Training Camp Tour: Offensive line still Bengals' biggest strength
CINCINNATI – A hot, humid afternoon attracted numerous members of the national media on Wednesday as the Minnesota Vikings traveled to Cincinnati for a joint practice with the Bengals. Many teams have enjoyed breaking up the monotony of camp by scheduling head-to-head practices, and it gives a good early gauge as to where teams will stack up heading into the first preseason game. Most observers agree that the Vikings got the better of the Bengals for much of the afternoon, but let’s take a look at the long-term storylines for Cincinnati.
[More: Get the full PFF training camp tour schedule here.]
Offensive line should be a strength
After the Bengals ranked sixth in the league in pass-blocking efficiency last season, the offensive line should once again be a strength in 2016. It didn’t always look like the case against a stout Vikings defensive line, thought, that had been terrorizing their own front-5 during camp, and they made their presence felt early on against Cincinnati. QB Andy Dalton was often throwing from a compressed pocket, while other times he was sacked or flushed as Minnesota showed why they were a playoff team last season.
It’s not a major concern for the Bengals, as one practice does not undo the larger body of work that the offensive line has established the last few years, and we’re confident that they should at least be strong at left tackle with Andrew Whitworth (88.5 grade in 2015; did not practice yesterday), left guard with Clint Boling (79.9), and right guard with Kevin Zeitler (84.6). The two questions are at center and right tackle, where Russell Bodine struggled last seasson (42.6) and former first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi (70.1) is unproven with only 68 career snaps to his name. Ogbuehi has a good chance to upgrade the RT spot after Andre Smith fell from being one of the league’s best, to really struggling the last two seasons. Despite being pushed around up front Wednesday afternoon, Cincinnati looks strong along the offensive line once again.
Replacements in the secondary
Last season, the Bengals featured one of the more well-rounded secondaries in the league, with four of the top five players all having strong years. However, free safety Reggie Nelson (Raiders) moved on in free agency, as did slot cornerback Leon Hall (Giants). The Bengals have invested at the cornerback position in recent years with first-round pick Darqueze Dennard and this year’s first-rounder William Jackson (University of Houston). Unfortunately, Jackson has already gone down with an injury, though the Bengals are hopeful to have him back at some point during the season. During the draft, we called Jackson perhaps the best pure corner in the class, and while he may have the usual rookie adjustment period, his size, movement skills, and production should have Bengals fans excited.
It’s a big year for Dennard, who is first in line to replace Hall in the slot, and he’s shown well with an above-average coverage grade on his 269 career snaps. The key to the secondary may be at left cornerback with Dre Kirkpatrick, yet another former first-round pick, who was one of the league’s lowest-graded corners last season in his first extended career action. We saw more of the same from him at camp, as he bit on play-action while playing run support in cover-2 to give up a first down, and followed it up with a grabby downfield play that likely would have been pass interference in a game. Tackling has also been an issue for Kirkpatrick, who finished with 16 missed tackles a year ago, second-most in the league—a dangerous trait for a team that played the second-most zone coverage in the NFL last season, at 71.8 percent.
Backup quarterbacks look like backups
One of the common themes when rolling through a training camp tour: the starting quarterbacks look like starters, and the backups look like backups. That’s not groundbreaking news, but given the late-season hype that A.J. McCarron received during his few starts, it’s notable that he does not look as good as Andy Dalton. Dalton handled the Vikings’ pressure well, often finding a way to make throws in a tight pocket and throwing one red-zone post that was on point for a touchdown. He’s coming off his best season yet, in which the Bengals played to his strengths offensively and he responded with better decision-making and downfield accuracy. It will be a challenge to match last year’s numbers with WR Marvin Jones (Lions) moving on and TE Tyler Eifert battling injuries, but Dalton’s development was encouraging. As for McCarron, he was just a tick off on a few throws, whether just long on a deep ball or on a different page with his receivers. He also followed up Dalton’s post-route strike with a post of his own in the red zone; however, this one was attempted through two defenders and dropped for what should have been an interception. While McCarron did play well at times down the stretch, it’s still too early to think he warrants a top-round draft pick to become a starter elsewhere.
Other camp notes
– The Bengals suffered another injury to the rookie class as DT Andrew Billings (Baylor) was carted off during practice. There’s no word on the extent of the injury at this time.
– Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater looked sharp during our brief time watching the Minnesota offense. He mixed in a number of pinpoint passes at the intermediate and deep level, throwing with precision through zones and showing good touch on the deep ball.