Believe it or not, Cincinnati Bengals training camp is underway and is making plenty of noise without the additional help of HBO's Hard Knocks.
Don't worry, the extra cameras are still there, and the show is set to proceed as scheduled. What we're saying is the Bengals are one of the most exciting young teams in the NFL and have the attention of NFL fans everywhere.
You probably already know the deal. Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green have led the franchise to two straight postseason appearances. Both times they have come up short.
Yet, there is an aura of change in the Queen City. This year's camp features exciting rookies. It also has a former rival in James Harrison helping to change the culture of the defense. Of course, there's also the national spotlight.
Camp is just barely underway in Cincinnati, but several memorable events have already taken place. We'll highlight them and the biggest stories in the following slideshow.
Of course, one of the biggest names heading into camp is rookie running back Giovani Bernard. Cincinnati made the North Carolina star the first back off the board in an attempt to fix the one-dimensional offense that the team fielded last season.
Bernard's been shining in camp so far. He's the ultimate safety blanket for quarterback Andy Dalton, but he's also been tasked with running the ball as well—like shown in the picture above.
He won't make or break Cincinnati's playoff hopes in 2013, but Bernard will go a long way in deciding how effective and diverse the offense can be.
Perhaps the biggest story out of Bengals training camp after just getting underway was the injury to wide receiver A.J. Green.
If you've watched Green play, you know he goes all out for every pass thrown his way—even in the early goings of training camp. Green went up for a pass headed for the sideline and landed on his knee awkwardly.
All indications are Green will be just fine after an MRI revealed no structural damage, but don't expect to see him back on the field in the near future.
The Bengals are stacked at the wide receiver position, and it should be a lot of fun to watch the battle play out over the course of the preseason.
One dark horse many fail to mention is the reliable Dane Sanzenbacher. While not the fastest player in the receiving corps, Sanzenbacher catches anything thrown his way and runs crisp routes.
As a fifth or sixth option on the depth chart, it's hard to beat simple reliability. The Cincinnati coaching staff has been giving him plenty of opportunities so far to prove he is worth one of the final spots.
Speaking of wide receivers attempting to make the roster, they don't come more talented in the sixth round than Arkansas product Cobi Hamilton.
Hamilton stretched out in the picture above and proceeded to torch a few defenders in scrimmages as per the usual.
So far this preseason, Hamilton has done nothing but impress the Bengals coaching staff. That has continued into training camp as he attempts to lock down the fourth or fifth spot on the depth chart.
The Bengals needed some serious speed on the latter end of the depth chart and may have found just that with Hamilton.
Orson Charles is one of the more interesting names on Cincinnati's roster this offseason. He's a lock to make the roster despite having both Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham and first-round rookie Tyler Eifert in front of him.
So why is the third tight end on the roster a lock to make the roster, you ask?
Cincinnati is not using Charles at the position. Rather, the coaching staff has been lining him up at fullback, giving him snaps as seen above and using him as a blocker.
Charles is the future. He's an H-back who plays a hybrid position. He can stay in and block, carry the ball or split out wide to catch passes. Keep a close eye on how the staff uses him in the preseason contests.
Another player receiving similar looks to what Orson Charles is dealing with is rookie running back Rex Burkhead.
So far he's been asked to stay in and block, carry the ball between the tackles and split out to catch passes.
Burkhead has a similar skill set to that of former running back Brian Leonard, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If Burkhead has a shot of making the roster, he's going to have to prove he can be as versatile and efficient on third down as the departed Leonard.
The talent's there, and Burkhead has shown it so far.
There's a new No. 85 in Cincinnati. This one stays quiet, does the dirty work in the trenches when asked and won't don a Hall of Fame jacket before retiring.
Notre Dame product Tyler Eifert has done nothing but impress since being drafted by the Bengals in the first round. That's to be expected as such a high selection, but Eifert's sheer dominance has raised expectations for next season even higher.
Eifert may not push incumbent starter Jermaine Gresham for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart right away, but he has a full head of steam rolling into next season.
As you can see, Eifert is already loved by the Bengals faithful. He's done nothing but reciprocate.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko is one of the most popular players in the city of Cincinnati in large part because of his flowing locks of Samoan hair.
That makes him recognizable, but his best trait is his interaction with the fans. Peko goes out of his way to interact with the fans in any scenario, including game day itself and training camp.
Peko is in no danger to lose his starting job whatsoever. He's still stout against the run and is one of the clear-cut leaders of the defense.
Go on down to Cincinnati for camp. If you do, Peko will find you.
Hey look, it's another rookie under the bright spotlights early in training camp as he attempts to earn his keep and playing time.
This time it's rookie linebacker Sean Porter out of Texas A&M who figures to be in the conversation for playing time at weak-side linebacker.
It's been mostly quiet from Porter so far in training camp, but expect the coaching staff to put him on the spot regularly as he attempts to make the transition to the NFL.
Speaking of linebackers on the spot in Cincinnati, let's talk about this guy named Rey Maualuga for a moment.
Did you hear that? Bengals nation just drew their collective pitchforks.
Before you get too angry at the sight of our friend from USC, understand the team brought him back in free agency for a reason. He's a vocal leader in the locker room, which is what the team with plenty of youngsters needs at this point.
Also keep in mind he may have his obvious weaknesses, but it's the coaching staff that moved him to middle linebacker in the first place. The fans clamored for it as well.
Keep an eye on Maualuga. If he hasn't improved, he may be on his way to playing a new position.
Andrew Hawkins is another receiver turning heads at Bengals training camp, but that's to be expected if you follow the team at all.
The smaller Hawkins is a versatile, slippery threat who weaves his way through defenders with ease. In Cincinnati, he has been used as a gadget weapon on different types of screens and the like.
Hawkins is all but guaranteed a roster spot coming in at fourth on the depth chart thanks to what he brings to the table on special teams as well.
Still, Hawkins is one of the most fun to watch in training camp because he simply cannot be caught by most defenders.
As noted, the Bengals have a deep receiving corps that is, well, receiving most of the media attention at this point. This makes sense as the position is going to have the biggest melee of them all.
The focal point of the picture above is Mohamed Sanu, who figures to be the No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green next season.
Sanu is versatile to the point of lining up inside and outside based on what the coaching staff wants. He's even lined up very successfully for Cincinnati at quarterback in the past.
The group pictured above is set to largely determine the fate of the Bengals next year. Sanu is one younger player with a hefty set of expectations on his shoulders.
The Oklahoma drill may be going the way of the dinosaur around the NFL, but it continues to be a mainstay in Cincinnati with coach Marvin Lewis running the show.
That, in part, may explain why the Bengals are consistently one of the tougher teams up front.
It also explains why NFL Network interrupted its coverage to show the drill live. Media and fans flock to Cincinnati to see the battle of wills that takes place each time the ball is snapped.
Above is but one example of the craziness that can be the Oklahoma drill. For example, another drill saw tight end Jermaine Gresham floor defensive tackle Geno Atkins—not exactly the expected outcome—only to have Gresham mobbed in a celebratory fashion while Atkins was quietly picked up by the defense.
You're doing yourself a disservice as an NFL fan if you don't find a way to watch the drill at least once.
And now for what is most likely going to be the most sentimental moment of Bengals training camp—a prime candidate for a major source of d'awws when Hard Knocks airs.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth brought his son on to the field after practice and asked the little tike to help him push a sled.
This may be a bit premature, but it looks as if all the intangibles for playing left tackle at a high level in the NFL may just reside in the Whitworth gene pool.
Believe it or not, the success of the 2013 Bengals ultimately hinges on the performance of the man pictured above.
Andy Dalton is entering his third year in the NFL. Despite an increase in statistical output each year, Dalton has failed to elevate the play of those around him. He especially struggled last season with pocket presence, which would lead to unnecessary coverage sacks and misfires.
Now Dalton has a reliable checkdown target in running back Giovani Bernard to prevent the aforementioned coverage sacks. He has not one, but two massive tight ends to force the ball to when in trouble.
Dalton also has A.J. Green and a host of wide receivers who, if healthy, will provide consistent production and reliability (last year both Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones were great for stretches but rarely saw the field together).
Like in the photo above, all eyes will be on Dalton starting now. Bengals training camp is here.
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