AFC North: Brian Leonard

Stop me if you've heard this already, but there's a middle linebacker who is out for the season. Don't worry, I don't think he's going to retire anytime soon. Since he is one of the best players to ever suit up in the NFL, there might be a few blogs about him this morning. I know, multiple blogs about the hottest topic in this division and, quite frankly, the entire league. So bear with me. We'll turn our attention to the rest of the division in the afternoon. Let's start off the morning by hitting some headlines for the rest of the division teams in something I call the wake-up call:

RAVENS: It's unknown whether linebacker linebacker Terrell Suggs will begin practicing this week. This is the first week he's eligible to do so under the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP) rules. “We haven’t decided that yet,” coach John Harbaugh said. “So, we’ll make that decision, obviously, by Wednesday, and we’ll just have to see where we’re at then and see how he is doing.” According to the team's official website, Harbaugh left the door open for Suggs to possibly make a return in time to play Houston on Sunday because he “looks pretty good right now." When Suggs gets back, I'm not sure if he'll recognize all the new starters lining up next to him.

BENGALS: Backup running back Brian Leonard aggravated a rib injury Sunday, but said the X-rays were negative. “It’s a pretty good one,” Leonard told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “I’m just going to take it day by day and see what happens. It stinks … Hopefully I get back as soon as possible, do my role and help this team out.” With Bernard Scott out for the season, the Bengals are down to two healthy running backs: BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cedric Peerman. On Sunday, Peerman led the Bengals with eight receptions, and gained seven yards on his only carry.

STEELERS: Left tackle Max Starks isn't happy with the Steelers' offense ranking 17th in the NFL in scoring (23.2 points per game). The Steelers scored 23 against a Tennessee team that had allowed an average of 36.2 points per game. "I think, for us, it's time to realize as an offense the potential we do have," Starks told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We can talk about it, you guys can speculate about it, we can break it down individually, but, for us, we just need to come together as one cohesive unit and realize our true potential. We can score a lot of points if we're all on the same page and we do our job." Time to fire offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Wait, he's with the Colts now.

BROWNS: Steelers owner Art Rooney II expects Jimmy Haslam to get unanimously approved to be the Browns' owner on Tuesday. The only issue might be the fact that Haslam, who is a minority owner in the Steelers, will hold dual ownership in two teams for a few months. Haslam is trying to sell his Steelers stock to existing owners. "There will be [overlap] but we've sort of worked it out with the finance committee and the commissioner [Roger Goodell], where Jimmy won't have access to Steelers information during this time," Rooney told The Plain Dealer. "It won't be a problem, but will it take a few months." In what might be a telling sign, team president Mike Holmgren decided not to attend the owners' meetings after previously planning to do so.
Tuesday is typically the players' day off. That is, unless you're playing on Thursday night like the Steelers. The AFC North blog will be hard at work today handing out game balls, posting power rankings and giving out grades to the quarterbacks. First up is your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Head coach John Harbaugh hasn't been very enlightening when it comes to updating Terrell Suggs' timetable. At least he's been consistent. After ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that the most realistic return for Suggs is early November, Harbaugh had nothing new to offer reporters Monday on that subject. "None of us know," Harbaugh said, via The Baltimore Sun. He's really worked hard, he's done a great job. The reality of it is the guy has done a great job of preparing himself. The six-week window ends before the Houston game, right? Could it be that game? We have the bye week, then two weeks after that or three weeks after that. His progress from between now and then is going to determine that. We don't know that yet."

BENGALS: It doesn't sound like the Bengals are going to sign a running back after backup Bernard Scott was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. That means Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman, who have a total of 637 rushing yards, will spell BenJarvus Green-Ellis. “We’ll do it with the guys that we’ve got until we find someone else. If we don’t like what we’re doing, we’ll find somebody else. But we are where we are right now,” head coach Marvin Lewis said, via the Bengals' official website. "We’ve got the guys we have now -- 53 players -- and they’re good enough for us to get done what we need to get done." Pass-rusher Dontay Moch took Scott's roster spot after serving a four-game suspension.

STEELERS: The Steelers lead the NFL with 9.2 penalties per game. Head coach Mike Tomlin is upset with the amount of penalties, not the officials. Well, not publicly anyway. “I’m not disputing these penalties in here with you (media),” Tomlin said, via the Beaver County Times. “I’ll do it in the proper manner with the people at the league office if I have a beef. I’m not going to do it in here. That’s unprofessional as far as I’m concerned. Those [officials] are doing the best they can, particularly in light of some of the instances that we have in today’s NFL regarding player safety. Just know that we’re trying our very best to play within the rules and it’s disappointing for us when we don’t. We have a desire to play within the rules. We also have a desire to increase our chances of winning, but when you’re picking up 30 yards in penalties in one drive, that’s going to give people an opportunity to score.” As the paper pointed out, the Steelers have more penalty yards than rushing yards (346-331).

BROWNS: Head coach Pat Shurmur is still standing by his decision to throw on third-and-one from the Giants' 25-yard line with the Browns leading by a touchdown late in the second quarter. Brandon Weeden was intercepted, a turnover that led to a 17-point outburst by New York to end the first half. "I want us to execute the play we call better, and then we're always looking at better ways to do things," Shurmur said via The Plain Dealer. "I'll let you guys second-guess it and we'll work on getting everything better." Wonder if Trent Richardson, who wasn't even on the field for that play, is among those who are second-guessing that play call.
Nearly all the AFC North teams played it safe in Thursday night's preseason finales. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Brandon Weeden all sat out and watched the backup quarterbacks play.

The only starter who played, the Bengals' Andy Dalton, left in the first quarter with an injury but it's not considered serious. Dalton said his hand went "a little numb" after getting hit in the arm but it's "no problem at all." Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "Andy’s fine. He’ll be fine for Baltimore. He would have gone right back in this game if it had been the regular season.” So, crisis averted.

If you couldn't watch all four division teams play simultaneously, you're in luck. I had my eye on each one and here are some observations:

BENGALS AT COLTS

In the 20-16 loss at Indianapolis, Dalton was hurt on the opening drive after getting sandwiched. Offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland both got beaten for sacks on the play. It hasn't been a great preseason for Whitworth, who is the second-best left tackle in the division.

The Bengals didn't play their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, because both are recovering from injuries and are getting ready for the regular-season opener. For once, Cincinnati's run game didn't suffer. Brian Leonard ran hard and broke tackles for 27 yards on three carries. Cedric Peerman, who makes more of an impact on special teams, looked good on a 13-yard run up the middle.

No one wants to see Dalton hurt. The Bengals, though, have to feel comfortable with backup Bruce Gradkowski. He finished 12 of 19 for 95 yards and led his fourth touchdown drive of the preseason.

Rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones displayed some resiliency in the second quarter. On the same drive in which he dropped a touchdown pass, he came back to catch a back-shoulder throw from Gradkowski and ran into the end zone. Jones is making a push for some playing time this year.

BEARS AT BROWNS

In the 28-20 loss to Chicago, Colt McCoy watched his strong preseason take a nosedive. In his first start this summer, McCoy was 2 of 5 for 16 yards for a 9.1 quarterback rating. That's going to put a dent into McCoy's 119.1 rating from the first three games. McCoy was also intercepted on a high pass that was thrown with no pressure around him. The Browns will let everyone know what they plan to do with McCoy on Friday.

The Browns have a concern at linebacker after rookie James-Michael Johnson left with an oblique injury. With Chris Gocong out for the season with an Achilles injury and Scott Fujita facing a three-game suspension from the NFL, Cleveland planned to depend on Johnson and Kaluka Maiava. The Browns might need Fujita to win his appeal to avoid going deeper on the depth chart. Johnson was having a strong performance before getting injured on an open-field tackle.

Backup running back Montario Hardesty had trouble getting back to the line of scrimmage because he got little help from his blockers. He finished with 24 yards on six carries and he didn't fumble for the first time since the preseason opener. Brandon Jackson fared much better, gaining 48 yards on seven carries.

Cornerback James Dockery was flagged twice for pass interference in the second quarter. The second one eventually led to a touchdown. Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade was physical and had good coverage in allowing the first touchdown of the game.

As if the Browns needed something else to worry about, they have to iron some things out on special teams. Reggie Hodges got his second punt blocked this preseason.

RAVENS AT RAMS

In a 31-17 loss at St. Louis, Sergio Kindle hurt his chances of surviving Friday's cutdown. He hit quarterback Sam Bradford a full second late, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty to help the Rams convert third-and-22. Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick, was on the bubble entering this game.

Continuing Thursday night's trend of rookies getting hurt, second-round pick Courtney Upshaw will have an MRI for his strained shoulder, according to coach John Harbaugh. Upshaw has been backing up Albert McClellan at outside linebacker.

Veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had his worst game with the Ravens. Working with the first-team defense because most of the starters sat, Ayanbadejo struggled against the run and got lost in coverage. It was so bad that he apologized for his performance on Twitter.

What I like the most about Tyrod Taylor, who started in place of Flacco, is his ability to make plays with his legs. Even though he focused more on being a pocket passer, Taylor wasn't hesitant to take off for a 22-yard scramble. He did get stripped from behind earlier in the game, but it was the result of a third-string lineman (Cord Howard) getting beat by a former first-round pick (Robert Quinn).

Looking at Curtis Painter's up-and-down performance, I'm not sure he convinced the Ravens to keep three quarterbacks. He threw two touchdowns and was intercepted three times. One interception was returned 76 yards for a touchdown.

Justin Tucker missed his first kick of the preseason, but it's difficult to be critical of him. It was a 57-yard attempt. He later hit a 49-yarder in the third quarter.

PANTHERS AT STEELERS

If this was Charlie Batch's last game with the Steelers, he made it a memorable one, or at least as memorable as the preseason gets. In the 17-16 victory over Carolina, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards. Batch showed great touch in leading Emmauel Sanders out of double coverage for a 37-yard touchdown. The new rule regarding injured reserve helps Batch's chances of sticking around Pittsburgh for an 11th season, but there's no guarantee that he'll make the cut.

For the second consecutive week, a Steelers draft pick went down with a serious knee injury. With two minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Sean Spence hyperextended his knee while chasing quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Spence's knee bent awkwardly underneath him, and the third-round pick needed to be carted off the field. Spence was expected to make an impact on special teams this season and could have received playing time if there were injuries at inside linebacker. Unlike David DeCastro's knee injury, this one happened on the natural grass of Heinz Field.

This isn't a newsflash, but rookie running back-receiver-returner Chris Rainey is a game-changer. He twice scored on punt returns in one quarter, only to have both brought back because of penalties. This would've given him the touchdown trifecta. The fifth-round pick had scored on a 41-yard run and a 57-yard catch this summer.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton made his preseason debut after having ACL surgery in January. His presence was felt immediately as he got off a block from guard Mike Pollak and made a tackle. Hampton's return was good to see for the Steelers, even though Steve McLendon has played well enough to start.

Jonathan Dwyer solidfied himself as the primary backup to Isaac Redman, and the Steelers could need him based on Redman's durability. Dwyer was physical (even delivered a stiff-arm) and showed good feet to elude tacklers. He finished with 63 yards on 13 carries, a 4.8-yard average.
As I noted in the AFC North Wake-up call, Andy Dalton delivered the play of the game in the Bengals' 24-19 preseason win at Atlanta, throwing a 50-yard touchdown to A.J. Green in the second quarter. While the focus will be on Dalton's arm strength -- which has been a sore spot for him this offseason -- it overshadowed another strong facet in Thursday night's game.

The Bengals, who ranked 18th on third-down efficiency last season, converted six of seven third downs with Dalton. He completed a 25-yard pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham on third-and-6 and connected with Donald Lee on a 22-yard pass on third-and-7. Then, on third-and-15, he hit Green for the long touchdown pass along the right sideline.

Here are some other thoughts on the Bengals' second preseason game:
  • It's safe to say Green shook off the rust in the preseason opener, when he dropped a pass in the end zone. He caught two passes for 59 yards in Atlanta, where he made the touchdown pass happen by losing cornerback Asante Samuel on a double move. That had to cause cornerbacks throughout the division to sweat a little.
  • The Bengals have to make sure their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (foot) and Bernard Scott (hand), are healthy for the regular season because both backups couldn't hold onto the ball. Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman each fumbled while trying to make moves in the open field. Green-Ellis, who has never fumbled in his NFL career, had to be shaking his head.
  • Did you see the Bengals' running game in Atlanta? Neither did the Bengals. Cincinnati's offensive line struggled to open holes, as the Bengals managed 11 rushing yards on 10 first-half carries.
  • Left tackle Andrew Whitworth might want to skip the film review because it wasn't pretty. He continually got beat by Falcons defensive end John Abraham, who spent most of his night in the Bengals' backfield.
  • It was a rough game for the Bengals' trio of cornerbacks: Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Nate Clements. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 18 of 21 passes for 174 yards in less than two quarters of work, took turns picking on all three former first-round picks. The Bengals can commiserate with the Ravens, who couldn't stop Ryan last week.
  • Mohamed Sanu appears to be a long shot to win the Bengals' No. 2 wide receiver job now, but the rookie third-round pick made an impression with his 12-yard touchdown catch. Marvin Jones, another rookie receiver, continues to show flashes as well.
  • Jeromy Miles is making a strong push for the strong safety spot. He finished with six tackles, one interception and one forced fumble. Miles, who is competing against Taylor Mays for the starting job, picked off Chris Redman in the end zone.
  • Unlike the preseason opener, the Bengals caught a break in terms of injuries. Gresham, who left in the first quarter with a right knee injury, "should be fine," according to coach Marvin Lewis. Backup middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict sustained a concussion but he could return for the next preseason game.
I'm back for this week, although it didn't look like I missed much in what was a quiet week for the AFC North. I'll hit some topics from last week and I will post some fantasy rankings from our ESPN experts throughout this week. Our AFC North chat, which usually occurs every Wednesday, will have to be rescheduled because we won't be conversing on the Fourth of July. I will see if our chat can be moved to another time later this week. I will keep you posted.

But like every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

BROWNS: First-round quarterback Brandon Weeden appears to be "getting antsy" about not having a signed contract yet, according to the Akron Beacon-Journal.

Weeden didn't give much of an update on talks, saying, "What’s the politically correct answer here? I wish it was done, but I don’t know. It’ll get done. We’re working. It takes two sides, though.”

Weeden and running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick of the draft, are the only unsigned Browns rookies. But it could take the top two overall picks, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, to sign before Richardson agrees to a deal.

“For me, I think I’m really just waiting on one and two to get done,” Richardson said. “Then when the big guys get done, I can sign.”

Hensley's slant: There is really no concern at this point about Weeden and Richardson missing the start of camp at the end of this month. Before the new collective bargaining agreement, teams didn't really start to sign draft picks until after the Fourth of July. So, there's still plenty of time to get Weeden and Richarson signed.

BENGALS: Backup running back Brian Leonard still likes his role with the Bengals. "When the ball is in my hands I feel like I can make plays,” Leonard told the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times during his football camp. “I just want to do whatever keeps me in the league for as long as possible. We’ve made it to the playoffs two of the three years that I’ve been there, so we’re heading in the right direction.” Hensley's slant: In his three years in Cincinnati, Leonard has mostly been a third-down back and a special teams contributor. He's caught 72 passes and ran the ball 53 times for the Bengals. His role isn't expected to change with the addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the return of Bernard Scott to the backfield.

RAVENS: Wide receiver Torrey Smith spoke about the highs and lows of the league at the NFL Rookie Symposium. “It’s the expectations of the media and the fans," he told the Ravens' official website. "They’ll love you one minute, they’ll hate you the next. You’ve got to learn how to balance that.” Smith, a second-round pick a year ago, didn't have the benefit of a rookie symposium because of the NFL lockout last year. Hensley's slant: Smith is perhaps the best second-year player to talk about this topic. He dealt with a lot of pressure after he didn't catch a pass in his first two games last season. Smith then went on to set Ravens rookie records with 50 receptions and seven touchdown catches.

STEELERS: There's still no spot on the Steelers for veteran offensive tackle Max Starks, according to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Pittsburgh won't consider Starks until rookie Mike Adams fails or Marcus Gilbert gets injured, according to the paper. Starks, who had ACL surgery in January, posted on Twitter that he's almost at 100 percent. Hensley's slant: I still wouldn't rule out Starks. That is, a fully recovered Starks. If Adams isn't ready to start immediately as a rookie, the Steelers would be in a better position if they re-signed Starks instead of turning to backup Jonathan Scott.

AFC North free-agency update

July, 29, 2011
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It's been a busy day of transactions in the NFL. Here are the latest happenings in the AFC North:

How to rebuild the Bengals

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
4:07
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Carson Palmer/Marvin Lewis/Chad OchocincoUS PresswireWith the Bengals in need of a major makeover, it may be time for Carson Palmer, Marvin Lewis and Chad Ochocinco to find new homes.
Last month the AFC North blog said it was time to blow up the Cincinnati Bengals.

Now we will explain how to rebuild this struggling franchise.

Coming off a division title and playoff appearance in 2009, Cincinnati is having its most disappointing season in recent memory. The Bengals are 2-10 and headed toward one of the top picks in the draft.

It will be a very interesting offseason in Cincinnati. The Bengals have key decisions to make on their coaching staff, as well as positions such as quarterback, running back and receiver.

The AFC North blog put on its general manager hat and spent this week sifting through the Bengals' roster to determine who stays and who goes. We came up with a blueprint that will get this team headed in the right direction.

Keep in mind, this is not a prediction of what the Bengals will do. It's our guide to what we believe the Bengals should do.

Head coach

Analysis: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has four games left on his contract, and to our knowledge there have been no recent negotiations. It's a good time for Lewis to step away. He has fought battles against heavy-handed ownership for eight seasons and done all he could, leading the downtrodden Bengals to two playoff appearances. There is already speculation Lewis may have interest in the head-coaching opening at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has local ties. He dodged that question earlier this week. Don't expect a big-name hire in Cincinnati. The Bengals don't want to pay the kind of money it takes to land someone like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, and big-name coaches wouldn't go to a team that doesn't have a GM, ownership makes the football decisions, and there are average facilities and very few scouts. Our best pick is Hue Jackson. He's a former receivers coach in Cincinnati and has done a great job in stops with Baltimore, Atlanta, Washington and Oakland. As offensive coordinator in Oakland this season, he has helped make the Raiders a playoff contender and is very familiar with the AFC North. Jackson is a rising star and would be an excellent choice. Mike Zimmer remains the best in-house candidate. He has the respect of the locker room and helped turn around the defense in recent seasons. Perhaps a Jackson (HC) and Zimmer (DC) tandem would infuse much-needed energy into this team.

Quarterback

Analysis: This is probably the toughest decision the Bengals will make this offseason, but it wasn't difficult for the AFC North blog. We're convinced it's time to part ways with quarterback Carson Palmer. The QB, who is in the middle of a $118.75 million contract, will be one of the NFL's highest-paid players next season with a base salary of $11.5 million. We can't justify paying Palmer that type of money based on his production the past few seasons. The Bengals have a good shot at the No. 1 overall pick, and that's the perfect spot to draft a quarterback. We think Andrew Luck from Stanford is the best of the group. If the Bengals do not have the top pick, maybe Auburn's Cam Newton is another possibility later in the first round. If the Bengals can't land either, our next step would be sticking with Palmer and seeing whether he's willing to take a pay cut. It's a tough business.

Running back

Analysis: We like second-year running back Bernard Scott. But there are still questions about whether he can be a feature tailback. With Cedric Benson's contract expiring, it's time to search for a new running back. The Bengals got solid production out of Benson the past two years at little cost. But he's only averaging 3.5 yards per carry this year, and we need more from that position. We would find a bruising back and pair him with the quicker Scott . Pending free agent Michael Bush, 26, would be a good fit. He's the backup tailback to Darren McFadden and one of Jackson's main weapons in Oakland. The Bengals rarely spend a lot of money in free agency, but this signing would be worth it. Also, we would re-sign backup running back Brian Leonard, who is very good on third down.

Wide receivers

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Mark Zerof/US PresswireWide receiver Terrell Owens is having a great season, but he's 37 and not a player the Bengals can build around for the future.
Analysis: We like Chad Ochocinco -- but not at the price the Bengals would have to pay him. A $6 million team option is a bit much for a 32-year-old receiver who's had two bad seasons in three years. We would let Ochocinco walk, but the Bengals will consider keeping him. Teammate and pending free agent Terrell Owens is an interesting case. He's having a great year, but he's 37 and probably wants the security of a multiyear extension. Another team may give it to Owens, but we're looking to get younger at receiver. This is a position we would attack in the draft, probably in the second or third rounds. This also gives Jordan Shipley, who is solid, a bigger role in the offense next year. You can't be strong everywhere when rebuilding.

Tight end

Analysis: No questions here. The Bengals drafted Jermaine Gresham in the first round this year and he has produced (47 receptions for 409 yards and three touchdowns). He's only going to get better next season and beyond.

Offensive and defensive lines

Analysis: The offensive line needs work. Tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Bobbie Williams are mainstays, but the other three positions could use depth. We would not extend Andre Smith's contract to six years. We're keeping his deal at four years to see whether we can get anything out of him at right tackle in the final two seasons. Some have suggested moving Smith, who broke his foot for the second straight year, to guard. But we're already paying Smith left tackle money to play right tackle. So we definitely wouldn't pay Smith left tackle money to play guard. We would upgrade center and one guard position via the draft and free agency. The defensive line must be more productive, but there are some good young players there. We like Carlos Dunlap's recent production and would start him at defensive end in 2011. He's earned it with his play down the stretch. Geno Atkins has shown flashes and also would be in competition to start at defensive tackle next to veteran Domata Peko. End Robert Geathers hasn't been the same since micro-fracture surgery, and it's time to find his replacement. If the Bengals don't draft a quarterback in the first round, another pass-rushing defensive end would be the logical choice.

Linebackers

Analysis: Bengals outside linebacker Rey Maualuga has played out of position his entire pro career, and it's time to move him to his natural spot at middle linebacker next season. He will be a better player when he can use his best attribute -- his physicality -- instead of constantly chasing tight ends in coverage. Dhani Jones, 32, will be a free agent, and it's time to cut ties with him. Keith Rivers stays outside, but we need another outside linebacker. Maybe Michael Johnson can step into that role. He's not a natural linebacker, but he's athletic enough to play the position. We're also not sure we can trust his consistency for 16 games. We'd probably add someone else via the draft or free agency to compete with Johnson for the starting job.

Secondary

Analysis: The Bengals' secondary had a down year with a lot of injuries, but we still think it's in pretty good shape. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is the one free agent we believe the Bengals must re-sign. He's the Bengals best cornerback, and the secondary doesn't look the same when he's not playing. Joseph makes corner Leon Hall and the safeties better. There were some negotiations before the season between Joseph and the Bengals, but nothing came to fruition. Adam Jones will return from a season-ending neck injury and is a solid third cornerback. Starting safety Chris Crocker also had a season-ending knee injury and remains under contract. Chinedum Ndukwe, a pending free agent, plays hard and would be a good safety to keep for depth. Roy Williams is often injured and too one dimensional for our liking. So we would let Williams go and try to add another starting safety.

Specialists

Analysis: Punter Kevin Huber stays, although he hasn't had a great year. But the Bengals must find a dependable kicker. Mike Nugent did fine before he was injured, so maybe he's a candidate for training camp when he gets healthy.

Whew! Now that was a major reconstruction.

It's time for the Bengals to rebuild and turn the franchise over to younger players. It's not going to be a quick fix. But if the Bengals follow these moves, they will be better than they were this season and in solid position for long-term success.

It's time to blow up the Bengals

November, 7, 2010
11/07/10
10:44
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Carson Palmer/Marvin Lewis/Chad OchocincoGetty Images/AP PhotoCarson Palmer, Marvin Lewis and Chad Ochocinco have run out of time to deliver a title in Cincinnati.
Seven years ago, a younger, energetic Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati with big dreams. In his first head-coaching gig, Lewis aimed to turn the lowly Bengals into a winning franchise and perennial Super Bowl contender.

Lewis had the No. 1 overall pick, which turned out to be Carson Palmer -- a quarterback with prototypical size and arm strength to be Cincinnati's franchise player.

Lewis also inherited a young receiver named Chad Johnson, who was physically gifted and hungry to develop into one of the best at his position.

This trio was expected to deliver multiple playoff victories -- and perhaps even a championship. Yet, seven years later, the Bengals have neither and are in the midst of an embarrassing 2-5 season.

Lewis looks tired, stressed from all the losing and battles through the years with ownership. He has a career record of 58-60-1, no playoff wins and doesn't wield much power behind the scenes.

Palmer, 30, hasn't had the career many expected. Outside of a few good statistical seasons, Palmer's career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency. He looks far removed from his Pro Bowl form.

Johnson -- now named Ochocinco -- is a 32-year-old receiver having his second bad season in three years. Ochocinco has more television shows (three) than touchdowns (two) and can't get on the same page with his quarterback.

It's officially time to blow up the Bengals. The Lewis/Palmer/Ochocinco era in Cincinnati has run its course, and the team needs to hit the reset button.

But first the Bengals must play out the season, starting with their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). If it weren't for the higher-profile Dallas Cowboys (1-6) and Minnesota Vikings (2-5), Cincinnati would be the NFL's most disappointing team. With their playoff hopes virtually gone, the best the underachieving Bengals can do is play spoiler the rest of the season.

"I think everyone is more frustrated and emotional right now," said Palmer, describing the mood of the team. "Losing does that to you. Losing is frustrating and can wear on you."

Lewis, Ochocinco and Palmer have contract situations that will be addressed in the offseason.

Lewis is coaching in the final year of his deal, and there's a lot of speculation that both sides are open to parting. Despite winning the Coach of the Year award in 2009, Lewis has not reached a contract agreement with the Bengals. Yet Cincinnati recently signed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to a three-year extension, which raised some eyebrows. Zimmer is now the top in-house candidate to replace Lewis if the head coach doesn't return.

There are also some changes Lewis pushed for, such as an indoor practice facility, that failed to get by Bengals owner Mike Brown. With the Bengals struggling, Lewis doesn't have as much leverage as he had in the offseason.

Lewis hasn't talked about his contract situation during the season, but he discussed it in-depth at the NFL combine.

"There's a lot of things [in terms of] what we're doing and how we're doing things -- all of those things are important to me," Lewis said in February. "There were things that when I started this job in 2003 that were important, and we can't change those.

"We have to stay on track and I have to make sure that we're continuing to progress that way. Those are the things that are as important to me as anything."

The contract situations for Ochocinco and Palmer aren't as simple.

Ochocinco's deal is up at the end of the season, but the Bengals have a team option for 2011 if they want to keep the receiver for another year. Palmer is in the fifth season of a nine-year, $118.75 million contract. He's one of the NFL's highest-paid players, and his base salary will balloon to $11.5 million next season. Palmer's production is declining, and Cincinnati must decide whether he's worth that kind of money.

Cincinnati also has important offseason decisions to make on other key veterans. Starters such as cornerback Johnathan Joseph, tailback Cedric Benson, middle linebacker Dhani Jones and leading receiver Terrell Owens are pending free agents.

Coming off a division title and playoff appearance last season, this team was built to win this year. It didn't work. So it's time for the Bengals to cut their losses and build for their long-term future.

It's been a decent run for Palmer, Lewis and Ochocinco. They brought much-needed excitement to a franchise that was desolate before their arrival.

But after eight seasons together, these three carried the Bengals as far as they could. The window is now closed, and it's time for some -- or all -- to go their separate ways.

A look inside AFC North injuries

September, 16, 2010
9/16/10
5:30
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Here is a look at the key injuries in the AFC North:

Baltimore Ravens (1-0)

Opponent: at Bengals

Inside key injuries: Things are looking promising for cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is coming off major knee surgery but isn't listed on this week's injury report. It looks like there's a good chance he will make his 2010 debut Sunday against Cincinnati. A lot of Ravens are limited in practice, but key members such as linebacker Ray Lewis (foot), receiver Anquan Boldin (thigh), and tight end Todd Heap (shoulder) say they will play. Rookie defensive lineman Terrence Cody is trying to work his way back from knee surgery, but his status remains up in the air. Also, a new injury popped up as linebacker Jarret Johnson (back) missed practice Thursday.

Cincinnati Bengals (0-1)

Opponent: Ravens

Inside key injuries: The Bengals are pretty healthy going into their big game against Baltimore. The exception is defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (hamstring), who missed his second straight practice and likely won't play Sunday against the Ravens. Linebacker Keith Rivers, who hurt his foot in Week 1, returned to practice on a limited bases Thursday. But I'm hearing Rivers expects to play barring any major setbacks. Running back Cedric Benson (shoulder), receiver Andre Caldwell (groin) and cornerback Brandon Ghee (head) are all fully participating in practice, as well as running back Brian Leonard (foot), who should return this week.

Cleveland Browns (0-1)

Opponent: Kansas City Chiefs (1-0)

Inside key injuries: The big injury here is starting quarterback Jake Delhomme, who missed his second straight practice with an ankle injury. I saw Delhomme hobbling into the locker room with a boot Wednesday. I’m not a doctor. But based on my own eyes, I expect backup quarterback Seneca Wallace to play unless Delhomme forces himself to suit up Sunday at less than 100 percent. After watching Delhomme play hurt the entire second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, starting a hurt Delhomme is risky. Browns coach Eric Mangini said he will decide later in the week. Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers also missed his second practice with an old (ankle) and new (hip) injury. He only played limited snaps last week. Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson could try to return to practice on Friday, but the team wants to be careful with his pectoral injury.

Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0)

Opponent: at Tennessee Titans (1-0)

Inside key injuries: Starting left tackle Max Starks (ankle) will not play Sunday, which likely leaves backup Jonathan Scott protecting Dennis Dixon's blind side. But Starks' injury isn't as bad as originally projected, so there's a chance he could return within the next couple of weeks. Another injury to watch is Pittsburgh Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. He didn't play in the second half against the Atlanta Falcons because of a hamstring injury. Hampton is questionable for Sunday. The Steelers could use him to help stuff Titans Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson.

Walker's weekend mailbag

August, 14, 2010
8/14/10
12:00
PM ET
Let's see what's in the weekend mailbag:

Becky from Galloway, Ohio, writes: Any chance the Cincinnati Bengals will cut J.T. O'Sullivan or Jordan Palmer?

James Walker: This has been a hot topic in Cincinnati, Becky. I suggested before the preseason started that the Bengals should at least consider keeping two quarterbacks to save a roster spot at receiver, defensive back or linebacker. The coaching staff could not be encouraged with what they saw last week against the Dallas Cowboys, but the good news is the Bengals have five preseason games this year. Let's see if the quarterback play improves this weekend.


Nick Kenner from Florence, Ky., writes: With the recent injury to Brian Leonard of the Cincinnati Bengals, what are the chances the Bengals will try to go after Brian Westbrook?

Walker: This isn't going to happen, Nick. Leonard's prognosis was better than expected and Cincinnati already signed running back James Johnson to fill in for the time being. Keep in mind, Leonard was only the third running back. The Bengals don't need to sign a potential starter like Westbrook to replace him. Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott will get the bulk of the carries.


Ben from Grocton, Conn., writes: Is there a chance rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders gets playing time as the No. 3 receiver?

Walker: The Steelers are comfortable with Antwaan Randle El as their No. 3 receiver, Ben. Sanders has good potential, but the team needs some proven veterans on the field offensively while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger serves his conditional six-game suspension.


Patrick from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Is it possible that the Steelers could re-sign Willie Parker?

Walker: Patrick, last I checked Parker signed with the Washington Redskins.


Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: How much will the Cleveland Browns' offensive line help quarterback Jake Delhomme?

Walker: This is probably the best thing going for Delhomme, Joe, because from what I saw in camp this week, the receivers and offense in general are not very dynamic. The line should help give Delhomme some time in the pocket and boost the running game.


CJ from North Carolina writes: What's the word from camp regarding James Davis?

Walker: Davis looks decent, CJ. But he's not lighting up training camp the way he was a year ago. The preseason will be big for him, because the Browns have a lot of running backs.


Broderick Ramsey from Los Angeles, writes: What will the Baltimore Ravens do about their secondary?

Walker: There's been a lot of trade speculation lately, Broderick, but the Ravens will have to give away a good player to get a good player. Would they be willing to trade running back Willis McGahee, for example? I’m not sure. Baltimore could also just wait it out and see if its two cornerbacks -- Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington -- get healthy enough for the regular season.


Jonah from Minot, N.D., writes: Are you much of a "Madden" gamer, JW? Also, what's your favorite team to use?

Walker: I am officially retired this year, Jonah. I don't have much time anymore during football season. But I used a variety of teams when I played just to keep things interesting.

Complaint department

Here are this week's comments and complaints from our AFC North community:

Silas Fontain from Denmark writes: Steelers fans are entertaining. Last year around this time they were the kings of everything coming off their Super Bowl win, and nobody would beat them. This year the Bengals fans are high on their division title, and the Steelers fans are the one's trying to talk about reality. Oh boy, memory is short.

RJ from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: With mistakes in Super Bowl XL, I guess we're supposed to assume that a different team would have won if not for the mistakes, right? But anyone who saw that game knows that the Steelers had the better running game and defense. Besides, several times the officials have admitted to making mistakes that hurt the Steelers -- most notably in that playoff game against Jacksonville. So, it balances out.

Kizzie from Iraq writes: Being from Baltimore, I hate the Steelers and love the Ravens. But with that said the Ravens' and Bengals' opening schedules are brutal. The Steelers will still be in the division race after Ben Roethlisberger's suspension.

Kenny from Cleveland writes: Could you be any more in love with the Bungles right now?

Nick Langseth from Minneapolis, Minn., writes: I am a huge Bengals fan from North Dakota and have had to endure terrible Bengals teams in my youth. So now I am savoring every good moment I can. I love the Bengals.

Brian from Erie, Pa., writes: Why does every athlete hate on Cleveland so much? Let me put it this way. You can constantly play on the "rookie" level in Madden and always win the Super Bowl. But its gets boring. Winning on "All-Madden" is something you have to work for and is so much more rewarding when you finally get there. Players want fans to worship them, but hate when we come down on them for not performing their jobs. Sure, you can play in Jacksonville and never get booed, but that's because people don't care. If a team ever wins in Cleveland, they will be loved forever unlike anyone has seen.

AFC North blog hater of the week

Unconvinced from Indiana writes: You've spent the early part of your career covering Ohio teams. You LIVE in Cleveland. How do you expect anyone to believe you'll write objectively about other teams in the AFC North?

If you have any additional comments or complaints, send them to our division inbox.

Morning take: Mike Wallace's time

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
8:00
AM ET
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Is Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace ready to replace Santonio Holmes?
Morning take: The ability is there and so is the confidence. Wallace is our pick to have a breakout season.
  • Baltimore Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington (knee) is unsure of his status for Thursday's preseason opener.
Morning take: I'd say play it safe. The first preseason game is not reason enough to risk a possible setback.
  • Cleveland Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme knows he must win games to win over fans.
Morning take: Delhomme has won a lot of games in his career and will have to do the same in Cleveland.
Morning take: This is good news for Crocker and the Bengals. It appears running back Brian Leonard may not be as lucky.

AFC North evening update

August, 10, 2010
8/10/10
5:00
PM ET
Here is an update on the latest happenings Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (back) returned to practice and will play in Thursday's preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers.
  • With Brian Leonard injured (foot), the Cincinnati Bengals signed running back James Johnson.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers middle linebacker Larry Foote is willing to take a smaller role this season.
  • The Cleveland Browns suffered three injuries in Tuesday morning's practice: cornerback Eric Wright, linebacker Marcus Bernard and defensive lineman Brian Schaefering.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North: Morning take: It's a shameless plug, but make sure you check out Baltimore on ESPN Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. I know I will (wink, wink).
Morning take: The initial diagnoses was a mid-foot sprain, but further testing in Cincinnati this week could reveal more. If out for an extended period, this will hurt the Bengals' depth at running back.

  • After spending the weekend being inducted to the Hall of Fame, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau returned to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Morning take: It was a memorable and well-deserved honor for LeBeau. But rest assured he's eager to get back to coaching.
Morning take: Every several weeks it seems Edwards takes another shot at Cleveland or the Browns in the media. At least it will make the Jets-Browns game interesting later this season.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North: Morning take: After much speculation, the Steelers made a statement with this extension. We will have more on Tomlin coming up.

  • Despite making his first Pro Bowl last season, Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice still feels underrated.
Morning take: To most casual football fans, it takes multiple Pro Bowls to get national recognition. Rice is just scratching the surface. Therefore, barring injury, he could be in for another big year.
Morning take: The Bengals have depth with Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard. Perhaps they can fill in, if needed. But Benson would obviously be missed.
Morning take: Cleveland has a good mix of runners. Could this be the formula to dig out the basement of the division?

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