When the Cincinnati Bengals open their training camp later in July, it'll be their first true, intensive chance to evaluate their players, tweak their game plans and, most importantly, improve the areas in which they were deficient last season.
Every team has issues they must address in training camp in order to be a more complete, better squad than the previous year and the Bengals are no different.
Here are the questions still unanswered from last season that will be major priorities for the Bengals once camp begins.
Can the Bengals Improve Their Run-Blocking?
Last year, the Bengals' run game was primarily the BenJarvus Green-Ellis show. The free-agent signing had the best season of his career thus far, rushing 278 times for 1,094 yards and six touchdowns.
However, Green-Ellis still only managed 3.9 yards per carry.
Green-Ellis' low yardage per run wasn't surprising, as it wasn't significantly different than the yardage he averaged with his old team, the New England Patriots. Green-Ellis is a downhill, power runner and oftentimes that doesn't produce flashy yardage totals.
But it wasn't just the back and his style that were to blame for paltry per-rush numbers—it was also the Bengals' offensive line.
Based on Football Outsiders' data (subscription required), the Bengals' offensive line ranked 11th in the league last year in run-blocking, which isn't bad at all, and their power run game was among the top five.
However, where they really struggled was in second-level yards—the ability for blockers to continue to push down the field and allow the running back to keep moving five or 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. There, they ranked 31st.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) came to a similar conclusion about the Bengals' run-blocking last year, ranking them 27th in that category.
Further, the Bengals' offensive line and run-blocking units struggled to allow Green-Ellis yards on the outside last year, particularly at left end and left tackle. Granted, outside runs aren't Green-Ellis' specialty, but the addition of Giovani Bernard in this year's draft will require the outside blocking to improve.
Bernard is a shifty, speedy complement to Green-Ellis, but he'll only be effective if he can get the yards—which is a responsibility that falls to both Bernard and his blockers.
Bleacher Report's Sean O'Donnell took a look at what could have been causing the Bengals' troubles with run-blocking. He notes that, while their line was highly efficient in pass protection last year, technique and fundamentals were lacking as run plays developed.
He notes troubles getting off of blocks and poor angles—problems that are both major as well as correctable.
Clearly, a cause of the poor run-blocking is that the Bengals have extremely talented pass-protecting offensive linemen, none of whom can call run-blocking a specialty. However, these techniques can be honed and refined with proper coaching.
The addition of Bernard should actually be a good teaching tool for the Bengals' offensive linemen, as they can adapt to his style.
With the Bengals heavily featuring a rumbling running back such as Green-Ellis last year, there's a degree of forgiveness given to their offensive line for facilitating so few second-level yards. The fact that Green-Ellis will now be splitting time with the elusive Bernard means the line cannot struggle to see run plays through as it did last year.
Can Andy Dalton Become a Leader?
The 2013 season will be Andy Dalton's third as the Bengals' starting quarterback and there is a great deal of both pressure and hope that he'll emerge as a true leader of their offense.
This offseason, the Bengals have doubled down on their investment in Dalton, bringing on the aforementioned Bernard and first-round tight end Tyler Eifert to provide him with more weapons.
The work is on Dalton, now, to be the guiding force of the offense rather than always being guided by head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
Lewis said as much to CBS Sports' Mike Freeman earlier in the spring, noting that Dalton needs to essentially up his mental toughness, shake off critical comments made about him by the media or by fans and simply be less nice to the members of his offense.
Lewis would like Dalton to be more aggressive and vocal, and less "our little guy," as he called the quarterback.
Taking a third-year leap for Dalton is more than just improving his yardage, completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Based on his stat lines from his first year to his second, he knows how to make improvements and become more comfortable with the act of playing quarterback in the NFL and that trend should continue into his third season.
However, the other nuances of the position—most importantly, the leadership aspect—are still areas in which Dalton needs work.
This is a young offense, for the most part—the majority of his receiving targets joined the Bengals during his tenure—so having someone take control on the field is necessary. That responsibility rightly falls to Dalton, but he hasn't yet embraced it.
Training camp presents the perfect opportunity for Dalton to perfect this. If he can send the message that the Bengals offense is truly his, then he'll be one step closer to finally being considered the team's long-term, franchise starter.
What Becomes of Dre Kirkpatrick?
Despite near-constant shuffling of their safeties and cornerbacks last season, the Bengals' pass coverage was a top-10 unit according to PFF (subscription required).
Though stability was lacking—the Bengals fielded six corners and safeties who played at least 600 snaps and two more with at least 100—their success raises the question of what the Bengals will do with Dre Kirkpatrick this year.
Kirkpatrick, one of the Bengals' two first-round draft picks in 2012, was supposed to be a starter-ready cornerback and met one of their most pressing long- and short-term needs.
However, a knee injury suffered in training camp cost him the first seven weeks of the regular season, and after playing just 43 defensive snaps in addition to contributing on special teams, the end of his season was cut short with a concussion.
Now, he's rehabilitating from January knee surgery and hopes to be fully ready to participate in training camp.
Though Kirkpatrick has the benefit of a first-round pedigree on his side, so do many of the veteran members of the Bengals' current group of cornerbacks—Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones were all first-round picks themselves and proved quite capable of playing at a high level last year.
This makes the Bengals' upcoming training camp extremely important for Kirkpatrick if he wants to get significant playing time this year.
Essentially still a rookie, there will be a degree of re-learning the ropes once he finally hits the practice field in pads. Though he possesses a great deal of talent, he'll need to surpass the proven veterans on the Bengals' roster to grab a starting spot this year.
It's not impossible for him to do this, nor is it the end of the world for the Bengals if he doesn't—after all, their secondary is in many ways an embarrassment of riches—but Kirkpatrick is in a unique situation heading into training camp this year.
How well he does and how healthy he is when he does it will do a lot to determine what Kirkpatrick's future in Cincinnati will look like.
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