Photo Credit: AlexanderJonesi, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
I can hear the bells of the NFL Films’ music ringing already. With all 32 NFL teams reporting for training camp today, that only means one thing: football is back, baby!
After a dream 2021 season in which the Cincinnati Bengals overcame their playoff-drought and made it all the way to the Super Bowl, the Who Deys arrived en masse to Cincinnati to begin their AFC-title defense. This year, with quarterback Joe Burrow’s knee injury now a distant memory, head coach Zac Taylor signed to an extension, and pretty much the whole band back together, the time is now for this Bengals squad to make do on their potential. Maybe it’s not entirely “Super Bowl or bust,” but it’s pretty close.
Burrow may be recovering from an appendectomy (and we wish him well), but there's no time to rest here at CincyItIsUs.com. As training camp begins, this is a good opportunity to reflect on some of the offseason moves and the big questions that still need to be answered. Here are the biggest training camp questions as we get ready for the 2022 season:
Will Jessie Bates III sign the franchise tag?
A quick review: after an excellent 2020 season in which Bates was named a 2nd-Team All Pro, Bates regressed somewhat in the 2021 regular season, before showing up in a big way in the postseason. His contract expired at the end of the season, and, instead of locking him into the long-term extension he wanted (likely making him one of the highest paid safeties in the NFL), the Bengals chose to place the Franchise Tag on Bates to secure his services for another year.
While on the tag, Bates is not able to negotiate a new deal with another team. However, he is fully guaranteed $12,911,000 for the upcoming season, with the opportunity to reach free agency next offseason. Despite 13 million reasons to sign the tag, Bates, so it seems, is holding out.
Why? Risk. A player on a one-year contract has far less security. What if he gets hurt? What if he has a subpar season? These are the kinds of questions football players don’t like pondering.
At this point, all reports indicate that Bates will not show up for training camp. Given the deadline to sign a new extension has passed, he may be attempting to force a trade. For now, though, it seems the Bengals’ brass fully expects Bates to suit up for the team by the start of the regular season.
“I don’t want to make any predictions. I’ve talked to Jessie and that’s up to him when he shows up and we will be ready for him,” Taylor said in an interview with WKRC-TV. “Communication with him has been good. In the meantime, it’s important for Dax (Hill) to be ready.”
“Jessie’s a good guy, we like him. It’s been two years we’ve been trying to extend him, we didn’t get there,” said Bengals’ owner Mike Brown. “We will have a chance at the end of the season again to do that.”
So, all’s well, it seems. If Bates really believes he deserves to be one of the highest paid safeties in the NFL, then sitting out does him no good. Right now, the Bengals hold most of the cards. Bates’ best option is to show up, ball out, and then place a call to a pastry chef because he’s going to be drowning in dough. Expect Bates to rejoin the team before Week 1.
How will the Offensive Line shake out?
There’s a lot of new faces here. La’el Collins, Alex Cappa, Ted Karras and Cordell Volson are all new arrivals who will play a big role in the success of the Bengals in 2022. They’re going to be counted on to turn a major weakness into…average? Above average? Dare I say, even a strength?
In all likelihood, these new additions won’t turn the Bengals O-Line into a Top 10 unit, but it’s hard to imagine they could be any worse than last year. We don’t need to rehash last season - Burow got sacked. A lot. End of story.
Of the four newbies, three seem solidified in their positions: Collins at right tackle, Cappa at right guard, and Karras at center. Incumbent left tackle Jonah Williams will continue to man the blindside. That leaves Volson, third-year Hakeem Adeniji, and second-years Jackson Carman and D’Ante Smith to battle it out for the last remaining spot at left guard.
Who will win is anyone’s guess. Carman, who was a second-round pick last year and started six games, is the favorite, but inconsistency was a major problem for the talented lineman out of Clemson. Adeniji and Smith have both had successful moments, but both seem more suited to backup roles. Volson is a wild card. At age 24, he’s mature and experienced enough to challenge for the starting spot. At the same time, he’s a fourth-round pick out of North Dakota State - let’s manage our expectations, OK?
No matter how things shake out, the Bengals’ O-Line is improved. The days of Burrow getting sacked into oblivion are over. Had this O-Line been in place during the Bengals’ Super Bowl run, I have no doubt that they would have won it all. Hopefully the team can get back and prove me right.
Will we see any new additions to the Wide Receiver Room?
With Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, the Bengals have the best WR-trio in the NFL - don’t let anyone tell you differently. While the Bengals might have the strongest set of receivers at the top of the depth chart, the rest of the WR room leaves a lot to be desired.
Right now, Mike Thomas is currently slotted in as the #4 WR, with Trent Taylor and Stanley Morgan behind him. They’re all nice players - Thomas is a smart player who excels on special teams, Taylor has performed well as the punt returner, and Morgan has demonstrated outstanding blocking ability for a WR - but none move the needle much. While I wouldn’t expect the Bengals to be running many four receiver sets (given they signed tight end Hayden Hurst in the offseason), depth is always a critical factor for any team with championship aspirations.
If Chase goes down for several weeks, who’s Burrow’s deep threat? If Boyd misses time, who takes over in the slot? Can anybody replicate what Tee Higgins does?
There’s no easy answer to any of these questions. But, with players like Odell Beckham Jr., Will Fuller and Cole Beasley still on the free agent market, the Bengals still have the opportunity to give themselves some breathing room should catastrophe strike. With Julio Jones signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today, the time is now to make a move. Otherwise, the Bengals’ options could dwindle in a hurry.
Who steps up to compliment the Pass Rush?
Last year, Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill teamed up to form a fearsome pass rush. Their relentless style made every drop back a problem for opposing quarterbacks. Even when they didn’t get home, they made sure to make their presence felt.
With Ogunjobi now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals have a hole in their rotation that needs to be filled. Thankfully, the Bengals have a number of players who are ready to take that next step.
2021 3rd-round pick Joseph Ossai was supposed to be the missing piece last year, and he demonstrated some serious skills in the Bengals preseason game versus the Buccaneers. On one play, he beat 2021 First Team All Pro Tristan Wirfs for a sack. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn meniscus and would miss the regular season and playoffs. With his speed and skill, Ossai is a natural fit as a designated edge rusher, freeing up Hubbard to line up at defensive tackle during obvious passing situations.
2022 3rd-round pick Zach Carter also gives the Bengals’ defensive line a significant jolt of versatility. At 6-4, 290lbs, Carter has the size, speed and pass rushing ability to affect the game from multiple positions, as he did during his time at Florida. He fits perfectly into Ogunjobi’s role as a penetrating defensive tackle but could also allow the Bengals to be creative in lining him up as a defensive end at times.
In their past two drafts, the Bengals have also invested their seventh-round picks into defensive ends Wyatt Hubert and Jeffrey Gunter. While I don’t expect either to play a huge role in 2022, they each have intriguing traits that could make them surprise contributors. Hubert is in a similar vein as Hendrickson and Hubbart as relentless pursuers of quarterbacks. Gunter is an athletic freak. If one of these two can make a leap, the Bengals will have one of the best, and deepest, pass rushing groups in the NFL
Despite reaching the Super Bowl last year, many in the media still seem to have reservations about the Bengals chances in 2022. The Bengals aren’t even the highest-rated team in the AFC North in Madden ‘22! I’d like to speak with the person who approved those ratings because they may need their head examined.
Take a look for yourself: this roster has few holes. It might be the best roster in the NFL, full stop. Like every team, the Bengals have some questions. But the Bengals are equipped, prepared and determined to answer them. Training camp is here, folks, and the countdown for another Super Bowl-run begins.