the practice fields.
One implored the Bengals to not sign Dalton, while the other read "AJ to A.J. The future is now," referring to rookie quarterback A.J. McCarron, whom the team selected in the fifth round, and All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green.
Another banner more coarsely read "Don't sign Dalton. He sucks."
The signs were removed quickly. Team president Mike Brown said Tuesday the contract negotiations have been ongoing for a while and he is hopeful an agreement can be reached.
Meanwhile, the team and player continue to indicate a deal is in the works and it will be only a matter of time before there resolution.
Early this week, Bengals president Mike Brown suggested Dalton is worthy of a deal similar to the one San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed this year -- a six year extension worth as much as $126 million, give or take a truckload of cash. That is a bit misleading because the deal includes a lot of conditions, escalators and de-escalators, but does have $61 million guaranteed.
But it's a sure bet that Dalton is clinging to that big number in negotiations. After all he has taken the Bengals to three straight playoffs. Kaepernick took over the 49ers quarterback job in mid-season 2012 and took the team to a Super Bowl before losing that final game. Last season he took the 49ers to the brink of making another Super Bowl, missing by inches on a last ditch pass against Seattle.
Despite Brown's remark, most evaluators do not rate Dalton as highly as they do Kaepernick. However, Dalton is 30-18 in three seasons as the starting quarterback, leading the Bengals to nine, 10 and 11 wins. But all three seasons ended with first-round playoff losses in which Dalton did not play well.
And there is where curiosity is rampant about what kind of deal will be made. Dalton plays it down, saying it will just be a matter of time, which he repeated in various ways Thursday before the team0's first training camp practice.
"When the time is right, it's going to happen," he said. "Until then there is nothing new. I can't worry about it because there's no reason to. Will it be a relief when it gets done? Yeah, I'm sure because I won't have to keep talking to y'all about it."
Green said earlier this week he doesn't want to catch passes from anyone other than Dalton, and veteran cornerback Leon Hall said the entire locker room is behind Dalton and confident he can take the team to the next level.
"Obviously there's scrutiny there," Hall said. "He's the quarterback of the team, the face of the team, so that's going to come with the position. But in our opinion, and I can probably speak for most of the guys in this locker room, we wouldn't want to go on this journey with anyone else.
"Regardless of what everybody else says or how they feel, good or bad about Andy, we love him in this locker room and we're going to go with him win or lose."
Rookies and veterans reported July 23.
First practice July 24.
--Three players who suffered devastating season-ending injuries in 2013 were back on the field for the first practice of training camp Thursday, and a fourth may not be too far behind.
Punter Kevin Huber's return from a broken jaw and fractured vertebrae - the result of a vicious, illegal hit by Pittsburgh's Terence Gavin in Week 16 - was expected, and cornerback Leon Hall's recovery from a second torn Achilles in three years was predicted.
But Clint Boling surprised everyone when he lined up at left guard for the first snap of 11-on-11 drills less than seven months after surgery to repair an ACL tear he suffered in his right knee Dec. 1 in San Diego.
"That was always the goal I had in the back of my head, to be ready for the start of training camp," said Boling, who has played in 33 games with 31 starts in three seasons in Cincinnati. "That was the first milestone to get across. Back in May the knee started feeling really well. I got a lot of the motion back, and I thought it was starting to get pretty realistic to be ready to go."
Hall may not have surprised anyone, but he continues to amaze. After going through an intense rehab process following a left Achilles injury in Dec. 2011, he was back in time for the first snap of camp in 2012 and turned in arguably the best season of his career.
Head coach Marvin Lewis claimed Hall actually increased his speed after that first surgery.
This time around he had some extra time to rehab after tearing his right Achilles on Oct. 20 in Detroit. But more important was the added knowledge.
"Mentally it was easier the second time," Hall said. "Not even close. I mean, the first time going into it my goal was to come back for training camp, and I felt I could achieve that goal but obviously I was going into it blind. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to do as opposed to the second time."
It's unclear when All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins will return from the right ACL tear he suffered Oct. 31 in Miami, although Lewis indicated it should be soon.
"Geno's goal is to be out there the very first practice," Lewis said at the media luncheon two days before camp opened. "I'm going to keep him from achieving that goal because I want to lay eyes on Geno for a few days. He's going to begin on PUP, and as soon as he and I agree he's ready to go in the rigors of practice, we'll feel good about it."
While the Bengals were able to bring several players off the Physically Unable to Perform and Non-Football Injury lists to start camp - cornerback Onterio McCalebb, defensive end Christo Bilukidi and undrafted rookie wide receiver Colin Lockett also participated in the first practice - there was one surprise addition.
All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth was placed on the PUP list after straining his calf in a conditioning drill on the eve of camp.
--The Bengals signed a pair of wide receivers to give the team some depth at the position while Marvin Jones (ankle) and Ryan Whalen (hamstring) mend from what appear to be minor injuries. Jeremy Johnson, who played as SMU and previously signed with New England after going undrafted in May, was added just prior to the start of Thursday's first practice. After Thursday's practice the Bengals were awarded Conner Vernon off waivers from Cleveland. The Duke product signed with Oakland as undrafted college free agent in 2013 but was part of the final cut preseason he cuts. He landed on the Browns practice squad in December.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--LB Michael Boley (not tendered as UFA).
--S Chris Crocker (not tendered as UFA).
--P Zoltan Mesko (not tendered as UFA).
--OT Dennis Roland (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--CB Darqueze Dennard (1/24): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Jeremy Hill (2/55): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--DE Will Clarke (3/88): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--C Russell Bodine (4/111): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--QB A.J. McCarron (5/164): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Marquis Flowers (6/212): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--WR James Wright (7/239): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Lavelle Westbrooks (7/252): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Taylor Mays: UFA; terms unknown.
--G Mike Pollak: Potential UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Vincent Rey: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--WR Dane Sanzenbacher: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); $1.2M/1 yr, $200,000 SB.
--TE Alex Smith: Not tendered as UFA; terms unknown.
--WR/KR Brandon Tate: Potential UFA; terms unknown.
--QB Jason Campbell: FA Browns; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--S Danieal Manning: FA Texans; terms unknown.
--DE Dontay Moch (waivers Cardinals).
--OT Marshall Newhouse: UFA Packers; terms unknown.
--CB R.J. Stanford: Not tendered as RFA by Dolphins; terms unknown.
--T Will Svitek: Not tendered as UFA by Patriots; terms unknown.
--T Anthony Collins: UFA Buccaneers; $30M/5 yrs, $15M guaranteed.
--C Kyle Cook (released).
--CB Brandon Ghee: UFA Chargers; $1.65M/2 yrs.
--LB James Harrison (released).
--WR Andrew Hawkins: RFA Browns (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation); Bengals didn't match offer of $13.6M/4 yrs.
--QB Josh Johnson (released).
--DE Michael Johnson: UFA Buccaneers; $43.75M/5 yrs, $16M guaranteed.
--QB Greg McElroy (released/retired).
--QB Zac Robinson (released/failed physical).
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