CINCINNATI -- When the Cincinnati Bengals stepped on the field for their first padded practice of the preseason on Tuesday, the defensive secondary continued the process of adjusting to the new reality.
Cornerback Trae Waynes, who inked a three-year deal worth $42 million during free agency, wasn't among those practicing in the rain as he recovered from pectoral surgery to repair an injury suffered at the beginning of training camp.
The Bengals will have to figure out how to handle life without Waynes for the foreseeable future. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Tuesday it was "too early to tell" if Waynes will be able to play at some point in 2020.
The Bengals signed Waynes to a lucrative deal to shore up one of the NFL's shakiest defenses against the pass. Now that burden falls on the rest of Cincinnati's secondary until Waynes returns.
"It ain't no pressure," said Bengals cornerback William Jackson III when asked about the group picking up the slack in Waynes' absence. "It's the NFL. Everybody gets hurt. It's the next guy up. It's a part of the game. You can't dwell on it."
It's no secret the Bengals' defense struggled in 2019. The 2-14 Bengals were tied with the Houston Texans for the most yards allowed per play. The biggest positive was they were fifth in defensive red zone efficiency, which helped the Bengals keep all those yards from turning into points.
But Cincinnati also had a difficult time stopping opposing passing attacks. The Bengals gave up the most net yards per pass attempt (7.85) and the third-most completions of 20 or more yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
With that in mind, Cincinnati made a couple of moves to improve those numbers.
The Bengals signed Waynes, a first-round pick in 2015 who started 53 games in four seasons in Minnesota. They landed safety Vonn Bell on a three-year deal worth $18 million. Cincinnati also added veteran cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander (Vikings), LeShaun Sims (Titans) and Winston Rose, who led the Canadian Football League in interceptions last season.
Bell said he didn't think it was going to be difficult to integrate so many new pieces in an offseason affected by COVID-19.
"We've just got to be on the same page with the same terminology, do a lot of walk-throughs and really stay active," Bell said in early August. "The after-hours, that's really gonna be key."
It's not going to be up to just the newcomers to solve Cincinnati's problems.
The Bengals will be counting on a better season from Jackson, a 2016 first-round pick who enters the final year of his rookie deal. Jackson battled injuries in 2019 and managed only three pass deflections and one interception on 57 targets, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Earlier this offseason, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he hopes to see more consistency out of Jackson in 2020.
"If you're a consistent player, you'll play in this league a long time," Anarumo said of Jackson. "He's got great God-given ability. He has to do it on every snap. And it's hard."
Friday's intrasquad scrimmage should provide an early indicator of who might step in for Waynes and take significant reps this season. Cornerback Darius Phillips, who came off injured reserve in 2019 to finish with a team-high four interceptions, has looked strong in camp.
"It's early in training camp," Taylor said. "We don't have to make those declarations for who is going to have that starting job. [Phillips] is obviously going to have a great opportunity to be that guy, but we feel like we have some good guys there who can come in there and compete."
An improved secondary will expedite the rebuilding process as the Bengals enter the era with rookie Joe Burrow as the franchise quarterback. Figuring out who will replace Waynes will be one of the key things to watch as Cincinnati prepares for Week 1.
"It'll be fun to watch them play," Taylor said of the cornerbacks. "Those guys are all hungry for an opportunity."