CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals went into training camp with most of the starters already entrenched in their spots. That means the coaching staff will be using the first opportunity for game competition to see others still seeking a role.
Cincinnati hosts the Arizona Cardinals in the preseason opener Friday at the newly renamed Paycor Stadium, and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor already said most of the regular key contributors will not be playing.
The game will be an important test before the first roster cut-down date approaches Aug. 16 when NFL teams must get their rosters down to 85 players. Here are five things to watch in the Bengals preseason opener:
1. Left guard battle heats up
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Jackson Carman will play Friday, even though he gained a lot of experience last year, because it’s an important part of the evaluation process in determining who wins the left guard battle. Carman was part of a carousel at right guard last year, but seems to have taken big steps ahead of Year 2 and perhaps also benefiting from a switch to a more comfortable spot on the left side. He and rookie fourth-round pick Cordell Volson are competing for the job.
Cincinnati also will be looking at the depth behind the starting five. D’Ante Smith, Hakeem Adeniji and Isaiah Prince were among linemen that got a chance at first-team reps while either right tackle La’el Collins or right guard Alex Cappa were out.
“I think that’s really just getting started,” Taylor said about the evaluation of the depth. “So they’re going to need these next three weeks. We’re going to utilize them to really evaluate that group. There’s Cordell, first year. There’s several second-year guys. There’s some other guys who have brought into the mix. I think these games matter a lot. You’re playing against the same defense over and over. They hear your calls, running the same scheme. It’s ready to try out a new opponent. And so this will be a great evaluation tool on Friday night to be able to evaluate those guys.”
2. Important reps for Allen
Brandon Allen is expected to start and play the first half Friday, while the initial plan is for third-string quarterback Jake Browning to open the second half. Taylor said all three available quarterbacks will play, which means Drew Plitt likely will finish the game.
Bengals starting quarterback Joe Burrow will not play, as he continues to ease back after an appendectomy July 26. Allen said he’s making the most of opportunities to work with receivers like Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd, but those two are not expected to play, nor is Tee Higgins, who has been limited while easing back in because of offseason shoulder surgery.
Still, preseason snaps are important for him, as he will have to be ready on a moment’s notice during the regular season and won’t be getting these opportunities often. He said he is trying his best to replicate what Burrow does so the offense doesn’t have much adjustment, but that’s not easy.
“Obviously, you have your own game that you play, but if you can replicate Joe, you’re probably going to end up playing pretty well, so it’s not always a bad thing to replicate,” Allen said.
3. Rookies make unofficial debut
Cincinnati will get a chance to see how the first-year players and especially the draft picks perform under the lights. Taylor said first-round pick Dax Hill, who has been playing with the 1s while Jessie Bates isn’t in camp, will play. He could be the team’s starting free safety to open the season but these preseason games are important for his preparation.
Volson will get plenty of reps at left guard, and defensive linemen Zach Carter and Jeffrey Gunter, who have been impressive in camp, will be ones to watch as the Bengals try to sort out the depth behind their starters up front. Carter, a tackle out of Florida, is the projected backup to B.J. Hill and Gunter has been tearing it up in practice on the edge, where Joseph Ossai also is one to watch. Ossai tore his ACL in the preseason opener last year as a rookie and missed the entire year. He will play less than a lot of the other young guys, Taylor said.
Second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt has seen his ups and downs in camp at cornerback, while Tycen Anderson has much to prove at the safety spot.
4. Eyes on special teams
Taylor said both punters and both long snappers will play Friday, as Kevin Huber and Drue Chrisman are competing at punter and Clark Harris and Cal Adomitis are battling for the long snapper job.
Harris and Huber are the longest-tenured and oldest players on the roster but aren’t guaranteed their spots. Taylor and special teams coach Darrin Simmons said he will be taking into consideration the preseason game evaluations but what they are doing in training camp practices is just as important.
The preseason game is probably more important for the kick and punt return jobs. The Bengals know what Trent Taylor can provide on punt returns, so Kwamie Lassiter and Pooka Williams probably will be rotating the most in those spots. Chris Evans and Williams are first and second on the depth chart at kick returner.
5. The ultimate goal
Taylor said the biggest thing the players should get from Friday’s game is just a feel for getting back into competition against an opponent and in front of a crowd. For a lot of guys on the team, it will be their first NFL action. Others are coming off injuries, while others have played before but still need to shake off some of the rust of not playing games for several months.
“There’s going to be a lot of excitement for them,” Taylor said. “You should feel that nervous energy or excitement, however you want to phrase it. You get a chance to get that out of your system and then just realize it’s just ball. You felt it your first JV game, you felt it your first varsity game, you felt it your first college game, you feel it your first NFL preseason game. And just like any other, the second play of the game, that’s gone. It’s good to get that out of them and then see who really steps up and, over the course of the game, can be consistent. They’re going to make mistakes. That’s fine. Who can rebound quickly? There’s all sorts of things we get a chance to evaluate these guys on. Just excited to get that process going.”