Our series of Cincinnati Bengals training camp previews starts with a look at the offensive backfield;
At this time last year, Andy Dalton was an unknown commodity, Carson Palmer was insisting he was home in California for good and Cedric Benson was a free agent awaiting the end of the NFL lockout and a call to go work for some team.
A lot has changed totally. Some things have changed indirectly.
The Bengals are now Dalton's team, and expectations for his second year in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's offense are high. Benson is again a free agent, but he and the Bengals appear to have parted ways for good. The Bengals have signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis after a successful run in New England and will have him both compete for and share carries with Bernard Scott.
Replacing Benson's 273 carries and 1,067 yards from last season won't be easy, but the Bengals envision Green-Ellis and Scott forming an inside-out combo. Dalton's experience combined with what the team hopes will be a natural progression and increased comfort level with the offense should have the passing game ready to take a leap.
Just how much of a leap? We'll see. A further breakdown of the quarterback and running back positions is below...
ROLE PLAYING: There's no uncertainty this year. Dalton is the quarterback, and Bruce Gradkowski is the kind of low-key, experienced veteran plenty of teams wish they had as a backup. Exactly how the running backs are used probably depends on the situation, but there's little doubt Scott should feel a sense of urgency in his fourth NFL training camp to prove he's ready to take on the biggest workload of his career. Brian Leonard probably enters camp as the third-down back but will have to earn his way and is one of several offensive veterans who can use camp as a chance to earn the trust of Dalton and Gruden.
ON THE CLIMB: Dalton got the Bengals to the playoffs last season, made the Pro Bowl as an alternate and shocked just about everybody outside his own locker room with his relatively fearless and productive season. He completed 58 percent or better of his passes just once in his last nine games, though, and his toughest games came against some of the league's best defenses. The Bengals were 0-4 against the Steelers and Ravens, and this Bengals team isn't getting close to its ceiling until it can beat those teams. Look for Dalton to improve on his 20-13 TDINT ratio from last season. If his offensive line keeps him upright and a reliable third target behind A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham develops, a 3500-yard (or more) season is possible.
SPLIT DUTIES: Nobody knows how things will work out at running back. The Bengals signed Green-Ellis from the Patriots and probably see him as a short-yardage, between-the-tackles guy. Scott got a career-high 112 carries last year and has speed and big-play ability, but he hasn't shown it consistently.
Green-Ellis ran for 1,008 yards -- at an impressive 4.4 yards per carry -- in 2010 in New England. He ran for 667 yards at 3.7 per carry last season. He's been a red-zone touchdown machine and has never lost a fumble in his four-year NFL career, and the Bengals hope that can carry over.
It's fair to assume that Green-Ellis might be the listed starter with Scott waiting as the change of pace guy, but with both preparing for new roles and Gruden presumably looking to expand the offense with so many pieces returning, there are carries to be won and impressions to be made once the pads come on starting July 27.
CAMP BATTLES: Zac Robinson, a Bengals practice-squad player last year who's entering his third NFL camp, and strong-armed undrafted rookie Tyler Hansen are the other quarterbacks in camp. After the starters exit the early preseason games, look for Gradkowski to play only to stay sharp and for the Bengals to try to get a fair evaluation of both Robinson and Hansen.
Chris Pressley, who started 10 games last year, is the lead returnee at fullback and will compete with young, developmental prospects Jourdan Brooks and James Develin.
Besides Scott vs. Green-Ellis. vs. Leonard, sixth-round rookie Daniel "Boom" Herron and third-year back Cedric Peerman will also compete for a roster spot and potentially a backup running role. Peerman has the experience edge and Herron missed most of the spring work due to injury, but Herron's skill set fits the Bengals and he'll get a chance to prove he should stick. Is Leonard, who had just 39 touches (22 catches, 17 carries) last year, expendable? Probably not, but that could depend on Herron's progress and how well Green-Ellis and Scott are playing.
Herron's experience last fall at Ohio State, when he was suspended for the first six games and ended up playing a variety of roles in practice with the scout team, should serve him well as he'll have to play special teams throughout the preseason to earn a roster spot.
FINAL COUNT: It makes sense that the Bengals will keep two quarterbacks on the active roster, four running backs and one fullback. But with such depth at receiver and tight end and so much uncertainty in the secondary, those final few spots will be determined by need, health, versatility and special teams ability. The Bengals only keeping three running backs is certainly a possibility.