This past weekend the Cincinnati Bengals staff welcomed all of their rookies to Paul Brown Stadium for rookie minicamp. Over 40 players attended, 10 of which were drafted. Some signed as college free agents and some were brought in to try out—all with the chance to live out the dream of wearing black and orange stripes.
Certain players, like first-round draft pick Tyler Eifert, had high expectations to maintain coming into the weekend. Other players, like running back-turned-cornerback Onterio McCalebb, had an uphill battle to prove themselves as NFL-worthy (per Bengals.com). Nonetheless, they all were tested on and off the field this weekend with the opportunity to raise eyebrows and turn heads.
After having the chance to see these players all together and in-person, here's a look at the Bengals' biggest takeaways from rookie minicamp.
Some players and coaches refer to him as "Benny." He refers to himself as "The Law Firm" (@TheLawFirmBJGE), but in honor of Mother's Day, I'll refer to him as the name his mother, LaTonia Green, gave him, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. BenJarvus rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2012, so regardless of his age, he has proven his durability as an NFL running back, which is why no one should count him out in 2013 despite the newly acquired youth in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati's strategy going into last month's NFL draft was to find a complementary, speed back to work in tandem with BenJarvus. The Bengals were the first team to select a running back when they took North Carolina's Giovani Bernard with the 37th pick. They also selected Nebraska running back and philanthropist Rex Burkhead with the 190th overall pick.
Possibly the most surprising name in the running back competition, however, is former Wisconsin running back John Clay. Clay sat out last year recovering from a quad injury and is looking to make a comeback.
"I'm just trying to find a home," Clay said (per Bengals.com). "Working hard and thankful I've got an opportunity to try and show something here." Clay was limited in practice this weekend by leg pain.
You may know him as "Boom," but his mother named him Daniel Herron, and he is also still on the roster, as is Bernard Scott. Not all of these guys can make the 53-man team, and there's still veteran Cedric Peerman, who is a special team's extraordinaire that remains part of the mix as well.
Having so many running backs competing for a spot only raises everyone's game: from BenJarvus to Daniel. The sad reality is that there aren't enough spots for everyone, and someone has to draw the short straw. The good news is that running back coach Hue Jackson has a lot to choose from.
Former Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb recorded the fastest time at the 2013 NFL combine in Indianapolis with an official 4.34 40-yard dash (per NFL.com). Unfortunately, at 168 pounds, no teams took the chance on him to be their running back. Fortunately, former Bengals great Ken Riley began watching McCalebb in high school in Fort Meade, Fla., and made a phone call to Cincinnati when he went undrafted and helped him get a shot.
Although McCalebb won't get a chance to play running back, he does have the opportunity to affect special teams and defense.
The word eventually got to McCalebb that he had an ally from the Who Dey Nation (per Bengals.com): "Coach Marvin told me he wanted me to call him, so I called him and we talked for a while, close to like 30-45 minutes," McCalebb said. "He was telling me a lot of things about going out there and work hard, stuff like that."
Riley's influence had a lot to do with McCalebb being brought in as a CFA even though he's changing positions. Defensive backs coach Mark Carrier likes what he sees in McCalebb's progress thus far despite the obvious learning curve and now having to backpedal. Carrier continues to enforce that it takes someone special to play backward.
Coach Lewis is pleased with McCalebb's transition as well (per Bengals.com):
"He’s got all the want-to, and there was a big progression technically from practice one from practice two. That’s all we need to keep seeing from him," Lewis said. "A thing we weren’t necessarily sure about with Onterio was ‘Does he have the quickness to be a corner?’ After watching him in two practices, I don’t have any doubt of that."
Chad Ochocinco is far removed from Cincinnati, and even the NFL, at this point. His impact on the Bengals franchise, however, is still very much in effect. When Chad was traded to the Patriots in 2011, in return the Bengals got two draft picks. Those draft picks have now been used and, coincidentally, resulted in two wide receivers: Marvin Jones (2012) and Cobi Hamilton (2013).
Marvin Jones showed glimpses of promise in 2012, being targeted 23 of his season total 32 times in the last four games. Of his 202 total yards receiving in 2012, 155 came against Dallas, Pittsburgh and Baltimore late in the season when the Bengals were pushing for the playoffs. Jones could be asked to compete with Mohamed Sanu for the slot receiver spot although he played outside last year. Sanu also showed glimpses of greatness catching four touchdowns in three games before sustaining a foot injury in practice.
Cobi Hamilton has only been in Cincinnati for a handful of days but has already made quite the impression on the Bengals staff. He credits having played for Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino as an advantage for his transition to the NFL (per Bengals.com): "I feel like I'm no sixth-round pick. I don't feel like that. With Petrino, a lot of it is the same terminology. A lot of the stuff is not a brain freeze for me. It came simply from being around Petrino for four years."
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden confirmed Hamilton's smooth mental transition: "He's a smart kid. He's a bright kid. He hasn't messed up anything yet. He's picked it up quickly."
Hamilton has been impressive on the field as well. At 6'1", 212 pounds, he has the size and his familiarity going across the middle in the SEC is enticing as well.
Per Jay Gruden (via Bengals.com):
Cobi's an exciting guy. He's bigger than I thought he was. He's taller. He's got good stride to him, he's got good hands, he's tough. In Arkansas he ran a lot of crossing routes so we knew he wasn't afraid to go across the middle. We like Cobi. We're impressed with what he's done so far.
Hamilton could compete for the second outside receiver spot opposite A.J. Green. Jones will likely compete to play the slot. Either way, it looks like they both will make the roster and make plays on the field. As of now, getting rid of Ochocinco could still prove to have been the right move, but the jury will be out until Jones or Hamilton put numbers on the board.
There's a lot that comes with being a first-round pick. Possibly most apparent of all is pressure. The Bengals took Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert with the 21st overall pick with the belief that he was the best player available. ESPN NFL Insider Mel Kiper graded the Bengals at A-, one of three teams to receive this year's highest grade (the Rams and Ravens were the others).
Eifert's productivity is a large determining factor in whether the 2013 draft class pans out in Cincinnati. So far he's participated in five practices, and all reports from Cincinnati are that he is reaching, or exceeding, expectations. When asked if he thought Eifert would need a long orientation to the NFL, Lewis continued his praise of the Fort Wayne, Ind., native (per Bengals.com):
"What I was most impressed with," coach Lewis began, "is how he did a great job in the running game and the techniques he's being taught. I know he can run and catch, and turn get-back shoulder plays and all those kinds of things that you have to do in tight spots in the NFL."
Eifert lined up in four different spots during a single practice, according to Bengals.com, lending positively to the notion that he will be used in tandem with Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham at some point. Since selecting Eifert to join Gresham in Cincinnati, many have speculated that the Bengals will model an offense after the dual-tight end combo in New England with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had this to say about the comparison (per Bengals.com): "We're not the Patriots. We're the Bengals and we're going to do what we do with our players." Rather, Gruden believes he has the necessary scheme already in place, now with a widened array of talent to choose from.
Nonetheless, while Eifert has a battle on his hands trying to upend Jermaine Gresham as the starter, don't be surprised if Eifert eventually wins the role. Again, the "starting" tight end won't be as relevant with a two-tight end package, but for competition's sake, Eifert could prove to be the best tight end in Cincinnati by the time August rolls around.
The Bengals selected Margus Hunt with the 53rd pick of the 2013 NFL draft. It was understood when he was drafted that he would be a work in progress. He's been playing football less than five years, but anyone standing 6'8", 277 pounds who can run a 4.60 40-yard dash (per NFL.com) can play in the NFL.
Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes has a project on his hands in Hunt, but the pressure is low since Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry combined for 27 sacks in 2012. The Bengals have learned that since English is not Hunt's first language, they've had to modify their teaching terms a bit (per Bengals.com):
"I told him to get his inside hand up on the pass rush. I said all great pass rushers have the inside hand up," [defensive coordinator] Zimmer said. "So he brought it up and he didn't do anything with it." Zimmer then told him to put his hand "right there," on the tackle's numbers and "stab him in the chest," to get him off balance and Hunt kidded him about it. "And he's starting to have a lot more success," Zimmer said. "He said to me, 'English isn't my first language. Why didn't you just say, 'Stab him in the chest?"'
So far the Margus Hunt experiment looks to be headed in the right direction. He's still learning simple things like how to step with his inside foot first rather than his outside, but the progression thus far is acceptable (per Bengals.com).
Going into last month's draft, the Bengals really only needed to address one position, safety. Coach Lewis was able to secure Georgia safety Shawn Williams with the 84th overall pick. It appears that the table has been set for Williams to come in and perform immediately.
Reggie Nelson is the only safety on the roster with any significant proven, in-game experience. Zimmer has also simplified the defense to avoid any early confusion, and Williams has picked it up well. In fact, Zimmer said that "we're in trouble" if Williams has problems picking up the defense schematically.
Physically, however, Zimmer has confidence that Williams can contribute with a little guidance (per Bengals.com): "He's got the ability to cover. He's got to work on his technique some. If he just gets his body position in good shape he should be good."
Zimmer's confidence that Williams will flourish in the Bengals defense says one of two things. One, Williams' experience at Georgia lends well to his transition to Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis has found some positive traits in former Georgia players, and many of them (Geno Atkins, A.J. Green, Robert Geathers) have been successful in Cincinnati.
This could also be interpreted as the Bengals secondary is in such need that Zimmer was forced to simplify his defense to keep up. Odds are in favor of option No. 1; however, with as potent of a pass rush as the Bengals should have this year, a simple scheme in the secondary could still be effective.