The Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff has gotten a good glimpse at the team's rookie class after two weeks of OTAs and rookie minicamp. Headlined by tight end first-round pick Tyler Eifert, the newcomers have yet to disappoint.
Several weeks remain before training camp begins on July 25 at Paul Brown Stadium, but the landscape of the 2013 Bengals' campaign is beginning to take form.
With two thirds of the Bengals' offseason on-the-field workout sessions completed, here are the rookie storylines to follow going into training camp.
Second-round draft pick Giovani Bernard continues to impress at running back, adding anticipated diversity to the Bengals' offense.
Giovani is a dynamic guy, both running the football and catching it. And he was one of North Carolina’s hardest-working guys on the team, so he fits the mold of guys we like—not only good, but extremely hard-working.
Bernard was selected 37th overall so that he could bring his dynamism and versatility to the Cincinnati offense as a complement to Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Bernard’s work ethic and performance in “underwear ball" will allow him to compete for a starting role by the time the Bengals roll into Atlanta for Week 1 of the season.
Bernard signed during OTAs, a trend that has landed the Bengals all of their draft picks except for first-rounder Tyler Eifert.
As if securing 6’7” defensive end Michael Johnson via the franchise tag wasn’t enough for Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes, he lucked out on 6’8” international track star-turned-kick-blocking specialist Margus Hunt as well.
He's big, athletic and long. He's not just a kick-block guy. He can do other things. How would you like to block that guy on the kickoff running 4.6 and he's 6-8? I wouldn't want to block him. He's a big son of a gun.
He makes a valid point. How many second or third string players filling out special team rosters are asked to block a 6’8” track star? Not many, and Simmons looks poised to use him in as many ways as possible.
The Bengals' fifth-round pick, Tanner Hawkinson, played offensive tackle in college, but in Cincinnati, he has been asked to learn a plethora of positions.
With veteran linemen Andrew Whitworth and Clint Boling recovering from injuries, Hawkinson has capitalized on his increased reps.
Kyle Caskey, assistant to Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander, had nothing but positive things to say about Hawkinson, according to Bengals.com.
The thing about Hawkinson is that he's got really good feet and he's smart. I don't know if he's had a mental mistake. If he has, they've been minimal.
Hawkinson is expected to compete with rookie Reid Fragel and veteran Anthony Collins for the backup tackle spot behind Andre Smith and Whitworth.
His versatility along the offensive line during OTAs certainly helps his chances of winning a starting role, even if it’s not at tackle.
"Being versatile is what he's going to be really good at," Caskey said of Hawkinson’s versatility. “He's not a one-position guy.”
Shawn Williams remains the only Bengals rookie with significant pressure to perform immediately on the field.
With the safety position opposite Reggie Nelson vacant, or at least absent of qualified players, the Bengals drafted Williams expecting him to contribute immediately, according to Bengals.com.
This is a storyline to watch because there will likely be a correlation between the Bengals’ pass defense and Williams’ performance at safety. If Williams can’t translate his experience from leading the Georgia defense to being productive in the AFC North, chances are, the Bengals' pass defense will suffer.
If Williams, the latest in a pipeline of Georgia products to land in Cincinnati, can figure out defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s formula and continues to haunt quarterbacks from the secondary, look for the Bengals' pass defense to be among the top 10 in the league in 2013.
Williams signed with the Bengals on May 24.
The final, but not the least, rookie storyline to watch is first-rounder Tyler Eifert.
Coming into rookie minicamp earlier this month, Eifert received all of the hype, but it didn’t take long for him to get Marvin Lewis’ endorsement when Lewis referred to Eifert’s game as being “as advertised.”
Eifert’s progress will play a large role in determining just how flexible the Bengals' offense can be this year. If he adapts well and embraces the two-tight end system, the sky’s the limit for offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
However, if Eifert struggles to transition to the professional ranks, the Bengals are limited in their expansion possibilities and could resemble last year’s offense.
While rookie running back Gio Bernard will certainly add versatility to the Bengal offense in terms of skill set, Eifert brings the strategic game-changing ability that keeps defensive coordinators awake at night.
The Bengals have received a lot of praise for their roster management going into the 2013 season, and that’s largely contingent on Eifert’s success.
Cincinnati took a tight end when their needs at safety and running back were probably more dire. However, Eifert was the best player available according to many, and few can fault the pick.
As comes with any first-round draft pick, Eifert's progression is certainly a storyline to watch as we end OTAs and look forward to training camp.