NFL Nation: AFC North

Most significant move: The most significant move of the cut-down period for the Cincinnati Bengals was the decision to terminate veteran running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis' contract Friday. It wasn't too surprising considering the fact the Bengals drafted rookie Jeremy Hill in the second round in May. Still, the fact that a veteran as respected as Green-Ellis -- he played in one Super Bowl and didn't have a fumble before arriving in Cincinnati -- got cut was attention-grabbing. The most stunning move of the weekend came Saturday, when defensive tackle Devon Still was waived. A former second-round pick, Still's release was a clear sign the Bengals have established the type of depth that now makes parting with such high picks the norm. Still's release also was stunning because earlier this year his 4-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. She just moved to Cincinnati for treatment last weekend. It was in part because of Still's personal situation that made coach Marvin Lewis mention multiple times Saturday how cutting him was among the most difficult decisions his staff had to make this year.

Same safety group: After signing veteran Danieal Manning in the offseason, the Bengals are going to end up entering the regular season in the exact same spot they were when the offseason began: with Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams backing up Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. Manning may have had versatility as a returner, and he may also have had some veteran savvy, but Williams still has promise and upside. He also has special-teams coverage ability -- a trait more valued on a team that already was chock full of possible return specialists. Mays also has potential and brings the added dimension of being able to play linebacker in certain nickel situations.

Hamilton the odd WR out: One of the more intriguing storylines to track this preseason had to do with the battle for the final wide receiver spots. Former practice-squad player Cobi Hamilton was slugging it out with rookie James Wright and veteran Brandon Tate. With bouts of inconsistency this summer, Hamilton long appeared to be the odd man out of the mix, and on Saturday he was. Although he still could be added back to the practice squad, Hamilton was cut while the other two stuck. Wright's penalties on special teams in games this preseason concern coaches, but his upside outweighs them, Lewis said.

What's next? For 10 of the 13 players who were waived, potentially the practice squad. Lewis didn't rule out the fact that many of them may make it on that list, which will be announced Sunday. For rookie quarterback AJ McCarron, the next six weeks will be filled with rehab and position meetings as he participates as part of the non-football injury list. He's unable to practice with the team until Week 7. Similarly, the Bengals are going to be monitoring rookie offensive guard Trey Hopkins, who was placed on injured reserve Saturday. They have until Tuesday to announce whether he will be on IR all year or if he can be IR'd with a designation to return after Week 9.

Bengals' moves: Terminated -- RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Danieal Manning, OT Will Svitek. Waived -- LB Brandon Joiner, QB Tyler Wilson, DT LaKendrick Ross, DT Devon Still, OG Trevor Robinson, WR Colin Lockett, H-back Orson Charles, FB Nikita Whitlock, RB James Wilder Jr., CB Victor Hampton, CB Onterio McCalebb, WR Cobi Hamilton, OT Dan France, DT David King, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Dontay Moch. Suspended -- CB Chris Lewis-Harris. Non-Football Injury List -- QB AJ McCarron. Injured Reserve -- OG Trey Hopkins. Waived/Injury Settlement -- CB Lavelle Westbrooks.
CINCINNATI -- Along with earlier reported cuts, the Cincinnati Bengals made a series of additional moves Saturday afternoon to reach their 53-man roster limit entering next week's regular season.

Manning
Among the biggest cuts were contract terminations of veteran safety Danieal Manning and offensive tackle Will Svitek. Those cuts were announced by the team not long after reports indicated defensive tackle Devon Still, H-back Orson Charles, offensive lineman Trevor Robinson and receiver Colin Lockett had been waived.

Those reports were all accurate.

In addition, the Bengals waived offensive tackle Dan France, cornerbacks Onterio McCalebb and Victor Hampton, receiver Cobi Hamilton, defensive tackle David King, defensive ends Dontay Moch and Sam Montgomery, fullback Nikita Whitlock and running back James Wilder Jr. All the players who were waived are eligible to join the team's practice squad, which will be named Sunday.

The Bengals expect to use all 10 practice squad spots.

Along with those moves, the Bengals also had a series of others to get down to the 53-man active roster. Offensive guard Trey Hopkins, an undrafted rookie free agent from Texas, was placed on the injured reserve with a leg injury. Hopkins was carted off the field in the fourth quarter of the Bengals' Week 3 preseason game at Arizona. Hopkins joins linebacker J.K. Schaffer on the IR.

In a corresponding move, seventh-round cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks, who cleared waivers this week after getting a thumb injury, was released with an injury settlement Saturday.

Cincinnati made one other injury-list designation when it put quarterback AJ McCarron on the non-football injury list with a shoulder issue that has plagued him since arriving in May. It means the Bengals will keep two quarterbacks, the same as they typically do. As part of the NFI list, McCarron can remain with the team for rehab and meetings but can't practice until Week 7. At that time, he will begin a window of eligibility to return to practice under a roster exemption, if medically cleared.

Additionally, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris went on the suspension reserve list after violating the league's substance abuse policy in July. He will miss the first two games.

Here is the complete list of moves made Saturday:

Contracts terminated
S Danieal Manning
OT Will Svitek

Waived (but eligible for practice squad)
OT Dan France
OL Trevor Robinson
RB James Wilder Jr.
FB Nikita Whitlock
H-back Orson Charles
WR Cobi Hamilton
WR Colin Lockett
DT David King
DT Devon Still
DE Dontay Moch
DE Sam Montgomery
CB Onterio McCalebb
CB Victor Hampton

Moved to Injured Reserve
OG Trey Hopkins (leg)

Given Injury Settlement
CB Lavelle Westbrooks (thumb)

Suspended (for 2 games)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris

Moved to Non-Football Injury List
QB AJ McCarron (shoulder)
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals have parted ways with defensive tackle Devon Still and H-back Orson Charles, according to Pro Football Talk.

A former second-round pick out of Penn State, Still was part of the same 2012 rookie class that brought linebacker Vontaze Burfict to Cincinnati as an undrafted free agent. Charles was a fourth-round Bengals selection in that same draft. He came to Cincinnati as a tight end but was moved to H-back last season.

In his two seasons with the Bengals, Still appeared in 18 games and recorded just 21 tackles. He also had one half sack, which came his rookie year.

Injuries overshadowed much of Still's career with the Bengals, including two major injuries he fought through in 2013. After bouncing back from a dislocated elbow, he suffered a back injury that held him out of the last two games of the regular season, as well as the Bengals' opening-round playoff loss to the Chargers. This offseason, Still underwent back surgery to repair a ruptured disc. He returned in time for training camp.

Still was hopeful that he'd contribute this season, going as far as telling me last week that he felt in the best health he had been in for quite some time.

Bengals coaches apparently didn't quite see Still's playing prospects as well as he did. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther intimated ahead of last week's third preseason game at Arizona that he wanted to see more from Still.

"I still think the fourth tackle spot's kind of open right now," Guenther said. "So hopefully somebody can take the lead on that one."

That "somebody" should have been Still, the backup to Domata Peko who played at times alongside fellow 2012 draft pick Brandon Thompson. With Geno Atkins sidelined with an ACL injury last season, Thompson stepped up and filled in admirably. He continued that strong play this preseason.

Still presumably will be replaced by Christo Bilukidi. Rookie Ryan Hewitt has been Charles' challenger all preseason, and is his expected replacement.

The news on Still getting cut has some poor timing for the lineman who is going through personal hardship right now. His 4-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed earlier this offseason with a serious pediatric cancer. Just last weekend she moved from Delaware to Cincinnati, where she will be almost exclusively treated at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

Charles had his own off-field situation this offseason. In March, he was arrested for waving a gun at a motorist in Kentucky while he traveled along Interstate 75. His legal proceedings are still pending.

Along with Still and Charles, the Bengals have also reportedly cut ties with offensive lineman Trevor Robinson and receiver Colin Lockett. With cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris set to begin serving a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, the Bengals -- as of this posting -- are now in need of cutting another 13 players to get to the magical number of 53 by Saturday's 4 p.m. ET deadline.
CINCINNATI -- After 112 days, finally, the news came.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis was cut.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriJeremy Hill can expect the Bengals to use him in a variety of ways this season.
Most around southwest Ohio had anticipated hearing of the running back's release since May, when the Cincinnati Bengals drafted his replacement, Jeremy Hill. A second-round pick, Hill vowed that weekend to learn from and play along with Green-Ellis, even while it was apparent that the veteran's days were numbered.

Those days officially ran out Friday afternoon.

Green-Ellis' release means the Bengals have turned to the next chapter of their backfield plans, and that they are embracing having Hill as an option out of the backfield. It's safe to say that in Cincinnati, the Jeremy Hill Era has begun.

You actually could rewind your clock back to Thursday night in order to pinpoint the exact moment Hill's tenure with the Bengals began. During a 35-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts, the running back shouldered the load, receiving 26 touches. He ran 20 times for 90 yards and caught six passes for 63. With the star rookie playing until deep into the third quarter, many criticized coach Marvin Lewis for not taking him out sooner.

There was a method to Lewis' apparent madness.

"Jeremy has to understand what it's like to be an NFL running back," Lewis said. "We aren't five deep. When we get to Sundays and we got down to 46 guys, and if he's going to be the guy, then he's going to have to be able to shoulder the load."

It should be pointed out that he won't be the only guy for the Bengals this season. Second-year back Giovani Bernard also will be contributing out of the backfield. Bernard is expected to see the bulk of the touches out of the backfield, but Hill should have his share, too.

Bernard is more of a shifty, outside runner who can punch the ball inside if he needs to. Hill is more of a power-running ballcarrier who happens to have next-level speed, too.

Green-Ellis no longer had that combination, and it factored into the reasons he had to go.

When you saw Green-Ellis and Hill run in practices during the spring and earlier this summer, it was a night-and-day difference in how fluid Hill looked compared to the veteran. The rookie's cuts were sharper. His feet were quicker. His strides were longer. Matched with Green-Ellis' comparatively plodding pace, Hill looked more like an NFL rusher than Green-Ellis. There was no contest.

After Thursday night's game, Hill was asked about getting such an exhaustive workload on a warm, humid night. He said he felt fine with it because it was good preparation for what's to come.

"Bigger backs are always accustomed to getting the workload," Hill said, adding that he still wants to work on his conditioning a little more.

A physical runner himself, Green-Ellis has gotten his share of carries in recent seasons. In his two years with the Bengals he averaged 249 carries. Prior to that, though, he never had more than 229 in a single season with the New England Patriots, the only other team Green-Ellis has played for.

You won't ever hear Green-Ellis admit it, but perhaps his slower, less effective play last season was partially the result of overuse. He was, after all, the primary back on the roster in 2012 when he had 278 carries. Last season he had Bernard to share the runs with, but he still far outpaced any other Bengals rusher, collecting 220 carries.

While coaches won't say how often they expect to use Hill this season, based on Thursday, it's clear they expect to use him in a variety of ways. The rookie ran up the middle, hit the edge a few times and even caught a number of screen passes.

"He likes to attack every corner of the field," backup quarterback Jason Campbell said.

Now that Green-Ellis is no longer ahead of him, Hill will be able to touch as much of the field as he wants.
Examining the Baltimore Ravens' roster:

Quarterbacks (2)

This should be the fifth straight year that the Ravens only keep two quarterbacks. Keith Wenning didn't do enough in his two preseason games that would entice another team to put him on its 53-man roster. So, the Ravens can get Wenning on the practice squad. Plus, the Ravens would like to use their last roster spot on a special teams player, not a third quarterback.

Running backs (4)

Nothing has changed with this position all summer. Rice, Pierce, Taliaferro and Juszczyk are locks to make the team. Rice has been suspended for the first two games of the season, which allows the Ravens to carry Forsett. Fitzgerald Toussaint's 103 yards in the preseason finale earns him a spot on the practice squad.

Receivers (6)

This was the toughest position to project. The Ravens have to keep at least six because of the strength of the depth. The locks here are Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Brown and Jones. When you look at the No. 5 receiver, his ability on special teams outweighs his impact as a receiver because his role is going to primarily be on the coverage and return teams. That's why Aiken still gets the nod here. Campanaro has more upside as a receiver than Deonte Thompson, which is why he gets the last spot. How can the Ravens cut Thompson? Well, the Ravens cut running back Bobby Rainey last year after he led the team in rushing, punt returns and kickoff returns. Perhaps, the Ravens could trade Thompson.

Tight ends (3)

The Ravens say Daniels' leg fatigue won't affect his status for the regular season so there is no drama at this position. Pitta is the clear cut No. 1, and Gillmore should see time as a rookie third-round pick.

Offensive linemen (9)

Monroe, Osemele, Zuttah, Yanda and Wagner are the starters. Gradkowski and Shipley, two starters from last season, are safe. Reid is the top backup tackle, but he is still dealing with a concussion. Urschel should have secured a spot over Ryan Jensen, who committed two holding penalties in the preseason finale.

Defensive linemen (5)

Ngata, Canty and Williams have been the starters throughout training camp and the preseason. Jernigan and Tyson are the Ravens' top two backups. It looks like Terrence Cody will start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The Ravens can go with five linemen because Pernell McPhee can move to defensive end in a pinch. Nose tackle Derrick Hopkins can be stored on the practice squad.

LINEBACKERS (9)

Simon likely saved his spot with a strong performance in the preseason finale. The Ravens also don't get rid of fourth round picks a year after drafting them. They give them time to develop. The need for veteran depth at cornerback, where the Ravens are banged up, pushes out Albert McClellan. It's a tough call because McClellan led the Ravens in special teams tackles last season. The Ravens could bring back McClellan later in the season.

Cornerbacks (6)

Injury issues at cornerback force the Ravens to carry a sixth cornerback. The Ravens anticipate their top three cornerbacks (Smith, Webb and Jackson) to be healthy enough to play in the regular season. But none were practicing this past week. The Ravens have to keep veterans like Franks and Cox for insurance. Cox made some plays in the preseason finale despite not practicing with the team. Undrafted rookies Tramain Jacobs and Sammy Seamster can go on the practice squad.

Safeties (6)

Elam and Stewart remain the starters. Brooks, a rookie third-round pick, has generated buzz recently from his play at nickelback. Miles struggled on defense in the preseason finale, but he gets a spot because of his special teams play. Levine is a core special teams player who increased his value by playing cornerback as well. Trawick is probably the 53rd player, although the Ravens may go with a linebacker like McClellan instead. Hill is on the suspended list until the middle of October.

Specialists (3)

There's no decision to be made on the specialists. Tucker, Koch and Cox team up for the third straight season.
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict has barely begun his second professional contract, but he wants the Cincinnati Bengals to know that he already has deal No. 3 on his mind.

Burfict
When he signed his new three-year contract extension worth about $20 million Wednesday, Burfict let front office officials know that he'd be back in a little more than two years when it's time to renegotiate. His plan? To stay in stripes as long as possible.

"I told Troy [Blackburn] I'll be back in 2016," Burfict told ESPN.com in the Bengals' locker room after Thursday night's preseason finale. "Obviously they trust me, and like I've said, I want to be a leader of the defense. We have great things to come for the next three years while I'm here."

Blackburn is one of the Bengals' two vice presidents. He's also the husband of executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the daughter of president Mike Brown. Brown's father, Paul Brown, founded the team in 1968 and owned it until his death in 1991.

With Mike Brown beginning to transition out of the team's daily operations, the Blackburns -- most notably Katie -- have been behind some of the more recent big-salary moves the Bengals have made. It was under Katie Blackburn's guidance that Burfict's extension, as well as extensions for quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, were drawn.

Burfict said he liked the way the contract was set up.

"It's front-loaded," he said, nodding slowly, "and I'll make a lot of money in the next six months."

He clearly wasn't trying to brag, but he was telling the truth. He stands to make $7.6 million this season, with additional bonus money coming in March. Within the next six months, he'll make $10.8 million. As an undrafted free agent who signed out of Arizona State just two years ago, Burfict had been scheduled to make a little more than $570,000 this season. He certainly received quite the pay day.

As we pointed out Wednesday, you'll be hard-pressed to find too many other players make that type of raise after only two years in part because of the way the new collective bargaining agreement is set up. A player basically has to follow Burfict's path -- be undrafted, but perform really, really well right away.

"Me getting a new contract in two years was huge, and it's rare," Burfict said. "But I've put in a lot of work and I feel like I deserve it."

Burfict has 298 career tackles. Of those, a league-leading 171 came in last season's Pro Bowl campaign.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis' expectations for Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt were simple Thursday night.

The coach just wanted Hunt to dominate.

And that's exactly what he did.

[+] EnlargeMargus Hunt
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsMargus Hunt had a mammoth finish to the preseason, registering three sacks on Thursday night.
With a battered and bruised Colts offensive line opposite him, and series of inexperienced backup tackles and guards shuffled in and out of the preseason finale, Hunt had no choice but to dominate. If he couldn't handle the down-on-the-depth-chart players tasked with facing him, then the Bengals would have found that they had some work left before anointing him a key piece of their pass rush.

Thanks to Hunt's focus on finishing his rushes, he didn't have to worry about that happening.

"You know, he should dominate in a game like this and he did it," Lewis, the Bengals' 12th-year head coach, said. "That's what you want to see. You want to see him dominate. That's the confidence he needs, the opportunity, the chance to critique himself."

Hunt ended the game with four tackles -- all for loss. Three of his stops resulted in sacks. One of the sacks, the last one, came as a blocker was draped all over him. Despite the offensive lineman's valiant attempt at trying to keep Hunt off his quarterback, the second-year defensive end finished the play off and secured the sack.

"A lot of guys can do good things in practice, but you have to go ahead and finish the rush [in a game], so you can kind of build through your repertoire of moves and stuff," Lewis said.

In the days that immediately followed the Bengals' loss at Kansas City during the preseason opener, Hunt emphasized how important finishing was for an end like himself. He didn't feel good about the way he cut short a few of his rushes. At least one of them could have been a sack had he not slowed his momentum so soon, he said.

Part of the problem back then had to do with the fact that Hunt and the Bengals' other defensive linemen were still looking to tap into that final bit of early-year recklessness that can sometimes be hard to showcase coming off an eight-month period in which they haven't been able to tackle. That problem got exacerbated when the linemen became used to pulling up on sack opportunities during training camp. When practicing against Cincinnati's offense, particularly the first-team unit Hunt was seeing so regularly early in camp, they weren't allowed to touch the quarterback.

They still aren't in practices.

In turn, bad habits can develop and bleed over into games. That's what happened four weeks ago with Hunt, and it's not at all what happened Thursday. He made sure to finish those plays. Hunt is confident he'll continue finishing once the regular season begins next weekend.

"It's just about speed, speed and trying to get it on the edge and trying to be disruptive," Hunt said.

CINCINNATI -- In their final preseason game last year, the Cincinnati Bengals were forced to look on as promising outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was loaded onto a cart, sidelined before the end of the first quarter with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It was far from what coaches had in mind when they trotted out the player who had been expected to be their starting nickel linebacker.

Clearly, they learned from that experience. When the Bengals took the field Thursday night for this year's preseason finale, they did so with virtually an all-backup offense and defense. The Bengals pulled all their starters in favor of other players who are trying to earn spots on the roster before Saturday's 53-man roster limit goes into effect.

Health was the top priority for the Bengals against the Colts on Thursday. The result of the game was secondary.

By the way, Cincinnati won, 35-7.

Here are a few more thoughts on the Bengals' preseason finale:
  • Lamur wasn't the only starter who began last year's preseason finale. Every other first-string offensive and defensive player was on the field on the first drives when the Bengals hosted the Colts in late-August 2013. This time around, only rookie starting center Russell Bodine received action. Every other starter on both sides of the ball rested and took the night off. In addition to Bodine, rookie running back Jeremy Hill also got extended playing time. While he isn't a starter, Hill is still viewed as a player who ought to be a regular contributor this season. He certainly was the Bengals' most-used back Thursday, receiving 26 touches. He rushed 20 times for 90 yards and caught six passes for 70 yards. He also came up a half-yard short of a touchdown.
  • It was surprising that Hill remained in the game in the third quarter after he injured an elbow while diving -- unsuccessfully -- for a first down near the end of the second quarter. After some evaluation on the sideline and at halftime, he came back on the field on Bengals' first offensive drive of the third quarter. It wasn't until the end of that drive that James Wilder Jr. came in for consistent game action. He appeared in two just plays in the game previous to that. I can't think of many reasons as to why Cincinnati stuck with Hill for so long. As it is, they're fortunate to have avoided serious injury with him.
  • In addition to Hill's rather impressive stat line, quarterback Jason Campbell had a strong one, too, against an all-backup Colts defense. Campbell was 13-for-16 with 123 yards, a 1-yard touchdown pass and a sack. His replacement, Tyler Wilson, had a 50-yard touchdown pass at the start of the fourth quarter to Cobi Hamilton, his former college teammate. It was an important catch for Hamilton, who enters Saturday's cuts still on the roster bubble.
  • Cincinnati's starting defense was dominant this preseason, holding opponents to only four field goals. It didn't allow a touchdown. The reserves tried hard to match their first-string teammates Thursday, and almost did. It wasn't until the final nine minutes of the game that the group allowed its first score of the contest. Otherwise, the back end of the defense looked about as good as the front half has much of camp. Second-year defensive end Margus Hunt played a key role in that, finishing with four tackles and three sacks. After struggling at the start of the preseason with finishing plays, he made sure he did against Indianapolis' reserve linemen and quarterbacks. His last sack came as he was simultaneously fighting through a block.
CINCINNATI -- One day after signing a three-year contract extension that will pay him more than $20 million the next four years, the Cincinnati Bengals' newest well-paid defender will be resting Thursday night when the Bengals host the Colts in the preseason finale.

Vontaze Burfict is one of 12 Bengals who were listed on the "not expected to play" list that was announced about an hour and a half before kickoff. The third-year player suffered a hamstring injury in last Sunday's preseason game at Arizona. He was part of just six plays.

Earlier this week, Burfict told reporters he expected to be fully healthy in time for the Bengals' regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Baltimore.

So don't panic, Bengals fans. There's very little reason to read into his absence Thursday night. Coaches clearly know what the Pro Bowl linebacker can do, and have no reason to unnecessarily risk putting him in harm's way in the finale. Besides, the goal in this game is to keep key players as healthy as possible. He probably wouldn't play much if he were healthy enough, anyway.

Along with Burfict, rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard, tight end Tyler Eifert and three running backs -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman -- also are not expected to play Thursday. Dennard hurt his hip in the Week 2 game against the Jets. He's been rehabbing since then. He also missed the Week 3 preseason game at Arizona.

Eifert has a shoulder injury that has bothered him since before the spring. He has been touch and go all preseason, but hopes to be healthy enough to play in the opener. Green-Ellis has an undisclosed issue, although he was sick last week and missed several practices. He also didn't participate in Tuesday's workout; the only one the Bengals had this week. Burkhead's injury dates back to the Week 2 game when he was knocked out with a knee injury. Peerman left Sunday's game with an undisclosed injury, although it appeared he hurt a hip when he was slammed to the ground hard late in the contest.

Here is the full list of Bengals who aren't expected to play Thursday:

QB AJ McCarron
CB Darqueze Dennard
RB Cedric Peerman
RB Rex Burkhead
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
LB Vontaze Burfict
OT Andre Smith
OG Trey Hopkins
DT Devon Still
WR Marvin Jones
TE Tyler Eifert
WR James Wright

W2W4: Cincinnati Bengals

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
12:00
PM ET
The Cincinnati Bengals (1-2) and Indianapolis Colts (0-3) play their final game of the preseason at 7 p.m. ET Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium.

1. Who will run the ball? Perhaps the most intriguing question entering Thursday's game revolves around the backfield, a position group that entered Bengals training camp expected to have one of the more hotly contested battles. In the last week or so, those battles haven't been quite as interesting, though, as injuries have filled the running back group. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been believed to be the odd man out, but he might end up sticking with the team depending upon how serious injuries to Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman are. If the injuries are bad enough, they could be sent to an injury list this weekend, opening a spot for Green-Ellis to stick. He actually hasn't had the best health in recent days, either, as an illness held him out all of last week's practices. He also missed Tuesday's workout this week for an undisclosed reason. So with Burkhead, Peerman and Green-Ellis -- players who had been competing for the final running back spots -- out of the mix, who gets carries Thursday? Don't expect starter Giovani Bernard to do much. Rookie Jeremy Hill probably isn't going to be on the field for more than 30 snaps, himself. That means potential practice squad back, rookie James Wilder Jr., could get more extended action.

2. Will starters get rest? It seems likely that Bengals' starters won't play much beyond the first series or two of the game. It also seems reasonable that some may not even see a down of action. The goal of the fourth preseason game is always simple: stay healthy. Cincinnati is focused on hitting that goal this year after losing linebacker Emmanuel Lamur for the season in last year's preseason finale at Indianapolis. For that reason, don't be surprised if he's among those who see an extremely early exit Thursday. Also don't be surprised if Jason Campbell enters the game in the first quarter to relieve starting quarterback Andy Dalton.

3. Special teams improvements? Cincinnati's weakest area this preseason has been special teams. Poor tackling and coverage-unit breakdowns have led to the Bengals allowing big kick and punt returns. Penalties also have negated the Bengals' own gains, forcing them into consistently having bad field position. Last Sunday at Arizona, the Bengals began seven of their 10 drives inside the 20 largely because of lacking special-teams production. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has vowed for better play, and he's seen it as the preseason has progressed, too. There is a thought around the team that some of the penalties that were called may not get upheld during the season. A few of the borderline calls may have been part of preseason overemphasis. Watch to see if the Bengals' special teams can play cleaner Thursday.
CINCINNATI -- There's a nugget buried in our Wednesday afternoon news story on Vontaze Burfict's now-official contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals.

You have to read near the bottom in order to find it.

While I do encourage you to do me a favor and still click the link above and read the full story, I've decided to go on and include it right here, high in this column, to help make everything else I'm about to write make sense. The nugget is in the quote below.
"It's unusual to sign a player this early in his career to a contract extension, but Vontaze is a player who merits this," Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn said. "He has proven to be an exceptional find for us and we are happy to reward him now for his accomplishments. It's good for him and good for our team."

There's your nugget: Burfict's extension is "unusual."

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesVontaze Burfict could be considered the best player in one of the top defenses in the league.
It's so unusual that thanks to the latest collective bargaining agreement, we may not see many other players get the type of contract extension Burfict just landed at such an early stage in their careers. In fact, because of the CBA and its limitations on the rookie contracts of draft picks, we definitely won't see a drafted player in the near future receive a more than $20-million raise after just two seasons in the league.

"It's rare," as one source familiar with Burfict's deal put it to me Wednesday afternoon, "in today's NFL for a young player to get a contract extension of any kind after two years. He's certainly on the path to be heavily financially rewarded."

Burfict's deal puts him in rare company, good company. He has no one to thank for that other than himself.

After just two seasons the former undrafted prospect from Arizona State -- one who was bashed by his college head coach before the 2012 combine, blasted by draftniks during it for his incredibly slow 40-yard time, and belittled after it by fans and sportswriters alike for having apparent maturity issues -- has certainly made a name for himself. He's cleaned up his image off the field, and completely shirked the "overlooked" label he once carried on it.

How has he done all of that? By putting his head down, keeping his mouth shut and playing some pretty good football.

Through two seasons, Burfict has recorded 298 tackles, trailing only Luke Kuechly (320) and Paul Posluszny (301) in that span. The next closest Bengal to Burfict is fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga who is 101 tackles behind with 197 since 2011.

Oh, and yeah, Burfict's also been to the Pro Bowl.

If you looked at those facts alone, you could make a good case for why Burfict ought to be considered the best player on a defense that ranked third in the league last season. His defensive coordinator and former position coach, Paul Guenther, wouldn't out-right disagree. Guenther has called Burfict his smartest pupil, and has valued his input throughout his transition this year to the Bengals' top defensive assistant's position.

When Guenther first started coaching Burfict, he saw a leader who didn't really know how to lead.

"He's so competitive that he would get mad at guys," Guenther said. "I said, 'Look, you can't do that because now that's going to set him off, which is going to set a fire.' I really worked on his leadership abilities and how to go about it in different ways."

As a reward for that and other lessons, Burfict had Guenther tag along when he went to the Pro Bowl.

With the potential for more Pro Bowls on his horizon, Burfict has positioned himself nicely the next several years of his career. Had he not signed an extension this year, he could have slipped into restricted free agency in March. Even if offered the highest possible tender, he still would have been grossly underpaid what he was worth for the 2015 season. He also would have had to wait until 2016 to see any real free-agency pay day. With this newly signed deal, the money he'll get in 2016 when he can start renegotiating should be more than he could ever fathom.

Burfict is indeed in good financial company and in rare company. And he has no one to thank but himself.
CINCINNATI -- Posed a question similar to the one in the headline above, 30 NFL insiders answered, just barely, in the affirmative.

Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis may only be five losses from going .500 in a head-coaching career that ranks second in tenure only to New England's Bill Belichick, but he's done good enough of a job turning around the once-lowly franchise that he has earned tier-2 coaching status, according to a recent survey conducted by ESPN Insider Mike Sando.

Lewis
In a poll published Tuesday, Sando found that to league insiders, Lewis ranked 15th among current coaches.

Atop the list was Belichick, the winner of three Super Bowls. At the bottom? Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen, primarily because he's in control of a bad franchise, one that just Monday was named the least desirable to play for in an anonymous survey of current players conducted by ESPN's NFL Nation.

As he collected votes for his poll, Sando broke coaches down into five tiers. The top three on the list belonged in the first tier. The next 12 were part of the second tier. At No. 15, Lewis rounded out that section. According to Sando's findings, Lewis received 15 tier-3 votes, 14 tier-2 votes and one tier-1 vote.

Voters apparently grappled with many of the same concerns Bengals fans have -- balancing Lewis' regular-season success with his postseason failures.

When Lewis became Cincinnati's head coach in 2003, he took over an organization that hadn't had a winning season in the previous 12 years. He walked into a situation similar to what Allen has found himself currently in. Just three years after his arrival, Lewis took the Bengals to their first playoff berth since the 1990 season. He has made four other trips in the years since.

He hasn't had a playoff win in any of those seasons.

One general manager told Sando: "Sometimes you give people extra credit for where they coach and that whole Cincy place has been a tough place to win."

That GM thought Lewis probably was more of a tier-3 coach because of the 0-5 playoff record, but because of external forces Lewis has had to coach around, he should be regarded with fringe tier-2 status, the GM said.

"They used to make the coaches do the scouting work," the same GM said. "They ask a lot of their coaches. They are a talented team and [Lewis] is part of that."

Since 2011, the Bengals have changed much of their structure. Team president Mike Brown has had a dramatically decreased role, with his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, handling many of the front-office administrative duties. Lewis and director of player personnel Duke Tobin have had larger roles in scouting and giving the final word on the drafting of prospects and signing of free agents. It's one of the reasons the Bengals, since 2011, have routinely had some of the league's best draft classes and found more hidden gems, like former undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict, than most other teams.

Combine that with the fact the Bengals have at least been to the playoffs, and you have some who question why Lewis didn't poll higher.

Like one coordinator told Sando: "Marvin took over a franchise that is troubled and, no, they have not won a playoff game, but look at the Cleveland Browns today. If you asked every person in that organization or who comes to the stadium if they would take a winning season but lose in the playoffs, they would take it."
CINCINNATI -- Maybe it's a good thing Vontaze Burfict still has yet to complete his contract extension.

He now has another accolade he can use as additional leverage in the contract talks that have suddenly gone silent.

Nearly one week to the day that reports surfaced indicating Burfict had agreed to a new deal that would pay him more than $20 million, the linebacker cracked the top 40 on ESPN.com's #NFLRank series. He came in as the No. 32 defensive player in the league, one spot behind the Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson and one place above San Diego's Eric Weddle.

The ranking came after Burfict didn't even crack the top 100 of last year's preseason countdown.

The #NFLRank series, which debuted last Monday, has been ranking the top 100 players in the league. Players are separated into offense and defense. By Tuesday, the countdown, which started with rankings 100-91, reached the 30s.

Earlier this summer, many of the people behind ESPN's NFL coverage ranked the best current players in the league.

Burfict is the fourth Bengals player to be featured on the #NFLRank countdown. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap ranked 86th on defense, and running back Giovani Bernard ranked 88th on offense, four spots ahead of offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth who was No. 92.

A rising star, Burfict's rank probably comes about where one might imagine. After leading the league in tackles last season with 171, he has proven himself to be one of the best defensive players in the game. His selection to the Pro Bowl last year aided that, too, as well as his 298 tackles in the last two seasons. Only two players have more tackles in the league the last two years, and no other Bengals player is close to recording that many stops in the span.

These rankings are based on votes from 90 of our NFL experts. Yes, that group includes yours truly, along with the other 31 team reporters who make up NFL Nation. Here is the full list of voters.

You can read the full 100-31 breakdown here.

Here's a blurb from Burfict's #NFLRank:
Vontaze Burfict ranks third in the NFL with 298 tackles the past two seasons. He has 101 more tackles than the next highest Bengals defender in that time.

-- ESPN Stats & Information
Most significant move: Few of the Cincinnati Bengals' cuts were very surprising, but quarterback Matt Scott's release might have been the most significant because he had been viewed as the No. 3 quarterback on the roster behind Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell. Tyler Wilson, fresh off concussion protocol, reverts into that role. When Wilson was signed after an injury to Campbell two weeks ago, it appeared the writing was on the wall for Scott, a mobile quarterback who doesn't fit the Bengals' scheme as well as the others. Although he played well during the Week 1 loss at Kansas City, Scott completed only 45.5 percent of his passes and was sacked five times in the three games he played.

Sharp should find a home: Kicker Quinn Sharp's release had been expected after he was signed in the offseason to help keep starter Mike Nugent's leg fresh throughout training camp and offseason workouts. While Nugent is the starter and has the more accurate leg of the two, Sharp's power is one of his more impressive traits. In Sunday night's preseason game, hours before he was cut by the Bengals, Sharp went 2-for-2 on field goals with one of them a 51-yarder. The Oklahoma State product should help someone's team this season desperate for a kicker.

What's next? The Bengals aren't technically done with this round of moves. They could end up sending two of their Tuesday cuts, J.K. Schaffer and Lavelle Westbrooks, to injured reserve Wednesday. Both were cut via the waived/injured designation and have until Wednesday to be claimed by another team. If neither is claimed and they clear waivers, they will be added to Cincinnati's IR. It's also worth keeping an eye on safety Taylor Mays, rookie linebacker Marquis Flowers, stand-up defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Dontay Moch, receivers Cobi Hamilton and James Wright and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the Bengals cut to 53 on Saturday.

Bengals' cuts: QB Matt Scott, DT Larry Black, S Isaiah Lewis, K Quinn Sharp, WR Ryan Whalen, CB R.J. Stanford, TE Kevin Brock, WR Jasper Collins, LB J.K. Schaffer, CB Lavelle Westbrooks, LB James Davidson, WR Alex Neutz, WR Jeremy Johnson, OT Curtis Feigt, WR Conner Vernon, P T.J. Conley, DT Zach Minter, OG Chandler Burden.
The Cleveland Browns trimmed their roster to 76 players on Tuesday. Teams have to get down to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Most significant move: The release of wide receiver Anthony Armstrong isn't exactly a shock, but it does show where the Browns are when it comes to the wide receiver position as they await word on the suspension of Josh Gordon. Armstrong is a veteran with knowledge of Kyle Shanahan's offense, and he stood out in shorts in the OTAs and minicamp. But in training camp he leveled off, and as time went on it was evident he was not going to be a major contributor. The development of a young player like Taylor Gabriel made this decision easy.

Running away: Running back Edwin Baker started at the end of the 2013 season, but he didn't make it past the first cuts in Cleveland. That's a sign of the way the Browns viewed the running backs of last season, and of the reality that they have added Terrance West through the draft. Baker's cup of coffee in Cleveland might, though, give him a chance with another team.

What’s next: The decision on Gordon lingers. The Browns' final two moves took the roster to 76, which indicates the team expects -- or at least hopes -- to hear something before the deadline (a few hours away as of this writing). A suspension of Gordon would take care of that last spot.

Browns moves: Waived DB Royce Adams, RB Edwin Baker, OL Randall Harris, DB T.J. Heath, DL Cam Henderson, WR Jonathan Krause, OL Ryan Lee, LB Caleb McSurdy, OL Keavon Milton, LB Keith Pough, WR Tim Smith, OL Jeremiah Warren, TE Martell Webb. Contract terminated: WR Anthony Armstrong. Placed on injured reserve: OL Michael Bowie, LB Darius Eubanks.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider