Camp Confidential: Surprise in Cincinnati?

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Is it boom or bust for the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals?

Judging by the early optimism, the Bengals believe it's going to be a banner year in Cincinnati, despite coming off a dreadful 4-11-1 season.

"There's definitely a different feeling about this camp," an excited Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said.

Many football observers feel this year's Bengals have a chance to become one of the NFL's biggest surprises. The healthy return of Palmer, a refocused Chad Ochocinco at receiver, and a sneaky-good defense has "Bengaldom" reminiscing about 2005, which was the last time Cincinnati made the postseason.

But despite the excitement, just one winning season in the past 18 years still looms large for Cincinnati. So there are plenty of reasons to either believe or not believe in this struggling NFL franchise.

Continue reading and decide for yourself.

Key questions

1. Can Palmer play a full season?

Like most franchise quarterbacks, Palmer holds the key to the Bengals' season. That couldn't be any more evident than last year, when Cincinnati's offense completely tanked after Palmer shut it down with a severe elbow injury.

After bypassing surgery in favor of rehab, Palmer says he is finally 100 percent. The Bengals have kept him on a pitch count as a precaution, but Palmer's throws look crisp and have the usual zip. He also throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the league.

Palmer hasn't been hit since early last season and that is when the real test will begin. So far there have been no setbacks in practice. But it will be interesting to see how the elbow responds in preseason and regular-season games when defenders are taking their best shots.

2. Will the offensive line improve?

Going hand-in-hand with Palmer's return is the overall performance of the offensive line. There is a reason Palmer has had two season-ending injuries to his knee and elbow the past four years, and it's because of Cincinnati's gradual decline up front.

The Bengals' pass protection was horrendous last season, and it wasn't until the end of the season when the team finally discovered a running game behind starting tailback Cedric Benson.

This year the team will have a lot of new faces in new places. Andrew Whitworth will move from guard to left tackle, while rookie first-round pick Andre Smith is penciled in at right tackle. Nate Livings will take Whitworth's spot at left guard and Bobbie Williams will remain at right guard. There is competition at center, but Kyle Cook is the favorite to win that job.

The offensive line could be the team's biggest litmus test. If the unit plays well and jells early, the Bengals could get off to a fast start. If not, it could be a long season in Cincinnati.

3. Is Cincinnati's defense legit?

Despite just four victories, the Bengals finished No. 12 in overall defense in 2008. The ranking was especially impressive considering the unit got little help from its offense last season.

With the addition of some key veterans like Roy Williams and the return of former first-round pick Keith Rivers from a jaw injury, Cincinnati believes it has the potential to field a top-10 defense.

But when you look closer, you notice a few glaring holes.

For starters, Cincinnati was unable to generate a pass rush last season. The Bengals had just 17 sacks in 16 games, which was tied for the second fewest in the NFL. Their defense also was No. 21 against the run in 2008, as opponents were often able to get the lead early and run out the clock.

With the offense expected to put up points this year, Cincinnati's defense has a shot to improve upon those weaknesses.

Market watch

At a time when some are wondering if Ochocinco, 31, is starting to hit a wall, the charismatic receiver arrived to camp this summer in arguably the best shape of his career.

ter suffering through injuries and overall unhappiness in Cincinnati last season, Ochocinco dedicated himself to a strict offseason workout regiment in Los Angeles. The results are already apparent in training camp as Ochocinco has been explosive and extremely tough to guard in single coverage.

With the physical aspect in tow, the only concern is whether Ochocinco will remain happy and focused the entire season. Winning early would help.

Newcomer to watch

Ochocinco has a new running mate this year in Laveranues Coles. The Bengals signed Coles to a four-year, $28 million contract after losing veteran receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh to free agency.

Coles has big shoes to fill as Houshmandzadeh recorded at least 90 catches in each of the past three seasons. At this point in his career Coles, 31, is more of a 60- to 70-catch receiver. So the Bengals may need additional help to replace Houshmandzadeh's production.

But Coles' veteran presence could help steady a relatively young receiver corps.

Observation deck

HBO is in Georgetown, Ky., this summer to film its popular "Hard Knocks" television series. The Bengals have opened their doors completely to the network during training camp and production crews and cameras are everywhere. It remains to be seen whether this causes a distraction or helps the team narrow its focus. But Bengals team officials say so far everything has gone smoothly in the first weekend of filming. ... As of Sunday, Smith continues to be the lone absentee for the Bengals and in the AFC North as a whole. He's missed three days of training camp so far and most expect it to be a lengthy negotiation ... Look out for fifth-year receiver Chris Henry. According to his teammates and coaches, the talented receiver has finally matured on and off the field and had the finest offseason of his career. Even as the third receiver, Henry has a chance to put up good numbers this year in the Bengals' pass-heavy offense. ... A primary reason for Cincinnati's lack of pass rush is due to the struggles of starting defensive ends Antwan Odom and Robert Geathers. The pair combined for just 5.5 sacks in 2008 but are aiming for better production this season.