Bengals back-to-work FYI

Readiness factor: The Bengals will have continuity on defense under Mike Zimmer, but the offense probably will face a learning curve with a new system and a lot of young skill players to deal with. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is bringing his brand of the West Coast offense to Cincinnati but hasn't had any practice time with the players. For the Bengals to be successful, the defense needs to play at the same level it did during the 2009 season -- at least early on -- until the young offense is able to catch up.

Biggest challenge: Cincinnati needs clarity and a distraction-free training camp at quarterback. Rookie second-round pick Andy Dalton is expected to take over for veteran Carson Palmer, who has threatened to retire. His threat won't stop the constant questions and speculation about whether the Bengals will trade Palmer, though. There is also a remote chance Palmer could have a change of heart and return to the team, because he remains under contract. It will be up to Dalton and the Bengals' coaching staff to remain focused on the task at hand and not worry about the dark cloud the Palmer situation has created.

Second-year standouts: One key to Cincinnati's success will be the progress of second-year players coming off strong rookie seasons. Starting tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and receiver Jordan Shipley all performed well in 2010. They made their share of rookie mistakes last season, but if they improve and make solid strides this season, they will be huge for the Bengals.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Bengals starting tailback Cedric Benson will be an interesting case after a recent arrest on assault charges. He was the team's biggest free-agent priority. But the Bengals may rethink their strategy, especially if Benson is facing a suspension to start the 2011 season. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is more difficult to predict. The Bengals like Joseph but have given no indication they want to pay market value for good cornerbacks, which ranges between $8 to $10 million per season. Receiver Terrell Owens is another big name, but he will not return. The Bengals are going younger at the position, and Owens had a major knee injury in the offseason.