AFC North: Chinedum Nduwke

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down the safeties of each AFC North team. Today: Cincinnati Bengals.

This area of the Bengals' defense really worries me. There are a lot of players in the mix, but none excites me. Cincinnati would be wise to look at one of the many good free agents likely to be available.

Reggie Nelson played much better for the Bengals after coming over in a trade from the Jaguars, and the former first-round pick does have natural ability to patrol the deep portions of the field. Nelson should remain as the starting free safety given the status of the current roster, but he was such a liability in Jacksonville that it will take time to convince me he can be counted on.

Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White will be free agents in some form. Ndukwe is an average starting strong safety who is decent near the line of scrimmage but can be exposed in coverage. He does blitz well, though. White didn’t play a snap last season and was added to the roster only after Tom Nelson, who also made little impact, went on injured reserve.

Roy Williams and Gibril Wilson will also be free agents. They have some similarities -- both are much better near the line of scrimmage than in coverage. Williams didn’t play poorly for the Bengals, but he remains pretty much a one-dimensional run stuffer. Wilson never saw the field after blowing out his knee during the preseason.

Cincinnati drafted Robert Sands, an extremely tall safety prospect, to add depth and special teams help. Depending on how free agency goes, Sands could see the field sooner rather than later, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL

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.

Bengals thin in the secondary

October, 31, 2010
10/31/10
11:59
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The Cincinnati Bengals' injury woes continue in the secondary.

Starters Johnathan Joseph (ankle) and Chinedum Ndukwe (knee) are both scratches Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. That leaves backups Morgan Trent and Reggie Nelson to start at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Adam Jones was having a solid season as the third cornerback until a neck injury last week put him on injured reserve. Safety Roy Williams also is out with a knee injury. Look for Miami (3-3) to try to exploit the Bengals' (2-4) thin secondary Sunday.

Final Word: AFC North

October, 29, 2010
10/29/10
4:00
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliBen Roethlisberger is not afraid to stay in the pocket even when under pressure.
Big-play Ben: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to make a lot of big plays in Sunday's prime-time matchup against the New Orleans Saints. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, Roethlisberger leads the NFL in passer rating (140.1) and yards per attempt (11.1) against the blitz, which consists of five or more rushers. Roethlisberger is not afraid to hold the ball an extra second or two against pressure to allow his receivers to get downfield. Four of Roethlisberger's five touchdowns passes this year have come against the blitz. The Saints and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams are a blitz-heavy team, which could play into Roethlisberger's hands Sunday.

Winning the turnover battle: It's no secret why the New York Jets (5-1) and the Steelers (5-1) are two of three teams tied for the NFL's best record. They are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in turnover ratio. The Jets are plus-10 in six games and the Steelers are plus-9. Pittsburgh adopted a conservative offense, which took care of the football in Roethlisberger's absence while wreaking havoc on defense. The Steelers are plus-2 in turnover ratio in Roethlisberger's two starts.

Banged-up Bengals: The Cincinnati Bengals are hurting entering their must-win game against the Miami Dolphins, most notably in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (ankle) and Leon Hall (hamstring) both missed practice time this week, as did safeties Chinedum Ndukwe (knee) and Roy L. Williams (knee). Adam Jones (neck) also was put on injured reserve. Quarterback Carson Palmer missed Thursday's practice with a hip injury, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says he expects Palmer to play Sunday.

Red zone woes: The Bengals have been gaining yards but have stalled in the red zone. Cincinnati is ranked No. 8 in total offense but in the bottom third (No. 24) in red zone efficiency, which has made a huge difference in its 2-4 start. The no-huddle has helped between the 20s, but the unit has to toughen up and stop settling for field goals. During Cincinnati's three-game losing streak, the team converted touchdowns on only four of 10 trips to the red zone.

Bye-week thoughts: As the Baltimore Ravens enter the bye week, star safety Ed Reed (hip) will continue to get healthy after an impressive return in last week's win over the Buffalo Bills. Reed recorded two interceptions against Buffalo, and according to ESPN's Stats and Information, only two players have more multi-interception games (nine) than Reed: Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Paul Krause. The Cleveland Browns must find a way to score more points before taking the field Nov. 7 against the New England Patriots. The Browns are No. 28 in scoring at 16.9 points per game. The defense has played hard, and Cleveland is 2-0 when scoring 23 points or more.

Seven-step drop: Flacco mechanics, more

September, 20, 2010
9/20/10
11:30
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 2 in the AFC North:

  • Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's mechanics look off. Flacco usually has one of the smoothest throwing motions in the NFL. But his footwork and follow-through were unusually shaky in Sunday's 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. It's part of what led to Flacco's career-high four interceptions. With the exception of one touchdown drive in the third quarter, Flacco never looked comfortable in the pocket and often threw off his back foot. That impacts accuracy and velocity, and Flacco, who has a very strong arm, lacked both on many throws. This week, Baltimore's coaching staff should get back to the basics with Flacco and remind the young quarterback of what made him successful.
  • [+] EnlargeRice
    Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Rice has just 130 rushing yards in two games this season.
  • With Baltimore's offense struggling to score, what's with the disappearing act of Ray Rice? The Pro Bowl running back only has 130 rushing yards in two games. Rice also hasn't been involved much in the passing game, recording just six receptions. Sometimes teams get so enamored with their new weapons on offense that they forget about the dependable mainstays. Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are great additions. But Rice needs more touches for this offense to click and reach its potential.
  • Credit the Bengals' defense for leaving no big plays on the field. How many games have we seen defenders get their hands on the ball only to drop interception opportunities? The Ravens' secondary did it twice Sunday, but Cincinnati was sure-handed and finished. Linebacker Brandon Johnson, safety Chinedum Ndukwe and cornerbacks Adam Jones and Leon Hall all had interceptions against Baltimore.
  • This may sound like a broken record, but Cincinnati really needs to clean up its penalties. The Bengals were penalized nine times Sunday, and this has been an issue that dates to last season. The coaching staff probably doesn't mind "effort" penalties such as holding or pass interference. But it's the mental errors like not knowing the snap count that drive coaches crazy. The Bengals also blew a couple timeouts because everyone wasn't on the same page.
  • Who will be the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 3 quarterback? Injuries and Ben Roethlisberger's suspension have made this situation very unpredictable. Dennis Dixon's knee injury doesn't look good and Byron Leftwich (knee) will likely be re-signed this week but is still working his way back. Charlie Batch did enough to preserve Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans. But with the way the Steelers are playing defense, it may not matter who's under center in Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  • Pittsburgh's coaching staff is doing a tremendous job of playing to its strengths. The offense didn't score a touchdown against Tennessee, but a tricky kick return jump-started the Steelers and great defense finished the job. On the opening kickoff, Pittsburgh rookie receiver Antonio Brown took a reverse handoff from Mewelde Moore and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown. The Titans didn't see that on any game film. Great coaching by the Steelers.
  • Speaking of coaches, Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini's job security suffered another blow after Sunday's 16-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Based on new Browns president Mike Holmgren's decision to keep Mangini this year, I don't believe Holmgren has a quick hook. Holmgren should give Mangini a chance to turn things around. But wins will be very hard to come by, with Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New England the New York Jets next on the schedule. The Browns started 1-11 last year under Mangini, and Holmgren probably won't accept a similar record.

Around the AFC North: Ndukwe is class act

May, 29, 2010
5/29/10
2:39
PM ET
Baltimore Ravens

Cornerback Prince Miller, 5-foot-8, comes up big in passing camp.

Linebacker Jarret Johnson is keeping a close eye on the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

Cincinnati Bengals

Strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe is a class act and has stayed relevant, despite being selected with the No. 253rd pick in the 2007 draft.

Cleveland Browns

Could Cleveland be angling to host a Super Bowl?

Pittsburgh Steelers

Former University of Pittsburgh punter Adam Graessle gets another shot at the NFL.

Bengals training camp notes

July, 31, 2009
7/31/09
7:30
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- On Friday the AFC North blog got its first look at the Cincinnati Bengals during their 2009 training camp.

The team practiced in shorts and will not do any heavy hitting until the weekend. But here are some observations from Friday's practice:

 
  (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
  Quarterback Carson Palmer will be watched closely in training camp.
  • Let's start with a little contract news. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said there was no update on the progress of contract talks with first-round pick Andre Smith, who was a no-show for the opening of training camp. Second-year player Anthony Collins worked with the starters at right tackle in place of Smith.
  • Starting quarterback Carson Palmer remains on a pitch count, but it will be divided and monitored closely over both practices when there's two-a-days. During minicamp, Palmer threw in the morning session and shut it down for the evening practice. But the coaching staff wants the quarterback and the first-team offense to maintain a rhythm throughout the summer.
  • As advertised, Bengals veteran safety Roy Williams worked with the first-team defense Friday ahead of Chinedum Nduwke. The two are locked in one of the better position battles on the team.
  • Speaking of Williams, he made the play of the day in team drills with a pick six off Palmer. Receiver Jerome Simpson dropped a slant across the middle and had the football bounce off his chest and into the hands of a sliding Williams. The safety then popped up quickly to take the football the other way for a score.
  • Receiver Chad Ochocinco was a crowd favorite Friday. One woman in the stands screamed "I love you, Chad!" Ochocinco turned to the fan, signaled his hand next to his ear and said "Call me."
  • It's easy to tell that rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga is getting antsy for full contact. On several occasions Friday, Maualuga put forth extra effort in wrapping up ball carriers in what was expected to be a low-contact day. In particular, Maualuga laid a pretty good shot on an unsuspecting Chris Henry when the receiver caught the ball in his area. The coaching staff may have to work on toning down Maualuga's aggressiveness against his own team in practice this summer. But for the Bengals, it beats the alternative.

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