AFC North: Hard Knocks

Here are the latest happenings Wednesday evening in the AFC North:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers declined an invitation this summer to take part in HBO's popular, award-winning "Hard Knocks" series, which examines the trials and tribulations of training camp.

HBO now has to find its second choice. Could the next team be in the AFC North?

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
Larry French/Getty ImagesRay Lewis and the Ravens could provide several interesting storylines for HBO's "Hard Knocks."
You can rule out the Cincinnati Bengals. HBO's been there and done that in 2009, which is too recent. The audience already has a feel for Cincinnati's franchise and it would be difficult for HBO to provide a different spin.

I also believe you can scratch off the Pittsburgh Steelers. They have a great training camp site, but Pittsburgh isn't the type of team seeking that kind of attention. The Steelers are very workmanlike, and I have a hard time seeing them opening their doors and being bothered by all the distractions and production involved.

The Cleveland Browns may be an interesting story. Former Browns coach Eric Mangini said he would never do it, but the new regime of president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and rookie coach Pat Shurmur may be more forthcoming. But the Browns don't have a lot of star power and HBO already did the "struggling Ohio football team" story two years ago in Cincinnati. So there's probably not much interest in Cleveland.

Finally, you have the Baltimore Ravens, who do have star power and could provide some interesting storylines. Can this team be a Super Bowl contender in 2011? Is quarterback Joe Flacco ready to take the next step? How does linebacker Ray Lewis continue to lead this team after 15 seasons? Baltimore has great personalities and its training camp location is immaculate. So there are several reasons the Ravens could fit.

But Baltimore was one of the first teams to do "Hard Knocks" in 2001 and there's plenty of teams that haven't done it and could be considered fresher meat for HBO. So overall, the chances do not look great for "Hard Knocks" landing in the AFC North this summer.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 18, 2009
12/18/09
4:00
PM ET
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Larry French/Getty ImagesCoach John Harbaugh's Ravens have the inside track to a wild-card spot.


Ravens in control: The Baltimore Ravens are thanking the Indianapolis Colts this week for giving them possession of the final wild-card spot. Indianapolis’ 35-31 victory Thursday over the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-7) moved Baltimore (7-6) into the final AFC wild-card spot with three games left. They begin their final push Sunday in Baltimore against the Chicago Bears (5-8). The time on the game was moved from 1 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. After that, they have road games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) and Oakland Raiders (4-9).

In memory of Henry: The Cincinnati Bengals are dedicating the remainder of the season to former receiver Chris Henry, who died Thursday following a domestic incident with his fiancée. The Bengals (9-4) will wear No. 15 helmet decals when they take the field this weekend against the San Diego Chargers (10-3). The winner of this game has the inside track to securing the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Unknown replacement: Unless you watched HBO’s "Hard Knocks" series this summer, most fans are not familiar with Bengals safety Tom Nelson. The undrafted rookie was impressive in training camp and will get his first career start against San Diego. Veteran starting safety Chris Crocker re-injured his ankle in last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings and is expected to be sidelined two to three weeks. Nelson draws a tough assignment right away with San Diego, which has an explosive receiving corps and one of the NFL’s top tight ends in Antonio Gates. Nelson has 12 tackles and one interception this season.

Battle of 3-4 defenses: Sunday’s game between the Steelers (6-7) and Green Bay Packers (9-4) will have an AFC North feel as both teams play 3-4 defenses. The Packers, who are playing the scheme for the first time under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers, are actually ranked slightly ahead of Pittsburgh in total defense at No. 2. The Steelers are No. 4. Three of the four teams in the AFC North play a 3-4 scheme, with the only exception being the Bengals.

Going for two: It's been more than a year since the Cleveland Browns (2-11) won two games in a row. But they have a good chance to pull off the feat Sunday against the equally bad Kansas City Chiefs (3-10). The Browns, who beat the rival Steelers last week, last won two straight from Sept. 28-Oct. 13, 2008 (A bye week was in between the two victories). A win at Kansas City could end that lengthy drought and also give first-year coach Eric Mangini his first winning streak with the team.

Morning take: Timmons expected back

October, 28, 2009
10/28/09
8:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Despite another ankle injury, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons says he expects to be ready for the Nov. 9 game against the Denver Broncos.
Morning take: Timmons was lucky he didn’t injure the same ankle twice. That should help with his recovery time.
  • Is it time for the Baltimore Ravens (3-3) to worry about their playoff hopes?
Morning take: Keep in mind the Ravens were 3-3 last season before advancing to the AFC title game. But the major difference is the AFC North is a three-team race this year, not a two-team race.
Morning take: Cincinnati got off to a rocky start in Week 1, causing some doubt. But since then the Bengals are in good shape for the stretch run.
  • Two struggling teams will meet this weekend when the Cleveland Browns (1-6) travel to play the Chicago Bears (3-3).
Morning take: Both teams are on two-game losing streaks. But if the Bears play like they did last week against the Bengals, who knows?

Hard Knocks recap: Season finale

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
10:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


HBO concluded an interesting season of “Hard Knocks” featuring the Cincinnati Bengals Wednesday night.

Here were the highlights:

Synopsis: The Bengals wrap up their preseason and experience one of the most difficult days of the year when it’s time to reduce the roster to 53 players. Cincinnati goes out and puts a 38-7 thrashing on the Indianapolis Colts, as a lot of players perform well and make for some tough last-minute decisions.

Ocho drop-o: Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who has been one of the biggest stars of the season, tells a lie right off the bat by saying he’s dropped only two passes all summer. Veteran safety Roy Williams calls him out on it and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer gives Ocho a “Child please!” When HBO rolls the tape, the network shows a half-dozen drops from Ochocinco, proving Williams and Zimmer correct.

Funny moment No. 1: The league provides the Bengals with rules of communicating through the Internet. While Bengals coach Marvin Lewis goes down the list of social-networking sites, he says, “Facebook, whatever that’s called.” It’s safe to assume Lewis doesn’t have a Facebook account.

Funny moment No. 2: The show went into the origin of the “Who-Dey” chant, which started with the good Bengal teams of the 1980s. Said rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, who played for USC and is from California: “It’s a little corny. But, you know, it’s part of the program.”

Rise and fall: Rookie tight end Chase Coffman continues to baffle Cincinnati’s coaching staff. The third-round pick began training camp slow and way behind on the depth chart. It then appeared he was making strides in the middle of camp, as injuries to the position helped propel him. But Coffman has continued his roller-coaster ride and fallen back to third string, according to the coaches, as they prepare for the regular season.

Cut time: The Bengals had to cut 20-plus players to get down to their 53-man roster. There were very few surprises, with the exception of keeping both Brian Leonard and DeDe Dorsey, which I agree was the right call.

Grade: B

Why: Naturally, roster cuts were the biggest part of the show, so most football and Bengals fans knew the ending before tuning in. Still, it was interesting to watch the process. In the best scene of the show, it was surreal to watch the coaching staff discuss and determine the future and livelihoods of so many people. Then viewers also got to see the process of each player waiting to be called. Overall, it was a great job by HBO to put a spotlight on a team few football fans cared about on a national scale. Any victory for the Bengals is a victory for the AFC North.

'Hard Knocks' recap: Episode 4

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series continued Wednesday night with its fourth episode on the Cincinnati Bengals.

Here is a recap:



Synopsis: This week’s episode centered on Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. He is in his seventh year in Cincinnati and several of his own players admitted that this is a big season for “The Bossman,” as receiver Chad Ochocinco refers to him. The show details Cincinnati’s history and Lewis’ various struggles, such as making sure the Bengals don’t accept mediocrity and keeping in check all the different personalities. He even calls out Ochocinco for using Twitter, and then yells at the entire team following a preseason loss to the St. Louis Rams.


All in the family:
Finally, the show delved into the “family business” of the Bengals and how the team was once run by Paul Brown and passed onto current owner Mike Brown. Another interesting tidbit was that vice president Katie Blackburn worked for the team as early as high school. Blackburn, Mike Brown’s daughter, now has a law degree and is the Bengals’ chief negotiator.


Funny moment No. 1:
The entrance for the coaches at Paul Brown Stadium doesn’t work. “The gate is still broke?” Lewis wondered. “Why do I think the gate is still broke?” So Lewis backs up his truck, then drives it around the entrance gate and gets a good laugh out of it.


Funny moment No. 2:
With his girlfriend in attendance, Ochocinco offers a tip on how to meet women. The trick, according to Ochocinco, is to tell a woman your cell phone is dead, borrow hers, and then dial your number from the woman’s phone and call or text her later. “That may be some stalker-ish stuff but it helps with the rejection process.” (Thanks, Ocho, but I think I’ll pass on that approach.)


Fullback quandary:
It looks like the fullback competition between 2009 draft pick Fui Vakapuna and relative unknown Chris Pressley is heating up. The coaches like Pressley’s blocking ability more and appear to be considering him for a surprise roster spot. Vakapuna is more fluid catching passes out of the backfield, according to the team. Finals roster cuts are Saturday. Could an upset be brewing?


Smith in action:
As expected, first-round pick Andre Smith’s contract agreement made it into the most recent episode. Smith ended his 30-day holdout, and owner Mike Brown tells him right away that he’s not in good shape. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported this week that Smith was overweight when he arrived, and your favorite AFC North blogger also reported that Cincinnati inserted a 350-pound “weight clause” into his contract during the regular season. HBO showed the actual sequence where Smith fractured a bone in his foot, and it was really a non-descript play where he was holding his block on Chris Harrington. According to HBO, Smith will be out for at least three weeks.


Grade:
B


Why:
This was another good episode in what’s been an impressive season of “Hard Knocks,” but I felt this week’s offering was a bit jumbled. The show tried to explain the Bengals’ family-run operation, Lewis’ plight, Smith’s signing, a poor preseason performance, and while still getting in its weekly dose of Ochocinco all in one hour. It jumped back and forth from story to story so fast without going very in-depth on any one topic. But overall it’s pretty clear that Lewis is not pleased with his football team. There are a lot of little things going on with the Bengals right now that Lewis doesn’t like, such as players arriving late to practice and not taking care of the little things in games. Cleaning up the little things is what the preseason is for. But if the Bengals feel they’ve already arrived and carry that attitude into the regular season, it could be a long year.

'Hard Knocks' recap: Episode 3

August, 27, 2009
8/27/09
12:30
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

HBO's "Hard Knocks" series continued Wednesday night with its third episode on the Cincinnati Bengals.

Here is a recap:


Synopsis: The Bengals wrap up the final few days of training camp in Georgetown, Ky., and cap it off with a hilarious rookie talent show. Following camp, Cincinnati travels to play its second preseason game against the New England Patriots, where a surprise kicker emerges in a 7-6 victory.


Ocho's kick: "Hard Knocks" chronicled how Chad Ochocinco became a surprise placekicker against New England. Kicker Shayne Graham (groin) was a no-go before the game and the Bengals actually planned to go for fourth downs and two-point conversions all night until Ochocinco asked "Bossman," aka Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, if he can kick during the game. It turns out Ochocinco's form was great and his extra point was the difference in the contest. Kudos for a game-winning idea from Ochocinco.


Palmer ailing: While getting treatment, Cincinnati's trainer tells a surprised Palmer that his ankle sprain will take "several weeks" to heal. Palmer responds that he heals fast and has more white blood cells than the average human being. (I'm not sure if he was joking or not.) The trainer shrugged and repeated that the team will take its time with the injury. In a shameless plug, the AFC North blog broke a story earlier Wednesday repeating that sentiment that Cincinnati is being extra cautious with Palmer and is pondering resting him for the remainder of the preseason.


America's (rookies) got talent: Perhaps the highlight of episode No. 3 was the rookie talent show. Nothing was off limits as rookies poked fun at Roy Williams' relationship with pop star Kelly Rowland, Andre Smith's 40-yard dash and Dhani Jones' eccentric ways. Even the usually serious Lewis couldn't stop laughing at these skits. I watched the segment three times myself last night on DVR. Funny stuff.


Camp surprise: Rookie free-agent safety Tom Nelson is making plays all over the field and is opening the eyes of Bengals coaches. The plays Nelson is making this year is reminiscent of some of the plays 2008 draft pick Corey Lynch made in last year's camp. But currently Lynch is struggling and Nelson is thriving as both players likely are fighting for one of the team's final roster spots.


More Smith talks: As reported in the media, Smith's agent, Alvin Keels, arrives in Cincinnati to do some down-and-dirty negotiations. Keels goes into an office with Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn and locks the door. "Are we going to get
a deal done today, Katie?" Keels asks. "It's up to you, Alvin," Blackburn responds. The two spend several hours in the room only to emerge with nothing. The pair agree to keep in touch. Bengals owner Mike Brown described the talks to his staff by saying, "We have no reason to think it will be [complete] anytime soon."


RB competition: It appears DeDe Dorsey and Brian Leonard are battling for one running back spot. Leonard is solid but not spectacular, while Dorsey brings a "wow factor" that Cincinnati is looking for behind starter Cedric Benson. Dorsey has shuffled around the NFL, including a prior trip to Cincinnati, because of inconsistencies and injuries. Leonard was a bust for the St. Louis Rams and is trying to prove his worth for another team. In a related note, Leonard faces the Rams Thursday night in a preseason contest.


Grade: B+


Why: This was another solid offering. It covered everything well -- from Palmer's ankle rehab to Ochocinco's extra point to Smith's contract negotiations. I'm still waiting for the big Mike Brown showcase episode, but maybe that's a pipe dream. Besides the occasional appearance by Blackburn, we still haven't seen much of the internal workings of Bengals ownership and the dynamics of the Brown family. But the breakdown of players, coaches and personalities have been tremendous, and this week's episode was another great example.

'Hard Knocks' recap: Episode 2

August, 20, 2009
8/20/09
10:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

HBO's "Hard Knocks" series with the Cincinnati Bengals continued Wednesday night.

Here is a recap of some of the highlights:

Synopsis: This week's episode focused a lot on Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who was accurately described as the team's most important player this season. Cincinnati played a mock game and also its first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. Before the game, Bengal players and coaches were telling each other this was the start of something special. But the exhibition turned out to be a 17-7 win for the Saints. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wasn't happy afterwards about the team's second-half performance.

QB wisdom: According to Palmer, 60-to-70 percent of what star receiver Chad Ochocinco says is just hot air. Palmer says he tunes out his top target most of the time.

More Ocho: The veteran receiver went out for a rare night on the town during training camp and ended up being harassed by a male fan. Ochocinco handles it well and later responds, "See how boring my life is? All I have is Twitter." The show also focused on his not-so-good diet, which has always included a lot of McDonald's.

Truth and reality: "Hard Knocks" continues to make rookie tight end Chase Coffman a huge goat on the show, which is only part of the story. Coffman is making rookie mistakes, but he's gradually improved as camp has progressed. Yet it seems every one of his mistakes is being profiled in what's framed almost as a running joke. It was pretty funny that the coaching staff came up with a new nickname for Coffman: "Crash dummy."

Far apart: The show ends with a bang as Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn is on the telephone negotiating with Alvin Keels, the agent for first-round pick Andre Smith. With tens of millions of dollars at stake, both sides argue over the Darrius Heyward-Bey deal and how it impacts Smith. Keels wants more than Heyward-Bey, while Blackburn doesn't want to give the No. 6 pick more than the No. 7 pick. It's not looking good.

Grade: A-

Why: As expected the show is getting better with each episode. This week's version was very personality based, which is great for Bengals fans and non-Bengals fans alike. Viewers got to know players like Palmer, Chinedum Ndukwe, Chris Henry and Corey Lynch on a more personal level. There were even small details such as how to make a quarterback wristband before game day, which was probably a television first. All and all it was a great job of chronicling the past week in "Bengaldom."

Morning take: Big game for D.A.

August, 20, 2009
8/20/09
7:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:

  • This weekend's preseason game against the Detroit Lions could be make-or-break for Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson.

Morning take: Brady Quinn took the early lead in the first preseason game. If Anderson wants to keep this QB derby competitive, he needs to outperform Quinn in Game 2.

Morning take: Although not every team can pull this off, I agree with Pittsburgh choosing health over workload this summer. The veteran-laden Steelers already know their roles.

  • Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wants to carry over momentum into his second year.

Morning take: With another year getting to know his personnel, it will be interesting to see what Cameron has up his sleeve. Expect Baltimore's offense and quarterback Joe Flacco to show improvement this year.

Morning take: We will have more on "Hard Knocks" in the next post.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

HBO's much-anticipated "Hard Knocks" series featuring the Cincinnati Bengals made its debut Wednesday night. Every week the AFC North blog we will break down highlights of the show for ESPN.com readers.

 
  AP Photo/Al Behrman
  Chad Ochocinco unveiled his new catchphrase during the first episode of "Hard Knocks."

Here is a recap of the first episode:

Synopsis: After a 4-11-1 season that Bengals owner Mike Brown deemed "an embarrassment," the team is trying to fight back from the bottom to the top of the NFL. The series starts with the Olympics-style competition that the team held during minicamp, which displayed an attempt to build unity and a willingness to compete. Once arriving in Georgetown, Ky., the Oklahoma drill serves as an early highlight. The injury bug also strikes the tight end position, where starter Reggie Kelly (Achilles) is lost for the season and Ben Utecht suffers a severe concussion.

Next tight end up: Last year, then-rookie tight end Martellus Bennett of the Dallas Cowboys was the "Hard Knocks" goat early in training camp. This season Bengals rookie tight end Chase Coffman filled the same void in the debut episode. The show displayed all of Coffman's early mistakes in camp, such as poor routes and sloppy footwork. Ironically, I detailed many of those same initial struggles during my visit to Georgetown. But Coffman has actually improved since and is challenging for first-team reps.

Funny moment No. 1: In a welcome-to-Bengaldom moment, new safety Roy Williams -- who had spent his entire career in Dallas -- is shocked that players have to pay money to rent televisions for their dorm rooms. "There's no TV?" a startled Williams asked. The prices range from $93 to $266 depending on the size. The Bengals are notorious for their cost-cutting ways and this was yet another example.

Funny moment No. 2: Fullback Jeremi Johnson entered training camp 11 pounds overweight. And with team trainers working with Johnson every day, he somehow gained three additional pounds in the first week. Weight has always been an issue for Johnson since he arrived to Cincinnati in 2003. But lately he's gotten it together and is getting work with the first team.

Brown vs. the media: The Bengals have been a running joke in the media for quite some time and Brown acknowledged that in his address to the team.

"We exposed ourselves to the media, which criticized us and mocked us," the Bengals owner said. "This is a hard business. It can be a tough, bottom-line business where all that matters is did you win or did you lose? Now is the time for us to answer back, and the place for us to answer back is on the playing field. From there, our critics will hear us loud and clear."

The Ocho Show: In somewhat of an upset, entertaining receiver Chad Ochocinco didn't get his own segment until about 40 minutes into the hour-long program. At that time Ochocinco explained one of his favorite sayings: "Child please!"

"Child please is a nice way to say [expletive] you," said Ochocinco, who recommends that everyone try his new catchphrase.

Ochocinco also explains why Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo split up with Jessica Simpson.

"She bought him a $100,000 boat and now her birthday is coming up. That's a lot of pressure," Ochocinco said to laughing teammates. "As an athlete, we got money. But we don't got money like they [entertainers] got money, so pressure caused the breakup."

Spin control: Executive vice president Katie Blackburn displayed a perfect example of the Bengals being able to control the message. Wednesday's episode briefly touched on Cincinnati first-round pick Andre Smith being the lone absentee because of a contract dispute. But instead of being fair to both sides and pointing out Cincinnati's awful track record with rookie holdouts, Blackburn had an open forum.

"It's extremely frustrating," Blackburn said. "You're offering them so much money, and yet for some reason they're saying it's not enough."

Grade: B

Why: I'm intrigued by the potential of this show, but I thought the first episode was just good, not great. It focused mostly on the players, where I believe the most-compelling stories and mystery surrounding the Bengals involves ownership and the family-run business. I want to see more of Mike Brown, who is a polarizing figure in Cincinnati and rarely in the public eye. I want to see more of the Bengals' football operation, which is scant compared to other NFL teams and has been criticized tremendously over the years. Although I cover the Bengals regularly, I'm still eager to learn something new about the organization with its doors completely open this summer. The debut episode failed to accomplish that goal.

'Hard Knocks' debuts tonight

August, 12, 2009
8/12/09
3:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is another reminder that the Cincinnati Bengals will make their HBO "Hard Knocks" debut Wednesday night at 10 p.m.

Film crews have been following the Bengals' every move in training camp for nearly two weeks before airing tonight's first episode. There have already been some interesting developments in training camp for Cincinnati, such as Andre Smith's absence, quarterback Carson Palmer's illness and multiple injuries to the tight end position.

I spent several days in Georgetown with the Bengals this summer and it will be interesting to see how their camp is portrayed on television. For those who do not have HBO, check back with the AFC North blog every Thursday morning this summer for a "Hard Knocks" recap.

The week ahead

August, 10, 2009
8/10/09
5:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

As always, we have a full lineup in the AFC North blog this week.

Here is a sneak peak of what to expect:

  • This week I will be at the training camp of the Cleveland Browns to get a closer look at Eric Mangini and Co. I'm particularly interested in the quarterback battle between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson.
  • Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET we will have our weekly chat on the AFC North.
  • Wednesday night will be the debut episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks" television series featuring the Cincinnati Bengals. Not everyone has HBO. Therefore every Thursday morning for the rest of the summer, the AFC North blog will run a "Hard Knocks" recap detailing the latest episode.
  • Also, on Thursday night I will return to Pittsburgh to check out the preseason debut of the Steelers, who host the Arizona Cardinals in a Super Bowl rematch at Heinz Field.
  • AFC West blogger Mike Sando and I will have a Double Coverage debate and podcast midweek on the Steelers and Cardinals leading up to the preseason game.
  • On Saturday, we will have the weekend mailbag. So if you have any questions on your favorite team, send them here.

It's going to be another fun week in the division. Stay tuned to the AFC North blog for updates.

Bengals training camp notes

August, 3, 2009
8/03/09
1:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Monday is our final day in Cincinnati Bengals training camp. It's been an interesting four days with one of the most popular sleeper picks in the NFL this season.

Here are some finals notes and observations on the Bengals before we move on to visit the other three AFC North teams:

  • I will start with a personal opinion: The chemistry with this year's Bengals is as good as I've seen. I've covered Cincinnati or the AFC North in some capacity since 2004, and this is the best Bengals locker room, as a group, that I can remember. In a league built for every team to finish 8-8, good chemistry is one of the few things that separate NFL teams. My early impression is that the usually up-and-down Bengals have a rare chance this season for chemistry not to be an issue.
  • Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer returned to practice Monday after missing the last two sessions over the weekend. According to a source, Palmer was dealing with flu-like symptoms, and on Monday he confirmed that it was bronchitis. He still looked slightly under the weather but appears to be getting over the illness.
  • It is still eerily quiet on the Andre Smith front. The first-round tackle missed his fourth day Monday as the team continues its negotiations. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis did not take a hard-line stance recently when asked about Smith. Lewis praised the rookie's abilities to be a productive player and virtually left the door open for Smith to earn a starting job by Week 1. But this stance is always subject to change based on the amount of time Smith is out.
  • The Bengals roster appears overstocked in some areas, which could lead to trade options later this summer. Several positions such as defensive line, receiver and maybe even linebacker have a lot of players who could contribute but not enough reps to go around. With Cincinnati's lengthy history of injuries, it may be wise to maintain depth. But the Bengals do have some bargaining chips for trades that might help weaker areas on the team.
  • Rookie tight end Chase Coffman still looks bothered by his foot injury. The size and hands are apparent and the primary reason he was taken in the third round by the Bengals. But so far Coffman still appears a half-step slow in running his routes, and he's not taking any days off to rest the sore foot.
  • As far as HBO's Hard Knocks, overall the process got off to a good start. The coaches didn't seem too bothered by it, but it has looked a little unnatural for some players. Cameras are everywhere in Georgetown, and some players, like receiver Chad Ochocinco, appear to be having fun with it while others are more reserved. After living and experiencing the first four days of training camp, I'm curious to see how it's portrayed on camera.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- This is a year of optimism for the Cincinnati Bengals and starting tailback Cedric Benson.

 Benson

After joining the team last October, Benson made his mark by leading the team with 747 rushing yards in 12 games. This year Benson is in camp and expected to be productive for 16 games.

Over the weekend Benson talked to the AFC North blog about this upcoming season. [Editor's note: HBO's "Hard Knocks" filmed this interview, which was addressed in question No. 5.]

1. Cedric, how different is Year 2 with Cincinnati, knowing you get a full training camp?

Cedric Benson: Well, I'm doing something as opposed to chillin' on the couch right now. I guess that's about the only difference...Camp tends to have its pros and cons. It takes a toll on you as well. At the same aspect it gives you a chance to get really meshed in with your offense and in a good groove going into the season.

2. There are a lot of new faces in new places on the offensive line. So how will the adjustment be for you running the football?

Benson: [Saturday] was our first day in pads. So we didn't really get the chance to get a feel out there for how it's going to pan out or how it's going to work. I'm sure they're still looking for their groove, because we're kind of still trying to find our niche together.

3. Is there a reason you're hitting the outside more in these camps than last season?

Benson: That's basically the plays that I've been running. We've worked on a couple stretches and outside runs. It's just utilizing the speed, too, and letting that be a factor in the game.

4. You've never had 1,000 yards at this level. Is that a goal you set for yourself this season?

Benson: It's definitely attainable. It's something that you think about. It's something that you work for, both in the offseason and during the season. And you hope everything matches up and everybody meshes together so you can have some success with it.

5. Last thing: Is it weird having these guys [Hard Knocks] around?

Benson: [Smiles] Nah, I haven't even noticed them.

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