Joe Burrow's return to Bengals: How he's progressing, biggest remaining step

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow will not play in the preseason opener and might not see game action until Week 1. Aaron Doster/AP Photo

CINCINNATI -- The biggest storyline for the Cincinnati Bengals for the last two years has involved quarterback Joe Burrow.

Last season, the intrigue stemmed from Burrow’s transition from being the top overall pick in the 2020 draft to a rookie season impacted by COVID-19. This preseason, Burrow is coming back from reconstructive left knee surgery to repair an injury that ended his first NFL season.

How exactly has Burrow looked and how much playing time will he receive before the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 12? Here’s where Burrow stands as the Bengals approach their first preseason game.

Will Burrow play in the preseason?

Initially, the Bengals front office appeared to indicate that Burrow wouldn’t play in the preseason.

“We probably aren’t going to put him out there until we get to the season because we don’t want to risk anything with him,” Bengals owner and president Mike Brown said during the annual media luncheon on July 26.

However, Burrow has maintained he wants to get some reps in the preseason. And the Bengals never fully shut the door on that possibility. Burrow will not participate in the preseason opener on Saturday at Tampa Bay, but Bengals coach Zac Taylor indicated Burrow could see the field for some exhibition snaps.

“I'm not ruling anything out for the further games,” Taylor said. “All I'm ready to speak on is Week 1.”

How does Burrow feel physically?

In July, Burrow was cleared to resume football activities, which paved the way for him to be a full participant at training camp. He has participated in team drills and with the exception of one rest day, Burrow has received the bulk of the snaps with the first-team offense.

Burrow has worn a brace on that surgically-repaired left knee throughout the offseason and at training camp. Burrow said at the start of camp he was “just about 100%” and had no physical limitations.

“There’s no football movements that give me any issues right now,” Burrow said. “So I feel confident going into the season.”

How has Burrow looked in training camp?

Burrow and the offense struggled to find the rhythm the unit enjoyed before his injury last November. In the first full week of camp, Burrow had a couple of uncharacteristic interceptions during team drills and the offense wasn’t able to stretch the defense vertically.

The coaching staff opted to rest Burrow on Aug. 4, which was the first practice he’s missed as a healthy scratch in either of his first two training camps with the team. It ended up being a good decision. Burrow said it helped his body “come back fresher.” And in the ensuing practices, Burrow and the offense have been much sharper and effective.

“The first week, there was a lot on my mind,” Burrow told NFL Network on Wednesday. “You know, I’ve always been pretty good in the pocket. It was tough to decipher who was who in the pocket. But then one day, it just kind of clicked back.”

What’s the biggest hurdle for Burrow to clear?

Burrow has said the mental aspect of the recovery has been the toughest part so far. He struggled early to find comfort in the pocket, especially with bodies flying around him. At one point, Burrow spent extra time with team personnel after a practice to work on throwing passes with others coming at him.

Getting acclimated to playing against defenses again will be one of the final aspects of his recovery.

“That’s the last step for me -- get my pocket presence back and understand when I’m pressured and when I’m not," Burrow said. "Just getting that whole feeling back that I’ve been really good at for a long time.”

But there could be one thing we won’t find out this preseason -- how Burrow responds after the first time he’s in the pocket. That will test the physical and mental components of his recovery process.

Based on Burrow’s comments, he’s ready to feel the contact.

“Yeah, I’m anxious to get out there,” he said on Saturday. “I think I take that first hit and I’m right back at it. That’s how I feel right now.”