Now that training camp is finally here for the Cincinnati Bengals, at the start of each day we'll try to leave you with three items to watch at that day's practice. As we kick off the practices Thursday afternoon, here are three things I'm going to be keeping an eye on:
Roster count. One of the more difficult parts of covering any practice -- preseason, regular season, minicamp or otherwise -- is keeping track of the whereabouts of every person on the team's full roster. Primarily what reporters are tracking when they're doing in-practice roster counts is to see who is and who isn't practicing. Of course, we have the Bengals' physically unable to perform and non-football injury lists to serve as a guide, but surprises, particularly on the first day of a camp, can happen. Don't be surprised if a few of the names you saw listed in that link end up dressing out and practicing. Also, don't be surprised if there's a last-minute scratch and another player who had previously been cleared gets axed ahead of the first day. Between the time this post goes live and the start of practice, virtually anything can happen. That's why you do the count.
It's perhaps the toughest part of the practice-viewing portion of the job, simply because you don't want to miss anything. With 89 players running around along with coaches, support staff members and trainers, it can be tough to spot the non-practicing players. Among those we'll be looking for: Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, cornerback Leon Hall, receiver Marvin Jones, tight end Jermaine Gresham, and offensive lineman Mike Pollak among others. Atkins and Hall are the most notable active PUP-listed players who are returning from serious injuries last season.
Dalton and the tempo pushers. As offensive coordinator Hue Jackson started laying the groundwork of his new scheme this spring, he implored the players on his side of the ball to pick up their pace of play. He wanted them to break huddles quicker and get to the line of scrimmage at a similarly stepped-up tempo. His hope has been that in doing that, the Bengals will be able to get plays snapped earlier in the play clock. If they do that and move the chains as regularly as Jackson anticipates, they'll be calling more plays and wearing down more defenses by the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Andy Dalton had to adjust to the stepped-up tempo during minicamp and organized team activities. Overall, Jackson was quite pleased with the way Dalton led the group through that modified hurry-up, but he wants to see what the entire unit will be able do once the temperatures go up and the shoulder pads come on. I'll be keeping an eye on how well the group continues pushing the tempo it established in the spring, and if that will allow it to get into the rhythm Jackson is seeking. After all, the best offenses are the ones that can get in and stay in sync.
Following Vontaze. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said earlier this week that third-year linebacker Vontaze Burfict enters the season as the unquestioned leader of the defense. No other player knows Guenther's system as well as Burfict, the assistant said, primarily because Burfict spent the last two seasons knowing everything Guenther wanted him to know about linebacker play when he coached the position. Now that Guenther has been elevated to the coordinator role, he expects his right-hand man to know the same nuances of the entire defense that he does. When you stop and think -- I mean really stop and think -- about Burfict's journey from undrafted free agent to starter to Pro Bowler to potential team captain, you can't help but want to see what's next on his career progression. He certainly has quite the story as he awaits his forthcoming contract extension.
I'll be keeping an eye on him Thursday, and watching the ways he leads and talks to his teammates during the first practice. While it's tough to quantify what being a good leader is, seeing how well a player interacts with his teammates, and how well they accept his advice, can be rather telling.