Cincinnati Bengals: AJ McCarron

CINCINNATI -- We're starting to get into that time of year when the playoff chase dominates the NFL news cycle.

That's a good thing.

Why? Because that's what teams play for each year, right? For them, the whole point of the regular season is to be one of the lucky 12 that survives and advances into the postseason all the way to final game of the league year. As we start getting closer to seeing which teams have legitimate chances of seeing their goals fulfilled, the season gets more fun and more dramatic.

So, what will it take to get the Bengals into the postseason? We attempt to answer that very question to kick off this week's Cincinnati Bengals mailbag:

@ColeyHarvey: In my most humble opinion, Erik, AFC teams have to convince themselves it will take 10 wins in order to be among the 12. In the Bengals' case, it might be more like 9.5. (Their overtime tie with the Panthers counts for half a win). If I'm Cincinnati, though, I still have to make 10 wins the goal. The AFC North is so good this year, and is particularly effective against teams outside the division. With three of their final games coming against division foes, the Bengals will have a difficult remaining road. But they already own the tiebreaker over the Ravens, and again, have the benefit of that extra half-win. If you get to 10 wins and are one of the top two seeds in football's toughest division, to me, you're a lock for the playoffs. Check out ESPN's "Playoff Machine" to see some of the scenarios that could get the Bengals into the postseason.

@ColeyHarvey: I'm assuming you're referring to A.J. Green here, Jack. I can't say that he's back to his "old" self, mainly because he's going to continue dealing the rest of the season with that balky big toe that has been problematic all season. As you know, that injury sidelined him three games, and it took him two before he showed some signs of his old self. Without a doubt, he had one of his best games of the season last Sunday at New Orleans when he caught six passes for 127 yards and the fourth-quarter touchdown that put the game out of reach. A large part of his success stemmed from the Saints leaving him single-covered after sinking up to protect against a Bengals running game that had been effective all day. Green also responded quite positively to challenges offensive coordinator Hue Jackson issued him in previous days. To keep showing glimpses of his Pro Bowl self, Green needs Jackson and the run to keep helping.

@ColeyHarvey. Ha, this must be the weekend for curiosity about getting Pro Bowl players back to form. Seriously, though, good question, CoachQuis. I'd argue that yes, Vontaze Burfict can get back in form. He has a better chance than Green after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago to clean out his leg. Although he still is recovering from the procedure -- the first surgery he's ever had -- he should be able to run and cut much better than he did in the Jaguars game earlier this month when he got his knee twisted up ahead of the surgery. After the first-quarter injury, he finished the afternoon. With a healthy Burfict, yes, playoff chances improve. Without him, the Bengals miss a lot: leadership, communication and intimidation.

@ColeyHarvey. Speaking of linebackers ... Mike, I'd agree that Rey Maualuga's return last week could provide a big jolt against not only zone-blocking rush offenses, but other schemes, too. He's one of the Bengals' best run stoppers, and as we saw last week, his presence alone can force running backs to run into other defenders. Maualuga only had three tackles last week -- including one vs. a pass -- but he fit perfectly in his run gaps, forcing ball carriers to extend plays where other Bengals were waiting. If the Bengals are to build upon their 74-yard rush defense performance last week, Maualuga certainly will be among the biggest reasons why.

@ColeyHarvey. Easy answer, Josh. Marvin Jones won't be back this year. He went on season-ending injured reserve back in Week 6. So for this season, yes, Mohamed Sanu has taken his job. The two won't have another chance to battle for the role of No. 2 receiver until next training camp. Have to figure this time around, Sanu will enter as the front-runner for the job after his solid work relieving Green at times this year.

@ColeyHarvey. Will, it is really early to tell what exactly the long-term plan will be for AJ McCarron. But I'll say this: it's clear the Bengals have him around as a backup plan. He won't be traded anytime soon and he won't be released, either. They're going to groom him into the backup role across the next three seasons. It'll be interesting to see what happens by the 2016 season if Andy Dalton struggles, though. If McCarron has come along by then, Dalton's contract does permit the Bengals to let him go if they favor McCarron. Will that scenario happen? It's hard to see it playing out that way right now, but you never know ...

@ColeyHarvey. Darqueze Dennard doesn't get more time on defense because he's down on the depth chart below three really good veteran cornerbacks. Of course, you saw him sneak onto the field for 14 plays last week against the Saints, and he looked good. I wouldn't be surprised if coaches at some point revisited the "give Leon Hall's Achilles a rest" tactic and give Dennard more time. Hall hasn't looked good much this year, and Dennard is a rookie with promise. They'll want to give him opportunities. But for the time being, he's just another first-rounder playing behind four others. 
CINCINNATI -- With his offense lined up on the right hash, quarterback AJ McCarron took a snap from center before looking downfield during an 11-on-11 drill Wednesday afternoon.

He saw receiver Greg Little flashing deep on a corner route across the field and just outside the opposite numbers. In order to get the ball to him, McCarron knew he'd have to put a little extra oomph into his throw.

But he didn't end up doing that. With what he considered his smoothest motion of the day, he dropped an approximate 45-yard, cross-field throw to the spot where Little was waiting for the ball. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard was there, too.

"Darqueze made a good play on it and hit it at the very end," McCarron said. "It was just in and out of [Little's] hands."

It was an incompletion. But the pass still had McCarron grinning broadly Thursday when he spoke with reporters in front of his locker. As he thought back to the play, he summarized his first official regular-season practice with the Cincinnati Bengals as a successful one.

"Seeing it in the air and knowing that you've still got more that you can put on it, it felt good," McCarron said. "I was pleased with the whole day."

McCarron was cleared to practice Tuesday as he began a 21-day window in which the team can evaluate his progress and bring him up to the 53-man roster. He is still technically on the non-football injury list, a reserve designation he has been under since July when he reported to training camp with shoulder tightness. Instead of putting him through surgery, the team decided it best to rest the arm and to have him go through a targeted throwing program.

Since the start of training camp, McCarron estimates has made more than 3,000 throws.

Before Wednesday, all of those throws went to Nick Cosgray, the Bengals' head trainer who helped McCarron through the throwing portion of his rehab off to the side of the Bengals' practice fields. Cosgray never moved. He typically stood in one spot and played catch with McCarron. Now the rookie has to get used to getting chased by defensive linemen and linebackers and throwing to moving targets.

He also has to get used to wearing shoulder pads again. He admitted struggling a bit with getting used to throwing with the extra weight.

The last time McCarron was in pads was last January, when he led the Alabama Crimson Tide to a Sugar Bowl loss at the Superdome. When the Bengals visited the Saints last Sunday, it was his first time back inside the venue since the bowl. It's also where he won a national championship two seasons before.

If after the 21-day window closes McCarron isn't placed onto the active roster -- the most likely scenario at this time -- then he'll go to the physically unable to perform list, and his season will end. If that happens, he won't play this season. Team president Mike Brown, head coach Marvin Lewis and other members of the front office have kept McCarron in the loop of their plans for him from the day he was drafted in the fifth-round in May.

"I just want to go out and have fun and then be ready to go whenever they need me, whether they call on me this year or next year," McCarron said. "It seems like they've got a plan and they're high on me. So it's a good feeling."
CINCINNATI -- While there is still a month before Marvin Jones is expected to return to the Cincinnati Bengals' receiver rotation, he still showed signs of progress Wednesday as he begins a new phase of rehab for his surgically repaired left foot.

For the first time since hurting his foot in a training-camp practice three weeks ago, Jones was off crutches and out of the scooter he had been using to keep pressure off his foot. Each of those devices have been tossed away as he has started walking on his own power. He's still in a protective boot, but he can at least walk around normally without any other assistance.

Jones
As a result, the wideout felt compelled to catch passes off to the side Wednesday afternoon while his teammates went through their second workout ahead of Sunday's season opener at Baltimore. During the open portion of the workout Jones was seen playing catch with rookie quarterback A.J. McCarron, a young player who is going through his own rehab process due to a shoulder issue that placed him over the weekend on the non-football injury list. McCarron can't formally practice with the team until Week 6.

Jones has no limitations on when he can practice since the Bengals kept him on the 53-man roster and elected to simply make him inactive each week until he's fully healthy.

He should be back Week 5 when the Bengals go to New England.

This wasn't the first time Jones caught passes since the injury. He had other days during these past three weeks when he and trainers would take a chair out of the locker room, sit him down in it, and throw balls to him. It was all about maintaining his vision, continuing to get reps and keeping his hands ready for passes.

Along with Jones' progress, cornerback Darqueze Dennard has apparently improved, too. He participated in the shoulder-pads practice, following the hip injury he suffered on his first play in Cincinnati's Week 2 preseason game against the Jets. He was limited Wednesday. While it seems like he plays Sunday, Dennard was quick to point out that it's "not on me." He's leaving his potential for playing up to the trainers and head coach Marvin Lewis.

Tight end Tyler Eifert, who dealt with a nagging shoulder issue this spring and summer said his last couple of weeks of rest have paid off. He expects to play this weekend.

"I feel great right now," Eifert said.

Here's the full Wednesday injury report as provided by the Bengals:

Full Participation
LB Vontaze Burfict (hamstring)
TE Tyler Eifert (shoulder)
RB Cedric Peerman (hip)
OT Andre Smith (concussion)

Limited Participation
CB Darqueze Dennard (hip)

Did Not Practice
LB Sean Porter (knee)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
WR James Wright (concussion)

Out
WR Marvin Jones (foot)
RB Rex Burkhead (knee)
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 -- At the close of their first day of training camp, the Cincinnati Bengals made a series of roster moves that included signing two players, releasing another and placing a fourth on the active physically unable to perform list.

Britt
Whitworth
Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth was the PUP list addition, the result of a calf injury. Like the rest of the PUP list players, he counts against the team's roster limit and can be activated to practice as soon as he's cleared medically.

Whitworth wasn't the only one who sat out Thursday's practice. Tight end Jermaine Gresham (back), quarterback AJ McCarron (shoulder), offensive lineman Mike Pollak (knee), receivers Marvin Jones (ankle) and Ryan Whalen (hamstring), linebacker Marquis Flowers (hamstring), and defensive tackles Devon Still (back) and Zach Minter (back) also didn't practice. Each had been placed on the active PUP or active non-football injury lists before training camp began.

While the Bengals were making those injury designations, they also made alterations to their roster. Backup punter T.J. Conley, who was signed earlier this offseason to primarily give the Bengals an extra practice body to keep starting punter Kevin Huber's leg fresh, was released. In a corresponding move, they added two receivers, Jeremy Johnson and Conner Vernon, who was acquired from Cleveland after clearing waivers.

Johnson is a rookie from SMU who signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent last month. He was released by New England on July 17.

Vernon entered the NFL in 2013, signing with the Raiders as an undrafted player. He had four catches for 42 yards in four preseason games last year before getting cut the final weekend of camp. He was signed by the Browns on Dec. 26, and remained part of their offseason roster.

With Jones and Whalen out for now, the Bengals needed a pair of receivers to take their places until they return. Although Johnson and Vernon will try to make the 53-man roster, they were added primarily for camp depth concerns.
CINCINNATI -- Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins was one of nine Cincinnati Bengals to be placed Monday on the team's active physically unable to perform list. Another three, including backup quarterback AJ McCarron and receiver Marvin Jones, made it on the active non-football injury list.

Since the dozen players are on "active" lists, they will still count against the team's roster limit, but they can be activated to practice as soon as they are cleared medically. The list designations only stipulate they they aren't cleared medically as of Monday, but they still can be cleared by Thursday when training camp officially starts in Cincinnati. Rookies arrived Monday.

Along with Atkins, the Bengals placed offensive guard Clint Boling (knee), linebacker Marquis Flowers (hamstring), cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles), punter Kevin Huber (neck), receiver Colin Lockett (hamstring), defensive tackle Zach Minter (back), defensive tackle Devon Still (back) and receiver Ryan Whalen (hamstring) on the active PUP list.

Atkins (knee), Boling, Hall, Huber and Still's injuries go back to last season, when they missed games late due to season-ending injuries. Atkins and Boling tore ACLs, Hall tore an Achilles, Huber hurt his neck on a violent blindside hit, and Still battled through a disc injury. The expectation has been for all to be healthy in time for the start of the regular season.

Boling may be the furthest of the group from full strength since his injury occurred so late in the 2013 season. His ACL tear came Dec. 1 at San Diego. Still, he's remained optimistic all offseason about returning in time for some portion of training camp.

McCarron (shoulder), Jones (ankle) and cornerback Onterio McCalebb (knee) were placed on the active/non-football injury list, but still can practice Thursday if they get cleared by then.
After looking at position battles in Part 1 of our final mailbag series before training camp begins, we open Part 2 with a look at the competition at the most talked about position on any football team: quarterback. Let's just get down to it: @ColeyHarvey: To answer your question, Jarrett, I'll give a simple "No." Chances are there won't be any competition between Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron at quarterback, at least not this year. The Bengals have stated rather emphatically this offseason that they believe Dalton is their man at the position. Although that hasn't yet translated to a contract extension for him, I'd still listen to their insistence about that if I were you or anyone else. That of course probably annoys some Bengals fans, but the fact of the matter is that the franchise chooses to cling to the good memories their star has given them. They think he can build upon them this year; not McCarron and not fellow backup Jason Campbell. It is worth noting that the additions of Campbell and McCarron behind Dalton give the Bengals greater assurance about the depth at the position than they have had in some time. It's also worth noting that during minicamp and organized team activities, McCarron was never in a position to challenge Dalton. He was recovering from an arm injury and learning his playbook. Campbell got his share of snaps, but the bulk of the reps went to Dalton. That might change a little in training camp, but don't read too far into it. Dalton probably will be sharing a lot more practice reps with the others, but that's only so the Bengals can keep him as fresh as possible for the regular season. It's much the same reason as to why you'll see other punters and kickers participating in camp as much as, if not more than the actual starters, Kevin Huber and Mike Nugent. @ColeyHarvey: I actually think the tight end production has been rather sound of late, Bill. As an example, here's a blog from earlier this offseason about just how good Jermaine Gresham has been in the red zone. That said, did the Bengals' production from their tight ends decrease over the course of last season? Absolutely. After catching a combined 54 passes through the first eight games, the tight ends had only 35 in the second eight. They also had three drops in the second half of the year, as opposed to two in the first. But none of that suggests there's something wrong with the position, the players or the coach, assistant Jonathan Hayes. I'd say the combination of scheme alterations and injuries affected a lot of what the Bengals were able to do with their tight ends down the stretch last season. Remember both Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham missed time in the season finale with injuries. It also didn't help their cause much that other playmakers like receiver Marvin Jones emerged in the second half, taking some of their opportunities. The Bengals definitely would like greater production from their tight ends and believe they'll get it. Expectations are high for Eifert to emerge here in Year 2, and Gresham could very well be playing for a contract as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. While the Bengals are hoping to get more efficient plays via deep passes to outside receivers and yard-after-catch-generating screens to players out of the backfield, you can be assured they will have plays drawn up for the tight ends. Will you see either of the tight ends put up Jimmy Graham-like numbers? No. But don't worry, they ought to be effective, but primarily in certain situations. @ColeyHarvey: Interesting that you ask about Kevin Zeitler, NatiBuck513. We profiled him in this story from Friday. Zeitler told me last month that he dedicated his offseason to getting in better shape than he was last year. That's not to say he was in awful shape in 2013. He just felt that he was a little heavier than normal, and not as lean as he knows he can be. So, to get back to an old version of himself, he worked on his diet. It seems to have paid off. You know how jarring it is sometimes when you see someone you haven't seen for a while and they look noticeably different -- for better or for worse -- when you do see them again? That's how it was with Zeitler when I saw him at the start of the OTA schedule back in May. Why do I mention all of this? Well, because I do think that he could be in for a solid year as long as the mental matches the physical. If he's able to hone his play like he's honed his body, and if he's able to be a little more vocal and assertive on the line, then he's got a good chance to have that type of season. The question is, will Pro Bowl voters across the country recognize his exploits in Cincinnati? If the Bengals play well enough offensively, they will. @ColeyHarvey: I'm not 100 percent, TRL, but I don't believe ESPN is the only outlet with writers and commentators who see the AFC North having other legitimate contenders. I will say that I have gone on record a couple of times this summer as having said I believe the Steelers are improved and that I just can't see Pittsburgh's coaches, players, ownership and fans standing much more for the types of seasons the franchise has had the last two years. Offensive line injuries and a horrid rushing attack hurt the Steelers the most last season, and they devoted part of the offseason to bolstering that. They also added a solid outside linebacker in Ryan Shazier in the draft. In short, they may not have made themselves drastically better, but the Steelers have the pieces to be a better team this year. That, combined with the Bengals' slightly more challenging 2014 schedule makes me think the division will come down to the Dec. 28 regular-season finale at Pittsburgh. As for the Ravens, they'll be competitive, but the Bengals' real threat for the division crown is in the Steel City. 
Examining the Cincinnati Bengals' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
The Bengals were content with having just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster last season, but expect them to take three this year. McCarron would be the odd man out, but since they drafted him this year and made him a de facto heir apparent to the position in case something happens with Dalton in the next few seasons, they probably won't cut him or place him on the practice squad. In Campbell, the Bengals also get a tried and true veteran who could step in if Dalton's play is unsatisfactory, or if he gets hurt.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

This grouping includes Charles at H-back, meaning the Bengals are more likely to take four true running backs. I'd argue that neither Green-Ellis, Peerman nor Charles is a lock right now to make the team, but there are compelling reasons for each being part of the 53-man roster. Rex Burkhead and James Wilder Jr. also have real chances to be part of the full roster.

RECEIVERS (5)

The top three on this list are locks to make the team. The true battle during training camp will be for the other two spots. If this group holds, that means veterans Brandon Tate and Jasper Collins, former Bengals practice squad player Cobi Hamilton and undrafted rookies Colin Lockett and Alex Neutz won't make the team. Tate would be the real notable cut here after performing well as a kick returner and filling in at punt returner last year. With a fully healthy secondary around him, though, expect Adam Jones to get back to returning punts. While the Bengals will give Tate opportunities to contribute in the passing game (he's had only 14 catches in three seasons with Cincinnati) this preseason, Sanzenbacher can also do much of what Tate can. Sanzenbacher has been more consistent in the passing game and could fill in as a returner on punts or kickoffs. Hamilton's size (6-foot-2) and leaping ability make him a possible pick to make the team, but performance would be a reason for cutting him. Wright's special-teams background and his strong showing in minicamp and organized team activities make him a possibility too.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Gresham is entering a contract year, and expectations have never been higher for him. The Bengals believe he can play better than he has in recent years and hope to get that type of production out of him. An offseason hernia surgery might have Gresham out of the mix early in training camp, but he ought to make the team, just like Eifert and Smith, who re-signed this spring to help bolster the position group after Gresham's injury.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

It's possible the Bengals end up taking only nine linemen so they can fit additional players at other positions. For instance, they could end up taking another running back or another receiver. It's common for most teams to have nine or 10 linemen, and this group seems to provide the versatility coaches are seeking. Hopkins, an undrafted rookie, was used at a variety of spots in the spring. Of the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed this year, Trey Hopkins -- a versatile guard who was used in a variety of ways this spring -- has the best shot to make the team, but even he's just barely left off this list.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

The only player on this list who wasn't on last year's 53-man roster is Will Clarke. The rookie was drafted in the third round in May. He effectively takes the roster spot of Michael Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason. This may be the most set group on the team.

LINEBACKERS (6)

Like the receivers, the top spots at linebacker are pretty much squared away. In this case, it's a veritable lock that Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga will make the team. The two remaining linebackers, on the other hand, will be part of one of the better position battles on the team. DiManche and Flowers have the best chances among the rest of the outside linebackers to make the team, but they'll have to fend off Sean Porter, Brandon Joiner and James Davidson too. Dontay Moch could make the team because of his versatility as a stand-up defensive end and hybrid linebacker. J.K. Schaffer was snubbed on this list at middle linebacker, but there's a lot about his drive and internal makeup that could make him a repeat roster surprise.

CORNERBACKS (6)

The top four positions are effectively locked down. Kirkpatrick runs the risk of being cut for performance reasons, but it's unlikely he will be dismissed because the Bengals would take a $1.2 million cap hit if they let go of the former first-round pick. The sixth cornerback spot will be a battle between Hampton, R.J. Stanford, Lavelle Westbrooks, Chris Lewis-Harris and Onterio McCalebb. Hampton has some versatility and ability the Bengals like, as well as special-teams leanings.

SAFETIES (4)

This may end up being one of the tougher cuts Bengals coaches have, if they end up keeping just four safeties. Taylor Mays would be the odd man out in this situation, which might come as a surprise given how well his spring practices seemed to go. Nelson and Iloka are virtual locks, Manning seems like a good possibility and Williams appears to factor into the team's future at the position.

SPECIALISTS (3)

These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.

Bengals' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
PM ET
If the Cincinnati Bengals are going to continue their recent run of success in the next three seasons, they will have to accomplish a number of things.

It's a monumental task to pick just one.

Dalton
Dalton
So much of the Bengals' immediate future hinges on what happens at the quarterback position, either later this offseason or during or after this coming regular season. For now, Andy Dalton remains the starting quarterback, even while the team tries to negotiate a contract extension with him and his agent. Little ground has been covered in the talks. It is becoming apparent that the more time passes without a new deal the more Dalton may be content playing out the 2014 season and trying to do enough to earn a second-contract salary that competes with the league's elite passers.

Let's pretend Dalton is still a Bengal over the next two or three seasons.

If he is, the Bengals' biggest key to success will be to keep a bevy of playmakers around him. As we saw countless times last season -- and should see in 2014 -- Dalton's receivers and running backs are good enough to routinely bail the offense out of challenging circumstances. Running back Giovani Bernard will be looking for a new contract after next season and should get it if he continues to showcase the type of agility and speed that made him such a weapon as a rookie in 2013. Having the bigger Jeremy Hill paired with Bernard will help give the offense balance not only in the running game but also in the short passing game. Receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones also need to be around to catch passes. Green should still be in a Bengals uniform in two years if not three.

If Dalton is no longer a Bengal in the next two or three seasons, Cincinnati must continue building a top-10 defense that can play alongside AJ McCarron. The 2014 draft pick is currently the apparent heir at quarterback and would start if Dalton is gone next offseason. Much like the defense helped carry Dalton through his first two years in Cincinnati, the unit would have to do the same for McCarron.
Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' springtime practices have ended, we turn to the portion of the offseason when we look for just about anything to discuss and debate until training camp begins.

As a result, this week's post-practice mailbag doesn't begin by discussing any of the team's starters. Instead, we open by chatting about a pair of rookies who likely won't see any real game action this season. These two rookies are certainly worth the attention, though.

(By the way, programming note: if you didn't get your question asked this week, it has been rolled into next week's mailbag. Oh, and get any other submissions for next week's mailbag in early. I'm giving you until noon ET on Tuesday. Hashtag your question #Bengalsmailbag so I see it. I'll be on vacation late next week, but want to answer your questions.)

@ColeyHarvey. I like AJ, D.J. Granted, we only really got a chance to see the rookie quarterback compete for one of the four weeks of organized team activities and minicamp, but still, he was as impressive as he could be in shorts and a helmet. He didn't get a chance to pass early in the OTA schedule because of an arm injury that had him limited just after his arrival following the draft. But by the end of the first week when he did finally throw, you could see where some of the Bengals' offensive concepts were beginning to make sense. The former Alabama signal-caller didn't think quite as much when determining which read he needed to make in various 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. One thing that also impressed me was the amount of work he regularly put in after practice. After Monday's OTA, he walked back in the locker room a good 30 minutes after practice concluded. That's not a surprising trait, but one I definitely took notice of. That post-practice work reminded me of another quarterback I covered when I was on the beat covering Florida State: the recently transferred and current Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker. While they didn't overlap at Alabama, Coker and McCarron did play together in high school. Maybe they just teach that post-practice work ethic in Mobile, Alabama.

@ColeyHarvey. Another player I had a chance to cover at FSU, James Wilder Jr. was the thunder in the Seminoles' thunder, lightning and rainstorm trio of Wilder, Devonta Freeman and Karlos Williams. While it was clear where Wilder fit when he came to college and proclaimed that he was a running back and wanted nothing to do with playing linebacker, it's not quite as certain where he fits in the Bengals' plans. He was added as an undrafted free agent along with defensive-tackle-turned-fullback Nikita Whitlock. Jeremy Hill also came to Cincinnati last month, taken with the 55th overall pick in the draft. Since Hill appears slated to get a number of reps alongside Giovani Bernard, and since backs like BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead also are part of the Bengals' plans for now, there doesn't seem to be much of a role for Wilder on the active roster. For that reason, plus the fact he still needs a little refining for the NFL, my guess is he begins the year on the practice squad, but that'll be a tough decision to make. Why? Because on Thursday Wilder tweeted that he broke the Bengals' conditioning test record. You don't want to run the risk of letting go of such an already finely tuned rookie back if you can help it.

@ColeyHarvey. Interesting question, Carp. Honestly, I can't tell you how the carries and targets will be broken down. At the end of a week that's been all about playbooks in the NFL, the Bengals haven't given me theirs. My educated guess is Bernard and receiver A.J. Green will play their anticipated big roles. But Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Hill, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham and presumably Green-Ellis, will all play complementary roles, too. The short of it: look for the same type of balance you saw last season, just maybe with a few more run plays. I do anticipate Sanu having a greater role than he did last year.

@ColeyHarvey. How's that for a segue? Yes, I'd say that Sanu is in line to receive the bulk of the Bengals' catches in the slot. I actually hinted I felt that way in this Bengals factoid about Sanu's slot production. Of his 47 receptions last season, 48.9 percent came while he was lined up in the slot. That was a higher percentage than any other Bengals receiver had last year. Add that to Sanu's possible increase in speed -- receivers coach James Urban told me earlier this week he thought Sanu was faster -- and it makes sense he gets the bulk of the Bengals' passes in the slot. That said, though, Dane Sanzenbacher seems to better fit the mold of the stereotypical shifty, speedy and smaller "slot" receiver.

@ColeyHarvey. Nice question, Ramon. My friend Kaci Kust of cn|2 Sports in Cincinnati has a more expansive answer in this package, and it's clear a few Bengals are paying attention. Defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Leon Hall are among the biggest soccer fans on the team. Peko -- who reminded reporters this week that his native American Samoa had the worst World Cup qualifying loss in history; 31-0 to Australia in 2011 -- has been tweeting his support for the United States. He also came to the Bengals' facility Monday wearing an Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast jersey. That same day, Burkhead wore a U.S. World Cup jersey. 
CINCINNATI -- The mandatory minicamp portion of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason has come to an end, meaning summer is well within view.

Following three voluntary organized team activity practices next week, the Bengals are off until July 24, when they take to Paul Brown Stadium's practice fields for the start of training camp. The only day next week media are permitted to watch the team practice is Monday. After that day, we won't see all 90 players on a field together until training camp.

That makes Thursday's final minicamp practice an important last step in springtime football.

Here are a few brief observations from the workout:
  • As they continue experimenting with offense and defense combinations, the Bengals shuffled players around all practice. Linemen who had been getting some run with the second- and third-team units were practicing with the first-teamers. The same went for reserve running backs and receivers, who were taking handoffs and catching passes from starting quarterback Andy Dalton. It was the coaches' chance to see which backup players could shine with the first-teamers, and which starters could play alongside which backups. It's all part of the tinkering that goes on in June.
  • That said, undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins was among those backup players who got some playing time with the first-team offense. The offensive lineman played both left tackle and left guard during the practice. Running backs Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis also were among those who played with the first-team units. Since rookie Jeremy Hill was drafted, Green-Ellis has slid from running with the first team alongside Giovani Bernard, to the lower quadrant of the backfield depth chart. On defense, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the backups who mixed in with the first-teamers on both sides of the ball.
  • Like we mentioned Wednesday, rookie quarterback AJ McCarron has been cleared to throw after dealing with "arm tightness" during the first two weeks of OTAs. He threw a little bit more and threw deeper passes Thursday. One of his best of the day was about a 15-yard comeback route to Cobi Hamilton, who broke sharply away from his defender thanks to a quick cut. McCarron also was picked off late in the practice when the Bengals were going through a two-minute drill. Safety Shawn Williams jumped a short throw.
  • Finally, after missing Wednesday's practice, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth was back Thursday, getting his normal reps.
CINCINNATI -- Since his Queen City arrival about a month ago, AJ McCarron's nights have followed a distinct pattern.

If the rookie quarterback is not at a Cincinnati Reds baseball game or taking in a quick meal at a local eatery, he is in his new Ohio River Valley abode with his nose buried in a Cincinnati Bengals-issued iPad until past midnight while his famous fiance looks on.

Still six weeks and one day shy of the start of training camp, it's all about learning for the first-year player. It's not about trying to supplant the veteran starter from Day 1 of training camp, or taking first- or second-team reps throughout the preseason. For the foreseeable future, it's about learning the Bengals' offense, adapting to it and playing as well within it as he can.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron is spending his early days with the Bengals just trying to get a handle on the playbook.
All of that means it's also about subjecting his partner, Sports Illustrated model and former Miss Alabama Katherine Webb, to hours upon hours of football.

"She's having to sit there and watch the game when she probably didn't want to," McCarron said Wednesday, adding that he felt bad for subjecting her to it. "But right now, it's just a lot of studying and trying to make everything like it's natural and I don't have to think about it."

McCarron added that part of his Sunday night was spent watching the Miss USA beauty pageant with Webb.

Tuesday night, though, it was back to football. McCarron said he stayed up to 12:30 a.m. breaking down protections, coverages and blitzes as he sifted through offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's new system. He thinks the study has been paying off.

"I feel like I'm in a good groove right now, and I feel like I'm in a good place," McCarron said. "I'm catching on."

He's also healing. After being forced to only hand off the football during the first two weeks of voluntary organized team activities, McCarron has been throwing during the minicamp all this week. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, he was mostly firing shorter passes to running backs tucked at the bottom of coverage patterns. After dealing with so-called "arm tightness" the first two weeks, he's been cleared to at least throw in a limited capacity. Eventually, the Bengals will work up to allowing him to make longer throws.

Still, he was glad to have a chance to make the ones he did.

"Just to get back in the swing of things and being able to have reps throwing the ball instead of just run plays the whole time; it's definitely good," McCarron said.

In addition to his late-night film study, McCarron credited Jackson and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese for helping him quicken his pace of learning.

"It's Coach Zamp. We're really close," McCarron said. "He's a really good friend and a great coach. He's helped me a ton. We've spent a lot of hours together going over everything. He's been a huge help to me so far, and he pushes me. That's what I like. I want somebody where, if I don't do right, they get on me and just throw me in the fire. Coach Hue and Zamp have done that."
Welcome back to the weekend, folks.

Can you believe it? There are only six more of these to go before we'll have training camp mailbags. For now, though, we're still discussing the little bit of what we've seen from the few open voluntary organized team activities the Cincinnati Bengals have had, and taking your questions on other non-practice related team matters.

For Chase A. Metzger, one of those matters has to do with the Bengals' roster and how suited it is for a Super Bowl run. Does Cincinnati truly have that kind of roster in place? Or does it not? That's what we'll address as we open this week's mailbag:

 
CINCINNATI -- After closing their last two organized team activity practices to the media last week, the Cincinnati Bengals are back open Tuesday morning as they begin the second week of voluntary OTAs.

There was a lot gleaned from the lone open practice last week, and there ought to be even more learned this week as the team starts finally settling into the flow of the workout schedule. Following this week's three practices, the team will convene again three times next week for a mandatory minicamp before meeting for one final three-day stretch of OTAs the week of June 16. After that players are released until July 24, when they begin training camp at Paul Brown Stadium.

Ahead of this week's lone day of open practice, here are a few items to watch for:
  • Gresham's status. Tight end Jermaine Gresham was the lone holdout during last week's workouts. According to Bengals.com, he has an injury he suffered earlier this offseason, but isn't believed to be in jeopardy of missing training camp. We'll see if more official word will be provided by the team Tuesday, and if he ends up making at least a sideline appearance. Last week, other injured players, Leon Hall, Geno Atkins, Clint Boling and Mike Pollak showed up but did not go through the full practice. Pollak didn't go through stretching like the other three.
  • Offensive line rotations. With Pollak presumably still out, we'll be keeping an eye on the Bengals' offensive line rotation. Last week they subbed Trevor Robinson and rookie Russell Bodine in at center. With Boling still out rehabbing from his ACL injury, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth got a few snaps at left guard just as he did at the end of last season. Others played the position with the first-team unit, as well, though, including undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins. At this stage in the offseason, it's all about getting reserves some meaningful snaps and figuring out who might be able to play where in the event an emergency insertion is needed.
  • Rookie learning curve. Along with Bodine and Hopkins, the Bengals have 18 other first-year players who are trying to pick up their offensive and defensive schemes and acclimate themselves to the terminology both playbooks have. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard addressed his steep learning curve in interviews last week. He said he's been helped by many of the veterans on the defense, including third-year linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Two other rookies to watch this week are running back Jeremy Hill and quarterback AJ McCarron. Both missed part of last week while attending the NFLPA's "Rookie Premiere" event in Los Angeles. After practicing last Tuesday, they were at the event Wednesday and Thursday, meaning they will be a bit behind their peers now that they are back this week.
  • Defensive line rotations. Much like the offensive line with its changes due to injuries, the Bengals experimented with defensive line rotations last week and ought to continue to do so. Second-year defensive end Margus Hunt got some playing time at left end, although that was the position Carlos Dunlap occupied much of last season. Dunlap played some at right end, as well, as the Bengals started tinkering with possible switches along the front based upon the packages they're playing. Several of the ends could see action on the line's interior as part of pass-rush details in Cincinnati's nickel defense.
  • Lamur's place. After missing the entire 2013 regular season, outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur is back. More of a cover linebacker, the Bengals would like to see if he can stay on the field often as their linebacker rotation takes shape. With his size and length, the 6-foot-4 Lamur matches up well with tight ends. In a division that has some good ones, it'll be important the Bengals have such a healthy defender of Lamur's make up this year.
  • Tempo, tempo. It wasn't hard to notice the Bengals' stepped up offensive tempo during last week's practices. It probably won't change this week, either. Again, it's not so much that the Bengals are getting into hurry-up mode, it's just that they're getting out of the huddle and to the line a lot quicker.

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