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Cincinnati Bengals set to open season with one of NFL’s youngest teams

At age 30, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton doesn’t feel old. His parking space says otherwise.

Only the longest-tenured players get a reserved spot in the team’s parking lot at Paul Brown Stadium, and this is the first year Dalton has one.

In other cities, he likely would still be a few years away from a space, but playing on one of the youngest teams in the league, Dalton is a seasoned veteran compared to the majority of the roster. Cincinnati opens the season Sunday with the youngest group in Marvin Lewis’ 16 years as head coach.

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“Being 30 years old now, I’m one of the oldest on the team,” Dalton said. “… You shoot for that parking spot. You get to be old enough, and you get that parking spot. I’m glad we got it.”

After roster cutdowns on Saturday, Cincinnati was the youngest team in the league with an average age of 25.2. That number went up slightly with the re-signing of 31-year-old Michael Johnson , but Sunday’s lineup at Indy will feature several first- and second-year players.

For the first time since Dalton and A.J. Green came into the league together in 2011, the Bengals will be starting their top two draft picks. First-round pick Billy Price is slated to start at center and second-rounder Jessie Bates assumes the free safety job opened two weeks ago by the release of George Iloka.

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Bates said there are so many young guys around him, he doesn’t feel he and Price stand out as rookie starters.

“We’ve got to keep the same mindset as the older guys,” Bates said. “When you mess up as a young guy, you’ve got to lean on the older guys. I think me and Billy feel confident in our jobs because we do the same things the older guys do, so we have to perform just like them.”

The Bengals also will be starting two second-year players in running back Joe Mixon and linebacker Jordan Evans, and John Ross will see a lot of action at receiver in what essentially is a redo of his washed-out rookie season.

Lewis said that although the roster features a lot of young players, there is a lot of experience among the group. The first-team offense and defense averages about five years of experience. With youth also comes a little more speed.

“We have that group of guys that have played a lot of football, and we have a young group coming behind them, and their contributions over the last two or three years is quite a bit,” Lewis said. “Then we have the (inexperienced) young guys, who will make positive impressions this season. I’m excited about that.”

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Outside of specialists Kevin Huber, Clark Harris and Randy Bullock, the first-team defensive line is the oldest position group. Johnson is entering his 10th season, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap each in their ninth seasons and Andrew Billings beginning his third year. But behind them are rookie Sam Hubbard and second-year players Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis, Ryan Glasgow and Josh Tupou.

Fortunately for Dalton, the left side of the offensive line is the more experienced of the five-player starting unit with Cordy Glenn a seventh-year veteran and Clint Boling in his eighth season. However, most of his targets downfield are young. Green is the oldest in the receivers group, surrounded by players who are entering their third season or less.

“It’s just about making sure guys are up to speed and guys are on the same page of what we are doing,” Dalton said. “I’ve seen all the stats saying we are the youngest team in the NFL and all that kind of stuff. We have a lot of guys that have played in a lot of games. For those young guys, they have good guys to look up to and see how they have done things. I feel like we have a special group here.”

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Lewis said he doesn’t coach this team any differently than others in the past, but joked the staff keeps a little closer watch over this group.

“We have to make sure we feed them dinner every night,” he said with a laugh. “We don’t know what they’re going to get (to eat) otherwise.”

“It’s really important that we have guys that grow up the right way,” Lewis continued. “The class from last year is still feeling its way through it, with John Ross and Joe Mixon in particular, who were taken at the top. Jordan Evans, Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson, and Brandon Wilson etc. — some of those guys are more mature and handle some of the day-to-day things more than others. We have to do a really good job. Willy (CB William Jackson), who is in his third year (is another young player). That’s part of it, but when you work through it you reap the benefit of it.”

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