CINCINNATI — The Bengals enter the next phase of preparation for the season Wednesday with a joint practice against the Packers preceding Friday’s preseason opener.
First impressions have been made. Now’s the time to start proving yourself for the 2023 season.
Before we push forward, it’s time to take stock of what those first impressions were for the Bengals’ rookie class.
With 10 practices in the books, a foundational judgment can be made. This does not mean the assessment will stay the same or even last through the weekend. Everyone who lived through August 2021, when Ja’Marr Chase was dropping everything, knows these concerns are often fleeting.
“It’s been a good class that’s started out the right way, and it’s just about sustaining and being disciplined in their daily routines,” head coach Zac Taylor said. “It’s only two weeks in, and it’s a long season. That’s the biggest thing that we’ve harped on to those guys is this is just the infancy stage of the season and you’ve got to be built to last to make it here.”
After conversations with the players, coaches and others surrounding the team — as well as my own observations — here’s my report on what we’ve learned about the eight draft picks and one undrafted free agent.
Role: Playing with the second team as an edge and has kicked inside next to B.J. Hill in third-down packages.
Play that stands out: Murphy showed up as the lead blocker on a kickoff return play at one point. Backup defensive linemen regularly play on special teams, but that would be a unique spot for a 275-pound first-round pick.
Key quote: “We are not going to overreact to good or bad in the first padded practices. Just continue to improve on his technique and things that Marion (Hobby) is working on with him.” — Zac Taylor
Analysis: If you were looking for the first-round pick to show up and take over camp immediately, well, you would have left disappointed. Murphy has been quiet through the first week and a half, mostly lingering with the backups and flying largely under the radar. For the first time Thursday, we saw him inside in the third-down package, something that was expected but had not yet been unveiled by defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. There’s still plenty of time to see Murphy chip away at his adjustment period and create a few notable plays, but it has been a slow start considering his draft status.
First-impression grade: C-
CB DJ Turner (2/60)
Role: Rotating with Sidney Jones between backup and starting corner alongside Cam Taylor-Britt. Will settle into a backup spot whenever Chidobe Awuzie returns.
Play that stands out: There have been many, but Turner tracked a deep ball intended for Stanley Morgan on Day 2 then flew into the air to get his hands on the pass and nearly picked it off. This showed off his freaky athleticism to make a play on the run and how he could quickly develop into a playmaker.
Key quote: “I’ve heard that literally my entire life. So I’m used to that comment. It doesn’t faze me. I used to play safety. I’m not scared to hit.” — Turner on anyone questioning his physicality when the pads are on.
Analysis: He has made the most encouraging first impression in the entire class. Turner should be able to contribute this year and could easily develop into a quality starter sooner rather than later. If his understanding of the game continues to evolve to match his athleticism, the Bengals might have struck gold.
First-impression grade: A
S Jordan Battle (3/95)
Role: Backup safety and core four special-teamer.
Play that stands out: N/A
Key quote: “Usually it’s me and Mike T (Michael Thomas), veteran guy. We talk it out. Simulate myself being in the game. What position I would be at in the game, get the call from the sideline, make the call from the guy in the field and go through what I would be doing on progressions when they snap the ball.” — Battle on what he did during practice while injured.
Analysis: Battle suffered a lower-body injury on the first day of camp and spent the next week-plus sidelined. He has worked his way back in the last two sessions and anticipates playing against Green Bay. He has done everything the team could ask. He has lived in the pocket of Thomas, a veteran safety, sitting next to him in meetings and standing next to him during practices to talk through the calls. In the spring, he landed on every special team — including getting reps as the personal protector on the punt team, a role typically reserved for the most responsible veteran making the calls. Battle still needs to prove he can play, but despite his injury, he has gone about his business in an ideal manner.
First-impression grade: Incomplete
Role: Fifth receiver behind the big three and Trenton Irwin. More specifically, he’s the backup slot behind Tyler Boyd.
Play that stands out: His most notable came Thursday during the unscripted but competitive conclusion to practice. He ran a slot fade against Jalen Davis, and when the ball dropped over his outside shoulder, he adjusted and hauled in the catch at the 1-yard line.
Key quote: “He’s got great hands. I don’t know that he’s dropped one yet in a team or seven-on-seven situation. We’re really relying on that.” — Receivers coach Troy Walters
Analysis: Jones started slow, but you could notice his speed and decisiveness increase in recent days. Whether on a quick hit in the flat or crossing the middle, he started showing up. The deep ball on Thursday was the crescendo of that, unfortunately, as he hurt his shoulder on the next play. He was thrilled to return to practice Monday, and the Bengals coaches were excited to see his next developmental step.
First-impression grade: B
Role: Running third behind Joe Mixon and Chris Evans with Trayveon Williams (ankle) sidelined.
Play that stands out: In what seemed like a nothing play at first, the ball was checked down underneath to Brown. As the play appeared to be fading to a conclusion, a defensive hand hammered down and forced a fumble. It’s easy to toss this aside — especially with the play essentially over — as a one-off over the first week of camp, but ball security was an issue for Brown at Illinois, where he had five fumbles in 2022. Call this play a footnote, but it’s one worth tracking as his camp and preseason progress.
Key quote: “I do that every day. That is something I have done since college. It’s about 80-85 balls.” — Brown, on going to the JUGS machine after every practice for extra work on catching the ball.
Analysis: The true assessments for running backs begin when the games start. Brown projects to see plenty of snaps in that environment. To this point, he has mostly looked the part with a clear burst and wiggle running up the middle out of shotgun providing a slightly different style than Mixon. He hasn’t had issues with drops in camp and held up well enough in the limited one-on-one pass-protection drills. The Bengals still need to gain a firmer grasp on those issues to determine his role.
First-impression grade: C
WR Andre Iosivas (6/206)
Role: Second-team outside receiver, special teams gunner.
Play that stands out: During Monday’s practice, Iosivas was covered by Turner on the outside during 11-on-11s. He created a window up the sideline, and a nice pass allowed him to rise up and bring down the reception just before the safety help arrived.
Key quote: “That’s what I bring to the table as a player is these athletic plays. During training camp, I’m trying to become a pure receiver.” — Iosivas
Analysis: Maybe the most pleasant surprise of training camp. He has not just made flash plays — he’s stacked them. Nearly every day he makes a high-point catch near the sideline or a tough snag in traffic. With his size, speed and athleticism, making those plays was always going to be part of his profile. The most encouraging development has been the growing consistency of the more mundane plays — like a toe-tap on the sideline of a scramble drill or creating separation on an out route. Iosivas has proven not to be as big a project as many anticipated. He could cement a real backup role in the preseason games, but how he performs on special teams, specifically as a gunner on punt returns, will likely dictate whether or not he is active on game days.
First-impression grade: A
Role: Leading the competition to be the team’s punter.
Play that stands out: Robbins crushed his fair share of punts Monday, including one that went 60 yards and drove the returner deep and toward the sideline.
Key quote: “I say this kind of tongue and cheek, but we are actually trying to lower (his hangtime) down a little bit and try to get a little more distance. I feel confident he can always go back to what he has done his whole life, but there are times in certain situations (when) maybe we need a bit more distance. I still want the direction, but sometimes instead of hitting the ball 45 yards, we need one that is 52 or 53 or 54, and that entails just lowering it down a little.” — Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons
Analysis: Robbins has graded out well in practices, turning the ball over at a high rate and living up to his reputation for booming balls high and with consistent direction. He looked particularly impressive during Monday’s session. Simmons needed to dial back his work, seeing some fatigue midway through camp, but otherwise he has performed well and looks to be everything they’d hoped for.
First-impression grade: B+
CB DJ Ivey (7/246)
Role: Backup outside corner.
Play that stands out: It’d be hard to top the athletic interception he made on Back Together Saturday. Ivey read the quarterback, dropped off his zone and exploded toward the ball for a pick.
Key quote: “Every day I’m honing in on my press technique and using my length to my advantage. Just honing in on that is a big part that me and (cornerbacks) coach (Charles) Burks work on.” — Ivey
Analysis: For a seventh-round corner, the early results opened many eyes. A pick that typically scratches for a roster spot has already made significant inroads. He has managed to make multiple plays on the ball, including a pass breakup against Chase in a one-on-one red zone drill this week, which keeps the coaching staff intrigued. There will be tough decisions to be made in the back of the cornerback room, but Ivey will be part of the conversation.
First-impression grade: B+
Role: Backup guard
Play that stands out: The first time he walked out of the huddle. At 6-foot-7, 328 pounds, he is imposing even next to other offensive linemen. Only three players started more than two games last year at guard who measured at least 6-6, 325.
Key quote: “He was doing good early, and then we kept piling on the installs. His cup kind of ranneth over a little bit. So then he is getting more settled back down a little bit and just learning some new things.” — Offensive line coach Frank Pollack
Analysis: There’s a definite path for Kirkland to make the 53-man roster. As the Bengals shift to the downhill, gap-run game and bigger people-movers up front, he fits the bill. He has impressed enough to be in the mix for a roster spot. He has a long way to go, but continued improvement could land him a job.
First-impression grade: B-
(Top photo of Myles Murphy: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.