Cincinnati Bengals: 5 takeaways from the offseason program

The Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their offseason program Thursday with the conclusion of the mandatory minicamp. The next time they’ll be together will be for the start of training camp July 26.

There was a lot to like about what the Bengals showed in voluntary OTAs and the minicamp. Quarterback Andy Dalton has looked sharp, 2017 first-round pick John Ross is healthy and making plays (and missing some), 2016 first-round pick William Jackson appears to be building on his impressive first season and there’s confidence new offensive line coach Frank Pollack’s energetic and demanding approach can help the team fix its biggest problem from a year ago.

»HARTMAN: A return to playoffs? Bengals headed in right direction

We’ll find out a lot more about this team in training camp, but until then, here are five takeaways from the offseason program:

Injury issue

The single best thing that can happen in any NFL offseason is avoiding serious injury, and the Bengals were able to do that.

›› RELATED: Marvin Lewis says no injury setback for Eifert, just caution

Defensive back Josh Shaw injured his shoulder on Tuesday, sat out Wednesday and was back in action Thursday. He was the only guy who has significant snaps in the past who got hurt. Rookie fifth-round corner Darius Phillips left Tuesday’s practice early with a knee issue and missed the rest of the week, but the injury is not believed to be serious.

Tight end Tyler Eifert didn’t practice at all, but Marvin Lewis said that was not due to an injury setback but rather an exercise in caution. Tight end Tyler Kroft and offensive lineman T.J. Johnson also did not practice with undisclosed injuries, which was the case for most of the voluntary OTAs.

Defensive development

New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has put a premium on forcing turnovers, and that was apparent this offseason with the spirited effort of his group.

The defense forced turnovers all three days of minicamp, including a three-interception performance Wednesday, and generally looked crisper than the offense, which also is adjusting to a new system.

There still appear to be issue at linebacker, especially with Vontaze Burfict sitting out the first four weeks on suspension, but the emergence of Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson as pass rushers alongside Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and some impressive cornerback play has the Bengals defense looking like a re-focused, re-energized group.

Best backfield?

If the additions of tackle Cordy Glenn and Billy Price can help the offensive line can correct the issues of a year ago, the Bengals could be in the conversation as one of the top backfields in the league in 2018.

›› MORE: Bengals tackle Jake Fisher full cleared seven months after heart surgery

Even though there are no pads and no contact in OTAs and minicamp, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard have shown explosive speed in out-running pursuing linebackers, and rookie fourth-round pick Mark Walton could provide valuable depth in addition being an asset on special teams.

»RELATED: Bengals want Mixon to be complete back; he says he already is

Bill Lazor had talked about relying more on the run, and the passing game appears to predicated on getting the ball out with a lot of short, quick passes. Getting Mixon and Bernard in space in the passing game in addition to getting them going on the ground could really open up the Bengals offense.

Great Tate

The star of minicamp was Auden Tate, who made at least one impressive catch each day.

He’s still a longshot to make the roster as a seventh-round pick in a crowded and talented wide receiver group, but Tate built some momentum heading into training camp.

RELATED: A.J. Green praises rookie QB

Not only did his performance boost his own confidence, it instilled some in the quarterbacks, who know they can throw the ball up for the 6-foot-5 Tate in tight situations and expect him to come down with it.

Backup burden

For the last four years the Bengals have had the reassurance that if anything happened to starting quarterback Andy Dalton, there would not be a big drop in production with backup AJ McCarron.

That played out in 2015 when McCarron threw a go-ahead touchdown to A.J. Green in the wildcard playoff game against Pittsburgh, only to watch, well, everyone knows how that game ended.

›› RELATED: Bengals rookie QB comments on DUI arrest

But McCarron signed a free-agent deal with Buffalo, and there appears to be less comfort with the contingency plan based on the short sample size of the offseason program.

Matt Barkley and Jeff Driskel struggled with accuracy throughout OTAs and minicamp, while seventh-round pick Logan Woodside only got a few 11-on-11 reps in minicamp.

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