CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals will hold their first practice of training camp at 3 p.m. ET on Friday. Here are some topics to watch as the players get back on the field:
Will Joe Mixon emerge quickly? There’s a reason the Bengals spent a second-round pick on Joe Mixon despite the character concerns that caused him to fall in the draft. He’s that talented.
The Bengals have been in somewhat of a rut at the running back position since 2014, when they ranked sixth overall in rushing average. Since 2014, that average has fallen from 134.2 yards per game to 110.6 yards per game.
Drafting Mixon gives them new life in the backfield because of his versatility. Mixon racked up 1,812 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns in his final season at Oklahoma. Putting him in the mix early can keep defenses on their toes, particularly with the speed that’s also been added at wide receiver.
Pencil Hill in as the starting back for now, but expect Mixon to get a lot of work early and often.
Can the Bengals make their new offensive line work? The Bengals will be breaking in three new starters this season, with Cedric Ogbuehi sliding from right tackle to left tackle to replace Andrew Whitworth, Jake Fisher starting at right tackle and Andre Smith replacing Kevin Zeitler at right guard.
Whitworth had been the team’s left tackle since 2009, while Zeitler had started at right guard since 2011. Smith was the team’s starting right tackle for several year before signing with the Vikings via free agency in 2016. He has never played guard.
That’s a lot of holes to fill for a team that allowed 41 sacks last year. The biggest question marks among the group are Ogbuehi and Fisher, who were first- and second-round draft picks, respectively, in 2015. Neither one played well enough last season to hold down a starting position, and Ogbuehi in particular struggled enough at right tackle that he had to share the position with veteran Eric Winston.
Ogbuehi must improve markedly this year, but a complete offseason should help. He was rehabbing a torn ACL in 2015 and injured his toe in training camp last year. Ogbuehi said he feels that left tackle is his natural position, and he’ll get his chance to prove that. But after last season, he’s probably going to be on a short leash.
Who returns kicks? Alex Erickson performed well enough as a rookie in last year’s training camp to unseat veteran kick returner Brandon Tate and claim the job. He performed well enough as a kickoff returner to rank second in the NFL, posting an average return of 27.9 yards.
Erickson’s job gets a little more difficult this season. The Bengals drafted wide receivers John Ross and Josh Malone, along with defensive back Brandon Wilson and Mixon. All have the speed and potential to be effective returners.
If the Bengals keep A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Malone and Ross as expected, that leaves only one empty spot at receiver entering camp. This vacancy will likely be filled by Erickson or Cody Core, a player the Bengals really like. The Bengals typically only activate five receivers on game day.
If any of the aforementioned players can show their worth as kick returners, it’s going to be tough for Erickson to find his role. Erickson has flashed enough potential to earn a permanent place on the roster, so this battle will probably go down to the wire at training camp.
Who wins the kicking battle? The Bengals' 6-9-1 record could partially be attributed to some dreadful place-kicking in 2016. That’s why this year's camp will feature a three-way battle for the starting job, with Jake Elliott, Randy Bullock and Jonathan Brown all competing for a spot on the roster.
Elliott likely has the edge after being taken in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. The Bengals like to hold on to their draft picks, and Elliott would probably have to perform very poorly in training camp to lose the job.
This is one of the more important battles, as place-kicking cost Cincinnati several games last year. Mike Nugent missed a PAT against the Redskins in a game that eventually ended in a tie. He also missed two PATs in a 16-12 loss to the Bills. He missed six total PATs last season to go along with six field goals.
Nugent was released and replaced by Bullock, who missed a game-winning field goal himself against the Texans.
Does the team stay healthy? There’s almost no escaping the dreaded training camp injury bug. Andrew Billings and William Jackson went down last year before taking a single regular-season snap. Billings is back and expected to contend for a starting position at defensive tackle, while Jackson will probably figure into the cornerback rotation quickly.
Eifert is critical to the success of the team, but he has never played a full season. He missed eight games last season with back and ankle injuries, and he’ll head into training camp this year fresh off December back surgery.
Bernard tore his ACL in November and has been right on track with rehab. While all signs look optimistic for his recovery, the Bengals are likely going to be cautious with him throughout the preseason.
Ross is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, which the Bengals knew when they selected him in the first round of the draft. He'll likely be brought along slowly as well.