AFC North: Thomas Howard
They remembered, fondly, his two little girls and the unquestioned love he had for them.
They reminisced about the football lessons he taught them, and the unwavering commitment he made to the community he served.
When various members of the Cincinnati Bengals mentioned Thomas Howard's name earlier this week, they did so wishing the man many considered a brother could have been the subject of a different discussion. They wished they could have been talking about him in the present and future tenses. Not in the past.
"Gone too soon," was the way Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga put it, still visibly shaken by the news that one of his friends and former teammates had died at the tender age of 30. "It sucks talking about it because it doesn't seem real."
Unfortunately for the Bengals and staffs representing two other league franchises, it is.
A Texas native, Howard was drafted out of UTEP by the Oakland Raiders in 2006. He spent five years with the Raiders before getting signed by the Bengals in 2011. He appeared in all 16 regular-season games that year, finishing with 70 total tackles and a sack. After one game the following season, he was placed on injured reserve when he tore an ACL during a Week 2 practice. He remained in Cincinnati during his rehab and continued to be a fixture in the Bengals' locker room despite his injury.
Already a veteran when he arrived, Howard played the role of big brother to several young linebackers who had come to Cincinnati around that same time. Maualuga, Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict were among those who benefited the most from his instruction. When Howard went down with the injury last year, Burfict, then a rookie, saw his role increase. Now the second-year defender leads the NFL in tackles and has become respected as one of the league's most intimidating enforcers.
Those same young players who sought Howard's guidance are vowing to make their former teammate an integral part of the remainder of the season. Maualuga told Bengals.com that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is working on hanging Howard's No. 53 jersey in the defense's meeting room.
After leaving the Bengals following his injury last offseason, Howard bounced around from tryout to tryout at the start of this season, trying to convince teams he was healthy again. The Bengals were one of them. When Emmanuel Lamur went down at the end of the preseason with a season-ending injury, linebackers coach Paul Guenther reached out to Howard. He and Lewis said Tuesday that Howard just wasn't quite back.
"He was still working back from the injury and we just decided to go a different way with it," Guenther said.
Howard eventually signed with the Falcons and spent two games with them before his release. According to media reports, he maintained a home just outside Oakland.
Here is how the Bengals choose to remember Howard:
LB Vincent Rey
"He's a funny guy. The thing about T-Howard, he's a genuine guy. Real. You love people like that. He always had a smile on his face and was all about helping others. He had a program here where every Tuesday he allowed people to come into the stadium, different people locally would come in and get a tour of the stadium and go on the field. He was about other people. That's what life is about.
"My prayers and thoughts go out to this family. He will be remembered here.
"He will not soon be forgotten."
Coach Marvin Lewis
"The first thing that comes to mind is his personality and his smile. How giving and caring he was to everyone. Him here on Tuesday nights taking his foundation group around and last year even when he was injured he continued to follow through on his commitments. He was a great player and a tremendous friend to everyone. It’s a shame for his two daughters, his mom and dad, such a warm and giving guy. It really affects our football team because this is someone who everyone had a great relationship with and felt for when he got hurt."
LB Rey Maualuga
"I was lost for words because Thomas, I and Taylor Mays, DQ [recently released linebacker DeQuin Evans], we had a strong bond when we were here as far as what we did on and off the field. I got a text from Frostee [Rucker] and I couldn't talk to Taylor about it. This couldn't be the Thomas Howard that we all know. We lost a great teammate, person and friend but my heart goes out to his two little girls. Like I said, you don’t wake up in the morning thinking it is your last time on earth. Things happen for a reason and you have to cherish your time here.
"Vontaze showed me the [accident] photo and they said how they couldn't get him out of the car. Hopefully he didn't have a slow, painful death. Gone too soon. Wish the best for his family and kids. We’ll try to do something for them when we return and they can be well taken care of."
OT Andrew Whitworth
"He was very involved in the community. Just kind of what the emphasis is now. A lot of the guys on this team are as good off the field as they are on it. That's really what's kind of helped change the culture. He was one of those people."
- The Bengals are bringing in linebacker Thomas Howard this week to check on the ACL he tore a year ago, according to Geoff Hobson of the team's official website. Howard was the Bengals' leading tackler in 2011 and plays the same outside linebacker spot as Emmanuel Lamur, who went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. "If they think Howard can help, they won't do anything until next week." Hobson wrote.
- Quarterback Greg McElroy, who was cut by the Jets, is going to sign with the Bengals' practice squad, the NFL Network reports. Josh Johnson is currently the backup to Andy Dalton.
- Some expected the Bengals to sign defensive end Dontay Moch to the practice squad. Moch led the team with three sacks in the preseason, but he has been a disappointment as a former third-round pick. The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy wrote: "Originally drafted as a linebacker, Moch was moved to the defensive line but was caught up in a numbers game. One might also wonder where Moch is a better fit – as a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment or as an outside linebacker in a 3-4."
Cap Status: The Ravens are a projected $3 million to $4 million under the cap, which is why they're asking wide receiver Anquan Boldin to take a pay cut.
Strategy: The Ravens' focus early in free agency has always been retaining their key players. This year is no different. The priority is re-signing Dannell Ellerbe because inside linebacker is the team's biggest need. If the Ravens are able to do that, they'll turn their attention to safety Ed Reed. When it comes to signing other teams' free agents, the Ravens' strategy is patience. Baltimore has rarely been declared the winner in March, but it always finds a way to win in the playoffs. Last offseason, no one was applauding the Ravens for signing receiver-returner Jacoby Jones and cornerback Corey Graham. But they were both key members of the Super Bowl team. Outside of inside linebacker, look for the Ravens to bring in a young defensive tackle. The Ravens were disappointed with nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody.
Cap Status: The Bengals are among the top three teams in terms of cap space.
Strategy: The Bengals' reputation is not making a big splash in free agency, and that shouldn't change this year. Cincinnati has been active already, re-signing three special-teams players (kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris) and backup defensive end Wallace Gilberry. The Bengals' priority has to be finding a right tackle, outside linebackers and a strong safety. They will look to re-sign Andre Smith, but they have plenty of options at right tackle (Detroit's Gosder Cherilus and Minnesota's Phil Loadholt) if they fail to do so. The Bengals also need to address outside linebacker because starters Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson are free agents. With Vontaze Burfict expected to move to the middle, there's a possibility that Cincinnati could bring back Rey Maualuga and shift him to the outside. The Bengals could address the situation in free agency, but they may not be willing to overspend on someone like Dashon Goldson, even though he would be a great fit. It's a position they can fill in the draft as well.
Cap Status: Like the Bengals, the Browns rank among the top three teams in cap room.
Strategy: Based on reports, the Browns have been very active during the three-day negotiating period, and they should be. Cleveland has a lot of holes on its team and has a lot of money to spend. Finding a pass-rusher ranks very high on the Browns' list. Cleveland has been linked to Detroit's Cliff Avril and could get in a bidding war with the Colts over Baltimore's Paul Kruger. It's also possible the Browns could pursue Steelers linebacker James Harrison. The Browns aren't expected to bring back Sheldon Brown and need to find another starting cornerback. Three potential targets are: Pittsburgh's Keenan Lewis, San Diego's Antoine Cason and Arizona's Greg Toler. On offense, the Browns are looking to replace Ben Watson, another free agent who isn't expected to return. Tennessee's Jared Cook is reportedly high on the Browns' list.
Cap Status: The Steelers were approximately $3.4 million under before re-signing guard Ramon Foster.
Strategy: The Steelers are entering free agency with very little cap room, especially after re-signing Foster. So, don't expect the Steelers to be active in free agency. That isn't a newsflash because the Steelers have never been major players in March. Remember last year, when it took Pittsburgh 28 days to sign a free agent, and it was only backup tight end Leonard Pope? If the Steelers had more cap room, this would be the year when they would have been more of a factor in free agency. The Steelers have holes at running back and outside linebacker. Pittsburgh can't have confidence in Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to carry the ground game. The same goes for Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, who will be hard-pressed to fill the void left by the release of Harrison. The Steelers will have to wait for the draft to address these needs.
Justin from Canton, Ohio: I have no confidence in (Browns vice president of player personnel) Mike Lombardi. I still do not have a clue why the Browns hired him. What will have to happen for him to get fired?
badbrown4life from Honolulu: I'm a true-blue Browns fan, born in Cleveland, living in Hawaii. Imagine all the jokes I suffer. Here are my questions: What has Mike Lombardi done to earn his current job with the Browns? I like the coaching staff, but can they overcome the bumbling of (chief executive officer Joe) Banner & Lombardi combined?
Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Justin and badbrown4life, you're not alone in your skepticism of Lombardi. But you're going to have to get used to him for a while. When Banner introduced Lombardi at the introductory press conference, Banner showed his commitment to this hire when he said, “There’s no question he’s near or at the top of quality talent evaluators.” So it would look bad on Banner if this marriage ended quickly.
My skepticism of Lombardi is based on a couple of instances. When he was with the NFL Network, Lombardi bashed Tom Heckert's last draft as well as the addition of wide receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. This is the same draft that produced seven promising prospects (and three immediate starters): running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, defensive linemen Billy Winn and John Hughes, linebacker James-Michael Johnson and wide receiver-returner Travis Benjamin. The other part that puzzles me is the fact Lombari has only received one interview over the past five years and that was the 49ers two years ago. It just doesn't add up for me.
Dave from Kensington, Md.: Which position do you think the Steelers feel most confident with their current (non-free-agent) personnel, and consequently are least likely to spend a early-to-mid-round draft pick on: inside linebacker, nose tackle, quarterback or safety?
Hensley: Dave, in order of least importance, this is how I see it: quarterback, nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. Yes, it would be beneficial to get a younger backup to develop behind Ben Roethlisberger, but it's nowhere close to being the same need as nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. At nose tackle, the Steelers lose Casey Hampton but still have Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta'amu (even though he screwed up majorly last season). Pittsburgh should improve its depth at safety considering the age of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu (and Polamalu's injury history). The biggest need is inside linebacker because, even if Larry Foote comes back, you're not sure if Stevenson Sylvester can start in this league and when Sean Spence can come back from that brutal knee injury.
Ryan from Salt Lake City, Utah: I was wondering about the Bengals' potential linebacker moves coming up to the draft. With Vontaze Burfict's fantastic rookie season and Thomas Howard coming back from knee surgery, I feel like there is potential to get a big, run-stopping middle linebacker that would have a great chance to thrive his rookie season between our leading tacklers for the last two seasons. Thoughts?
Hensley: Ryan, the plan is to move Burfict inside in 2013. There was a report last week that the Bengals would only consider bringing back Rey Maualuga as an outside linebacker because the preference is to go with Burfict in the middle. It's uncertain whether the Bengals will re-sign Howard, who is a free agent in March. He has to prove he is healthy enough to play this season after going down with a season-ending ACL injury in a Week 2 practice.
Dirk from Everett, Wash.: What are the chances the Browns use some of that salary-cap space to try to lure LaRon Landry in at free safety? I'd love to see an experienced playmaker next to T.J. Ward.
Hensley: Dirk, the Browns should be active in free agency. I just don't think Landry is a good fit. He's too similar to T.J. Ward in that he is a physical presence who can make an impact in run support. The Browns need someone who is a free safety and be a factor in coverage. Also, with the amount of money it will take to get Landry, it's a gamble considering his injury history.
Hans from Bel Air, Md.: With the likely departure of Bryant McKinnie (unless he comes back as a bargain basement free agent), does this mean a return of "The Human Turnstile" aka Michael Oher to the Blind(ed) Side?
Hensley: Hans, I know you're not going to like this answer, but I see Oher going back to left tackle. The Ravens won't have the money to go after a legitimate left tackle like Jake Long and they don't draft high enough to get a tackle who can start immediately on the left side. Sure, there is a chance that McKinnie could come back, but the Ravens can't depend on him after his weight issues in minicamp and his absence at the start of training camp. General manager Ozzie Newsome has repeatedly said how much he likes the young guys on the offensive line. I believe he's telling everyone that the guys on the roster now will be the guys who will will start on the offensive line.
Charles from Augusta, W.Va.: So when Mel Kiper's and Todd McShay's second mock drafts came out, I found their picks for the Browns to be interesting. I had no problem with Mel's selection, but in Todd's draft he had Jarvis Jones falling to the Jets. Now I ask you: if Jarvis Jones falls to the Browns at No. 6, why wouldn't they take him? With the Browns' well-documented switch in defensive philosophy, it would seem like Jones would be a perfect fit in our defense now as a pass-rushing outside linebacker opposite of Jabaal Sheard who can also stop the run and drop-back and cover someone. What are your thoughts on this?
Hensley: Charles, I'm in total agreement with you. If Jarvis Jones, the linebacker out of Georgia, is there at No. 6, the Browns would be crazy to pass him up. The big question is his medical history. Jones suffers from a condition called spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the vertebrae in his neck. The only way the Browns pass on him is if they're concerned that this condition will hinder his playing career.
Jody from Hastings, Pa.: Should the Steelers consider waiving LaMarr Woodley and keeping James Harrison? I know Woodley is younger but has been more injury-prone. Harrison had surgery late last season and played more games than Woodley. Your thoughts?
Hensley: Jody, there is a zero percent chance of this happening. The Steelers are disappointed in Woodley's season in 2012, but they're not giving up on him this quickly. Plus, the cap hit would be more than $8 million. The Pittsburgh coaching staff wants to keep Harrison. The front office, however, likely won't do it at his current $6.57 million salary. Harrison said he won't take a pay cut. The Steelers have to either be creative with some restructuring or part ways with the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Vince from Virginia Beach, Va.: If Ed Reed doesn't come back, what do you think of the idea of Jimmy Smith moving to safety? Lardarius Webb will be back and, with Corey Graham and Chykie Brown stepping up, wouldn't it be a cheaper option to just move Smith to safety?
Hensley: Moving a corner to safety is what you do to an aging player to get a few more years out of him, like a Rod Woodson or Charles Woodson (or anyone named Woodson, it seems). The Ravens still believe in Smith as a cornerback. If they didn't, he wouldn't have been on the field in the Super Bowl when they were backed up against their goal line. Shifting Smith to safety would be a desperation move. Even though Smith has been a disappointment so far, the Ravens are far from that point with him.
Karl from Rapid City, S.D.: Just a note to thank you for blogging the AFC North. I'm a Bengal fan and would prefer the division still be called the AFC Central.
Hensley: Thank for the note. Just hearing AFC Central, it makes me think of Three Rivers, Riverfront and Cleveland Municipal Stadiums. Those places housed good memories, but I don't think even the die-hard fans would like to go there.
Just to warn you, the blog will have a purple tint all day. The Ravens certainly earned to have another day. The Ravens blog will go back to being the AFC North blog after today. Of course, it will shift back after the Ravens' Super Bowl parade on Tuesday.
Click on the links for my piece on the Ravens silencing the doubters, Ashley Fox's column on Flacco, Dan Graziano's post on the Ravens' defensive stand and Jeffri Chadiha's article on Ray Lewis' great contribution. Here's your wake-up call for the rest of the division ...
BENGALS: Outside linebacker Thomas Howard, the leading tackler in 2011, is happy with the progress from a torn ACL. Howard only played one game last season. "The knee is doing absolutely fabulous," Howard told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "We’re right on pace and I’ll be back strong next year." It's uncertain whether Howard will be back with the Bengals next season. He's a free agent in March.
STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette thinks wide receiver Antonio Brown went from being the team's MVP to its most disappointing player. "A Pro Bowl return man the previous season, he averaged just 6.8 yards on 27 punt returns and did not return a kickoff," Bouchette wrote. "He did finish second on the team with 66 receptions and scored five touchdowns, but his bobbles seemed more memorable."
BROWNS: The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto believes former owner Art Modell isn't worthy of the Hall of Fame and it goes beyond the relocation of the Browns. "My contention has long been the job of an owner is the win games and run a solid business organization. Generally, Modell failed at both," Pluto wrote. "His work on the NFL television contracts and his bold move of making Ozzie Newsome the first minority NFL general manager doesn't change the fact that after 19970, his record was six games under .500 in two different cities. Obviously, a large chunk of the 46 Hall of Fame voters didn't buy into Modell as he failed to survive the first round."
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1. Discipline. This division has always been known for its physical play. This year, the AFC North is also gaining a reputation for being sloppy and undisciplined, and you can't put this all on the replacement refs. Three teams in the division rank in the top 10 in penalty yards: Pittsburgh (second), Baltimore (third) and Cleveland (sixth). On Sunday, the Steelers and Ravens combined for 201 yards in penalties. The Bengals are the exception, ranking 20th in penalty yards.
2. Defensive dominance in the division. It was a source of pride within the division last season, when all four defenses ranked in the top 10. This year, three of the AFC North defenses rank in the bottom 13. Injuries have been a big factor in the decline. The Ravens were without the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Terrell Suggs) for most of the season. The Bengals lost their leading tackler (Thomas Howard) after one game. And the Browns watched top defensive lineman (Phillip Taylor), two starting outside linebackers (Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong) and top cornerback (Joe Haden) miss a total of 26 starts. The Steelers, who were the top defense in the NFL last season, are No. 1 nine weeks into this season.
3. Coaching excellence. John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin should be applauded for how they've kept their teams near the top of the AFC despite the injuries to key players. But this hasn't been a stellar year for coaching so far. Harbaugh has been penalized twice for unsportsmanlike conduct. Tomlin nearly lost the game at the Giants by calling for a fake field goal. Marvin Lewis, who has never been strong at replay challenges, threw the red flag to challenge a 2-yard catch by Mike Wallace, who clearly had both knees on the ground before fumbling. And Pat Shurmur is causing fans to shake their heads with his decisions on fourth down and his inability to get the plays to the huddle in timely manner.
1. The running games. The weather is starting to get colder, which means the running games are beginning to heat up. The Steelers have rebounded from an awful start to get three straight 100-yard games from two different backs (Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman). Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson has run for 100 yards in consecutive games for the first time in his career. And Ravens running back Ray Rice gained 98 yards on a season-high 25 carries Sunday. The Bengals' BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been the biggest disappointment, ranking 24th in rushing yards per game (60.9).
2. Young receivers. The future is bright for the passing games in the AFC North. The Bengals' A.J. Green is sixth in the NFL with 735 yards and has scored a touchdown in seven straight games. Wallace and the Ravens' Torrey Smith have combined for 10 touchdowns and 14 catches over 20 yards. And Browns rookie Josh Gordon is second in the NFL with a 21.9-yard per catch average.
3. Chances of getting two teams in the playoffs. I initially predicted only one team would make the playoffs out of the AFC North because of the tougher schedules this season. It looked like that was going to be the case six weeks into the season when only the Ravens had a winning record in the division. But the Steelers heated up with three straight wins and the Ravens still hold the second-best record in the AFC. If the season ended today, Baltimore would get the second seed and a first-round bye while Pittsburgh would get the sixth and final playoff spot.
The 2012 season has been a complete turnaround so far. Three teams -- the Ravens, Browns and Bengals -- rank in the bottom six in defense. They're all giving up more than 400 yards per game. The Steelers, who had the top-ranked defense a year ago, are currently at No. 7.
There hasn't been a major turnover in starting lineups. Each team that has dropped in the defensive rankings didn't return two starters: Bengals (defensive end Frostee Rucker, safety Chris Crocker), Browns (defensive end Jayme Mitchell and safety Mike Adams) and Ravens (defensive end Cory Redding and linebacker Jarret Johnson).
What has really hurt these defenses has been injuries. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury for the Ravens. For the Browns, outside linebacker Chris Gocong (Achilles) is out for the season and defensive tackle Phil Taylor (torn pectoral muscle) will miss at least the first six games. And the Bengals have been without defensive end Carlos Dunlap (knee) for two games and won't have outside linebacker Thomas Howard (knee), last year's leading tackler, for the rest of the season.
The Steelers, whose defense hasn't plummeted like the rest of the AFC North, had two former defensive players of the year (James Harrison and Troy Polamalu) on the sideline Sunday.
The loss of those starters has impacted the statistics and the results of games. The Ravens' defense, which has gone from No. 3 to No. 27, gave up the winning touchdown to Michael Vick with 1:55 remaining last Sunday. The Bengals' defense, which has fallen from No. 7 to No. 30, has allowed its first two opponents to gain more than 400 yards for the second time since 1981, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. And the Browns' defense, which has dropped from No. 10 to No. 29, surrendered the winning touchdown pass from Vick with 1:18 left in the season opener.
I thought this was going to be a tougher year for defenses in this division just based on the schedule. Unlike last year, when they faced mediocre offenses in the NFC West and AFC South, the AFC North defenses are lining up against Vick, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo. But no one predicted such a rough start for a division that prides itself on dominating defenses.
Burfict will start at outside linebacker for Thomas Howard, who tore his ACL last week and is out for the season. This is a surprise when you consider how his stock fell this spring. But this lineup move was expected because Burfict told reporters Friday that he would start.
He fell from a potential first-round pick to an undrafted rookie free agent after he gained weight, demonstrated an attitude and flopped at the NFL scouting combine.
Since he joined the Bengals, Burfict shed weight and made several plays in the preseason and training camp. The coaches have been impressed with his football instincts.
When I spoke to coach Marvin Lewis in mid-August, he projected Burfict to be a future starter in the league. It has just happened sooner than expected.
BROWNS AT BENGALS
Browns: Rookie LB James-Michael Johnson (ribs/oblique) is out and TE Ben Watson (thigh) is questionable. Watson played last game with the same injury, but Jordan Cameron seems to be slowly taking over the tight end spot. RB Trent Richardson (knee) is among the six starters listed as probable.
Bengals: LB Thomas Howard (knee) and first-round CB Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) are out. Howard will likely be replaced by Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey or Dan Skuta. DE Carlos Dunlap (knee) and backup RB Bernard Scott (hand) are both questionable. Dunlap appears to be ahead of Scott at this point and could go about 10 plays in pass-rushing situations, according to the team's official website.
RAVENS AT EAGLES
Ravens: OLB Paul Kruger (back) practiced for the first time Friday and is considered questionable. Although he's optimistic, rookie second-round pick Courtney Upshaw is ready to replace Kruger in the starting lineup. S Ed Reed (hamstring) had a full practice Friday after being limited Wednesday and Thursday. He is probable and will start.
Eagles: Starting WRs DeSean Jackson (hamstring) and Jeremy Maclin (hip) are both listed as questionable. They were limited in practice Friday after sitting out Thursday.
JETS AT STEELERS
Steelers: LB James Harrison (knee) and S Troy Polamalu (calf) both won't play, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac. Chris Carter is expected to start for Harrison, and Ryan Mundy will take over for Polamalu. RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) is doubtful despite full participation in every practice this week.
Jets: CB Darrelle Revis (concussion) is out after not being cleared for contact. Kyle Wilson will start opposite Antonio Cromartie. TE Dustin Keller (hamstring) has also been ruled out. His snaps will be divided up between Jeff Cumberland and Konrad Reuland. OLB Bryan Thomas (hamstring) won't play and will be replaced by Garrett McIntyre.
There could be another candidate to replace Howard -- high-profile undrafted middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict. According to the team's official website, Burfict told some reporters that he'll start at that outside linebacker spot. Head coach Marvin Lewis didn't confirm this Friday, saying the team will line up Burfict, Skuta and Rey at any point. The website speculated Burfict and Skuta would play early downs and Rey would play on passing downs.
Burfict has the highest ceiling of any of the backup linebackers and is a personal favorite of Lewis. Character issues caused Burfict to fall from a first-round prospect to an undrafted one. Lewis then actively recruited Burfict to the Bengals in April.
Since a poor showing at the NFL combine in February, Burfict shed 15 pounds and impressed the coaches in offseason workouts and in the preseason. He intercepted Andy Dalton in the team's mock game this summer and picked off Tim Tebow in the preseason.
Asked about Howard's injury in practice, Lewis told reporters, "Just a freak thing that happens. I've seen too many of them in 31 years of coaching before I even knew what an ACL was. It was in our drills. He felt like he was fine, 'I'm all right, I'm all right.' Then they are not. Unfortunately, we take them in that room and put that machine on them and they are not."
The Bengals are not only dealing with the loss of their surest tackler but they don't have a proven replacement for him. Cincinnati can turn to Vincent Rey, a special teams player, or Dan Skuta, whose made three of his four career starts at middle linebacker.
Howard isn't on the same level as LaMarr Woodley or Terrell Suggs. But he was the most underrated outside linebacker in the division. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis referred to Howard last year as "one of the most athletic linebackers he's ever coached."
With Howard out, there's more pressure on middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to step up as a tackler. Howard's injury just happens to occur in the same week when Maualuga and Browns running back Trent Richardson have taken shots at one another publicly.
Overcoming injuries has become a trend for Cincinnati. Howard is the third starter for the Bengals who will miss significant time because of injury and it's only Week 2. He joins guard Travelle Wharton (knee, out for the season) and center Kyle Cook (foot).
Corey (Fantasy Land): J.H...How's it feel to step foot in Steeler country, honestly?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Honestly, it's the first time this summer when it's felt like training camp. I'm not a fan of holding camp at the team's facility. St. Vincent College is a great place. Sorry it took me so long to make it up here.
AFCN RULES (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): Can you tell us what NFL team you root for and as far as the fighting in the AFCN chat rooms we like to settle it with a hard core double ladder death match.:)
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Growing up in Baltimore, I rooted for the Colts. When the Colts left, I really didn't latch onto a team. I hated that the Redskins were shoved down Baltimore's throats. Now, as a reporter, I root for good games and story lines. That really makes my job so much fun.
Brian (Frostburg, Maryland): Why in the world is Coach Harbaugh so quick to lean towards naming Billy Cundiff as placekicker when Justin Tucker is obviously outperforming him in camp? What happened to best man wins?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Going with an undrafted rookie kicker would take a lot of moxie.
Spraven882 (Baltimore): What is the chance that Tucker starts in front of Cundiff?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): At the start of camp, I would say the chances were very slim. Now, I say he has a fair shot, not a great one.
Dan (Pasadena, CA): Jamison, I was just wondering what your take on the Bengals' WR battle is. Do you think Jordan Shipley makes this team at all? It would tough to lose him when he was so good his rookie year. Could they possibly trade him instead? Also, after one game, it seems that the coaches favor Armon Binns over Brandon Tate. Thoughts on the outcome?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Shipley looks like a long shot right now. I see Binns ahead of Tate right now.
Adam (DC): Do you think the Steelers defense will be able to force more turnovers this year?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Honestly, not to be funny, but the Steelers couldn't force much less. It really boils down to a consistent pass rush and cornerbacks who can make plays. Ike Taylor has said he's worked on improving his hands.
Sam (NJ): Will Carlos Dunlap be back vs Ravens week 1?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I would doubt it, which is a shame. Dunlap was having a monster camp.
Ryan W (Ragtown): Who do you think is the most feared player in the AFC North?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): James Harrison. And the person who says anything different is lying.
AfootballFan22 (Chat room): Who do you think will be the starters on the Ravens offensive line?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): By the end of the season: LT McKinnie, LG Osemele, C Birk, RG Yanda, RT Oher.
Cloud1902 (Ohio): If Richardson stays healthy, can you see him rushing for more than 1,000 yards?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): He'd better. Gaining 1,000 yards isn't really anything special. The better barometer is 1,500 yards.
Cincy (AFCN Champions): Are you attending the Monday night football opener, Ravens vs. Bengals? And if so, if I send you a Bengals shirt will you wear it? I triple dog dare you.
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Depends on when my wife gives birth. If the baby is born on kickoff weekend, I will be watching from home.
Matt (Charlotte): To date, who is your favorite interview in the AFCN?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN): By team ... Steelers: Brett Keisel. Ravens: Terrell Suggs. Bengals: Thomas Howard (also Leon Hall). Browns: Joe Thomas.
Come back to the blog every day as we reveal the rankings, which will lead to the start of training camp at the end of the month. Hope you enjoy the AFC North top 25 even though you likely won't agree with the list, which is really the fun of these rankings anyway.
Our series of the top 25 players begins with No. 25:
Bengals outside linebacker
Why Howard is ranked 25th: The six-year veteran is the most underrated outside linebacker in the division. Howard led the NFL's seventh-ranked defense with 99 tackles in replacing Keith Rivers, a big reason why the Bengals felt comfortable enough to trade away the former first-round pick. This season should be even better for Howard, who had to learn Mike Zimmer's defense on the fly after signing with the Bengals on July 30 last year. Howard is an extremely sure tackler, missing nine tackles over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. If anyone has a problem with Howard making the list, you should listen to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis who considers Howard "one of the most athletic linebackers he's ever coached." That's strong praise considering the linebackers -- which includes Ray Lewis -- who have played under Marvin Lewis.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns currently rank in the top three in terms of most cap room for next season. Clayton reports that the Bengals have $42 million and the Browns have $40 million. Only the Indianapolis Colts ($43 million) have more than those two AFC North teams.
The Bengals, though, will need that space to fill some holes on the team. Right tackle Andre Smith, kicker Mike Nugent and all three starting linebackers (Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson) will be unrestricted free agents in 2013.
The Baltimore Ravens rank eighth with $15 million of cap space. Of course, the Ravens could use more considering quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and safety Ed Reed will be free agents. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti expressed optimism last week that the team will sign Flacco and Rice to new deals.
The only division team that doesn't have space is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are a projected $10 million over the 2013 cap. Their focus next offseason will be their wide receivers. The Steelers will need room to put the franchise tag on Mike Wallace if they can't sign him to a long-term deal and a first-round tender on Antonio Brown, who will be a restricted free agent next year.