It certainly feels weird to contemplate the fact that the Bengals will actually take the field in a game that matters—without any fans present—in 10 days. But then everything feels weird right now, so we might as well just keep going further and further down the rabbit hole.
In that vein, let’s examine what we can of the open and semi-open practices the team conducted over the past few weeks. In the absence of an actual training camp, preseason games, or much blocking, tackling or real football-like substance, realistic assessments about how it all will translate when the L.A. Chargers come a-callin’ the afternoon of September 13 is probably futile. But making judgments based on scant evidence is what I do best, so here goes.
First and foremost, by all accounts, Cincinnati didn’t screw up the top of the draft. Our new quarterback and savior, Joe Burrow, has provided pretty much all one can ask for from a rookie in his first blush of action. His teammates and coaches raved about his command of the huddle and the playbook. He was sharp and accurate throwing the ball. He turned guys like Drew Sample and Auden Tate into camp stars with his precision darts.
Was Joe Cool perfect? Hardly, and reading too much into practice and scrimmage stats is a fool’s errand. But Burrow’s grinder approach to the game, his leadership qualities, and his actual play give optimism about how special he can become.
Perhaps the most telling moment came away from the field—the entire training facility, actually. In the wake of continued state-sanctioned violence against Black people, the team bound together and marched the quarter-mile over to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where center Trey Hopkins and Burrow co-read a message of unity and anti-racism. The fact that a rookie, even such a high-profile and important one as Joey B., was asked by the rank-and-file players to do such a thing was notable and speaks to the respect he’s already earned.
Of course, respect from your teammates is grand; respect from the opposition is another matter. And judging from some of the camp action, Burrow will earn that by constantly scrambling away and absorbing hits from an untrammeled pass rush. Yes, the offensive line, mostly unaddressed in the offseason, figures to still be an issue. Jonah Williams looks like the real deal at left tackle, and so long as he’s healthy that’s one brush fire extinguished. But the other four spots remain a work in progress. The offseason hope that Fred Johnson would seize the right tackle spot from COVID-19 denier Bobby Hart proved a non-starter, literally—Johnson was barely perceptible in camp. The line’s interior doesn’t look to be any more of a strength than it was going into the practices. A good quarterback can make an iffy line look better than it is, but there were multiple practice periods when Burrow had no chance to throw, such was the defensive line’s dominance.
That could prove usefully prophetic in a sense, if the pass rush guys up front have the excellent season many expect. Carl Lawson was his usual summertime unblockable self, and new tackle D.J. Reader looks worth every penny the Bengals gave him. Those two paired with mainstays Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Sam Hubbard should form a formidable rush group—if, and this is a recording, they can stay hale and hearty.
With Trae Waynes’ injury, the back seven is already hobbled. The other former Viking signed in free agency, Mackensie Alexander, spent a chunk of camp dealing with a bizarre set of circumstances in his home state of Florida. His father disappeared on a berry-picking trip in a state park, and Mac went down to aid in the search. Along the way he got into a confrontation with the last man to have seen his father, leading to Alexander’s arrest on battery charges. Fortunately, his dad turned up unharmed, and the team’s new slot corner is back to practice. Cincinnati does have solid depth in the secondary, at least.
Meanwhile, the linebackers, perennially the team’s Achilles heel, didn’t appear appreciably better, hardly surprising given the youth injection at the position and the lack of practice time. None of the three rookies (Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Markus Bailey) wowed onlookers, though they weren’t overmatched either. For the time being, vets Germaine Pratt and free agent Josh Bynes will be the starters, with the team presumably using five or six defensive backs regularly.
As for the skill positions, the big news came on Tuesday, when the team extended running back Joe Mixon to a 4-year, $48-million deal (factoring in 2020, his last rookie year, it becomes essentially five years for $50 million). As I’ve written about many times, there were always some extenuating circumstances with Mixon that made his re-signing more likely despite the league-wide trend toward devaluing running backs—mainly the fact the team took a risk and a PR hit by drafting him, and the team was rewarded with a guy who has been an A+ teammate and citizen since. As Mixon put it, “Upstairs, they definitely value me in a lot of ways that others probably won’t.” Sure, the NFL is a cynical, heard-hearted place by its very design. But from time to time there are situations where good qualities like those Mixon has displayed are actually recognized. This is one of them.
It was also another in a long line of fair but hardly crippling deals the front office has negotiated with its own players. The guaranteed dough involved is well less than what Carolina gave Christian McCaffrey or Tennessee gave Derrick Henry earlier this summer. With Burrow on his rookie deal, the Mixon contract alone shouldn’t put Cincinnati in a position where they have to cut him and eat a ton of dead money in order to fit under the cap. What it does do is soak up some cash that might have gone to an offensive lineman or a pass rusher, two positions unquestionably more valuable than even the best running backs. Or perhaps prevent an extension that keeps A.J. Green, William Jackson, or Lawson in town.
Whether the deal proves “worth it” or not mainly comes down to something I have advocated for in this space on multiple occasions: the increased use of Mixon in the passing game. He has shown the hands (career 79% catch rate) and post-catch elusiveness (nearly 10 yards extra per reception in three seasons) that could make him a crucial weapon in that phase. But he got just 45 targets a year ago, down 10 from 2018 (his target number varies slightly depending on where you look; I use the Football Outsiders count), and that must change. Turn Mix into a threat akin to Alvin Kamara or CMC, and that contract could look like a bargain. It will be on coach Zac Taylor to ensure that Mixon gets enough burn in the passing game.
Next week, a true season preview!
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.