5 questions needing answers heading into Bengals preseason opener
CINCINNATI (WKRC) - There haven't been a lot of storylines heading into Bengals' preseason openers in recent seasons because the core players were pretty much the same and the preseason was simply a means to and end to getting ready for the regular-season opener. But Friday's game against Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. in Paul Brown Stadium and televised by Local12) has numerous storylines and some questions that need answers. Here are five of them:
1. How will the first-team offensive line perform?
The Skinny: Let's face it, this season will likely come down to how well the revamped offensive line performs, because the Bengals are well-stocked with proven talent and exciting young players everywhere else.
This will be the first test for that offensive line, which according to offensive line coach Paul Alexander after last Saturday's scrimmage is far from settled who starts and where they start. Probably the only given is Russell Bodine will be the starting center and Clint Boling will be the starting left guard.
It's unclear if right guard Andre Smith will play tonight after he missed Tuesday's final full practice due to an elbow injury, and if he doesn't Trey Hopkins will start in his place.
All eyes though should be on left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and right tackle Jake Fisher, who were taken 1-2 in the 2015 draft. Ogbuehi flopped in 11 starts at right tackle last season and then one start he made at left tackle and was average at best in training camp. Fisher had a solid first two weeks of camp, but has just four career starts under his belt.
2. Are rookies Joe Mixon and Carl Lawson really as good as they looked in camp?
The Skinny: Mixon and Lawson have been the two most impressive players in camp, period. Not just the two most impressive rookies, but the two most impressive players.
Now, there was only one small period of live tackling and it wasn't against another opponent.
It's possible Mixon may not get any reps with the first-team offensive line so it may be hard to judge him fairly, because if you think that group might not be very good wait until you see the second-team and third-team lines.
It will be nice if Lawson gets some reps at right defensive end with the first-team nickel group to see what he can do against another left tackle other than Ogbuehi. Lawson got the better of Ogbuehi enough that it was noticeable and then he simply embarrassed the backup tackles since training camp started.
3. How will heralded 2016 draft picks William Jackson III and Andrew Billings perform in their first NFL game?
The Skinny: Both players missed last season, including the preseason, due to injuries, but both bounced back to play well during training camp.
Jackson, a cornerback who was the team's first-round pick in 2016, didn't allow a touchdown in 11-on-11 sessions, had a couple of interceptions and numerous pass breakups on top of it. With Adam Jones suspended for the first regular-season game by the NFL, Jackson is likely the top candidate to start in his place so long as he has a good preseason.
The massive Billings (6-1, 325 pounds), a defensive tackle who was taken in the fourth round in 2016, is pushing veterans Pat Sims and Brandon Thompson for the starting spot opposite All-Pro Geno Atkins and a good preseason will likely cement that for him.
4. How will rookie kicker Jake Elliott handle the pressure?
The Skinny: The fifth-round draft pick has performed well all through Organized Team Activity sessions, mini-camp and training camp practices in his battle with incumbent Randy Bullock, but struggled a bit in last Saturday's scrimmage, while Bullock shined.
Elliott missed a 52-yard field wide left, then pushed an extra-point attempt wide right before righting himself and drilling a 32-yard field goal then a 51-yard field goal. Bullock made all three of his field-goal attempts in the scrimmage, including one from 52 yards out.
Elliott will face plenty of pressure on his first attempt whenever it comes, because he already can't afford too many more misses if he wants to unseat Bullock, unless Bullock implodes during the preseason.
5. What player under the radar will stand out?
The Skinny: It was in last year's preseason opener that Alex Erickson burst onto the scene with an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown and a short touchdown pass reception, which opened the door to the undrafted rookie wide receiver making the team. He went on to lead the AFC in kickoff return average and the Bengals in punt return average.
Among some under the radar players to watch include: wide receiver Alonzo Russell, who was on the practice squad last season; undrafted rookie free agent wide receiver Kermit Whitfield and undrafted rookie linebacker Brandon Bell.