The Cincinnati Bengals open 2020 NFL training camp on July 28 at Paul Brown Stadium. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:
How long will it take for Joe Burrow to become acclimated to the NFL?
Because of COVID-19, it could take a little longer than expected for the rookie quarterback. The only time the Bengals' coaching staff has spent any in-person time with Burrow was during their 15-minute session at the NFL combine in February, before the pandemic forced restrictions and limitations around the country. And since Burrow didn't work out at the combine and had his pro day canceled, the Bengals still haven't seen the No. 1 overall pick throw this offseason.
By all accounts, Burrow has been impressive during Cincinnati's virtual workouts, has a solid grasp of coach Zac Taylor's offensive approach and has started to establish a sense of leadership among his teammates. Those are the encouraging signs from the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
But it's impossible to replicate the tighter throwing windows and overall speed in the NFL by sitting in front of a computer. The lack of in-person OTAs could have a significant impact on Burrow's immediate development. If there is an altered training camp and there are no preseason games, that means Burrow's first real snap could be in the season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers in September.
Being a rookie in the NFL already is tough enough. The pandemic has exponentially increased the degree of difficulty. It could take a full year for Burrow to find his footing as he learns how to become an NFL franchise quarterback.
Is Burrow enough to improve an offense that struggled in 2019?
The Bengals need more than Burrow to fix an offense that ranked 28th in yards per play and 29th in points per drive last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That being said, improved quarterback play should help. In 2019, former Bengals starting quarterback Andy Dalton was 27th out of 30 qualifying players in Total QBR. Burrow could help fix the ailing Bengals attack.
However, quarterback wasn't the only issue last season. The offensive line struggled to protect Dalton and the Bengals spent most of the year without A.J. Green and John Ross, two of their most dynamic receivers. It also took eight games for the coaching staff to realize the running game wasn't working. That forced them to try an entirely new strategy which helped tailback Joe Mixon somehow hit 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season.
The burden of fixing the offense doesn't fall squarely on the shoulders of a rookie quarterback. Taylor, whose playcalling was questioned at times last season, needs to show growth in his second year as a head coach. Jonah Williams, last year's first-round pick who missed the entire season, needs to be the dependable left tackle many expect him to be. And Green, Ross and rookie Tee Higgins must help create plays at wide receiver, a job that solely fell to Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate last season.
Cincinnati's front office overhauled every area of the defense in hopes of fixing a unit that was problematic in 2019. The Bengals tied for the most yards allowed per play in the league last season. In the offseason, the historically risk-averse franchise made a big splash by signing Reader, a defensive tackle, and Waynes, an outside cornerback, to contracts worth a combined $95 million.
But fixing the defense is not that simple. There will be significant pressure on defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to make the most of the talent acquired in the offseason. Cincinnati needs to do a much better job of getting after quarterbacks after finishing last season ranked 27th in Pass Rush Win Rate (an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen).
And speaking of that, the Bengals need to identify who will be their next top pass-rusher as veterans Geno Atkins, 32, and Carlos Dunlap, 31, whose contracts are up after the 2021 season. Reader and Waynes should help the defense significantly, but with as many problems as Cincinnati had last season, they will need help to create long-term change.