CINCINNATI -- The countdown clock is ticking.

Exactly nine hours from the time this post went live, the Cincinnati Bengals and the other 31 teams will know where and when they will be playing their already announced opponents. At 8 p.m. ET, the league will release its 2014 schedule, complete with kickoff times and pertinent television information for certain games.

Based on their recent scheduling history and the general success they have had in the past three years in particular, it stands to reason the Bengals will be on "Monday Night Football" at least once this year, and will appear -- like the rest of the league -- on Thursday night football. A Sunday night game also is a strong possibility. The Bengals have played seven of those since 2002, including two in the past two seasons. Both of those games came against the Steelers.

While on the subject of nationally-televised, primetime games, it's worth mentioning the Bengals have played in nine Sunday, Monday or Thursday night games since 2009.

They are 2-7 in those contests.

Among the wins was a Thursday night victory over the Eagles in 2012. The other came in the home-opening Monday night win against Pittsburgh last year. Like they did in 2012, the Bengals played games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights last season.

Why are such games pertinent for the Bengals? Because part of the knock on the team overall -- but quarterback Andy Dalton in particular -- is that it doesn't play well under the glare of the league's brightest nationally-televised lights. Just look at the night-game record since 2009 for evidence. The fact the Bengals have gone 0-4 in playoff games since 2009 also is an indication they don't perform well on the big stage.

To get you ready for the big schedule release, here is a primer of things to expect when the season begins:

Weak schedule. The Bengals, like the rest of the AFC North, will end up having one of the league's weakest schedules when it gets released. Games against the AFC South -- a division that featured only one team with a winning 2013 record, and two with four or fewer wins -- dot the schedule. The Bengals' overall strength of schedule ranks 23rd, tied with the Saints and Steelers. They enter the year playing teams that had a combined winning percentage of .469 last year. Below the Steelers and Bengals, the Browns rank 26th and the Ravens 28th.

Weak schedules 2. The teams with the league's easiest schedules have advanced to the AFC Championship Game in each of the past two seasons. The Patriots made it there in 2012 before losing to the Ravens. The Broncos made it there last year, beating the Patriots and advancing to the Super Bowl. This year, the Colts have the league's weakest schedule.

Other crossover. In addition to playing the AFC South in this year's intra-conference crossover, the Bengals also will be playing the NFC South in the inter-conference crossover.

More opponets. Along with the standard six home-and-away games with AFC North foes, the Bengals will play four against the AFC South, four against the NFC South and two against the remaining 2013 AFC division champions. Since the Bengals won the AFC North, they are slated to take on AFC West champ Denver and the AFC East-winning Patriots. Cincinnati hosts Denver and travels to New England.

An anniversary? If the Bengals are given a Thursday night game on Oct. 2, they would be playing on the same night as a unique anniversary. Twenty years ago that same day, Don Shula's Miami Dolphins and Dave Shula's Bengals met in a Sunday night game at the old Riverfront Stadium. It marked the first meeting between father and son coaches in major North American sports. In front of more than 55,000, Don's Dolphins beat Dave's Bengals, 23-7. The Bengals ended the 1994 season going 3-13 for a second straight year under the younger Shula.

Bengals' 2014 home schedule: Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Denver, Atlanta, Carolina

Bengals' 2014 away schedule: Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, Tampa Bay

Information from ESPN Stats & Information used in this report.
PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract status has been a topic of interest because he has two years left on the $102 million deal he signed in 2008.

That is the same number of years Roethlisberger had remaining on his rookie contract when he and the Steelers agreed to the deal that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history.

That nothing has happened as far as a new contract -- and that nothing is imminent -- has generated a little anxiety among some Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans.

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his contract.
What hasn’t changed, however, is that the two most important factors to a new deal getting done are still in place: Roethlisberger wants to play his entire career in Pittsburgh, and the organization wants the 10-year veteran to retire as a Steeler.

“There’s been ongoing (contract) discussions for quite awhile,” Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger’s agent, told ESPN.com. “I think from the time we did the first extension there was sort of a plan moving forward. There’s a plan in place, but both sides are pretty committed to doing that privately and not having it be something that’s discussed in the media.”

That is how the Steelers operate, whether it is with their franchise quarterback or a player who helps fill out the roster. But Steelers president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have each said the organization is committed to Roethlisberger playing his entire career in Pittsburgh and maximizing the remaining years he has left in him.

As for Roethlisberger’s desire to play for just one team his entire career, Tollner said, “It’s always been critical to him. From Day 1 he’s always admired players that could play with one organization and retire with that organization. That’s an underlying goal that always drives him, that he would always be a Steeler.”

The Steelers can lower Roethlisberger’s cap hit -- it is just under $18.9 million in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Info -- but they can also wait to get a new deal done since they have already done the bulk of their free-agent shopping and get more than $8 million in cap relief after June 1.

Whether that means the Steelers sign Roethlisberger to a new contract this summer, before the start of the 2014 season, or even next year remains to be seen. Tollner wouldn’t predict when or if a new deal would get done, but he said, “I think there’s mutual respect on both parties.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are meeting with another cornerback prospect as Duke’s Ross Cockrell is visiting team headquarters today.

Cockrell, a four-year starter at Duke, recorded 46 tackles last season and intercepted three passes while breaking up 12 of them. The 6-foot, 191-pounder is Duke’s all-time leader in interceptions (12) as well as passes defended (46).

Cockrell, who redshirted his first season at Duke, is widely projected as a third- or fourth-round pick.

He is the latest cornerback to make a pre-draft visit to Pittsburgh as the Steelers previously hosted Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, TCU’s Jason Verrett, Rice’s Phillip Gaines and Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson.

Dennard will be a first-round pick and Roby and Verrett could also get taken on the first day of the draft. The Steelers will draft at least one cornerback, and I will be surprised if they don’t take two this year given their need for an infusion of talent and youth at the position.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay has the Steelers taking Dennard with the 15th overall pick in his latest mock draft.

Teams are permitted to host 30 out of area prospects prior to the draft and no visits are allowed after this week.

The three-day draft starts May 8.
John Harbaugh had a statue erected at Miami of Ohio's "Cradle of Coaches" on Saturday, joining the coaching legends who played college football at the school.

Playing off that honor, let's take a look at where Harbaugh ranks in the "Cradle" of Baltimore's NFL head coaches. In six seasons, Harbaugh has made the case for being the best, which is a significant achievement considering two former Baltimore Colts head coaches (Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula) are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


Ewbank captured the most titles in the city's history, winning the NFL championship game in 1958 and 1959. Harbaugh, though, has a higher winning percentage (.651) than Ewbank (.539).

In the same respect, Shula has a better winning percentage (.737) than Harbaugh. But Harbaugh has more playoff seasons (five) than Shula (three) and accomplished something Shula never did with the Colts -- win a Super Bowl.

Brian Billick remains the winningest coach in Baltimore's NFL history with 85 victories, although he may not have this mark for long. Harbaugh is only 15 wins from surpassing Billick, and he's coached three fewer seasons.

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    49%
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All four coaches left lasting legacies in Baltimore. Ewbank and Billick turned fledgling teams into championship ones. Taking over the Colts in their second year of existence, Ewbank coached Johnny Unitas and the Colts to a 23-17 overtime win against the New York Giants for the 1958 NFL championship, which is often called "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Billick joined the Ravens in their fourth year of existence and quickly guided a franchise that had never had a winning season until the 2000 Super Bowl.

Shula and Harbaugh took what their predecessors did and ramped it up another level, elevating both franchises into perennial winners. Shula posted winning records in all seven seasons with the Colts (1963-69), and Harbaugh reached the playoffs in his first five seasons with the Ravens.

The detractors make similar points with Ewbank and Harbaugh. Ewbank's success often gets downgraded because he won with Unitas. Critics point out Harbaugh took the Ravens to the playoffs every year with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed but failed to do so in his first season without those longtime leaders.

Still, it's hard to argue with Harbaugh's results, especially when many raised an eyebrow after the Ravens hired an outside-the-box candidate. Since Harbaugh was hired in 2008, only the New England Patriots have won more games than the Ravens. Harbaugh is the only head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. His 71-38 career record ranks as the fourth-best among active coaches in terms of winning percentage, trailing Jim Harbaugh, Bill Belichick and Chuck Pagano.

But, when it comes to the history of Baltimore NFL coaches, it's difficult to put anyone above Harbaugh right now.

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Join us today at 2 p.m. ET, 11 a.m. PT, as ESPN’s NFL Nation TV’s second Spreecast airs live. Hosts Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and guest Pat McManamon (Cleveland Browns reporter) take on topics ranging from Terrelle Pryor to Johnny Manziel to Donald Trump to Vernon Davis to Chad Johnson's attempted CFL comeback. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.
 
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Now Mike Holmgren says he should have just coached the Cleveland Browns when he was the team’s president.

No kidding.

Of course he should have.

In his previous two stints as a coach, Holmgren took two teams to the Super Bowl (Green Bay and Seattle) and won one, with Brett Favre as the quarterback.

[+] EnlargeMike Holmgren
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns had a 14-34 record during Mike Holmgren's three seasons as the team's president.
Of course he should have coached the Browns. That’s his calling, his place. It's a little late to bring it up now, though, as Browns fans wonder about yet another rebuild. And it's a little easy to pin not coaching on former owner Randy Lerner after saying for years he (Holmgren) didn't want to coach.

Holmgren wasn’t hired to coach the team. He was hired to be the credible leader and voice of football that the team lacked when Eric Mangini was coach and there was no general manager after the departure of George Kokinis.

The need for a credible football leader led then-owner Randy Lerner to Holmgren, and somehow he wound up as team president instead of the guy in charge of football. Which changed the dynamic of many things, especially the way Holmgren viewed his job.

The time for Holmgren to take over as coach was after the 2010 season, when he fired Mangini. For a football guy to take over the coaching job would have been a simple step. But for the president ... well that would have let down the guy who hired him, and if Lerner didn’t want Holmgren to coach (as Holmgren said) then it would have complicated things further.

Holmgren’s tenure is not looked on fondly by Browns fans. There is a strong and vocal group that says he didn’t put in the work or the hours, a statement Holmgren vehemently refutes. There was his anger over the entire way Colt McCoy's concussion and subsequent return to a game against Pittsburgh was handled. And there was the way he left after Jimmy Haslam took over, with great regret.

Holmgren would counter that with former GM Tom Heckert doing the drafting, the team was headed in the right direction. He and Heckert may have had to make a change at coach after the 2012 season, and had they done so their first choice would have been Bruce Arians.

Imagine how the team’s fortunes would have changed last season had Arians been the coach with Heckert still doing the drafting.

But that’s been the Browns' history since 1999, filled with a bunch of what ifs.

Would the Browns have been better off if Haslam left Holmgren and Heckert in place and not brought in Joe Banner?

Good question.

Just like it’s a good question to wonder why the heck Holmgren didn’t just coach.

Yes, he’d have had Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden at quarterback.

But it sure would have been nice to see what happened.
The Baltimore Ravens haven't downplayed the possibility of drafting a quarterback for the first time since 2011, and the growing list of quarterbacks making pre-draft visits increases the buzz of them doing so.

Alabama's AJ McCarron is the latest quarterback on his way to meet with Ravens officials. He is scheduled to visit on Wednesday, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

McCarron is projected to go in the fourth round, where the Ravens have two compensatory picks at the bottom of that round. He is a confident leader and a three-year starter with a 36-4 career record as a starter, including two national titles. His list of school records includes passing yards in a season (3,063) and career (10,019) and passing touchdowns in a career (77).

Why McCarron will last to the middle rounds is his lack of arm strength. He struggles to get velocity on passes over 20 yards. Draft analysts often compare him to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.

McCarron is at least the fourth quarterback to visit the Ravens. Others include: Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo (second round), Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas (sixth or seventh rounds) and Ball State's Keith Wenning (sixth or seventh rounds).

The Ravens are looking for a quarterback for a couple of reasons. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he's been "a little disappointed" in the play of backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and the Ravens may need to look ahead because Taylor is entering the final year of his contract.

If the Ravens draft a quarterback, it's unlikely they'll use a rookie as the primary backup to Joe Flacco. The Ravens could groom a drafted quarterback this season and move him into the No. 2 spot in 2015 when Taylor is a free agent.
CINCINNATI -- By showing up to Paul Brown Stadium these next few weeks, several Cincinnati Bengals could collectively earn more than $3.2 million in bonus money, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.

Twenty-seven Bengals have workout bonuses provisions in their contracts related to their attendance at strength and conditioning workouts and voluntary OTAs. Combined, the group has $3,205,000 at stake just for appearing and participating in the optional practices. The latest collective bargaining agreement places stipulations on the types of team-sanctioned practices and the number of them that players can take part in during the offseason. Participation, in many cases, still can lead to additional compensation.

Defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have the most at stake when it comes to the bonuses. They both stand to earn $300,000 in 2014 for participating in the workouts.

Both were spotted Monday when the locker room was opened to reporters. There are other workouts continuing this week, but the media are only permitted to meet with players on Monday. Players won't be available again until next Monday.

As a result, it's hard to tell who has made it back for voluntarily workouts. Players were in and out of the locker room during the time it was open, but many who weren't seen could have been in other parts of the building.

It should be noted that even players who don't have bonus provisions in their contracts will still show up just to work out. For example, receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu aren't due workout bonuses this year, but each was at the stadium Monday.

 
A day-by-day look this week at five position groups where the Cincinnati Bengals have draft needs. We started with quarterbacks, and continue with defensive ends.

Defensive ends lost: Michael Johnson, signed with Tampa Bay in free agency.

Defensive ends added: None*
*Dontay Moch and Sam Montgomery were added in free agency. The Bengals list both as linebackers, but they have been defensive ends previously.


Draft likelihood: High

Rounds drafted? Any

Analysis: While the likelihood the Bengals will draft a defensive end is high, the position -- like most in this draft -- doesn't rank high on the list of immediate impact positions. They aren't looking for defensive ends who can contribute right away on defense because they're rather stacked at end with Margus Hunt, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers all looking to get repetitions and contributions this season. Along with fellow end Carlos Dunlap, each of the ends could see time playing both edge-rushing positions as new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system calls for creative stunts and rushes featuring mixed-and-matched line packages. It's one reason why you shouldn't be too surprised the Bengals signed hybrid rushers in Montgomery and Moch. Guenther's defense could have linebackers rushing off the line, too.

Still, it stands to reason the Bengals ought to add an end to fill Johnson's old spot, as well as start preparing for a future without some of the veterans who occupy the position. Geathers is 30 and Gilberry will turn 30 during the season. While both may have several seasons left in them from an age standpoint, they may not necessarily have many more with the Bengals from a contract standpoint. Both are free agents after the 2015 season. In the event one or both aren't re-signed during the 2016 offseason, then the Bengals would like to have another end they have already groomed right into a contributing role. This could be the year that future defensive end arrives. Who that player is depends completely upon when the Bengals decide to select a defensive end. They could draft an end in the first round, the second or the sixth. Most draft insiders believe they'll try to pick an end earlier rather than later. If they go early, there is a slight chance Auburn's Dee Ford, one of the more heralded players in this draft, is available at No. 24 when the Bengals make their first-round pick. Missouri's Kony Ealy is another option who, despite being rated the No. 2 defensive end on the board by ESPN's draft team, could be available at 55th overall in the second round.

Along with Ford and Ealy, the Bengals might also have interest in Oregon's Taylor Hart and West Virginia's William Clarke. Both are listed at taller than 6-foot-6. While they could be mid-to-late-round picks, they best fit the body style the Bengals will be missing with Johnson's departure. As a 6-foot-7 end with great leaping ability, a large wingspan and large hands, Johnson was noted for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. He tied for the league lead in batted passes last season. Part of replacing him will include getting players who can replicate some of that. Conventional wisdom says the taller the body and the longer the arms, the better for deflecting passes.

Potential picks: Dee Ford (Auburn), Kony Ealy (Missouri), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame), Taylor Hart (Oregon), William Clark (West Virginia).
Rolando McClain never suited up for the Baltimore Ravens, but the inside linebacker will be remembered as having the most bizarre one-year run with the team:

April 12, 2013: The Ravens signed McClain to a one-year, $700,000 contract that includes no guaranteed money. "Ray Lewis retired after winning the Super Bowl and I look to fill his slot," McClain told the Madison (Ala.) Weekly News.

April 16, 2013: General manager Ozzie Newsome explained why the troubled linebacker had a chance to succeed with the Ravens. "I think the guys in the locker room will be able to provide him with the proper guidance that he needs as to the way John [Harbaugh] wants his football team and football players to be," he said.

April 21, 2013: McClain was arrested in his hometown of Decatur, Ala., and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, police said. This was McClain's third arrest in an 11-month span. McClain allegedly yelled obscenities at police officers as they were trying to disperse a large crowd of more than 700 people at a local park after they responded to calls about a fight.

May 6, 2013: He pleaded guilty to a charge in Decatur, Ala., of violating rules on car window tint, while a charge of lying about his identity was dropped. When he was arrested in January 2013, McClain signed an expletive on the citation he received from police instead of his name. He paid a $182 fine.

May 7, 2013: Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta told The Baltimore Sun that McClain deserves a second chance. "If you asked him, he would probably admit to making some mistakes," DeCosta said. "We have a relationship with a lot of Alabama players. We get a lot of good information from Alabama because of Ozzie Newsome's relationship with the school. So, we think he deserves a second chance."

May 15, 2013: McClain informed the Ravens that he planned to retire at the age of 23, and the team put him on the reserve-retired list. In a statement released by his agent, McClain wrote: "Clearly, my decision to retire has raised some questions. Quite simply, I love football, but I have decided at this time it is in my best interest to focus on getting my personal life together. Beyond that, I'm not sure what the future holds for me, including football. This was entirely my decision and the Ravens have been very supportive during this process. I am very grateful for the opportunity they gave me and wish them the best of luck in the future. God willing, maybe I'll play for them one day."

June 11, 2013: McClain re-enrolled at the University of Alabama. "I know a lot of people get disappointed in Rolando McClain and a lot of the things he's struggled with, but he's with us now," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

July 10, 2013: McClain pleaded not guilty to disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges. The case is still pending.

Oct. 30, 2013: McClain said he retired because he was worried he would do something he would regret. "I felt like Aaron Hernandez, like I just wanted to kill somebody," McClain said in an interview for this week's ESPN The Magazine.

March 11, 2014: McClain started telling people that he's targeting a comeback and began working out again.

March 25, 2014: Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he hadn't yet spoken to McClain about a comeback. "To me, it all depends on a couple things. Who [is he] as a person right now? Has he grown up?" Harbaugh said. "He had a lot of growing up to do obviously. And how hard he's working, how hard he's working at Alabama right now. If he's working his rear end off, then I'm kind of excited about him. If he's not, then I've got no interest in him being on our team."

April 3, 2014: McClain said he was expected to meet with Newsome that week to discuss a potential return. "I'm excited about the game again," McClain said. "I'm excited to play."

April 15, 2014: McClain flopped in his first workout with the Ravens. He reportedly was 22 minutes late and failed to finish the conditioning test.

April 17, 2014: The Ravens activated McClain off the reserve-retired list. Ravens officials declined any official comment on the move, which was reported on the NFL's transactions list.

April 21, 2014: McClain informed ESPN that he's retiring again on the day when the Ravens are starting their offseason workout program. He texted ESPN: "I gotta follow my heart. It ain't football. If football made me complete I would play. But whenever I think of it my heart pulls me away from whatever reason. ... This means I'm done."
CINCINNATI -- Consider this Andy Dalton (with a little A.J. Green on the side) Day on the Cincinnati Bengals blog.

Whenever a quarterback talks, we in the media listen. Whenever a quarterback with a track record of being boring in news conference settings happens to do a 180-degree turn and showcases a more charismatic, carefree and talkative version of himself, then we really listen.

The latter was the case Monday when Dalton addressed for the first time this offseason his contract talks with the team. His rookie deal expires next March, but the Bengals have expressed interest in extending the contract this offseason.

Still, with Dalton near the end of his first deal and inching closer toward the possibility of playing a year in contract limbo, the "what if?" question pops up. What if the Bengals aren't able to sign him to the extension he seeks? What if they aren't able to franchise tag him next season? Then what?

Then they turn to this year's draft and try to hone a player from it who could eventually take over for him.

Dalton doesn't believe that's happening. He doesn't think he's getting replaced by anyone, regardless of whether a quarterback gets added to the Bengals' mix following next month's draft.

"There's been a lot of talk that they're going to draft another quarterback, but they're not bringing in another quarterback to replace me," Dalton said. "From everything they've told me they're not bringing in anybody to compete. So I'm not worried about it."

Cincinnati does need a backup just in case plans to extend Dalton fall through. The Bengals also need a backup in the event Dalton gets retained for the long haul because Jason Campbell has only been signed to a one-year deal, and could be out of Paul Brown Stadium this time next year. With Josh Johnson and Zac Robinson also nearing the end of their contracts, the Bengals would be wise to invest in a quarterback this offseason who could become a true backup to Dalton in the event any of the other three are cut this fall or not brought back next spring.

For now, there are any number of quarterbacks who the Bengals could draft. The more popular possibilities include Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Georgia's Aaron Murray. Bridgewater has the higher grade of the two, although he has slipped out of top-10 selection material on some mock drafts to being completely out of the first two rounds. If by some stroke of luck Bridgewater is still on the board in the third round when the Bengals pick, it might not be too far fetched to believe they would go after him. A mobile runner with a big arm, he could fit new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's system quite well.

Murray has garnered a lot of attention this spring primarily because he is the former quarterback at the University of Georgia. In addition to the Bengals' apparent penchant for drafting former Georgia products -- six former Bulldogs are currently on the roster -- he has experience having played with some of them. He spent one season at Georgia throwing to Green. Bengals offensive guard Clint Boling was on the offensive line that year, too. Bengals safety Shawn Williams also played with Murray, as did H-back Orson Charles, who played both college football and high school ball with him. Charles and Murray played at Plant High School in Tampa, Fla. at the same time.

Alabama's AJ McCarron and Pitt's Tom Savage are two other quarterbacks who could be on the board in the third-fifth rounds.

Whichever quarterback ends up in stripes, Dalton still isn't worried about his spot getting taken.

"I read something where we never drafted a quarterback to be the backup," Dalton said. "I heard it's been a long time since we've done that. But that's kind of what they're planning on doing."

The last time Cincinnati drafted a quarterback who didn't start right away was 2007, when Jeff Rowe was drafted in the fifth round. He played just one game. The year before that, Reggie McNeal was taken in the sixth round. Two years before that, Casey Bramlet was drafted in the seventh. The only other quarterback, aside from Dalton, the Bengals drafted was first overall pick Carson Palmer. He started from 2003 until Dalton took over in 2011. Later that season, Palmer was traded to Oakland before eventually moving on to Arizona. The Bengals face the Cardinals on the road this preseason.
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CINCINNATI -- It has been a long time coming, but finally, Andy Dalton is starting to say the right things.

Whether they're true, well, that remains to be seen.

But it was at least refreshing Monday morning to hear the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback speak with some of the assertiveness that he has lacked to this point in his career. It was likewise refreshing to hear him say unequivocally and unflinchingly that he felt he was the face of the organization and that he felt he didn't do enough to help the Bengals win their playoff game against the San Diego Chargers in January.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNew offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants Andy Dalton to take on an even bigger leadership role on the team.
"For me to know that I could have played better [in the playoff game], it's tough," Dalton said. "Obviously the turnovers killed us. I wish I could have done some things differently in the game."

Dalton threw two interceptions and lost a fumble trying to dive for a first down in the 27-10 loss to the Chargers. Each of his turnovers came in a troubling second half and began with Bengals trailing by four.

"I've watched it several times," Dalton said of the playoff game. "We had chances."

They did. But those chances are over and done with, long cast into the abyss of Bengals history. Now it's all about the future and what Dalton can do next for this franchise that is 26 seasons removed from having been to a Super Bowl. Some believed 2013 was Cincinnati's opportunity to get back to the league's championship game with this group of players.

Dalton disagrees.

"We have improved every year," he said. "We haven't gotten the win in the playoffs we had been planning to get, but the team has gotten better overall and we just got to continue to improve."

Those improvements must begin and end with him. And he knows that. He's always known it, in fact. But the problem has been that he hadn't fully expressed how much he felt he had to improve and what he specifically needed to improve -- until now.

The Dalton who addressed reporters for nearly 20 minutes in his corner locker Monday was far from the same man who typically offers cliche after tired cliche in news conferences. He was at times feisty. At others, a little defensive. He also was occasionally quirky and actually kind of funny. During one exchange with a reporter who asked which quarterback Dalton felt he best compared to, Dalton paused and started counting on his fingers.

"Let's see here, [Joe] Flacco, [Aaron] Rodgers, [Drew] Brees and who else? Oh, yeah, Matt Ryan," Dalton said, laughing. "All those top guys."

Each of those quarterbacks makes more than $20 million per year. Dalton will finish his four-year, $5.2 million rookie contract making about $1.7 million this year.

The old Dalton wouldn't have even told a joke like that, let alone tell it with the appropriate timing and humor. This was a new Dalton and, from a locker-room standpoint, an improved Dalton. But will it end up being the real Dalton?

Only time will tell.

For now, at least Dalton is finally loosening up, taking ownership and saying this team is his.

There are two words that can explain this personality change: Hue Jackson.

Credit Cincinnati's new offensive coordinator for sending the right message through the media in February when he promised from the NFL combine to be just the disciplinarian the team needs. He felt there were players on the team who hadn't been coached hard lately who needed to be. Dalton was one of them, he said. He wanted Dalton and receiver A.J. Green to blossom into bigger leaders as they entered their fourth seasons.

"If a guy's not performing at a high level, there's a reason," Jackson said in February. "They have work to do, but it's my job as leader of the group, along with the head coach, to create that environment to be all they can be."

Jackson has been known for much of his career as being a Mike Zimmer-type of coach, one who isn't afraid to check players. He will be the first to curse them out when they've done wrong and shower them with praise when they've done right. It's clear that Jackson's prodding has been received by Dalton.

"He's going to push guys," Dalton said of Jackson's coaching style Monday. "[Former offensive coordinator] Jay [Gruden] had a different style than what Hue is going to bring. Guys are just going to have to get used to how Hue does things. Obviously, we haven't been out to practice yet, so I don't know exactly what it's going to be like with Hue running everything now, but it is going to be a little different than Jay."

That's not the only thing that's going to be different. It seems Dalton will be different too. For Bengals fans, that could be a good thing.
Rolando McClain is walking away from football for good, the linebacker informed ESPN's Seth Wickersham.

No one should be surprised by how this fruitless drama ended. In fact, it would have been surprising if McClain had turned his career around and became a productive player this season for the Ravens.

McClain
Let's recap McClain's one year under contract with the Ravens: arrest, retirement, announced comeback, failed workout, reinstatement and retirement again. This had disaster written all over it, and only optimists, apologists and the Ravens agreed on giving another chance to McClain.

Other than the label of being a first-round pick and his age (24), McClain gave no reason for the Ravens' continued commitment and provided plenty of red flags to cut him. The Ravens signed McClain to a contract last April, and he was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest 10 days later. Then, 11 months after abruptly retiring, the Ravens gave McClain the opportunity to work out for them, and he couldn't finish the conditioning test.

The fact that McClain quit again only four days after the Ravens reinstated him off the reserve-retired list actually follows the pattern of disappointment. While there was a report that the plan was in place for McClain to report to the team's offseason program Monday, it's apparent that the Ravens gave McClain the weekend to decide whether he wanted to play.

In a way, McClain did the Ravens a favor. He could've strung this out longer if he had participated in the workouts and later chose to retire again. The Ravens now know they can't depend on McClain going forward, even though they had to know it already by his repeated actions. It was always false hope.

This was McClain's text to Wickersham: "I gotta follow my heart. It ain't football. If football made me complete I would play. But whenever I think of it my heart pulls me away from whatever reason. ... This means I'm done."

The most puzzling part about this was the Ravens' willingness to stand by McClain. I understand general manager Ozzie Newsome's ties to Alabama, where McClain played, and coach Nick Saban, but this went against what the Ravens stand for as an organization.

The Ravens always say they want players who "Play Like A Raven." That's defined by work ethic and a passion for the game. McClain was really an anti-Raven, retiring two times in a one-year span. I'm betting Brett Favre thinks there was too much drama over this.

In the end, all the Ravens lost in their 12 months with McClain was time and energy. There was no guaranteed money in his one-year deal.

Is there a chance that McClain will attempt another comeback next year or in the future? I wouldn't count it out. I just don't think another team is going to give McClain another chance.

He never lived up to expectations with the Oakland Raiders. His resume includes a suspension and multiple arrests. His best opportunity was with the Ravens, and he blew it twice. The Ravens would have to be desperate to ever consider McClain again.

When he first retired, McClain said it was done to get his "priorities straight." Let's hope for his sake, as a person and not as a player, he gets it right the second time.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are meeting with a pair of defensive players Monday, including a potential first-round pick.

Barr
UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr and Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen are the Steelers' latest visitors as the team prepares for the upcoming draft.

Barr is considered one of the best pass-rushers in the draft while Allen is a projected late-round pick after moving to nose tackle last season when Wisconsin switched to a 3-4 scheme.

Barr is an intriguing prospect because of his production at UCLA -- the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder recorded 10 sacks last season -- and his upside as a pass-rusher. Barr played fullback for two seasons before moving to defense, and he is still learning on that side of the ball.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Barr as the 15th-best player in the draft.

"He has a decent arsenal of moves, using quick feet and hands to free himself, and he's disciplined against the run, pursuing with speed when the play runs away from him," Kiper writes of Barr. "I love the effort, and the athleticism, but as a former fullback, he needs to grow in his awareness."

ESPN analyst Todd McShay isn't as high on the former Bruins star. McShay ranks Barr as the 30th-best player in the draft.

The Steelers are unlikely to draft an outside linebacker in the first round since they took one with their first-round pick last year in Jarvis Jones. But they do need to add depth at the position and are expected to draft an outside linebacker prospect at some point.

Allen could be a late-round possibility for the Steelers if they don't take a nose tackle early in the draft. The 6-foot-2, 333-pounder recorded 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season for the Badgers but did not get invited to the NFL scouting combine.

Allen tested well at Wisconsin’s pro day though he was limited in running drills because of a hamstring issue.

The Steelers are allowed to host 30 players outside of the Pittsburgh area for pre-draft visits. This is the final week of visits for NFL prospects.

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