Cincinnati Bengals: Taylor Mays

CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' initial 53-man roster has been solidified, let's take a quick look back at ESPN.com's last Bengals roster projection from Friday to see what we got right, and what we got wrong (projections that were missed are in bold):

QUARTERBACKS (2)

This was an easy one. After AJ McCarron didn't practice in the preseason, we knew the Bengals would probably end up only taking two quarterbacks into the season. On our first roster projections, back before training camp and before his shoulder injury became an issue, McCarron was listed as a third quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

We got these all correct, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis the odd man out. The only change from the July projection was that we had Orson Charles making the team at H-back instead of Hewitt. That was before Hewitt, an undrafted rookie free agent, started impressing in training camp.

RECEIVERS (6)

One more all-correct group. Wright, by my estimation, had a better preseason than his roster-bubble counterpart, Cobi Hamilton. There were flashes from Hamilton, but inconsistency ruined him. With offseason uncertainty about Tate, he was left off the pre-training camp projection. We went with five receivers at that time.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

There was very little reason to believe this trio would fall apart. We had the same group at the start of training camp.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

Hopkins made it on Friday's roster projection because very little was known at the time about the severity of his leg injury, suffered in the Bengals' third preseason game eight days ago. He had previously been expected to possibly sneak onto the roster, but the injury instead allowed the Bengals to put him on Injured Reserve, and use his spot for someone else. Back in July, I thought the Bengals would take nine linemen, and that Hopkins wouldn't make it. I also projected backup center Trevor Robinson to make it over Johnson.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

Instead of Bilukidi, I had Devon Still making the team as the alternate defensive tackle behind Peko. It seemed to make sense. Still was a former second-rounder who was injury-free and finally in a spot to prove his worth to the team. But Bilukidi played better overall, forcing Still onto the practice squad. Still also made the July roster projection.

LINEBACKERS (7)

As you can see, Porter was the player who I got wrong this time. I was anticipating the Bengals to go heavy in their defensive backfield. I didn't believe they would keep a seventh linebacker, particularly after Porter had some trouble staying on the field because of preseason injuries. He also was left off the pre-training camp projection.

CORNERBACKS (5)

It was possible the Bengals would have had a sixth cornerback, as we anticipated in July, but there was no reason to think these five wouldn't make the team.

SAFETIES (4)

Our last botched projection came here, where I thought veteran Danieal Manning -- who has since re-signed with Houston -- would outlast Williams. However, Williams' has upside, and special teams ability beyond simply being a return man like Manning. Before training camp, we had Williams making the roster, and Manning making it over Mays.

SPECIALISTS (3)

Same solid group as last season.
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 Saturday night's preseason home opener against the New York Jets:

Hunt
1. DE Margus Hunt. Can Hunt take another step in his growth as a lineman in the Bengals' scheme? That's one of the biggest questions surrounding the defense this season, and it's one that follows Hunt into this second preseason game. While coach Marvin Lewis was quick to praise Hunt earlier this week for the steps he has taken since April 2013 when he was drafted, Hunt was a little harder on himself. He said he thinks he still needs to work on finishing his rushes. At times last week at Kansas City that was an issue, he said. He overran one sack opportunity and missed one other, he said. Part of the problem had to do with how he and other linemen have to pull up when they approach quarterbacks in practice so as not to hurt them. Last week was the first time he had been able to tackle since January.

2. DT Domata Peko. It's worth keeping an eye on Peko after he missed time this week because of a concussion. He participated in Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday's practices, but was limited for part of them. The veteran isn't expected to see much action, but it will be worth looking to see what opportunities he gets in the rotation following the head injury. In addition to Peko's reps, keep a close eye on interior linemen Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. Both will be looking for snaps to they can add to their resume entering the season. The better that tandem is, the better the Bengals feel their defensive tackle rotation will be. Geno Atkins still won't be playing. He has yet to participate in full team drills at practices.

3. CB Darqueze Dennard. With Dre Kirkpatrick expected to miss Saturday's game after missing nearly all of the week's practices, this could be a pivotal night for Dennard. It could be pivotal in the sense that it would be the first time Dennard gets extended action on the big stage both on defense and special teams. While he played a lot last week -- 35 defensive snaps and 10 special-teams plays -- Dennard could expect a little more action this week due to Kirkpatrick's hip injury. It also would be a good week for the Bengals to play around with where they line Dennard up, giving him reps at both the slot corner position, as well as one of the boundary spots. Definitely be on the lookout for the first-round pick as he gets second-team reps at corner, likely alongside Adam Jones.

4. S Danieal Manning. Another defensive back to watch will be Manning, the nine-year veteran who was signed by the Bengals in the offseason. It's been easy to forget about Manning because Reggie Nelson and George Iloka have impressed with the ones at both safety positions, but he has been quietly turning heads throughout this preseason. Coaches are beginning to see where he's finally understanding Cincinnati's system. Lewis said earlier this week that he plays smooth and fast and that it's easy to see why he's been a valued defender elsewhere for so long. Manning also gives the Bengals added versatility as a kick returner. He ought to have a few opportunities to prove himself on special teams Saturday.

5. S Taylor Mays. It might come as a surprise to some to read this but Mays has been one of the more impressive back-of-the-rotation defensive backs in Cincinnati's training camp. It seems like he's gotten praised for making a good play in practice more often than he has been criticized, and he routinely seems to be in the right spots helping plug up holes on downfield runs and preventing passes to his side of the field. It'll be intriguing to see how the Bengals work out the position battle between he and Shawn Williams. Keep an eye on Mays and Williams against the Jets and judge for yourself.
CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals get going with Day 14 of training camp, here are three items we are going to be watching:

Sticking with Sanu. Like head coach Marvin Lewis said Monday evening, "nothing's changed" with respect to the Bengals' receiving rotation following news earlier that day about Marvin Jones' injury. The Bengals will revert back to the way things were up until last Monday, when Jones had just come back from an ankle injury. They will operate exactly the way they did when training camp started with Mohamed Sanu receiving the bulk of the No. 2 receiver receptions and duties. Sanu has performed well all training camp, turning heads for exhibiting noted improvements and displaying morecomfort in the offense than he did during much of last season. We'll be looking for Sanu to keep playing his complementary role.

Monitoring Peko. Among the latest injuries to watch, defensive tackle Domata Peko's could be among the most concerning. Lewis didn't sound as if trainers anticipated Peko being on concussion protocol for long, but the fact that the lineman has now missed two straight practices while two off days mixed in, it's worth monitoring how long he might end up being out. That's now two starters who are on concussion protocol. Right offensive tackle Andre Smith has be under it for the past two weeks. We'll keep an eye out to see if Peko practices.

Position battle: safety. Now that we're nearing the halfway point of the preseason, it's time to start paying close attention to the numerous position battles that could be decided up to the day 53-man roster cuts have to be made. For Tuesday, we'll be on the lookout for the battle at safety. Taylor Mays has had a strong camp and had a similarly solid spring practice season. But is he at risk for getting cut because the Bengals want to keep the veteran Danieal Manning? Might Shawn Williams become expendable, despite his special teams versatility?
CINCINNATI -- When he saw his big outside linebacker loaded onto a cart and leaving the Cincinnati Bengals' final 2013 preseason game in obvious pain, for one split second, Paul Guenther felt lost.

"I almost fainted," the assistant coach recalled earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said LB Emmanuel Lamur, No. 59, is high on skill and smarts.
Exactly 11 months and six days ago, Guenther and the rest of Cincinnati's coaching staff were left wondering where they ought to turn as the haunting reality began to settle in: Emmanuel Lamur, one of their top cover linebackers and most knowledgeable young defenders, was lost for the season. A shoulder injury in the first quarter of the preseason finale against Indianapolis led to their concern, and forced Guenther's stomach to churn.

What a difference time can make.

Now a year later and some weeks shy of another series of preseason games, Guenther, the former Bengals linebackers coach who was elevated to defensive coordinator earlier this offseason, is excitedly welcoming a fully healed Lamur back into the fold.

"There's a lot of things you can do with him," Guenther said. "He can play safety, he can cover tight ends. And as we all know now in the league there are a lot of pass-receiving tight ends that we're going to face, particularly probably in the first ball game."

Along with facing in Week 1 Baltimore's Dennis Pitta, who also will be returning from his own serious injury, the Bengals are set to see tight ends Jordan Cameron, Delanie Walker, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas, Coby Fleener, Greg Olsen and Heath Miller, among others this year. Cameron, Graham, Olsen and Thomas were among the top 8 receiving tight ends last season, and despite missing more than half the season, Gronkowski wasn't too far down the list, either, ranking 14th. As a frame of reference, the Bengals' top tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, were 22nd and 24th despite having played 14 and 15 games, respectively.

With a lineup full of that many well-regarded tight ends, the Bengals will take all the help they can to cover them.

Hence, Guenther's happiness over Lamur's return.

Safety Taylor Mays, who spent part of the first few weeks of last regular season filling Lamur's shoes before his own injury, also could be an option for the Bengals in certain tight end-defensive back matchups. He has the type of athleticism and size that makes him a better fit for such coverage assistance than any other Bengals safety. That's one of the many reasons the veteran, who could be considered on the 53-man bubble, actually has a shot to make it onto the full roster.

Back to Lamur. Along with assisting in coverage downfield, Guenther lauded the linebacker's intelligence. Vontaze Burfict, who will continue making calls and checks at the line this season, knows Guenther's defense better than any other player, the coach said. But he quickly added that Lamur wasn't far behind. With a chance to get back on the field and play this fall, Guenther believes Lamur's football intelligence will only increase.

"He gives you great ability to change the look of the fronts," Guenther said. "He's a smart player. He's a player who knows the defense. Maybe not as much as Burfict because he was out last year, but he's that kind of guy that understands the big picture. Having him back is a big advantage for us."
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.
For the next 11 days we're taking a look at Cincinnati Bengals who could be on the dreaded training camp roster bubble later this summer. These are players whom we think you should expect to see fighting for spots when the eventual 75-man preseason roster gets trimmed to the regular-season 53.

As permitted by league rules, the roster currently stands at 89.

Mays
In no particular order, we start this offseason bubble watch with safety Taylor Mays

Why he's on the bubble: Mays, like so many other potential bubble candidates, could fall victim to the numbers game this fall. There are simply too many safeties and not enough spaces for them all. Starters from the 2013 season, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, are obvious locks to be retained by the club this year, as is second-year safety Shawn Williams. Veteran Danieal Manning was added to the mix this offseason, giving the Bengals a measure of depth and experience at the position. Manning, too, could be fighting for a place on the team by the end of August, but I'm thinking right now that Mays would be the one to go if it came down to him and Manning. It's worth noting the Bengals carried five(ish) safeties much of last season. The "ish" is because Chris Crocker was added early in the season, coming out of retirement to primarily play a cornerback role. He ended the season playing a hybrid position that was more safety than cornerback.

Another reason Mays could be released? His contract. While he'll be well-compensated if he sees the full value of his $755,000 cap figure for the 2014 season, he was only given a guarantee of $40,000 when he signed a one-year deal earlier this offseason. If he gets cut, the Bengals will end up saving his entire $755,000 cap value. It wasn't the kind of deal that indicated much long-term belief in the 26-year-old safety.

What he has to do to get off the bubble: All he has to do, really, is play the way he did during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp this spring. Often during the practices that were open to media, co-defensive backs coach Mark Carrier could be heard on the sideline giving Mays measured encouragement. It seemed like Mays not only was in the right position more times than not, but he was executing just the way Carrier and other coaches wanted him to. Naturally, it's easy to look like you're doing the right things in shorts and a helmet. The real test will come for Mays when the pads come on.

Odds he makes the team: 50/50. He could give the Bengals a good lift off the bench at the position, and perhaps most importantly, he could give them a bigger body to shift from true safety and into a cover role if needed like last season. Part of the reason Mays saw the field regularly before his season-ending injury in Week 8 against the Jets was Cincinnati's lack of depth at linebacker. When Emmanuel Lamur, the Bengals' top cover linebacker went down with an injury in the preseason finale, the team needed someone with the size and athleticism to hang in the passing game with tight ends, running backs and receivers. Mays' versatility in that regard could make it a smart decision to keep him around.

Then again, it's all about numbers in the NFL each August, and Mays could be one of many to fall just over the team's limit.
Happy Easter, folks.

One day afteranswering a number of draft-related questions, our Cincinnati Bengals mailbag is back for a second installment of the weekend.

Yes, that's right. A two-part mailbag. Our Bengals readers were so inquisitive last week that we decided to turn this into a mailbag that spanned two days.

In this mailbag, the players already on the team are the focus. With all 71 currently signed players expected to return to Cincinnati on Monday for the start of the official offseason strength and conditioning program, we're answering questions about the players whose signings and departures might have affected the Bengals' plans moving forward. Also, we'll address whether there is more the Bengals can do.

Let's get to it:
 
Get your Thursday started with these quick takes on a few Cincinnati Bengals story lines. Stadium renovations, riverfront expansion and updates on Taylor Mays and Orson Charles are among them:

1. 'Spirit of collaboration:' Those are the words Hamilton County (Ohio) Commission President Chris Monzel used last week to describe how he and other local politicians are working with Cincinnati Bengals officials on a host of initiatives that might help spruce up Paul Brown Stadium and beautify and expand the downtown Cincinnati riverfront area known as "The Banks." The Bengals' lease for the stadium contains language about limiting the height of new buildings built on The Banks. The Cincinnati Enquirer is reporting that by Thursday, those requirements might be waived so the city can bid General Electric for a building that the company has been trying to build in the region. Spaces in two nearby neighborhoods already have bids on them, but the city and county would prefer the structure go downtown. The height waiver could be a crucial precursor to getting a long-needed new digital scoreboard installed at Paul Brown Stadium. Updates to club-box furniture could be coming, along with stadium-wide wifi and an expansion of the Bengals' weight room, in the event the city ever lands a professional soccer team. Atlanta announced the arrival of one there Wednesday.

2. Collaboration is important: The Bengals and the county have come to multiple impasses the past few years regarding updates the stadium needs. The collaboration hasn't been quite as strong in recent years as it appears to be now. Collaboration is good, as is having some of the updates outlined above. It's also good for the city and county to continue to pump money into the area around the stadium. Though it's tougher for the restaurants and shops to operate in those down times when the Bengals and Reds aren't playing -- namely January to March -- the area has seen a jolt of life with the emergence of an apartment complex where players from both teams live during the season, and the construction of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Since opening in 2004, the museum has been an important piece of Cincinnati's tourism draw. So have Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ballpark. The better resourced and funded those three buildings are -- and the better the teams play -- the more people will visit. The new apartment development should be a draw, and GE could add 2,000 jobs to the riverfront, according to the Enquirer. This collaboration is very important for the city, county and teams.

Mays
3. Taylor Mays' long recovery: By Monday morning, a number of Bengals will unofficially begin their training for the 2014 season, working together for the first time since January's disappointing first-round playoff loss. It will be the first time they can get keyed into the plans new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther have for their respective units. One player glad to make the trek back to Cincinnati is defensive back Mays. His season ended last year on Oct. 27 when he suffered a shoulder injury. After a conversation with Mays in California, where he has been training, USA Today's Tom Pelissero writes here about how vicious the injury really was. It sounds really painful. Mays says his shoulder came out of socket, that he tore his labrum in two places, and that for more than 90 minutes after the injury the training staff had trouble getting the shoulder back in place. Mays said all that time out of socket made his recovery longer, but he estimates he will be coming back to Cincinnati at 90 percent.

4. How Mays fits: Quickly, we'll add that Mays will fit somewhere in the Bengals' plans, it's just not clear where. He will provide depth at safety, playing in some rotation with George Iloka, Reggie Nelson, Shawn Williams and the recently added Danieal Manning. Nelson, Iloka and Manning are expected to get the majority of snaps. Mays also could jump into an emergency nickel linebacker spot, a role he started playing last season when Emmanuel Lamur was out with his own shoulder injury. Lamur is healthy and expected to resume his duties at the position.

Charles
5. Latest on Orson Charles: TMZ Sports reported Wednesday that the gun H-back Charles allegedly waved at a motorist while traveling down Interstate 75 in Kentucky last month was loaded. The website obtained the latest version of the police report, which contains more details about what happened in the road-rage incident. A passenger of Charles' told police that when she saw Charles reaching for the gun, she grabbed it and put it in her purse and tossed the purse into the backseat. Previous incident reports said the gun was found in a purse. Charles pleaded not guilty last week and has a pre-trial hearing set for next Thursday. For now, this incident has no bearing on his status with the Bengals.

Plus-1: A bonus take. The Bengals signed punter T.J. Conley on Wednesday. Nothing to be alarmed about there, starter Kevin Huber will be fine and fully recovered from his late-season jaw and neck injury long before training camp starts. Conley was just brought on to give the Bengals an extra leg to keep Huber's fresh in camp.
CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have signed former Houston Texan Danieal Manning to a one-year deal, let's take a look at how his career numbers compare to the other safeties already on Cincinnati's roster.

Manning, an eight-year veteran who also spent five years with the Bears, joins a defensive backfield that includes safeties Reggie Nelson, George Iloka, Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams. Unrestricted free agent Chris Crocker is still technically in the mix at the position, too, even though Manning's signing seems a clear indicator that Crocker won't be re-signed before free agency ends. It was doubtful he'd want to make a comeback next season anyway after entering retirement the past two years. Still, we included Crocker's numbers to give an idea of how Manning compares.

One area where Manning will be a help, particularly at the strong safety position he and Iloka could conceivably battle for, is in forcing turnovers. The numbers show that, like Nelson, he has a knack for doing that.

As you can see, he stacks up quite favorably in other areas, too:

Four days before the free-agency period began, the Cincinnati Bengals announced that unrestricted free agent and backup offensive guard/center Mike Pollak had been re-signed.

When the team also announced the following Tuesday that starting center Kyle Cook had been cut, the re-signing started to make sense. The Bengals, it seemed, wanted Pollak to contend for the center vacancy. One look at the three-year contract Pollak just signed makes that even more apparent.

After maxing out at a single-season base salary of $715,000 in 2013, Pollak stands to make more than $1 million in base salary next season, his seventh as an NFL lineman. With a $1 million guarantee in the first year of the deal and escalators of up to $1 million across the final two seasons, he seems to have the kind of contract that warrants more than just relief appearances at right guard.

Defensive back Taylor Mays, on the other hand, didn't come out quite as fortunate. Signed to a one-year deal, he's slated to make $755,000 of base salary next season. With just $40,000 of guaranteed money from a signing bonus, his cap value for the 2014 season is $795,000.

Mays' re-signing was made official Monday after he had reportedly agreed to a deal last Tuesday. The unrestricted free agent appeared in just eight games last season before a shoulder injury sidelined him the rest of the year. Mays' role was largely an undefined one after a late-preseason injury to linebacker Emmanuel Lamur forced him into learning how to play that position. He was asked to play as a cover linebacker in certain nickel situations. In addition to tinkering with that position, Mays also played his normal safety position. He figures to get more time this offseason working on the nickel linebacker spot in the event he's needed there again in relief this season.

Pollak is expected to enter OTAs and training camp competing with Trevor Robinson for the starting center job. He also could get first-team work at guard. After right guard Kevin Zeitler was lost for a few weeks with a foot injury late last season, Pollak came off the bench and started. His efforts were so well received by coaches that he remained in the starting rotation even after Zeitler was cleared to return. There's a chance Pollak could get work at left guard this preseason as well, depending upon how Clint Boling's recovery from ACL surgery progresses.

Here's a year-by-year look at the breakdown of both Pollak's and Mays' new Bengals contracts (specifics come from ESPN's Stats & Information):

Taylor Mays 2014
Cap value: $795,000
Cash value: $795,000
Signing bonus: $40,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $0
Base salary: $755,000
Guaranteed money: $40,000

Mike Pollak 2014
Cap value: $1,766,666
Cash value: $2,100,000
Signing bonus: $500,000
Roster bonus: $500,000 (kicked in on the third day of the league year)
Workout bonus: $75,000
Base salary: $1,025,000
Guaranteed money: $1,000,000

Mike Pollak 2015
Cap value: $1,441,666
Cash value: $1,275,000
Signing bonus: $0
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $75,000
Base salary: $1,200,000
*Could see an escalator up to $750,000 based on playing time.

Mike Pollak 2016
Cap value: $1,591,668
Cash value: $1,425,000
Signing bonus: $0
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $75,000
Base salary: $1,350,000
*Could see an escalator up to $1 million based on playing time.
CINCINNATI -- Taylor Mays' re-signing with the Cincinnati Bengals had been reported last week, but the Bengals still had paperwork to process and a few other items and had to hold off on making the announcement official until now.

The Bengals formally announced Monday afternoon that Mays had re-signed with the club, joining the Mike Pollak, Brandon Tate and Vincent Rey. A defensive back who was traded to Cincinnati in 2011, Mays officially becomes the fourth 2014 Bengals free agent to stay with the franchise. Defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Cornerback Brandon Ghee signed with the San Diego Chargers. Center Kyle Cook and linebacker James Harrison also were cut.

After playing in all 16 games in 2012, Mays entered 2013 in a bit of depth-chart limbo. Was he a safety? Was he a linebacker? Was he just an additional cover defender? Coaches weren't too keen on saying what his exact role was.

Originally, then-linebackers coach Paul Guenther claimed Mays as one of his own because of a late-preseason injury to Nickel linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. Head coach Marvin Lewis, though, dismissed that notion and said Mays wasn't a linebacker. In Lewis' eyes, he was simply a defensive back.

With more time train to be a cover linebacker, Mays could line up alongside Lamur during workouts later this year. His combination of size and athleticism make him a logical fit to battle in coverage with tight ends and running backs. Guenther seemed committed to the tweak when he was the Bengals' linebackers coach. Now that he's the defensive coordinator, he may decide to try it out again.

Just when Mays was beginning to find a niche in Cincinnati's defense in the middle of last season, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. It came on the final play of the first half of the Bengals' 40-point Week 8 rout of the Jets.

A former Southern Cal standout, Mays was originally drafted in the second round by San Francisco in 2010.

Chris Crocker, the player who joined the Bengals' secondary out of retirement the last two seasons, is the franchise's only remaining free agent defensive back.
CINCINNATI -- If it seems like the Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the quietest teams these first two days of the free agency period, it's because they have been.

And they like it that way.

So do 11 other teams, apparently. On Wednesday, ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky pointed out that a dozen teams, including the Packers and Bengals, had at that point stood pat when it came to signing outside free agents. Both organizations have approached free agency that way over the years. They would prefer to build through the draft instead of bringing in too many high-priced, big-name, Day 1 free agents from the outside and have them adapt to the franchise. Such free agents have come to both cities in recent years, but bringing them in is far more the exception than the rule.

In addition to the Packers and Bengals, four other 2013 playoff teams were inactive into these first two days of free agency. Carolina, Kansas City, New England and Seattle also hadn't made moves from the outside. Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, St. Louis and the New York Jets also hadn't made any moves.

The only moves the Bengals have made so far have been internal. Guard Mike Pollak was re-signed last weekend. Receiver and return specialist Brandon Tate was brought back Tuesday, about four hours before the free agency period started. Reports have indicated the Bengals also re-signed defensive back Taylor Mays late Tuesday, although the team has not officially announced his signing.

Along with those moves, the Bengals on Tuesday cut center Kyle Cook, lost defensive end Michael Johnson to Tampa Bay, and were put on the clock by the Cleveland Browns, who provided receiver Andrew Hawkins an offer sheet that he signed. Cincinnati has another four days to match the offer. If they do, Hawkins, a restricted free agent, will remain a Bengal.

As the Bengals start trying to re-sign potential 2015 free agents like A.J. Green, Vontaze Burfict and Andy Dalton, they aren't expected to expend much cash on players who aren't already part of the organization. There might be some external additions that come late in the free agency process, but they likely will be depth-focused signings that won't command many dollars.

So for the Bengals fans who have Darrelle Revis and Alex Mack on your free-agency wish lists, scratch them off. They aren't coming to Cincinnati.
Welcome to free agency, folks.

The NFL's ban on teams being allowed to speak with eligible free agents from other teams gets lifted at noon Saturday, officially kicking off the 2014 free agency period. On Tuesday, the Cincinnati Bengals and the rest of the teams in the league will be able to sign whichever players who are free agents that they would like.

While rumors pertaining to defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins may dominate the chatter surrounding the Bengals this weekend, another name many of you will have your eyes on is Oakland running back Darren McFadden. Could he end up coming to Cincinnati later this month and fitting? We'll address that, among many other concerns in the mailbag below. (As a quick reminder, you can have your Bengals-related questions answered for a mailbag each weekend. Just tweet me @ColeyHarvey before Friday afternoon with your inquiry. Hashtag it #Bengalsmailbag if the question is specifically for the mailbag)

Let's get to it.

 
Monday kicked off a busy two weeks in the NFL as the period for naming franchise and transition tag players began.

It also marked the unofficial start to the combine, with reporters and bloggers starting to write about what to expect from the 32 teams when players arrive in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

We wrote about both events on ESPN.com's Bengals blog Monday, expanding on the likelihood Cincinnati uses a franchise tag this year, and a look at which types of running back prospects the Bengals may want to explore at the combine later this week. When it comes to the franchise tag, there isn't a very strong chance the Bengals use it this year after using it the last two seasons. Kicker Mike Nugent returned for a two-year deal after his tagging in 2012, but will defensive end Michael Johnson be back this fall after his own tagging in 2013? It's doubtful.

With respect to the types of running backs the Bengals might explore when the combine begins, think about physical runners. Those who can catch passes out of the backfield won't hurt, either. But as mentioned in the link above, on the totem pole of importance in this mostly depth-setting draft, the running back position ranks rather low. There are other needs in the defensive secondary and on the lines that could take precedent. Then there is the whole quarterback question: Should the Bengals take one to add to the depth behind Andy Dalton should he disappoint at some point during this, his final contract year?

Franchise tags and the combine have been written about by others so far this week, as well. This Tuesday's Morning Stripes are all about franchise tags and the combine:
  • Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Joe Reedy also looked at the Bengals' franchise tag situation and doubted the Bengals actually use the tag on any of their unrestricted free agents. While he felt offensive tackle Anthony Collins and defensive back Taylor Mays were tag possibilities, he didn't believe either would end up happening.
  • Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson had this lengthy feature about the value of the combine. Bengals receiver and restricted free agent Andrew Hawkins was one of those who wasn't invited to the combine the year he was eligible for the draft, and yet, through some additional hoops to jump through and obstacles to overcome, he has still had an NFL career. Aside from the ankle injury that ruined the first half of his 2013 season, Hawkins' career has arguably been a pretty good one, too. Still, even he understands the value of the combine and discusses why if it wasn't for the event, he might not be playing for an NFL team after all.
  • Also from the Enquirer is this from Paul Dehner Jr., who writes about how former Bengals receiver Jordan Shipley has started transitioning to life after football. He ended up retiring late last month after bouncing around a few teams following his 2012 release from the Bengals. The avid hunter's post-football plans have taken him to the Outdoor Channel, where he will fill in as an occasional host on hunting shows.
CINCINNATI -- The start of free agency is still a month away, but it still appears to be as good a time as any to evaluate the Cincinnati Bengals' free agents and break down the odds each will be back next season.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
WR/KR/PR Brandon Tate
The money (2013 season cap value): $966,000
The stats (2013 stats): 35 kick returners, 26.1 yards per kick return (ninth among players with at least 20 returns), 36 punt returns, 9.3 yards per punt return.
The skinny: The Bengals benefited all season from THE strong field position that Tate's kick returns provided. He also had a 29-yard punt return in overtime that helped set up Cincinnati's game-winning field goal at Buffalo. With cornerback Adam Jones the only other returning specialist with significant experience, the Bengals should want to keep Tate.
The odds: High.

TE Alex Smith
The money: $620,000
The stats: 3 catches, 12 yards, 1 TD, 1 fumble.
The skinny: Smith was the third tight end in an offense that ended the year with five (including offensive tackle Dennis Roland and H-back Orson Charles in that mix). With Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert emerging as a solid two-man tight end rotation, Smith likely will be on the outside looking in again. The Bengals don't need to re-sign him, but they don't have to let him go, either.
The odds: Push.

OT Anthony Collins
The money: $2.1 million
Collins
The skinny: Arguably the Bengals' second-most valuable offensive lineman, Collins was a flexible and versatile edge protector this season. In addition to starting at left tackle late in the year after injuries forced the Bengals to shake up their lineup, Collins also came off the bench and performed adequately in relief. Pro Football Focus credited him with not allowing a sack all season. As he stands to earn a significant pay increase, Collins might be too expensive to be brought back to the Bengals.
The odds: Low.

OG Mike Pollak
The money: $620,000
The skinny: His knee injury aside, Pollak provided the Bengals with great value on the offensive line. Like Collins, he was asked to come in off the bench when injuries slowed starting right guard Kevin Zeitler. Even when Zeitler was healthy enough to play, Pollak remained in his spot, starting five of the last six regular-season games. Pollak also can play center if need be.
The odds: High.

OT Dennis Roland
The money: $130,588
The skinny: Roland wasn't on the roster at one point in the season, released as the Bengals tried to address other deficient areas on their roster. But when o-line injuries popped up late in the season, he was brought back. Most of his playing time came in the regular-season finale, when he served as an extra blocker with Gresham and Eifert hurt.
The odds: Push.

DE Michael Johnson
The money: $11.2 million
The stats: Career-high 56 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 8 batted passes, 1 interception.
Johnson
The skinny: Johnson will be one of the most coveted players of this free-agency cycle. Whatever overtures Johnson receives, the Bengals probably won't be able to compensate him everything he's worth. While the batted passes were a point of pride for the Bengals, there was a concern that Johnson didn't get to the quarterback often enough this season.
The odds: Very low.

LB Michael Boley
The money: $642,353
The stats: Eight tackles, 10 games played.
The skinny: Brought to Cincinnati to help address lacking depth and linebacker coverage concerns, the Bengals added Boley during the 2013 season. He probably won't return as the Bengals try to add a younger cover linebacker through the draft.
The odds: Low.

CB Brandon Ghee
The money: $630,000
The stats: Six tackles, 10 games played.
The skinny: 2013 was supposed to be the year Ghee finally began playing regularly in the Bengals' secondary rotation. A preseason concussion was a major setback, though, and he never did quite get back to where he was before the injury. Still, with cornerback depth and age an issue for the Bengals, there is a chance they keep him in the mix.
The odds: Push.

DB Taylor Mays
The money: $645,000
The stats: 17 tackles in eight games.
The skinny: Mays ended the year on injured reserve after suffering a shoulder injury in the Week 9 blowout win over the Jets. It was poor timing, too, because just before the injury, he was in the middle of arguably the best season of his four-year career. He had already played some linebacker, helping fill a serious need that arose following Emmanuel Lamur's late-preseason injury.
The odds: High.

S Chris Crocker
The money: $457,059
The stats: 37 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions.
The skinny: Like Boley, Crocker was signed to a year contract in the middle of the season to address depth issues. The 33-year-old who was called out of retirement mostly played well and was a vocal leader in the locker room. He came back mostly because of previous defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's presence on the team. With Zimmer now Minnesota's head coach, it's likely Crocker is gone, too.
The odds: Very low.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
The money: $555,000
The stats: Six catches, 61 yards in 10 games played.
The skinny: Sanzenbacher was a favorite of former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's. He gave the Bengals an extra possession receiver.
The odds: Push.

WR Andrew Hawkins
The money: $560,425
The stats: 12 catches, 199 yards, 8 first downs in eight games played.
Hawkins
The skinny: A preseason injury placed Hawkins under IR/designated-to-return status until the middle of the season. When he came back, he showed just how potent Cincinnati's offense can be with another player with his stature, speed and athleticism.
The odds: High.

LB Vincent Rey
The money: $630,000
The stats: Career-high 47 tackles, career-high 4 sacks, career-high 2 interceptions.
The skinny: Rey was one of the Bengals' unsung defensive heroes, filling in admirably when Rey Maualuga was lost in the middle of the season to a knee injury. The career Bengal is well-liked in Cincinnati and could see his star rise with former linebackers coach Paul Guenther as the team's new defensive coordinator.
The odds: High.

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