12 things I think that I think I learned so far in Bengals camp: Why Mixon isn't No. 1
CINCINNATI (WKRC) - After attending each and every practice since Bengals training camp began on July 28, here are 12 things I think that I think I have learned in that time frame:
1. Joe Mixon might turn out to be the best running back in Bengals history.
The Skinny: OK, that's a lot of hyperbole right off the bat, but he has perhaps the best combination of size, speed and pass-catching ability as any running back the franchise has ever had (and that includes Corey Dillon, who I could argue should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day). Not a practice went by that Mixon didn't have at least one "wow," play.
That said ...
2. ... there's a reason that Mixon isn't No. 1 or No. 2 on the depth chart right now.
The Skinny: Mixon has yet to play in a preseason game when there is actually live tackling, sight adjustments to make and blitzes that have to be picked up. So until he shows he can handle it at the NFL game level it's understandable why the Bengals listed incumbent starter Jeremy Hill first on the depth chart and Giovani Bernard No. 2. It was a little strange to see veteran special teams ace Cedric Peerman also listed ahead of Mixon considering that Peerman has yet to be cleared to practice, but that's splitting hairs.
I asked running backs coach Kyle Caskey after Tuesday's practice what Mixon has to do move up the depth chart.
"Overall consistency in everything he does: run game, protection, routes, the things right now we trust Jeremy and Gio 100 percent," Caskey said. "He’s learning and he’s coming along well. He’s got a knack for the game and he understands the game so it’s not hard to coach him."
Having the trust of the coaches is a huge factor when it comes to playing time and it's going to take a little time for Mixon to earn that. Once he does though (and who knows how long that will take) he will get plenty of touches, because he unquestionably has the raw talent to be a star.
3. If rookie Carl Lawson is only half as good rushing opposing passers as he is Bengals QBs then team got a steal
The Skinny: It's not fair to say that the team's fourth-round pick has dominated left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, but he has gotten the better of him enough for it to be noticeable and he has embarrassed veteran backup Eric Winston and the assortment of other undrafted free agents, as well.
Lawson, who has played right end in nickel pass-rushing situations, obviously won't get a chance to rush against Bengals left tackles in a game so it remains to be seen if he's that good or they are just that bad. However, if he's half as good he might be in line for a double-digit sack season.
Lawson is also being utilized some as a regular outside linebacker where his pass coverage skills are very raw and it may take some time for him to improve in that area, but it's as a pass rusher where he has chance to make an immediate impact.
4. Trey Hopkins might be best option at right guard.
The Skinny: The Bengals are hoping that Andre Smith can take hold of the starting right guard position, but injuries have prevented him from doing that and with his injury history and age he might best be served as a backup at both right guard and right tackle. Trey Hopkins has done just fine when he's played with the first team at right guard and it might behoove the Bengals to see how well he performs there in the preseason.
5. While questions abound starting offensive line, depth is a major concern.
The Skinny: About the only thing that is a given on the offensive line right is that Russell Bodine will start at center and Clint Boling will start at left guard. The hope is that Ogbuehi can be the left tackle, but if he struggles in preseason it's possible that right tackle Jake Fisher will have to be moved there and Smith inserted at right tackle.
The real problem is the depth is just really bad. Center/guard T.J. Johnson is fine, but outside of him no one else has distinguished themselves and the backup offensive tackles have been atrocious.
It would make sense for the Bengals to bring in at least one other tackle before the preseason ends.
6. A healthy Tyler Eifert will make a huge difference in the red zone
The Skinny: It was well-documented how much the Bengals struggled in the red zone last season and one of the big reasons was because Tyler Eifert was limited to just eight games. He has shown during red zone and goal line drills in camp just how much he was missed by making tough catches in traffic for touchdowns, using his body to shield off defenders to make other touchdown receptions and running crisp routes to often turn defenders around for other TD catches.
7. As we wait for John Ross to be cleared, Brandon LaFell has shined.
The Skinny: The assumption when the Bengals drafted the speedy Ross in the first round was that LaFell would probably be the player to have his number of plays and targets slashed from last season. Yet with Ross still not cleared to fully practice LaFell has caught everything thrown his way and made a couple of catches down the field as well.
While LaFell doesn't have the game-breaking ability of Ross he has veteran savvy, is coming of a productive year and is a great insurance policy to have. It perhaps doesn't hurt that he's being pushed a little by the presence of Ross as well.
8. William Jackson III has shown he has what it takes to be a standout cornerback.
The Skinny: Jackson missed all of last season due to a torn pectoral muscle, but he has shown throughout camp why the team selected him in the first round of the 2016 draft. He has played primarily against first-string wide receivers and didn't give up a single touchdown in an 11-on-11 session.
Perhaps the best testament to how well he played came on a play during last Friday's practice and then in Saturday's scrimmage when he covered A.J. Green one-on-one and forced an incompletion each time by first re-routing Green, then running stride for stride with him to the point quarterback Andy Dalton basically threw the ball far enough down the field where neither player could catch it.
9. Now that he's finally healthy, Darqueze Dennard is proving he's top slot corner.
The Skinny: Health and lack of consistency prevented 2014 first-round cornerback Darqueze Dennard from ever fully taking hold of at least the nickel cornerback position in his first three years, but he's been healthy throughout training camp and played well in that role.
Now it's a matter of continuing to stay healthy and showing it on a consistent basis against other teams.
If he is able to do that it will allow the team to rotate Jackson on the outside on occasion to spell starters Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick.
10. AJ McCarron hasn't had a very good camp.
The Skinny: Maybe he's unhappy he wasn't traded in the offseason or maybe it's playing behind a porous second string offensive line and throwing to some unfamiliar receivers, but whatever it is the Bengals No. 2 quarterback has struggled - at times struggled badly - in camp.
That's happened with him in a couple of prior camps and maybe a dose of playing with the first string line and receiving corps some in the preseason will be all he needs to snap out of it.
11. Preseason will be good test for Andrew Billings.
The Skinny: The mammoth defensive tackle missed all of last season due a knee injury suffered in preseason, but he played solidly throughout camp, although there was very little live tackling. So seeing how he performs in preseason games will tell if he's the guy who should be taking the majority of the snaps at defensive tackle opposite Geno Atkins when the regular season begins.
Games will also be good for Billings, whose only test of some "live" NFL action came in joint practices last year with the Minnesota Vikings, which is when he got hurt.
12. Kicker battle is going down the wire.
The Skinny: While incumbent Randy Bullock got the better of rookie fifth-round pick Jake Elliott in Saturday's scrimmage, both have been almost flawless when kicking field goals in practice (each has missed just one of 20 attempts).
Bullock made all three of his field goals in the scrimmage while Elliott missed a 52-yard attempt and an extra point, but then bounced back to make a 35-yard field goal and 51-yard attempt.
There will be pressure on every preseason kick for both so it will be a good way to see which one responds the best.