NFL Nation: AFC North

Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for NFL Nation TV's Spreecast as we return for episode No. 46 with our sights fully set on free agency.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) Will be joined by four other NFL Nation reporters throughout the show.

Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions reporter) will take us behind the Lions' decision to avoid franchise-tagging defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and also give us an idea of where the prized lineman might end up.

Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) will join to make sense of New England's decision to place the franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, instead of potentially doing so with free-agent defensive backs Darrelle Revis or Devin McCourty.

Todd Archer (Dallas Cowboys reporter) will give us an update on the Cowboys' apparent decision to let DeMarco Murray, 2014's rushing leader, test the open market.

Sticking with offense, Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers reporter) checks in to outline why the Packers may be content doing the same with receiver Randall Cobb, who reportedly was looking to stay in Green Bay for $12 million a year.

As always, viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

CINCINNATI -- Let's stress this at the very beginning: it's only a visit.

Free-agent visits don't always lead to a signing.

Jones
Tate
Tate
Still, the fact that, according to reports, former Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones was meeting Monday with the Cincinnati Bengals ahead of a stop in Tennessee is something that can't easily be dismissed. Especially considering the Bengals just released one wide out, have another two set to hit free agency next week, and are expected to make multiple moves at the position later this offseason.

Jones' trip to Cincinnati can be read any number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is this: it's a sign Brandon Tate's time in the Queen City will soon end.

Tate is one of two Bengals receivers expected to hit unrestricted free agency next week. As Cincinnati pushes to revitalize a receiving unit that was decimated by injuries this past season, it's hard to see him and Dane Sanzenbacher returning for new deals. Bengals coaches have already expressed their desire to enhance the position's speed and return ability through the draft. With a deep pool of fast wide outs with return experience coming out of college this year, it makes sense to go that direction.

But what if there is a veteran who can provide all of those things, too, and who can contribute without needing to get acclimated to the league first? Do you go after him?

We Ted Ginn Jr. or Jacoby Jones?" href="http://espn.go.com/blog/cincinnati-bengals/post/_/id/15826/cincinnati-bengals-jacoby-jones-ted-ginn-free-agency-add-sign" target="_blank">sought to answer those questions last week when Jones was cut by Baltimore, just after the Arizona Cardinals did the same with Ohio State product Ted Ginn. At the time it seemed to make more sense for the Bengals to take a peek at Ginn, whose size made him a bit of a better fit for the style wideout they are interested in adding through the draft.

Both releases, though, came before Greg Little was cut by Cincinnati last Friday.

With Little, a larger-bodied boundary receiver now off the roster, the Bengals have a spot for a player of Jones' stature. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Jones is about the same size as Little, and would be a natural fit in the rotation behind bigger receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu. It's worth pointing out that all of Cincinnati's wideouts eventually end up in the slot. But some get there more often than others.

As for Tate, his days appear numbered because visits like this one are a sign the Bengals are identifying and targeting players who can do exactly what he can.

The Bengals paid the 27-year-old Tate about $1.02 million in 2014 to primarily be a backup receiver and to return kickoffs and occasional punts. Used more than in his previous seasons as a Bengal because of the numerous injuries, he caught 17 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. He also returned 18 kicks for an average 22.1 yards, and 18 punts for an average 9.7 yards.

Jacoby Jones, now four months shy of turning 31, had a cap value of about $1.9 million this past season. He caught nine passes for 131 yards for the Ravens, and also had four drops. As a returner, he averaged 30.6 yards per kick and had a touchdown. Only Cincinnati's Adam Jones had a higher kick-return average of players with more than 20 returns.

Sure, Jacoby Jones' drop numbers are high and his age is up, too. Maybe that combination will prevent it from working out for him and the Bengals.

Even if that happens, this visit shows Cincinnati is looking for Tate's replacement.
CINCINNATI -- In an effort to clear a little cap space and to start making room on the roster for offseason additions, the Cincinnati Bengals released Friday veteran defensive end Robert Geathers and receiver Greg Little.

Combined, the two releases will give the Bengals roughly $3.2 million in cap savings.

The Bengals also released offensive guard Mike Pollak last Friday.

Geathers
Little
Geathers' release wasn't much of a surprise, as it had been expected that either he or tackle Domata Peko would be on the defensive line's chopping block this offseason. It also was expected that Little wouldn't be brought back to the club. The fourth-year receiver had a rather disappointing six-game run in Cincinnati this past season, and didn't do much to convince the Bengals he belonged in the Queen City for another year.

Signed last October to help the Bengals address a need at the injury-plagued receiver position, Little caught just six passes for 69 yards during his brief stay. He also dropped two passes.

Geathers' departure brings an end to one of the franchise's longest-standing tenures. An 11-year NFL vet -- all of them spent in Cincinnati after his fourth-round selection in 2004 -- Geathers ranks third in team history in games played by a defensive lineman. Tim Krumrie (188) and Eddie Edwards (170) outpace him. Geathers also was part of all five playoff appearances under head coach Marvin Lewis. Cincinnati is 0-5 in those games. Geathers is one of the few players in franchise history who has played in that many postseasons.

"Robert has been with us for all my seasons except the first one," Lewis said about the 31-year-old in a statement, "and he has been a team leader as well as a very productive player. He's an incredible teammate and a true professional, a big part of the winning seasons we've achieved. If Robert elects to pursue an opportunity with another NFL team, the timing of this move will allow him the best possible chance at that."

Geathers' younger brother, Kwame, joined the team late last season as a practice squad addition. He was signed to a future's contract in January, and is expected to be among the linemen competing for playing time when mini camp opens in May.

One of only 19 players to have spent 11 or more seasons with the Bengals, Geathers leaves behind some significant memories. He was a two-time team leader in sacks. He had a career-high 10.5 of his 34 sacks in 2006. He also scored two touchdowns off a fumble return and interception. The score off the fumble was a 75-yard return, the longest fumble return in team history.

An elbow injury ended Geathers' 2013 season after just two games. He didn't fully bounce back from it.

With Geathers and Little gone, the Bengals are expected to double their efforts to find players who can contribute at those positions. Cincinnati last season had the worst grade among NFL pass-rush units, according to Pro Football Focus.

Little's biggest claim to fame while in Cincinnati came about three weeks after his arrival when he was asked about his rocky departure from Cleveland. Days before the Bengals' Thursday night game against the Browns, he said "somebody has to pay" for the way he was released.

No one did. The Bengals lost the game 24-3, and Little caught just one eight-yard pass of three targets.
CINCINNATI -- One of the Cincinnati Bengals' greatest offseason needs involves getting receivers who also can provide good kick-return value.

With the possibility that unrestricted free agent Brandon Tate isn't re-signed, and given the fact the Bengals haven't added a true return specialist in several draft and free-agency cycles, there are compelling reasons as to why they are looking for players this year who fit that mold.

So can they just use free agency to address that need?

It's possible. And this week, they've been given two good options of free-agent kick-returning receivers.

Ginn
Ginn
Jones
But should the Bengals sign either Ted Ginn Jr. or Jacoby Jones, a pair of eight-year veterans who were released from their respective teams this week?

No.

Here's why. This year's draft class is full of speedy, athletic and productive pass-catchers who had success as kick returners throughout college. Unlike the near-30-year-old Ginn and the already 30 Jones, each of those players has projected upside and potential. Earlier this week, we looked at a few of them.

Various times this offseason, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has expressed an interest in going after fast wideouts who, like the 5-foot-11 Ginn, likely will be on the shorter side of the height chart. Only one of the prospect receivers in the link above is taller than 6-foot. Jones, at 6-2, is more of a bigger-bodied outside receiver. That alone likely rules him out.

One of the reasons the Bengals are expected to go after smaller receivers is because they need wideouts to play in the slot alongside the bigger A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. In addition to Tate, fellow slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher also is eligible for unrestricted free agency, and also might not be re-signed. If one or both is gone, there will be an opening that must be filled.

The Bengals also favor smaller receivers because there is a belief that in the short-passing game, receivers of smaller stature are easily lost by the linebackers and safeties who might cover them. It's one of the reasons Cincinnati has liked lining up 5-9 running back Giovani Bernard in the slot and putting him on a linebacker. The times the Bengals did it last year, it worked. He caught two touchdown passes last season that were the product of using his speed to exploit such mismatches.

Again, this draft has many receivers who can do exactly that.

While the Bengals generally might be placing a greater emphasis on free agency this year, it doesn't appear they will be doing that with this particular position. Things can always change, but it seems they favor grooming a hybrid receiver/returner. Their approach at defensive end, however, might be different. In need of immediately bettering their anemic pass rush, veteran players there won't have to learn much. Their only charge will be to get after the quarterback. Because speed is the focus at receiver, there's always the belief that a faster wideout can be found anywhere, in Rounds 1-7 or even as an undrafted free agent. The same might not be the case for athletic edge rushers.

Money won't be an issue for whoever signs Ginn or Jones. Ginn made $2.3 million this past season and Jones signed a contract extension last offseason that would pay him an average of $3 million across four seasons. The Bengals could afford that.

But they also can pay a fourth-round or fifth-round draft pick significantly less, giving them slightly more to work with to sign free agents at other positions of need.
Take a listen to this week's NFL Nation TV podcast as the crew breaks down the lessons it learned from last week's NFL combine in Indianapolis, as well as the latest in the push for bringing the NFL to Los Angeles.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by four other NFL Nation reporters.

Eric Williams (San Diego Chargers reporter) joins to give an idea of how feasible it would be for the Raiders and Chargers to share a stadium in Southern California. Pat Yasinskas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter) discusses why he thinks Jameis Winston is all but a lock to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) breaks down which direction the Jets will go with the No. 6 overall draft pick. Will they go with a quarterback? Defense? Receiver? Paul Kuharsky (Tennessee Titans reporter) weighs with his thoughts on where the Titans will turn at No. 2 if Winston is off the board.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on ESPN.com at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT each Tuesday, and be sure to give the show's a podcast a listen following each taping.
CINCINNATI -- Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are targeting receivers in this year's draft.

But no, they aren't going after tall, jump-ball threats like A.J. Green.

With Green lining up on one edge and Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu expected to return as legitimate Nos. 2 and 3 options at the position behind the Pro Bowler, the Bengals have no reason to look for a long, above 6-foot wideout.

Instead, they're on the hunt for shifty and explosive playmakers. They can be 5-foot-2 or 5-foot-10 for all head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson care. They just want the receiver(s) they draft to be able to run fast and elude defenses -- and likely special-teams units.

As the Bengals continue their pre-draft evaluations, expect them to eye wideouts who also can return kicks and punts.

"That's an area we would always like to fill," Lewis said about adding returners for special-teams coordinator Darren Simmons. "Darren ends up sometimes being a little frustrated about that because we don't quite end up getting that filled as well as we maybe could."

That seems to suggest the Bengals are placing a greater emphasis on adding a new return specialist this year. Brandon Tate, the team's primary kick returner since his arrival in 2011, is eligible for free agency. Cornerback Adam Jones is expected to remain the top punt returner, but he would need a new backup if Tate isn't re-signed.

"It's always been an emphasis," Lewis said. "It just happens to fall into place that that guy's role is a little larger than maybe it seems."

So maybe the push for getting a receiver who can double as a kick/punt returner is the same it's been in recent years, but it certainly appears the Bengals would favor draft prospects who have a returner's background.

When Jackson detailed to reporters last week his ideal receiver target, he could have been talking about any one of the players in the accompanying graph.

"He has to be a playmaker that is fast," Jackson said. "I don't think it's about size. We have big guys already.

"I'm looking for a great football player, if we do decide to go that way, who can give us something we don't already have. We have some very talented players at the [receiver] spot, but again, I don't think you can ever have too many playmakers. It was shown. As our season wound down last year we kind of lost some battles in that area because we were kind of short-handed [due to injury]."

Some of the most dynamic playmakers on the field are those who can turn momentum just by juking coverage-team players.

No wide out in this draft class was as good at doing that as a kick returner as Alabama-Birmingham's J.J. Nelson. A possible late-round prospect, Nelson led the nation with an average 38.3 yards per kick return in 2014. He bolstered his case for being drafted over the weekend when he ran a combine-best 4.28-second 40.

Early-round possibilities include Maryland's Stefon Diggs, who averaged 23.9 yards per kick return last season. Tyler Lockett, a Kansas State product who had 106 catches and a second straight double-digit touchdown performance last year, had eight punt returns over 20 yards. Nelson Agholor from USC had a pair of punt-return touchdowns, as did Duke's Jamison Crowder.

Only one of the four, Agholor, is taller than 6-foot.

Remember, the Bengals value across-the-board versatility. Their return backgrounds alone ought to get these players on Cincinnati's big board.

CINCINNATI -- The NFL combine is concluding Monday in Indianapolis as defensive backs go through on-field workouts.

Unlike recent years, there is no significant need for the Cincinnati Bengals to draft players in the secondary, and all the other positions they will target have finished competing.

Here's a look back at a few of the numbers posted by some players who could land on the Bengals' big board before the end of April.

OFFENSIVE TACKLES

Ereck Flowers, Miami (Florida): The 6-foot-6, 329-pounder earned the title of strongest man at this year's combine after his 37 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press. As great as those numbers were, they weren't enough to pass the previous bench king, Russell Bodine. The current Bengals center had 42 reps at last year's combine. That display of strength caught the Bengals' attention, and helped convince them to take him in the fourth round.

Jake Fisher, Oregon: A "top performer" in four categories, Fisher was clearly among the more athletic offensive linemen at the combine. It's possible he won't be on the board when the Bengals pick at No. 21, but his agility could make him a good option for them. At 6-foot-6, 306 pounds, he's lighter than Cincinnati normally drafts at the tackle position. Perhaps that weight helped him post some of the best numbers among offensive linemen in the vertical jump, 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill, and the 20-yard shuttle.

La'el Collins, LSU: Although he didn't reach "top performer" status in any area, Collins helped himself. He was close in a couple areas. His 40-yard time of 5.12 seconds wasn't far off the offensive line-low of 4.98.

WIDE RECEIVERS

J.J. Nelson, Alabama-Birmingham: He might not be drafted, but Nelson made a case for why he should be. He had the nation's top kick-returning average last season, so he's versatile. The 5-foot-10, 156-pounder helped himself by posting the fastest pre-Monday 40 time with a 4.28. He also had the fifth-longest broad jump at 127 inches. The Bengals want fast receivers, and he could be a good Day 3 or post-draft option.

Phillip Dorsett, Miami (Florida): Dorsett has been among the favorite targets among receivers to go in the late-first or second round, namely because of his speed. He posted the second-fastest 40 time at 4.33 seconds. A 5-foot-10, 185-pound slot-receiver type, teams probably will scrutinize his hands among other areas to determine if he really is worth being drafted in the second round or earlier.

Nelson Agholor, USC: Only participating in two events (the 40-yard dash and the bench press), Agholor didn't place as a "top performer." His 40 time of 4.42 seconds tied for seventh-fastest among receivers, and his 12 bench reps were right in the middle of the receiver pack.

Tyler Lockett, Kansas State: One of the more athletic receivers, Lockett was a "top performer" in three categories, placing in the top 5 in the 40-yard time, and the 20- and 60-yard shuttles. His 4.40 40 was the fifth-fastest at his position.

Devin Smith, Ohio State: Smith didn't stand out much in combine testing and might have hurt his potential first-round status. His 40-yard time was notable, though, as he tied Agholor's 4.42.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN/LINEBACKERS

Bud Dupree, Kentucky: Listed as a linebacker at the combine, the hybrid edge rusher was a "top performer" in all three events in which he participated. He ran a 4.56-second 40, had a 42-inch vertical, and a 138-inch broad jump.

Vic Beasley, Clemson: It still seems likely the Bengals go elsewhere, but Beasley showed why he would be a great pickup late in the first round. He was in the top 5 at his position of every drill he went through, even posting the linebackers' low of 4.53 seconds in the 40, and the high in bench with 35.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard at the NFL combine Friday:

1. Dupree on Bengals list: Among the several needs the Cincinnati Bengals have this offseason, shoring up their pass rush ranks atop the list. While it seems the growing belief is that they may use free agency in order to address that concern, there is also a chance they could ultimately be sold on drafting a prospect who could be groomed into their system. One possible drafted lineman is Kentucky product Alvin "Bud" Dupree. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound player listed as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker told ESPN.com Friday that he had an interview set up with Cincinnati. Dupree also said he felt comfortable playing on the line as a rush end if the team that drafted him wanted him to do exclusively that.

2. Spot for Newman? Is there a place for veteran cornerback Terence Newman on the Bengals' roster? Suddenly, that's become a question Cincinnati has to answer. Head coach Marvin Lewis told reporters at the combine Thursday that the 36-year-old Newman had informed him he wanted to return for another season. Previously, Newman had said he would be mulling retirement since he's entering free agency this offseason. Since the Bengals appear set at corner with Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick coming off strong 2014 campaigns, it doesn't appear there will be a place for Newman on the roster. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Friday that the coaches haven't yet made any determination on whether they'll have Newman back next. "We haven't really discussed that," Guenther said. "He's a great role model for the younger players, and he played pretty damn good last year, until the end of the year when he kind of wore down a little bit. But he gives you everything he's got. If he were on our team, that would be great."

3. More man-to-man coming? One of the areas Guenther wants to address defensively next season is the way his cornerbacks play in coverage. He felt the defense got away from the strict man-to-man setup that he knows his cornerbacks can employ. Specifically, he believes he needs to do it because he has trust that Kirkpatrick and Dennard, two first-round corners drafted in the last four years, can do it. "If you draft corners that high and take them, that's one of the reasons why you do it."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL combine enters its fourth day at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday, and I'm here covering the event from a Cincinnati Bengals' perspective.

This week we've looked at three key areas the Bengals will want to address during this draft process. There are others, and that's why these few days in Indianapolis are so important to helping determine the direction the franchise goes. At the start of each day, we will provide a quick rundown of what to expect as the team starts examining players it wants on its big board heading into the draft.

Here are three things I'll have my eye on during Day 4 of the combine:

1. On-field workouts begin. The always anticipated on-field workouts begin as the offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists train on Lucas Oil Stadium's turf. A day after bench pressing, their 40-yard times will be recorded, and they'll be taken through other speed and agility and position-specific drills. This will be the final stage of combine testing for the three position groups.

2. Time to meet the pass-rushers. Another group of prospects will meet the media Friday as interviews continue. While it's possible the Bengals ultimately decide to use free agency to fix their pass-rushing issues, they still will take a look at the various defensive linemen and linebackers who arrived in Indianapolis on Thursday. Bottom line: they need help getting to the quarterback after last season's abysmal 20-sack showing. Linebackers who can play Sam, Will and nickel roles are the biggest necessities at that level of the defense.

3. Defensive updates. Speaking of the pass rush, it is sure to be among the topics broached by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who is expected to meet with Bengals reporters briefly. Also be on the lookout for more updates from him on linebacker Vontaze Burfict's recovery from knee surgery, and his early thoughts on how the cornerback rotations could break down in 2015.

4. Wrapping up a busy Thursday. You'll also want to keep checking back to the Bengals blog throughout the day as we continue wrapping up a busy Thursday. Head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson spoke, and there still is plenty from them to get to.
INDIANAPOLIS – Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the NFL combine Thursday that he and team president Mike Brown have not had conversations about extending his contract, which expires at the end of the 2015 season.

At last year's combine, Lewis acknowledged he and Brown had discussions about keeping him in Cincinnati. A month later, the team announced a one-year extension that allowed him to coach the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Lewis
Much as he did 12 months ago, Lewis said Thursday that his focus wasn't on getting a new deal.

"I don’t worry about my contract," Lewis said. "As I told you a year ago, my contract will take care of itself. It always does. It's not about me. It's about the football team. That's what's most important."

At last year's combine, in giving a reason for his lack of an extension, Lewis cited the dozen or so assistant coach hirings or re-signings the team had to make first. This year, he didn't say anything more than the comment above.

The second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL, the 56-year-old Lewis has led the Bengals since 2003.

Lewis joked at the Super Bowl about possibly vacating his post as early as next season. During a segment on ESPN’s "NFL Live," Lewis laughed as he brought up the possibility that Bengals assistant Vance Joseph might take his spot in the very near future.

"My boss and owner sees him as a star," Lewis said, "and a guy that, as I told Vance, he could be sitting in my chair very quickly.

"It could be next year."

Joseph, who has spent one season as the Bengals’ co-defensive backs coach, was courted earlier this offseason by the Broncos and 49ers for their defensive coordinator positions. He's viewed across the league as a rising star and is expected to be a head coach somewhere in coming years.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson met with the media on Thursday at the NFL combine. Here's what we learned about the Cincinnati Bengals:

New direction amid stability: Compared to many of their counterparts, the Bengals brought a considerable amount of stability into this offseason. All of their coaches are returning to the same positions they held last year, and many key players will be returning from serious injury. Despite the overwhelming consistency, change appears to be on the horizon for the Bengals. "We've got to have a new direction to us," Lewis said. "We just can't brush it off saying, 'Well, if we did this or did that better -- bull -- we've got to get better. We've got to get better in every area. It starts at the top. It's my responsibility."

Newman
Newman
Will Newman be back? When he left Paul Brown Stadium the Monday after the Bengals' playoff loss at Indianapolis, Terence Newman told reporters he wasn't sure what his future held. The 36-year-old cornerback entertained thoughts of retirement for the first time. Lewis said Thursday those thoughts were short-lived. The veteran has informed the head coach he wants to keep playing. But with Newman about to be a free agent, and the Bengals' youngest corners coming off a strong 2014 season, there might not be a place in Cincinnati for him. "Terence has done a great job for us," Lewis said. "He's been a great player, he's been a great mentor. He's a good young man and he'll continue to be successful with whatever he chooses to do. We'll see what happens with us down the road."

Burfict's important offseason: Lewis said Vontaze Burfict has been "working his tail off" in rehab. The Pro Bowl linebacker is coming off microfracture surgery to his left knee that has him set for a possible return sometime close to training camp. "He's one of our dynamic players. He's a dynamic leader," Lewis said. "We're a better football team with Vontaze on the field. So we hope to get him back full speed and healthy as quick as we can. He knows the importance of [this offseason] for him, for us, for his career."

Injury update, Part 2: In addition to Burfict, Lewis and Jackson both acknowledged that they understood receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert were progressing well in their rehabs from respective ankle/foot and shoulder/elbow injuries. Jones sent video to reporters a couple weeks ago of himself doing speed-harness training in the sand in California. Eifert has appeared in videos in the last week participating in hockey shootouts. "Me knowing both young men, they both want to be back out there," Jackson said. "It's important to them. Last year hurt them because they weren't a part of it." Jones missed all of the 2014 season and Eifert missed all but eight plays.

Guenther up next: As the Bengals' media availability at the combine winds down, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is expected to meet with beat reporters Friday to provide additional updates on the defense.
INDIANAPOLIS -- This should come as little surprise, but expect the Cincinnati Bengals to have their hands full as they bid for Clint Boling's services when free agency begins next month.

It's possible the versatile 25-year-old left guard draws significant interest when the market officially opens March 10. This tweet from ESPN senior writer Jeremy Fowler from Thursday morning provides a good indication why.


So what exactly makes Boling a potential "under-radar" favorite?

There's a number of reasons. Chief among them is Boling's aforementioned positional flexibility. Although he spent the bulk of his career at left guard, Boling also has spent some time at right tackle. In addition to playing a little there in college, he practiced at the position in preseason camps and ended up there for parts of two games this past season after starter Andre Smith was lost for the year with a torn triceps.

Boling also has to be attractive because of how well he played in 2014 considering he was less than nine months removed from ACL surgery. While his defensive teammate, tackle Geno Atkins, struggled to bounce back from his own ACL tear, Boling was strong on the line, particularly in opening holes for the running game. Pro Football Focus graded him as the Bengals' third-best run-blocker behind Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler.

For teams that want to make the ground game the priority, Boling has value.

Clearly, with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard such a focal point of their offense, the Bengals are one such team. As a result, they're going to make a play to keep Boling.

With a $1.6 million cap charge in 2014, Boling was one of the cheapest starting guards in the league. Forty-eight guards had higher cap values than him, including his backup, Mike Pollak.

The Bengals come into this year's free agency with an anticipated $33 million in cap space. The NFL has yet to announce what the final 2015 cap limit will be, but it's expected to hover just above $140 million per team.

Besides the potential affordability aspect of re-signing Boling, the Bengals also have a track record of pushing hard for re-signing players they trust. It's why Domata Peko earned an extension last offseason, and why Whitworth has been a stalwart of the offensive line. The Bengals this year will have to determine if the trust they have in Boling matches the dollar amount they're willing to spend on him.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL combine enters its third day at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Thursday, and I'm here covering the event from a Cincinnati Bengals perspective.

This week we've looked three key areas the Bengals will want to address during this draft process. There are others, and that's why these next few days are so important to helping determine the direction the franchise goes. At the start of each day, we will provide a quick rundown of what to expect as the team starts examining players it wants on its big board as we get closer to this year's draft.

Here are three things I'll have my eye on during Day 2 of the combine:

1.State of the Bengals: Part of what separates the combine from other pre-draft events is that coaches and general managers from nearly every team are assembled in one place, and get to chat with reporters about the latest that's happening with their teams. Cincinnati's turn is Thursday. Coach Marvin Lewis will speak publicly for the first time since the Super Bowl.

2. Injury updates: With several players rehabbing injuries, we'll see if Lewis will have any updates. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict still is in the early weeks of his recovery from microfracture surgery, and receiver Marvin Jones continues to move past ankle and foot issues he had this past season. Tight end Tyler Eifert has apparently been doing so well in his recovery from shoulder and elbow surgery that he's been participating in hockey shootouts the past two weeks.

3. Cincy's free agency plans? Don't expect Lewis or any other Bengals representatives to share every secret about which direction the team goes in free agency. But also don't be surprised if we start getting a slightly better idea of what the organization might like to do with its current free agents now that the start of the free-agency period is a little closer.

4. Bench presses begin: We'll start seeing the first testing results of the combine as offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists participate in the bench press. The exercise is an important test in determining players' strength. Last year, North Carolina product Russell Bodine paced all combine participants in bench reps by lifting 225 pounds 42 times. The Bengals were impressed by that and drafted the center in the fourth round.

5. Who to watch? Quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs all arrived to Indianapolis late Wednesday. Those players will speak with media Thursday. In Cincinnati's case, it will be important to keep an eye on receivers. Devin Smith (Ohio State), Phillip Dorsett (Miami of Florida), Breshad Perriman (Central Florida), Rashad Greene (Florida State), and Nelson Agholor (USC) are possible early round options the Bengals could consider.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- To play for the Cincinnati Bengals, an offensive lineman must possess one important quality: versatility.

Versatile linemen, in the eyes of Bengals coaches, are ones who aren't specialized. They're players who have no qualms about switching sides of the line if need be, or switching between interior and exterior blocking positions when asked.

LSU product and potential Bengals target La'el Collins considers himself to be precisely that type of player.

"I don't have any preference," Collins said Wednesday afternoon at the NFL combine, speaking specifically about playing left or right tackle. "I can go wherever."

Throughout his college career, Collins bounced back and forth between the two edge-blocking spots, and even did the same on the interior. His later years at LSU were spent playing left tackle. During the Senior Bowl, he took reps at four different line positions.

That's called versatility.

If you've followed the Bengals the last few seasons, you understand why the organization values such flexibility.

Two seasons ago, veteran Andrew Whitworth, the organization's stalwart left tackle moved to left guard the last six games when Clint Boling was lost due to an ACL tear. It wasn't the most ideal scenario for Whitworth, but he volunteered to make the switch anyway. While he preferred the comfort and familiarity of the left tackle position, he felt that moving inside would make the team even better. It arguably did, with the Bengals posting some of their best rushing performances in those end-of-season games.

This past season, the Bengals were forced to make similar switches when right tackle Andre Smith was lost in Week 11 due to a triceps tear. With him out of the rotation, Boling briefly moved from left guard to right tackle before the Cincinnati ultimately found a reliable replacement in veteran tackle Eric Winston.

Versatility; it's what can help a line during harrowing moments like those.

"It's a big advantage," Collins said about playing multiple positions. "It's about understanding the personnel you are blocking. When you're inside you are going against bigger guys. They are stronger, not faster, but on an island you are going against fast guys who are long with speed. You have to be able to understand where you're at on the field and understand the personnel you're going against."

Collins' versatility even extends to the other side of the ball. Before transitioning to the offensive line in high school, he spent the majority of his early playing years -- Collins started football in the third grade -- on the defensive line.

"I always had the mentality of a defensive lineman since I was a defensive guy," he said. "I was able to bring that over on the offensive side, but also bring that intelligence over as well to be able to play the offensive line position. To me, being able to go out with a mentality to just get after it is something I can bring to the table."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard at the NFL combine on Wednesday:

1.Key offensive tackle target speaks. Among the several offensive line prospects who came into the interview room, LSU product La'el Collins was one of the few who figures to be a Cincinnati Bengals target in this year's draft. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound lineman told reporters he has meetings set up with 22 teams while attending the combine. A team with a very real need at offensive tackle, the Bengals are likely one of those teams. Specifically, the Bengals are on the hunt for another backup swing tackle, while also looking for a player who could eventually take over at left tackle for Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth, who will turn 34 late next season.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey"Could I come in right now and play left [tackle]?" La'el Collins asked. "I feel very confident in what I do so for me it wouldn't be a problem."
2. Could Collins be a Bengals fit? Some of the feedback Collins has received so from teams suggests he would be a good fit for Cincinnati. "A lot of teams have told me I am their favorite offensive lineman," Collins said. "A lot of teams asked me if I could slide to the right side and then in two years maybe come over to the left. Could I come in right now and play left? I feel very confident in what I do so for me it wouldn't be a problem."

3. Interviews have impact. With all the pro days and the Senior Bowl and the myriad other ways teams can evaluate players these days, what is the main reason teams still flock to the combine? The interviews. While in Indianapolis, coaching and scouting staffs that don't attend the Senior Bowl can talk to players for the first time. Staffs that may have started conversations at the college all-star game can continue them at the combine. Here's what Washington head coach and former Bengals assistant Jay Gruden said about the benefit of interviews: "Your needs can change. I may be thinking about [one player at] a position but somebody else will stand out in the interview room or out on the field out there, and then you go back and watch the tape on them."

4. Looking for character. One of the benefits of the interview process is that it gives teams a chance to better vet players who may bring "red flags" or off-field issues to the draft process. Browns coach Mike Pettine was asked if he missed anything in evaluating quarterback Johnny Manziel last year. "There's a danger in that if you just say listen, we're only going to add players to our roster that are National Honor Society and in the school choir, there's a danger in that. You look across the league, it's not just the league, it's society in general. It's rare that you're going to have somebody that has impeccable, clean character. ... You can't just knee-jerk react to it and just look in the other direction with anybody that has some type of red flag and you shy away from them."

5. Bengals up Thursday. Cincinnati's coaches didn't address media Wednesday, but will Thursday. In addition to head coach Marvin Lewis' time at the podium, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is expected to meet with local media.

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