NFL Nation: Cendric Benson

AP Photo/Tony Tribble
Cincinnati's first-round draft pick Andre Smith has finally signed with the team.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

As the second-to-last rookie to sign a contract, Cincinnati Bengals rookie tackle Andre Smith knows he has a lot of catching up to do. Smith ended the 30-day stalemate Sunday evening when he agreed to a contract worth a maximum of six years and $42 million.

In the spring, it was a given that Smith would be the starting right tackle in Week 1 when Cincinnati plays host to the Denver Broncos. He had taken all the first-team reps in minicamp and team workouts.

But months later Smith has suddenly become an unknown commodity -- at least for the time being. Smith has missed all of training camp and three preseason games to date. This week is the first time Bengals coaches are allowed to evaluate Smith to see where he currently stands physically and mentally.

"It was like, more or less, being a freshman out there getting back to football, running around and having fun with the guys," Smith said Sunday via telephone. "I'm talking about every single play to the coach, because I'm trying to catch up. So it's actually exciting."

Smith, the No. 6 overall pick, said all he wanted to do from Day 1 was play football. But the NFL is big business and usually that takes precedent before anything else can happen on the field.

Smith was one of just two draft picks who missed all of training camp and the first three preseason games. San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, the No. 10 overall pick, remains unsigned.

Ironically, the contract for No. 7 overall pick-Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey affected negotiations for Smith and Crabtree. Each felt he deserved more money than Heyward-Bey's $38.25-million deal. Oakland gave Heyward-Bey a great deal that provided a significant raise for the seventh pick, which altered the market.

Smith's agent Alvin Keels naturally felt his client deserved more as he was slotted one spot higher than Heyward-Bey. That led to a major snag in what was already a tough negotiation with Cincinnati, which was not willing to bend as easily as Oakland. A month later a compromise was reached in an incentive-laden deal that satisfied both parties.

With the dollars out of the way, now it's time to make sense of where Smith fits with the team.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is high on Smith's abilities and has left the door open for Smith to contribute right away. Anthony Collins has taken all the first-team reps this summer and is the team's starting right tackle. But really it's all up to Smith, who spent the summer working out independently in Alabama, to prove his readiness.

Ideally the Bengals would like Smith to see his first NFL action Thursday in the preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts. That will help the team evaluate where he stands before the regular season begins Sept. 13. Cincinnati won't make the determination this week until Wednesday at the earliest once the coaches had a chance to monitor Smith through several practices.

"He has a lot of work to do," Lewis said. "But he knows the challenge ahead of him to make an impact on our team as soon as possible."

History is not on Smith's side.

This is the third consecutive year a rookie has held out for 30 days or more, and the two previous examples didn't work out very well.

Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell (42 days) and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Derrick Harvey (33 days) both missed at least the first month with their teams and went on to have meager rookie campaigns.

Russell was the top pick in 2007 and didn't see playing time until late in the season. He threw for just 373 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions and is still struggling to find his way in his third NFL season. Harvey, the No. 8 overall pick in 2008, recorded just 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks his first year as Jacksonville finished a disappointing 5-11.

Even within Smith's own locker room, he can turn to horror stories from new teammates Keith Rivers and Cedric Benson.

Similar to Smith, Benson missed all of training camp when the Chicago Bears made him the fourth overall pick in 2005. His career never got off the ground as Benson rushed for just 272 his rookie year and was released two seasons later. Last season, Rivers missed a relatively modest 10 days of training camp and played well. But his rookie year was cut short via injury after seven games.

According to Smith, getting up to speed physically will be his biggest adjustment.

"I expect probably a little bit of the physical [challenges], because you have to be in football shape," Smith said. "I'm actually a great learner as far as football. I came from a great system coming out of college and I've been through OTAs and rookie minicamp. So I'm actually not that far behind the guys. I think it's more or less the physical aspect."

On the HBO series "Hard Knocks," the Bengals poked fun of Smith's absence. The contract dispute was a serious situation, but teammates made light of it through skits that aired on national television, which Smith said he's taking in stride.

"It was all fun and games," Smith shrugged. "Anyone could easily be [upset] about the situation, but not me. I was OK with it. It was funny. It was entertaining. So I had a great time watching it."

Now those teammates have to deal with the 335-pound Smith every day in practice, as well as the rest of the NFL on Sundays. If Smith is able to avoid the perils of past rookies with long contract disputes and catch up to speed quickly, he could end up having the last laugh.

"Our vision of him is simply as a physically dominating player on our offensive line," Lewis said. "And we know that this guy wants to be very, very good."
Thirty- day jinx?
Here is a recent list of rookies who missed 30 days or more in contract disputes.
Pos./Player Year Teams Holdout Rookie stats
QB/JaMarcus Russell 2007 Oakland 42 days 373 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INT
DE/Derrick Harvey 2008 Jacksonville 33 days 19 tackles, 3.5 sacks
OT/Andre Smith 2009 Cincinnati 30 days ???

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

In a division filled with quality defenses, it was only fitting that a young, up-and-coming linebacker caught the most attention of his AFC North peers.

In the closest vote of the entire player survey, Cincinnati Bengals second-year linebacker Keith Rivers edged linebacker Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn by one vote to become the 2009 pick for breakout player.

This offseason, ESPN.com granted anonymity to 32 players -- eight from each AFC North team -- on select topics that will be revealed throughout July. The players surveyed could not vote for themselves or their teammates.

AFC North Breakout Player
As voted by 32 anonymous players in the division:
Player Pos. Team Votes
1. Keith Rivers LB Bengals 6
(Tie) 2. Lawrence Timmons LB Steelers 5
Brady Quinn QB Browns 5
4. Brian Robiskie WR Browns 3
(Tie) 5. D'Qwell Jackson LB Browns 2
Chris Henry WR Bengals 2
Joe Flacco QB Ravens 2
(tie) 8. Cedric Benson RB Bengals 1
Limas Sweed WR Steelers 1
Eric Wright CB Browns 1
Rey Maualuga LB Bengals 1
Carey Davis FB Steelers 1
Santonio Holmes WR Steelers 1
Syndric Steptoe WR Browns 1
* Note: Players surveyed could not vote for themselves or teammates.

Rivers led an extremely diverse group of breakout players with six votes, while Timmons and Quinn received five votes apiece. An astounding 14 different players were selected, which was the most of any survey question. They ranged from all different positions such as receivers linebackers, tailback, and even a fullback (Carey Davis of Pittsburgh).

But in the end, Rivers stood atop the list.

"It means a lot," Rivers told ESPN.com after learning of the results recently in Bengals minicamp. "I think it means players felt I was doing well, even though it was only through seven games. It's great to know that I had an effect on the guys in this league that I play against, and I just hope to build on that."

So far, defensive players have dominated this year's AFC North survey. In addition to Rivers, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu were voted by opponents as the best all-around and smartest player in the division, respectively.

The definition of a breakout player can vary. So ESPN.com did not preclude anyone from being chosen for this particular category. For instance, if a player surveyed thought Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could be considered a breakout player, despite two Super Bowl victories, he went on the list.

 
  Tom Hauck/Getty Images
  Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers had his rookie season cut short by a broken jaw.

This explains several votes for players such as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who broke through last year in leading his team to the AFC title game, or Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes, who was the Super Bowl XLIII MVP in February. But minus those two exceptions, AFC North players were pretty unified across the board on what they considered a breakthrough season.

In 2008, Rivers broke his jaw in the seventh game, which ended his first NFL season. At the time of his injury, Rivers was a candidate for defensive rookie of the year honors and finished with 37 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble.

Rivers got to play every team in the division once last season, which was enough to earn the respect of his peers.

"He's solid," said one rival player who voted for Rivers. "I think this could be a good year for him."

Other notable players who received multiple votes included another young linebacker in Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson (2), who led the NFL in tackles last season, and a pair of receivers in Brian Robiskie (3) and Chris Henry (2).

Said one future opponent of the rookie Robiskie: "He's a polished receiver and his dad [Terry] being a coach will help his learning process."

Another AFC North player had an even bigger projection for Henry.

"I bet he gets 1,000 yards this year," the player said confidently.

AFC, NFC Breakout Players
ESPN.com's NFL experts have teamed up to examine "The State of NFL Nation," a weeklong look at the biggest questions facing the league. In this installment, we take on 2009 breakout stars.
AFC | NFC

Overall, every division team had at least one representative. The Browns had the most players selected for this particular category with five. But the fact that 14 players total were chosen for this survey question also highlights the depth of young players in the AFC North.

"It's great because I think it brings more competition to our division," Rivers said. "I think this is one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, and with the continued young, great players that we're getting in this division it makes it that much better."

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

  Benson

The Cincinnati Bengals retained their starting tailback from last season, agreeing to terms with Cedric Benson for a two-year, $7 million contract according to ESPN.com's John Clayton.

Cincinnati went after free agent running back Derrick Ward initially. But once Ward agreed to go to Tampa Bay, the Bengals shifted their focus back to Benson, who finished the year strong for Cincinnati.

Benson has come a long way from being out of football at the beginning of 2008 to having the Bengals pay him an average of $3.5 million per year to be their starter. He rushed for 740 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games last season.

In other news for the Bengals, free agent receiver Laveranues Coles left his visit in Cincinnati Tuesday without a deal. The Bengals are searching for veteran help at receiver following the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the Seattle Seahawks.

SPONSORED HEADLINES