Cincinnati Bengals: 5 Storylines to Watch vs. Jets
The Bengals kick off their preseason campaign tonight as they play host to the New York Jets. While Bengals fans will be eager to see how Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have benefited from an offseason to improve, the main focus will likely center on Tim Tebow and whether or not the Jets break out in a mass brawl.
Following the playoff loss in Houston, the Bengals have made a number of moves to address their holes, and this evening will be the first chance to see if they have done enough.
With Andy Dalton & Co. likely to be featured only in the first quarter, Friday night's contest will also prove to be a valuable opportunity to analyse the 'nearly men' in their ongoing pursuit of roster spots.
With that in mind, here are some of the main storylines to watch in this game.
The Draft Class
With the 2012 draft all but a distant memory, tonight will be the first opportunity for the coaches and fans to see the return on the investments made back in April.
Dre Kirkpatrick's fractured knee will see him sidelined in this one (and for quite sometime thereafter), while some rookies get their first opportunity to make a statement as to why they deserve to move up the depth chart.
Defense: Devon Still will be interesting to watch as he factors to see regular playing time during the season backing up Geno Atkins at tackle. Brandon Thompson finds himself third at nose tackle behind Domata Peko and Pat Sims, but given the latter's injury, Thompson has every chance to leapfrog him before the preseason is over.
Also worth note is George Iloka who will take to the field in the free safety spot after Robert Sands gets a shot at the back-up job. The Boise State standout is another example of a rookie with the chance to leapfrog the guy ahead of him, and tonight is the start of that campaign.
Offense: Despite the emergence of Brandon Tate and Armon Binns, the performances of Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones are worth your attention. Neither look to be starters on opening day, but both will want to throw their names into contention as future starters.
Orson Charles is another rookie fans should look out for. He finds himself fourth on the depth chart, but with the chance that either Donald Lee or Colin Cochart will be cut, a strong performance here will all but confirm that.
The turnaround of UDFA and former consensus first round pick Vontaze Burfict has been a hot topic in recent weeks.
Burfict is saying and doing all of the right things at the moment and earning plaudits from coaching staff and teammates alike.
He will see a significant amount of playing time tonight, and it will be interesting to see just how much he has refined his game, particularly in terms of discipline.
With incumbent MLB Rey Maualuga in a contract year, a fast start for Burfict could really make the conversation interesting when it comes to 2013 and beyond.
The Reinforced Secondary
Leon Hall's absence was painfully felt back in January as Andre Johnson waltzed past Adam Jones to put the nail in the coffin of the 2011 Bengals.
One year on and the Bengals have more than addressed the issue—they've stockpiled.
Veterans Terence Newman and Jason Allen join the fold to back-up Leon Hall and Nate Clements, while Adam Jones returns to take up a more suited, specialised role in the nickel.
Given the recent injury to first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, it seems the Bengals made a smart move at the right time.
Leon Hall is back with a shiny new Achilles, but given his speedy recovery, concerns about his health will remain for quite some time, warranted or not.
Tonight will give Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer an idea of whether they have added enough solid depth to remain playoff caliber team if and when injuries occur.
Also worth noting is Taylor May's emergence as the teams starting strong safety following the departure of Chris Crocker. Mays has been running with the first unit since OTA's and figures to be the starter on opening day.
However, breathing down his neck is special teams standout Jeromy Miles, who has put together a solid training camp. This will be one positional battle you won't want to miss tonight.
Travelle Wharton, Kevin Zeitler & Run-Blocking
First round pick Kevin Zeitler is set to be a lock at right guard for opening day, and tonight will be our first glimpse at whether he is up to the challenge.
Zeitler replaces veteran Bobbie Williams in the offensive line, and adds to an already youthful right side with the new and improved Andre Smith at right tackle.
Friday could be a big night for Zeitler, after having squared off against Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins during training camp, and held his own in doing so.
Travelle Wharton replaces Nate Livings on the left hand side and brings with him nine years of experience. Teamed with Andrew Whitworth, Wharton makes for a solid right side.
The most important thing fans and coaches want to see from the new additions are holes for new running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to run through.
Cedric Benson received most of the blame for a poor Bengals running game in 2011, but equally at fault was his offensive line for not giving him the space to run.
Now re-tooled, tonight we get our first glimpse of how Jay Gruden intends to bring the ground game back to Cincinnati.
Armon Binns & Brandon Tate
The talk of who lines up opposite A.J. Green in Cincinnati has raged on for the best part of four months, and with the preseason on our doorstep, we find ourselves with two surprising candidates vying for the job.
Practice squad standout and former UC Bearcat Armon Binns has impressed throughout training camp, and caught an impressive five passes for 69-yards in a mock game last Sunday. He's followed that up with a strong week, as Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com described: "he kept it going this week in practice with a knack for making tough catches in traffic while displaying a nice chemistry with Dalton."
His main competition will be Brandon Tate who currently sits atop the depth chart. Given that Binns has zero NFL starts to his name, Tate already has the advantage having been one of Tom Brady's targets in New England in 2010. Despite breaking Bengals franchise return records in 2011, Tate was not as impressive an acquisition as some had hoped, and his return to the receiving game is being watched with baited breath.
This battle may not be settled for some time to come, but it will be interesting to see who gets a better start tonight.
It is also worth a thought that if Armon Binns and rookies Mo Sanu and Marvin Jones (and maybe even Ryan Whalen) put on a tight display, could someone like Brandon Tate find himself on the roster bubble?
Don't forget to keep an eye out for new No.1 slot receiver Andrew Hawkins who has leapfrogged the recuperating Jordan Shipley. Hawkins is a talented, hard working and reliable receiver who impressed just about everyone in 2011. Tonight we see if he's ready to take on a bigger role in the offense.