CINCINNATI — The Bengals opened training camp Friday, and the hopes and dreams of the season are pinned more on the newcomers than any time in recent years.
For the Bengals to get back to winning after a 6-9-1 season, the rookies, the quasi-rookies and the free agents have to come through.
Based on the draft, the Bengals are more athletic and faster.
“If you’re looking at skills guys, we’re pretty darn good,” tight end Tyler Eifert said. “We’ve got some really good players, but they haven’t played in the league yet. They’re great athletes, but we’ll see how they do. We expect them to do great things.”
Eifert was referring to the top picks — wide receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon — but the Bengals also will have Eifert and A.J. Green for the full schedule. The two only played three games together because of injuries last year.
“It’s good to get guys back and see what the new guys can do,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “With no pads on we saw guys, but it’s not football. When the pads come on, you see what they are and what they can do. I’m looking forward to it.”
Here’s a look at nine new players who could have a major impact on the season:
Ross was the team’s first-round pick. He’s the guy to watch at camp. He set the record for the fastest 40 time in 4.22 seconds at the NFL Combine. If he lives up to his billing, he could take the pressure (and double teams) off A.J. Green.
Ross was cleared to participate in practice on a limited basis. He spent mini-camp on the rehab field after shoulder surgery. He expects to be 100 percent shortly. Ross was also kept on Organized Team Activities because he was still in college.
“It’s still a learning process for me because I missed so much,” he said. “I’m definitely excited. When you have to watch, it’s harder to be excited. Now, you can be a part of it.”
Ross’ speed gives the offense an added dimension. His biggest asset?
“I think big-play ability,” he said. “Go deep, being an athlete for the team. I still have to prove it. I don’t sit and say it. This is different from college.”
The Bengals brought Minter in as a free agent. He started all 16 games last year for the Arizona Cardinals. He had 95 tackles and a career-high 3.5 sacks.
With the departure of Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dansby, the Bengals need help at linebacker. ProFootballFocus.com, which evaluates every NFL player, rated him as the 30th best linebacker in the NFL last year. That would make him an upgrade over Maualuga or Dansby.
Jackson isn't a newcomer per se. He was the team’s first pick in the 2016 draft. But he missed the entire year with a pectoral muscle tear. He’s likely to start Game 1 because of Adam Jones’ suspension.
Even after Jones comes back, another good cornerback would come in handy.
“I’m ready to show what I can do,” Jackson said. “I’m anxious to get on the field.”
A lot has been written and said about the Bengals’ decision to select Mixon in the second round of this year’s draft after his infamous episode three years ago at Oklahoma, where he knocked out a young woman. That draft decision will continue to be debated.
But the fact that the Bengals got Mixon with a 48th pick overall is a steal as far as talent. Mixon is 6-foot-1, 228 pounds and he ran 4.4-second 40.
“His skills are top-notch,” running back coach Kyle Caskey said. “They’re the kind you can trust.”
Mixon is a good receiver and he averaged 6.8 yard per carry at Oklahoma. With Giovani Bernard coming off major knee surgery, Mixon will get a chance to prove himself early in the preseason.
Smith is a familiar face in Bengal-land. He spent seven years with the club after the Bengals picked him in the first round in 2009 with the sixth pick overall. He returns as a free agent after a year with Minnesota.
He’ll be transitioning from tackle to guard. With the departure of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, the offense line is a question.
Smith’s rating with PFF.com has steadily declined over the last five years. He rated at 43.2 last year or poor. The Bengals need him to be better than that.
Willis was the team’s third-round pick out of Kansas State. He ran a 4.53-second 40 at the Combine, fastest among defensive lineman. He led KSU with a school-record 11.5 sacks last year. The Bengals could use a boost in the pass rush. An athletic guy like Willis could do that.
Elliot, the team’s fifth-round pick out of Memphis, will compete with Randy Bullock for the kicking job. He was 81-for-104 on field goal at Memphis and did not miss in 202 extra-point attempts.
Jonathan Brown, a free agent signee from last year, is also in the mix. Brown missed all of last year with a foot injury.
The kicking game probably cost the Bengals three wins last year.
Lawson bench pressed 225 pounds 35 times at the Combine. That made him the strongest defensive lineman/linebacker in the draft. He’s a pass-rushing specialist. He was first team All-SEC at Auburn, where he had a 14 career sacks.
He is like Jackson. He was a high pick last year (fourth round), but he missed the year because of injury (meniscus tear). He’s big guy at 6-1, 325 pounds.
He made 106 tackles, including 30 for loss, in his final year at Baylor. The team could use a run-stuffing playmaker to go along side of Geno Atkins.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.