The transition to two new coordinators led the charge during the Cincinnati Bengals offseason program. Hue Jackson at offensive coordinator and Paul Guenther at defensive coordinator merged continuity and new personality to establish what will be expected when training camp opens July 24.
No change was more obvious to the eyes of onlookers and lungs of players than the tempo and intensity put forth by Jackson's offensive group. Following a draft heavy on emphasis in the power running game, Jackson pushed his team into overdrive in an attempt to establish a new style of play.
The playbook for the most part looks the same, but a new coordinator brings new energy to a Bengals offense suddenly teetering on the veteran side of the spectrum. If OTAs and minicamp were about setting the tempo, camp will be about setting the physicality. Jackson wants the offense to punish teams with power and added 233-pound hammer Jeremy Hill at running back and powerful center Russell Bodine. Expect little holding back once the pads come on.
Defensively, Guenther focused his attention on versatility, particularly on the front line. Without Michael Johnson breaking off the right edge every snap, Guenther showed his desire to use varying attacks to make up for Johnson's departure.
Carlos Dunlap spent time working on the right side and could prove dangerous on the blind side with his propensity for forcing fumbles (he forced four in six games during a stretch last year), but also had Wallace Gilberry, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke playing up and down the line in a design to keep teams honest. How much that was offseason tinkering and how much will be utilized during the season will be a development worth watching in camp.
CAMP SCHEDULE: Rookies and veterans report July 23, first practice July 24.
--The Bengals were giving troubled defensive end Sam Montgomery a second chance when they signed him earlier this offseason. The 2013 third-round pick of the Texans who didn't make it halfway through his rookie season before being kicked off, didn't make the greatest first impression in Cincinnati.
He was arrested and released for speeding after driving 89 in a 55 zone in South Carolina. The infraction could hardly be considered major, but not the best sign for a player already on thin ice for his previous off-field behavior.
The Bengals are hoping for a Vontaze Burfict type restoration with Montgomery and this doesn't take away that possibility, but does place even more emphasis that he dominate in camp if he wants to hold on to a spot on the 53-man roster.
--Running back Giovani Bernard was the new guy in the room last year. The 37th overall pick in the 2013 draft broke onto the scene as a rookie of the year candidate after topping 1,200 yards from scrimmage.
Now in his second year, his maturation into a leader has been apparent. Bernard took part in the NFL Rookie Symposium as a presenter and provided tips for rookies to follow in order to replicate his success.
He discussed his biggest surprise being the "rookie wall," he didn't so much think it existed before his rookie season but readily admitted it did looking back. The wall wasn't so much a physical hurdle as a mental one for the running back who could more specifically speak looking directly at Bengals second-round pick Jeremy Hill who will be asked to fill a similar workload as Bernard did last season.
--Team strength: Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and the offense.
The players have responded to the new energy in the offensive room as Jackson replaced Jay Gruden, now the head coach in Washington.
Players are energized and the numbers of Jackson's success running the offense in Oakland (top 10 both years he was on staff) back up his attitude.
The offense needed an identity and mentality to stand behind and the physicality of the running game has the linemen smiling and Giovani Bernard featured. Both of those are great for the hopes of the Bengals.
--Breakout player: Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.
The outside linebacker could have been listed here at this time last season but a season-ending shoulder injury in the final preseason game derailed a promising year.
At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Lamur can fly around the field and plays an ideal weak-side spot in this system. The Bengals plan to unleash him on defenders and will create hellacious matchup problems on third down standing next to Vontaze Burfict.
--Fantasy football reality check: Wide receiver Marvin Jones.
He busted onto the fantasy radar last season in piling up 10 touchdowns. He became a favorite red-zone receiver for quarterback Andy Dalton after making a long line of difficult catches in tough spots.
His snaps should increase greatly this season considering he spent half of last year playing behind Mohamed Sanu. He'll now be featured opposite A.J. Green and even though the team is likely to throw less under Hue Jackson, Jones is primed for another big year.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Andy Dalton. Backups - Jason Campbell, A.J. McCarron, Matt Scott.
Few topics boil the blood pressure of Bengals fans more than Dalton, the Jekyll and Hyde quarterback who shows flashes of brilliance (2013 October Player of the Month) and ineptitude (one touchdown, seven turnovers in three playoff losses). He's still in negotiations for an extension and the team would like to have that done before camp starts and certainly before the season begins. If they can't, he will be rolling the dice on himself (ala Joe Flacco). Coaches believe the experience of Campbell behind him will be beneficial for helping Dalton as the pressure-packed season unfolds. While McCarron draws headlines for his college career, he will be holding a clipboard in the shadows all season.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Giovani Bernard, H-Back Orson Charles. Backups - Jeremy Hill, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead, James Wilder Jr., FB Nikita Whitlock, TE/FB Ryan Hewitt.
Bernard will be featured more this year than during his rookie campaign, not necessarily because he will accept more handoffs (which he likely will), but because he'll be utilized more as a receiver on the outside to put him in space more often. Hill will likely supplant Green-Ellis as the other back in the rotation and that leaves a likelihood Green-Ellis becomes a veteran cut in September. Burkhead has fans among the coaching staff, but this will be a big preseason to show he's worth keeping over the respected veteran Green-Ellis in the final spot. Peerman's dynamic special teams skills make him almost a lock to hang on. Charles could be expendable if he doesn't take a major jump, especially considering his offseason arrest.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Jermaine Gresham. Backups - Tyler Eifert, Alex Smith, Kevin Brock.
This position came in question during the offseason program as Gresham missed time with a hernia and Eifert fought off a shoulder injury. Both are expected to be healthy for the start of camp, but veteran Smith was re-signed in case a setback occurs. Gresham enters the last year of his deal where the team made no efforts to sign an extension. They look content to take their chances with him on the open market. Eifert and the coaches would like to see him involved more and a second-year leap by the former first-round pick would make Gresham more expendable should next offseason come time to choose.
Green caught more passes in his first three seasons than any other receiver in NFL history and only Randy Moss gained more yards in his first three years. Green's no secret; the others around him provide the intrigue. Expect Jones to be the Day 1 starter opposite Green attempting to build on his 10 touchdowns last year. Sanu, who lost the No. 2 job to Jones, will be more streamlined in his role as the slot receiver, his natural position, backed up by Sanzenbacher. A battle at the back end of the room will be waged between Whalen, Wright, Hamilton and Tate. If the Bengals can find another alternative as a kickoff returner, Tate could be expendable because he's never been able to break through as a receiver during his three years in Cincinnati.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Mike Pollak, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Andre Smith. Backups - C Russell Bodine, C Trevor Robinson, C T.J. Johnson, T Marshall Newhouse, T/G Dan France, T Curtis Feigt, G Tanner Hawkinson, G Trey Hopkins, T Will Svitek, G Chandler Burden.
The tackles and right guard are set with Whitworth, Smith and Zeitler holding down starting spots. Beyond that, the interior positions get interesting. Boling (ACL) and Pollak (knee) are both recovering from injuries. They hope to be back for training camp, but it is yet to be seen when they could actually contribute. A challenger at center, now without released starter Kyle Cook, is fourth-round pick Russell Bodine. He's powerful and nasty, but had trouble snapping the ball during OTAs. It would be nervous time if he started Week 1 across from Haloti Ngata. The versatile Tanner Hawkinson and undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins have a good chance to latch onto the back end of the roster.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Carlos Dunlap, DT Geno Atkins, NT Domata Peko, DRE Wallace Gilberry. Backups - DLE Margus Hunt, T Brandon Thompson, T Devon Still, E Robert Geathers, E Will Clarke, E Dontay Moch, T Christo Bilukidi, T Zach Minter, E Sam Montgomery, T Larry Black, E David King.
Coach Marvin Lewis sees Atkins (torn ACL) on pace to play Week 1, but that healing process needs to play out over the next two months. Assuming he returns to his previous form, all will be well along the front. Dunlap plans to move between left and right with Gilberry doing the same. The development of Hunt will be the true test of how good this line can be. The Bengals selected him in the second round last year with the idea the project could be blossoming by the opener of 2014. Peko recently signed a contract extension, but the quality play of Thompson in place of Atkins last year means he'll be part of the interior rotation. Still badly needs to stay healthy and begin producing results.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Rey Maualuga, SLB Vontaze Burfict, WLB Emmanuel Lamur. Backups -- Brandon Joiner, JK Schaffer, Vinny Rey, Sean Porter, Jayson DiManche, Marquis Flowers, James Davidson.
Burfict comes off a season in which he led the NFL in tackles and developed into a heart and soul member of the defense. Few compete as hard as Burfict, whether a monotonous June OTA or playoff game in January. Lamur brings a rare dimension of size and speed, with Maualuga coming off his best season with the Bengals in a more streamlined, run-stopping role. Rey will currently slot as the first backup at all three linebacker positions. His impressive showing filling in for an injured Maualuga last year is not forgotten. Last year's fourth-round pick Porter never saw a snap last year due to injury and he'll battle for the final roster spots along with Flowers and Schaffer.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Leon Hall, CB Terence Newman, SS Reggie Nelson, FS George Iloka. Backups -- CB Adam Jones, CB Darqueze Dennard, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB Chris Lewis-Harris, CB Vic Hampton, CB Lavelle Westbrooks, CB Onterrio McCalebb, CB R.J. Stanford, SS Danieal Manning, S Taylor Mays, S Shawn Williams, S Isaiah Lewis.
Few teams boast the depth of the Bengals corners, particularly with the latest amazing recovery from an Achilles injury by Hall. He'll be full-go the day camp opens and settle into the top cornerback role. The addition of Dennard behind constants Newman and Jones will be a luxury, as the first-round pick performed well during the offseason program. He'll give 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick all that he can handle to maintain the No. 4 spot. At safety, Iloka comes off a strong first year as a starter and will form a talented duo with the underrated Nelson. The addition of Manning and possible second-year bump for Williams could place pressure on Mays, who found a niche last year in the hybrid linebacker/safety role vacated when Lamur was hurt.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters - K Mike Nugent, P Kevin Huber, LS Clark Harris, RS Brandon Tate. Backups - P/K Quinn Sharp, P T.J. Conley.
Huber returns healthy after seeing his season end by virtue of a vicious December hit at Pittsburgh that broke his jaw. He's set to be full-go at the start of camp and return to his role as a top 10 punter in the league. Nugent attempted the fewest field goals in the league last year (22) which was a good problem to have, but coaches would like him to be more accurate than hitting 18 of them. Harris has been a rock at long snapper for years and that won't be changing soon. Tate's job could be in jeopardy particularly at punt returner if the depth at corner with Darqueze Dennard allows Adam Jones more attempts as a punt returner. Sharp and Conley will be around in camp to allow rest for the starters
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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