AFC North: minicamp

The NFL lockout has put players and owners in limbo. The ripple effects are also felt by people whose lives or business touch their teams. Here are their stories:

[+] EnlargeBryan Shepherd
Courtesy of Bryan ShepherdBryan Shepherd is the general manager of Marriott hotel properties in Berea, Ohio. His hotels could lose revenue if the lockout eats into training camp.
According to Bryan Shepherd, the NFL lockout is tough. But the situation still has the potential to get worse.

The general manager of Marriott hotel properties in Berea, Ohio, where the Cleveland Browns train, lost his biggest business client for the spring because of the lockout. But Shepherd is hopeful he won't lose the substantial amount of revenue he receives from the Browns later this summer when the team fills up his hotels during training camp.

"The Browns are still holding the rooms but it keeps getting pushed back," Shepherd said. "Chances are rookie camp [will be lost]. So we've worked hard on replacing business we might not have from the Browns right now. But the toughest thing is to anticipate and be there for them when they need the rooms."

Marriott owns a Courtyard, TownePlace Suites and Residence Inn in Berea and has been a partner with the Browns since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. The practice facility is close by, making it easy for players to get to and from practice during the warm spring and summer months.

For offseason workouts and minicamps, the Browns rent an estimated 20 to 25 rooms at the Courtyard property for up to 45 days for drafted and undrafted rookies and a few veterans without residences in the Cleveland area. During training camp, which lasts about five weeks, the Browns have rented as many as 94 rooms depending, according to Shepherd. It is annually the hotel's most reliable source of revenue in an unstable economy.

Shepherd says he is fortunate the NFL lockout did not take place last year or two years ago, when the travel industry hit a major dry spell and the financial loss would have been tougher to absorb. Business travel is finally starting to show growth nationally and in the Cleveland area.

"In 2009 and 2010, most hotels saw anywhere between a 10-18 percent decrease in total occupancy and rate," Shepherd said. "In 2011, research is showing people are traveling more and companies are starting to let their associates travel more."

With the lockout reaching its 78th day and counting, it appears the start of training camp could be in jeopardy. Shepherd, like all NFL fans, hopes the players and owners can reach a timely agreement before it gets to that point.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy says he's healthy and ready to get back to work in his second season.
Morning take: McCoy's development will be key to Cleveland's success. The Browns, who didn't draft a quarterback last week, are all in with their 2010 third-round pick.
  • Fresh off the Cincinnati Bengals' selection of former TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, it's time to restart the Carson Palmer rumor mill. The Seattle Seahawks are the first team up.
Morning take: I could see Seattle being interested in Palmer, who would be reunited with his former college coach Pete Carroll. There will be no shortage of interest around the league if Bengals ownership is willing to part ways with the veteran quarterback.
Morning take: Most smart organizations feel that way. Good drafting gives teams an opportunity to mold and keep players longer as oppose to searching for quick and expensive fixes.
Morning take: This is an issue all teams face. Pittsburgh's rookies will be behind whenever the work stoppage ends and will need to get up to speed quickly.

Should Peyton Hillis start in Week 1?

September, 1, 2010
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Jerome Harrison has fumbling issues, and rookie Montario Hardesty missed all of training camp with a knee injury.

Therefore, should Peyton Hillis be the starting tailback in Week 1 for the Cleveland Browns?

Hillis has taken advantage of his opportunities. Acquired this offseason from the Denver Broncos in the Brady Quinn trade, Hillis leads the Browns in rushing this preseason with 80 yards and a touchdown. He's also showed nice hands with nine receptions for 86 yards and is impressing Cleveland's coaching staff with his versatility.

The Browns are implementing ways to use Hillis, but should his role be expanded as their starter? It may depend on his competition's progress.

Harrison, who led Cleveland with 862 rushing yards last year, is the incumbent but looks listless so far. He's averaging just 3.1 yards per carry in three exhibition games. In addition, Harrison's three fumbles the past two games are concerning. The Browns cannot afford to have their primary rusher displaying poor ball security.

Meanwhile, Hardesty was unable to follow up an impressive minicamp with a knee sprain. This year's second-round pick could be the long-term solution in Cleveland, but Hardesty has fallen behind and likely is out of the running to start in Week 1. He will make his NFL debut in Thursday's preseason finale against the Chicago Bears.

That leaves Hillis, who is Cleveland's most productive running back so far. He may not be the fastest or most flashy, but Hillis might be the Browns' safest option to start the season.
How do you explain signing a major free agent and then cutting him before he plays a game?

In one word: strange.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Bryant
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Bengals gambled that Antonio Bryant would recover from his knee injury.
The Cincinnati Bengals have been known to do odd things with personnel over the years. But signing receiver Antonio Bryant to a four-year, $28 million contract in March and releasing him five months later before the regular season is near the top of the list.

There were red flags with this signing from the beginning.

Bryant had offseason knee surgery and never looked right in minicamp. I covered Bryant in 2005 when he played with the Cleveland Browns and remembered thinking at the time that something wasn't right. He didn't look nearly as explosive.

It turns out Bryant's knee never healed properly. The Bengals rested him during a portion of minicamp and were very cautious with him during training camp. Then the organization got eerily quiet when questioned about Bryant's progress -- more red flags -- and the rumors began to swirl.

Cincinnati ended speculation by cutting ties with Bryant on Sunday. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, $8 million of Bryant's contract is guaranteed. Between Bryant and Laveranues Coles, the Bengals have wasted a lot of money at wide receiver. Both signed $28 million contracts and neither lasted more than a year in Cincinnati.

But the Bengals were fortunate in several ways.

First, Cincinnati will not take a salary cap hit because it's an uncapped year. An educated guess is the Bengals may have stuck with Bryant to see how he recovers had there been a stiff cap hit for the life of the contract.

Second, signing Terrell Owens and drafting Jordan Shipley made Bryant expendable. Both receivers have looked superior to what Bryant showed in Cincinnati with a bad knee.

Owens' and Shipley's production will likely make Cincinnati forget about Bryant. But that doesn't make Bryant's signing and quick release this year any less strange.

Camp Confidential: Baltimore Ravens

August, 19, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 5

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Pro Bowl talent? Check.

Plenty of depth? Check.

A budding quarterback and tremendous coaching staff? Check and check.

There are plenty of reasons to buy into the Super Bowl hype surrounding the Baltimore Ravens this year. Most of the key ingredients are in place for Baltimore to make a deep postseason run.

On paper, this is perhaps the best collection of talent in Baltimore since the team's inception in 1996. It's certainly the most balanced, as last season's third-ranked defense joins quarterback Joe Flacco, Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice and new receiver Anquan Boldin to give Baltimore a potentially high-scoring offense.

But expectations do not always equal results. Can the Ravens live up to the hype? First they must address these key issues.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Joe Flacco
AP Photo/Nick WassRavens quarterback Joe Flacco has plenty of weapons to be successful on offense.
1. Is Flacco ready to take the next step? There are plenty of weapons on offense, but it's up to the quarterback to make sure everything runs efficiently.

Flacco has improved every year in the NFL. He is entering his third season, and the Ravens expect him to take the next step to become a legitimate franchise quarterback.

There is no reason to believe Flacco will not make the jump this year from a good to great quarterback. He has the best receiving corps of his career, a top-notch running game and a quality offensive line. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Flacco is keeping everyone happy, as every starting skill player with the exception of the quarterback has been to the Pro Bowl.

2. Will the cornerbacks hold up? Baltimore's secondary issues are well-documented.

Top corner Domonique Foxworth (knee) is out for the season and starters Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are both coming off major knee surgeries. Washington will make his 2010 debut Saturday against the Washington Redskins, while Webb is waiting to be cleared for practice. There's also no guarantee both players will instantly get back to their old form once they return.

Players like Cary Williams, Travis Fisher and Chris Carr have been filling in for the time being. But starting roles are simply too big for this group, and that won't cut it in the regular season. In this pass-heavy NFL, you need quality depth at cornerback, and it turns out this is Baltimore's one glaring weakness on an otherwise stacked roster.

3. Can Baltimore survive the AFC North? Here is a fact Ravens fans often ignore: At least two division rivals currently have Baltimore's number.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have given Baltimore fits in recent years. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is 8-3 against the Ravens in 11 career starts, which includes last year's 2-0 sweep. Pittsburgh also is 4-1 (including playoffs) in its last five meetings against the Ravens. The only Baltimore win in that span came against the Dennis Dixon-led Steelers in overtime last November.

A deep postseason run would be a lot easier for Baltimore if it won the AFC North division. With that comes a home playoff game(s) and possibly a bye in the first round. But the Ravens will have to play more consistently against their division rivals this season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeTom Zbikowski
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRavens safety Tom Zbikowski is having an outstanding training camp.
The Ravens are not panicking over safety Ed Reed's offseason hip surgery, because Tom Zbikowski is having the best training camp of his career. The third-year safety is leaner and quicker this year, as Zbikowski continues to earn the confidence of the coaching staff.

Zbikowski has some natural instincts that the Ravens want to take advantage of. He's versatile enough to play in the box, and has very good timing and angles on blitzes. It's unknown if Reed will be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. The Ravens probably can't win a Super Bowl without Reed, but they can win in the short term with an improved Zbikowski.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Jared Gaither's offseason has been a disaster. The offensive tackle got off on the wrong foot by making contract demands, and things have gone downhill from there.

Right now Gaither has a back injury that's kept him out of camp. He also surprised the Ravens by reporting to the team much lighter than his usual playing weight.

Baltimore has already moved forward by making Michael Oher its left tackle, which is the most important position on the offensive line. But if Gaither doesn't straighten things out, the Ravens also may have to figure out what to do next at right tackle. We will explain their options below.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Remember the name Oniel Cousins. He will be one of the most important Ravens in the next several weeks. With Gaither working to get back on the field, Cousins could do Baltimore a huge favor by playing well at right tackle. Marshal Yanda also is a possibility, but he's better suited as Baltimore's starting right guard. If Cousins proves to be the answer, the Ravens can maintain continuity with the other four spots on the offensive line.
  • [+] EnlargeHaloti Ngata
    AP Photo/Rob CarrRavens' Haloti Ngata looks like one of the league's top defensive linemen.
    By the end of this season, Haloti Ngata may be mentioned as the top interior defensive lineman in football. It's impressive watching Ngata routinely blow up offensive linemen in practice. He makes it look easy. In one sequence Wednesday, Ngata pushed rookie offensive tackle Ramon Harewood about 5 yards into the backfield. Ngata then yelled to the offensive coaches "get him out," because Harewood's best effort barely offered Ngata any resistance.
  • I would be surprised if Baltimore doesn't improve its pass rush this season. The "pressures" in camp look more crisp and aggressive this year. It also doesn't hurt that linebacker/defensive end hybrid Terrell Suggs is in great shape and motivated to have a bounce-back season. Last year, the Ravens were ranked 18th in the NFL with 32 sacks in 16 games. The Steelers (47), Cleveland Browns (40) and Bengals (34) all had more sacks in the division.
  • From what I saw this week, it's pretty clear Marc Bulger deserves to be the No. 2 quarterback behind Flacco. Bulger has a quicker release and more accurate arm than Troy Smith. Bulger still shows flashes of the Pro Bowl-ability he had in St. Louis and can make throws that Smith simply cannot. Bulger would be a better short-term fill in if Flacco goes down.
  • Webb looked good running and cutting on his surgically repaired knee while doing individual drills this week. He's yet to practice with the team but is very close to being cleared. Baltimore believes Webb could eventually develop into the team's best cornerback. But the team has to be careful and make sure he returns at full strength.
  • Despite the bad press rookie defensive tackle Terrence Cody received after failing his conditioning test, he is a force once he's on the field. Cody is hard to move in the trenches and has surprisingly good feet for someone his size. The Ravens are experimenting with Cody in various ways, including pairing him with Ngata and also giving Cody an occasional look at fullback in goal-line situations.
  • I thought I would see more from rookie receiver David Reed this week. Not to put unnecessary pressure on the fifth-round pick, but Reed generated a significant buzz in Baltimore during minicamp and organized team activities. My first impressions of Reed in training camp is that he's still inconsistent. Reed had some drops, but he also had one of this week's best catches by leaping over a defender in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Baltimore will need to see more of the latter.
  • Switching Paul Kruger to full-time defensive end and adding bulk is already paying dividends. Kruger looks more powerful and explosive this summer. The second-round pick was drafted as a linebacker/defensive end hybrid and couldn't find a role on the team his rookie year. Now he's more productive focusing on one position.

Camping with the Bengals

August, 3, 2010
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GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The AFC North blog has officially reached its second destination of training camp. This week we will spend quality time getting to know the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals.

This is a deep team with some new and interesting parts added to the roster. Here are five things I'll be watching this week:

1. What is Terrell Owens' role in the offense?

Skinny: Figuring out how to use Owens within Cincinnati's scheme will be a work in progress for offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Quarterback Carson Palmer, who has worked with Owens this offseason, also has to continue developing chemistry with the receiver in camp.

2. Will tight end Jermaine Gresham hit the ground running?

Skinny: Cincinnati's first-round pick is a late arrival after agreeing to a five-year contract Monday. Now Gresham needs to step in and solidify the starting job the Bengals have projected for him. He's expected to play in Cincinnati's first preseason game Sunday.

3. Is cornerback Adam Jones ready?

Skinny: I was impressed with Jones' ability in minicamp. But even Jones admitted he didn't have his football legs under him 100 percent. Now it's time for Jones to round into form in order for him to contribute this year to the secondary.

4. Will the defense generate a pass rush?

Skinny: One of the few things Cincinnati didn't do well defensively last year was get to the quarterback. Look for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to find ways to turn up the heat.

5. Who is the kicker?

Skinny: Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent are both journeymen kickers. Neither player took a distinct lead in the spring. But the best man in training camp will find a home this season with Cincinnati.

Finally, here is another reminder to also follow our AFC North Twitter, where we will have additional insight and analysis.

Chad Ochocinco's greatest hits

July, 12, 2010
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To no surprise, Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco is talking a lot of trash this offseason.

Ochocinco
Ochocinco
Here is a recent sample from Ochocinco's greatest hits collection:

  • "Man, I haven't seen this many girls on a football field since the last time we played the Steelers." -- from the VH1 dating show "The Ultimate Catch"
  • "We got better than them. They're not better than us. The Ravens? I mean, what have they done?" -- from last month's mandatory minicamp
  • "Yeah, that's my homeboy, but then Anquan Boldin has to go against the No. 4 defense that was ranked last year. Last time I checked, we destroyed their defense. We added to ours, but we still have the better defense." -- also from last month's minicamp
  • "A Super Bowl ring. I believe that Super Bowl ring will be this year." -- from last week's radio interview with Dan Patrick

Ochocinco is no stranger to providing bulletin-board material. Last year he predicted Cincinnati would make the playoffs -- and he was correct.

Can Ocho back up the brash trash talk on the field again in 2010?
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

After recent charges of allegedly punching a bar worker, will Cincinnati Bengals tailback Cedric Benson be suspended this season?

At the conclusion of last month's mandatory minicamp, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis praised his team for having a quality -- and quiet -- offseason.

Cedric Benson
John Sommers II/Getty ImagesThen Bengals were having a quiet offseason until Cedric Benson allegedly punched a bar employee.
Lewis lauded the strong participation and how there weren't the distractions many other teams faced around the NFL. In Cincinnati's division alone, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had to deal with Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, the Baltimore Ravens had the Jared Gaither saga, and there were several unhappy restricted free agents with the Cleveland Browns.

But last week that silence ended with charges against Benson, who allegedly punched a bar worker in Austin, Texas, following a barroom brawl. These charges bring into question whether Cincinnati's leading rusher will face a suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

Right now it's too early to provide a definitive answer, because the details are unclear. Benson was not charged until nearly a month after the incident.

That this isn't Benson's first run-in with law enforcement is probably the biggest factor working against him. Benson has had two previous incidents while in the NFL. Charges were cleared in both cases, but a third incident -- while Benson is on the league's "watch list" -- is never a good thing in the eyes of commissioner Roger Goodell.

Another issue: Why didn't Benson report the incident to the NFL and the Bengals in May when it first occurred? According to Benson's lawyer, David Cornwell (who also represents Roethlisberger), Benson called Lewis and the commissioner's office only after his release from jail on June 29.

Interestingly, Benson's representatives recently approached Cincinnati about a contract extension. The Bengals were open to the idea, in all likelihood without knowing about Benson's alleged altercation. Expect those talks to be put on ice until the legal system runs its course.

After getting through minicamp and organized team activities without incident, expect Benson's legal situation to be the biggest story facing the Bengals heading into training camp.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With Ben Roethlisberger serving a conditional six-game suspension, will Pittsburgh Steelers third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon get a fair shot to win the starting job?

[+] EnlargeDixon
James Lang/US PresswireDennis Dixon will compete with Byron Leftwich for the starting quarterback spot while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension.
If there's a quarterback competition going on in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have an odd way of showing it.

Byron Leftwich received a majority of the first-team reps this offseason. Roethlisberger also got some first-team reps when he returned late for organized team activities.

Meanwhile, Dixon -- last year's No. 2 quarterback -- is being iced out. He was relegated exclusively to the second team this spring, making Pittsburgh's quarterback competition appear anything but "open."

Is there a reason Leftwich has dominated the first-team reps? Does Dixon have a realistic chance to earn the starting job in Week 1? If Dixon is to get a fair shot, it will have to come in training camp and the preseason.

The Steelers have a culture of making young players earn their keep, and Dixon is no different.

With a decent performance on the road last year against the Baltimore Ravens, many thought Dixon could be the favorite to be under center for Pittsburgh in September. He accounted for two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Ravens. But the Steelers aren't letting Dixon get comfortable with his moderate success.

Coming off a chaotic offseason, perhaps Pittsburgh feels more comfortable with a stable veteran at quarterback. Leftwich knows the offense well and filled in admirably for Roethlisberger during the Steelers' last Super Bowl run in 2008.

Leftwich may very well be the best option for Pittsburgh. But Dixon at least deserves a fair chance this summer to prove otherwise.

AFC North chat transcript

June, 25, 2010
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In case you missed it, here is a sample of this week's AFC North chat:

Dave (Pittsburgh)

Obviously with [Ben Roethlisberger] gone for at least four games the Steelers are going to move to a run oriented offense. Is Mendenhall up for the challenge?

James Walker

Rashard Mendenhall looks good this offseason. The problem is teams are going to stack the box. And I don't care who you are, running against eight defenders is tough. Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon will have to prove they can pass the football.

David (Austin, Texas)

Any insight on how Colt McCoy has been performing at OTAs?

James Walker

I thought Colt McCoy looked average in minicamp. He did make some nice throws to rookie WR Carlton Mitchell. But for the most part McCoy played on the third team with a lot of people who probably won't make the Browns. So it's hard to tell.

To read the full transcript, click here.

AFC North mailbag

June, 21, 2010
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Let's see what's in the mailbag.

Matt from Baltimore writes: I'm just wondering why everyone is taking it as a foregone conclusion that Cedric Benson will have another great year? Before last season, he had been nothing more than average.

James Walker: That's a fair point, Matt. Last year was Benson's first 1,000-yard season. I don't anticipate Benson getting more than 300 carries again this season. The Bengals would like more relief this year with Bernard Scott and possibly Brian Leonard. Cincinnati's passing game also is improved, which will make the offense more balanced. But as long as Benson stays healthy, he should be fine. He's 27, in the prime of his career, and mentally he now understands what it takes to be successful the NFL. Benson also is in a contract year and wants a new deal.


Kovacs from Santa Monica, Calif., writes: How did Cleveland Browns' minicamp compare to last season's session?

Walker: I felt there was more talent and professionalism this year, Kovacs. The quarterback position is a big reason. Regardless of what you think of Jake Delhomme at this stage of his career, he knows how to command a huddle and organize an offense. There were fewer mental errors in practice and players know more of what to expect in Eric Mangini's second year. But the Browns still have a long way to go to get to the top of the division.


Eddie Kilroy from Brunswick, Ohio, writes: Do you think Le'Ron McClain will get any carries behind Ray Rice?

Walker: More than last year, yes, Eddie. McClain's 46 carries were not enough to be effective. With Rice's emergence, McClain won't lead the Ravens in rushing. But McClain has more to offer with the ball than what he produced last year. He's also in a contract year.


Robbie D from Vienna, VA, wants to know my expectation of the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line this season.

Walker: Don't be surprised if this unit improves in several key areas, Robbie. Pittsburgh spent a first-round pick on Maurkice Pouncey, and he should help in red-zone and short-yardage situations. That would be huge for the Steelers. Pass protection also is an issue, but that probably will be more difficult for this unit to improve in one season.

More thoughts from Chad Ochocinco

June, 18, 2010
6/18/10
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CINCINNATI -- You haven't covered the NFL until you've done a Chad Ochocinco news conference. The Cincinnati Bengals' Pro Bowl receiver is unpredictable and prone to say just about anything.

Earlier this week, Ochocinco compared himself to birth control and also trash-talked the Baltimore Ravens. But those weren't the only entertaining answers.

Here are some additional snippets from this week's minicamp:

On how much longer he wants to play football:

Ochocinco: I'm going to play until I'm 44. Forty-five is a bit far-fetched. If [Brett] Favre can get to 40, I know I can get four years on him. So that will be fine.

On adding WR Antonio Bryant and TE Jermaine Gresham:

Ochocinco: It can get very ugly. It's going to be nice. We added something to a certain position that hasn't ... I can't say that.

On his offseason:

Ochocinco: Nothing's different. If it wasn't dancing, I'd be boxing. I'm doing a dating show. OK, it's on TV. But if it wasn't on TV, I'd still be doing it off the field. What's the difference? I'm still doing the same stuff I'm normally doing, but one is on ABC and one is on VH1. I'd be doing the same things, but it'd be off camera.

On Ochocinco's dating show:

Ochocinco: The dating show is a great experience. It's something different I've never done before. It lets people see a different aspect of me -- how I interact when it comes to dealing with women. It's in a graceful way. It's not normally what you'd see when you see other dating shows. You have to remember -- I'm always unpredictable. It's like touching the field on Sunday.

Bengals release five players

June, 18, 2010
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With the Cincinnati Bengals wrapping up mandatory minicamp this week, the team released five players Friday.

Cincinnati terminated the contract of veteran cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, who was originally drafted by the Bengals in 2004 and re-joined the team last year for the postseason. Ratliff spent most of last season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals also waived safety Bryan Evans, running back Walter Mendenhall, punter Jake Richardson and cornerback DeAngelo Willingham Friday.

On the radar: Adam Jones

June, 17, 2010
6/17/10
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NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

CINCINNATI -- Coachable. Hard-working. Willing to listen.

These were not terms often used to describe cornerback Adam Jones during his turbulent NFL career. But that's the praise I heard from the Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff during this week's mandatory minicamp.

Jones was out of football in 2009 for various off-the-field issues. The defending AFC North champions took the risk and signed Jones to a two-year contract with hopes that he can provide depth for the secondary.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
Frank Victores/US PresswireAdam Jones has been doing all of the right things since joining the Bengals.
It's been so far, so good, according to the Bengals.

"He's come in and done everything we've asked him to do at this point," Cincinnati defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle said. "He's been very coachable. He wants to do well and is extremely competitive. He wants to win at everything. He's got that nature about him."

Jones said he's working to better himself and shed his old image. For starters, he no longer wants to be called "Pacman." That nickname represents a persona that often got into trouble.

Jones' athleticism has never been in question. That's what made him the No. 6 overall pick of the Tennessee Titans in the 2005 draft. In minicamp, Jones has showed flashes by making several nice plays on the ball at cornerback and still displaying natural skills as a kick returner, despite his extended time away from the NFL.

The extra work spent in organized team activities has helped Jones shake the rust.

"I've only had one year of OTAs since I've been in the NFL; that was my second year," Jones explained. "I had a pretty good second year, too. I think OTAs is a big part for me. Some people don't need it. I need the extra work. It's a situation that [keeps me] focused and just getting back to football."

By September, Jones expects to be in even better football shape. But it's his history of not being able to steer clear of trouble that will be the biggest question for the cornerback this season.

If Jones, 26, figures out the latter, Cincinnati's experiment could pay dividends.

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