AFC North: Carlos Dunlap

CINCINNATI -- Three storylines to watch Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium:

Ravens without Daniels: Baltimore announced Friday it would be without another one of its key offensive weapons at tight end. The news had to have been embraced with wide-open arms by the Bengals. That's because now with Owen Daniels, the Ravens' top reserve tight end behind the already-injured Dennis Pitta, out for Sunday's game, Baltimore is forced into moving around a few pass-catching pieces and moving around other reserves to fulfill its offensive needs. Specifically, Crockett Gilmore -- who has been targeted just three times this season -- will take Daniels' spot in the rotation. Although he was lauded earlier this week by Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Gilmore still isn't expected to give the Ravens the quality minutes, receptions and blocks that the other two might have. Whereas the Ravens were able to run plays in two-tight-end and H-back sets during the teams' first meeting in September, they may have difficulty executing those plays without the likes of Pitta and Daniels. Both tight ends were among Baltimore's leading receivers in the Week 1 tilt.

With tight ends causing drama for the Bengals the last three weeks in particular (they have allowed five tight ends to catch 24 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns), this could be a good reprieve for the defense. Watch to see how often the Bengals blitz without Pitta or Daniels playing, and look to see how well they cover Gilmore.

Getting to Flacco: Pressure has been a problem for the Bengals' defense in recent weeks, especially when it comes to their defensive line. Tackle Geno Atkins finally factored statistically into a sack, credited this week for assisting Carlos Dunlap with a sack on Indianapolis' Andrew Luck last week. It will be incumbent on the Bengals this week to shake off the problems they have had in getting to quarterbacks, particularly with the Ravens featuring a newly healthy offensive line. For the first time in six weeks, both offensive tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele are expected to play alongside one another. Their addition in the rotation should give Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco blind-side protection he hasn't had much this season.

In the season opener, the Bengals had great pressure on Flacco, sacking him three times. Only one defense this season has made him look as bad as the Bengals did: the Colts.

Offense needs fun: Bengals players on both sides of the ball this week have remarked about how devoid of fun their locker room has been the last three weeks. As defensive end Wallace Gilberry said, it's caused tension with respect to urgency and the need to be successful and win. The best way to not play tense and tight is to simply have fun. That's precisely what the Bengals did during practice Thursday and Friday when, for the first time since Marvin Lewis has been head coach, they played music. It seemed to make players looser. We'll see Sunday if it has any impact. More than any group, the offense needs to take the "fun" message to heart Sunday. If that means getting back to trick plays that work or using players in other inventive and creative ways, then so be it. During last week's 27-0 shutout loss, the once-entertaining offense clearly wasn't having any fun.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals now find themselves at a crossroads.

This is the time when a group like theirs is at its most fragile. It's when fingers might start getting pointed as answers are sought and sources of blame desired.

Dark days like the ones the Bengals are in also could be when players start mentally checking out, focusing instead on ways they can just get through what has started shaping up to be a more difficult season than any of them could have anticipated.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals' offense had a tough time finding a rhythm in Sunday's loss to the Colts.
This is the time when a team can begin fracturing and completely break apart.

But according to the few Bengals who spoke to reporters following Sunday afternoon's 27-0 road shutout at the hands of the Colts, there is no disaster in Cincinnati. There are no reasons to believe the team will start to fold, they said.

"I wouldn't say 'crisis,'" defensive end Carlos Dunlap said when asked if the team was beginning to feel that way following three straight winless performances. "We still can be on top of our division if we beat Baltimore. That's the biggest goal in mind right now, beside playing the way we had been playing."

If the Ravens lose next week, they'll fall to 2-2 in the division, while the Bengals would be 2-0.

Until recently, the Bengals had been playing well.

Cincinnati went 3-0 to start the year and looked like a true Super Bowl contender. It had weathered the storm of a few injuries, but seemed poised to still go on a long run.

And then came the bye.

Since the Bengals' Week 4 bye, they haven't been the same. They've gone 0-2-1 and have been outplayed both offensively and defensively. They haven't looked remotely close to being in the rhythm they were in when the season began. Instead, they look disjointed. The injuries that have amassed in recent weeks appear to be having a very real impact, regardless of what some players may say.

Despite all that, though, the Bengals contend their focus -- even on a day when a loss like this "hurts," as coach Marvin Lewis said -- is on next Sunday's game at home against Baltimore. It's only the Bengals' second division game of the year, and their last against the Ravens following the season-opening 23-16 win in the first week of September.

"We've got to circle the wagons, that's the thing," Lewis said. "We are who we are. We've got what we've got. We've got to get together and we've got to figure out a way to continue to ride and go back and be a fundamentally sound, attacking football team again and get on it and go. This one's over, we've got to put it behind us. We'll learn a lot from this football game and it will be something that will be something that will help us grow."

Quarterback Andy Dalton said it's on the leaders of the team to ensure the team's focus remains on the end goals: a division championship and a Super Bowl trophy.

"We are definitely going to do whatever it takes to get that point across," Dalton said. "This team is too talented and we have so much going for us. We can't waste any opportunities. It will be talked about this week. There will be plenty of room for improvement, so we just have to watch the tape and do whatever we can to correct it and move on."
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green is currently the second-best receiver in the NFL -- one pass-catching tight end notwithstanding -- and Geno Atkins is the fourth-best defensive lineman in the league, according to ESPN's #NFLRank project that concluded on on Friday.

Are we shocked the Cincinnati Bengals duo is so highly regarded? Are we stunned? Did we really expect anything more?

No. No. And no.

 Respectively, Green and Atkins were ranked the ninth- and 10th-best players on their side of the ball. Only eight players were ahead of Green, including the top overall offensive player, Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson, and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Atkins was surpassed by nine other defensive players including Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the player tabbed in this survey as the top current defender in the league.

Atkins actually fell to 10th after being ranked seventh last year. Still, it's rather amazing he still was included in the top 10 after missing half of last season with an ACL injury. That's a testament to his past success and the optimism many share this season as he comes off the serious injury. He's set to open the season next weekend with the Bengals when they travel to Baltimore. Green remained at No. 9, where he was the year before.

Green and Atkins joined linebacker Vontaze Burfict (No. 32, defense), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (No. 86, defense), running back Giovani Bernard (No. 88, offense) and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth (No. 92, offense) as Bengals to appear on the countdown. Only two players in that group haven't been to the Pro Bowl, Bernard and Dunlap. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict attended his first Pro Bowl at the end of his second season last year.

All but two of those players also have negotiated big second deals with the Bengals. Green and Bernard are the only ones who have not. Bernard can't start speaking with the Bengals about a contract extension until after next season. Green and his representatives can begin those conversations now, but it's not likely he'll receive a long-term deal for some time. Earlier this year the Bengals exercised their fifth-year option on him, meaning he's slated to make more than $10 million next season after playing out the final year of his original four-year rookie contract this season.

Green and Atkins have been among the best at their positions in recent seasons. An survey of players earlier this year actually considered Green the No. 2 receiver in the league behind Johnson. If you classify Graham as a tight end and not a receiver, the same holds true in the #NFLRank survey.

The #NFLRank series, which debuted last Monday, ranked the Top 100 players in the league. Players were separated into offense and defense.

Earlier this summer, many of the people behind ESPN's NFL coverage, including myself, made individual rankings for the overall project.

You can read the full series here.

Below are blurbs from the series on Green and Atkins:
Green was the most-targeted receiver in the NFL last year, leading the league with 178 targets. Green's eight touchdown receptions on passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield last season were the most in the NFL.
-- ESPN Stats & Information (@ESPNStatsInfo)

Despite missing nearly half of last season, Atkins leads all defensive tackles with 29 sacks since he entered the league in 2010. Atkins is the first Bengals defender selected to consecutive Pro Bowls since David Fulcher (1988-90).
-- ESPN Stats & Information (@ESPNStatsInfo)
CINCINNATI -- With news late Wednesday that Vontaze Burfict had reportedly agreed to a multiyear contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals, the organization sent a message it was serious about locking down its stars, and doing what was necessary to keep in place the structure that has made it successful these past three years.

Quarterback Andy Dalton's extension, signed Aug. 4, was the first sign of that this year. Dalton's slated to be behind center for the Bengals through 2020. Two other key defenders, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins will be in stripes through 2018 after inking their blockbuster extensions last summer.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesVontaze Burfict led the league in tackles last season with 171.
On the waiting list of signings, Burfict was always next, with receiver A.J. Green waiting in the wings. While Green might prefer to wait until after this season to get an extension, especially because he's already set to make $10 million next year with his fifth-year option exercised, he could be in position after Burfict's deal and pending cuts to work something out before this season officially begins.

Burfict's deal hasn't been formally announced by the Bengals, although it should be made official sometime Thursday morning. Once that happens, we should learn a few more details. For now, there are conflicting reports on the length of the extension. ESPN's Adam Caplan and Adam Schefter broke news of the signing, saying it was a four-year, $20 million extension. Schefter reported that he'll make $7.6 million this season. Other reports indicate it may be a three-year extension.

Presumably Burfict would have signed Wednesday had he been around. But he felt ill early in the day and was sent home before the afternoon practice.

Regardless of the specifics, we do know this: It was smart for the Bengals to lock up Burfict now and it was smart for him to get paid right now.

It was arguably more important for the Bengals to lock down their Pro Bowl second-year linebacker for what he provides off the field as opposed to what he has done on it. True, he's been a relative terror in between the white lines, blasting any offensive player who comes into his area of the field. He's the Bengals' enforcer, and in the two years he's been on the job, the defense's reputation has gone from good to nasty.

For years, Mike Zimmer's name was the one most associated with Cincinnati's defensive success. But now that the former defensive coordinator has left, it's Burfict. His style of play set the tone for a defense that was ranked third last year. It's the same tone new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to see all season when he puts 11 of what he calls "smart bullies" on the field.

A smart bully -- that's exactly what Burfict is.

Though Burfict may be a trash-talking bully on the field, he is intelligent off of it. Guenther has long considered him his right-hand man, an on-field extension of his own mind. Guenther has often said he hasn't been around a player who can break down game film like Burfict can. When the coach was calling players up to the front of meeting rooms to diagram defenses earlier this preseason, his prized pupil was used the most regularly. Burfict, according to Guenther, knows his scheme better than anyone else around the team.

Guenther lauds the professorial side of Burfict. Combine that value with the talents of Atkins and Dunlap, and it made sense for the Bengals to lock Burfict down when they did.
CINCINNATI -- At one point in the middle of the Cincinnati Bengals' walkthrough Wednesday morning, defensive line coach Jay Hayes decided to stir up the defensive huddle.

Given the OK from the Bengals' training staff, he told Geno Atkins, his long-injured Pro Bowl defensive tackle, to jog out and line up for a drill the unit was working through. It was the lineman's first time participating in a football activity with his teammates in a day shy of nine months.

Initially, Atkins' appearance caught them a little off guard. But the surprise didn't last long.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsGeno Atkins' participation in practice had the Bengals pumped on Wednesday.
"Everybody had big smiles on their faces because they knew then that the big 9-7 [No. 97] was back to work," fellow defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We are excited around here. Probably the whole city will be, too, once they hear that Geno is back."

When it comes to the city and its Bengals fans, the word "excited" might not be enough. Try "thrilled," "energized," "electrified" ... "relieved." Or, as one tweeter put it in a rapid reply to my initial social media message about Atkins' return: "Hallelujah!!!"

Yes, with good reason, the vibes in Cincinnati are good now that Atkins' 273 days of torture are over. But what about elsewhere? How might the nice people in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore feel now that the Bengals' All-Pro is back? More specifically, how might the offensive linemen now set to face Atkins again feel about his return?

I'll let Hayes describe what they all are most certainly now thinking.

"If you can get him in one-on-one situations, people are going to have a long day," Hayes said. "Whoever that guy is [who has to block Atkins], he's going to have a bad day."

Double-teams or not, Atkins was having his share of good days last season before he tore his ACL on Halloween night at Miami. He had 20 tackles and six sacks to that point. While the tackle numbers were a little low and may have had many concerned, the sacks were right in line with where he was the season before. He was on pace to possibly reach the 12.5 sacks he had in 2012.

Already an offensive line coach's nightmare from a game-planning standpoint, Atkins' return shouldn't only positively impact him. His teammates ought to benefit from having him back around, too. The double-teams Peko had to fight through after Atkins' injury ought to dissipate. The amount of single-man matchups likely will increase for defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt, too.

"It makes things a lot easier when a quarterback can't step up in the pocket or is worried about somebody else in the D-line getting sacks," Dunlap said.

Following Atkins' injury, Dunlap and the Bengals' other starting defensive end, Michael Johnson, noticed quarterbacks stepping up in the pocket a little more as they tried to escape the Bengals' pass rush, which was more externally focused at that time. Before, when Atkins still was able to help clog the middle and put pressure on quarterbacks, the passers would be more apt to rolling to the edges and running into lanes the ends were occupying.

Another unintended byproduct of Atkins' injury was the fact that it got young linemen like Brandon Thompson and Devon Still (before his own injury issues) opportunities to see regular playing time. Gilberry and Hunt were among those who were forced into expanding their roles to include rushing from the inside, thereby increasing the versatility they can provide the defense.

"The injury wasn't a blessing, but it just goes to the adage of next man up," Hayes said. "They all know that. They all know now that at the drop of a hat, 'I have to be ready. I just can't be pigeon-holed as the backup.' If you're a backup, you have to be able to play all the positions to some extent. ... You have to have that position versatility because we just don't have enough people to have a backup for each guy."

As well as his backups may have played in relief last season, neither of them was striking the type of fear in offensive linemen that Atkins will again.

Here's how Clint Boling, the Bengals' left guard who will be facing Atkins often in practice again, described the defender's return: "I'm probably the only guy in the building that's disappointed he's coming back."

Don't worry, Clint. Outside the stadium, you certainly aren't alone.
A look at a few Cincinnati Bengals offensive players who have made strong impressions through the first five practices of training camp:

Carlos Dunlap: Expectations are high for the fifth-year lineman this season. They're so high that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has already told him he better be a Pro Bowl selection.

Margus Hunt: The second-year player told reporters in Cincinnati on Monday that he felt more comfortable at his position compared to last season, and that work going against offensive tackles Anthony Collins and Andre Smith as a scout-team rookie helped give him a better idea of how to attack opponents.

Wallace Gilberry: It's easy to forget Gilberry because of the attention paid to Hunt, the native Estonian who had a basic understanding of his position previous to the coaching he received this past year. Gilberry plays with a veteran's savvy and can be used at different spots depending upon the situation.

Brandon Thompson: With Geno Atkins still rehabbing from an ACL tear, and Devon Still slowly returning from a back injury, Thompson has had his share of repetitions on the line's interior so far in training camp. Larry Black and Ross LaKendrick have mixed in at times with him. Thompson's name has been called often during camp, and typically for positive reasons.

Vontaze Burfict: He's still Vontaze Burfict. There's not much else to add, other than the fact he's already in midseason form with his trash-talking and physical style of practice play.

Jayson DiManche: He's been similarly vocal and energetic as he tries hard to earn a roster spot. Like his rookie training camp, DiManche has quite the fight on his hands this year, having to fend off a number of linebackers.

Emmanuel Lamur: It seems clear the Bengals will benefit from having Lamur healthy this year. Primarily a coverage linebacker, he will regularly line up against tight ends and some receivers. With the high number of good tight ends the Bengals will face his year, his return comes at a good time.

The 'Older' Corners: There are too many of them to list individually, so we're going to group the Bengals' veterans together here. Terence Newman and Adam Jones have been particularly impressive, breaking up a number of difficult passes through the first few days. Along with Burfict, they've been the biggest defensive playmakers of the camp. Leon Hall hasn't done much from a gameplay standpoint so far, but he is noteworthy because of his slow and steady return after his Achilles tear last year.

Darqueze Dennard: Cincinnati's first-round draft pick has filled in admirably for whichever of the older corners takes days off while he practices. Since the Bengals have tried taking things slow with Newman, Jones and Hall, Dennard has found himself playing a number of cornerback positions to account for their absences. His best play defensively has come the past two days as the Bengals' schedule has afforded him more chances to showcase his patented lockdown man-press ability. He's looked more comfortable in that regard, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. Dennard also has been part of a variety of special teams units, using his speed on kickoff coverage and his cover skills to hold gunners in check on punt returns.

Reggie Nelson:
The veteran safety hasn't been too flashy this camp, but he's had a solid enough work on the back end.
CINCINNATI -- Geno Atkins has done it. So has Vontaze Burfict.

Now Carlos Dunlap believes it's his turn.

The Cincinnati Bengals' fifth-year defensive end said before training camp practice Monday that he would like to join Atkins and Burfict as the next Cincinnati defender to reach the Pro Bowl.

"Most definitely, that's been one of my personal goals: to get out there with those guys," Dunlap said, responding to a question about the Pro Bowl.

Dunlap's motivations for making it to the game were inflamed further in January by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who sent him a text message from Hawaii. Guenther was there as one of Burfict's guests. His message to Dunlap? It's time you get out here, too.

"He saw the guys that were out there, so for him to feel like I should have been out there, it just tells me that I need to put the work in and everything else will fall into place," Dunlap said.

Since 2006, Burfict and Atkins have been the only Bengals defenders selected to the Pro Bowl. Atkins played in the game in 2011 and 2012, and the former undrafted free-agent Burfict capped off his second season by reaching it for the first time last year. Before Atkins, the last Bengals defender to be selected to the Pro Bowl was cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who participated in the 2005 season's game.

"The Pro Bowl is based off numbers and fan support," Dunlap said. "We've got a good, strong fan base in Cincinnati here, so now I just have to go out and produce and put up the numbers."

Last season, Dunlap had career highs in tackles (58) and sacks (7.5). He tied for the team sack lead with Wallace Gilberry. Dunlap also forced four fumbles, matching a career high set in 2012.
CINCINNATI -- One of the longest standing myths in pro football is that the Cincinnati Bengals are cheap when it comes to paying their players.

That perception was dealt a heavy blow last summer when the Bengals signed two of their prized defensive linemen to mega deals that nearly combined for $100 million.

As a result of those major signings, the Bengals last week ended up with two players landing on Forbes' list of the 100 highest-paid athletes. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins came in at No. 53 overall, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap checked in at No. 84. Last summer, Atkins inked a five-year, $55 million contract extension, while Dunlap agreed to his own six-year, $40 million extension.

According to the Forbes list, Atkins earned a total of $22.4 million between June 1, 2013 and June 1, 2014. In that same stretch, Dunlap earned $18.8 million. In both cases, many of those dollars came from the new deals they signed that went into effect in time for the 2013 season.

Those earnings, like the ones from the other 98 athletes on the list, were comprised of salaries and bonuses paid in the last year, as well as any signing, award or playoff bonuses that were given to the athlete. Also included in the total earnings are estimates for endorsements each athlete has. According to Forbes, Atkins and Dunlap made about $50,000 each in endorsements in the last year.

Using those metrics, the highest-earning athlete for the year was boxer Floyd Mayweather, who took home about $105 million, according to Forbes.

Atkins ranked ahead of the likes of quarterback Drew Brees and baseball players David Ortiz and Justin Verlander. He was also just five spots shy of suspended baseball player Alex Rodriguez, who earned $22.9 million last year, including $300,000 in endorsements. Dunlap outpaced NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, among others.

Dunlap this season is expected to be Cincinnati's star at defensive end now that former end Michael Johnson signed with Tampa Bay in free agency earlier this offseason. Their two-man tandem is no more. Instead, it'll primarily be Dunlap at one end position and a rotation at the other. Margus Hunt and Wallace Gilberry are poised to split the playing time at the end position opposite Dunlap.

Atkins will be returning from an ACL tear that ended his season nearly two months to the day after he signed his contract extension. Lost in Week 9, Atkins has been rehabbing ever since, and is eyeing a return just in time for the start of this coming regular season. It's unclear right now if he'll be ready by then. Two years ago, he was the Bengals' sack leader, finishing with 12.5. Cincinnati hopes his pass-rush success returns with him this season.

The linemen were two of 17 NFL players on the Forbes' list. According to contract figures from ESPN Stats & Information, Cincinnati had the league's best-paid defense last season. The Bengals spent more than $69 million in cap value on the defense last season, about $6 million more than the Steelers. It appears to have had an impact on the field, too. Cincinnati had the league's third-ranked defense in 2013.
CINCINNATI -- Since Tuesday ended up being a more news-filled day on the Cincinnati Bengals beat than anticipated, the following observations from the first day of the Bengals' minicamp are coming a little later than anticipated, too.

But here they are, in all their glory. In no particular order, a few observations from Cincinnati's first minicamp practice:

  • As Leon Hall enters the final stage of the rehab process, tight end Jermaine Gresham was at the workout, albeit as a spectator. According to our Field Yates, Gresham has been missing the past few weeks because he's been recovering from hernia surgery performed earlier this offseason. He had previously missed the first two organized team activities, both open and voluntary, with an injury coach Marvin Lewis declined to give specifics on. His sighting at the minicamp was his first since he was spotted during voluntary workouts in early May.
  • [+] EnlargeTyler Eifert
    Al Behrman/AP PhotoBengals tight end Tyler Eifert runs through drills on the sideline during Tuesday's minicamp.
    Fellow tight end Tyler Eifert returned to practice after missing the last open OTA with a shoulder injury. He was limited for part of Tuesday's workout, though. After beginning the session in uniform, he shed his jersey in the final hour to conduct conditioning exercises off to the side. Along with him, Hall went through a conditioning circuit. Injured left guard Clint Boling also went through his share of rehab exercises to help his ACL get back to 100 percent.
  • Another tight end, unrestricted Bengals free agent Alex Smith, not only re-signed Tuesday, but he practiced. It was his first practice since December, when he dislocated his wrist during a start he made for both Gresham and Eifert who were out with injuries.
  • The only absence was defensive tackle Devon Still, who was cleared to leave last week to attend to personal matters. Still announced via social media last week that his young daughter was recently diagnosed with cancer.
  • As far as on-field notes, the phrase of the day was "Dalton to Green" (or "Dalton to Jones," worked, too). Showing off what offensive coordinator Hue Jackson says are real improvements, quarterback Andy Dalton was right in sync with receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. He completed several difficult passes to them in one-on-one, seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills. Arguably his best throw of the day was a cross-field bomb to Green that was thrown from the left hashmark to the right sideline. He had a couple of other deep passes to Green that turned heads, too.
  • The moment when Dalton caused the most audible "ohhs" and "ahhs" among his teammates, though, came during the rushing portion of an 11-on-11 drill. Dalton faked an option pitch that completely duped the nearby defender, and the quarterback kept going through the hole untouched. In addition to all the running the Bengals are going to do this year, read options and other quarterback runs could be part of the arsenal, too. As much as his arm gets criticized, Dalton does have mobility that was seldom used the past three years. Late last season they started running more zone read for him. When they did, the offense more times than not, picked up big yards whether he kept the ball or not.
  • Along with Green and Jones, rookie James Wright seemed to catch his share of attention from the coaches. His cuts looked crisp, and his moves in single coverage drew regular praise from Jackson. If there's a first-year player on offense to watch during training camp, it could be him. The Bengals already are loaded at receiver, but the seventh-round pick stands a good chance to shake up the lower reaches of the depth chart.
  • Brandon Tate also had a strong showing during the practice, catching most everything thrown his way. Often he was matched against cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who struggled to break up passes both deep and short against him. Kirkpatrick also seemed to struggle with figuring out exactly where Tate was going when he made a move. Perhaps it's simply springtime adjustments, but Kirkpatrick certainly will be one to keep an eye on as Cincinnati continues tweaking its deep cornerback group. Rookie Darqueze Dennard continues to receive action both in the slot and on the outside.
  • Center Russell Bodine will be another rookie to track during training camp. He received first-team snaps Tuesday, getting an opportunity to play as veteran Mike Pollak continues rehabbing from a knee injury that he said flared up earlier in the offseason. We'll have more on Bodine later in the week, but Jackson, Pollak and others credited the way he's adapted to the offense so far.
  • During the two open OTAs the past two weeks Carlos Dunlap was primarily lining up at the right defensive end position. During Tuesday's minicamp, he switched a little more than he had between the left and right end spots. He'll likely end up playing his share of both positions during the season, although it seems he primarily is in line to take over Michael Johnson's duties at right end. We'll have more on just how he's embracing that role change later this week, too.
CINCINNATI -- By showing up to Paul Brown Stadium these next few weeks, several Cincinnati Bengals could collectively earn more than $3.2 million in bonus money, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draft likelihood: High

Rounds drafted? Any

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

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

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

Potential picks: Dee Ford (Auburn), Kony Ealy (Missouri), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame), Taylor Hart (Oregon), William Clark (West Virginia).
CINCINNATI -- There was no shock in the news. No awe was inspired by the announcement. It was all expected.

For five years it was expected.

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsThe Bengals were prepared to lose talented defensive end Michael Johnson.
When the Cincinnati Bengals began laying the framework for their Mike Zimmer-led defense, a unit that in 2009 was only one year into being guided by the now former defensive coordinator, they were making a bold turn in philosophy. Yes, they wanted good linebackers. They wanted better-than-average cornerbacks and safeties if they could get them, too. But above all that, they wanted to build a defensive line that put unrelenting pressure on quarterbacks.

Michael Johnson was the guinea pig in Zimmer's grand experiment, one that a year later brought the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to Cincinnati. Because of their youth, the trio of defensive linemen earned a nickname: "the Fisher Price defense."

The Fisher Price kids have grown up. Their bank accounts have matured.

One year after Dunlap and Atkins cashed in on long-term, multimillion-dollar deals, Johnson on Tuesday agreed to a five-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that's reportedly worth $43.75 million. The free-agent defensive end anticipates making $24 million of guaranteed money, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson. The approximate $8.75 million per year figure he'll be earning was higher than what the Bengals would have been able to match, particularly with offensive tackle Anthony Collins also a free-agent target of theirs. Quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict also have contracts that expire next year.

It has been a foregone conclusion since last March when Johnson was slapped with the team's franchise tag that he likely would be gone this offseason. A case also could be made that as far back as 2009, it was unlikely he would be a Bengals lifer. Then again, as long as they produced, the same could have been said for Dunlap or Atkins in 2010, too.

Back when he was drafted in the third round out of Georgia Tech, questions about Johnson's size, motor and durability hung over him. Some weren't sure how well he could translate long-term, so he dipped into the third round. Zimmer, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and their scouting staff saw something. Each believed he could project into the highly valued end he became the past two years. So they drafted him.

Similar sentiments could be expressed about Dunlap and Atkins. When Dunlap arrived, the second-round pick was pushed hard both publicly in practices and privately in meeting rooms by Zimmer, who foresaw more potential than the lineman initially put out. Atkins was a fourth-rounder who many didn't originally think had an NFL future simply because he waddled instead of walked like most defensive tackles.

Once all three began getting to quarterbacks and climbing up the Bengals' sack charts, though, the questions faded away. Johnson's motor suddenly was fine. Dunlap began pleasing Zimmer. Atkins' duck walk started drawing praise. The baby Bengals were going to be fully grown before too long. Holding on to each of them beyond their first deals was going to be virtually impossible.

Cincinnati began learning that lesson last offseason when it was faced with the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to bring back all three. Johnson was up for a new contract, but the Bengals didn't want to let him get away. Atkins and Dunlap had another year before their rookie contracts expired, but Cincinnati wanted them, too. So ownership made the difficult decision to tag Johnson while working out new deals for the other two (five years, $55 million for Atkins; five years, $40 million for Dunlap). At the same time, other steps were being taken to ensure the Bengals would be OK for that moment when Johnson, the eldest of their "Fisher Price" stars, decided it best to leave the nest. He loved Cincinnati, though, so the only way he would leave was was if the money just wasn't able to match up. After the Seahawks reportedly offered end Michael Bennett about $8 million per year Monday, it started getting even clearer that Johnson wouldn't be coming back to the Bengals.

As they anticipated Johnson's likely departure, the Bengals re-signed Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers last offseason while also drafting Margus Hunt in the second round. It was their belief that in the event Johnson would cost too much this year, at least they had a pair of veterans and another young but learning player to replace him with.

It was because of those steps that the Bengals can proudly bid farewell to the player who was the first and perhaps most crucial piece to the establishment of their young defensive line unit. It's much the same pride they felt when Zimmer, the man who built and nurtured the unit for five years, moved on to become a head coach for the first time in January. Like Zimmer, the expectation for Johnson's departure has been in the works for some time.

While there surely will be many in Cincinnati who will miss Johnson and his often-lauded charitable spirit, they must also know that his time simply had come. The leader of the young Bengals has, like the rest of them, grown up.
CINCINNATI -- Brace yourselves, Cincinnati Bengals fans. As the hours start flying by between now and the start of free agency Tuesday afternoon, it is beginning to look more and more as though losing Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson will be a real possibility.

Collins, the backup offensive tackle who has starter's potential, and Johnson, the formerly franchise-tagged defensive end who is entering free agency with him, are likely too expensive for the Bengals to keep. Reports have already indicated that Collins could command between $6-7.5 million per year from the teams that have courted him during this soon-to-expire three-day legal tampering period.

[+] EnlargeCollins
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals are well positioned to absorb the loss of Anthony Collins.
Johnson could be looking at slightly better numbers that the Bengals just won't be able to match.

In the event they sign elsewhere, where would that leave the Bengals? Would all hope be lost for the franchise that exhausted as much time and effort as it could at re-signing the pair? Not at all.

Truthfully, the Bengals are in the envious situation of bringing back a roster that is full of veterans. Even their young players have had significant playing time across the past three seasons. Because the overall depth on the team is solid, particularly at Collins' and Johnson's positions, the Bengals ought to have very little to worry about if they aren't able to re-sign either player.

Let's focus on offensive tackle first.

If they are able to re-sign Collins, the Bengals are setting themselves up for a rather tenuous situation on the left side of their offensive line, one that Collins may not want to go through another couple of seasons, let alone one more.

With Collins back in the rotation at left tackle, the Bengals will have to decide whether they will allow him to start permanently or continue to have him come off the bench as needed. Although he only started seven games last season, Collins still was used quite extensively as a backup to Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith. If Collins returns and the Bengals start him, it would mean Cincinnati was moving Whitworth from left tackle to left guard, forcing previous starting left guard Clint Boling to the bench. Boling started 12 games last season until an ACL injury early in the Week 13 game at San Diego ended his season. To replace him, the Bengals moved over Whitworth and started Collins.

From a financial standpoint, the only way Collins would return to Cincinnati is if the Bengals could match an offer that would pay him close to $6 million a year. That's a lot of money to pay him to ride the bench again, so team officials would have to think long and hard about how much they wanted to shake up the lineup with his return. It wouldn't necessarily be a bad decision to have.

The reasons for such free-agency frugality are many. Among them include the team's hopes of re-signing each of its three tendered restricted free agents, keeping several of its other less pricy unrestricted free agents, making pushes to extend quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict a year early, and just trying to balance the books. Even with a salary cap that's about $7 million more than expected, so much of the nearly $30 million the Bengals have in cap space will be eaten by other budgetary obligations before some $15 million miraculously appears for Collins and Johnson to get paid.

Speaking of Johnson, a logjam similar to what Collins could be facing might be staring at Johnson and his fellow defensive ends if he re-signs.

After placing the franchise tag on Johnson last March, the Bengals re-signed defensive ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry and drafted Margus Hunt in hopes of building up their depth and talent at the right end spot. Their thinking last offseason was to simply get the position group ready in the event they were unable to re-sign Johnson this offseason. Geathers' season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 helped the Bengals avoid any playing-time issues at the position last season.

Coupled with an expected healthy Geno Atkins at defensive tackle and Carlos Dunlap at defensive end, the rotation of Geathers, Gilberry and Hunt should give the Bengals a measure of freshness and relief at Johnson's old spot.

Life in Cincinnati without Collins and Johnson also could include draft picks in May as the Bengals start looking even further into their future for replacements for veterans like Whitworth, Geathers and Gilberry. With draft picks coming and what Cincinnati already has in place, it's a future that's not as dark and morbid as many might want to believe.

Yes, Collins and Johnson were the big metaphorical fish they had hoped to land once again.

But get ready, Bengals fans, because you may soon have no choice but watch your organization adapt to life without them.
Good Saturday morning to you.

After taking a week off last weekend due to a busy couple of days at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, we're back with another Cincinnati Bengals mailbag. And because we got such a great rush of questions on Twitter this week, we'll be splitting this mailbag up into two separate posts. Here is Part 1. Come back Sunday morning to check out Part 2.

This edition of the weekend's Bengals mailbag is devoted primarily to free agency (although, a couple of free agency questions will sneak into Sunday's post, as well). Are there free agents the Bengals could go after, including their own 14 unrestricted and restricted players? Who might some of those targets be? Is Oakland running back Darren McFadden one of them?

We try to answer some of these questions below:



Sunday, 11/23
Monday, 11/24