NFL Nation: NFL

Three takeaways from ESPN's #NFLRank reveal of the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the league. Today: 11-20.

1. Backfield battle: During the past two seasons, Seattle Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch has rushed for more yards and touchdowns than the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles. He's fumbled less, played an integral part in a Super Bowl championship and amassed 22 percent more yards after contact than Charles. #NFLRankers, however, placed Charles (No. 11) three spots above Lynch (No. 14) in this year's vote. It's true that Charles is a year younger than Lynch, and the yardage comparison looks different when you realize Charles averaged more per rush (5.14 yards) than Lynch (4.62) over that period. Three spots is not an exactly an insulting distance, but it is at least debatable and, in this view, probably represents a reversal in what most NFL people think of the comparison.

2. What might have been: By the end of last season, NaVorro Bowman was probably the best player on an elite San Francisco 49ers' defense. He had completed his third consecutive year with at least 140 tackles and had become a three-down force with two interceptions among eight passes defensed and four forced fumbles. But a knee injury in the NFC Championship Game will sideline him until midseason at the earliest, and it's difficult to project when he will return to his previous form. Before the injury, he was absolutely among the top 12 defensive players in the league, as #NFLRankers placed him. Afterwards? It will be a while before we know.

3. The other guy: As the 2010 draft approached, Gerald McCoy was the alternative to Ndamukong Suh. Both were playmaking defensive tackles who projected among the top 5 picks, but Suh's big personality and final-game performance in college gave him a buzz that McCoy couldn't match. Their respective rookie seasons -- Suh made 10 sacks, while McCoy managed 3.0 in 13 games -- widened the gap. But as they enter their fifth season of comparisons, McCoy has closed the gap. He amassed 9.5 sacks last season and has produced none of the sideshows that have defined Suh's career. #NFLRankers have McCoy below three other defensive tackles -- including Suh -- but he has emerged as a big-time player in his own right.
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.
DAVIE, Fla. -- Many of the current Miami Dolphins were children when quarterback Dan Marino dominated the football scene in South Florida. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin was still working his way up the coaching ranks in the 1980s and 1990s.

Marino remains the best and most popular player in franchise history, and last weekend the team hired the Hall of Famer as a "special advisor." The reaction from players and coaches has been positive.

"I'm elated that he's part of the organization," Philbin said this week. "He's always kind of been an unofficial part of the organization. I had a chance to visit with him earlier today. He's excited about it. I'm sure there are a lot of things he can contribute to the organization in whatever roles Steve (Ross) and those that are in charge want that to be. He's always welcome here."

Marino's role with the Dolphins has not been defined publicly. There was no fanfare about the hire other than a news release, and there wasn't a news conference that allowed the media to ask Marino questions about his new job.

What is known is Marino will work in a variety of capacities. As time goes on, we will most likely know more about his role in Miami.

"I don't know. I don't know exactly what his role even is," Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill admitted. "No one has really even told me that. But, if he's open to some time, I'd love to pick his brain a little bit."

Regardless of his role, hiring Marino is a big win for the players. It's a rare resource to have a Hall of Famer who has been in current Dolphins' shoes readily available. Marino brings instant credibility as a person who's played the tough quarterback position as good as anyone in NFL history.

"Any time you have a guy like that just being around the organization is positive for you," Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said. "He's a legend, so any time he can come into this building and see a guy like that around is going to motivate you and help you play. You know he's going always to give you a couple of tips and nuggets, so that's always good."
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte improved his standing from a year ago in our #NFLRank project, moving from No. 48 to No. 29 in the latest edition, in which ESPN ranks the top 100 players in the league on both sides of the ball.

Forte
Forte
The latest rankings grouped players between Nos. 30 through 21. Receiver Alshon Jeffery was one of 23 players on offense to make his debut in the 2014 #NFLRank project, checking in at No. 31

Forte finished last season ranked third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (1,933 yards) on the way to being named to his second Pro Bowl. Forte rushed for 1,339 yards, carrying the ball on 71.5 percent of the team’s rushes, which ranked as highest in the league, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Since 2008, Forte ranks third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (9,585), behind Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson.

Forte ranked one spot ahead of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers and one slot behind Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

None of Chicago’s defenders made Wednesday’s offering in the #NFLRank project.
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."
Three takeaways from ESPN's #NFLRank reveal the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the league. Today: 21-30.

1. Receiver rep: If you told someone that the Houston Texans' Andre Johnson is the eighth-best receiver in the NFL, as #NFLRank placed him in 2014, you probably wouldn't get much argument. But if you asked for a preference between Johnson, the Cleveland Browns' Josh Gordon or the Washington Redskins' DeSean Jackson, you might very well get a different answer. Clearly, Gordon's off-field issues make it difficult to make an accurate projection for the short-term. All things equal, however, he is a better player at 23 than Johnson is at 33. You could make an argument Jackson should be ranked ahead of Johnson, as well. Although it's not his fault, the Texans' woeful quarterback situation for this season does not bode well for a big year.

2. QB comparison: The composite #NFLRank voter would take Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson over the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (by a small margin) and the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers (by a bit more). Would you? There is no doubt that Wilson is younger, thus giving us fair reason to assume we probably haven't seen him yet at his best. He is a perfect quarterback for the way the Seahawks are constructed as a dominant team with an elite running back. On the other hand, what would happen if Wilson quarterbacked a team that relied on passing production to win, as both Roethlisberger and Rivers have done at times in their careers -- would he match them? It's at least a reasonable debate to engage.

3. Lavonte and Lovie: As he enters his third season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Lavonte David is already considered by #NFLRank voters to be the No. 25 defensive player in the NFL. His elite playmaking last season is especially impressive for a 4-3 outside linebacker, and there is plenty of interest and excitement around the league for how new Bucs coach Lovie Smith will use him in 2014. In Smith's scheme, it must be remembered, fellow outside linebacker Lance Briggs developed into one of this generation's best defensive players for the Chicago Bears. It's rare for an outside linebacker in any scheme to compile seven sacks, intercept five passes and defend a total of 10 passes in one season. David is versatile and should be a force for years to come.
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: The Chicago Bears officially made Jimmy Clausen the No. 2 quarterback and jettisoned Jordan Palmer, who quickly signed with the Buffalo Bills. While Clausen and Palmer aren’t considered proven commodities, the latter had more familiarity and experience in Chicago’s offense. Jay Cutler hasn’t played an entire 16-game regular season since 2009, so it’s almost a given that at some point in 2014 the Bears will need to lean on the backup quarterback. That’s not to say the Bears made the wrong move, because Clausen appears to be the better player. Interestingly, Palmer signed with Chicago’s Week 1 opponent: the Buffalo Bills. So there’s a good chance the Bills are pumping Palmer for information on Chicago’s offense.

The end of a career? The Bears signed Adrian Wilson hoping he still possessed many of the physical traits that made him one of the NFL’s most dominating safeties over the years. Had Wilson panned out, he would have given the Bears the type of physical presence on the back end they haven’t had since Mike Brown roamed the secondary. The Bears gave Wilson plenty of opportunities to earn a spot on the team, but he never flashed the brilliance that made him such a force for so many years with the Arizona Cardinals. Wilson says he’s a “prideful person,” but at this point it appears his career is over.

What’s next: The Bears finish out the preseason on Thursday at Cleveland, and upon returning they’ll start to finalize the roster heading into the Aug. 30 cutdown date before beginning preparation for the regular-season opener against the Bills.

Bears' cuts: QB Jordan Palmer, KR/PR Darius Reynaud, LB Jordan Senn, RB Michael Ford, WR Greg Herd, WR Kofi Hughes, OT Joe Long, RB Derricus Purdy, DB Peyton Thompson, DT Nate Collins, OG Dylan Gandy, S Adrian Wilson, S Craig Steltz, OG James Brown, B Isaiah Frey.
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.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Apparently, a pair of tennis rackets dangle from Alshon Jeffery's wrists, and the Chicago Bears just hope the receiver continues to serve up the love in the form of receptions to the club's offense.

Jeffery
"There are a couple of things that make Alshon Jeffery special," explained offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. "No. 1 is his size. No. 2 is his size and ability to get in and out of routes at that size; that's the thing that impresses you the most. No. 3, the balls he can catch away from his body. It looks like he puts up two huge tennis rackets to catch these balls. He pulls them in, and his hand strength is exceptional."

So was Jeffery's production in 2013, allowing him to come in at No. 31 on this year's NFLRank project in which ESPN ranked the league's top 100 players on offense and defense. In all, 23 players on offense made their debuts on this year's NFLRank project.

After a difficult rookie season in which he suffered a broken hand right hand, in addition to being sidelined with an arthroscopic knee surgery, Jeffery produced a gem in 2013, catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns, combining with Brandon Marshall for 2,716 yards and 19 TDs.

"I think part of it is the chemistry he has with this team," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "His work ethic hasn't changed. That's a sign to be able to stack a good year on a good year. He's done it for one year. He knows he's got to prove himself. He's got to stack years and years together to be a great player like Brandon has. If you could see him work here on a daily basis, he's doing all the right things to put another good year together."

Jeffery was one of two receivers in 2013 to produce two 200-yard games (Gordon was the other), and the only one to put together a 200-yard game on the road (a single-game franchise record 249 yards against the Vikings in Week 13). Jeffery attributes the bump in production from his rookie season to 2013 simply to learning the intricacies of the offense.

Jeffery also spent the majority of the offseason training with Marshall in Florida.

"My first year here, I would say it was just a learning process. It was about learning and knowing the NFL," Jeffery said. "Just staying on the field [in 2013] and staying healthy helped last year. But like I said, it was a big learning curve from my first year to my second year."

Potentially on the verge of stardom, Jeffery prefers not to look too far ahead. Asked where he sees himself in three years, Jeffery said, "Ask me that question three years from now, but I'd say the sky is the limit."

That certainly seems to be the case with Jeffery and the rest of the Bears coming off a 2013 season in which offense set multiple franchise records. Interestingly, Jeffery is the only player in Bears' history to produce two 200-yard receiving games, and is one of eight players in NFL history to accomplish that feat in the same season.

Over his first two years, Jeffery has caught 113 passes for 1,788 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"My mentality when that ball goes up in the air is it's my ball," Jeffery said. "I've got to make the play."
Three takeaways from ESPN's #NFLRank reveal of the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the league. Today: 31-40.

1. On the rise: Adding to the ubiquitous comparisons and ratings, #NFLRank firmly declared the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick a top-10 quarterback. His status as the No. 33 offensive player puts him at No. 9 for his position, ahead of Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Eli Manning and Jay Cutler, among others. Why is that? Consecutive appearances in the NFC Championship Game have something to do with that, as does one of the best combinations of running and passing attributes in the NFL. As he ages and his career advances, of course, more attention will be placed on Kaepernick's performance in the passing game. What's already impressive is the way he takes care of the ball. In 639 regular-season attempts, Kaepernick has thrown only 11 interceptions.

2. NFC North tussle: This reveal brought us a fun comparison. Is Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery, who has played in 26 NFL games, already a better receiver than the Green Bay Packers' Jordy Nelson? #NFLRank voters thought so. Jeffery put his ball skills on full display in last season's 89-catch, 1,421-yard breakout season. There are few receivers who have a better chance to win a physical fight for an airborne ball. What few probably realize is that Nelson had an almost identical statistical season in 2013 for a team that played half the year without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Nelson is faster than Jeffery, and more versatile in terms of route capabilities, and is still only 29. Jeffery has all the buzz, which is understandable, but this is a race that deserved to be close and it was. Only two offensive players separate them in this list.

3. Battle upfront: Of the 10 defensive players in today's reveal, seven are defensive linemen or 3-4 outside linebackers. If you could pick only one, who would it be? You didn't ask me, but I think I might go with the lowest-ranked of the group. The New York Jets' Sheldon Richardson is the reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year after doing a stunning job adjusting to playing defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. If a player who supposedly was best-suited to play tackle in a 4-3 can have that kind of season as a rookie in a 3-4, I can't wait to see what's next. Linemen in the 3-4 aren't expected to be playmakers -- that's usually the role of linebackers and defensive backs -- but Richardson transcended those types of expectations.
CINCINNATI -- The great purging of players from the Cincinnati Bengals' roster has begun.

On Monday afternoon, the team announced it had waived four players and terminated the contract of another in an attempt to start getting the roster a little closer to Tuesday's 75-man limit, as stipulated by NFL rules. By Saturday, that roster will be trimmed all the way to 53. Currently, the Bengals sit at 81.

The five cuts announced Monday were defensive tackle Larry Black, safety Isaiah Lewis, kicker Quinn Sharp, receiver Ryan Whalen and cornerback R.J. Stanford. As the veteran of the group who had been signed out of free agency this offseason, Stanford was the only one of the five whose contract was terminated. He automatically becomes eligible for free agency while the others must first clear waivers before getting picked up.

None of the cuts ought to be viewed as surprises. Each of the five were left off our latest 53-man roster projection that was published Monday, even if some of them had shown flashes of good play throughout the preseason.

Black's departure will be disappointing to many locally who primarily remember the Cincinnati native for his brief appearance on last year's HBO "Hard Knocks." Lauded by coaches all of last training camp, Black's season came to an immediate halt when he suffered a serious ankle injury in a camp practice. The entire sequence, including Black's emotional phone call with his family after receiving the season-ending diagnosis in the training room, was shown on the show's opening episode. Black had returned this preseason hoping to build on the quality play he had showcased just before the injury.

He was unsuccessful, though. Black didn't appear in Sunday night's Week 3 preseason game at Arizona despite not being listed on the pregame not-expected-to-dress list.

Lewis was an undrafted rookie free agent from Michigan State. The safety had trouble standing out in a crowded secondary. The same went for Stanford, who was a bubble cornerback at best. He did himself no favors Sunday night when he was burned by speedster John Brown on a 30-yard touchdown pass that went down as the Cardinals' only touchdown of the game. The play before, Stanford had been called for defensive pass interference on a pass that sailed well over his and Brown's heads.

Whalen was a sixth-round 2011 draft pick of the Bengals, but he never really clicked. His most prolific season was 2012 when he appeared in a career-high nine games and caught a career-high seven passes. He came into this camp with an injury and, as expected, had difficulty cracking a crowded receivers' room.

Sharp was expected to be cut when he was signed in the offseason. He was added specifically so the Bengals could enter training camp with multiple kickers, in an effort of keeping Mike Nugent's leg fresh throughout the summer. Sharp's strong leg -- he had two field goals on two tries Sunday night, including a 51-yarder -- could make him a highly sought after kicker entering next week's openers.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A combination of experience, preseason performance and upside landed Jimmy Clausen the No. 2 job at quarterback, according to Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman.

The Bears released Clausen's primary competition, Jordan Palmer, on Sunday, leaving the former, Jay Cutler, and David Fales as the quarterbacks remaining on the roster.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsJimmy Clausen, who was drafted by Carolina in 2010, will back up Bears' starting QB Jay Cutler.
"They both competed really hard for the job," Trestman said. "As I told Jordan, Jimmy played at a consistent level, as did Jordan. I really threw out the five or six plays Jordan had the other night backed up. I know Jordan was terribly upset about that situation. That really didn't come into the consideration. Jimmy's played a lot more football in this league. He's younger, and I thought the competition was very close. But I thought at the end of the day, I think the upside for Jimmy, his age, his experience, and he came highly recommended from some people I trust in Carolina."

Clausen and Palmer put up similar numbers through the first three games of the preseason. Palmer completed 70 percent of his passes for 225 yards, a touchdown and an interception for a passer rating of 88.9. Clausen hit on 64.9 percent of his throws for 280 yards, two touchdowns, an INT and a passer rating of 94.4.

But Clausen has started in 10 of the 13 regular season games he's played in the NFL, while Palmer has thrown just 15 passes in the four games he's played. Clausen is 26. Palmer is 30.

In what proved to be the final test pitting Clausen against Palmer on Friday night in Seattle, neither produced stellar numbers. Palmer completed 7 of 10 for 48 yards to finish with a passer rating of 80.4. Clausen hit on 6 of 9 for 36 yards and a 74.3 passer rating.

"It's good that the coaches have the confidence in me to name me the No. 2 behind Jay [Cutler]," Clausen said. "But we've got a long way to go. I don't even remember the last game I played, my rookie year. But it's a great opportunity like I said from Day 1. [I've] just got to keep going out each and every day, getting better and doing everything I can to help the team win."

Clausen put together a solid workout in June at Halas Hall, in addition to a reassuring personal interview and X's and O's session on the board, prompting the Bears to add him to the mix in their search for a primary backup to Cutler.

The team liked Clausen's experience, mechanics and football smarts, as well as his mental toughness. In addition to handling injuries and a lack of success as a rookie, Clausen quietly weathered the disappointment of the Carolina Panthers drafting Cam Newton and immediately inserting him as the starter.

"His ability to handle the adversity that he had in his first year, his leadership qualities, he stood up tall through a lot of tough times in Carolina, and gained the respect of his teammates and the team there with the way he handled himself in a very, very difficult year," Trestman said. "So that, plus performance, plus experience, plus youth were a lot of the reasons if I can give you some content. It wasn't everything. At the end of the day it really comes down to how you feel about things. You weigh some content there that I gave you to make that decision. We wish Jordan the best. He not only competed hard, he really invested in our football team. He emotionally invested. He coached. He shared. He coached other guys up, guys at his position. He's a tremendous young man, and we'll look forward to him landing on his feet somewhere."

Palmer expressed gratitude for the opportunity in Chicago on Twitter on Sunday, posting "I'll be wearing #Bears gear and supporting the Bears for the rest of my life. Regardless of what happens. This is the best org in the NFL."

Clausen, meanwhile, believes his experiences in Carolina -- while negative -- might have helped with the latest situation.

"One of the big things is sitting and looking back on the sidelines the past few years in Carolina just sitting and learning really did help," Clausen said. "I didn't have that in college. I didn't have that in high school. Just to sit back and take a step back and look at everything helped the game slow down a little bit for me, and [I] just learned how to play in the NFL because it's totally different from college."
CINCINNATI -- After a minor health scare Sunday in Phoenix, Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown is progressing comfortably back home.

A team spokesman told ESPN.com on Monday that Brown's "minor medical situation" is trending toward resolution, and that the 79-year-old should be resuming his daily duties shortly.

"Everything continues to progress the way we had expected," the spokesman said. "He should be back at his desk soon."

The Bengals still aren't saying what exactly happened to Brown on Sunday morning in Phoenix. The only details they have allowed are that he underwent treatment in Arizona, where he was with the team for Sunday night's Week 3 preseason game against the Cardinals. Out of precaution, it was decided that he wouldn't attend the game, and would travel immediately back to Cincinnati.

"The good thing is everyone acted very quickly to get things headed in the right direction very fast," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said late Sunday night, following his team's 19-13 win. "We're happy that, hopefully, everything is going in the right direction and hopefully he'll get back with us very quickly."

Brown has owned the Bengals and served as team president since 1991, when his father and team founder, Paul Brown, died. An innovator of the game as it's known today, Paul Brown won seven championships as coach of the Cleveland Browns before establishing the Bengals in 1968.

Late last month, Mike Brown hinted at his forthcoming exit from football when he admitted that his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, has had a growing role in the team's daily operations. It has been under her guidance that recent multiyear and multimillion-dollar deals with Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Andy Dalton have been signed the last two summers. Earlier this month, Dalton signed a six-year contract extension that will pay him up to $115 million.

"Oh, you can tell I'm getting old," Mike Brown said in July. "When you get old, your children get impatient with you. Just the way it works in life. I have been blessed to have been able to work with my two kids and my father. That's something that is unusual in America these days, and I realize that roles change. My role changed with my father, just as Katie's role with me changes.

"One time I went up. Now I'm going down and that's just the way it is."
The Cincinnati Bengals' defense busted their coverage midway through the first quarter Sunday night. No one followed Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd down the right sideline on what should have been an easy 37-yard touchdown pass.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Terence Newman
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty ImagesTerence Newman returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown against the Cardinals.
No matter. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer's pass sailed far out of bounds and fell incomplete.

On the Cardinals' next possession, receiver Larry Fitzgerald got behind cornerback Terence Newman down the middle. Fitzgerald, however, had run the wrong route. Palmer's pass headed directly toward Newman, who intercepted and returned it 54 yards for the only touchdown scored before the teams removed their starters.

Veteran observers of the NFL preseason would hardly blink at that series of plays, which more closely resemble a full-contact practice than an attempt to compete. This, of course, is nothing new. For years, the league's preseason games have drawn scrutiny for their quality of play and minimal star power. This summer, a surge in penalty flags have added six excruciating minutes to the average game compared to the 2013 preseason.

One day, the preseason might be a chip in negotiations for an 18-game season. For now, however, the NFL is moving toward a unique strategy for perpetuating what seems to be a new vision for the preseason: Lowering expectations.

Fans who attended Sunday night's game at University of Phoenix Stadium bought tickets as part of the Cardinals' variable pricing plan. Season-ticket holders paid as low as $30 per seat. Depending on their location, some seats were discounted more than 50 percent from key regular-season games.

About a third of the NFL's teams have implemented this approach, one that is widely used in other sports, and they reflect a basic and fair acknowledgement from owners: Pretend games populated mostly by backup players shouldn't cost the same as the real ones played by the stars. And for those who still don't want any part of the preseason, the lower price point might make the tickets easier to re-sell.

"This variable pricing, some people feel like that's a way to solve the preseason issue," Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said, "in terms of quality of play and what you're paying. If you reduce the prices by 50 percent, people will feel better about it."

For season-ticket holders, of course, variable pricing is all about perception. The total cost of most season packages, according to Murphy, are unchanged. Games are now classified in cost tiers, and the loss in preseason revenue is recaptured by increases in key games during the regular season. The Cardinals, for instance, have three price points for each ticket: preseason, prime and premium.

Is it enough to appease fans and sponsors? Does a cheaper ticket recast the preseason in a more palatable way? That question might take a few years to answer. What we know now is that the league's teams and football operations arm have intensified their use of the preseason for experimentation and alternative approaches while increasingly protecting star players from injuries.

Murphy's Packers, for instance, did not use quarterback Aaron Rodgers in their first preseason game. During the next two weeks, Rodgers threw 33 passes in 69 snaps. The New England Patriots took almost an identical approach with quarterback Tom Brady (31 passes, 66 snaps). Both could sit out the preseason finale Thursday night, and Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson isn't expected to take a preseason carry for the third consecutive season.

Meanwhile, place-kickers spent the first two weeks of the preseason attempting 33-yard extra points. And finally, the NFL's decision to use the preseason as a re-training ground for legal pass defense has led to a five-fold increase in illegal contact and defensive holding penalties. The three-week sum for those penalties (230) is approaching the 17-week total from the 2013 regular season (285).

Overall, penalties (accepted and declined) are up nearly 30 percent compared to the 2013 preseason. The ensuing panic prompted vice president of officiating Dean Blandino to make the media rounds to reassure everyone -- players, coaches, fans, media members -- that the surge is temporary.

"As preseason continues and into the regular season," Blandino said on ESPN Radio , "those numbers will start to regulate."

The gush of penalties has lengthened these games, but the quality of play has probably made the games seem longer than they really were. The average preseason game in 2014 (186 minutes) has actually been shorter than the average game during the 2013 regular season (190), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

No one knows the future of the NFL preseason. It could well be truncated if the league moves to an 18-game regular season, and the emergence of dual training camp practices provides a lower-key alternative. The summer of 2014, however, has offered us a vision for future years: Cheaper tickets for dramatized practices, a stage for rule experimentation and a platform for adjusting style of play. Will you buy it? The NFL hopes so.

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