AFC North: Andrew Whitworth

CINCINNATI -- At the close of their first day of training camp, the Cincinnati Bengals made a series of roster moves that included signing two players, releasing another and placing a fourth on the active physically unable to perform list.

Britt
Whitworth
Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth was the PUP list addition, the result of a calf injury. Like the rest of the PUP list players, he counts against the team's roster limit and can be activated to practice as soon as he's cleared medically.

Whitworth wasn't the only one who sat out Thursday's practice. Tight end Jermaine Gresham (back), quarterback AJ McCarron (shoulder), offensive lineman Mike Pollak (knee), receivers Marvin Jones (ankle) and Ryan Whalen (hamstring), linebacker Marquis Flowers (hamstring), and defensive tackles Devon Still (back) and Zach Minter (back) also didn't practice. Each had been placed on the active PUP or active non-football injury lists before training camp began.

While the Bengals were making those injury designations, they also made alterations to their roster. Backup punter T.J. Conley, who was signed earlier this offseason to primarily give the Bengals an extra practice body to keep starting punter Kevin Huber's leg fresh, was released. In a corresponding move, they added two receivers, Jeremy Johnson and Conner Vernon, who was acquired from Cleveland after clearing waivers.

Johnson is a rookie from SMU who signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent last month. He was released by New England on July 17.

Vernon entered the NFL in 2013, signing with the Raiders as an undrafted player. He had four catches for 42 yards in four preseason games last year before getting cut the final weekend of camp. He was signed by the Browns on Dec. 26, and remained part of their offseason roster.

With Jones and Whalen out for now, the Bengals needed a pair of receivers to take their places until they return. Although Johnson and Vernon will try to make the 53-man roster, they were added primarily for camp depth concerns.
CINCINNATI -- Russell Bodine has yet to send back a snap in an NFL game, but the Cincinnati Bengals rookie center has already learned an important lesson about playing his position: Avoid drawing too much attention.

[+] EnlargeRussell Bodine
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Bengals like what they see in their fourth-round pick, center Russell Bodine.
"If they don't even know my name, that's all right," Bodine said. "Don't mess anything up. That's about the only way they figure out who you are."

Bodine has nonetheless drawn his share of attention in the month that he's spent in Cincinnati. A fourth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, the young center had his share of eyeballs during this spring's organized team activities and minicamp practices. With veteran Mike Pollak nursing a knee injury, Bodine made an early push to win the team's starting center position battle.

Since the Bengals concluded their on-field practices Tuesday, Bodine and other possible starting centers have to wait until sometime in August before they figure out exactly where they stand in the coaches' minds. For now, we at least know that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson believes Bodine is a good prospect who has all the potential in the world to factor into the Bengals' offensive future.

"He has the characteristics we are looking for in a center," Jackson said.

Among the areas that Bodine struggled at times with this spring was his ability to snap the ball cleanly to quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell, the two signal callers he spent the most time snapping to during OTAs and minicamp. During Monday's open OTA, Bodine sailed one snap over Dalton's head and sent another to the quarterback's feet. After talking through the miscues with Dalton and offensive line coach Paul Alexander, Bodine finished the practice much cleaner.

"He's got to get the ball to the quarterback right," Jackson said. "He can't play center if you don't snap the ball correctly. He's working at it and he's done a good job. But he's got to become a little more consistent on an everyday basis."

Bodine, a member of NFL Draft Report's All-American Sleeper Team earlier this year, agreed with Jackson's assessment. Part of the problem, Bodine said, has been the fact that he's still learning the audible calls and line checks that will be unique to the Bengals' new offense under Jackson. As an offense that wants to get plays called quickly and to the line of scrimmage early in the play call, the Bengals' scheme will rely on a bevy of pre-check reads and the quarterback and center's ability to make sure the play is perfectly set up before it gets run.

That's a little different than what Bodine is used to. In college, Bodine's Tar Heels liked to get to the line quickly, too, but they often snapped the ball right away and ran a play. There weren't as many pre-check assignment reads and changes as he's been dealing with since getting drafted.

"In the offense I ran in college, we didn't change plays. We'd call a play, we'd get up there and our goal was to run a play every 12 seconds," Bodine said. "So there wasn't a whole lot of checking and audibiling at the line of scrimmage or anything like that. Handling those checks is big for me. It's definitely the most difficult aspect right now. When that play changes, all my calls change and I've got to get everybody on the same page, and that's been the most difficult thing."

When Jay Gruden was still the Bengals' offensive coordinator, he used to regularly say that one of the more underrated aspects of longtime Bengals center Kyle Cook's game was his ability to see the field and to make the proper pre-snap calls. Cook may not have been the best center physically speaking -- which led to his release earlier this offseason -- but from a cerebral standpoint, he was considered a star among his peers.

The Bengals are hoping that Bodine, who has been praised for his brute strength and savage physicality, will become even sharper at the mental aspects of the position.

"I don't think anything's jarring to him. He's doing well," said right guard Kevin Zeitler, who lined up next to Bodine often this spring. "He's got the basics down. A lot of offenses are very similar from college to the NFL, it's just different terminology. Sometimes it's just making the right call, or if there isn't the right call to make, it's just communicating."

For Zeitler, a lineman not known for being verbal at the line, having the rookie next to him had an unintended positive impact. Zeitler was forced to open his mouth and talk more.

"It was Whit who was saying it's given Zeitler a chance to come out of his shell because he was having to make some calls," Pollak said. "The last couple of years he's had Cook to rely on. Now he has to make sure Bodine is doing the right thing, which is good for Zeit."

Pollak expects to be at full health late next month when training camp starts, but he knows he'll have a real position battle if coaches put him at center. For now, the recently re-signed lineman isn't sure whether he'll be called upon to play center or guard. He has experience at both positions, although he's never made a starting snap from center. With Clint Boling possibly out for most if not all of training camp, Pollak could find himself at left guard when the Bengals return to Paul Brown Stadium.

"I'm just ready to come wherever they need me to go," Pollak said. "They brought in Bodine and he's doing a great job, and if they want to go with him at center, great. But I'm going to be ready to go at center or guard, wherever they need me."

When Bodine practices next month, he doesn't want to be coddled like a first-year player.

"My goal is not to be a good rookie," Bodine said. "My goal is to be a good player. The rookie thing doesn't really mean anything to me. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to try and make strides in the right direction. I'm going to learn everything there is to learn as quickly as I can learn it."
CINCINNATI -- The mandatory minicamp portion of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason has come to an end, meaning summer is well within view.

Following three voluntary organized team activity practices next week, the Bengals are off until July 24, when they take to Paul Brown Stadium's practice fields for the start of training camp. The only day next week media are permitted to watch the team practice is Monday. After that day, we won't see all 90 players on a field together until training camp.

That makes Thursday's final minicamp practice an important last step in springtime football.

Here are a few brief observations from the workout:
  • As they continue experimenting with offense and defense combinations, the Bengals shuffled players around all practice. Linemen who had been getting some run with the second- and third-team units were practicing with the first-teamers. The same went for reserve running backs and receivers, who were taking handoffs and catching passes from starting quarterback Andy Dalton. It was the coaches' chance to see which backup players could shine with the first-teamers, and which starters could play alongside which backups. It's all part of the tinkering that goes on in June.
  • That said, undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins was among those backup players who got some playing time with the first-team offense. The offensive lineman played both left tackle and left guard during the practice. Running backs Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis also were among those who played with the first-team units. Since rookie Jeremy Hill was drafted, Green-Ellis has slid from running with the first team alongside Giovani Bernard, to the lower quadrant of the backfield depth chart. On defense, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the backups who mixed in with the first-teamers on both sides of the ball.
  • Like we mentioned Wednesday, rookie quarterback AJ McCarron has been cleared to throw after dealing with "arm tightness" during the first two weeks of OTAs. He threw a little bit more and threw deeper passes Thursday. One of his best of the day was about a 15-yard comeback route to Cobi Hamilton, who broke sharply away from his defender thanks to a quick cut. McCarron also was picked off late in the practice when the Bengals were going through a two-minute drill. Safety Shawn Williams jumped a short throw.
  • Finally, after missing Wednesday's practice, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth was back Thursday, getting his normal reps.
OK, it's only late May, and the Cincinnati Bengals still haven't held an offseason organized team activity (OTA). Still, that doesn't mean we can't try to break down their depth chart.

Now that the draft is over and a few additional signings have been made, we're spending this week looking at the three phases of Cincinnati's game, and taking a stab at how the team's position-by-position rotations may look when training camp opens July 24 (NOTE: the original date was July 23, but the Bengals last week pushed the camp's start back a day).

We're starting with the offense:

Dalton
Dalton
Quarterback
1. Andy Dalton
2. Jason Campbell
3. AJ McCarron
4. Matt Scott
Analysis: Dalton, Campbell and McCarron are likely to be the only quarterbacks the Bengals keep on their 53-man roster, but Scott will provide them an extra arm to help keep the others fresh before the season starts. A 10-year veteran, Campbell was signed this offseason specifically to give Dalton a mentor -- one he hasn't had on the field before. McCarron, a rookie, isn't expected to see significant playing time this year.

Green-Ellis
Running back
1. Giovani Bernard
2. BenJarvus Green-Ellis
3. Jeremy Hill
4. Cedric Peerman
5. Rex Burkhead
Others: James Wilder Jr., Jeff Scott
Analysis: Green-Ellis is and will be the player in this group to really watch for the next several days, weeks and possibly months. His rather lackluster performance last season, coupled with the Bengals' second-round drafting of Hill seem to be signs the end in Cincinnati may be near for Green-Ellis. Regardless, Bernard certainly looks like the team's starter at the position, with Hill anticipated to earn some playing time after being drafted so high. The other four have opportunities to play on special teams or aid in the Bengals' new rush-heavy offense.

Fullback/H-back
1. Orson Charles
2. (Tyler Eifert)
Others: Ryan Hewitt, Nikita Whitlock, (Domata Peko)
Analysis: Cincinnati likely will keep its H-back setup from last season, only occasionally running out an extra backfield blocker for certain situations. Last season, Charles and Eifert, the Bengals' rookie tight end, played the position. Hewitt was a fullback and tight end at Stanford. Whitlock was a defensive tackle at Wake Forest. An undersized tackle, Whitlock's conversion to offense is reminiscent of what the Bengals did last season with Peko, the defensive tackle who was used as an extra blocker in goal-line and short-yardage situations.

Green
Receivers
1. A.J. Green
2. Marvin Jones
3. Mohamed Sanu
4. Dane Sanzenbacher
5. Brandon Tate
6. Ryan Whalen
7. Cobi Hamilton
8. James White
Others: Colin Lockett, Alex Neutz
Analysis: There's no way anyone other than Green takes over the No. 1 spot, and after his breakout second season, Jones appears to have taken over at No. 2 opposite Green. Sanu also has a chance to be used at the No. 2 spot. The Bengals hope to use him a little more often this year than they did in the last. With Andrew Hawkins now gone in free agency, Sanzenbacher is the likely slot receiver, with others expected to participate. The Bengals are hoping this will be a breakout year for the players on the bottom of the depth chart, such as Whalen and Hamilton.

Gresham
Tight ends
1. Jermaine Gresham
2. Tyler Eifert
3. Kevin Brock
Analysis: Gresham earns top honors here strictly because he has more overall experience than any of his fellow tight ends. He and Eifert, however, play complementary roles and should be on the field often at the same time. Brock was an end-of-season acquisition when Gresham and Eifert both had late-season injuries. He could be a candidate for release later this offseason.

Centers
1. Mike Pollak
2. Russell Bodine
3. Trevor Robinson
4. T.J. Johnson
Analysis: Don't be surprised if by the end of training camp Bodine ends up in the No. 1 spot. It's not completely out of the realm of possibility. Bengals coaches really liked the young center during the pre-draft process, and praise his strength and physicality -- two traits the offensive line will need in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's scheme. Coaches still like Pollak, too, and the Bengals re-signed him to a two-year deal for a reason. He also gives them some veteran experience at the position.

Zeitler
Guards
1. Kevin Zeitler (RG)
2. Clint Boling (LG)
3. Mike Pollak
4. Tanner Hawkinson
Others: Dan France, Trey Hopkins
Analysis: The offensive line is one of the thinnest position groups on the team. While the Bengals may need more help at tackle than at guard, they still could be in a position of signing either France or Hopkins. Without those two and with Pollak possibly starting at center, the Bengals only really have three true guards on the roster. Given the rate of injury that can occur at guard -- look no further than Boling's season-ending ACL tear in Week 13, and Zeitler's foot injury late last season -- Cincinnati needs more blockers. There seems to be a chance Boling could miss at least a portion of training camp, meaning France and Hopkins have an even more legitimate shot to make the team.

Tackles
1. Andrew Whitworth (LT)
2. Andre Smith (RT)
3. Marshall Newhouse
Others: Curtis Feigt
Analysis: Like with the guards, the Bengals need tackles. Feigt has a decent shot of making the 53-man roster because the team is deficient in that area. Newhouse takes over Anthony Collins' role as the rover who can play both the left and right tackle spots if Whitworth or Smith aren't able to play. Twice last year Collins had to start for Whitworth, who fought through nagging knee injuries.
Andrew Whitworth; Terrell SuggsRob Carr/Getty ImagesWith Anthony Collins gone, Andrew Whitworth will remain the Bengals' starting left tackle.
CINCINNATI -- At long last, resolution has come to the Anthony Collins free agency saga, effectively ending the Cincinnati Bengals' pursuit of their top two unrestricted free agents.

Collins has signed a five-year deal, worth $30 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers according to a report by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Three months ago, I would have found it troubling that just three days into free agency the Bengals wouldn't be able to re-sign either Michael Johnson, one of their best defensive linemen, or Collins, their third-best offensive tackle who actually had the talent to start. I would have been particularly bugged that Collins wouldn't be brought back because he was the cheaper of the two and earned the right to keep contributing to the Bengals' offense.

But my, oh my. How enlightened one can become in a matter of three months. I can now confidently say that his departure from Cincinnati ought to be viewed as a good thing. With him out of the picture, stability will come to the Bengals' offensive line.

It's strange to make that admission, especially when you consider how valuable Collins was for the Bengals off the bench during the final quarter of the 2013 season, and when you read he hasn't allowed a sack since 2009, according to Pro Football Focus. Remember, just last year alone he kept the likes of Julius Peppers, Elvis Dumervil and Robert Mathis off quarterback Andy Dalton.

After Andre Smith restructured his contract last offseason, the Bengals were forced into this awkward dance when it came to playing -- and eventually paying -- Collins. With Smith as their starter at right tackle and Pro Bowl standout Andrew Whitworth as their starting left tackle, the Bengals simply didn't have the room to give Collins his share of snaps. He entered 2013 relegated to the same bench role he had since he was drafted in 2008.

But unlike the rookie version of himself, Collins had matured. He was with former Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson the day in Sept. 2011 when more than six pounds of marijuana was seized from Simpson's home. It was the only run-in Collins was associated with during his career in Cincinnati, and one he repeatedly said he learned from.

His on-field development began blossoming as well as he steadily improved his blocking techniques. When he filled in for Whitworth during the season opener and maintained a sturdy left edge against Peppers and the Bears, it became clear that the Bengals were going to have a real issue on their hands this offseason. Collins had the talent to be in the starting lineup, but he just couldn't fit.

Cincinnati's goal during this free agency period was to figure out ways to get him more playing time and to justify paying him like the starter other teams thought he was. After signing Johnson on Tuesday to a deal that will give him an average $8.75 million per year, Tampa Bay signed Collins to one that will pay him $6 million per year.

With Smith and Whitworth still committed to the franchise for at least another two years, the Bengals couldn't justify paying him a salary comparable to their other tackles. Unless they were going to move Whitworth to left guard and bump Clint Boling out of the starting lineup, that is.

Such a proposal was on the table after the way the Bengals' offense performed the last five games of the regular season. Due to Boling's season-ending ACL tear that came early in Cincinnati's Week 13 win at San Diego, Whitworth was forced to move to left guard, bringing Collins in to take his place at left tackle. In the five-game stretch that followed, the Bengals scored 40 or more points twice, and posted their second-highest rushing total of the season in 17-10 win over the Chargers.

With new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push this offseason about wanting to be even more physical, it made sense that Cincinnati would want to keep doing some of what made its rushing game and overall offense so successful.

Whitworth has contended since January that he considers himself a left tackle and wasn't moving to guard unless coaches felt that was the right course of action. It seems clear that Whitworth will now remain at the position that got him named to the Pro Bowl in 2012. Versatile tackles and guards still could be drafted in May to add depth, but for now the Bengals' offensive line plans are clearer.

Collins' loss is not one the Bengals will take lightly, but it is one that should be welcomed. Instead of spending the rest of the offseason answering questions about where Whitworth will play, or how Collins might fit into their scheme, or how they can justify paying Collins a salary comparable to Smith and Whitworth, team officials can focus on one thing: stability.

Combine countdown rewind: Bengals OL

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
8:30
AM ET
Last week, in the days leading up to the start of on-field workouts at the NFL combine, we counted down five of the top position needs for a Cincinnati Bengals team that will go into May's draft looking to build depth instead of trying to find immediate starters.

As part of the countdown, I listed three players from each position who I said I would have my eyes on during the interview and testing portions of the event. Now that the combine is concluding, wrapping up Tuesday with defensive back workouts, I figured this would be a good time to go back and look at the numbers posted by the players who were part of the countdown. Each day this week, we'll be doing a rewind of the countdown, analyzing how well the players who were in it worked out.

After running backs Monday, up next: Offensive line

Questions still loom with respect to the Bengals' plans about their rotations at left guard and left tackle. They likely won't be answered until free agency begins in two weeks, and some resolution begins to occur regarding tackle Anthony Collins' ability to either re-sign or ink a contract elsewhere. Guard Mike Pollak also is an unrestricted free agent and might not be in Cincinnati next season, although the odds are more favorable for him to stay. Until any type of resolution is made with respect to these two rather important free agents, there will continue to be some uncertainty about what the Bengals might do as far as drafting an offensive lineman or multiple linemen.

The age of some of the Bengals' current linemen also gives the organization reason to want to add to their depth on the line. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push for a more physical, run-based scheme this fall certainly would warrant more depth on the line to account for any injuries that might occur. At this point, though, who the Bengals draft on the offensive line depends solely on the types of players who are around when they make their selections. Body size, ability and a previous understanding of Bengals line techniques are factors that could influence draft decisions here. Versatility has always been key for Cincinnati offensive line coach Paul Alexander, too. He'll be looking for players who can fill multiple roles and play multiple positions in times of need.

Two of the three linemen I looked at last week, Clemson's Brandon Thomas and Alabama's Anthony Steen, are those types of versatile players. Thomas played tackle in college, but may be making the move to guard in the NFL. His shorter arms (34 3/4 inches) project better for playing guard than tackle at the next level. His experience at both positions, though, could make him attractive to teams in the middle rounds of the draft. Steen was a guard throughout his time with the Crimson Tide, but he has been told that teams are interested in moving him to center at the next level. While the Bengals seem comfortable with Kyle Cook's ability as their starting center, they also have Trevor Robinson and T.J. Johnson who are listed as backup centers. Pollak could play the position in a pinch, too. Either way, Steen's desire to play either center or guard could make him attractive.

The other lineman, Morgan Moses (Virginia), is a bigger bodied tackle who projects into the first two rounds. He might be gone before the Bengals are ready for him, but he could be a solid enough addition for an offense trying to run more efficiently.

Here are numbers (per NFL.com) from the trio's workout Saturday:

Morgan Moses (Virginia)
40-yard dash: 5.35 seconds
Vertical: 21.5 inches
Broad jump: 106 inches
3-cone drill: 7.93 seconds

-- Moses was included on the pre-combine list mainly because I just liked him. He has good size, good arms and really made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl. He looked rather clean in run- and pass-block situations during that game. If the Bengals decided to go offensive lineman with their late first-round pick, he'd likely be there. Overall, he didn't test well Saturday. His 40 time wasn't one of the best among offensive linemen, his vertical was tied for the worst and his broad jump and cone drill numbers didn't wow, either.

Brandon Thomas (Clemson)
40-yard dash: 5.09 seconds
Bench: 35 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 29 inches
Broad jump: 98 inches
3-cone drill: 8.13 seconds

-- Compared to Moses, Thomas had a better day of on-field testing, turning in the 10th-fastest 40-yard time among linemen, having the sixth-most bench reps and a vertical that tied with others for the fifth highest. The mid-round projection may have boosted his draft stock slightly with those numbers. His greatest asset moving forward, though, will be his versatility.

Anthony Steen (Alabama)
40-yard dash: N/A
Bench: N/A
Vertical: N/A
Broad jump: N/A
3-cone drill: N/A

-- A shoulder injury that was finally operated on late in Alabama's season forced Steen to sit out the physical portion of the combine. He participated in interviews and met with teams, but didn't bench or run. He expects to be healthy enough for Alabama's pro day in April. Another mid-round projection, his versatility will be his biggest asset this spring.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Marvin Lewis is tired of hearing them. Andrew Whitworth is, too.

But the questions about whether Whitworth, the Cincinnati Bengals' veteran Pro Bowl offensive lineman, will end up playing left guard or left tackle next season likely will continue until mid May, the time when the team ought to settle its O-line roster following the NFL draft and free agency.

So as much as the head coach and his versatile, team-first lineman may hate being asked them, both ought to know that for now, the questions won't completely disappear.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
AP Photo/David KohlWhether Andrew Whitworth suits up at left guard or left tackle in 2014, the Bengals will still rely on the experience of their eight-year veteran.
At the NFL combine Friday, during a nearly 30-minute session with Bengals media, Lewis told reporters he felt the inquiries about Whitworth's status had already been overdone.

"Too much has been made of it. Andrew Whitworth has said many times during the season he'll play where he needs to play to make the football team win, which is the same statement he made to me, and then now, someone gets one little thing and makes a mountain out of a molehill. Whit will play wherever he feels is best for the football team. He loved playing inside at guard, and he's been our starting left tackle. He continues [to be] and will be a player for us somehow, somewhere."

Earlier this offseason, Whitworth made it evident that until he was told otherwise, he considered himself a left tackle.

"I've been a left tackle here and will continue to be the left tackle, and if not, there's something we have to do," Whitworth told ESPN.com. "That's the spot that I've been playing and I played it really well."

Whitworth began the 2013 season the same way he did the previous four: as a left tackle. It's the position that earned him a postseason trip to Hawaii in 2012.

But last December after left guard Clint Boling tore his ACL at San Diego, Whitworth asked coaches to let him switch back to the position where he was used for two of the first three years of his career. After opening enough holes to help the Bengals rush for 164 yards, the second-highest rushing total they had last season, the move stuck. Whitworth stayed at left guard through the playoffs.

By having Whitworth at that position, the Bengals saw their blocking increase, new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. Before transitioning to his current role last month, Jackson served as running backs coach.

"It looked like London Bridges out there where everything was getting knocked down," Jackson said. "He brought that mentality, and to me, that is how we have to play every play. In the game in San Diego when Boling got hurt, he went out there and didn't blink. We had one of our best rushing days and that tells you a lot."

Boling hopes to be fully healthy by September.

As selfless as Whitworth's decision to move to guard was, Jackson and Lewis hold the final word on where the lineman plays next season. They contend they will only place him there if it's the right fit for where their new offense plans to go. Those plans also hinge in part on Anthony Collins' free agent future. Cincinnati would like to bring the backup tackle back, but may ultimately be unable to. If Collins isn't on the team next season, Whitworth's status as a left tackle seems assured. If Collins stays, the Bengals have good reason to debate whether to keep Whitworth at the spot he shined late last year, or to return him to the place he believes he's best suited to play.

"We'll see how things shake out and what's good for the Bengals," Lewis said. "We have an opportunity to have some depth. We'll continue to try to work hard toward having that kind of depth on our football team."

Exactly how will that depth come together later this offseason, though? Will it be through the draft, retention of key free agents or the placement of Whitworth? The Bengals ought to be able to provide a few answers by the middle of May.
INDIANAPOLIS -- At the mere mention of a question about run blocking, Dakota Dozier's eyes grew wide, and his speech quickened.

"I get chill bumps thinking about doing it," the NFL hopeful and offensive lineman said.

He wasn't the only one. John Urschel, another fresh-out-of-college prospect hoping to land with a professional franchise, also felt a swell of personal pride and positive emotion at the NFL combine Thursday when he was asked about how an aggressive offense differs from a passive one for an offensive lineman.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliStar offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said he wants to see the Bengals run the ball in a "violent" manner in 2014.
"I'm an aggressive guy. I like getting after it," Urschel, a Penn State product, said, smiling. "I like getting after defensive linemen. That's why I play the game. I love hitting people."

So does Hue Jackson, the Cincinnati Bengals' new offensive coordinator who vowed the day after he was promoted to implement a more physical, punch-first type of offense that will respect the run and the finer details that can make a solid running game a true difference-maker.

Details like attitude, that one hard-to-fully-define trait that some believe can separate good offenses from great ones, and teams that simply appear in the playoffs from ones that reach the Super Bowl. If the Bengals want to be the latter in both cases, they will need serious attitude on offense this season.

A good offensive line can be the perfect starting point for creating just the type of attitude adjustment the Bengals are seeking.

"A lot of times with respect to more physical offenses, we blow it up into running versus passing and all this kind of stuff," Bengals Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth said to ESPN.com earlier this offseason. "But the real truth is that it's more about an attitude and a confidence and about imposing your will on another team. That could be done in the air or on the ground. That's more of what [Jackson] is talking about. He knows that to be able to do that, you're going to have to run the ball successfully."

Which is why it seemed logical to ask a few of the draft hopefuls here to share their thoughts about blocking in the running game.

"We want to get down and nasty with people and show people we can move them out of the way," said Dozier, a prospect from Furman. "We don't get a whole lot of glory as an offensive lineman, so when that running back rushes for over 100 yards, that's when we feel good."

All of this run and attitude talk is important with respect to the Bengals for several reasons. For starters, they do have a back in Giovani Bernard who has the ability to rush for more than 100 yards several times in a given season. In fact, when he and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are playing well, they could consistently top 150 yards combined. Another reason stems from free agency, where tackle Anthony Collins' possible departure could leave the Bengals looking for a new lineman who can bring the type of attitude that will match what Jackson wants. Players like Urschel, a guard, and Dozier, a tackle likely switching to guard, are some examples of physical linemen who could potentially help fill Collins' massive shoes.

It's also important to look back at last season when highlighting the importance of establishing the run and creating attitude. In some clutch situations last season, the Bengals ran little and didn't have a consistent attitude. It arguably led to them coming up short in the postseason. As has been rehashed often since their first-round playoff loss to San Diego, the Bengals' decision to go away from the run hurt. During a fourth quarter the Bengals entered trailing by just seven points, quarterback Andy Dalton ended up throwing 31 passes.

That high rate of passing attempts also came in a second half that saw Dalton throw two interceptions and fumble the ball as he dived reaching for more yards at the end of a first-down scramble.

The Bengals' departure from running the ball -- Green-Ellis and Bernard finished with a combined 20 carries for 87 yards that day -- played a key role in the team's third straight first-round exit. The defeat also showed one other troubling trend: The Bengals might run the ball in the regular season, but they don't like keeping it on the ground once the playoffs begin. Their two previous playoff losses had similar poor rushing trends.

As Jackson hopes to implement his bruising style of offensive play, he has to turn to his offensive line. As long as linemen are setting the tone for aggressiveness and not getting popped in the mouth themselves, a certain tenor will be set that opposing defenses could struggle to meet play after play for 60 minutes. That same tone ought to not only lead to wider holes for running backs, but it also should lead to more open opportunities for Dalton in the passing game, play-action included.

Last season, the Bengals had issues with adequately running the ball and demonstrating the full attitude of their line, Whitworth admitted. It was part of the identity issues the team had in 2013 -- concerns it hopes to address long before training camp breaks.

"Attitude doesn't mean you'll have to run the ball every play, but it means when you do run it, you're going to have to run it in a violent way," Whitworth said. "I think any offensive lineman that plays in a system like that has a whole lot of fun."

That said, whether it gets tweaked through the draft or not, the Bengals' offensive line would be well served to bring on the violence, bring on the nastiness and to play with a whole lot of attitude.
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals likely won't draft Michael Sam, but count them among the teams that would gladly welcome him or any other openly gay player.

"The Bengals are about winning football games and we are a welcoming workplace that supports the concept of the NFL as a football meritocracy," a team spokesman told ESPN.com earlier this week, citing the franchise's official stance on signing a gay player. "Purely personal factors will not affect the prospects here for someone who shows ability, determination and a commitment to be a good teammate in the club environment."

Sam, a former Missouri football player who could be a mid-round pick in May's draft, revealed Sunday that he was gay.

The sentiments expressed in the Bengals' statement were in sync with what Pro Bowl offensive tackle and team leader Andrew Whitworth told ESPN.com during a phone interview this week from Louisiana, where he is spending his offseason. He spoke about how he believed his teammates and players in other locker rooms wouldn't be concerned with the personal lives of their peers. It's about playing games and winning them, in his eyes.

"The biggest challenge [for Sam] is that he's got to play NFL football and that's not going to be easy," Whitworth said.

As Cincinnati's NFL Players Association representative, Whitworth was the only Bengal who spoke to ESPN.com on this issue, although other voices were sought. While many of his statements would be echoed across the team, it should be pointed out that he mostly spoke on his own behalf. ESPN.com's NFL Nation reached out to players through the league to collect their thoughts on what the league will look like in the wake of Sam's announcement, and the types of challenges they believe he will encounter.

When Whitworth first heard the news, he knew it would have far-reaching impact. But like many others, he questions if it should.

"I knew it was going to be a big story in the media and people were going to have different reactions, but like I've said, for the most part, guys aren't going to be that concerned with people's personal choices," Whitworth said. "The truth is, as much as people want to paint all football players the same, in a locker room with 50, 60 different guys, there's 60 different personalities and preferences ... . I just don't think it's a topic or one of those things that's talked about that much.

"People don't realize this isn't high school football. We aren't sitting around a bonfire talking. This is work. ... Sometimes it becomes a hot topic within the media and within the ranks that try to make it a big deal around fans. But the truth is, if they think this is the first gay player that's been in the locker room, they're crazy."

Cincinnati likely won't be bringing Sam into the fold in May. As a 6-foot-1, 260-pound defensive end (who could be moved to linebacker) in a 3-4 scheme, he doesn't really fit the mold of defender that the Bengals are currently seeking. They like their defensive ends a little leaner, and their linebackers more suitable for playing in coverage and rushing the passer. If he were to transition into a 4-3 linebacker in the Bengals' scheme, Sam likely would be a "Sam" -- or strongside -- linebacker, used mainly in run support.

While the Bengals may need a new "Sam" linebacker in the coming seasons with veteran James Harrison nearing retirement age, their current scheme doesn't seem to support drafting a player for that position.
CINCINNATI -- The day after the Cincinnati Bengals' season came to an end with a wild-card playoff loss to San Diego, offensive tackle Anthony Collins tried to sell reporters on the reasons he desperately wanted to remain a Bengal.

For more than 20 minutes, in between cleaning out his locker and exchanging jokes with teammates, the always approachable Collins chatted about the highs and lows of a six-year career.

Class, in a sense, is out of session. The lessons Collins gleaned the last few seasons from offensive line coach Paul Alexander have paid off. So much so that the longtime backup is entering free agency next month with a likely pay raise looming and potentially a new city to call home.

Collins
Johnson
He isn't alone. Defensive end Michael Johnson, a player whose franchise-tag status earned him more than $11 million this past season, also is up for free agency and could be staring at even more money if he gets re-franchised or signs elsewhere. Because of the high cost to keep both players, there's a rather strong possibility the Bengals will only be able to retain one of them.

Of the two, the Bengals should go hardest after Collins.

The latest salary-cap estimates from overthecap.com put the Bengals at about $23.7 million in cap space entering free agency. While that ranks among the top in the league, it still likely won't be enough to bring back both Johnson and Collins. That $23.7 million might sound like a lot, but it'll all evaporate before the Bengals know it. With so many pockets to fill, they have to be smart about who receives what, and when.

Because of the financial quandary Cincinnati is staring down, we decided Tuesday to ask who you thought the Bengals' most important free agent was. With 13 players eligible to be re-signed this offseason, we were curious to know which one you thought the Bengals ought to make their priority.

You and I agree: Collins ought to be Cincinnati's most important free-agent target.

As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, 24 hours after the poll was posted on ESPN.com, 56 percent of the roughly 700 of you who voted, declared Collins the more important free-agent target. Johnson was next, receiving 36 percent of the vote. Defensive back Taylor Mays received 4 percent, as did "Other." The "others" included another 10 free agents that included receiver/return specialist Brandon Tate, receiver Andrew Hawkins, guard Mike Pollak and linebacker Vincent Rey.

You can see a more detailed evaluation of each free agent and the odds each has to get re-signed in this ESPN.com blog from Tuesday.

Back to the Collins-or-Johnson debate. There are a few reasons I believe the backup offensive lineman has more value as a free agent. For starters, when it comes to Johnson and the double-digit millions he would be owed if he receives the franchise label for a second straight season, the Bengals would be better served to focus on spreading that money around to Collins and others.

If Collins were to be slapped on Feb. 17 with a franchise tag for the upcoming season, he could earn just short of $10 million. It's unlikely he or any player will receive the franchise designation, though. For a longer-term deal, Collins could see an annual cap value that rivals where Bengals tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith were this year. Per ESPN's roster management system, in 2013, Whitworth's cap value was $6.8 million, while Smith's was $6 million. On average, Smith is making about $5.1 million annually. Collins might get within that ballpark, giving him a nice bump from the $2 million he made in 2013 as a backup who became a starter due to injury.

Another reason Collins ought to be kept over Johnson is because of what his presence in the Bengals' offensive line rotation might mean in 2014 and beyond. Soon, the Bengals will be looking to replace an aging Whitworth, and they could send a strong message in the coming seasons by doing so with Collins and Smith. Both were drafted by the Bengals in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and were brought to Cincinnati in the hopes of allowing the franchise to prove its commitment to building its future from within.

Of course, holding onto Johnson would do the same thing. Part of the same 2009 draft class that brought Smith, Johnson also has been a steadily rising young star whom the Bengals have tried to groom. But they have another up-and-coming defensive end for whom they have high hopes. And they are in a position to allow him to take over with Johnson's potential departure.

Margus Hunt, a rookie who was taken in the third round of last April's draft, finally started getting his coaches' attention at the end of the regular season. Before he left for Minnesota, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer noted how Hunt was finishing plays better and was starting to show ability beyond the raw talent that made the native Estonian a coveted player this time last year.

While both Johnson and Collins will rightfully have their own share of suitors starting next month, the Bengals would be best served to make Collins the one they keep in stripes.
On this, the final day of the 2013 season, it only makes sense to do a little peeking ahead at what the next 365 days could have in store for one of the NFL's Super Bowl starved franchises.

It has been 25 years since the Cincinnati Bengals played on football's grandest stage, the same one the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks will share in a matter of hours. The last time the Bengals appeared there, many of their current players were barely out of diapers. Some were not even born yet.

It might very well be another 25 years before the Bengals see another Super Bowl, but for the sake of this exercise, let's assume next year is the year the drought ends. What must happen in order for the Bengals to see next year's Super Bowl? These five things:

1. Maintain an aggressive defense. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has already said he plans to retain many of the pressures the Bengals had when Mike Zimmer led the defense before moving on to Minnesota for his first head-coaching opportunity. In fact, the Bengals may end up blitzing more than they did under Zimmer, and they may do so in more creative ways. Among Cincinnati's staple blitzes were those from the safety positions. At times late this season, the Bengals would send both Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson at the same time to confuse opposing quarterbacks. They'll need to keep that pressure up next season. As the league's No. 3 total defense, they showed just how far good, consistent pressure can take a defense. When rushing five or more players this year, the Bengals led the league in third-down defense and yards allowed per play. Quarterbacks had a 21.7 QBR when the Bengals applied that much pressure.

2. Keep Andrew Whitworth at guard; re-sign Anthony Collins. OK, if you're a Bengals fan, this is actually more of a dream scenario than anything. It's fairly unlikely that these two events will happen, but if they do, you have to believe Cincinnati will greatly increase its chances of going further in the postseason than it has the last three seasons. With Whitworth at left guard most of the last five games of the regular season, the Bengals solved some of their rushing woes and blocked more aggressively than they had most of the season. In addition to having Whitworth on the interior following Clint Boling's ACL tear, Collins was also more permanently inserted into the starting rotation at left tackle, giving the Bengals a slightly more athletic left side of the line than they previously had. It's unlikely Whitworth and Collins will be paired side-by-side in 2014 because the latter stands to receive a major pay raise when free agency starts next month. That pay raise may not come from the Bengals, either. If Cincinnati is able to somehow get Collins to stay, though, arguably their best offensive unit from 2013 comes back poised for an even better next season.

3. Run more in the playoffs. We've repeated this point often in the month since Cincinnati was knocked out of the playoffs with a first-round loss to San Diego. So we won't belabor it, but quite simply, the Bengals have to run in the postseason to be successful. After showing how much of a passing league the NFL was in the regular season -- teams averaged 235.6 passing yards -- teams started running the ball more in the postseason. They still threw a lot, too, averaging 239.5 yards of passing offense. But entering the Super Bowl, they ran for 128.2 yards per game in the playoffs. That was more than 16 yards per game for all 32 teams in the regular season. After combining for 34 carries in the Week 13 meeting against the Chargers, Bengals running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard had just 20 carries between them in the playoff game. If quarterback Andy Dalton has shown anything it's that his shoulders can't carry the full weight of a playoff game. The weight has to be shared, and having a good running game is one way for it to be.

4. Go undefeated at home. For as long as Marvin Lewis is the head coach, this will remain one of the team's yearly goals. This year, the Bengals finally accomplished it, going 8-0 at Paul Brown Stadium in the regular season. But that can't be enough, apparently. The Bengals have to carry this mantra into the postseason. An eight-win showing at home should be enough, combined with other wins, to get a team into the playoffs and maybe even give it home-field advantage. From there, the team simply has to win when given those favorable odds. Cincinnati didn't do that this year, when it finally hosted a playoff game for the first time since 2009. They lost that one, too. By going undefeated at home next year, the Bengals could generate serious momentum for the postseason. It would mean they had wins over the Broncos, Panthers, Falcons, Jaguars and the rest of the AFC North.

5. Win a first-round playoff game. Speaking of breeding confidence and generating momentum, by simply winning a wild-card game, the Bengals could actually set themselves up for a Super Bowl run next year. It's now been 23 years since they won a playoff game, meaning relative pandemonium could occur in Cincinnati when it finally happens. By accomplishing something an entire generation hasn't seen, that added dose of magic or luck or whatever it is that their last couple of talented teams have been missing, might be enough to make a once-perceived improbable playoff run possible.
With the offseason here, we've been spending the last week taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.

After quarterbacks Monday, running backs Tuesday, receivers Wednesday, tight ends Thursday and offensive tackles Friday, up next:

OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS

2014 free agents: Mike Pollak

The good: Much like the Bengals' tackles, the centers and guards also had strong showings in 2013. When it came to pass protection, Pro Football Focus rated the Bengals as having the NFL's best offensive line during the regular season. Run blocking wasn't as good, but the Bengals still were able to move piles at times when they attacked the interior of the line of scrimmage. The deeper into the season, the better the line's interior was at providing enough push for running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. When left tackle Andrew Whitworth moved from left tackle to left guard, the Bengals' inside running game made certain strides, as well. Whitworth's versatility was a good thing for both the interior and exterior portions of the line. There were times late in the season when he played both tackle and guard in the same game.

Zeitler
The bad: Even though the Bengals were rated as having the best pass protection in the league, some of their occasional issues with respect to sacks and stunts and missed blitz pickups came from their guard positions. One of the more notable sacks of the season came on the final play of the Bengals' 22-20 overtime loss at Miami on Halloween. Right guard Kevin Zeitler wasn't prepared for Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake to stunt inside. When Wake did, he pushed easily past Zeitler and tackled quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone for a rare walk-off safety. While the sacks weren't a glaring issue for the centers and guards, injuries were. Zeitler missed multiple games in the second half of the season with a foot injury, and Pollak was unable to play the first half of the season because of a knee issue. Left guard Clint Boling went down for the year in the Week 13 win over the Chargers, forcing Whitworth to be moved to his spot the remainder of the season.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Cook ($3.3 million), Zeitler ($2.1 million), Boling ($765,362), Trevor Robinson ($572,000), Tanner Hawkinson ($540,606). Cook will be returning as the team's starting center in 2014, but Robinson's rather solid, meaningful snaps in place of the injured Cook during the regular-season finale make him a good enough backup. Robinson will be playing the final year of his contract this coming season and could be playing for a chance to remain with the team more long term. Cook turns 31 just before the start of the season. Robinson will be 24 in May. Pollak's strong play in relief of Zeitler, as well as his ability to play center and guard make him a real candidate for being re-signed this offseason. If Pollak remains with the team, the Bengals could have a real logjam at guard with Zeitler scheduled to return for his third season, and Boling due to come back from an ACL injury at some point next season. If Whitworth is in the mix at left guard -- which is a distinct possibility -- the Bengals could have some tough decisions to make regarding which interior linemen they want to keep going forward.

Draft priority: Moderate. Just like offensive tackles, a team can never have too many guards or centers. It's possible that at least one interior lineman gets drafted to keep the Bengals' depth strong, but that decision is partially dependent upon what the Bengals do about Whitworth and Pollak. Cincinnati has spent the last three drafts shoring up their offensive line. So far, it's paid off.
The Cincinnati Bengals were nearly completely passed over in an ESPN.com NFL Nation survey that anonymously asked players across the league to pick an opposing player they'd most like to see in the Super Bowl.

Only two Bengals were picked by respective single voters outside their locker room: receiver A.J. Green and cornerback Leon Hall.

Respondents to the survey were requested to pick fellow active players who had not yet appeared in the Super Bowl. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was the player most picked to appear in his first Super Bowl. The Vikings have made just three playoff appearances in Peterson's seven-year career, advancing to the NFC Championship Game once, in January 2010.

What does this apparent virtual snub mean for the Bengals? Who really knows?

A few items we can perhaps glean from it are below:
  • Maybe it means the Bengals don't yet have players who garner the same type of attention and respect as veterans like Peterson.
  • Maybe it means few players outside Cincinnati believe any current Bengals will ever make it to the Super Bowl.
  • Maybe so many players outside Cincinnati believe the franchise is cursed, like fans in the Queen City are beginning to believe.
  • Maybe on the day they were asked, those players in other cities just happened to forget about the Bengals.
  • Maybe the Bengals just don't have that many good friends in other locker rooms.

Seriously, the possibilities are endless.

What it does appear to suggest is that not enough time has gone by for rising Bengals stars like Green to draw the empathy of his league brethren. The vote for Hall was likely out of empathy, as the seven-year veteran also has yet to appear on the grandest stage in all of football. He's only appeared in two playoff games his entire career, in part because of the Bengals' mediocrity his first two seasons, and also because of injuries that have ended his year before the postseason even arrived. Like this year, Hall was lost for the year when he tore an Achilles in the middle of the 2011 season.

Other Bengals worthy of empathy votes include veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, Terence Newman, Adam Jones, Domata Peko and Chris Crocker.
CINCINNATI -- Four Cincinnati Bengals have earned a measure of respect by their peers, according to an anonymous, player's only survey conducted by ESPN's 32 NFL Nation team reporters during the regular season.

As part of a broader survey that posed a series of questions, multiple players on each team were asked to name the player in the NFL they respected the most. Among the 78 selections, four were Bengals. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning was the overwhelming favorite.

None of the Bengals listed received double-digit votes, but receiver A.J. Green ended up on more ballots than any others. The third-year receiver also was one of two Bengals picked in a survey that asked players to pick one player across the league who they would want to start an NFL franchise with. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins ended up there, as well. Like he did in this survey, Manning won that one fairly handily, too.

Along with Green, veteran Bengals Chris Crocker, Andrew Whitworth and James Harrison made it on the "respected player" survey. Harrison also was among the top vote-getters on a survey asking players who was the most "feared" in the league.

Respect is one of those subjective traits that truly depends upon point of view. No statistics or metrics can truly track it. It just has to be felt.

The feelings of the players who participated in the survey are pretty strong. If one was to compile a list of respected Bengals both on the field and off it, he or she would be hard-pressed to not include any of these four.

Crocker has been in four different locker rooms during his 11-year career and has perspective from his travels that few others in Cincinnati have. During his six seasons with the Bengals, the cornerback's leadership has grown to the point where his advice is among the most sought after on the team. The fact he's been able to come out of retirement the past two years and enter as a solid in-season acquisition makes him even more respected in the locker room.

Whitworth is the longtime stalwart of a Bengals offensive line that has seen its share of change since his career started in 2006. His respect probably grew this season when he selflessly moved from left tackle to left guard following a season-ending Week 14 injury to Clint Boling. The Bengals' already good line was arguably better after the change.

While Harrison's respect likely comes mostly from his hard-hitting, physical on-field persona, his Bengals teammates have remarked often about how they enjoy being around him as a person.

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