Cincinnati Bengals: afc north

CINCINNATI -- Tuesday's late-morning practice was barely one minute old when rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard was engulfed by a media crush.

As one of the first young Cincinnati Bengals out of the post-practice huddle, Dennard was ripe for the reporters' picking. With his first 11 training camp workouts officially behind him, the interested parties were curious to get his thoughts entering the most important game of his young professional career.

"That first game is important for a rookie," Dennard said.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
AP Photo/Al BehrmanRookie CB Darqueze Dennard has veterans and coaches singing his praises.
Indeed it is. First games are all about getting comfortable with the speed of the game at its most elite level. They also are about beginning to learn officials and their tendencies, and to start charting which coverage techniques work best against which receivers.

As important as Dennard's first action in Thursday night's preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs might be, he really shouldn't feel any pressure. Before he even boarded the plane for Kansas City, Dennard already was held in high regard by his head coach -- the man who has the final say on any playing time he might earn.

"Darqueze Dennard, in my eyes, has been very impressive thus far," Marvin Lewis said in Cincinnati just last week.

He reiterated that belief Thursday morning when chatting with Bengals radio play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard at the team hotel in Kansas City. Hours before a preview show advancing the 8 p.m. ET kickoff, Lewis told Hoard that Dennard was "the best rookie corner I've seen," according to a tweet Hoard posted.

It's not hard to believe. Although the transition to the NFL continues for the first-year corner out of Michigan State, Dennard has looked like he belonged from the day he arrived in Cincinnati. He has taken the advice he has been given and built upon it. He has looked sharp in coverage during the open practices, and even better at jumping routes and deflecting or intercepting passes when they have come his direction.

Dennard's play so far has peaked 12-year veteran Terence Newman's optimism.

"If he stays on this path, the sky's the limit for him," Newman said of Dennard. "I've seen a lot of DBs come and go. And I've seen a lot of them come in [from college] and they've had good press technique."

But few like Dennard.

Before he was selected 24th overall, the 2013 Thorpe Award winner had been praised around the draft community for his ability to go everywhere on the field that his receiver went. If his receiver put on a double move, Dennard was known to stay right on his hip, barely biting on the fake. If the receiver ran all the way across the field without drawing a throw, Dennard was right in his face for every step. His man-press cover skills were his most touted playing trait, and a large reason why he was coveted so early in the draft.

"I was told that one of his inadequacies was possibly playing the ball down the field," Lewis said. "And sometimes I think college corners get knocked for that, particularly if they were a physical player in college. But one of the things that’s impressed me so much is his ability to track and play the football on vertical throws.

"If you want to be a great corner at this level, you have to have those capabilities, and he’s shown those thus far.”

Dennard was taken aback last week when he heard his teammates and coaches were proud of his progress so far. He anticipated growing pains this year and has been surprised to hear that the people in charge of his playing time haven't noticed many of them. When he does need something corrected, he usually fixes it on the second try, Lewis said. Occasional discussions with veteran cornerbacks like Newman, Adam Jones and Leon Hall have helped.

"Having those guys around me and listening to them and to hear their rookie stories and how they came about, just doing that, I'm already putting it in my mind just to expect the worst," Dennard said. "That allows me to be prepared for anything I have to go through."

If Dennard really has reservations about his rookie season, he hasn't voiced them, Newman said.

"He doesn't have many questions, so when he asks you a question, sometimes it's like, 'Oh wow, he's really asking a question?'" Newman said. "But that's what I like about him. He doesn't seem like he's too big to say he doesn't understand what's going on."

The rookie also isn't too big to shirk a compliment. When told by a reporter last week that Lewis said in a news conference he was impressed by his play, Dennard smiled and paused before responding.

"Really? That's my first time hearing that," Dennard said, adding, "I'm honored. I'm just honored he even said that about me. But I've just got to continue to get better, as always, and find my niche to help the team win."

It's still a long camp, but the early returns on this first-round investment seem to be paying off for Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI -- In no particular order, here are five Cincinnati Bengals you'll want to pay attention to on the defensive side of the ball during Thursday night's preseason opener at the Kansas City Chiefs:

Thompson
1. DT Brandon Thompson. A third-year player from Clemson, Thompson enters the Bengals' preseason opener as a starter at defensive tackle with Pro Bowler Geno Atkins continuing his slow return from ACL surgery last November. Although Atkins has been cleared medically to practice, he hasn't participated yet in any 11-on-11 drills and hasn't been part of any contact since his official return last week. Atkins won't play against the Chiefs, but Thompson will. The former backup ought to get his share of action in Thursday's game, too, likely playing deep into the game. Larry Black and LaKendrick Ross are among the players who could cycle in and replace him in the Bengals' base defense late, but don't be surprised if Thompson lasts into the second quarter.

2. CB Darqueze Dennard. Of course you have to keep your eyes on the Bengals' first-round draft pick, right? With veterans Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones likely to see very limited playing time, Cincinnati probably will be turning to Dennard early and often. The rookie could get in as early as the late first quarter. You may want to pay attention to Hall's few reps, too. This will be his first live, game-speed action since last October when he tore an Achilles. With the Bengals likely using a vanilla game plan on both sides of the ball, expect Dennard to be tasked with doing what he does best: attempt to shut down receivers with his patented man-press coverage. Dennard's man coverage skills made him a first-rounder. Since the Bengals have been running more man-cover defense in training camp, coaches have remarked about how much looser and better Dennard has played.

Stanford
3. CB R.J. Stanford. Not expected to get quite the same early playing time as Dennard, Stanford still should see a large share of action when he dresses Thursday night. A fifth-year corner noted for his special-teams skills and versatility, Stanford has been a bit of a surprise addition in Bengals camp this year. The veteran has gotten his share of reps covering some of the team's best receivers, and he's handled his own. If Cincinnati's cornerbacks were ranked by how well they have performed in camp, Stanford could be among the top 3-4. Stanford's veteran coaching skills have been noteworthy. Since an afternoon when he surprised receiver Cobi Hamilton with a deflection on what had looked like a surefire first-down catch, Hamilton has performed better. Stanford was among those who gave the wideout a quick tutorial after the pass breakup. Before that, Hamilton had been going through a rough camp, dropping most everything that came his way. He's been much more impressive since.

4. LB Marquis Flowers. An outside linebacker who played safety in college, Flowers might be best compared to fellow Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. They play the same position and will be asked to fulfill many of the same roles. When it comes to playing style, though, Flowers might be best compared to Bengals weakside linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Both talk a lot of trash Both can hit hard. Both are former Pac-12 defensive players who feel they have a lot to prove. While tackling might be a concern for some defenders who haven't done much of it in camp, there are no worries with Flowers. His very first play of preseason practices was a hard forearm shiver that leveled Hamilton in a non-contact 7-on-7 drill. They know he can hit. Keep an eye on his playing time. He figures to be on the field often in place of Lamur, whose playing time might be monitored somewhat closely these next four weeks. Lamur suffered a serious shoulder injury in the preseason finale last season.

DiManche
5. LB Jayson DiManche. Back in a fight for a roster spot this year, DiManche is among the Bengals defenders who will want to perform well in these next four games. He made the team last year and was a valued addition to its specia- teams units, but the depth at his position keeps him in a true battle. Another linebacker in a fight for a job is local product J.K. Schaffer. The second-year player hasn't had the best luck so far. For more than a week he's been under concussion protocol, forcing him to miss valuable practice time. Like Flowers, DiManche ought to be on the field often. He'll primarily be playing the strongside linebacker position in relief.
CINCINNATI -- By now you've probably read about how the Cincinnati Bengals structured Andy Dalton's contract in a way that works well for both him and the team.

Dalton has a chance to make as much as $115 million over the life of his six-year contract extension. He's at least in line to see $96 million if he remains with the organization through 2020.

It's a deal that also provides relatively easy outs for the team if it ever feels beyond 2015 that it wants to move on from him because his performance didn't meet the expectations it set forth. The agents to whom I've spoken see it as a team-friendly contact, but they also can see where Dalton didn't get fleeced. The $25 million Dalton stands to make in the first two years of the deal is about what had been expected. For a player viewed as arguably a second- or third-tier signal-caller, Dalton's extension has been viewed by player reps I've talked to as a win. Most wish the guaranteed money he received went beyond the first three days of the deal, though.

Dalton
Dalton
Dalton is slated to make $17 million of guaranteed money. He earned a $12 million signing bonus when he signed and will claim a $5 million roster bonus for this season on Thursday. He also has $100,000 coming Thursday for a roster bonus that was part of his rookie deal.

When it comes to awarding guaranteed money early, this is part of the Bengals' contractual practices. They typically give whatever guaranteed money they're awarding up front, while increasing base salaries as the deal continues. Some teams backload contracts with guaranteed money or offer de-escalators and decreasing base salaries. It's a way the Bengals feel they are exercising a measure of loyalty and trust in the player and his agent.

Dalton was set to have a cap value around $1.7 million this season before the deal was struck. Now he'll make just more than $9 million, while averaging $16 million during the life of the deal.

Courtesy our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, here is that year-by-year breakdown of Dalton's contract:

2014
Base salary: $986,027
Proration: $2,973,036
Roster bonus: $5,100,00*
Workout bonus: $0
Cap Value: $9,059,063
Cash Value: $18,086,027
Dead Money: $12,573,036
Guaranteed Money: $5,000,000
Cap Savings: -$8,53,973
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $1,086,027
*He makes an additional $100,000 reporting bonus from his previous contract.

2015
Base salary: $3,000,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $4,000,000
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $9,600,000
Cash Value: $7,200,000
Dead Money: $9,600,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $0
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $7,200,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2016
Base salary: $10,500,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $13,100,000
Cash Value: $10,700,000
Dead Money: $7,200,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $5,900,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $10,700,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2017
Base salary: $13,100,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $15,700,000
Cash Value: $13,300,000
Dead Money: $4,800,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $10,900,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $13,300,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2018
Base salary: $13,700,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $$16,300,000
Cash Value: $13,900,000
Dead Money: $2,400,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $13,900,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $13,900,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2019
Base salary: $16,000,000*
Proration: $0
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $16,200,000
Cash Value: $16,200,000
Dead Money: $0
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $16,200,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $16,200,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2020
Base salary: $17,500,000*
Proration: $0
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $17,700,000
Cash Value: $17,700,000
Dead Money: $0
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $17,7000,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $17,700,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.
Thanks in large part to the latest collective bargaining agreement and changing customs at various levels of football, you very seldom will see teams devote full practices and weeks at training camp to working on their tackling.

Gone are the days of seeing teams spend several consecutive days practicing live drills that require their defenders to tackle offensive players. Now, you rarely see teams even sneak in two or three such practices before they play their first preseason game.

Burfict
Aside from a rather lively six-play goal-line drill at the end of a practice last week, and two practices at the close of their first week of camp, the Cincinnati Bengals haven't enacted much true contact entering their preseason opener Thursday night at Kansas City. They have regularly thudded -- made contact with ballcarriers without bringing them to the ground -- but they haven't really tackled much, excluding a few stray forearm shivers and times when they struggled slowing their momentum before running into another player.

Despite the lack of true hitting, the Bengals are confident in their tackling. They think they will be fine when they have face the Chiefs.

"It's always an adjustment," coach Marvin Lewis said about tackling in the first preseason game. "We put an emphasis on it on defense to make sure. Ball security and tackling are two things during the first preseason game that hopefully you don't get surprised by."

Lewis also joked about the few times this camp when they have had "some tackling that's not supposed to be tackling." He was referring to the forearm rookie Marquis Flowers gave receiver Cobi Hamilton on a low-contact 7-on-7 exercise at the start of one recent practice. Hamilton, not expecting the blow, fell instantly to the turf. Vontaze Burfict also has had his share of unintentional tackles, running hard into rookie tight end Ryan Hewitt, and receiver Jeremy Johnson.

One defender who isn't too worried about the adjustment he'll be making Thursday night is rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

"I like to tackle," he said. "I like to lay the wood, pretty much."

When it comes to tackling in this game, his focus has been and will continue to be having sound technique.

"You've got to practice right throughout the week and go through the mechanics of it," Dennard said. "Really, tackling is all about the mechanics and looking at the right things and shooting and rolling your hips. So we've done enough of that."

Smart to hold McCarron? In case you missed it Tuesday night, here is an update on another rookie, quarterback AJ McCarron, who hasn't participated in a single practice snap since training camp opened nearly three weeks ago. McCarron said he's simply resting his throwing shoulder, per orders from Lewis and team president Mike Brown.

After dealing with arm tightness during the spring and some lingering soreness from his college days, McCarron has been shelved in hopes of getting the arm back to some semblance of restored health. McCarron says his arm feels fine, even after attempting about 60-70 throws after each practice.

Is holding him out a smart move? Absolutely. There is no reason to rush him onto the field, and there really is no need to rush his return to health. This gives him more time to keep learning the playbook and developing his role as a backup. It's clear after starting quarterback Andy Dalton's contract extension this week that the Bengals are banking on Dalton being the starter for many years to come. But in case it doesn't work out with Dalton, they still have a backup in the next few years they will be able to turn to in McCarron, once Jason Campbell retires or moves on.

It's possible McCarron could spend the season under some injury designation that would keep him on the roster and prevent him from being poached by another team. It's also possible the Bengals try to add him to their practice squad, gambling that he won't get snatched away by another team. Or, they can just clear him medically and add him to the roster.

My vote is for either Option 1 or 3.

Whatever move the Bengals ultimately make, it is wise to spare the rookie for now.
CINCINNATI -- AJ McCarron said Tuesday afternoon that he feels fine and his throwing shoulder feels even better.

So why then hasn't the rookie quarterback participated in a single one of the Cincinnati Bengals' practices so far this training camp?

Because apparently his bosses don't want him to.

"Mr. Brown and Coach Lewis just want to give me a lot of rest," McCarron said, referring to team president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis. "I'm just doing what they say."

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron hasn't practiced since June.
McCarron's comments came after Lewis held a mid-week news conference earlier in the afternoon.

The fifth-round draft pick came to Cincinnati with a little arm tightness back in May, causing him to miss time at the beginning of organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp. He eventually practiced before the spring practice session ended in the middle of June, but he hasn't since then. When the Bengals announced their pre-training camp injuries, McCarron ended up on their active non-football injury list with a right shoulder injury. He remains there.

McCarron couldn't pinpoint specifically to what the arm tightness can be attributed to, but it seems that it may simply be a case of soreness from his final college season that needed to be worked completely out. That at least appears to be the Bengals' thinking, as they've shut him down through the first two weeks of camp. When the team starts the preseason at Kansas City on Thursday night, McCarron won't get behind center. Only Andy Dalton, Jason Campbell and Matt Scott will take game reps.

Dalton is only expected to see one or two series.

When asked if he could have been overused at Alabama, McCarron, a two-time national championship game starter, said he wasn't sure.

"It was probably a number of things," he said. "If you've thrown your whole life, you're going to eventually have a sore arm at some point."

McCarron added that like many others before him, he played through his share of injuries while in college.

"That's what I wanted to do. I wasn't going to come out," McCarron said. "It probably wasn't the best for [the shoulder], but that's just what I wanted to do. Nobody made me go out there and play. I wanted to keep playing."

For now, McCarron is participating in a controlled throwing program with head trainer Nick Cosgray. Each day after practice he's been on a side field attempting somewhere between 60-70 throws to Cosgray. The throws seldom travel much farther than 20 yards at this point, but the idea is for him to deliver them with the same velocity and mechanics that he would in a game situation.

McCarron said he hasn't had any issues with the shoulder following those throwing sessions.

The only issue he has had involves the disappointment of being unable to practice.

"The frustrating part is because you're a competitor and you want to compete," McCarron said. "But other than that, again, it's Mr. Brown and Coach Lewis' call. Whatever they tell me to do, I'm just trying to do it to the best of my ability and then show them that I'll do whatever. When my time comes, my time comes."
CINCINNATI -- Russell Bodine is a rookie. That is a fact.

And like most rookies, the Cincinnati Bengals center is going to go through a few growing pains during his first training camp. That, too, is a fact.

It also happens to be a fact that the fourth-round pick has started a rather troubling trend that his offensive coordinator would like to see end as soon as possible. Multiple times this training camp, Bodine and quarterback Andy Dalton have struggled to cleanly connect on their snaps.

"It's something he has to overcome," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. "We drafted him to play center, and we think he can, but he still has to go demonstrate it in a game and continue to do it better in practice."

There are no more practices until Saturday for Bodine to hone his snapping skill. His next chance to prove that he's a better snapper than he has shown thus far will come Thursday night when he sets up in front of Dalton and possibly other quarterbacks during the preseason opener at Kansas City. Currently getting reps with the first-team offensive group, Bodine appears in line to start at the position this season.

But he won't be starting if his problems persist and become even more problematic.

"We have other candidates," Jackson said. "We're a little banged up right now so we'll keep working through it and coaching him up."

The player getting the majority of the backup repetitions so far this camp has been Trevor Robinson. T.J. Johnson also is an option at the position, as is Mike Pollak, the veteran who hasn't worked out at center yet this camp. The time he has spent practicing -- he's been mostly limited through camp with a knee injury -- has been at left guard, playing behind starter Clint Boling.

Dalton told reporters last week he and Bodine needed to communicate better with one another, and go through a few tweaks to get the problems fixed.

"It's going to get eliminated," Dalton said. "We can't have that. That's the easiest thing you do on the football field is get the snap."

Jackson isn't against using competition to get the snapping troubles to get cleaned up.

"I'm not going to just watch the ball go over somebody's head all the time. We're not going to do that," Jackson said. "But at the same time, we have to give him an opportunity. He needs to fix it and we need to help him fix it. If we can't fix it, then we have to do whatever we have to do."
From the moment news about Andy Dalton's contract extension hit social media Monday morning, a logical follow-up question was raised: Does it mean A.J. Green is next?

It's possible. But if the Cincinnati Bengals thought they had a fight on their hands trying to convince Dalton to agree to the terms of this six-year extension, convincing Green to commit to a similar long-term deal could be more challenging.

[+] EnlargeGreen
AP Photo/Don WrightA.J. Green's next contract will likely pay him at least $16 million per season.
By the time Green signs -- whether it's this year, next year or two years from now -- the Bengals will have a number of other big-money contracts sitting on their roster too. Either they'll have to start getting rid of veterans sooner than they'd like in order to make space, or they'll have to start drawing up bargain deals like Dalton's that are designed with other players in mind. While that's a good proposition for the team, a player might feel he isn't receiving fair market value for his position.

Based on early details about the structure of Dalton's new contract, it appears on the low end ($16 million per year) that he'll be making what many believe he's worth. It's still a figure that's dramatically lower than some of the league's elite. Although, if he meets certain game-play criteria, he could be in the $19 million per year range, and just below what the league's top quarterbacks are making. The Bengals created a performance-based deal that gives them real flexibility in the event they want to sign others soon.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals had just more than $23 million in cap space for 2014 before Dalton's extension. That means after his signing bonuses and base salary, they will have about $6 million more to use before hitting the cap. There's still room to sign linebacker Vontaze Burfict even though there isn't a big rush to do so. The former undrafted free agent could get a restricted free-agent tag slapped on him next offseason, and then an unrestricted free-agent tag the year after if he hasn't yet agreed to a long-term deal.

Since Green arguably is a top-3 receiver, and considering the two highest-paid NFL receivers are currently making just north of $16 million annually, it's hard to see the Bengals using their remaining cap dollars this year on him. The receiver that's No. 3 on the current money list, Percy Harvin, makes $12.9 million per year.

"My body of work speaks for itself," Green said Monday. "Whenever my time comes, it happens. That's one thing I don't think about."

A source told ESPN Insider Adam Caplan that Dalton will receive $22 million in the first six months of his deal. That reportedly includes a signing bonus and a roster bonus that equals $17 million, and that will be paid before the Bengals take the field in Thursday night's preseason opener at Kansas City. In all, Dalton stands to make $25 million through the first two years of his contract.

As Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and other members of the front office have explained to reporters over the years, the franchise doesn't like front-loading too many contracts. You won't often see de-escalators in a Bengals contract, and you especially won't see them to the degree the 49ers crammed those into Colin Kaepernick's contract.

The Bengals also like to make sure a player's guaranteed money gets paid at the start of a deal. Just look at their most recent big contracts. Defensive tackle Domata Peko's base salary increases on the two-year extension he signed earlier this offseason, and his guaranteed money gets paid this season. Geno Atkins' base also increases year-to-year, and his guaranteed money was paid last summer in the form of a $15 million signing bonus. Carlos Dunlap's base also will steadily increase, and his $12 million guaranteed hit his pockets last summer when he signed, too.

In those respects, Dalton's deal follows the Bengals' pattern.

But where the franchise deviated with Dalton's deal is in the pay-to-play aspect of it. It has been reported that Dalton's contract has clauses that would essentially earn him bonuses based on where in the playoffs he leads the Bengals, and how much he plays per year. It's language similar to Kaepernick's controversial deal, and it's language that could allow Dalton to earn him anywhere from $96 million to $115 million over the life of the contract (that partially explains the $16 million and $19 million per year difference). Like Kaepernick and the 49ers, if the Bengals aren't pleased with Dalton's play after Year 2, this new deal reportedly allows them ways of getting rid of him each year.

But don't hold your breath on that happening. The sour ending to Carson Palmer's time in Cincinnati still lingers. They don't want to go through that again anytime soon.

Which leads us back to Green.

Veterans are valued by the loyal Bengals front office. Peko's extension is a clear example of that. But if the Bengals want to keep players like Green, Burfict and others, they soon may have to shift their thinking. Older players soon may not be as safe as they once were.

Soon there might not be enough money to go around for everybody.
CINCINNATI -- When Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown told reporters two weeks ago that he liked the way his "Steady Eddy" starting quarterback played, he was telling the truth.

That became evident just after 10 a.m. ET Monday, when ESPN NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Adam Caplan reported that Andy Dalton, the much-maligned Bengals quarterback -- who was often criticized for being anything other than steady -- had signed a six-year, $115 million contract extension that will keep him in orange and black stripes through 2020.

That is, it would seem, as long as he continues to perform to the front office's liking.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesAndy Dalton has guided the Bengals to the playoffs in all three of his seasons, but he has yet to win in the postseason.
"Andy has earned his place here; he has gained the confidence of the coaches and the players and the management of the team," Brown said at Monday's news conference. "We're betting big on him because we believe in him."

Brown gave additional reasons during the team's recent kickoff luncheon as to why he and so many others around Paul Brown Stadium like Dalton.

"He's Steady Eddy," Brown said. "He competes. He doesn't do stupid things. We might not outshine everybody. We are the turtle in the race, if you will, but don't count us out. We are going to keep on chugging. That's what he does for us. He keeps us focused. He makes us a winning team. I don't discount that. I hold that in high regard."

Yes, it's true, the Bengals are a regular-season winner with Dalton at the helm. He has gone 30-18 and reached the postseason in each of the three seasons he has played since getting drafted 35th overall in 2011. He also has guided his team to two winning streaks of four games or more in his career. During last season's four-game midseason streak, Dalton threw for 300 yards or more in three of those games.

When you consider that the Bengals had been to the playoffs only twice in the 20 years before Dalton's arrival, his regular-season success becomes even more noteworthy.

It is that success (and perhaps the fact there aren't a lot of options out there at quarterback) that is perhaps the biggest reason the Bengals clearly feel they can trust him, even if the structure of his contract might tell a different story. Those details aren't yet public, but it's possible some parts of Dalton's new deal mimic Colin Kaepernick's. Along with his comments above, Brown admitted during the kickoff luncheon that he liked the way the San Francisco 49ers structured Kaepernick's recent deal.

"There's always something that cuts for the team or cuts for the player," Brown said. "In Kaepernick's case, there's some things we like."

Kaepernick's contract is a pay-for-play type of setup that allows the 49ers to opt out after this season if Kaepernick doesn't meet their measures of success. The six-year, $121 million agreement might look great on the surface, but it has been characterized as a team-centric, bonus-laden deal.

Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, who handles contract negotiations these days and was the chief operator on Dalton's deal, said the Bengals didn't use Kaepernick's deal as a measuring stick.

"In all honesty, while we discussed [Kaepernick's deal], we had started down a path at that time and we pretty much stayed on the path that we started down," Blackburn said. "It had some similarities, coincidentally, a little bit of what you saw in the Kaepernick deal, just in little ways. But you can probably say that about all the deals."

With the decade of disappointment, the 1990s, still as much a part of the fabric of this city as its famous chili, there are reasons the Bengals would want to protect themselves in case Dalton does struggle, something he has done at times during his career.

The 26-year-old's biggest drawback has been his performance past Week 17. The Bengals are 0-3 in his postseason trips, which include six interceptions and just one touchdown. He also has posted an 18.1 career playoff QBR that stands in stark contrast to the 51.5 QBR he has lifetime in the regular season. Numbers like that have had some in Cincinnati wondering whether an extension of Dalton's four-year, $5.2 million rookie deal ought to have come before this season, or ever.

It will be incumbent upon the Bengals to continue to protect the player who in April called himself the face of the franchise by keeping pieces like A.J. Green (who will play out a fifth-year option next year) and linebacker Vontaze Burfict (whose own contract negotiations stalled last week) around him.

He certainly appears to be the face now. It doesn't matter how the money comes Dalton's way, the message has been sent. The Bengals trust their quarterback. Now it's time for him to put up and shut the rest of us up.

"I expect this team to play better, I expect myself to play better," Dalton said Monday. "Regardless of what happened with the contract, I expected to go into this year with that same attitude."

He has the Bengals convinced. It's time to do the same with the rest of us.
CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals get going with Day 10 of training camp, here are three items we are going to be watching:

Time to prepare: While the task this week is to continue building up their team by focusing on evaluating their talent, the Bengals will also be paying attention to another team the next few days. For the first time during the 2014 season, they will prepare for a game. The bulk of the game preparation will happen on Tuesday, but the talk surrounding the team starts to change as of Monday. For about a week now, players have mentioned how they are ready to face someone other than themselves. Thursday night, they will get their chance when they visit Kansas City. We will keep an eye on how intense Monday's practice is to get an idea of how ready they are for Week 1 of the preseason.

Rookie watch -- Ryan Hewitt: One of the rookies who has been worth watching all of training camp, Hewitt has caught attention with the way he's performed in both the pass- and run-blocking games, and also with how reliable he has been as a pass-catcher. The tight end isn't only competing with others at that position for a roster spot. He is also battling the likes of fullback Nikita Whitlock and H-back Orson Charles. Hewitt has played some at H-back this camp, where he has excelled at picking up blocks and opening holes in the running game. With Jermaine Gresham and Kevin Brock injured, he has gotten his share of playing time with the first-team offense at tight end. We will be keeping an eye on the undrafted free agent during this practice.

Injuries healed? The Bengals still have quite the full training room, but they hope it will start emptying out beginning Monday as the preseason game looms. Receiver Marvin Jones could be one of the first to return. He told me over the weekend that his ankle injury was "close" to being completely healed. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth also has been slowly working his way through a calf injury that he doesn't appear very concerned about. He might not be far from complete health, either. Linebacker Jayson DiManche, who had been on concussion protocol, came off in time to practice in Saturday's scrimmage. Three others, Brock, linebacker J.K. Schaffer and offensive tackle Andre Smith are hoping to come off it soon, too.
CINCINNATI -- In a preseason news release that was distributed to media Saturday, the Cincinnati Bengals issued their first depth chart of the season.

It comes ahead of Thursday's preseason opener at Kansas City. As you will see, there aren't any surprises. But here are the highlights:
  • It's worth noting that offensive lineman Mike Pollak was not listed at center as either a starter or a backup. He's only listed at left guard.
  • In the backfield, BenJarvus Green-Ellis retains his status as the No. 2 rusher, while rookie Jeremy Hill is the No. 3 back behind Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. The order behind the three then goes: Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and James Wilder Jr.
  • As expected, rookie Russell Bodine is the starter at center. He's the only first-year player to make the two-deep depth chart.
  • At defensive end, Wallace Gilberry is listed in the base 4-3 formation as the starter at right end, while Carlos Dunlap plays the left. Margus Hunt, who has rotated at times with Gilberry at both end positions, is backing up Dunlap. Veteran Robert Geathers backs up Gilberry.
  • At safety, Taylor Mays is listed as the first backup behind Reggie Nelson at free safety. Second-year player Shawn Williams is the backup to George Iloka at strong safety, and veteran Daniel Manning ranks third on the depth chart behind both of them.
  • Brandon Tate is listed as the starter at both punt and kick returner.

Here's the full two-deep (starter listed first):

OFFENSE
Quarterback
Andy Dalton
Jason Campbell

Running Back
Giovani Bernard
BenJarvus Green-Ellis

H-back/Tight End/Fullback
Tyler Eifert (TE)
Orson Charles (H-back)

Tight End
Jermaine Gresham
Alex Smith

Receiver
A.J. Green
Mohamed Sanu

Receiver
Marvin Jones
Brandon Tate

Left Offensive Tackle
Andrew Whitworth
Marshall Newhouse

Left Offensive Guard
Clint Boling
Mike Pollak

Center
Russell Bodine
Trevor Robinson

Right Offensive Guard
Kevin Zeitler
T.J. Johnson

Right Offensive Tackle
Andre Smith
Will Svitek

DEFENSE
Left Defensive End
Carlos Dunlap
Margus Hunt

Right Defensive End
Wallace Gilberry
Robert Geathers

Nose Tackle
Domata Peko
Brandon Thompson

Defensive Tackle
Geno Atkins
Devon Still

"Sam" Linebacker
Emmanuel Lamur
Jayson DiManche

"Mike" Linebacker
Rey Maualuga
Vincent Rey

"Will" Linebacker
Vontaze Burfict
Sean Porter

Left Cornerback
Terence Newman
Dre Kirkpatrick

Right Cornerback
Leon Hall
Adam Jones

Strong Safety
George Iloka
Shawn Williams

Free Safety
Reggie Nelson
Taylor Mays

SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker
Mike Nugent
Quinn Sharp

Punter
Kevin Huber

Holder
Kevin Huber

Long Snapper
Clark Harris

Punt Returner
Brandon Tate
Adam Jones

Kick Returner
Brandon Tate
Dane Sanzenbacher
As we've mentioned often before, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has struggled more than he's succeed in big-game scenarios over the years.

His 0-3 record and ratio of six interceptions to one touchdown in playoff games are prime examples of that. But nationally televised games in prime time also haven't all gone well for him. And neither have games he's played against AFC North competition. Among the four qualifying quarterbacks, he ranks third in winning percentage in division games from the last three seasons. Only former Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden had a worse winning percentage and record against division foes.

Although Dalton's numbers against other AFC North teams are largely overshadowed by Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, there is one key statistic in which he's ahead over the past three seasons. That statistic is where we turn our attention in this Tuesday factoid: 24.

That's the number of touchdown passes Dalton has thrown in division games since his career began in 2011, the most among AFC North quarterbacks in that time span. Flacco has thrown 22 touchdown passes and Roethlisberger has 20 in division games during that stretch. Roethlisberger also missed three games in those three seasons that likely diminished his touchdown numbers slightly.

Not only has Dalton led his fellow division quarterbacks in touchdown passes thrown in AFC North games these past three years, he also leads in overall touchdown passes. His 80 touchdowns in 48 games is higher than the 75 Roethlisberger had in just 44 games the past three years, and it's higher than the 61 Flacco had. Unlike Roethlisberger, Flacco hasn't missed a game the past three seasons.

So we know that Dalton has been getting to the end zone slightly more often than his peers these last few seasons. What else do we know?
  • Dalton has thrown for more yards than Flacco and Roethlisberger. In AFC North games, Dalton has passed for 4,006 yards in his career. Flacco had the next highest total in those three years, passing for 3,667 yards.
  • Dalton has thrown more interceptions than them. Dalton has 23 career interceptions against AFC North teams. Roethlisberger's 13 since 2011 are the next highest interception total among division quarterbacks.
  • That Dalton ranks third in wins. Dalton has only eight division wins in his career. He's 8-10. In that same time span, Roethlisberger has gone 10-5 and Flacco has gone 13-5.
  • Dalton has the lowest completion percentage in division games. Dalton's 56.8 completion percentage is even slightly lower than Weeden's 56.9. It should be noted that Weeden only competed in eight division games since 2011. Roethlisberger leads the way with a 62.7 completion percentage in division games the past three seasons. Flacco is just behind him at 60.6 percent.
  • Dalton and Flacco have been sacked the most. Paced primarily by last season when Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times in 16 games, the Baltimore quarterback is tied with Dalton for the most times sacked in AFC North games the past three seasons. Both were sacked 39 times, while the bigger Roethlisberger was sacked 31 times.

What do those numbers tell us? Dalton has been good at ending drives in division games so far -- either he's been ending them with touchdowns or ending them with interceptions. They also show us where Dalton and the Bengals need to catch up to their division foes.

But if Dalton continues throwing touchdown passes in those games at the rate he has been, that will help too.
When the NFL's schedule was released a week ago, it was reported here and elsewhere that the Cincinnati Bengals were owners of the league's 23rd toughest slate.

Across the next three days, we'll show you why that may be a little misleading. The Bengals will have challenges in 2014. Don't let the previous win-loss records of the teams they will be facing fool you.

Hidden challenge: October could test the Bengals

Cincinnati's 2014 schedule only ranks where it does on the strength scale because the teams the Bengals are slated to play collectively performed so badly last season. Specifically, teams from the AFC South struggled. Only Indianapolis -- the team currently credited with having the weakest 2014 schedule -- had a winning record in the division. Jacksonville and Houston were the worst, finishing with four and two wins respectively last season. Both figure to improve this year, but neither is still expected to overtake the Colts and carry the division banner into the postseason.

Among the numerous potential pitfalls present in Cincinnati's schedule is a five-game stretch that covers the month of October. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals have the second-hardest October schedule, facing teams that went a combined 43-21 last season.

This will be the first time in four seasons that the Bengals have played four games in October, a month that can help teams build momentum as they hit the midpoint and start heading into the second half of the year. With a 4-1 record that included a pair of wins decided by game-winning field goals, the Bengals certainly were able to capitalize off a strong October in 2013. In 2012, they lost the only three games they had in the month. The year before that, they went 4-0.

Just like last October, the Bengals begin October 2014 with a contest against perennial Pro Bowler Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Cincinnati tip-toed by New England in the 2013 meeting, winning 13-6 thanks to a late-game Ohio rainstorm that made it difficult for Brady to pass and his receivers to see. When Bengals cornerback Adam Jones tipped up to himself a Brady pass that he intercepted with 16 seconds left, the win was iced.

This year's Week 5 tilt at New England comes on the heels of Cincinnati's Week 4 bye. After having their bye in Week 12 last season, the Bengals were given the earliest off week possible this year.

After facing the defending AFC East champion Patriots in a Sunday night game Oct. 5, the Bengals return home Oct. 12 for a game against Carolina, the defending NFC South champion. The Sunday after that, they travel up Interstate 74 to face the AFC South's likely repeat champ, Indianapolis. The Bengals then close out the month by returning home for the second game in eight weeks against Baltimore, the 2012 season's Super Bowl winner.

Yes, the most recent records of the opposing teams on Cincinnati's overall schedule may be favorable for the Bengals, but the October gauntlet is a clear sign that there are hidden challenges. If the Bengals can get out of October by going undefeated for the month or posting a 3-1 record, they could set themselves up quite well for a comparatively less intense November.

All-AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A trio of defensive stars, two Pro Bowl offensive players and an injured specialist comprised the Cincinnati Bengals' six selections to the ESPN.com All-AFC North team that was released Thursday. The four reporters who cover the teams in the division made the picks.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the NFL's leading regular-season tackler, was joined by defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson on the defensive side of the all-division team. They were all part of a unit that finished the year ranked third in total defense, and one that was second in the league in limiting third-down conversions. Last Friday, Burfict was named to his first Pro Bowl as an inside linebacker. The second-year player, who was originally signed as an undrafted rookie, finished the regular season with 171 tackles, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Dunlap recorded a career-high 58 tackles and had 7.5 sacks. Johnson, who could be heading toward free agency in the coming weeks, had a career-high 56 tackles and led the league with eight batted balls at the line of scrimmage.

Cincinnati's offensive selections were led by receiver A.J. Green. He was selected to the team after catching a career-high 98 passes for another career-high 1,426 yards. He finished just 15 yards shy of a franchise record. He was joined on the all-division team by offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, who made it as a left tackle. Across the last five games, Whitworth shuffled between left tackle and left guard as injuries depleted the Bengals' offensive line. Particularly, it was left guard Clint Boling's ACL injury against the Chargers in Week 13 that caused the shifting to occur.

Another injured Bengal was included on the All-AFC North team. Punter Kevin Huber, who had an average net of 40.5 yards before a season-ending jaw injury in Week 15, made it as the division's top punter. He had punts of 75 and 70 yards this season ahead of the blindside hit against the Steelers that broke his jaw. The NFL later said a flag should have been thrown for the hit, but since one wasn't, Huber and his coverage team allowed their only punt return touchdown of the season.

Despite winning the AFC North, the Bengals were outpaced on the all-division team by the Browns and Ravens. Both teams had seven players selected. Like the Bengals, the Steelers also had six. One of Pittsburgh's selections, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, made it when the Bengals' Andy Dalton didn't. Dalton had more wins, yards, touchdowns and a higher QBR than any other quarterback in the division. He also finished the season setting a pair of Bengals records. In addition to Dalton, a case for inclusion could have been made for rookie running back Giovani Bernard, receiver Marvin Jones, defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Adam Jones.

A look at the Bengals' 2014 opponents

December, 30, 2013
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OK, so there's still life to the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season. But that doesn't mean it's too early to take a quick peek at 2014.

Since the Bengals won the AFC North, they know exactly who their opponents will be. As the top team in the division, they will face this year's No. 1 finishers in the AFC West and AFC East. They also are on the divisional rotation to face AFC South and NFC South teams. They will travel to two teams from each division, and host two teams from each division. This season, they were on a similar rotation with the AFC East and NFC North. Additionally, the Bengals will face each AFC North team twice.

Also, here's a list of the home and away opponents for the entire league in 2014.

Although dates for next year's schedule aren't yet known, here are the Bengals' opponents:
Home: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers
Away: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cincinnati hosts the San Diego Chargers in the wild-card round of the playoffs at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. With a win against the Chargers, they would face the Patriots for the second time this year. If they get by them, depending upon how the other side of the bracket sets up, they could see Indianapolis for a second time this season, too. Denver also is in the playoffs, as are the Saints and Panthers. Ahead of any possible postseason games against any of those teams, here is how the Bengals have fared all-time against their 2014 field:

Ravens: 20-16

Browns: 43-38

Steelers: 53-34

Jaguars:11-8

Titans: 39-32-1

Broncos: 19-8

Falcons: 7-5

Panthers: 2-2

Texans: 3-3

Colts: 17-9

Patriots: 15-8

Saints: 6-6

Buccaneers: 7-3

... Now back to your regularly scheduled playoff programming.
CINCINNATI -- All of a sudden, thanks to Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker's powerful right leg, we've got a playoff race in the AFC North.

That's not the worst news for the Cincinnati Bengals, but it certainly isn't the best, either.

While the Bengals are still quite grateful at this point to be heavily involved in the NFL's playoff push, they are now a couple of scenarios away from actually watching this promising season come to an abrupt and shocking end with them sitting at home.

Yes, that really can happen, Bengals fans. Seriously.

Even if Cincinnati (9-5) wins this weekend when it hosts Minnesota, it still could miss the playoffs with a loss to Baltimore at home in two weeks. The Bengals and Ravens would both have 10-6 records, with Baltimore claiming the division title tiebreaker because of a season sweep over the Bengals. Cincinnati already lost in overtime at Baltimore, 20-17 on Nov. 10.

Along with that, if the Miami Dolphins win their final two games against the Bills and Jets, they would be 10-6. Like the Ravens, the Dolphins have a tiebreaker over the Bengals, thanks to their win over Cincinnati in South Florida on Halloween. If that tiebreaker were enacted, it would mean Miami would take the sixth and final AFC playoff seed. Cincinnati would effectively be shut out.

See, Bengals? Now do you see why winning at Pittsburgh on Sunday night was important? The 30-20 defeat you took wasn't just an ordinary loss like some of you were wont to say after the game.

"It doesn't matter when you lose them," center Kyle Cook said. "If you lose them all at the beginning of the season, they're going to hurt at the end. Every game you lose is a lost opportunity."

It was actually very easy to agree with Cook when he made this statement in one one-on-one interview inside the Bengals' locker room just after Sunday night loss. It was easy to understand the core of what he was saying: That all losses are bad and you try your hardest not to let any happen at any time of year.

But when you have December games like Monday night's 18-16 Ravens' final-minute win over the Detroit Lions, you begin to realize that for teams as talented and as strong as the Bengals were early in the season, late-season losses really can be painful. A loss in the regular-season finale, and a team that a month ago -- heck, two days ago -- looked like an easy lock to win the AFC North, might not claim the title, after all.

Two more wins, and a Ravens team that two months ago looked like a shell of its defending Super Bowl champion self could actually walk away with the division again.

A division race that appeared over back in October, has grown open.

This is why, for the next two weeks, the Bengals must do everything in their power to turn defensive end Michael Johnson's words into prophecy. Just after Sunday's loss, he told reporters: "We're going to come back and win two in a row at home and go into these playoffs and wreak havoc."

Paul Brown Stadium has been a relative house of horrors for opposing teams all season. There, the Bengals are 6-0 and have completely dismantled their opponents on both sides of the football. Of all the disappointment the Bengals have been handed the past two days, this glimmer of optimism might actually end up being all they need to make Baltimore's Monday night moot.

Now more than ever, the desire to fulfill their preseason goal of going undefeated at home takes on added significance. Two wins in two weeks could very well end up being what stands between them and their third straight postseason bid.

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