NFL Nation: Dave Rayner

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys did not know what they had when they signed Dan Bailey as an undrafted free agent.

They did not know what they had in him with a week to go in the preseason, either. By that time the Cowboys had five kickers on the roster: David Buehler, who held the kicking job in 2010, Bailey, Shayne Graham, Kai Forbath, an undrafted free agent like Bailey but injured, and veteran Dave Rayner.

[+] EnlargeDan Bailey
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDan Bailey has made 88 of 98 field goal attempts in his three seasons.
The Cowboys missed three out of four field goal attempts in the final preseason game against the Miami Dolphins; one from Buehler and two from Rayner.

By not kicking that night, Bailey elevated himself.

About to enter his fourth season, the Cowboys rewarded Bailey last week with a seven-year, $22.5 million deal that makes him among the top 10 highest-paid kickers in the NFL. And for those believing the Cowboys made more of a mess of their salary cap with the signing, Bailey’s cap number in 2014 is less than what it would have been if they had given him the second-round tender as a restricted free agent.

“That was a huge advantage looking back at it now, to go up against guys like Shayne and they brought in Dave Rayner, guys that have been kicking in the league a while and been real successful,” Bailey said. “At the time, I was just trying to keep my head down and do my own things. I think it was invaluable to get that competition early on to nail down the job.”

It taught Bailey that every kick is a new chance. A previous make does not guarantee success. A previous miss does not guarantee failure.

Bailey has made 89 of 98 field goal attempts in his career. He has missed just two kicks in each of the last two seasons. The pressure of winning the job out of a lockout as an undrafted rookie helped prepare Bailey for end-of-game moments. His eight game-winning kicks in three seasons are a franchise record.

“I don’t think it changes too much,” Bailey said of any added pressure because of the contract. “You’re only as good as your last kick. That’s the nature of the league. You have to bring your ‘A’ game every day to practice, to the game, even off the field. You’ve got to do the right things. I don’t think it’ll have too much of an impact. I think I take pride on being mentally strong enough to put that on the back burner and focus on the task at hand.”

Bailey’s leg strength was a question when he arrived, but he had a career-high 52 touchbacks in 2013 after just 54 in his first two seasons. He also made 6 of 7 attempts from 50 yards or more after making only 5 of 9 tries in his first two years from 50 yards or more.

“A lot of it had to do with just improving my leg strength and explosiveness, that stuff I did in the offseason, but just as much as that it was just a mentality,” Bailey said. “We practice a lot of those in camp and in practice and even in the offseason. Just getting back there and kicking long field goals, it was creating more of a comfort level for myself to know those kicks do come up in games.”

For the first time in his career, Bailey will not have Chris Boniol as a kicking coach. Boniol and the Cowboys agreed to part ways in the offseason, leaving Bailey and punter Chris Jones to improve without the watchful eye of an NFL veteran.

“He was a great asset to have,” Bailey said. “He was a guy I looked up to because he’d been literally in the same shoes I’ve been in.”

Carson Palmer is active

October, 23, 2011
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OAKLAND -- Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer is active. The Raiders have not announced who will start.

Palmer has been on the field warning up since shortly after 1 p.m. ET. ESPN’s Colleen Dominquez has reported that the decision if Palmer plays will be up to him. The Oakland coaching staff is going to let Palmer decide if he is comfortable enough physically and emotionally to play. He hasn’t played since Jan. 2. Oakland gave up a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional first-round pick in 2013 to Cincinnati for Palmer on Tuesday, two days after starter Jason Campbell broke his collarbone.

If Palmer doesn’t play Sunday, Kyle Boller will start. Rookie quarterback Terrelle Pryor is active for the first time this season.

Meanwhile, Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski is inactive with a hamstring injury. Oakland signed Dave Rayner to kick.

Oakland linebacker Rolando McClain is active after missing all week of practice with a foot injury.

Kansas City rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin is expected to make his debut Sunday.

Campbell is on the Oakland sideline. He had surgery Monday.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting the Raiders will sign Dave Rayner to kick Sunday against Kansas City.

Star Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski has a hamstring injury. There is hope he will be back to play when the Raiders return from their bye at home Nov. 6 against Denver.

Losing Janikowski, even for a game, is a hit for the Raiders. He has an amazing leg and he has shown great accuracy this season, making 12-of-13 field-goal attempts. The addition of Rayner means the Raiders are going to have to get as close to the end zone as possible. With Janikowski, the chance for points is still in play if the Raiders can get to their opponent's 40-yard line.

Rayner, 28, was chosen by the Raiders after he was among a group of kickers to try out Friday. The Raiders’ will be his eight NFL team. He has also played with the Chiefs and Chargers, both in 2007.

In other AFC West nuggets Saturday:

An Insider piece looks at the winner label on new Denver starting quarterback Tim Tebow and whether it will hold true in the NFL.

Congrats to former Kansas City and San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer. He led his UFL team, the Virginia Destroyers, to the league title Friday. And people said Schottenheimer couldn’t win when it counts.

Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine offers a scouting report on Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers, who will face the Jets on Sunday.

Former Denver quarterback Jake Plummer feels for former Denver starter Kyle Orton. Like Orton, Plummer was replaced as the Broncos’ quarterback during the season (in 2006). He abruptly retired after the season.

As expected, Jackie Battle is the Chiefs’ lead runner. Why not? He had 119 yards on 19 carries in Week 5. He needs to be given more opportunities to show he can salvage the Chiefs’ run offense in light of Jamaal Charles’ season-ending knee injury.

NFC North Stock Watch

September, 27, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Concern about Ryan Grant's future: The veteran Green Bay Packers running back didn't exactly roar back from his ankle injury in the first two weeks of the season, totaling 65 yards on 15 carries. But against the Chicago Bears this past Sunday, Grant broke through for 92 yards on 17 carries and emerged relatively unscathed from a hit to his ribs. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said: "Ryan was Ryan today for the first time this season. He ran the ball hard. He made the right cuts." I'm sure the Packers aren't going to forget about second-year back James Starks, but Grant's performance was a reminder that this team has two legitimate options in the backfield.

2. Game-day awareness: Two weeks ago, the Bears allowed offensive coordinator Mike Martz to call passing plays more than 80 percent of the time in what was mostly a close game against the New Orleans Saints. Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings unintentionally limited tailback Adrian Peterson to a total of five carries in the second half against the Detroit Lions. In each case, Bears coach Lovie Smith and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier expressed regret the next day. You have to wonder about game-day communication when such an obvious trend goes unnoticed, or at least unaddressed, until it's too late.

3. Roy Williams, Bears receiver: Williams returned from a groin injury but continues to look totally out of sync with quarterback Jay Cutler, and it wasn't clear if he was even running at 100 percent because of the injury. Cutler threw four passes toward Williams. Two were intercepted and two fell incomplete. With Earl Bennett sidelined by a chest injury, the Bears really need Williams to step up as an option. But it seems increasingly unlikely that it will happen.

[+] EnlargeJason Hanson
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJason Hanson came through in a big way for the Lions on Sunday.
RISING

1. Jason Hanson, Detroit Lions place-kicker: It's hard to believe that we spent time this summer discussing whether Hanson was nearing the end of his career. The Lions had a legitimate competitor in Dave Rayner, but Hanson never appeared challenged. This past Sunday, he drilled all four field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder that might have been good from 60. Even at age 41, Hanson appears to have one of the most accurate deep legs in the league. He has converted all eight attempts this season, including two from at least 50 yards, and is tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 touchbacks on kickoffs. The man is in his 20th NFL season.

2. Jarius Wynn, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle: How many of you had Wynn as the Packers' leading pass-rusher after three weeks? I wouldn't have guessed it. Wynn had his way with the Bears' offensive line last Sunday and now has three sacks on the season. The only other Packers player with more than one sack is cornerback Jarrett Bush (1.5). Much as C.J. Wilson did last year, Wynn is taking advantage of Mike Neal's latest injury to establish a permanent role. I can't say I spent a lot of time studying Wynn during the preseason, but on Sunday, he appeared powerful and aggressive and fully capable of capitalizing on attention paid to linebacker Clay Matthews. (And before you ask, the answer is "no." I don't think anyone should have concerns about Matthews' total of one sack this season. I feel like he's still affecting games, especially in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. And Sunday, all three of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage.)

3. Tight end play: We just saw a glimpse of the kind of tight-end production the NFC North could see on a weekly basis. Our top four tight ends combined for five touchdowns in Week 3. The Packers' Jermichael Finley had three of them, while the Bears' Kellen Davis had a 32-yard score and the Vikings' Visanthe Shiancoe had an 8-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew recorded 11 receptions for 112 yards and is tied for third among all NFL tight ends this season with 16 catches.

Dallas Cowboys cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
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Click here for a complete list of the Dallas Cowboys' roster moves.

Biggest surprise: I guess that they released four fullbacks, including Chris Gronkowski, meaning they kept none. They're obviously deep at tailback with Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, DeMarco Murray and Phillip Tanner and at tight end as well, so they either didn't see the need to use a fullback this season or are content with the idea of picking one off the scrap heap within the next couple of weeks. Other than that, I didn't find any of the cuts especially surprising. Igor Olshansky started 28 of their 32 games the past two seasons, so he's the biggest name among the cuts. But we'd seen this one coming for a while. It was clear that new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan preferred Kenyon Coleman at defensive end, and that the Cowboys weren't going to be afraid to cut ties with established veterans.

No-brainers: Kickers Shayne Graham and Dave Rayner had their chances to win jobs but couldn't, so they're gone and the Cowboys will go with David Buehler for kickoffs and Dan Bailey for field goals. Lonyae Miller showed promise early but was passed by Tanner for the lone spot in the crowded running back field. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah clearly wasn't panning out at safety in spite of being the team's fourth-round draft pick in 2010.

What's next: With only five wide receivers on the roster, the Cowboys could theoretically hunt around for veteran help there. But they believe the receiving ability of their tight ends and running backs minimizes the importance of adding there. They will surely continue looking for a kicker, because
they're obviously not satisfied with what they have, and they may be on the lookout for added depth in the secondary. They kept 10 offensive linemen, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to see them bringing someone in from the outside if they can find a reliable veteran backup for some of their young starters.
The Detroit Lions are next up to the roster reduction plate. Among eight players released Monday morning were place-kicker Dave Rayner and running back Mike Bell.

Rayner's departure presumably returns the job to veteran Jason Hanson, who missed the second half of last season due to a knee injury. Hanson reported to training camp healthy and has converted both of his field goal attempts this preseason. And any concerns about his kickoffs at age 41 are mitigated by the NFL's offseason adjustment to the 35-yard line.

Rayner made some big kicks for the Lions last season and had converted two of three field goals during the preseason. But the Lions know that as long as Hanson is healthy, he is one of the NFL's top place-kickers.

In addition to Rayner and Bell, the Lions also released a fan favorite in receiver Demario Ballard. The full list is available on the team's website. The Lions must make two more cuts to comply with NFL guidelines by Tuesday.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 15, 2011
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The same question surfaced at every stop on my NFC North training camp tour. In some form or fashion, division rivals wanted to know: Have the Detroit Lions improved as much as advertised?

After all, Lions Fever long ago engulfed the blog/region/nation. A four-game winning streak to end 2010, the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and an exciting draft class all suggested the Lions were ready to break free from a decade of disappointment.

But even after spending three days in the Detroit suburbs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the 2011 Lions. What I saw was Lions Lite.

By the time I arrived at Lions camp, the team’s top three draft choices -- defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure -- had been sidelined by significant injuries. Left tackle Jeff Backus (pectoral) wasn’t practicing and neither was backup Jason Fox (foot). Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen after suffering an ankle injury.

What’s important, however, is that the franchise had neither panicked nor fallen into a funk. Leshoure’s is the only season-ending injury, and it was obvious even to an amateur observer that the Lions still have a talented collection of players on the practice field, one that romped to a 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in its preseason opener Friday night. Many in that collection are entering their third year in the same system, and all them are determined to give us something the NFC North has never seen: a four-team division.

"This team can be great," said receiver Rashied Davis, a part of two Chicago Bears teams that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. "I really think that. It is a great bunch of guys and there really is tons of talent."

THREE BIG ISSUES

1. Backus' status: The Lions are equipped to absorb injuries at many positions, but left tackle isn’t one of them. Fox’s injury has only exacerbated the issue and left the Lions using players who would otherwise be relegated to their third team at the most important position on the line.

Torn pectoral muscles usually require season-ending surgery. The Lions haven’t revealed the severity of the injury, but their insistence that Backus will be ready for the regular-season opener suggests the muscle isn’t completely torn. Backus hasn’t missed a game in his 10 previous seasons, and quite frankly the Lions are banking on his durability in this instance.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford has looked strong during training camp.
"You've just got to go on history there," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He has started 160 straight games. … Jeff is obviously experienced and is a hard worker and doesn’t need every single rep in training camp. We can afford to take it slow with him and get him back the right way rather than have to rush him back too soon."

In the end, the question isn’t likely to be whether Backus plays, but if the injury has (temporarily) diminished his effectiveness. After all, an offensive lineman needs full extension and strength in his arms to ward off pass-rushers.

2. Stafford's return: I know it might ring hollow for those of you concerned about his health, but Stafford was zinging the ball all over the field during my time in Lions camp. He is now completely at ease in coordinator Scott Linehan’s offense and clearly bulked up this offseason to better prepare for the rigors of a 16-game season.

I saw Stafford loft 25-yard touch passes into the back of the end zone just as easily as he rifled 30-yard ropes over the middle. I realize that practice throws don't always predict game performance, and I know that his biggest challenge is durability and not ability. But to the extent that he could over three days of camp, Stafford sure looked like a quarterback who is ready to break through to NFL stardom.

"It's hard because he’s missed a lot of time on field," Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he’s taken in this offense. He spends a lot of time with the players, with the system and in the building. It’s not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He’s spot-on. He’s going to have a great career. I really think that."

3. Secondary issues are now secondary: The Lions' systematic rebuild of their defense is now two-thirds complete. They’ve built one of the best defensive lines in the game. They have three credible starters at linebacker. All that remains is the secondary.

Right?

The Lions weren't as worried about their secondary during the early portion of training camp as some other people were. Safety Louis Delmas has been a constant presence, having regained his health following offseason surgery on his groin. Cornerback Chris Houston re-signed after a brief foray on the free-agent market, strong safety Amari Spievey reported to training camp in good physical condition and new cornerback Eric Wright has been a consistent playmaker during team workouts.

I saw Wright end a team drill with a strong anticipatory interception of Stafford. A few days later, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had this hyperbolic but revealing assessment: "To me, there’s only one athlete like this in the NFL. And he’s old. That’s Champ Bailey. [Wright] is a pure, one of the most outstanding athletes to come out of the draft in a long time."

The Lions have some decent depth behind Wright and Houston. Aaron Berry has again impressed coaches when he has been healthy, and the Lions should get back Alphonso Smith (foot) before the start of the regular season.

The secondary might be a weak link on a relative scale, but it might not be as weak as some might have feared.

BEST RELATIONSHIP

A second consecutive offseason spent working together has left Stafford and Calvin Johnson in position to do some serious damage. It’s obvious to anyone watching Lions practice that the two have developed a level of chemistry that only time can bring.

"I feel like he trusts me that I'm going to put the ball in a good place to give him a chance," Stafford said, "and I definitely trust him when I put it up there that he's going to come down with it or nobody is."

Injuries have limited the two to 13 games over the past two seasons, but there is a feeling in Lions camp that the pair is ready to break out in 2011. The duo got off to a strong start Friday night on a back-shoulder touchdown pass to end the Lions’ first possession.

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFinding a backup option to running back Jahvid Best remains a priority for the Lions.
UNANSWERED QUESTION

What is the true impact of Leshoure’s injury? It’s hard to know because we’re not entirely sure how the Lions planned to use Leshoure and Jahvid Best. Was Leshoure going to be the change of pace? Or was Best?

If Leshoure continued his early-camp performance, it’s very possible it could have been the latter. Best himself said the team had given him no indication whether he would get 20 carries per game, 10 carries per game or fewer.

"I was figuring that about midway through the preseason it was really going to start to show," Best said.

So what now? For the short term, at least, Best is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 back. In Friday night’s preseason opener, Best was either the ball carrier or the intended target on seven of 11 plays run by the Lions’ first-team offense.

But if the Lions’ aggressive move to draft Leshoure told us anything, it's that they don’t want Best carrying the entire load. The first candidate to be his running mate is newcomer Jerome Harrison, who was the first back off the bench Friday night. It’s too early to know if Harrison is up to the job, but the Lions really want to get Best some help -- from somewhere.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • For the first time in a long time, place-kicker Jason Hanson isn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster. For that matter, the Lions also have a legitimate challenger to punter Nick Harris in Ryan Donahue. But Hanson’s roster battle with Dave Rayner has generated some attention. Schwartz said that "everyone on our 90-man camp roster has a chance to make the team." He noted that Hanson is kicking "very well," as is Rayner. "It’s a good situation for us," Schwartz said. Both kickers were booming kickoffs well into the end zone during my stay at camp. (Given the NFL’s shift of kickoffs to the 35-yarde line, that’s to be expected.)
  • Cunningham joked (I think) that he "took the over" on the pre-camp weight of Spievey and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill. He was pleasantly surprised. The Lions are especially pleased with the way Spievey has taken ownership of his position. He looked lean and active during the early part of camp and appeared healthy as well. "Amari's in great shape," Cunningham said. "His communication skill is much higher than it was, and he and Delmas really know each other."
  • Most linebacker groups have a run-stopping plodder who is an obvious candidate to leave the field in the nickel. But with DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the Lions really don’t have one. Tulloch was leaving in the nickel during the portion of camp I watched, but he is a quick linebacker in his own right, and Schwartz insisted the Lions will mix and match their nickel lineups this season. "Our group gives us the flexibility to do that," he said.
  • Coaches couldn’t stop raving about Rashied Davis’ impact on the locker room. "There’s a guy I can’t say enough about," Linehan said. "That’s the kind of pro you want to have. I’m able to show the young guys that this is a 32-year-old veteran that is a special-teamer. Been in this league X amount of years because he just does everything 100 percent and right. That’s just been a great example for those guys."
  • One of my favorite sights of Lions’ training camp the past two years: veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch’s insistence that he touch the ball on every play. Sometimes that means reaching one step over from his current position. Often, however, it means chasing a ball carrier as far as 30 yards downfield. By the way, it appears Vanden Bosch is fully recovered from neck surgery that ended his first season with the Lions.
  • Will Wright re-establish his career with the Lions? He has the raw skills to do so, and now he has a defensive line that will, without question, make his job easier. "The D-line plays hard and it’s relentless," Wright said. "It’s contagious. From a total defensive standpoint, those guys rub off on us, especially the defensive backs."

Scramble'11: Lions get rolling

July, 27, 2011
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While we await word on the Detroit Lions' pursuit of linebacker Stephen Tulloch, let's pass along several moves the Lions have completed.

Safety John Wendling has agreed to terms on a three-year contract and quarterback Drew Stanton has re-upped on a one-year deal, according to ESPN's John Clayton. Wendling was a Pro Bowl alternate last season after making 30 special teams tackles. Stanton will resume his role as the No. 3 quarterback for at least one more season.

The Lions have now brought back three of their unrestricted free agents: Wendling, Stanton and place-kicker Dave Rayner.

Wrap-up: Bills 14, Lions 12

November, 14, 2010
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A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions’ debacle in Buffalo:

What it means: The Lions broke their own NFL record by losing their 25th consecutive game on the road, dropping to 2-7 amid the some of the most dreary circumstances of their season. The Bills, by the way, entered the game 0-8.

Cutting deeply: The Lions have lost some heartbreakers this season, but this one appears to have hit especially hard. Trailing 14-3, they scored nine points in the final 5 minutes, 53 seconds of the game. The Lions were in position to force overtime if they had converted a two-point play, but quarterback Shaun Hill couldn’t find an open receiver in the end zone. Afterwards, receiver Bryant Johnson tweeted “So frustrated and disappointed. Disgusted.” Johnson also apologized to Lions fans for the loss.

Ick and yuck: There has to be a level of self-destruction involved when you lose to an 0-8 team, and the Lions cooperated with 11 penalties. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News notes seven of those penalties were false starts or offensive holding. Early on, I was also questioning whether the Lions made the right decision in bringing back Hill a month after he fractured his forearm. Hill looked pretty rusty and inaccurate, but you can’t argue with the way he brought the Lions back in the fourth quarter.

Inefficient: How do you run up 390 yards and score only 12 points? You miss on 14 of 19 third-down conversions and don’t convert all of your field goal attempts. I don’t blame newcomer Dave Rayner for missing on a tough 49-yarder in the rain, but being perfect elsewhere is the only way to compensate for poor a poor performance on third down.

Ole! I hate to keep harping on Lions linebacker Julian Peterson, who seems like a nice enough fellow and was once a dominant player. But I don’t think he’s going to want to watch the film of his missed tackle on Fred Jackson’s 16-yard touchdown reception. Jackson slowed around the 10-yard line and then easily slipped through Peterson’s attempt at an arm tackle to reach the end zone.

What’s next: The Lions will play at the Dallas Cowboys next Sunday.

Kicker Mike Nugent gets monthly award

September, 30, 2010
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Cincinnati Bengals kicker Mike Nugent was awarded the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month Thursday. He made all eight field-goal attempts, which included two of 50 yards or longer.

Nugent also made all five extra points for the Bengals (2-1), who will travel to play the Cleveland Browns (0-3) Sunday in the "Battle of Ohio." Nugent beat out Dave Rayner for Cincinnati's kicking job in training camp.

Last year Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom also won the AFC Player of the Month award in September.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 11

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals are now the hunted, and they believe they have enough talent to prove last year's AFC North division title was no fluke.

It has been 28 years since the Bengals last posted back-to-back winning seasons. But coming off a playoff appearance and new offseason additions, this is the deepest and most talented group Marvin Lewis has coached in eight seasons.

Cincinnati's six-win improvement was one of the biggest jumps in the NFL last season. On paper, this year's team looks even better, although the Bengals have to prove they can handle a brutal first-place schedule.

"Nobody is really sleeping on you. Everybody knows that you can play," Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers said of the upcoming season. "So we have to make sure we come out swinging, because teams are going to come out swinging against us."

Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco said it would be a "shame" if Cincinnati doesn't win the Super Bowl. That's one example of how high expectations are for the Bengals, who have to address several key issues this summer if they want to make a playoff run.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
Mark Zerof/US PresswireCarson Palmer is excited about the additional weapons at his disposal this season.
1. Can the Bengals improve their passing game? Cincinnati's passing offense was a disappointment last season, particularly late in the year. The Bengals aggressively attacked the problem by adding new weapons such as first-round draft pick Jermaine Gresham and receivers Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant and Jordan Shipley.

As a result, Cincinnati could have as many as three new receivers in the top four of its rotation to join Ochocinco. And Gresham is projected to start at tight end for the Bengals, surrounding Carson Palmer with enough weapons to make any quarterback happy.

"In the grand scheme of things, we're very explosive," Palmer said.

The chemistry between Palmer and Owens is still a work in progress. The difference between Palmer's comfort level with Owens versus his comfort level with Ochocinco, whom Palmer has worked with for eight years, was noticeable in camp.

The deep ball disappeared from Cincinnati's offense during the second half of last season. But with Owens (Batman?) taking some of the pressure off Ochocinco (Robin?), and added receiver depth, expect more fireworks this year.

"What I want the focal point of this team to be is I want the offense to be our strength again," Ochocinco said this week. "I think the defense has sort of taken over the outlook as the strength of the team. I want our receiving corps and the rest of our offense to be that strength, that backbone of this team."

2. Will the Bengals' defense generate a pass rush? The Bengals were the fourth-best defense in the NFL last season. But one area where they can improve is getting to the quarterback.

Cincinnati had 34 sacks last year, which was middle of the pack at No. 16. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made it a priority to dial up new and better ways to increase the sack numbers.

The healthy return of starting defensive end Antwan Odom should help. He was the team's top pass-rusher last season until he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. The Bengals also have young, athletic players who could see playing time in passing situations such as linebacker Michael Johnson and rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

Nugent
Rayner
3. Who’s the kicker? Kickers aren't important until you need them. The Bengals know that all too well after their experience with Shayne Graham, who had a knack for missing field goals in key moments.

This summer there is an interesting competition going between journeyman kickers Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent. The two have played for a combined eight teams in their NFL careers.

Nugent is hurt this week, which may have allowed Rayner to take a slight lead. But Rayner has had his ups and downs as well. Earlier this week he made all six of his field-goal attempts, but on Wednesday Rayner was 5-for-8. He missed two 50-yard attempts that were very wide left.

Expect this competition to be settled during the preseason.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

He is not the biggest player or the fastest, but there is something about Shipley that continues to stand out in camp. He has even caught the attention of Ochocinco, who said early that the rookie has potential.

Shipley seems at home in the slot. He has a knack for getting open and has sure hands and good ball security in traffic once the catch is made. The Bengals are very deep at receiver this year, so it's questionable how big a role Shipley could have. But for now he's making the most of his opportunities.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Former first-round pick Matt Jones seems to be falling behind daily in an effort to earn a roster spot. Once a big athlete with freakish speed, Jones clearly has lost a couple of steps after taking a year away from football.

Jones also suffered a foot injury recently, which hasn't helped his case. Ochocinco, Owens, Bryant, Shipley and Andre Caldwell probably will take up five slots at the receiver position. That leaves only one or two more roster spots for Jones and several other receivers to compete for. Do not be surprised if Jones doesn't make the cut.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Mark Zerof/US PresswireTerrell Owens is still working on establishing chemistry with Carson Palmer.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Despite signing just before camp, Owens arrived in very good shape. He still has to learn the offense, but Owens has shown some flashes of what he can do. On Wednesday night, Palmer connected deep with Owens, who beat cornerback Leon Hall, streaking down the sideline for a 55-yard touchdown. The play was one of the highlights of camp thus far.
  • Bryant continues to rehab his knee. He participated in the first day of camp but has missed every practice since. The Bengals signed Bryant to a four-year, $28 million contract but he hasn't looked explosive as he continues to heal from offseason knee surgery. The team is hoping he continues to progress.
  • Watch out for second-year running back Bernard Scott. He is my sleeper pick for the Bengals this season. Scott has a chance to contribute both as Cedric Benson's backup as well as a kick returner. With increased opportunities, Scott should have increased production.
  • Adam Jones should help the Bengals in some capacity this year. His technique as a cornerback still needs improvement, but he is competing hard in practice and his physical abilities are still apparent. Jones also looks natural as a kick returner and could be an early favorite to win punt and/or kickoff return duties.
  • Although none of the injuries is major, the Bengals have been banged up this week. Fullback Fui Vakapuna hurt his shoulder and missed practice time. Dunlap suffered a concussion. Linebacker Rey Maualuga injured his hamstring and cornerback Johnathan Joseph also had a thigh injury.
  • The Bengals don't have a lot of depth at fullback, but the position might not be as important as it once was. Cincinnati's offensive personnel dictates the team will run a lot of three-wide receiver and two-tight end sets. In both instances, the fullback will be taken off the field.
  • I have not been impressed with Cincinnati's pass protection early in camp. You cannot see everything, because players cannot touch the quarterback. But the number of defenders getting in the passing lanes has been noticeable. That will be something to keep an eye on in the preseason.
  • I'll exit with a prediction: I have a sneaky feeling the Bengals will keep only two quarterbacks this season. Cincinnati has waves and waves of players at other positions, and cutting the No. 3 quarterback -- most likely Jordan Palmer -- is one way the Bengals can save a roster spot to retain an extra receiver, defensive back or linebacker. Carson Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan would be the team's quarterbacks, while the Bengals could always add Jordan Palmer or someone else down the road in the event of an emergency.
CINCINNATI -- The defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their mandatory minicamp Thursday.

[+] EnlargeJordan Shipley
AP Photo/Al BehrmanJordan Shipley has displayed very sure hands throughout minicamp.
Here are some final notes and observations:

  • Let’s start with the stars of minicamp. On offense, I thought receiver Jordan Shipley was very impressive. The third-round pick caught everything this week. He's already developing a good rapport with quarterback Carson Palmer, and Shipley has a good knack for finding the open seams of the defense. Defensively, starting cornerback Leon Hall recorded two picks in team drills and nearly made a third after jumping a route Thursday. One of his interceptions was returned for a touchdown.
  • Third-year receiver Jerome Simpson had a very good practice Thursday. He made several spectacular catches, which is what the Bengals were expecting when they drafted him in the second round in 2008. But there were also some drops from Simpson this week. Consistency will be key if he's to make the 53-man roster.
  • On the injury front, Antonio Bryant (veteran's rest) and safety Roy Williams (groin) sat out the final practice. Right tackle Andre Smith (foot), linebacker Rey Maualuga (ankle) and running back Bernard Scott (ankle) missed all of minicamp but are expected to return for training camp.
  • One thing is apparent defensively: Cincinnati wants to get after the quarterback. The Bengals are making more aggressive changes to improve their sack total from a year ago. Cincinnati was ranked No. 16 in the NFL with 34 sacks. The Bengals have very strong cornerbacks with Johnathan Joseph and Hall, which should help with coverage on the back end when bringing extra defenders.
  • Hall, Joseph and Palmer received their Pro Football Writers Association awards for the 2009 season. Both cornerbacks credited one another for helping win team co-MVPs. Palmer also said he was honored to win the Good Guy Award because his locker room had other good candidates.
  • Finally, I kept a close eye on Cincinnati's kicking competition this week but not much was decided. Mike Nugent was a 12 for 12 in field goal attempts this week, and Dave Rayner was 11 for 12, missing only a 55-yard attempt. At this rate, don't expect anything to be decided until late in the preseason.

Bengals minicamp observations

June, 16, 2010
6/16/10
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CINCINNATI -- The reigning AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals had their second day of minicamp Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Gresham
Frank Victores/US PresswireRookie Jermaine Gresham has been impressive during offseason workouts.
Here are some notes and observations:

  • I've been really impressed with two rookie draft picks: first-round tight end Jermaine Gresham and third-round receiver Jordan Shipley. Both players are producing as advertised in minicamp with a lot of receptions. They also seem to have a knack for finding openings in the defense. It's early, but both rookies could turn out to be key contributors for the Bengals.
  • Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco admitted that he's not as sharp in his return Tuesday. But he already looks better in his second day of minicamp than he did his first. Ochocinco made a pair of tip-toe sideline catches that were vintage Ochocinco. Both throws came from quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw ropes to Ochocinco through tight coverage.
  • The safety rotation in Cincinnati will be interesting to watch. On Wednesday morning, last year's starters -- Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe -- were getting reps with the first team. But Gibril Wilson and Roy Williams are also getting important reps. Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle said this is the deepest and most experienced group of safeties he's ever coached in Cincinnati. Their roles probably will not be decided until late in the preseason.
  • There are also a host of kick and punt returners competing for the Bengals. Those getting kick return reps this week were Shipley, receiver Andre Caldwell and cornerback Adam Jones. Those receiving punt return reps were Shipley, Jones and receiver Quan Cosby. Of the group, I thought Jones looked good and surprisingly natural returning kicks, considering he was out of football in 2009.
  • So far there's not much separation between kickers Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent. Both are kicking well in minicamp. Rayner and Nugent combined to make all eight field goals in Wednesday morning's practice. The kicking job opened in Cincinnati when former longtime Bengals kicker Shayne Graham left in free agency and signed a contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 26, 2010
3/26/10
1:00
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NFC Under-The-Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Under-the-radar needs.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens posted a tremendous No. 3 ranking in total defense in 2009. But often lost in that ranking was the fact Baltimore had just 32 sacks in 16 games, which was 18th in the NFL. The Ravens need to generate a better pass rush, either by acquiring help via the draft or getting more production from their current players. For example, three-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs suffered through injuries and had a career-low 4.5 sacks. He needs to have a bounce-back season. The lack of pass rush also hurt Baltimore's pass coverage.

Cincinnati Bengals

Can someone who didn't kick in 2009 and who has bounced around with eight teams -- including a brief stint in Cincinnati -- really be the answer? Maybe Dave Rayner comes in this upcoming season and kicks lights out for the Bengals. But he wasn't the answer in Washington, Detroit, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City, Green Bay or Indianapolis. So it's fair to wonder if Rayner can solidify the kicking position during his second stay with the Bengals. Cincinnati hasn't re-signed veteran free agent Shayne Graham, which means a kicker could be a target in the NFL draft. The Bengals have nine picks next month and, at the very least, Rayner should have someone to push him and compete with in training camp.

Cleveland Browns

Coming off a 5-11 season, the Browns have a lot of needs and it's debatable whether any are "under the radar." But while most of the conversation focuses on quarterback, receiver and the secondary, not many in Cleveland talk about the running backs. Last year Jerome Harrison led the Browns with 862 yards thanks to a great stretch toward the end of the season. But can the smallish Harrison handle 30 carries a week over the course of a 16-game season? Cleveland's new regime has its doubts. The Browns need another quality running back to complement Harrison. There is very little tailback depth on the roster after the team released veteran Jamal Lewis. James Davis is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and the team acquired Peyton Hillis in a trade with the Denver Broncos. Hillis can play both fullback and tailback positions.

Pittsburgh Steelers

With everyone healthy, the Steelers do not have a lot of holes beyond the obvious like offensive line and cornerback. So let's dig deep with a covert need: Pittsburgh could use a good fullback next season. The Steelers struggled in short yardage and in the red zone, in part, because they lacked a devastating lead blocker to bust open holes in the defense. Carey Davis couldn't cut it. Converted tight end David Johnson was average but played out of position. Frank "The Tank" Summers was too green as a rookie last season. Adding to the quandary is offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' reluctance to utilize the position. Pittsburgh often uses three-receiver and single-back sets at the expense of fullbacks, and perhaps the Steelers' lack of talent at the position contributes to that. But if Pittsburgh finds a punishing run-blocker at fullback, third-and-short won't be such a daunting task next season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

There is beginning to be some reasonable concern about the short-term future, at least, of Green Bay Packers pass-rush specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

Gbaja-Biamila had been sidelined with residual soreness in his right knee following offseason surgery, and his return to practice Monday did not go well. He sat out Tuesday's practice and it's not clear when he will return. The Packers have an extra day to prepare for their regular-season opener against Minnesota, which is a Monday night game, but it's not known whether that will make any difference for Gbaja-Biamila.

After Tuesday's practice, coach Mike McCarthy told Wisconsin reporters that the knee "didn't respond very well" to the previous day's work. He did not elaborate on Gbaja-Biamila's timetable. Every team takes its own approach to rehabilitation, but never is it a good sign when an injured player unexpectedly sits out the day after returning to practice.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out that four of Gbaja-Biamila's 9 1/2 sacks last season came against Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie. (Of course, McKinnie might not be eligible for that game if the NFL suspends him for violating its personal conduct policy). The Journal Sentinel suggests the Packers would use Jason Hunter in Gbaja-Biamila's role as the right end in passing situations.

Gbaja-Biamila has a $6.15 million base salary this season and a $7.7 million cap number for 2008, prompting some suggestions that his roster spot could be vulnerable if he does not recover soon. But given how effective he was as recently as last season when healthy, it's hard to imagine the Packers jettisoning him any time soon.

Elsewhere around the NFC North:

  • Packers running back Ryan Grant will get about 10 snaps in Thursday's preseason finale against Tennessee, the same number as most of the rest of the team's starters. It will be Grant's first game action of the summer.
  • The Chicago Bears were busy Tuesday. In addition to terminating the contract of defensive back Ricky Manning Jr., they decided to remove Danieal Manning as the primary nickel back, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Brandon McGowan is the likely replacement, with Kevin Payne taking over at strong safety. Chicago also is awaiting a decision from veteran offensive lineman Fred Miller on its recent contract offer.
  • The Chicago Tribune projects the Bears will attempt to get rookie quarterback Caleb Hanie, a fan favorite, through waivers and put him on their practice squad.
  • The Detroit Lions' only notable cut was kicker Dave Rayner, who was let go because incumbent Jason Hanson has recovered from a hip injury.
  • Newly-signed quarterback Drew Henson is expected to play at least a quarter of the Lions' preseason finale Thursday at Buffalo.
  • Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway, two years removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, has had an exceptional summer. "I think I'm playing at a level where I haven't been before," Greenway told the Star Tribune.

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