AFC North: Keith Rivers


Under league rules, the Baltimore Ravens would be within their rights to not pay linebacker Terrell Suggs for the games he will miss due to his Achilles injury. But, under the rules of the locker room, the players would likely frown upon such a decision against a respected teammate and leader.

League sources told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that Suggs and Eagles offensive tackle Jason Peters are facing a financial reduction in 2012. This would be a bad move for the Ravens. Suggs is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and has been a loyal soldier to the franchise. He's only missed three games in his nine-year career and he's played -- and played well -- through injuries. Suggs had two sacks in the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh four years ago despite wearing a shoulder harness. When a player has given this much to a team, it's poor taste to reach for his wallet when he is injured -- even if it's a business decision.

Still, the Ravens can place him on the Non-Football Injury list because he was hurt while away from the team. It doesn't matter if Suggs tore his Achilles while playing basketball (which were the initial reports) or practicing a conditioning test (which is what Suggs says happened), although saying it happened during the latter makes Suggs looks better.

He was injured outside a team-supervised workout, and under league rules, the team isn't obligated to pay him. Based on his $4.9 million salary in 2012, the Ravens could save $2 million if Suggs missed seven games on the Non-Football Injury list.

While the Ravens have the authority to take money away, it would be surprising for them to actually do it. Baltimore is counting on Suggs to be the foundation of the defense once Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone. The Ravens certainly wouldn't take money away from Lewis or Reed. So, don't expect them to do it with Suggs.

In his first comments on Suggs' injury earlier this month, coach John Harbaugh said Suggs "will continue to be a huge part of what we are doing [and] continue to be a leader." This doesn't sound like the Ravens have any intention of reducing Suggs' paycheck. In fact, Suggs is thinking of getting more money. League sources told Mortensen that Suggs is contemplating a restructuring or extension of his contract when he is healthy that would reflect his status among the league's players after he was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Putting a high-profile player on the Non-Football Injury list wouldn't be unprecedented in the AFC North. It was just last year when the Bengals placed linebacker Keith Rivers on the Non-Football Injury list. Rivers later filed a grievance to recoup his salary, which likely factored in the former first-round pick getting traded to the New York Giants this offseason. This shows how putting a player on the Non-Football Injury list can cause bad feelings.

The Ravens don't have to make a decision on whether to put Suggs on the Non-Football Injury list until the start of training camp. Considering what Suggs has given the franchise for nearly a decade, it would be a bad move for the Ravens to take money away from him.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Baltimore Ravens met with free-agent wide receiver Jacoby Jones on Sunday, according to the NFL Network.

Jones, 27, has also visited with the Carolina Panthers since being released by the Houston Texans on May 1. He was due $3 million this season.

A third-round pick in 2007, Jones caught 31 passes for 512 yards and two touchdowns last season. He was also Houston's punt returner and averaged 10.2 yards on 179 career returns for the Texans. A fumbled punt by Jones set up a Baltimore touchdown in the playoffs last season.

Hensley's slant: I can see the Ravens being very interested in Jones. The Ravens have been looking at wide receivers who can also be the team's primary returner, so Jones fits their profile. Baltimore needs a third receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. The team has also been searching for someone to take the punt return duties away from cornerback Lardarius Webb.

BENGALS: Linebacker Keith Rivers filed a grievance against the team last year, seeking his salary after being sidelined all last season with a wrist injury, according to National Football Post. The Bengals eventually traded Rivers to the New York Giants on April 11 for a fifth-round pick. Rivers, a former first-round pick, had surgery on his wrist near the end of the lockout last summer, and the Bengals thought he could have had it earlier in the offseason. The team put him on the non-football injury list, which meant Cincinnati got to withhold River's salary. Hensley's slant: These hard feelings represent another reason the Bengals were motivated to move Rivers. Cincinnati used that fifth-round pick from the Giants on Boise State safety George Iloka.

BROWNS: Two college defensive coordinators who beat new Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden say he got rattled when pressured. "He got quick feet. He got nervous," Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He really threw the ball away in a hurry. I'm not saying he was scared, he just wanted to get the ball out to his hot receiver." Former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables echoed that sentiment. "The challenge in the NFL," he said, "will be when the pocket's collapsing." Hensley's slant: In two games against those coordinators, Weeden combined for five touchdowns and six interceptions. But these comments aren't exactly a news flash. The biggest challenge for all rookie quarterbacks is adjusting to the increased pass rush and the smaller throwing windows to receivers.

STEELERS: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger graduated from Miami (Ohio) about nine years after leaving for the NFL, and I'll give my take on that accomplishment later today. Pittsburgh also signed two of its nine draft picks during its weekend rookie camp, the team announced. The Steelers reached four-year agreements with nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu (fourth round) and running back Chris Rainey (fifth round). Hensley's slant: Take notice to the fact that these rookies are getting signed to four-year deals and not three-year ones. Under the new CBA, rookies who are drafted receive four-year contracts (teams can exercise a fifth-year option for players selected in the first round). That means drafted rookies will no longer become restricted free agents, like Mike Wallace, because they'll still be under contract.
Outside linebacker Keith Rivers, who was traded today to the New York Giants for a fifth-round pick, wasn't the only disappointment in the Bengals' 2008 draft class.

Cincinnati failed to find a long-term impact player out of its 10 picks that year. Rivers, the ninth overall pick in the 2008 draft, finished with the most starts in this class with 33, and the only players that remain with the team are two backups: defensive tackle Pat Sims (third round), and offensive tackle Anthony Collins (fourth round).

Wide receiver Jerome Simpson (second round) produced a career-high 50 catches last season as the team's No. 2 wide receiver, but he now faces 15 days in a Kentucky jail after pleading guilty to a drug charge. The Bengals haven't ruled out bringing him back.

Wide receiver Andre Caldwell (third round) showed promise in 2009 when he made a career-best 51 catches. But he followed that up with a combined 61 receptions the past two seasons. Caldwell signed this offseason with the Denver Broncos.

There were two players -- defensive tackle Jason Shirley (fifth round) and safety Corey Lynch (sixth round) -- who played a handful of games for Cincinnati before going elsewhere for reserve roles. Shirley played last season for Carolina, and Lynch was with Tampa Bay.

The last three players taken in the Bengals' 2008 draft -- tight end Matt Sherry (sixth), defensive end Angelo Craig (seventh) and wide receiver Mario Urritia (seventh) -- never played a regular-season game for Cincinnati and are out of the league.

In comparison, the Ravens drafted quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice that season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers selected running back Rashard Mendenhall. Even the Browns, who had limited picks after trading for Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams, got underrated defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin in the sixth round.
The Bengals officially traded Keith Rivers to the New York Giants after the linebacker passed his physical today.

Cincinnati receives a fifth-round pick (167th overall) in exchange for Rivers, who has missed 29 games in four seasons because of injuries including all of last season after wrist surgery. As in their other recent player trades, the Bengals got the better end of this deal because Rivers wasn't going to start for the team this season.

A look at which recent players who have been taken at No. 167: Wide receiver Ryan Whalen (Bengals, 2011), linebacker Nathan Triplett (Vikings, 2010), guard Herman Johnson (Cardinals, 2009), defensive end Erik Walden (Cowboys, 2008) and safety Kevin Payne (Bears, 2007). The last Pro Bowl player to be selected at that spot was punter Reggie Roby in 1983.

The Bengals now have nine draft picks: First round (17th and 21st overall), second round (53rd), third round (83rd), fourth round (116th), fifth round (156th, 166th and 167th) and sixth round (191st).
The rumored trade of linebacker Keith Rivers to the New York Giants appears to be a reality, even though the Bengals have yet to announce the move.

Multiple outlets, including the NFL's official website, are reporting that the Bengals received a fifth-round pick from the Super Bowl champions in exchange for the oft-injured Rivers. Even Rivers has confirmed the deal, tweeting out the "Theme from New York, New York." (On a side note, Rivers' first misstep is attributing the quote to "Frank Santria.")

Rivers
Once again, the Bengals are the winners in a trade. Cincinnati is getting the 167th overall pick for a first-round pick who could never stay healthy. Rivers has talent but he missed 29 games in four seasons. A wrist injury sidelined him for the entire 2011 season.

So, the Bengals got a fifth-rounder when they probably would've taken anything to unload the disappointing No. 9 pick from the 2008 draft and his $2.1 million salary. That's the best offer that the Bengals could've received for Rivers, who lost his starting job to Thomas Howard and would've played special teams this season.

How lucky are the Bengals to get a fifth-round pick? The Texans got a fourth-rounder for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was the franchise's all-time leading tackler and a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

This is not a surprise because the Bengals continue to come out on top in such moves. Since last July, Cincinnati has traded away two players for draft picks and gotten the better end of the deal both times. The Bengals sent wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick this year and a sixth-rounder in 2013. Then, they dealt quarterback Carson Palmer to the Raiders for a first-round selection this year and a second-rounder in 2013.

The Bengals now have nine draft picks: First round (17th and 21st overall), second round (53rd), third round (83rd), fourth round (116th), fifth round (156th, 166th and 167th) and sixth round (191st).

*UPDATE: Two sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that the Bengals and Giants do not expect to finalize trade today. The hope is to have it completed by Thursday. It's possible that the trade is continent on Rivers passing a physical.
There are rumors going around that the Bengals may be trading former first-round pick Keith Rivers to the New York Giants. The Newark Star-Ledger's Mike Garafolo addressed the rumblings by reporting "there might be some fire behind this smoke."

The Bengals would probably like to move Rivers, a projected backup linebacker who is making $2.16 million this year. But one holdup to this speculated move is Rivers' ability to pass a physical to complete any trade. Rivers missed all of last season with a wrist injury. The Cincinnati Enquirer referred to the injury as degenerative, but a source later told the paper that the injury is neither degenerative nor career threatening.

Given his injury history, Cincinnati probably wouldn't get anything more than a late-round pick for Rivers, the ninth overall pick in the 2008 draft. The Bengals already have moved on from him, signing Thomas Howard last year to replace him. Howard was the team's most consistent linebacker last season and led the Bengals with 99 tackles.

AFC North weekend mailbag

April, 1, 2012
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It's been a quiet weekend so far in the AFC North and that's not surprising. We're at that point in the offseason where the first wave of free agency is over and the draft is more than three weeks away.

But there are still some unanswered questions based on what's in the mailbag. Let's take a look ...

...

Charlie (Fort Campbell, Ky.): Bengals fan and daily blog reader here. Great job on keeping me updated on my favorite (and least favorite) teams. Anyway, my question is this: Where do you foresee Keith Rivers fitting in with the Bengals' linebacking corps once he returns?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Right now, Rivers doesn't have a spot in the starting lineup. His starting job at weak-side linebacker -- the one he held for 2 1/2 years -- was taken by Thomas Howard, who was the Bengals' most consistent linebacker last season. The Bengals have yet to address Rivers this offseason and might give him a chance to compete for that spot. I see his impact coming on special teams this season. It's certainly a luxury to have the ninth overall pick of the 2008 draft sitting on your bench. The strongside linebacker position is one that the Bengals will need to figure out next season because Howard and Rivers are free agents after this season.


Matt S. (Warren, Ohio): The Browns have talked about trading back a few spots to acquire more picks. I think it is very possible we might see them trade back the sixth pick with the Rams in return for an additional second-rounder and later round picks. This ensures that the Browns have a chance to at least get Morris Claiborne with the sixth pick (the fourth going to Justin Blackmon and the Rams, and fifth going to Trent Richardson and Tampa Bay). Claiborne is a freakish athlete and will solidify the secondary for years to come. This leaves us with the 22nd pick and two second round picks to help the offense with starting potential. Do you think this is a possibility?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: I can definitely see this as a possibility. If the Browns believe LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is the best player available at No. 4, they should try to trade down with the Rams. That way, the Browns can get their targeted player in Claiborne and gain additional picks. I agree that the Rams will take Oklahoma State receiver Blackmon and the Buccaneers will grab Alabama running back Richardson. But this isn't the move I would make. The Browns desperately need a playmaker on offense. It would be a mistake to pass on a talent like Richardson.


Rick (Baltimore): If the Steelers address a need on offensive line or defensive line with their first-round pick, could you see them spending a second-round pick on a quality running back? David Wilson and Doug Martin come to mind. I would love to see Wilson in the Black and Gold on Sundays. He is an underrated freak athlete.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: It's like you were reading my mind. I don't see the Steelers going for a running back in the first round, but there will be good value for that position at the bottom of the second. Expect at least one of the second-tier backs like Wilson (Virginia Tech), Martin (Boise State) and Lamar Miller (Miami) to be available at No. 56 for the Steelers. While I like Martin's toughness in between the tackles, it's hard to overlook the big-play ability of Wilson. The Steelers have a tough runner with Isaac Redman, and Wilson would be a great compliment in the backfield.


Heath (Shreveport, La.): There has been a lot of talk about the Ravens adding a kick returner, but is there any chance they will give Phillip Livas a chance? He was a late-season addition last year and tied an NCAA record at Louisiana Tech with eight returns for touchdowns.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Livas was signed to the Ravens' practice squad during the playoffs and will be kept around for offseason camps and training camp. The Ravens will give him a look, but he's not among the team's top options. Livas was cut by the Miami Dolphins in September even though the 5-foot-7 wide receiver returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the preseason. He didn't catch on with another NFL team until the Ravens picked him up in January.

The Ravens want an upgrade in the return game, which became obvious when they brought in Ted Ginn Jr. for a free-agent visit. Drafting a returner is a good possibility for Baltimore. The top returners are: Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, Alabama's Marquis Maze, Fresno State's Devon Wylie and Stanford's Chris Owusu.
While Ed Reed and Chris Crocker would disagree, a majority of those participating in this week's SportsNation poll say Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was not a dirty player.

In a poll that drew more than 11,000 votes, 62 percent say that Ward didn't cross the line as an aggressive and violent football player. Ward, who announced his retirement Tuesday, has drawn criticism over the years for his hits, and was named the NFL's dirtiest player in a 2009 Sports Illustrated poll.

Here are some comments from the blog and the mail bag regarding Ward's style of play:

Go to War Mrs. Agnes: Dirty Player? Depends on if you're a Steelers fan or not!

Tommy2Steel: After 14 years in the league and consistently delivering those bone-jarring hits, if he truly wanted to end someone's career, I would think the list would be long and distinguished -- but there is no list because it never happened. He was fearsome and he was not afraid to lay the wood to you, but he was not out to end anyone's career.

JustBeWarned: When so many players say you are a dirty player, the argument is over. He's a dirty player. Fans and writers have never been within 10 feet of Hines Ward. What's broadcasted on TV isn't enough for us to be able to judge for ourselves.

Steelers6XSuperbowl Champs: The question is "Is Hines a Dirty Player?" My response is I don't care. All I know is he caught 1,000 passes for a load of yards and was a big part of winning us two Super Bowls. I admit that I usually see things from a black and gold prospective. But you know what, the Steelers have been fun to cheer for since I was a kid and they have six Championships to show for it. Hines will be missed!!!!

Ohiodeclan: Ward was the dirtiest player on a team with a long history of dirty players.

pusencer: Ward was a hard-nosed blocker and played a physical style of ball. He wasn't dirty and played within the rules. The only questionable hit I ever saw him make was on Rivers a couple years back. It was a bit high, but clean. He just didn't see it coming. He should be a Hall of Famer. I'm a browns fan, glad to see him retire. I never saw him as dirty, but definitely intense and physical.

Bob from Winston Salem, N.C.: Concerning Hines Ward being dirty, I would more often call him the King of Unnecessary Roughness. Ward ended Keith Rivers' rookie season with an unnecessary play. The play is going out of bounds, Rivers is at jogging speed trailing the play, Ward lines him up and lays him out breaking his jaw in two places. You cannot break a players jaw with a legal hit. Ward's helmet went up under Rivers facemask. Ward could have just knocked him sideways and instead he took the free lay out hit. Dirty? Perhaps. Unnecessary? Absolutely. If he did that to Tom Brady, Ward would be suspended for a year!

AFC North afternoon notes

November, 29, 2011
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Here are some happenings from around the division:

BENGALS: The team announced that outside linebacker Keith Rivers will remain on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list, which ends his season. Rivers, the ninth overall pick of the 2008 draft, underwent wrist surgery in July. This doesn't come as a surprise to the Bengals, who signed veteran Thomas Howard as his replacement before the season. It will be interesting to see who the Bengals start at outside linebacker next season because Howard has been a strength of the defense this year.

BROWNS: The team waived struggling long-snapper Ryan Pontbriand after he cost the Browns chances at two victories over the past three games, according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Pontbriand, 32, was the second-longest tenured Browns player on the roster (kicker Phil Dawson ranks first). According to The Plain Dealer, Christian Yount (2011 undrafted rookie out of UCLA) is the new long snapper. The team also placed linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Emmanuel Stephens on injured reserve.

RAVENS: While it's not a major addition, the team signed center Cecil Newton to its practice squad. The interesting part of the move is the fact that Newton is the older brother of Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Cecil Newton went undrafted out of Tennessee State and originally signed with Jacksonville. In other news, the Ravens claimed defensive back Emmanuel Cook after getting waived by the Jets.

STEELERS: Head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters that he intends to use both Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown as punt and kickoff returners. Sanders took all four kickoff returns Sunday night, averaging a forgettable 19.3 yards per runback. "We’ve done it less this year, primarily due to the health of Emmanuel," Tomlin said today on rotating Sanders and Brown as returners. "He appears to be moving in the right direction in regards to that. So we just want to keep both of those men in play, not only as kickoff return men but punt return men as well."
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • The Cincinnati Bengals added more defensive help, signing linebacker Manny Lawson to a one-year contract.
Morning take: Cincinnati continues to remake its linebacker corps with Keith Rivers (wrist) hurt and Dhani Jones unlikely to return. Lawson joins Thomas Howard as the two new additions to the Bengals’ defense.
  • Baltimore Ravens second-year nose tackle Terrence Cody is the new man in the middle.
Morning take: The release of Kelly Gregg shows how confident Baltimore is in Cody, who showed up to camp in great shape. Playing next to Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata should also help.
Morning take: The Steelers have 48 hours to get to $123 million, which includes the three $1 million exceptions. Several veterans restructuring their contracts, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison, certainly helps.
  • Were medical issues the reason defensive lineman Brodrick Bunkley didn't join the Cleveland Browns following a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles?
Morning take: It no longer matters at this point, but I find it curious neither the Browns nor the Eagles are willing to explain. If Bunkley passes his physical with the Denver Broncos -- his new team -- there may be more to the story.
We continue our look at 2008 draft classes with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Draft picks: LB Keith Rivers (first round), WR Jerome Simpson (second), DT Pat Sims (third), WR Andre Caldwell (third), OT Anthony Collins (fourth), DT Jason Shirley (fifth), S Corey Lynch (sixth), TE Matt Sherry (sixth), DE Angelo Craig (seventh), WR Mario Urritia (seventh)

Analysis: The Bengals had a lot of draft picks, acquiring 10 new players. But despite so many picks, the Bengals didn't get much impact out of this draft. Rivers is a solid starter, but I would like to see more impact plays from him as a former top-10 pick. Simpson was a non-factor with Cincinnati for nearly three years before coming on strong in the final two weeks of last season. In 2011, Simpson has to prove that wasn't a flash in the pan. Caldwell and Sims have both developed into decent role players, which is not bad for a pair of third-round picks. It's not an awful draft for the Bengals but certainly not an impact draft. Simpson's development could be key to improving this final grade.

AFC North blog's draft grade: C-

On Thursday we will take a look at the 2008 draft of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

How to rebuild the Bengals

December, 9, 2010
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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 at a crossroads

October, 21, 2010
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Carson PalmerAndrew Weber/US PresswireThe Bengals need Carson Palmer to cut down on turnovers if the team is going to rebound.
Explosion or implosion.

The Cincinnati Bengals will take one of these two routes in the next few weeks, and it starts Sunday with a huge road game against the Atlanta Falcons (4-2).

So far the reigning AFC North champions are one of the NFL's biggest underachievers. Coming off a playoff appearance, Cincinnati is only 2-3 after back-to-back losses to the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Coming off the bye, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told his players this week that there are no more excuses. With so much talent, strong personalities and a head coach in the final year of his contract, the Bengals will be a must-watch team in the second half of the season. You're either going to see a talented group come together or a train wreck.

Here are several reasons it could go either way.

Reasons for a Bengals explosion:

The talent is immense. The Bengals are considered major underachievers because their talent is playoff-caliber. This is the deepest and best collection of players of the Lewis era. It's a good mix of youth and experience on both sides of the football. Cincinnati hit on recent draft picks such as Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall and Keith Rivers to build the defense and went with veteran free agents Cedric Benson and Terrell Owens to improve the offense. Early production from 2010 first-round pick Jermaine Gresham and third-rounder Jordan Shipley is also a positive sign this group will come together.

Quarterback play will improve. Bengals starting quarterback Carson Palmer was drilled in the media during the bye week. In his last game, he threw three interceptions in a loss to Tampa. He is on pace for 19 picks this year, which would be the second-highest total of his career. But Palmer has too much natural ability to play this badly all season. He may not be the quarterback he was in 2005, but Palmer is certainly capable of playing better, and that would be a major plus for Cincinnati's offense. Despite all the criticism, the Bengals are No. 7 in the NFL in passing offense. A few improvements and fewer turnovers by Palmer would get the offense back on track.

Defense hasn't hit its stride. Cincinnati's defense isn't playing poorly, but the unit hasn't reached its form of 2009, either. The Bengals were fourth in the league in total defense a year ago, and it was the primary reason Cincinnati swept the AFC North and made the playoffs. So far Mike Zimmer's group has been little better than average, ranking No. 13. The Bengals have given up at least 23 points in all three losses. And the pass rush has been a major problem -- it was something Zimmer addressed during the bye week. Cincinnati's defense showed flashes of what it's capable of in a 15-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals need more performances like that one to help turn around the season.

Reasons for Bengals implosion:

Brutal schedule. One of the downsides to winning a division title is you get a first-place schedule the following year. Cincinnati needed a fast start but didn't get it. Now the Bengals have to survive a brutal stretch that includes seven of eight upcoming games against teams with winning records. We will find out all we need to know about the Bengals in the next few weeks when they face Atlanta (4-2), the Miami Dolphins (3-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) and Indianapolis Colts (4-2) in consecutive weeks. They also have games against the New Orleans Saints (4-2) and New York Jets (5-1). Had Cincinnati beaten Cleveland and Tampa Bay, the Bengals could afford a few stumbles. Now there is little room for error. The Bengals have to go 8-3 the rest of the way to finish 10-6 and have a legitimate shot at the wild card in the AFC.

Strong personalities. The AFC North blog predicted in training camp that this team needed to win early or things could snowball. We're already seeing several signs of frustration with the Bengals. Running back Cedric Benson said earlier this season that he wasn't happy about Cincinnati's pass-heavy play calling. Receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco both want the football, but only one can shine in a given week. Ochocinco recently admitted the offense lacks chemistry and he's trying old gimmicks to get back to form. Overall the Bengals have done a fairly good job of keeping their frustrations in house. But more losing will only bring things to the surface.

Lewis' contract status a lingering issue. Lewis entering the final year of his contract was one of several key topics during the offseason, but it has mostly gone away since the beginning of the regular season. As we approach the second half, expect this topic to resurface regardless of whether the Bengals are winning or losing. Lewis was the 2009 NFL Coach of the Year after leading the surprising Bengals to the postseason. But he and the team were unable to reach an agreement on a new deal. It is no secret in NFL circles that coaching the Bengals isn't easy, and Lewis has earned a lot of respect for the job he has done in Cincinnati. Lewis doesn't seem opposed to the idea of becoming a free agent. But will it have an impact on the way the team responds?

AFC North injury report

October, 1, 2010
10/01/10
5:00
PM ET
Here is the Week 4 injury report for the AFC North (all times are ET):

Baltimore Ravens (2-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0), Sunday at 1 p.m.

Ravens

Out: OT Jared Gaither (back), WR Donte' Stallworth (foot), LB Tavares Gooden (shoulder)

Questionable: LB Edgar Jones (thigh), OL Tony Moll (hip), DL Cory Redding (head), RB Ray Rice (knee)

Probable: C Matt Birk (back), CB Chris Carr (thigh), OL Chris Chester (back), TE Todd Heap (shoulder), LB Jarret Johnson (back)

Steelers

Out: QB Dennis Dixon (knee), OL Trai Essex (ankle), DL Chris Hoke (knee)

Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-3), Sunday at 1 p.m.

Bengals

Out: DE Jonathan Fanene (hamstring)

Questionable: DE Antwan Odom (wrist), LB Keith Rivers (foot), WR Jordan Shipley (shoulder)

Probable: RB Cedric Benson (knee), CB Adam Jones (shoulder), WR Terrell Owens (back), FB/LB Dan Skuta (ankle)

Browns

Doubtful: DB Derrick Roberson (hip), OL John St. Clair (ankle)

Questionable: DE Kenyon Coleman (knee), QB Jake Delhomme (ankle), OL Shawn Lauvao (ankle), WR Brian Robiskie (hamstring), DL Shaun Rogers (ankle, hip), DL Robaire Smith (back)

Probable: LB Marcus Benard (ankle), RB James Davis (thigh), RB Jerome Harrison (thigh), OT Joe Thomas (elbow), LB Jason Trusnik (head), FB Lawrence Vickers (groin)

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