NFL Nation: Geno Atkins

It's been written about often since Halloween night 2013, and a few more tomes on the subject are sure to come between now and the Cincinnati Bengals' Sept. 7 season opener at Baltimore.

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Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsThe impact of Geno Atkins' injury last season could be felt in the yards-per-carry average allowed by the Bengals without him.
Still, it is worthwhile to continue pointing out just how much the Bengals missed defensive tackle Geno Atkins after he tore his ACL during a Thursday night game at Miami. It's important because when he comes back, his presence alone ought to provide a much-needed jolt to the defensive line's interior this season.

His recovery from that injury is progressing and has the Bengals hoping he'll be ready long before the opener.

As we look briefly at the impact Atkins' injury had last season, let's bring up the Friday factoid: 4.3.

Whenever Atkins was off the field last season -- both pre- and post-injury -- the Bengals allowed opposing offenses 4.3 yards per carry, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's a high pace that exceeded the NFL's combined rushing average for the year of 4.17 yards per carry.

What makes the 4.3 figure even more alarming is the fact that Cincinnati gave up just 3.7 yards per rush when Atkins was on the field in 2013. That's a difference of 0.6 yards when he was in a game compared to when he wasn't. That might not sound like a lot, but add up all the yards the Bengals gave up when Atkins wasn't playing and you can see the impact.

You don't even have to do that, though. Just take a look at the Bengals' rush defense numbers from before his injury and after it.

Only three times in the eight games before Atkins' injury did the Bengals allow 90 or more rushing yards. Including the game Atkins was hurt, the Bengals allowed teams to gain 90 or more rushing yards six times in nine games (including the playoff loss) following his ACL tear.

Before Atkins went down, the Bengals allowed 90-plus yards vs. the Packers (182) , the Bills (130) and the Jets (93). After Atkins' injury, Cincinnati's defense allowed 90-plus rushing totals of 157 (at Miami), 102 (Cleveland), 91 (at San Diego), 106 (at Pittsburgh), 115 (Minnesota) and 196 (San Diego, wild-card playoff game). In fairness, the Cleveland and Minnesota rushing totals also came in blowouts in which the Bengals had sizable second-half leads. Some of their second-team units were playing late in those games.

The playoff game against San Diego was the game in which Atkins' absence was most exploited. The Chargers not only ran to a season-high 196 yards, but did so by continuing to run up the middle into the spaces Atkins likely would have been occupying.

It should be noted that even though Atkins' replacements, Brandon Thompson and Devon Still, weren't able to hold their own as well as Atkins could, they still did something right. The Bengals did, after all, rank fifth in the league in rushing defense and third in total defense, allowing just 1,544 yards on the ground. With that in mind, imagine if Atkins had played the whole season healthy. Just how good might that rushing and total defense have been?

Those possibilities are what the Bengals are hoping to see when a healthy Atkins returns this season.
CINCINNATI -- By showing up to Paul Brown Stadium these next few weeks, several Cincinnati Bengals could collectively earn more than $3.2 million in bonus money, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.

Twenty-seven Bengals have workout bonuses provisions in their contracts related to their attendance at strength and conditioning workouts and voluntary OTAs. Combined, the group has $3,205,000 at stake just for appearing and participating in the optional practices. The latest collective bargaining agreement places stipulations on the types of team-sanctioned practices and the number of them that players can take part in during the offseason. Participation, in many cases, still can lead to additional compensation.

Defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have the most at stake when it comes to the bonuses. They both stand to earn $300,000 in 2014 for participating in the workouts.

Both were spotted Monday when the locker room was opened to reporters. There are other workouts continuing this week, but the media are only permitted to meet with players on Monday. Players won't be available again until next Monday.

As a result, it's hard to tell who has made it back for voluntarily workouts. Players were in and out of the locker room during the time it was open, but many who weren't seen could have been in other parts of the building.

It should be noted that even players who don't have bonus provisions in their contracts will still show up just to work out. For example, receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu aren't due workout bonuses this year, but each was at the stadium Monday.

 
The Washington Redskins' defense is optimistic about where it's headed, thanks to the addition of Jason Hatcher and a tweaked philosophy regarding the pass rush. Whether their play matches that optimism always remains the biggest hurdle. What's not in doubt: They will have two players among the most expensive at their positions when it comes to the salary cap. The fact both are in their front seven isn't a coincidence as the Redskins' offseason goal has been to improve the pass rush. So, after breaking down where the Redskins' top cap hits at each position offensively stood in comparison to their NFL counterparts earlier this week, it's time to take a look at the defense.

Safety

NFL's top five cap hits
Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs $11,619,700
Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers, $10,100,000
Antrel Rolle, New York Giants, $9,250,000
Dashon Goldson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, $9,000,000
Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans, $8,000,000

Meriweather
Redskins' top cap hit
Brandon Meriweather (59th), $1,000,000

Summing it up: Notice who’s not in the top five? Jairus Byrd, after his new deal with New Orleans. But don’t worry: He’s set to take up the most cap room in 2015 at $10.3 million. I like Byrd, but not at that figure (I’d have paid Sean Taylor that sort of cash). But Byrd was never really a legitimate option for the Redskins. Mike Mitchell was and he’ll count $2.2 million this season and $4.95 million in 2015. But the overriding point is Washington views the best way to help this position is by bolstering the pass rush. Starters Meriweather and Ryan Clark both are on one-year contracts, so this position is still a question mark beyond this season (and still will be one entering the year).

Corner

NFL's top five cap hits
Brandon Carr, Dallas, $12,217,000
Johnathan Joseph, Houston, $11,250,000
Lardarius Webb, Baltimore, $10,500,000
Brandon Flowers, Kansas City, $10,500,000
Tramon Williams, Green Bay, $9,500,000

Porter
Redskins' top cap hit
Tracy Porter (43rd), $2,800,000

Summing it up: Next season, Darrelle Revis' cap hit jumps to $25 million. Which means he’s playing on a one-year deal. Is it a good thing the Redskins’ biggest cap hit here belongs to Porter, who has battled injury issues along with consistency during his career? Of course, it’s not like he occupies a lot of space. DeAngelo Hall's cap hit is $2,062,500 but that jumps to $4,812,500 in 2015. By then the Redskins need young corner David Amerson to have fully emerged -- can he become their best corner? If not, then they’ll have to start looking for a No. 1 corner. By the way, the top five on the list for 2014? They’ve combined for four Pro Bowl appearances and one All-Pro spot (Joseph). But Carr did do a good job vs. Washington last year (and in at least one game against then-Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson).

Linebacker

NFL's top five cap hits
Lawrence Timmons, $11,816,250
Tamba Hali, Kansas City, $11,464,706
Brian Orakpo, Washington, $11,455,000
Clay Matthews, Green Bay, $10,943,750
James Laurinaitis, St. Louis, $10,400,000

Orakpo
Redskins' top cap hit
Orakpo

Summing it up: That’s quite a list for Orakpo to be part of, but to stay on there after this season -- at least in Washington -- he’ll have to be a little more productive. But even if he has another season like last year, Orakpo will still be in the $10-million range. When Hali got paid, he responded with sack totals of 12, nine and 11 in the next three seasons (with nine forced fumbles and one interception). I don’t think anyone says Hali's overpaid (well, at least not many). In Orakpo’s last three full seasons, he has a combined 27.5 sacks, but only four forced fumbles. More game-changing plays and he’ll get the contract he desires. Another interesting part on this is that two of the five are inside linebackers, though Timmons plays in a 3-4 and Laurinaitis in a 4-3.

Defensive tackle

NFL's top five cap hits
Ndamukong Suh, Detroit, $22,412,000
Haloti Ngata, Baltimore, $16,000,000
Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay, $15,627,253
Geno Atkins, Cincinnati, $9,000,000
Barry Cofield, Washington, $7,667,500

Cofield
Redskins' top cap hit
Cofield

Summing it up: Cofield’s base salary jumped from $840,000 last season to $4.55 million (the lower figure was the result of a restructuring last spring in which $3.5 million in base salary was converted to a signing bonus). This is as high as Cofield’s cap number will be and in two years it falls to $6,877,500. I know the coaches felt he would become the NFL’s top nose tackle by this time. That’s not the case, but Cofield does have his strengths and has done a nice job with Washington. For a short stretch last season he was playing as well as anyone on the team defensively, and he always plays hard. He’ll be helped by having Hatcher in the pass rush, perhaps giving Cofield more one-on-one matchups. If that happens, then perhaps Cofield will have the sort of season in all phases that coaches have hoped for.

Defensive end

NFL's top five cap hits
Mario Williams, Buffalo, $18,800,000
Charles Johnson, Carolina, $16,420,000
Chris Long, St. Louis, $14,900,000
Greg Hardy, Carolina, $13,116,000
Calais Campbell , Arizona, $11,250,000

Bowen
Redskins' top cap hit
Stephen Bowen (15th), $7,020,000

Summing it up: All of the top five on this list play in a 4-3, where ends can excel as playmakers and, therefore, command big bucks. The 3-4 ends, typically, are not -- with some exceptions. Bowen has not been a playmaker, though for a while he was an effective player both against the run and as a rusher. However, he has just one sack since the 2011 season (26 games). And after microfracture surgery and being 30, I wonder about the level at which he’ll be able to play. Multiple Redskins sources said they still expect him to be in the Redskins' plans, but will it be at this cap figure? That's a big hit for someone in his situation. If Bowen returns healthy and plays well, the Redskins will greatly benefit. If not? That's a lot of cap room to occupy. One more note: Johnson and Hardy combine for approximately 23 percent of Carolina's cap.
 

CINCINNATI -- My first day on the Cincinnati Bengals beat was a busy one.

It was Labor Day, last September, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins had just signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension that was to keep him in Cincinnati through the 2017 season. It also was the first official day of the new regular season. The Bengals had played their final preseason game several days prior and were beginning to implement their game plan for the following Sunday's season opener at Chicago.

Upon walking into the Bengals' locker room for the first time, I stopped at one locker, pausing to join an interview scrum. It was Domata Peko's locker.

Peko and his massive beard and flowing locks served as my unofficial welcome committee.

I couldn't help but think back to that day as the 29-year-old defensive tackle signed his own contract extension on Thursday. It's a two-year deal that will keep him in Bengals stripes through the 2016 season.

[+] EnlargeDomata Peko
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Bengals will tell you that Domata Peko's value goes well beyond his on-field production.
Many of the questions to Peko that early-September day revolved around Atkins' extension and what it meant for a now older and more experienced defensive line. Some seven months later, the questions about the line are now about whether Peko really is a good fit for the longevity of the unit.

He is.

It's easy to come to such a conclusion when you consider the driving force behind Peko's extension: continuity.

As the Bengals go through several personnel changes this offseason, including one rather big alteration at their right defensive end position, they are hoping to otherwise maintain as much of their previous identity as possible. After all, it has been with Peko serving as its most vocal leader that the defense has gone from ranking 30th in 2006 -- his rookie season -- to third in 2013. Cincinnati's best defensive teams in that time span have come in the past five seasons. Sure, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had an enormous hand in that, but Peko played some part in it, too.

"Peko is a great player. A fantastic player. I love Peko," Zimmer told Bengals.com at the owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., this week. "His character, his toughness, his leadership. All he cares about is winning. He doesn't care about himself. He [would ask] me every single week, 'Coach, how should I play this guy?' Every single week. People don't know it, he's one of the best leaders in the room.

"He was always good for me."

So were the other players who are expected to comprise the Bengals' starting defensive line next season.

Atkins has been part of the line since 2010. Aside from the seven games he missed in 2013 with an ACL injury, he has appeared in every other Bengals game of his career. Carlos Dunlap also has seen his share of playing time since 2010 at defensive end. Robert Geathers' playing time has been muted in recent seasons because of Michael Johnson's presence at the right end position, but with Johnson now gone to Tampa Bay, Geathers figures to head a right end rotation that will include Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt. Ultimately, Hunt may end up getting the most playing time of the three, depending upon situations and how well he develops into his second season.

In addition to attempting to fill Johnson's massive shoes, the Bengals also are weathering changes on their coaching staff. Hue Jackson was promoted to offensive coordinator after Jay Gruden took the Washington head coaching job, and Paul Guenther was elevated to defensive coordinator following Zimmer's departure to Minnesota.

With so much change on an already comparatively successful team -- one that still had a first-round playoff loss despite winning 11 games and the AFC North -- continuity can be a coach's best friend.

"Domata has been a significant and productive player for our defense for many years now," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "He is a leader among our veterans and a mentor for our younger players, and securing his future as a Bengal through the next three seasons is another positive step in continuing to improve our team."

Much like he was during his Labor Day interview session, Peko has been one of the more reflective Bengals the past seven months. He has spoken often recently about how his defensive line has been key to making the organization finally look like a legitimate postseason contender. He was there for two four-win seasons. He saw a 7-9 year in 2007, and an 8-8, playoff-less showing in 2006. So he understands all too well the effort that has gone into turning around the franchise.

His sentimentality isn't only for the football field, either. He's quick to share his still raw emotions to new and old reporters alike when thinking back on the pain of losing two good friends, Chris Henry and Thomas Howard, to automobile accidents. He continues to keep momentos that remind him of Henry in his locker. Following Howard's death in November, he had hats with Howard's number "53" made for teammates to wear.

There's value in keeping around someone who knows what it was like before the good, playoff-hungry feelings existed in this locker room. There's value in keeping around a player who understands the pain the franchise has endured and the frustrations its fans have felt. Beyond his play as a defender and as a blocking fullback on offense, that's the value the Bengals continue to see in Peko, and why they felt they needed to keep him around at least another three years.

He is their great defensive motivator, and entering a pivotal season that has already seen enough change, they need his veteran presence. They need him to keep continuity.
CINCINNATI -- There was no shock in the news. No awe was inspired by the announcement. It was all expected.

For five years it was expected.

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsThe Bengals were prepared to lose talented defensive end Michael Johnson.
When the Cincinnati Bengals began laying the framework for their Mike Zimmer-led defense, a unit that in 2009 was only one year into being guided by the now former defensive coordinator, they were making a bold turn in philosophy. Yes, they wanted good linebackers. They wanted better-than-average cornerbacks and safeties if they could get them, too. But above all that, they wanted to build a defensive line that put unrelenting pressure on quarterbacks.

Michael Johnson was the guinea pig in Zimmer's grand experiment, one that a year later brought the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to Cincinnati. Because of their youth, the trio of defensive linemen earned a nickname: "the Fisher Price defense."

The Fisher Price kids have grown up. Their bank accounts have matured.

One year after Dunlap and Atkins cashed in on long-term, multimillion-dollar deals, Johnson on Tuesday agreed to a five-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that's reportedly worth $43.75 million. The free-agent defensive end anticipates making $24 million of guaranteed money, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson. The approximate $8.75 million per year figure he'll be earning was higher than what the Bengals would have been able to match, particularly with offensive tackle Anthony Collins also a free-agent target of theirs. Quarterback Andy Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict also have contracts that expire next year.

It has been a foregone conclusion since last March when Johnson was slapped with the team's franchise tag that he likely would be gone this offseason. A case also could be made that as far back as 2009, it was unlikely he would be a Bengals lifer. Then again, as long as they produced, the same could have been said for Dunlap or Atkins in 2010, too.

Back when he was drafted in the third round out of Georgia Tech, questions about Johnson's size, motor and durability hung over him. Some weren't sure how well he could translate long-term, so he dipped into the third round. Zimmer, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and their scouting staff saw something. Each believed he could project into the highly valued end he became the past two years. So they drafted him.

Similar sentiments could be expressed about Dunlap and Atkins. When Dunlap arrived, the second-round pick was pushed hard both publicly in practices and privately in meeting rooms by Zimmer, who foresaw more potential than the lineman initially put out. Atkins was a fourth-rounder who many didn't originally think had an NFL future simply because he waddled instead of walked like most defensive tackles.

Once all three began getting to quarterbacks and climbing up the Bengals' sack charts, though, the questions faded away. Johnson's motor suddenly was fine. Dunlap began pleasing Zimmer. Atkins' duck walk started drawing praise. The baby Bengals were going to be fully grown before too long. Holding on to each of them beyond their first deals was going to be virtually impossible.

Cincinnati began learning that lesson last offseason when it was faced with the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to bring back all three. Johnson was up for a new contract, but the Bengals didn't want to let him get away. Atkins and Dunlap had another year before their rookie contracts expired, but Cincinnati wanted them, too. So ownership made the difficult decision to tag Johnson while working out new deals for the other two (five years, $55 million for Atkins; five years, $40 million for Dunlap). At the same time, other steps were being taken to ensure the Bengals would be OK for that moment when Johnson, the eldest of their "Fisher Price" stars, decided it best to leave the nest. He loved Cincinnati, though, so the only way he would leave was was if the money just wasn't able to match up. After the Seahawks reportedly offered end Michael Bennett about $8 million per year Monday, it started getting even clearer that Johnson wouldn't be coming back to the Bengals.

As they anticipated Johnson's likely departure, the Bengals re-signed Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers last offseason while also drafting Margus Hunt in the second round. It was their belief that in the event Johnson would cost too much this year, at least they had a pair of veterans and another young but learning player to replace him with.

It was because of those steps that the Bengals can proudly bid farewell to the player who was the first and perhaps most crucial piece to the establishment of their young defensive line unit. It's much the same pride they felt when Zimmer, the man who built and nurtured the unit for five years, moved on to become a head coach for the first time in January. Like Zimmer, the expectation for Johnson's departure has been in the works for some time.

While there surely will be many in Cincinnati who will miss Johnson and his often-lauded charitable spirit, they must also know that his time simply had come. The leader of the young Bengals has, like the rest of them, grown up.

Combine countdown rewind: Bengals DL

February, 26, 2014
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Last week, in the days leading up to the start of on-field workouts at the NFL combine, we counted down five of the top position needs for a Cincinnati Bengals team that will go into May's draft looking to build depth instead of trying to find immediate starters.

As part of the countdown, I listed three players from each position who I said I would have my eyes on during the interview and testing portions of the event. Now that the combine has ended, I figured this would be a good time to go back and look at the numbers posted by the players who were part of the countdown. Each day this week, we've been doing a rewind of the countdown, analyzing how well the players who were in it worked out.

After running backs and offensive linemen, we turn now to the: Defensive line

The defensive linemen who we looked at last week were all ends, tasked with getting drafted by the Bengals simply as roster fill-ins for Michael Johnson, the defensive end and expensive unrestricted free agent Cincinnati appears poised to lose when free agency starts in two weeks. If the Bengals don't re-sign Johnson, they will be in market to add another player to their depth chart as a combination of Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt prepare to take Johnson's place. The hope is that Geathers will have fully recovered from an elbow injury that sidelined him all but two games in 2013, and that Hunt will improve leaps and bounds from what he was as a rookie last year.

Defensive tackle is an area the Bengals might, in theory, want to begin adding depth to, particularly with the deficiencies there that were highlighted when both Geno Atkins and Devon Still went down with long-term injuries last season. The fact that 29-year-old Domata Peko is entering a contract year also is a sign tackle might be a place the Bengals turn for more depth in this draft. The problem with the tackle spot in this draft class, though, is that aside from some of the top tackles, Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald and Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, there are relatively few standouts. One college defensive end who might become a tackle in the NFL and who could be around when the Bengals make their first-round pick at 24 is Notre Dame's Louis Nix III. He has the combination of size and athleticism that Cincinnati could use on pass-rushing downs. With him on the line next to Atkins and Dunlap, nickel rushes could lead to sacks more often than not.

While we're talking defense, it's also important to note that one position you'll find missing on this countdown is "Will" linebacker. While Emmanuel Lamur's return from injury will shore up depth at that spot, particularly in nickel scenarios, the Bengals could be looking at bringing along a bigger linebacker in the later rounds who can cover like Lamur. One player they showed interest in at the combine was Florida State's Christian Jones, a defender who played both "Will" and "Sam" positions in college.

As for the three players listed in last week's pre-combine look -- Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Kareem Martin (North Carolina) and Taylor Hart (Oregon) -- two, Martin and Hart, are 6-foot-6. Size-wise, they match what the Bengals would look for in an end.

Here are numbers (per NFL.com) from the trio's combine workouts:

Scott Crichton (Oregon State)
40-yard dash: 4.84 seconds
Bench: 24 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 31.5 inches
Broad jump: 108 inches
3-cone drill: 7.19 seconds

-- From a testing standpoint Crichton didn't look all that great compared to other defensive linemen. In past years, a 4.84 40-yard dash time might be considered as run of the mill for a Day 2 defensive end. With South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney pacing the position at 4.53, though, that number looks dramatically worse. Crichton had been getting late-first or second-round projections before the combine. If scouts go off his numbers alone, he could dip.

Kareem Martin (North Carolina)
40-yard dash: 4.72 seconds
Bench: 22 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 35.5 inches
Broad jump: 129 inches
3-cone drill: 7.20 seconds

-- Martin's numbers were a little better, as he had some of the top figures in the 40-yard dash, the vertical and the broad jump. His 40 was the ninth-fastest among defensive linemen, his vertical was the fifth-highest and his broad jump was the longest. The numbers show he has a considerable amount of athleticism, particularly for an end with a mid-round projection. He also has the right combination of height and weight that the Bengals like for his position.

Taylor Hart (Oregon)
40-yard dash: N/A
Bench: 21 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: N/A
Broad jump: N/A
3-cone drill: N/A

-- Hart only competed in the bench press, putting up a rather tame 21 reps of 225 pounds. He was already pegged as a late-round selection and likely will remain that way. If the Bengals end up making other draft needs early and decide to wait until fairly late on defensive end -- it's unlikely they do that -- this bigger-framed lineman could be around.

Countdown to Combine: Vikings

February, 17, 2014
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Welcome to our Vikings-specific preview of the NFL scouting combine, which kicks off on Thursday in Indianapolis. We'll be previewing four positions this week the Vikings could address in the draft. I'm inclined to stay away from the quarterback position, since we've talked so much about it already (and will continue to talk about it). This can be a place to look at the other areas the Vikings could address, many of them being on defense. We'll get started there, with a look at the defensive line.

Position of need: Defensive line

The Vikings could be facing a time of transition at the position, with both Jared Allen and Kevin Williams set to hit free agency after burnishing their Hall of Fame credentials in their time in Minnesota. Defensive end Everson Griffen is a free agent, as well, though the Vikings seem likely to re-sign him. But the team could still be in the market for a taller defensive end along the lines of the ends new coach Mike Zimmer had in Cincinnati, in addition to another defensive tackle.

Three players the Vikings might be targeting:

Louis Nix (DT), Notre Dame: Nix is an absolute load at nose tackle, and could give the Vikings the kind of impenetrable force they haven't had since Pat Williams. He could free Sharrif Floyd up to be the kind of upfield pass-rusher Zimmer had in Bengals' three-technique tackle Geno Atkins (and the Vikings had for many years in Kevin Williams). There are concerns about Nix's health after he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he could have knee problems at his size (6-foot-2, 342 pounds), but he'd immediately change the face of the Vikings' run defense.

Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota: The Vikings should know plenty about the 6-foot-6 Hageman already, and they could give him a chance to continue his career in TCF Bank Stadium, where they'll play the next two seasons. The 6-foot-6 Hageman profiles as an interior lineman. He might not be refined enough to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, where he'd be asked to rush around the edge, but his size and athleticism could pique the Vikings' interest, whether he'd be an interior lineman or merit a look on the outside.

Kony Ealy, Missouri: We're assuming Jadeveon Clowney will be gone by the time the Vikings pick at No. 8, but a player like Early or Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt could make sense if the Vikings are in the market for the kind of tall defensive ends new coach Mike Zimmer had in Cincinnati. Ealy had eight sacks last season, and at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, he'd give the Vikings a player with a similar physical profile to Allen, who is a free agent this spring.
The NFL revealed Thursday that players reported 13 percent fewer concussions during the 2013 regular season, and that statistic rightfully produced the headline from a presentation by the members of the league's health and safety division. The league also released its official count of ACL injuries, a topic we've discussed a number of times this season, and those figures merit a closer look.

The chart provides a snapshot of the league's tally, which it said was culled from the medical staffs of each team. It puts the count of ACL tears during the preseason and regular season (games and practices) at 57, which was actually lower than the total over the same period in 2012.

By my research, working off a list originally compiled and distributed via Twitter by @ACLrecoveryCLUB, at least 62 players tore their ACLs between the start of offseason work and last Sunday's championship game. The NFL's time period appears to have begun with training camp and ended with Week 17 of the regular season.

It's reasonable to assume the league's 2011 and 2012 numbers would have grown over that larger time span as well. So based on these updated numbers, we can't conclude that 2013 was a record-breaking year for ACL tears despite anecdotal fears to the contrary.

In releasing this information, the NFL had a vested interest in debunking two theories that link its actions and decisions to an increase in injuries.

The first is that new rules regarding hits to the head would inspire more low hits and produce more knee trauma. As we've discussed several times, that did not occur except in a handful of highly visible instances. (See: Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.)

The second suggests that the 2011 collective bargaining agreement's restrictions on offseason training opportunities leaves players more vulnerable to ligament injuries when football activities resume in the spring and summer. That theory has not appeared to manifest itself in ACL injuries over the past three years, although I don't have figures for 2010 or earlier for comparison.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick went on record last month linking the shortened offseason to what he believes is an increase in all kinds of injuries. What we do know is that more players were placed on injured reserve (125) in 2013, through the championship games, because of knee injuries than in 2012 (121) or 2011 (93), based on ESPN Stats & Information research.

While I agree the data doesn't support the first theory, I think the second requires further evaluation and discussion.

So what have we learned in our first year of attempting to track ACL injuries? There was without question some intense pockets of instances, peaking around Week 7, and the high-profile names of those ultimately affected -- Reggie Wayne, Sam Bradford, Tyrann Mathieu, Geno Atkins -- added some weight to the topic. But the rate dropped over the second half of the season, approaching the league's recent high but ultimately falling short.

Does that mean there is nothing to see here? I wouldn't say that. Discussions this year about shoe selection, playing surfaces and other potential contributing factors had merit. There is no reason to wait until a record is set before initiating the conversation.

How costly was Geno Atkins' injury?

January, 29, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- Yes, it's the offseason, meaning the time of year has arrived when media entities compile their sundry end-of-season lists.

As you might have been able to tell, the list frenzy hit ESPN.com's Cincinnati Bengals blog about two weeks ago when we started counting down the top 10 plays from the 2013 season. We've also devoted lists to breaking down the team's position groups, and will have even more list-form analysis regarding other items in the coming months.

Such blogs are good complements to other coverage. They can further and firm what has already been reported, or be good jumping off points for generating discussion as seasons get reviewed and the results of others predicted.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsCincinnati's defense was one of the NFL's best despite losing Geno Atkins in Week 9.
Over the weekend, Pro Football Focus trotted out one particular list-based blog that evaluated the "costliest" injuries around the league this season. The countdown looked at 10 players across the NFL whose statistics and grade of play made them difficult to replace. The list also included a group of three players who were considered honorable mentions for costliest injury. Of the 13 total players, two were Bengals.

Most notably, PFF said it felt defensive tackle Geno Atkins had the NFL's costliest injury in 2013. Cornerback Leon Hall made the additional three-man cut.

Both are, in fact, among the top players on a defense that entered the season regarded universally as one of the best. That alone made it more difficult to replace them, driving up the metaphoric cost of their mid-season injuries.

But, really, how costly did those injuries -- specifically Atkins' -- turn out to be? After all, without the Pro Bowl lineman and the cornerback who was having a Pro Bowl type of start to his eighth season, the Bengals still finished near the top of the league's defensive rankings. In holding opponents to an average of 305.0 yards per game, Cincinnati ranked third in total defense.

A large part of the reason why the Bengals were able to garner such a high ranking was because they got contributions from other parts of their defense to absorb the injuries to Atkins and Hall. Atkins went down at Miami in Week 9 when he tore an ACL trying to make a tackle. Hall tore an Achilles two weeks prior when he was trying to out-jump Detroit's Calvin Johnson on a fade route into the back of the end zone.

According to PFF, Atkins' replacement, Brandon Thompson, and fellow interior line starter Domata Peko, had issues getting pressure and stopping the run. Thompson had two sacks and no quarterback hits, while Peko "struggled mightily alongside him," the blurb said.

It's tough to really say Atkins' fellow defensive tackles played poorly, because while they may not have been getting pressure or stopping the run with regularity, they were getting help from others. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry each had 7.5 sacks, and fellow end Michael Johnson tied for a league-high eight pass deflections at the line. The Bengals' third-down conversion rating was the second highest in the league this season and the highest at home. Even if the Bengals' interior linemen had issues stopping the run overall, they were still doing something right on third down.

It's also unfair to fully pin replacing Atkins' production on Thompson and Peko. They weren't the only ones playing defensive tackle in the wake of Atkins' injury. Fellow tackle Devon Still mixed in a bit at Atkins' old spot, as did ends Gilberry and Margus Hunt. Linebacker James Harrison also played at tackle in certain nickel situations to provide an additional athletic pass-rusher on the interior during passing downs.

Part of PFF's decision to deem Atkins' injury the costliest in the league hinged on the fact that he was the site's Defensive Player of the Year runner-up the year before, and the fact he amassed a dizzying plus-80.0 grade in 2012 from it. That grade was more than double what any other defensive tackle received from the site that season.

Indeed, replacing the best player in the league at his position is a tall, unenviable task. But upon further review, it was one the Bengals actually passed quite easily.

With respect to Hall, though, the challenges for continuity were even greater. The domino effect of his injury and others meant still-learning second-year player Dre Kirkpatrick was thrust into more playing time, as was veteran Chris Crocker, who came out of retirement four weeks into the season. Challenges aside, though, like Atkins' replacement, Hall's held firm without him. Kirkpatrick had his problems combating double moves and deep, wide-open receivers, but he still finished with three interceptions, including two that effectively iced a key win.

Should the injuries to Atkins and Hall have been costly? Most definitely. But the Bengals' talent was just deep enough to prove the pair wasn't completely irreplaceable.
Maybe it's their overwhelming youth.

Or maybe it's the fact their franchise hasn't won a playoff game since many of them were just coming out of diapers.

It also could be the comparatively small media market they call home. Regardless what it's chalked up to, the Cincinnati Bengals were virtually shut out of an anonymous, league-wide player's-only poll that asked the following question: "If you could start an NFL franchise with one player, who would it be?"

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was the top choice in the survey that was conducted during the regular season by ESPN NFL Nation's 32 team beat reporters.

Perhaps it comes as little surprise that Manning, a future Hall of Fame quarterback who this weekend will try to win only the third AFC championship of his 16-year career, was among the most selected players by his peers. It's also little surprise that Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and New England's Tom Brady ended up atop the list, too.

What was a little surprising? Second-year quarterback Andrew Luck was the third-leading vote-getter.

Maybe youth isn't a factor at all.

Only two Bengals received a small scattering of votes, and their third-year quarterback wasn't one of them. Andy Dalton, who has been to the postseason three consecutive seasons, and passed for 3,000 yards in each of his three seasons, wasn't among a list of young, vote-receiving quarterbacks that included Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton.

Receiver A.J. Green was voted for, as was defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Drafted the same year as Dalton, Green has been the Bengals' top passing target since arriving to Cincinnati. He's earned his respect by continually ranking as one of the NFL's top receivers throughout his career. One of his closest friends in the league, Detroit's Calvin Johnson, walked away with the fifth-most votes in the survey, and the most votes of any non-quarterback.

Maybe a team's success isn't much of a factor, either. After all, the Lions haven't been to the playoffs since most of the Bengals were playing T-ball.

Zimmer encouraged by Hunt's 'finishing'

December, 31, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- If you've been paying close attention to the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive line the last two weeks, you may have noticed a steady increase of Margus Hunt sightings.

That's not a coincidence.

[+] EnlargeMargus Hunt
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsBengals rookie Margus Hunt is seeing blocks all the way through, resulting in more playing time.
Across the last few weeks of the regular season, Bengals coaches started recognizing signs that their months of teaching and instructing were paying off. The rookie lineman who only began playing football while in college has begun understanding the key concepts and principles to rushing quarterbacks at the NFL level. More than anything else, he has started to realize that it isn't about how a rush begins, but rather how it ends.

Hunt has become the finisher the Bengals have long wanted to see, and that could bode well for his immediate future.

"He's starting to finish a little bit more," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. "He understands that once he gets to the blocker and gets to a certain point that now it's time to get off and go to the quarterback or the runner."

Typically, "finishing" is the biggest knock a defensive lineman, particularly ends, can have coming out of college. You might hear draft experts talk about players "taking plays off," or "not finishing by getting to the quarterback." Usually when they say that, it's an indication that a lineman takes on the blocker, tries to get around the blocker, but stops once he realizes he isn't getting into the backfield.

What those players, particularly young ones, sometimes forget is that by simply tussling with an offensive lineman or running back, they actually are opening up a lane for a linebacker or another defensive lineman to blast through and get to the ballcarrier. While the ultimate goal for a defensive end is to get to the ballcarrier in the backfield, it sometimes can be a challenge simply remembering that there are others who could benefit from you continuing to see out the block.

"That's taken him a little while," Zimmer said about Hunt. "We've been working with him a lot on that. He's doing better there."

Aside from a spike in playing time during the middle of the regular season because of injuries across the defensive line, Hunt has finally seen an increase in action recently because of his improved play. After playing four, nine and two snaps respectively in the first three games of December, Hunt closed out the regular season by appearing on 19 and 21 plays across the final two weeks. He recorded a tackle in each game and was credited Sunday with a half-sack on Baltimore's Joe Flacco.

"This is probably the best game he's played," Zimmer said of the Week 17 regular-season finale. "He did a nice job in the game with some of the pass-rush stuff.

"We might have to get him in there a little bit more."

Hunt had previously appeared on 30 snaps against the Jets, although most of that was in garbage time during the 49-9 blowout win. He also played 19 snaps at Miami at the end of October, with some of those coming on the interior of the line after defensive tackle Geno Atkins' season ended when he tore his ACL that night. Hunt also appeared in 37 plays against the Patriots in Week 6 as defensive end Michael Johnson was inactive due to a concussion.

Since Atkins' injury, Hunt has been among those who have filled in by moving from his normal edge spot and playing on the interior of the line. Linebacker James Harrison and fellow defensive end Wallace Gilberry have also helped fill Atkins' shoes by playing inside in certain situations.
CINCINNATI -- Say what you will about the communication issues and lack of rhythm the Cincinnati Bengals may have exhibited on the field Sunday night at Pittsburgh.

Off it, they appear to be anything but fractured, fragmented and on differing pages.

In a show of goodwill and unity, four team leaders pitched in Wednesday to purchase gifts for their respective position segments. Offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith pitched in to get every other offensive player a pair of personalized Uggs slippers, a Bose sound machine and gift certificates to Jeff Ruby's, an upscale Cincinnati steakhouse.

Defensive tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins collaborated to give each of their defensive teammates PlayStation 4s. Brand new PS4 video game consoles cost about $400.

"It makes guys feel appreciated and feel like guys support them," Whitworth said of the gestures.

The gifts came inside neon green and red gift bags that Whitworth's wife helped pack and were placed inside each player's locker while they went through morning walkthroughs inside Paul Brown Stadium. When they returned to the locker room around the time media were allowed in, the players were surprised to see what they had waiting for them.

"It means that they care about their side of the ball," linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. "For them to spend this amount of money on PS4s ... it's a big deal."

The Bengals hope to get back to being a big deal on the field this weekend when they host the Minnesota Vikings. After having their three-game winning streak snapped by the Steelers, they are looking to earn a win this Sunday and one more next week when Baltimore comes to Cincinnati for the regular-season finale.

Mock draft has Bengals thinking DE

December, 18, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- The NFL draft may still be some five months away, but ESPN draft guru Todd McShay is already knocking out mocks.

McShay published the first installment of his 2014 mock draft Insider on Wednesday, outlining the top 32 picks as he sees them right now. (You'll need ESPN Insider access to see the complete list.) Although the final draft order is not yet known, he used ESPN Stats & Information's draft order that takes into account team winning percentages through Week 15 of the season. The mock also includes draft-eligible underclassmen who McShay believes will make the jump once the college football bowl season ends.

One of those underclassmen is Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound lineman would be a possibility for the Bengals at No. 24 depending upon what they do with current defensive end Michael Johnson. There is a good chance the Bengals let go of the franchise-tagged fifth-year player after this season since he likely will end up commanding too much money in a re-signing. Johnson has played well for much of his career, but particularly so in the last two seasons. He had a career-high 11.5 sacks last year, and is on pace to set a new career mark in tackles this year.

By signing defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a five-year, $55 million deal in September and inking fellow end Carlos Dunlap to a six-year, $40 million deal back in July, the Bengals made it difficult to spread the cash when Johnson will be ready to renegotiate again this offseason. The Bengals also might be looking into renegotiating the deals of receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton. Both of their contracts expire after the 2014 season.

So, if Cincinnati is unable to retain Johnson, a defensive end would be a worthy selection in the first round. Also of immediate concern to the Bengals: linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties and offensive tackles.

Here's what McShay had to say about Crichton:

"This pick is dependent upon whether the Bengals decide they want to pay Michael Johnson this offseason. If they let him go, then Crichton fits the bill as a replacement. We'll have to see whether he comes out early or not, but he has been unbelievably productive at Oregon State and one of the best d-linemen in college football the past couple of years. He isn't an elite athlete but he has a quick first step, is a relentless pass-rusher and recorded 16 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks this season even while facing a ton of double-team attention. If the Bengals choose to go in another direction, LB and CB are two other need areas."

Crichton's Insider player card Insider calls him a productive, vocal and durable player.
CINCINNATI -- Most times when Leon Hall walks through the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room these days, reporters are absent.

Wednesday was a rare exception.

As the cornerback and his booted right foot breezed through around midday after another weekday rehab assignment, he was stopped by members of the media who hadn't talked with him since before he tore his right Achilles during in a win over the Detroit Lions two months ago. He has been on the injured reserve since and remained mostly out of sight while undergoing his second major rehabilitation in three seasons.

[+] EnlargeLeon Hall
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsLeon Hall is trying to recover from his second Achilles injury in two years.
Much like the last time he went through an Achilles injury, Hall is also targeting a complete return by training camp.

"That's how I look at it," Hall said. "It's the same injury but every injury's different. I'm kind of approaching this one the same way I approached the last one as far as we're just going to rehab every day, see what happens in six months or whatever."

Six months from now, Hall, who turned 29 on Monday, hopes to be back to running, cutting and jumping.

In the summer of 2012, about a month before the start of that year's training camp, Hall was finishing up the comeback from his first Achilles injury; a tear to the tendon on his left foot.

In the months that followed, he went on to have a strong 2012 season and was on pace to have an even better one in this, his seventh year in the NFL. Last season, he was credited with 38 tackles, while also intercepting two passes and breaking up a career-high eight more. This year, before the injury, he was on pace to have 48 tackles. That would have been his most since 2009. He also was on pace for a career-high 10 pass breakups.

With respect to this particular injury, the timing couldn't have been better from the Bengals' point of view. Hall made a relatively expedient return before training camp last summer. Since this year's injury came two weeks earlier on the season calendar than the last one did, he has even more time to get healthy this go round.

"That's true," Hall said. "My left is healed 100 percent, so I'm kind of looking at it basically with the same mindset I had on the first one."

Hall went down during Week 9 in 2011. This latest injury came in Week 7.

The day-by-day progression of Hall's recent rehab has gone similarly to the first one, he said.

"Sometimes with this one you kind of go as the tendon allows you to go," Hall said. "But for the most part, it's going to be the same number of weeks I had in a cast and the same amount of weeks in this boot and so on and so forth."

Asked to think back to the moment he tried to jump while covering the Lions' Calvin Johnson in goal-line territory, Hall said he knew right away what he had done to himself. He knew the reason he buckled and went down as the pass to Johnson fell incomplete. As he was helped back to the sideline and disgustedly sat on a bright orange Gatorade cooler, he knew his season was done.

"I did know, unfortunately," Hall said. "The feeling felt all too familiar.

"It was a lot going through my head. Anything from: I had a lot of family at the game, to 'Not again.' One of those deals."

It wasn't until Hall returned to Cincinnati that night that he realized the long march to recovery was about to commence. After having gone through that process once before, he knew what to expect next; not that it made dealing with the injury any easier.

"I kind of realized the process that it takes, which can be good and bad," Hall said. "It's good because I know what's happening, but then obviously bad because you realize you have to go through it all over again."

What has helped Hall get through the more difficult moments this rehabilitation process has brought? The fact that his teammates have kept winning. The Bengals, playing most of the latter half of the season without not only him but also Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, are 9-4 and have a commanding lead in the AFC North. With a high playoff seed in sight, Hall has comfort knowing they're continuing on without him.

"When you're winning, it's not as hard because you're happy and the guys you're around every day, that you are used to being around every day, are playing well," Hall said. "So that's good."

Bengals' Hall, Atkins through surgeries

November, 18, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals begin their bye week, they do so knowing that two of their fallen defensive players are officially on the mend and in the initial phases of their lengthy rehab processes.

Coach Marvin Lewis said Monday that both cornerback Leon Hall and defensive tackle Geno Atkins have made it through their respective surgeries. He hasn't yet heard how well Atkins' surgery to repair a torn right ACL went, but he acknowledged that it happened late last week. Hall's procedure to fix an Achilles tear suffered last month at Detroit came a few weeks ago and "went very, very well," Lewis said.

Hall
Atkins
Like they have done with past long-term injuries, including Hall's Achilles tear two seasons ago, the Bengals are sending Hall and Atkins to trainer Nick Cosgray, the team's director of rehabilitation.

"He's always been important," Lewis said. "Obviously, he's been down this road before with Leon. We know the expectations, and Leon now knows what's ahead."

Hall tore his left Achilles two seasons ago, and completed rehab just in time to fully participate in preseason camp last year. In Week 7 of this year, during a goal-line stand, he tore his right Achilles trying to disrupt a pass thrown to Lions receiver Calvin Johnson along the side of the end zone. His feet gave way as soon as he tried to jump for the ball.

Atkins' injury came Halloween night during the Bengals' Week 9 game at Miami. It was the most recent major injury in a long line of them for the Bengals. After Robert Geathers suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, the Bengals lost Hall, defensive back Taylor Mays and Atkins in a three-week span in the middle of the season. Linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Devon Still also have been battling through their own injuries for the past month, but are expected back in time for next week's game at San Diego.

"It's going to be new waters with Geno," Lewis said of Atkins' rehab. "We just have to convince him how important it is that we get hands on him early and get him going. We believe that our people here do the best job they can for the players, as opposed to someone else's people. These are the people we trust in and their job is to get our guys back on the field as healthy as they can and as quickly as they can. We feel it's best they are here doing it, and Nick has done a tremendous job of it. We need the same kind of outcome with these last two."

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