Cincinnati Bengals: 2014 NFL

One was an absolute wrecking ball on defense, consistently finding his way to the football. The other was eased into his team's offense before ultimately taking it over the second half of the season, and helping it earn a postseason berth.

But only one would be named the AFC North's Rookie of the Year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesIn his rookie season, Ravens LB C.J. Mosley registered five or more tackles in every game.
That honor went to Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who barely edged out Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. From the five-person voting panel, Mosley received 12 overall points to Hill's 11. Mosley also had three first-place votes to the two that went to Hill.

Out of the pair, Hill is the only one up for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award that will be announced this weekend in Arizona. He's the only AFC North representative, contending with a group made up of all offensive players. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, receiver Mike Evans and receiver Sammy Watkins also are up for the honor. No defensive player has earned the award since 2010, when Ndamukong Suh received it.

Mosley was seemingly everywhere for the Ravens this season. He had 129 tackles, the eighth-highest total for any defender in the league. He also was part of a defense that ranked eighth in the league.

In addition to the 129 tackles, Mosley also had three sacks, two interceptions and forced and recovered a fumble. The Alabama product also had 19 tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games, including 10 in the divisional-round loss to the Patriots. In a Week 5 loss at Indianapolis, he had a season-high 14 stops.

Hill became a threat for the Bengals starting in Week 9 when he rushed for a season-high 154 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 win against the Jaguars. It was his 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped ice the win, and firmly put him in his fan base's consciousness. That week, and for the two after it, Hill started in place of Giovani Bernard. The third-year running back was resting after experiencing a series of injuries following hard hits in previous games.

Also during Bernard's absence, Hill rushed for 152 yards in a homecoming game at New Orleans. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native and LSU product went on to become the Bengals' top option at running back after Bernard returned. Across the final nine weeks of the season, Hill rushed for 929 yards, more than any other back in that stretch.

In addition to their Rookie of the Year award, ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on four other honors for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player). We've been handing out the awards daily since Monday.

Mosley finished third in the division Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Hill finished third in Offensive Player of the Year voting.

AFC North Rookie of the Year: Mosley, 12 points; Hill, 11; Joel Bitonio, 8, Cleveland; Martavis Bryant, 1, Pittsburgh.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

Click here to see the other free agency breakdowns.

We continue with safety Taylor Mays:

Mays
Year signed: 2014

Length of previous deal: One year

2014 cap value: $795,000

2014 role: Backup safety, key special teamer.

Why he will be re-signed: The decision to have Mays re-sign could rest more in his hands than the Bengals'. Perhaps more than some of the other players mentioned in this free-agency breakdown series, Mays could have to think about whether he would want to come back for more time as a backup, or if he would like to have a better chance of earning playing time elsewhere. That hinges on the interest he receives on the open market. But assuming for now that he wants to stay in Cincinnati, the Bengals would re-sign Mays because of the important role he plays as a versatile reserve.

In addition to playing safety, he also has gotten on the field the past two seasons playing more of a hybrid linebacker position. It's been in nickel situations when "Sam" linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was injured that Mays shifted over into that spot and covered tight ends and occasionally receivers. Mays' combination of size, athleticism, and coverage ability has made him a good off-the-bench option. The Bengals also would re-sign him because of the positive impact he has had on the punt and kickoff coverage teams. Routinely, he was among the first tacklers around the football on opposing kick returns.

Why he won't be re-signed: Again, the ball appears to truly be in Mays' court. It's possible that he might decide against returning, because the odds that he beats out George Iloka or Reggie Nelson for one of the starting safety jobs is slim. As he goes into his sixth season, Mays might want to be in a place where he can play more. If that's the case, then he will be gone. Because of the depth Mays provides on defense and special teams, the Bengals have little reason to want to part with him. That's another indication of how much this decision could hinge on what Mays wants.
CINCINNATI -- To the Cincinnati Bengals fan who may have already begun envisioning a future without tight end Jermaine Gresham, hold off.

At least, that's the underlying message behind comments made earlier this week by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

Asked if there was still a place on the Bengals' roster for the embattled soon-to-be-free-agent Gresham, Jackson answered in the affirmative.

"There's a place for him," Jackson said to ESPN.com. "But again, he's free, so that's going to work itself out for him however it works itself out."

Gresham
Gresham's five-year rookie contract will come to an end in March when he becomes one of 13 Bengals to become eligible for unrestricted free agency. He and his representatives are free at that point to talk to whichever interested teams they would like. Reading into Jackson's comment it seems possible the Bengals could be one of those teams.

"We have a way that we do things, and how we want to accomplish things," Jackson said. "Within what we asked him to do this year, he did some good things. There are some things he knows he needs to do to be better, and he will work at them to be better."

It should be noted there was some concern among some around the team right after the season about Gresham's apparent inability to play in two meaningful late-season games because of injuries. After testing out respective ailments ahead of the Week 15 game at Cleveland and the wild-card round playoff game at Indianapolis, Gresham decided he couldn't play in either game. The decisions came despite cutting, running and jumping as he went through pregame evaluations from trainers and coaches.

Gresham was asked multiple times after the playoff loss to comment about what made him hesitant to play in the game. He declined each request.

Without the veteran tight end, the Bengals were forced into tweaking a game plan that already took a hit the day before when receiver A.J. Green wasn't cleared of the concussion protocol. Forced to shelve two of their top pass-catchers, the Bengals turned to backup running back Rex Burkhead as an alternate receiver, and mixed up protection fronts to account for Gresham's absence in run-blocking sequences. The Bengals already were without fellow tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones; two of their leading 2013 pass-catchers who practically missed all of 2014.

"A doctor says he can't go, and I don't get to control that," Jackson said about Gresham's playoff absence. "When they said, 'Hue, here's the offensive football team you get,' you have to go out and coach. Were we at full strength? No. But we were the best we could be that day from an injury standpoint and it wasn't good enough."

The Bengals lost 26-10. Despite repeated trips to the postseason, they haven't won a playoff game since January 1991.

Gresham caught 62 passes for 460 yards this season and a division-high five touchdowns. He also fumbled three times.
CINCINNATI -- Paul Guenther made major waves at the start of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason four weeks ago when he told reporters covering the team that defensive tackle Geno Atkins was "just a guy out there" at times this past season.

Hours before making the proclamation, the defensive coordinator shared a similar message in a closed-door meeting with his lineman, imploring him to take it with him into the rest of the offseason.

Atkins
Asked earlier this week if he believed Atkins could make his disappointing 2014 season a distant memory, Guenther told ESPN.com he expected the lineman to do exactly that.

"I'm confident that he'll come back next year and be the guy that we all know," Guenther said. "After going through the year of working through his injury, I feel confident he's going to come back with a vengeance."

Atkins missed the second half of the 2013 season after tearing his ACL and undergoing surgery to fix it. All last offseason, he rehabbed the injury and had hardly any time to build up the rest of his body for the grind of a full regular season. As a result, it appeared his explosion and lauded first-step pass-rush technique suffered. In turn, his production took a sharp dip.

Despite having just 34 tackles and three sacks, numbers that were among the lowest for a regular season in his career, Atkins still made this year's Pro Bowl. After playing in all of Cincinnati's games this year, he appeared in Sunday's game for winning Team Irvin, coached by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin. He didn't record a statistic.

Two years ago, the last full season Atkins played, he recorded 12.5 sacks. He also led the NFL that year with a 12.7 pressure-percentage rating, a metric tracked by Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, he either hurried, hit or sacked quarterbacks on 12.7 percent of the snaps he was part of in 2012. This season, he did the same on 6.7 percent of his snaps, a figure that was mediocre this season, at best.

After Sunday's Pro Bowl, Atkins told Bengals.com in Arizona that he felt strong this season. He also said he hadn't given much thought yet to how his offseason conditioning will go this year. For now, there's only one item on the offseason to-do list: to relax.

"I'm looking forward to having an offseason and chill," the typically uncommunicative Atkins said. "Football season is over. It's a long season."

Still, the goal Guenther, other coaches and trainers have for Atkins these next six months involves training for football specifically.

That's the same process cornerback Leon Hall endured as he recovered from a second Achilles surgery in three years. It's the same process linebacker Vontaze Burfict will go through this spring and summer as he tries to get his left knee healthy again following microfracture surgery earlier this month. The Bengals hope he'll be ready by training camp.

"They're two of our marquee players," Guenther said of Atkins and Burfict. "They're a key fit and part of what we do here. As for Geno, we just have to get him back to full strength where he once had it. That would be huge."

For a pass rush that was arguably the league's worst in 2014, it certainly would be.

Bengals 'farm system' ranked 10th

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
1:30
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CINCINNATI -- One of the cornerstones of success for NFL teams revolves around their ability to identify talent, and to grow with it.

Of course, there is no "farm system" in the NFL like there is in Major League Baseball, but professional football hinges nonetheless on the ability of its youngest stars to produce when their times to shine arrive. In recent years, the Cincinnati Bengals have been regarded in league circles as being among the best at finding, evaluating and building through the draft process.

Look no further than the 2011 draft class as an example.

Since the year Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were taken in the first two rounds of the draft and became instant starters, the team has undergone an unmatched run of success. Each of the four seasons since that one, the Bengals have made it to the playoffs. It's the first time in franchise history they have advanced to the postseason in that many consecutive years. Of course, despite reaching the postseason each of those seasons, the Bengals still haven't advanced beyond the wild-card round.

Still, the broader point remains. Since 2011, many of the Bengals' most productive players have been drafted by Cincinnati. Draftees such as Jeremy Hill and Dre Kirkpatrick emerged in 2014. So did undrafted Bengals signees like Ryan Hewitt and Vincent Rey.

For years the Bengals have used the draft and undrafted free agency to land players. Very seldom have they viewed veteran free agency as the place to land talent to build with, unlike many other teams. Economically speaking, it has made more sense -- particularly after the latest collective bargaining agreement -- for them to sign cheap, young players and to re-sign them four years later when their contracts expire. Since talented players will always be available for drafting, it can be a cyclical philosophy, if executed properly.

So it was no surprise the Bengals' "farm system" ranked 10th in an exercise conducted earlier this week by ESPN Insider Matt Williamson. Matt ranked each team based on the existing 25-and-under talent they had. The goal was to rank teams by the way they were set up for the next 10 years. He took into account positional value, durability, contract status and performed a sort of balancing act so as not to punish teams like the Packers whose quarterbacks are in the prime of their careers.

Age was measured by how old the players were on Jan. 1. Dalton and Green may have gotten Cincinnati's recent run going, but they weren't included in this exercise since they are both 26.

Among the players of note Williamson mentioned in his analysis were Giovani Bernard (23 years old), Hill (the youngest on the team at 22), Vontaze Burfict (24), Kevin Zeitler (24) and Tyler Eifert (24). If the Bengals continue building around these players in particular, Williamson surmises they would make the Bengals a top-10 team over the next 10 seasons.

I'd agree with that assessment, but I would take it a step further. Because of the Bengals' aforementioned philosophy on building through the draft, and their success doing it of late, I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually became a deep playoff contender the next 10 seasons. Of course, myriad other factors (like coaching) must work out for that to happen, but from a personnel standpoint, there is no reason the Bengals can't continue being a playoff team the majority of the next decade.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

Click here to see the other free agency breakdowns.

Newman
Newman
We continue with cornerback Terence Newman:

Year signed: 2013

Length of previous deal: Two years

2014 cap value: $2,000,000

2014 role: Starting cornerback.

Why he will be re-signed: It all comes down to two decisions that must be made by both the Bengals and Newman himself. First, the 36-year-old defensive back has to ascertain whether he has more football left in him, or if his career is over. He told reporters the day after the Bengals' wild-card round playoff loss at Indianapolis that he would be pondering retirement the next few months. But he added that his body felt fine at the end of the season. It wouldn't be surprising if he came to the conclusion that he still felt he had another season or two left to play. Besides, with Newman, age really is only a number. He doesn't like discussing his advanced football years. He also takes care of himself better than most normal 30-somethings, helping him stay in good enough condition to play. If Cincinnati re-signs him, it's because the Bengals believe their young cornerbacks could benefit from having at least one more year of guidance from the veteran, and that he still can produce.

Why he won't be re-signed: All of that said, Newman's days in Cincinnati really appear to have come to an end. Part of the reason he was signed was to give the Bengals another veteran presence in their secondary, while bridging the gap to a few up-and-comers at the position. Dre Kirkpatrick was a rookie when Newman was originally signed in 2012, and Darqueze Dennard was just drafted last year. Kirkpatrick really emerged late in the season, particularly during a Monday night win over Denver when he was inserted into the game late for a struggling Newman. That moment seemed a clear sign the baton will be passed now that Newman is entering free agency. Dennard also didn't play much as a rookie, but he impressed coaches to the point that they have to figure out a way to get him more defensive playing time. Without Newman around, they'll be able to get Dennard that playing time.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis received a pair of firm endorsements from his top two assistant coaches who told ESPN.com on Tuesday they believed Lewis pulled off one of his best head-coaching jobs in 2014.

"Outstanding," Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, referring to the lockout-affected 2011 season. That also was the year that began a playoff streak that reached four seasons earlier this month. Like all their playoff appearances since 2005, the Bengals have failed to get out of the wild-card round in each of the last four years.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
John Grieshop/Getty Images"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
In the immediate wake of the latest postseason defeat, a 26-10 loss at Indianapolis, calls sounded for Lewis' firing. Inside the offices at One Paul Brown Stadium, they fell on deaf ears.

Team president Mike Brown had no plans of making a swap at the top of his coaching staff. Like others around the organization, he continues to believe Lewis gives the organization its best chance for finally clearing the playoff hurdle.

"What's happened here, which is great, is that it's expected that you're going to be in the playoffs," Jackson said. "The expectation's changed. At one time, that wasn't even the expectation. Now, that's the expectation, and this is a good, young team. He did an outstanding job. One, of coaching his coaches. Two, of coaching the football team, motivating the football team and leading the team and the staff and putting us in position."

Jackson wants those still irked by the string of first-round exits to blame the players and the coaching staff.

"We have to reward him for a job well done," Jackson said. "He helped get us to the dance, and now we have to go dance."

The Bengals went 10-5-1 and were potentially a lost fumble away from winning the AFC North.

The assistants lauded Lewis specifically for the way he managed, with two first-year coordinators and two new position coaches, the flood of injuries that hit the team at various times of the season. One of the newest position coaches, linebackers coach Matt Burke, was hit by the injury bug harder than most others. Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict only finished two games after dealing with head, neck and knee injuries. Fellow starters Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur missed multiple games due to hamstring issues.

There also were injuries to tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed all but one quarter of the season opener; receiver Marvin Jones, who was hampered by injuries since early last offseason and never made it on the field for a game; and tight end Jermaine Gresham, receiver A.J. Green and offensive tackle Andre Smith. Veterans Geno Atkins and Leon Hall played all year, but spent all last spring and summer rehabbing serious injuries instead of spending their time actually training for optimal play during the long season.

"If you want to know the truth, it's amazing," Guenther said.

Neither assistant wanted to call the season a success. Both were quick to point out the many flaws their sides of the ball had in 2014, and how they are working with Lewis to resolve them and to finally win that playoff game.

"I would hope everybody feels it in the pit of their stomach like our coaches do, like I do," Jackson said. "You've got to have that fire that burns in order to get over to the other side. We've got to take it and work our tails off to get there."
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

Click here to see the other free agency breakdowns.

Bush
Maualuga
We continue with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga:

Year signed: 2013

Length of previous deal: Two years

2014 cap value: $3,828,125

2014 role: Starting "Mike" linebacker.

Why he will be re-signed: This certainly is one of the biggest free-agency decisions the Bengals are facing this offseason. A second-round 2009 Bengals draft pick, Maualuga has only known the one franchise his six-year NFL career. It's been a career filled with a few highs and lows and a couple of injuries that cost him some meaningful snaps. Maualuga will get re-signed for a few different reasons, namely because he provides the team a spark as a run-stopping defender. Across the four games he missed this past season because of a hamstring injury, the Bengals allowed an averaged 145 rushing yards. Twice they gave up 170 yards or more on the ground.

When Maualuga returned for the final seven games of the regular season, teams averaged just 82 rushing yards in those. Teams were held to 85 yards or less in six of those games. A big reason why the Bengals' rush defense had improved was because Maualuga was back. Maualuga's presence also gives the Bengals a veteran voice the linebacker corps desperately needs, particularly if the group ends up without Vontaze Burfict; something that is a very real possibility after Burfict underwent microfracture surgery recently. The optimism the "Will" linebacker will return to Pro Bowl level play also exists, but it's much more measured.

Why he won't be re-signed: The unknown with Burfict could end up a positive for Maualuga's free-agency situation as the Bengals try to at least salvage having some veteran presence at the position. But if Maualuga isn't re-signed it will be a sign the Bengals are confident they can identify other players in free agency who could provide adequate run support from the interior linebacker position, too.

The real questions the Bengals have to ask themselves, though, is if it's worth bringing in a new player who will have to learn their scheme, get along with the players at the linebacker positions and carve out enough time to know the scheme as if he's another extension of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther? It's clear the assistant coach likes having his linebackers understand the overall system as well as him. If there are two places he values having veterans, it's at cornerback and linebacker. Corners are often in one-on-one situations and the "Mike" and "Will" 'backers help set the pressure fronts and make sure the whole unit is operating together. Some of the smartest defenders typically play those positions. That's why if Maualuga isn't re-signed, it's likely the Bengals will have identified another free agent to come in and replace him. Backup Vincent Rey could move to "Mike" in a starter's capacity to replace him, but the uncertainty about Burfict makes Rey an option to start there if need be, too. It may make the most sense to keep Maualuga.
CINCINNATI -- After spending the 2014 season on the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad, Sam Montgomery will have another chance to prove he belongs on the 53-man roster later this year.

The defensive end on Monday became the 10th player signed this offseason to a reserve/futures contract by the Bengals. It's a sign the team expects him to compete for a spot in the defensive line rotation in offseason practices and workouts. Cincinnati's pass rush was lacking this past season, and served as a point of contention for coaches who have vowed to make the unit better.

Montgomery played in three of the Bengals' four preseason games last August. He recorded four tackles and had a sack.

An LSU product, Montgomery was a third-round pick by the Texans in 2013. He didn't appear in a game that season, and was released in late October 2013 after he and two teammates had violated team rules. ESPN.com reported at the time they were suspected of smoking marijuana in the team hotel the night before a loss at Kansas City.

The Bengals picked up Montgomery last offseason in hopes he could use his experience as an outside linebacker and defensive end to help their pass rush. When he didn't make the active roster at the end of the preseason, he was added to the Bengals' practice squad.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

Click here to see the other free agency breakdowns.

We continue with outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur:

Lamur
Lamur
Year signed: 2012

Length of previous deal: Three years

2014 cap value: $495,000

2014 role: Starting "Sam" linebacker.

Why he will be re-signed: Lamur's size and athleticism might be his best football traits. At 6-foot-4 and about 240 pounds, he's big enough to bring down a tight end with ease, but he's quick enough and agile enough to cover a tight end on deep routes downfield. As Cincinnati's top cover linebacker, Lamur has a role most teams might use a safety for instead. Because of that, it frees the Bengals up in the back end of the defense in a way that permits them to use their safeties in more traditional ways when there are good pass-catching tight ends on the field. A defense that likes playing man coverage is able to treat tight ends like additional receivers when Lamur is on the field. It's strictly because of his combination of size and athleticism that they feel comfortable doing that. Because of his size and coverage ability, the Bengals have good reason to want Lamur back. Like defensive tackle Devon Still, Lamur is an unrestricted free agent. Also like Still, he probably ought to expect a low-round tender offer.

Why he won't be re-signed: Although Lamur's size and coverage ability are an advantage, he has yet to play a consistently good season. The potential for the former undrafted free agent is there, though. His entire second season (2013) was derailed because of a shoulder injury. A couple other injuries forced him to miss two games this past season. His inconsistency and poor play against the run do not bode well for Lamur getting a high-round tender offer or being re-signed. Strongside linebackers are supposed to be one of a team's best linebackers against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Lamur's 2014 run-defense grade was second-to-last on the team to defensive tackle Domata Peko. Lamur graded at a minus-6.7.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

We started with quarterback Jason Campbell, then looked at running back Cedric Peerman, receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, receiver Brandon Tate, tight end Alex Smith, tight end Jermaine Gresham, offensive guard Clint Boling, offensive tackle Eric Winston and offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse.

Still
We continue with defensive tackle Devon Still:

Year signed: 2014

Length of previous deal: One year (was drafted by Bengals in the second round of the 2012 draft, but after he was cut at the end of the 2014 preseason, he had to be signed to a new deal when the Bengals welcomed him back onto the roster in September)

2014 cap value: $536,471

2014 role: Backup defensive tackle.

Why he will be re-signed: We're going to stick to discussing on-field matters as it pertains to Still's potential return, but it will be interesting to track what happens to him in free agency given the attention his daughter's bout with cancer has received. As a player, Still could get re-signed if the Bengals feel content with where their depth at defensive tackle is. If he's kept, it also would be a sign the Bengals believe in Still's potential; potential that has been derailed the last two years by injuries and worry brought on by his daughter's illness. Unlike the other free agents we've discussed so far, Still's free-agency status rests primarily in the Bengals' hands. He's a restricted free agent, meaning he's only free to negotiate with the Bengals unless they decide to waive him and reject to make him a tender offer. If given an offer, it's likely he'll draw a low-round tender.

Why he won't be re-signed: Still had trouble this season against the run, and like everyone else on the defensive line, he struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. One day after the season ended for the Bengals, coaches and players alike expressed concern over the pass-rush problem. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was adamant in saying he believed change ought to come to his D-line personnel in order to improve the rush. That means no one on the line is immune to the possibility of being cut. As the only lineman eligible for free agency, Still finds himself potentially in the middle of the chopping block. Pro Football Focus graded him among the four worst pass rushers on the team in 2014. He also was inactive for the last three games, as the Bengals sought different rotations to bolster their fledgling rush.
CINCINNATI -- We mentioned Saturday how we had a flood of questions for this week's mailbag. So, just as we did with Part 1, let's go on and get right to the questions and answers for Part 2.

Up first, an inquiry about getting Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict back to form:

@ColeyHarvey: It's so hard to predict how people's bodies will respond to injuries, particularly knee injuries. So the short answer, Jesse, is, "Who knows?" Even they have no idea if they'll ever get back to where they were before missing significant chunks of the last two seasons. You can be sure of one thing, though: Both will work hard on returning to their old selves. The thing is, in addition to the physical rebound their knees have to make (in Atkins' case, ACL surgery from late in 2013; in Burfict's case, a cartilage issue that required postseason surgery), there can be a mental component to the recovery, too. That's especially the case for players who sustained knee injuries because of unexpected contact initiated by opposing players.

Atkins, by all accounts, was fully healthy in 2014. He didn't play like his old self, though, notching just three sacks after having six in a half-season shortened by injury in 2013 and 12.5 in a complete season in 2012. Based on that, it seems as if he didn't quite have full confidence in his knee this season. The hope is that by having a full offseason to train without having to rehab, Atkins will be dramatically better in 2015. As for Burfict, the hope is that his knee comes back stronger than before after surgery and rehab this offseason.


@ColeyHarvey: Again, you can't predict anything as it relates to injuries and rebounding from them. In this case, the Bengals would like to believe that the timing of Tyler Eifert's elbow and shoulder surgeries will cut down on the amount of time he misses in voluntary offseason workouts and organized team activities while rehabbing. He seems confident he'll be back at 100 percent in time for training camp. Also, who knows if he'll be 100 percent healthy for a full season? As for Jermaine Gresham, the writing on the wall seems to indicate that he won't be coming back in free agency. If that's the case, Eifert's role in the offense ought to increase. Another tight end we'll discuss in the next question might have an expanded role, too. Perhaps the Bengals will sign another tight end who could help Eifert in possible two-tight end sets? We'll see.

@ColeyHarvey: Hewitt had a very strong first season. You could make a case that he really was the Bengals' rookie of the year. Without him opening up holes as a blocker out of the backfield, first-year running back Jeremy Hill might not have had many of the rushing lanes that helped propel him to more than 1,100 yards. The answer to your question, though, depends upon what else the Bengals do at the position. I personally subscribe to the if-it-ain't-broke line of reasoning. Hewitt was great as an H-back and had receiving opportunities from that position. They might like to get the ball into his hands more often, but his value as a blocker was tremendous. I'd keep him in that role. But again, it all hinges upon what happens with the two free-agent tight ends (Gresham and Alex Smith).

@ColeyHarvey: Speaking of expanded roles, it would make sense for the Bengals to try to get Rex Burkhead more involved as a receiver in 2015, whether he's coming out of the backfield or lining up in the slot, as he was forced to in the playoff loss. He was effective in his role against the Colts, catching three passes for 34 yards. He even had a 23-yard run on a reverse to open the game. A selfless player who is one of the coaches' favorites, Burkhead has definitely earned more opportunities. The best way for him to showcase them, though, would be in scenarios in which the Bengals might incorporate some kind of misdirection or gadget play. Using Burkhead in the passing game, to me, ought to be akin to using Mohamed Sanu as a passer. It can be a valuable weapon, but must be used with care and timeliness. Because there are so many other talented pass-catchers around him, Burkhead can't be expected to have a large receiving role, but he should at least have one.

@ColeyHarvey: Still no answer to share with you here, Brett. Terence Newman has yet to publicize a decision about playing again next season, but he definitely could. He's still excited to play football and he said his body felt pretty good by the end of the season. He's still pondering that decision. Even if he does decide he has another season left in him, it might be hard for the Bengals to be convinced to re-sign him. Dre Kirkpatrick finally emerged last season and Darqueze Dennard is waiting in the wings. The Bengals definitely would like to get Dennard on the field at some point soon, as they start to usher in a new era at cornerback.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

We started with quarterback Jason Campbell, then looked at running back Cedric Peerman, receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, receiver Brandon Tate, tight end Alex Smith, tight end Jermaine Gresham, offensive guard Clint Boling and offensive tackle Eric Winston.

Newhouse
We continue with offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse:

Year signed: 2014

Length of previous deal: One year

2014 cap value: $805,000

2014 role: Backup right tackle

Why he will be re-signed: There are very few reasons as to why the Bengals might bring back Newhouse after his mostly poor lone season in Cincinnati. Signed as a lower-tier free agent last year, Newhouse had been expected to serve a pressing need for depth at the tackle positions behind Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. With Anthony Collins having signed with Tampa Bay, the Bengals were without a swing tackle -- a position whose importance was understood fully in 2014. After Smith was lost for the remainder of the season with a Week 12 triceps injury at Houston, the lack of a solid swing tackle became glaring. Depth at the position would be the only reason Cincinnati would welcome him back.

Why he won't be re-signed: It's not very likely that depth alone will be enough for Newhouse to stay. The Bengals have been rather disappointed in the overall drop-off at the position under Whitworth and Smith. Tanner Hawkinson hasn't inspired much confidence, either. While Newhouse (and some crafty schematic maneuvering by Bengals coaches) kept J.J. Watt from getting to quarterback Andy Dalton for the remainder of the game against the Texans, the backup struggled most of the season when he relieved Smith. It got so bad that the Bengals went out and signed veteran Eric Winston, who ultimately ended up starting ahead of Newhouse. Newhouse's worst game was in Week 10, when he was consistently turned around by Cleveland's linebackers and defensive ends, who put solid pressure on Dalton all night. Dalton had arguably the worst game of his career with a career-low 2.0 passer rating, completing just 10 passes.
CINCINNATI -- You guys certainly were inquisitive this week.

We received a large number of questions for this weekend's mailbag, so many that we had a few inquiries that didn't make the cut. If yours was among them, pose it again next week and we'll try to get it in.

Since we have got so many questions to answer, let's get right to it:

@ColeyHarvey: The buzz Gary is referring to are comments coach Marvin Lewis made to the Cincinnati Enquirer and Bengals.com at the Senior Bowl this week. Lewis made it clear the Bengals are planning to make a sharp departure from their normally static free-agency approach this year. While you shouldn't expect them to go out and get a high earner like Ndamukong Suh, Lewis made it seem that they will be doing a little maneuvering. So yes, I'd say it's true. I would expect defensive end/tackle, offensive tackle and maybe even receiver to be some of the places they would be most committed to signing a player. Tight end could be another option. In fact, with Jermaine Gresham all but officially out, I wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals -- given what Lewis said -- explored signing Browns free agent Jordan Cameron to pair with Tyler Eifert. Cameron would be a bit of a splash, but he would be significantly cheaper than signing a player the caliber of Suh.

@ColeyHarvey: Certainly the Buccaneers had to be disappointed with what they received out of Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins this season. Both former Bengals were signed by Tampa Bay in free agency last year, helping the Bucs give the impression they could be dark-horse NFC contenders. That didn't happen. Tampa Bay is instead on the clock with the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, a reward for having the worst record in the NFL in 2014. With Johnson recording just four sacks this past season, there are concerns in Tampa Bay about whether signing him to a deal just north of $40 million was worth it. If the Buccaneers wanted out of Johnson's contract, it appears their best practice would be to trade him. But if I understand it correctly, trading him could come at a cost to the team that receives him. That means it's not in the Bengals' best interests to try to get him back. Bottom line is this: The Bengals and Johnson both regret they couldn't agree on a deal in March that would keep him in the Queen City. But what's been done has been done. For the time being, I wouldn't get my hopes up too high if I were you that he will be in stripes next season.

@ColeyHarvey: A lot of it depends upon your definition of "big." Certainly a player commanding the cap space of the $22 million man Suh will be off the table. (He had a cap value of $22.4 million for the Lions this past season.) It also will come down to fit, both from a personality standpoint and schematically. The Bengals want affordable players who will mesh instantly with the rest of the locker room, and who can augment the plans they already have in place. To that end, there are a lot of 3-4 defensive linemen who are becoming free agents. How well might they translate to the Bengals' 4-3 scheme? Using the positions I outlined in an earlier answer, here are a few names they might want to explore: defensive linemen Terrance Knighton, George Selvie, and Karl Klug; offensive tackles King Dunlap and Bryan Bulaga; receivers Cecil Shorts III and Kenny Britt; and tight ends Cameron ad Charles Clay. We'll see whether the Bengals go after any of them.

@ColeyHarvey: I'll be honest with you, Rick. I'm still very much on the periphery of knowing the ins and outs of this year's draft class. These next two weeks, though, I'll be in bunker mode as I start trying to get to know more of these prospects. To that end, I don't really have an answer about the Bengals' first-round pick. But I will say this: It's not a foregone conclusion they will use it on a pass-rusher. That certainly is a glaring need, and there are draft-worthy options there, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals had other position groups on their radar at No. 21, too. As far as potential pass-rushers who could go late in the first round, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has these names on his radar: Shaq Thompson (Washington), Bud Dupree (Kentucky), Dante Fowler Jr. (Florida) and Shilique Calhoun (Michigan State).

@ColeyHarvey: Again, I hope to have a better answer for you after the Super Bowl. That said, though, I could certainly see Devin Smith as a first-round option. The former Buckeye has turned heads in this part of the country, particularly with how well he helped Ohio State's revolving door of quarterbacks ease through the potentially rocky second half of the season. From what I have seen, he's fast, smooth and fluid; three things offensive coordinator Hue Jackson apparently wants more of at the position next season. If Smith is there at 21 and the Bengals believe they can shore up their pass rush in a later round, it's possible he could be picked. But who knows? We still have three months to go..

CINCINNATI -- As we gear up for another offseason of salary-cap talk and free-agency intrigue, let's take a look at how the Cincinnati Bengals have allocated portions of their yearly monies to individual positions on the team.

It bears mentioning that the Bengals, like other teams, don't make decisions in free agency and the draft solely based upon salary-cap figures. They do use the cap as a way of controlling spending and to balance the overall makeup of the roster. The steadily increasing salary cap has and will continue to help the Bengals and others as they try to woo top talent.

This week, coach Marvin Lewis indicated a rather sharp departure will be coming to the Bengals' free-agency philosophy. More of a push is coming from team president Mike Brown to identify and more aggressively pursue free agents the team might have otherwise let get away. Still, don't look for Cincinnati to make moves to bring an exorbitantly-priced player into the fold. The moves still have to make sense.

So as we continue getting ready for free agency, let's take a look at the Bengals' trends in spending. Below are end-of-season figures from ESPN Stats & Information showing how the Bengals have allocated their spending under the salary cap by position since their 2011 reboot under Lewis -- the year he was re-signed following a 4-12 campaign.

QUARTERBACKS
2011: $2,948,036 (3 percent of total cap spending)
2012: $3,194,965 (2.9 percent)
2013: $2,691,258 (2.3 percent)
2014: $10,928,123 (8.7 percent)
Average: $6,476,346 (4.2 percent)

RUNNING BACKS
2011: $5,667,906 (5.8 percent)
2012: $6,444,627 (5.8 percent)
2013: $6,338,028 (5.3 percent)
2014: $3,446,964 (2.7 percent)
Average: $5,474,381 (4.9 percent)

WIDE RECEIVERS
2011: $7,180,059 (7.3 percent)
2012: $6,982,021 (6.3 percent)
2013: $9,188,697 (7.7 percent)
2014: $10,684,966 (8.5 percent)
Average: $8,508,934 (7.5 percent)

TIGHT ENDS
2011: $5,986,200 (6.1 percent)
2012: $2,984,079 (2.7 percent)
2013: $4,417,841 (3.7 percent)
2014: $8,209,237 (6.5 percent)
Average: $5,399,339 (4.8 percent)

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
2011: $21,415,398 (21.2 percent)
2012: $25,967,430 (23.5 percent)
2013: $22,293,572 (18,6 percent)
2014: $19,517,375 (15.5 percent)
Average: $22,298,444 (19.7 percent)

DEFENSIVE ENDS
2011: $6,583,691 (6.7 percent)
2012: $8,043,616 (7.3 percent)
2013: $13,985,284 (11.7 percent)
2014: $16,141,771 (12.8 percent)
Average: $11,188,591 (9.6 percent)

LINEBACKERS
2011: $14,219,287 (14.5 percent)
2012: $9,489,447 (8.6 percent)
2013: $8,345,023 (7 percent)
2014: $13,685,391 (10.9 percent)
Average: $11,434,787 (10.3 percent)

CORNERBACKS
2011: $15,563,588 (15.9 percent)
2012: $23,024,852 (20.8 percent)
2013: $15,661,243 (13.1 percent)
2014: $17,744,450 (14.1 percent)
Average: $17,998,533 (16 percent)

SAFETIES
2011: $6,398,000 (6.5 percent)
2012: $7,229,263 (6.5 percent)
2013: $6,291,120 (5.3 percent)
2014: $6,534,061 (5.2 percent)
Average: $6,613,111 (5.9 percent)

SPECIALISTS (punters, long-snappers and kickers)
2011: $1,858,850 (0.6 percent)
2012: $5,361,068 (4.,8 percent)
2013: $5,716,471 (4.8 percent)
2014: $4,480,000 (3.6 percent)
Average: $4,354,097 (3.5 percent)


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