NFL Nation: Manny Lawson

The blows for Buffalo Bills fans came in quick succession Tuesday night.

First was a shocking 33-word statement from general manager Doug Whaley that sent a clear message: brace for the worst with linebacker Kiko Alonso, who quickly had become a fan favorite and rising defensive star last season.

[+] EnlargeKiko Alonso
AP Photo/Bill WippertKiko Alonso's torn ACL puts the Buffalo Bills in quite a pickle at linebacker.
"We have learned tonight that Kiko Alonso injured his knee while working out in Oregon," Whaley said. "We do not have the details at this point, but early indications are that it may be significant."

Less than an hour later came confirmation, from ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, of Bills' fans fears: Alonso had torn his ACL and is expected to miss the upcoming season.

At a time when those around the NFL are relaxing on beaches and boats, the stunning developments with Alonso have taken the wind out of the Bills' sails.

This is a crushing blow just more than two weeks before training camp begins.

Alonso was part of a defensive resurgence last season under former coordinator Mike Pettine, playing every defensive snap. The team moved him to weak-side linebacker this offseason, and its hope was that Alonso would take another step forward, helping to improve the Bills' run defense as a run-and-hit outside 'backer.

At this point, you can rip up those plans and toss them in the trash, at least for this season. The Bills are back to the drawing board at linebacker.

Luckily for them, the team made two low-cost, high-upside signings this offseason, bringing in Keith Rivers and Brandon Spikes. That shored up what was, aside from Alonso, a weaker point in their defense last season.

Before Alonso's injury, the Bills planned to start Rivers on the strong side and Spikes in the middle. With a hole potentially opening up on the weak side, they have several options.

First, they could move Rivers to the weak side. That would open a hole on the strong side, but Rivers has adequate range to play any of the three linebacker spots. He has an injury history that should make the Bills leery of relying too much on him, but at this point they might not have a choice.

Moving Rivers across the formation would require someone else moving into his old spot. One choice would be Preston Brown, a third-round pick who impressed at middle linebacker this spring. Having a rookie learning one position in organized team activities and another in training camp isn't ideal, but Brown has impressed coaches so far. The Bills could hold their breath and hope that Brown makes like Alonso and steps in without a hitch on the strong side.

Rivers
If the Bills wanted to go with more experience in their second level, Manny Lawson is their best bet. Lawson, who turns 30 later this month, started 15 games last season at strong-side linebacker. That's a different position in Pettine's defense than it is for Schwartz, and Lawson would need to play off the line more than he did last season. Moving Lawson back to linebacker would also weaken the Bills' depth at defensive end, but it's an option they need to consider at this point.

Another possibility is to replace Alonso with Nigel Bradham, keeping Rivers on the strong side. Bradham, a former fourth-round pick, started 11 games in 2012 as part of a Bills defense that ranked 31st against the run. His playing time was cut considerably under Pettine last season, but he offers more athleticism than the alternatives at the position.

There are few, if any, remaining options on the free-agent market who could step in and start for Alonso. Any new player coming in would have to play catch-up to learn the defense. The Bills could add a veteran for depth during training camp, but they would likely keep the expectations low with any new addition.

Instead, the strongest bet is that Alonso's replacement is either Bradham, Brown or Lawson.

None is Alonso. After snagging four interceptions in his first four games, Alonso's on-field play and his nonchalant personality earned him "legend" status among Bills fans, who flocked to buy his jersey.

In a cruel offseason twist that came down like a bolt of lightning on a summer night, Alonso won't be wearing his jersey on the field this season.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus returned to Bills practice Tuesday as they opened a three-day mandatory minicamp.

Dareus
Dareus missed the final two weeks of organized team activities after he was taken into custody following an alleged street race. Coach Doug Marrone did not specify where Dareus was during that time, only saying that the Pro Bowler was dealing with "personal issues."

The Bills will not make Dareus available to reporters during minicamp, saying they want him to "focus on football."

Dareus is scheduled to appear in a Hamburg, New York court on July 1.

Meanwhile, the Bills had two players missing from their first minicamp practice Tuesday. Tight end Scott Chandler was excused for a family matter, and offensive tackle Cordy Glenn sat out with an illness.

Defensive end Manny Lawson and defensive tackle Alan Branch both reported to practice after sitting out all of OTAs, which were voluntary.

"The season is long. When you have some years under your belt, you don't want it to be repetitive. You don't want to seem like you're going through the motions, the same thing over and over again," Lawson said. "It was good to step away, spend time with the family, go visit your family. Relax -- still work out in my time off -- but step away from the game and come back to it and it's all new and fun again."

Rookie offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, a seventh-round draft pick, did not practice Tuesday for what the team called travel-related issues.

Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin left practice with trainers and did not return. He did not suffer an obvious injury during practice.

Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (hip surgery) and Leodis McKelvin (hip surgery) both participated to full-team drills for the first time this spring.

The Bills had three players trying out during Tuesday's practice: wide receiver Tori Gurley, cornerback Kamaal McIlwain, and another unidentified defensive back.
Jim SchwartzAP Photo/David RichardDefensive coordinator Jim Schwartz arrived in Buffalo after five seasons as Detroit's head coach.
Even the Cleveland Browns haven't had it this bad.

The Buffalo Bills have run through more defensive coordinators over the past four years than any other team in the NFL, complicating their player-acquisition process through both free agency and the draft.

While their defensive schemes have changed each offseason since 2011, it's not all bad news. In hiring Mike Pettine last winter and Jim Schwartz to replace him in January, the Bills are sacrificing long-term coaching stability to help win now.

It's the right approach. Schwartz has extensive experience as a coordinator and head coach, while Pettine is a riser in the NFL coaching ranks, having recently been hired to lead the Browns. They're both talented defensive minds and better than the alternative, which would have been to promote from within or to poach an up-and-coming position coach from another team.

Schwartz is already putting his mark on the Bills defense. General manager Doug Whaley revealed last week that Kiko Alonso, who finished second in voting for the Associated Press' Defensive Rookie of the Year award, will move to weakside linebacker as part of yet another defensive overhaul.

Replacing Alonso at middle linebacker will be newly signed Brandon Spikes. The Bills also signed Keith Rivers, a former first-round draft pick, to potentially start at strongside linebacker.

It will be a whole new look, but one that presents some challenges for the Bills.

It was only a year ago when Buffalo signed linebacker Manny Lawson to a four-year, $12 million deal. The lanky veteran proved a strong fit in Pettine's system, starting 15 games and posting his best statistical marks since 2009.

Now Lawson is a man without a home. Under Pettine, Lawson could play close to the line of scrimmage, setting the edge against the run and blitzing on occasion. Things will be different with Schwartz, who rarely blitzes his linebackers and requires sturdier defensive ends than the 240-pound Lawson.

[+] EnlargeMike Pettine
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliThe Bills' defense improved in a number of areas during Mike Pettine's lone season as coordinator.
With three years left on Lawson's contract, the Bills wouldn't have received much of a salary-cap benefit by releasing him. Instead, they paid Lawson his $500,000 roster bonus last week and will try to find him a place among their new furniture.

"I think he's going to be a hybrid player. He's going to be able to bring us something as an outside linebacker but also come off the edge as a defensive end," Whaley told WGR 550 last week. "His versatility is going to be utilized within this system. That we think is going to be very valuable for us."

Translation: We like you Manny, but we don't really know what to do with you.

Lawson might find a situational role at defensive end, where Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are the top two options. It also could be a position where the Bills try to add depth in the draft.

What about Alan Branch, who started 13 games at defensive end last season? Pettine's system required three big bodies along the defensive line. At 325 pounds, Branch fit that bill.

Without waiting to see how things would unfold with Pettine, the Bills jumped the gun in late December and gave Branch a three-year extension worth more than $3 million per season, with nearly $4 million in guaranteed money.

Under Schwartz, Branch figures to have a lesser role. The Bills already have a pair of defensive tackles in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus -- who both made the Pro Bowl last season -- and Branch will be a capable but likely overpaid backup.

The Bills were smarter in doling out contracts last week. Spikes received a one-year deal and Rivers signed for two years. Both contracts included little guaranteed money.

After all, who knows where Schwartz will be by next January?

It took Schwartz eight seasons as the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator to earn his first head-coaching job, with the Detroit Lions. He's known as a prideful coach who, when introduced in Buffalo, came off miffed about the way things ended after five seasons in Detroit.

"I think if you look around, just about every coach has been in that position. Every coach has had some situation," he said. "There are some great ones that have been fired."

At 47, Schwartz might not have to wait long for another head-coaching opportunity, but that doesn't make him a bad investment by the Bills.

The Bills gambled when they hired Pettine last winter. It was among the NFL's worst-kept secrets that Pettine wanted to become a head coach. He was on the fast track. Unusual circumstances may have led to his hire by the Browns, but the departure from Buffalo was inevitable.

Likewise with Schwartz. The Bills might rebuild and grow with Whaley, Doug Marrone and EJ Manuel, but it's unlikely that Schwartz will stick around long enough to see that process through.

In Pettine and Schwartz, the Bills hired the best options on the market. Pettine boosted several areas of the Bills defense, helping it improve from 22nd in yards allowed per game in 2012 to 10th in 2013, while seeing the red zone defense jump from 31st to sixth last season. The Bills finished second in opposing QBR, second in sacks, second in interceptions and first in opposing completion percentage.

Meanwhile, Schwartz's defenses were typically strong in Tennessee, especially against the run. The Titans finished in the top six in rushing yards allowed in five of Schwartz's eight seasons as defensive coordinator.

Most important, both coaches are confident and experienced, allowing Marrone to focus his attention where it's needed the most: on offense. Had the Bills turned to a younger, less experienced defensive coordinator than Pettine or Schwartz, it would have created more continuity with scheme but also would have stretched Marrone thin.

Whaley and his scouting staff might get headaches trying to keep up with the defensive changes, but for a city that desperately needs a winning team, this is the right way to go.
Happy Monday. We've arrived at what is typically the busiest week of the NFL offseason.

Since Saturday, teams have been able to enter into talks with opposing teams' free agents. Starting Tuesday at 4 p.m., deals can become official.

Until then, let's recap what we've learned over the past few days:

1. The Bills will need to make a decision on several players who are due large roster bonuses this week. Quarterback Kevin Kolb ($1 million) and linebacker Manny Lawson ($500,000) are both due roster bonuses on Thursday. On Saturday, the Bills owe wide receiver Stevie Johnson a $1.75 million roster bonus. Last week, Bills general manager Doug Whaley addressed Kolb's situation with John Kryk of the Toronto Sun. "It's a tricky situation," Whaley told Kryk. "We're going to be very careful how we handle this, and the foremost consideration in the whole equation is him being healthy." It would be a surprise if Kolb remains with the team past this week. Lawson and Johnson are longer shots to be released but their situations still bear watching.

2. Last week, the Bills hosted linebackers Jameel McClain and Jasper Brinkley, who were both released by their former teams. Brinkley could be off the market soon, as Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo reported Sunday that the Minnesota Vikings will bring back Brinkley on a one-year deal. Meanwhile, McClain will still meet with the Vikings on Monday, reports 1500 ESPN's Darren Wolfson. We ranked linebacker as the Bills' top free-agent need and we wouldn't be surprised if the Bills made a play to sign one of the top free-agent linebackers available. Jon Beason and Karlos Dansby are among those who are hitting the open market this week.

3. ESPN.com Miami Dolphins reporter James Walker reported Monday that safety Jairus Byrd is seeking a deal that pays him at least $9 million per season. That would make Byrd the highest-paid safety in the NFL, at least in terms of average salary per season. The NFL Network reported over the weekend that the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams have expressed interest in Byrd.

4. While Tuesday is the start of the free-agent signing period, it's also the first day that teams can complete trades. At this point, don't rule out activity on that end from the Bills.
Many were holding their breath for the Buffalo Bills to make a major transaction Monday, but this wasn't it.

Lawson
The Bills waived first-year linebacker Willie Jefferson, who signed a future contract on Jan. 16.

Jefferson, 23, appears to be the victim of a scheme change in Buffalo. The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson, who first reported the news, added that Jefferson didn't fit into new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's system.

That's not unexpected as Jefferson, at 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, played defensive end in college. When the Bills signed him, their official website noted that Jefferson and Bills linebacker Manny Lawson (6-5, 240) have a similar body type and style of play.

For Lawson, this isn't a good sign. Like Williams, he played defensive end in college and was drafted as an outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense. The Bills had elements of that scheme last season under Mike Pettine, but expect more of a true 4-3 system under Schwartz.

Such a system requires shorter, more nimble outside linebackers with coverage ability. Lawson isn't that. It also requires defensive ends with strong pass-rush ability. At this point in his career, that's not Lawson, either.

What, then, should the Bills do with one of their most respected players in their locker room? Last month, ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson opined that Lawson could be released.

Lawson signed a four-year deal last offseason that included a $3 million signing bonus and roster bonuses of $500,000 in 2014 and 2015, along with a $250,000 roster bonus in the final year. One NFL head coach told me recently that he felt the Bills overpaid for Lawson, who turns 30 in July.

Regardless, it's not a deal that would constrain the Bills with their salary cap if they wanted to release Lawson. He's known as a savvy veteran but one whose best fit could be elsewhere.

Examining potential Bills cap cuts

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With Super Bowl XLVIII in the books, Monday is the first official day of the 2014 NFL offseason.

It's also the first day teams can release players who are under contract for next season. In some cases, teams might release players to free up salary-cap room. In other cases, the team might determine the player isn't valued as highly in a new scheme.

Both scenarios could come into play with the Buffalo Bills. The NFL hasn't announced an exact salary cap for next season, but the Bills are currently projected to be in the middle of the pack in terms of cap space.

While the Bills will have sufficient cap space to make free-agent moves this offseason, it's typical for some players to be released for financial purposes. Here's our best guess which players could be on the outs in Buffalo:

Kolb
QB Kevin Kolb: What's not clear is how Kolb has recovered from an August concussion that ended his season. What is clear is that the Bills view EJ Manuel as their starting quarterback entering next season, so Kolb -- even if healthy -- would enter the offseason as a backup. With a $3.6 cap number, including a $1 million roster bonus, it's hard to see that happening. It would be a surprise if Kolb remains on the roster at the start of the 2014 league year in March.

WR Stevie Johnson: Johnson could be one of the toughest calls the Bills make this offseason. He's under contract through 2016, so by releasing him now, the Bills would have to absorb significant "dead money" this season. The true savings in releasing Johnson would come in 2015 and 2016. If the Bills feel like Johnson isn't a fit within their offense, they could make the decision to cut ties with him now. He's due a $1.75 roster bonus in March that essentially sets a deadline for that decision to happen. Unless they want to take a larger "dead money" hit, they can't wait until May to see if Sammy Watkins, the top receiver in the draft, is still on the board at ninth overall.

Moeaki
TE Tony Moeaki: Once Moeaki recovered from a preseason injury last season, he signed a two-year contract with the Bills. He's due a $1 million base salary, a $250,000 roster bonus, and a $100,000 workout bonus this offseason, which suggests the Bills had competition in signing him. Still, Moeaki did not play an offensive snap after being signed in early December. If the Bills feel like things will come together with Moeaki by next season, perhaps he'll stay in the fold under his current deal. If not, it's possible they cut ties with him.

OT Erik Pears: Pears started 16 games this season for the Bills, but there have been indications that the Bills want to upgrade along their offensive line. The journeyman right tackle turns 32 in June and has a $3.75 million cap number. The Bills could deem that too rich for a position they could target in May's draft. This could be a case where the Bills could ask Pears to restructure in order to remain in Buffalo.

OT Chris Hairston: Hairston, who spent all of last season on the non-football illness list, has a cap hit of about $750,000. That's not significant on its own, but it's also not clear where Hairston stands health-wise. If he can't pass a physical or can't participate in the offseason program, he could be released. Hairston started 15 games between 2011 and 2012, but it's not known how the current coaching staff views the former fourth-round pick.

OLB Manny Lawson: The potential for Lawson to be released moves onto the radar under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Lawson is considered to better fit in Mike Pettine's defensive scheme, where the 'Sam' linebacker plays closer to the line of scrimmage and is used more as a blitzer. In Schwartz's system, both outside linebackers typically play off the line of scrimmage and are used 'in space,' requiring better athleticism. Lawson will turn 30 this summer and doesn't have excellent range as an off-the-line player. Even though Lawson brought a veteran presence to the locker room, it's possible the Bills look to restructure his contract or release him. He has a $3.1 million cap number this season, but is signed through 2016, so like Johnson, the cap savings could come down the road.

Manny Lawson questionable for Sunday

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills linebacker Manny Lawson is questionable for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after being excused from Friday's practice for personal reasons.

Lawson
"I spoke to him this morning, I excused him. It's not injury-related. He's taking care of some personal issues," head coach Doug Marrone said. "I'm going to talk to him this afternoon. ... I don't know much about the situation."

Lawson, 29, has started eight games this season for the Bills, recording 43 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.

Meanwhile, wide receiver Robert Woods (ankle) is listed as doubtful but will travel to Pittsburgh with the team. He did not practice again Friday.

Fellow rookie receiver Marquise Goodwin (hamstring) is probable and will play Sunday, per Marrone.

The full Bills injury report, including player participation in Friday's practice:

DOUBTFUL
WR Robert Woods (ankle; did not participate)

QUESTIONABLE
LB Manny Lawson (personal; did not participate)

PROBABLE
QB EJ Manuel (knee; full participation)
QB Thad Lewis (ribs; full participation)
DT Kyle Williams (Achilles'; full participation)
WR Marquise Goodwin (hamstring; full participation)

Spiller, Lawson inactive vs. Saints

October, 27, 2013
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Spiller
NEW ORLEANS -- Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller (ankle) is inactive for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints.

Linebacker Manny Lawson (hamstring) is also inactive. Both Spiller and Lawson were listed as doubtful on the injury report.

Full list of Bills inactives:

RB C.J. Spiller
LB Manny Lawson
QB EJ Manuel
QB Matt Flynn
CB Justin Rogers
LB Ty Powell
OL Antoine McClain

Bills' Manny Lawson doubtful for Sunday

October, 25, 2013
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills linebacker Manny Lawson is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints.

Lawson did not practice this week after leaving last Sunday's win against Miami with a hamstring injury. Head coach Doug Marrone said Lawson suffered a setback in his recovery this week.

Meanwhile, the Bills listed running back Fred Jackson (knee) as probable for Sunday's game.

Full Bills injury report from Friday:

OUT
QB EJ Manuel (knee)

DOUBTFUL
RB C.J. Spiller (ankle)
LB Manny Lawson (hamstring)

PROBABLE
RB Fred Jackson (knee)
DT Kyle Williams (Achilles)

Bills' Manny Lawson suffers setback

October, 24, 2013
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills linebacker Manny Lawson missed his second consecutive practice Thursday after suffering a setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury.

Lawson
"We really felt good yesterday," head coach Doug Marrone said. "Then we had a setback. So it's going to be a day-to-day thing. That's not the best of news."

Marrone wasn't ready to rule out Lawson for Sunday's game in New Orleans, saying that Lawson, as a veteran, may have more leeway on whether he plays after not practicing.

"He's missed two days of practice," Marrone said. "But Manny's smart and he's a veteran guy. So that's why it'll be day-to-day."

Lawson, in his eighth season, has started the first seven games, recording 40 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.

The following is the Bills' full Thursday injury report:

DID NOT PRACTICE
QB EJ Manuel (knee)
LB Manny Lawson (hamstring)
RB C.J. Spiller (ankle)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
RB Fred Jackson (knee)

FULL PARTICIPATION
DT Kyle Williams (Achilles)

Locker Room Buzz: Buffalo Bills

October, 20, 2013
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MIAMI -- Observed in the locker room after the Buffalo Bills' 23-21 win over the Miami Dolphins:

Jackson
Lawson not spotted: Linebacker Manny Lawson wasn't spotted in the locker room postgame, his travel bag already packed by the time reporters entered. Lawson left in the third quarter with a hamstring injury, which also kept him out of the second half last week against Cincinnati. The veteran has provided a leadership presence for the Bills and has contributed on defense, but his status bears watching in the coming days -- again.

Jackson aggravates previous injury: Teammates raved about Fred Jackson's toughness. The captain went down with what looked like a serious injury in the first quarter, but remained on the sideline and eventually returned to the game. Jackson said he simply aggravated his MCL sprain and it's something he'll need to "manage" going forward. The cart came onto the field for Jackson when he was on the ground, but asked about it afterward, he said he didn't know it had come out.

Monitoring the division: Shortly after they defeated a division opponent, the Bills gathered around their locker room television to watch the ending of the Jets' overtime win over the Patriots. There wasn't much of a reaction from general manager Doug Whaley or CEO Russ Brandon as Nick Folk's field goal went through the uprights, but there were smiles among some of the players watching. The Jets' and Bills' wins keep things tight in the AFC East.

Manny Lawson (hamstring) out for game

October, 13, 2013
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills linebacker Manny Lawson left in the first half of Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a hamstring injury.

The Bills announced that he will not return to the game.

Lawson started the first six games of the season, recording 35 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.

Meanwhile, Bills rookie safety Jonathan Meeks left with a knee injury and will not return.
Parys Haralson and Delanie Walker departed the San Francisco 49ers' roster this offseason after entering the NFL has 2006 draft choices with the team.

Another member of that 49ers draft class, fullback Michael Robinson, was a valued contributor to the division-rival Seattle Seahawks when the team released him Friday with age and salary-cap considerations in mind.

The 2006 class has been good to the 49ers. The team continues to get top-shelf contributions from tight end Vernon Davis, one of the team's two first-round picks from that 2006 class.

Mike Nolan was coach and Scott McCloughan was general manager for the 49ers back then. Some of the personnel moves they made continue to sustain the team. Frank Gore, Tarell Brown, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Ray McDonald and Davis remain as players drafted under Nolan. All are valued contributors. Another Nolan-era pick, Adam Snyder, is back with the team as a reserve offensive lineman after spending 2012 with Arizona.

Davis is one of 10 first-round picks from 2006 playing with his original team. The list also includes A.J. Hawk, Haloti Ngata, Chad Greenway, Tamba Hali, Davin Joseph, DeAngelo Williams, Marcedes Lewis, Nick Mangold and Mathias Kiwanuka.

Buffalo Bills practice report

July, 31, 2013
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills were back on the practice field Wednesday morning, holding their second full-padded session of training camp.

Passing along some observations:

Williams back, but does not participate: Defensive end Mario Williams was back in uniform after leaving training camp to have his sore foot evaluated. Williams worked with the strength and conditioning staff on the sidelines, and did not participate in practice. Meanwhile, tight end Scott Chandler (ACL) and defensive lineman Kyle Williams (Achilles) continued to be held out of team drills. Head coach Doug Marrone said the team has built in rest days for Chandler, who had knee surgery in January.

[+] EnlargeLeodis McKelvin
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsBills coach Doug Marrone came away impressed with the play of defensive back Leodis McKelvin on Wednesday.
Rogers sits out; McKelvin gets bumped up: Cornerback Justin Rogers was not in uniform on Wednesday after suffering a right hamstring injury in Tuesday's session. Marrone said after practice that Rogers will be out "for a short period of time." Rogers began training camp with the first team and was replaced by T.J. Heath on Tuesday. However, veteran Leodis McKelvin ran with the first team on Wednesday, with Heath and Crezdon Butler playing cornerback for the second group.

"He made a heck of a play on a comeback [pattern]," Marrone said of McKelvin after practice. "When you're out for that long, it takes some time. He's really coming along nicely. We're excited about that."

Elliott carted off: Second-year receiver Kevin Elliott was carted off the practice field with a right shoulder injury. Elliott made an impressive diving catch during 11-on-11s against top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but came down hard on his shoulder and looked to be in pain on the sideline. Elliott is the mix for a back-end roster spot.

Other injuries: Marrone said a pair of running backs were hobbled with ankle injuries on Wednesday. Veteran Tashard Choice came up slow during a punt drill and talked to trainers, but later came back onto the field for 11-on-11 work. Meanwhile, Zach Brown suffered an ankle injury that Marrone said doctors will examine.

Manuel gets first-team action: Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel ran the first-team offense during the initial 11-on-11 period of practice after spending most of his time with the second team to begin training camp. Veteran Kevin Kolb led the top group for the final two 11-on-11 periods. For the second consecutive practice, Manuel avoided making any critical mistakes while in the pocket, but looked to face more blitz pressures than he has in previous sessions.

Kolb was intercepted during an early 7-on-7 drill by Gilmore, who undercut rookie running back Kendall Gaskins on a short pattern. Kolb was later intercepted by safety Da'Norris Searcy on a pass intended for rookie receiver Marquise Goodwin, and also had some throws that sailed behind receivers T.J. Graham and Robert Woods. On the plus side, it was Kolb who lofted a well-thrown ball to Elliott on the play where he was injured.

Dime package gets work: The Bills had six defensive backs on the field for a stretch of their final 11-on-11 period. Safety Duke Williams was one of the players coming on, with Bryan Scott replacing Nigel Bradham at linebacker. Along the defensive line, Manny Lawson and Alex Carrington provided the pass rush. On the second unit, rookie Nickell Robey manned the slot, intercepting quarterback Jeff Tuel late in the period.

Punters look even: The punt unit returned to action Wednesday, with Shawn Powell and Brian Stahovich both impressive during both special-teams periods. However, returners had issues during the first period, with Woods and Graham both muffing catches, drawing the ire of special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman.

Good day at the office for: McKelvin. The changes at cornerback continue for the Bills, and McKelvin was the latest to take reps with the first team. He didn't disappoint, showing tight coverage and breaking up a throw from Kolb to Woods during 11-on-11s.

Bad day at the office for: Kolb. It's tough to compare him side-by-side to Manuel since Kolb is usually seeing the best unit from the defense, but Kolb continues to struggle at times with his accuracy and decision making. He's in the spotlight given the quarterback situation, so his mistakes are more magnified than those of other players.

What's next: Players are off Thursday before returning to practice Friday morning from 8 to 11:10.
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals got over one hump only to find a bigger one in front of them this season.

Last season, the Bengals proved they weren't a one-year wonder, reaching the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Reagan administration. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, the Bengals consider it a painful reminder of their shortcomings.

This franchise hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season. This 22-year drought is the longest current one in the NFL and the seventh-longest in league history.

All of the hard work the Bengals are putting in this summer, which is being chronicled on HBO's "Hard Knocks," is done with the hopes it pays off in January.

"We made it to the playoffs back-to-back when we were young," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "Now that we have two years of experience under our belt, we expect to make some noise rather than just making an appearance."

Unlike the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals kept most of their team intact. Cincinnati had to replace one player from the starting lineup in last season's playoff game against Houston. The additions of linebacker James Harrison and tight end Tyler Eifert have helped make the Bengals the trendy pick to win the AFC North. And, after the Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta for the season, some may consider the Bengals the favorites.

At a time when the expectations are heightened, coach Marvin Lewis continued his tradition of handing out T-shirts with his theme for that season. This year, the orange letters on the black shirt read: "Success, A lot of little things done well."

"If you go into the season and you’re picked first in the division and you work out in the offseason and approach training camp like you’re the best, I don’t think that will be beneficial," cornerback Leon Hall said. "If you approach it with the same mindset like you’re supposed to be last, you have that chip on your shoulder. We still have to work hard through the season. We open up in Chicago, and they’re not going to lie down for us just because of what people expect out of us."

You could argue that the Bengals are ahead of the curve. It was only two years ago when Cincinnati began the season at the bottom of ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings. Now, there's talk that the Bengals are better than the defending Super Bowl champions.

Has this turnaround happened more quickly than Lewis anticipated?

"I think the quarterback and the receiver accelerated things," Lewis said, referring to Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison, Mike Zimmer
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals coordinator Mike Zimmer, rear, said linebacker James Harrison has "exceeded my expectations" in his move to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4.
1. Determine whether Dalton is the team's franchise quarterback. A former second-round pick, Dalton has exceeded expectations in his first two seasons. He's thrown 47 touchdowns in 32 career games. The only quarterbacks who have passed for more in their first two seasons in the NFL are Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52). There's no question that Dalton is good enough in the regular season to get the Bengals to the playoffs. But there are doubts whether he can take them to that next level.

Dalton is 0-2 in the playoffs and is a major reason for those defeats. He threw three interceptions in his first playoff game in the 2011 postseason (including a crucial pick returned for a touchdown by J.J. Watt) and failed to complete half of his throws in his second postseason game in the 2012 playoffs. That's not going to cut it in a division where quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger are measured by the postseason.

Judging by his performance in the first week of training camp, Dalton remains a streaky passer. He went from having a rhythm in the first two days to forcing throws into coverage over the next couple of practices. The Bengals, though, remain supportive.

"The way he’s commanded the offense, he knows it’s his team now," Green said.

2. Harrison's transition to a 4-3 defense. Harrison insists it's not much of a change going from an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense to Cincinnati's 4-3 one. But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer disagrees.

"I don’t think it’s overblown because it’s a different position," Zimmer said. "He’s exceeded my expectations, to be honest with you. Typically, that transition is a little more difficult. Shoot, we’re finding a lot of things for him to do. The coverage part was what I was a little worried about. But he’s doing things really well. We’ll find a lot of ways to use him in all kinds of different packages."

The Steelers rarely asked Harrison to drop into coverage. He didn't have one interception or pass breakup in the past two seasons. What won't change is his ability to rush the passer. While some point out that last season was Harrison's least productive, his six sacks match the total of all of the Bengals' linebackers last year.

The Bengals aren't na´ve. They're not expecting the NFL Defensive Player of the Year from five years ago. The Bengals are certain that Harrison is more of an impact player than Manny Lawson, last year's starter. Harrison's biggest contribution won't be measured on the stat sheet. His toughness and leadership alone will elevate a defense that has a lot of talent but has always lacked an edge.

3. Game plan for the running backs. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden hinted before training camp began that there could be an equal distribution of carries between BenJarvus Green-Ellis, last year's starter, and Giovani Bernard, the first running back selected in this year's draft. But, barring injury, this is unlikely to happen. The Bengals have been impressed with Bernard. They're just not ready to reduce Green-Ellis' role. Remember, Green-Ellis averaged 92.8 yards rushing in his final six regular-season games last season.

The Bengals are hoping Bernard will produce big plays, especially in the passing game, and carry the ball enough to keep Green-Ellis fresh late in contests. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Green-Ellis ranked seventh in the NFL in fourth-quarter rushing yards last season. But his per-carry average was a less-than-stellar 3.9 yards. Bernard will eventually become the Bengals' starting running back. It just won't happen this year.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Bengals have one of the top playmakers and top defenses in the NFL. Green can score from anywhere on the field and makes everyone around him better because of the attention that he draws. His 162 catches are the second-most in NFL history for a player in his first two seasons. With an underrated defensive line headlined by Geno Atkins, the Bengals defense finished No. 6 last season and should be more dominant this season. This is why Cincinnati is among the dark-horse picks for the Super Bowl this season.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How far the Bengals go this season falls on Dalton's play. He's the biggest question mark on a team primed to climb to the level of the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens. In the regular season, he turned the ball over 20 times (16 interceptions, four fumbles) and was one of two starting quarterbacks to complete less than half of his throws on third down. In two postseason games, he has thrown for a paltry 384 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions. The Bengals have done everything to surround Dalton with playmakers, using their top two picks on Eifert and Bernard. It's up to him to deliver.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeShawn Williams
AP Photo/Al BehrmanShawn Williams, a rookie out of Georgia, could start at strong safety for the Bengals.

  • The front-runner for the strong safety job is rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams. After watching two training-camp practices, it was apparent to me that he has more of a feel for that position than Taylor Mays. On one play, a breakdown in coverage by Mays led to a long touchdown pass. On the very next play, Williams jumped a route and made an interception. "He’s got a chance [to start]," Zimmer said of Williams. "He could end up being the guy."

  • Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is running very well, and you wouldn't know he had a season-ending foot injury in late November. But the wide receiver who stood out the most was Marvin Jones. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has a knack for getting open and can take off after making the catch.

  • Here's the best stat a local reporter passed along to me: Nine of the 11 linebackers on the Bengals roster were undrafted. One of them is Vontaze Burfict, who is still carrying a large chip on his shoulder after every team passed on him in the 2012 draft. He takes out his frustration with each explosive tackle.

  • Eifert's position is listed as tight end, but the Bengals are moving him all over the field. To his credit, he's learning everything the team is throwing at him. The Bengals are trying to exploit mismatches with the 6-foot-6 first-round pick, as they did when he pulled down a jump ball in the end zone over Williams, who stands 6-0.

  • When you enter the locker room where all the defensive linemen stand, you feel like you're covering the NBA, not the NFL. There are three players 6-6 or taller: Dunlap (6-6), Michael Johnson (6-7) and rookie second-round pick Margus Hunt (6-8). "I know they always say they’re looking for the next big thing," Dunlap said. "Each year, they keep getting bigger and faster."

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