NFL Nation: Mike Brown

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Concluding our Q&A with Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer (here's part 1 and part 2):

What has your working relationship been like with [general manager] Rick [Spielman] and the Wilfs?

Zimmer: Really good. Really good. I don't talk to Mark and Zygi all that much -- every Monday after the game we talk, after the game, I see them and stuff like that, and sometimes before the game, but that's really about it. But they've been, with everything, anything I've asked for, they've been accommodating. Rick has been really good. We'll sit down and talk; we'll watch film together, we'll watch the game tape after the game together. It's actually been pretty easy. That part has been easy.

[+] EnlargeCordarrelle Patterson
AP Photo/Jim MoneCordarrelle Patterson has had problems playing at a consistently high level.
Was that a big adjustment for you -- being more involved in the higher-level stuff with management?

Zimmer: Not too much, because in Dallas, Jerry Jones was pretty involved. And then in Cincinnati, I met with Mike Brown every Monday. He was involved in all the draft meetings and everything. He was at practice every single day. It really wasn't that much different.

At least watching from the outside, it seems like your working relationship with Rick is pretty good -- it seemed like you were kind of able to say, 'Here's what I need to be successful,' and he was able to go get it. Is that how it's worked?

Zimmer: Yeah, and he's said, when he goes on the road now and looks at these college guys and stuff, even now, in watching how we play and the things we do, I think he's getting a better idea of what we need. Everything happened so fast before the draft -- getting here in January and all that, and trying to evaluate. Now, [Scott] Studwell and George Paton and Rick, when they're watching the tape and seeing how we play, the things we do and the techniques we're teaching, I think they have a good idea of that. It's never going to be 100 percent agreement on everything, but from watching the defensive players for so long, I have a good idea -- now, I'm wrong a lot, too, and we all are -- but I think the core characteristics that we're looking for in guys are easier to spot when you've been watching the tape.

In terms of getting all the pieces you need and guys that are perfect fits in your system, is it hard to expect that to happen in a year? Do you think it takes a couple cycles of player acquisition to get everything you need?

Zimmer: I don't ever look at it like that, because I think I'm a pretty good coach, and I can coach guys into doing it. Like, Josh Robinson, I think he's had a pretty good half so far. I think when guys learn the techniques we're trying to teach, they can improve. That's all I've ever tried to do, is improve players -- whoever they are, whoever we have at the time -- and then worry about the next year and figure out how we can get other guys in here. My job is to take each player and make them better every day.

You mentioned Cordarrelle [Patterson] a little bit [in your Tuesday news conference]. Is he still figuring out what you guys want from him, or is it a matter of being consistent in practice every day? What's the summary of where he's at right now?

Zimmer: It's not so much the consistency in practice, because I think he's doing a lot of good things in practice. It's maybe the consistency in the game a little bit more. That's really it -- it's being consistent, running the same route all the time, being at the same depth, running the same release, so that everybody is on the same page. That's really what it's about.

When he got here, of course, he hadn't played a lot of football. Is it something that just takes time for him to learn all the nuances of the game?

Zimmer: Yeah, and it's different for every player. Anthony Barr is coming here as a young guy that's learned a lot of things in a short amount of time, and some guys take a little bit longer. That's always how it's been. I've had some really great players that, in their third year, they start really coming on and figuring it out -- guys that have probably played more football than [Patterson] did. As long as they work, and they want to do the things the right way, and continue to do it good -- and I think he does. That's why it was good last week [against Tampa Bay] that he had some success. We've just got to keep trying to get him maintaining the consistency level.

You've mentioned you haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to Adrian Peterson's legal status. If he comes back, is it hard to put him back in the system when it's been this long?

Zimmer: I think it all depends on the guy a little bit. Each person is different. I've had a player tear his Achilles, and the first day back, he remembers everything and how to do it. And then you have other guys that will come back, and you have to re-teach their steps and technique -- everything. I think everything's different with every player.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After a team whose season could have gone either way – and still could -- gritted out a win Sunday afternoon, there seemed to consensus among the Pittsburgh Steelers that cornerback Brice McCain played like a combination of Mel Blount and Rod Woodson last week in practice.

Coach Mike Tomlin said McCain had four interceptions during team drills. Veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said it was much higher than that.

“He had like seven picks during the week,” said Taylor, who is out with a broken arm. “In one practice, I think he had like three.”

McCain had one measly pick Sunday, but his timing was impeccable. The sixth-year veteran turned a pre-snap read into the play of the game, as well as a teaching tool for Tomlin.

[+] EnlargeBrice McCain
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackBrice McCain turned practice production into a game-changing play in Jacksonville.
McCain jumped a route after a blitz hurried a throw from rookie quarterback Blake Bortles, and his interception and 23-yard return for a touchdown allowed the Steelers to hold off the winless Jacksonville Jaguars 17-9 at EverBank Field.

“I told him before the game, ‘Man you had a great week of practice. This is your game,’ ” Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said.

There were several different ways to look at McCain’s game-changing interception two plays after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lost a fumble deep in Jacksonville territory with Pittsburgh clinging to a 10-9 lead.

It seemed, at first glance, to come from an unlikely source.

McCain, after all, had played so poorly in Houston in 2013 that the Steelers were able to sign the 27-year-old to a veteran minimum contract last March even though he has started in the NFL and is in his prime.

Tomlin preferred to look at the biggest play turned in by the Steelers’ defense this season as “football justice.”

“That’s the type of week [McCain] had in practice,” Tomlin said after the Steelers improved to 3-2. “It just reinforces the concept of the things that you do in practice have an opportunity to come up in a game.”

How many times do you think Tomlin will make mention of that to his players, especially the younger ones, when the Steelers practice for their game against the surprising Cleveland Browns?

A great week of practice and a little intelligence he had gleaned while playing on a team that shares a division with the Jaguars led to McCain making his fifth career interception.

With the Jaguars facing second-and-12 from their own 15, Bortles changed the play from a run to a pass with the Steelers showing blitz.

Split end Mike Brown veered inside, and when McCain saw him stick out his elbow, he said he knew from previous experience that the Jaguars were trying to run Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen and McCain into each other.

McCain avoided the traffic, and when Allen Hurns looped behind Brown, McCain was waiting for him – and the pass the Bortles wanted back as soon as he threw it.

“I looked back and he threw it right to me,” McCain said.

Bortles said Hurns, who is also a rookie, didn’t run the wrong route or that he should have shortened his route with the Steelers blitzing.

“I should have stayed with the play that was called, but it was just a bad read by me,” Bortles said. “Worst-case scenario, I should have just thrown it over his head.”

That wouldn’t be too hard, as McCain is generously listed at 5-foot-9 and is anything but the biggest guy in the world.

Despite his lack of height, nobody stood taller in the Steelers’ locker room after a win they had to have.

And Taylor, whose arm injury provided the opening for McCain to get on the field regularly as a nickelback, said what Bortles learned in his second career start: Don’t overlook McCain.

“He’s feisty and he hates to lose,” said Taylor, who broke his forearm two weeks ago. “He can run with anybody and you saw what he can do.”
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict has barely begun his second professional contract, but he wants the Cincinnati Bengals to know that he already has deal No. 3 on his mind.

Burfict
When he signed his new three-year contract extension worth about $20 million Wednesday, Burfict let front office officials know that he'd be back in a little more than two years when it's time to renegotiate. His plan? To stay in stripes as long as possible.

"I told Troy [Blackburn] I'll be back in 2016," Burfict told ESPN.com in the Bengals' locker room after Thursday night's preseason finale. "Obviously they trust me, and like I've said, I want to be a leader of the defense. We have great things to come for the next three years while I'm here."

Blackburn is one of the Bengals' two vice presidents. He's also the husband of executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the daughter of president Mike Brown. Brown's father, Paul Brown, founded the team in 1968 and owned it until his death in 1991.

With Mike Brown beginning to transition out of the team's daily operations, the Blackburns -- most notably Katie -- have been behind some of the more recent big-salary moves the Bengals have made. It was under Katie Blackburn's guidance that Burfict's extension, as well as extensions for quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, were drawn.

Burfict said he liked the way the contract was set up.

"It's front-loaded," he said, nodding slowly, "and I'll make a lot of money in the next six months."

He clearly wasn't trying to brag, but he was telling the truth. He stands to make $7.6 million this season, with additional bonus money coming in March. Within the next six months, he'll make $10.8 million. As an undrafted free agent who signed out of Arizona State just two years ago, Burfict had been scheduled to make a little more than $570,000 this season. He certainly received quite the pay day.

As we pointed out Wednesday, you'll be hard-pressed to find too many other players make that type of raise after only two years in part because of the way the new collective bargaining agreement is set up. A player basically has to follow Burfict's path -- be undrafted, but perform really, really well right away.

"Me getting a new contract in two years was huge, and it's rare," Burfict said. "But I've put in a lot of work and I feel like I deserve it."

Burfict has 298 career tackles. Of those, a league-leading 171 came in last season's Pro Bowl campaign.
CINCINNATI -- After a minor health scare Sunday in Phoenix, Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown is progressing comfortably back home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"One time I went up. Now I'm going down and that's just the way it is."
CINCINNATI -- Asked Saturday afternoon to sum up Andy Dalton's first few days of training camp, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson used one word.

"Sensational."

A little over-dramatic?

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Al BehrmanAndy Dalton has impressed the Bengals with his reads and accuracy during training camp.
Not if you've seen Dalton practice and handle himself around his teammates and reporters the past 10 days.

Seriously, it's like a case of the body snatchers. Since the start of voluntary workouts back in April, I've found myself scratching my head as to who this mystery man now wearing the Bengals' No. 14 jersey was. I know I've mentioned as much here before and others who also cover Dalton and the Bengals on a daily basis have made similar comments, but really, and in all sincerity, the quarterback looks like a completely different person.

Passes that Dalton struggled to deliver last season, he's hitting. Progressions he might have missed or didn't get to before, he's spotting. Personality traits that some thought he lacked, he's suddenly got those, too.

It's like a case of the body snatchers.

So far.

Again, it's important to mention that we're only at the start of training camp and that there are still five months before the Bengals embark on what they hope will be a fourth consecutive playoff appearance. Much of the progress myself and others have noticed could fall by the wayside between now and then. But I'll tell you what: If such a drop-off occurs, it doesn't look like it's happening any time soon.

Jackson feels the same way.

"I've been really impressed with him over the last several days," Jackson said. "He's really starting to buy into the urgency, getting the ball out of his hands and he's making great decisions."

Jackson's comments came after he had just watched Dalton have a near flawless day slicing up the Bengals' second-team defense. The quarterback unofficially was 17-for-20 with approximately 200 yards passing, some 120 of those to tight end Tyler Eifert. Dalton also had one touchdown and another potential three that were negated thanks to either questionable pass interference penalties or markdowns from referees who had to spot where they thought players might have been tackled. (The Bengals didn't tackle in Saturday's scrimmage inside Paul Brown Stadium.)

Beyond the sheer statistics, Dalton -- to me -- looked comfortable in the pocket, confident and in full command of everything that was happening in front of him. He looked like the quarterback of his team. He left no doubt about that.

And why would he doubt his status as the starter? After all, team president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis have told both Dalton and reporters that they foresee him directing their offense for years to come. That message has clearly boosted Dalton's confidence and allowed him to focus on playing his best football in the present, even while his contract negotiations continue in the background. If they've been distracting to him, I can't see it. He truly seems to be living what he says when he points out that he isn't worried about what he's going to get or when he's going to get it. Like he told me on Day 1 of camp: "Whatever it is, when it comes, it comes."

So far in camp, Jackson has seen everything I have. He has detected poise from the quarterback.

"Very calm. Very assured of what he's doing and how he's doing it and where he needs to go with the ball," Jackson said. "There's good communication when he comes off. Even when things didn't go right he could tell me why, what he felt. And that's what you've got to look for. A quarterback's got to be poised.

"He's been very in control of when things have gone really good and when things have gone really bad. That's a good sign."

Combine those traits with statistics like the ones above -- stats he's replicated at practices against both the first- and second-team units throughout camp -- then it isn't so hard to believe that the player who for three seasons struggled mightily with consistency really has been "sensational."

... At least, so far.
CINCINNATI -- Thanks to Marvin Lewis, a generation has passed since the Cincinnati Bengals were a joke. Kids today have never heard of the "Bungles" or David Klingler or Ki-Jana Carter or Akili Smith. They couldn't fathom an NFL team missing the playoffs in 20 of 22 seasons, as the Bengals did from 1983 through 2004.

These days, the Bengals are, well, a professional football franchise. They draft good players, employ skilled coaches to develop them and are a perennial playoff contender. In January, the league stamped them with an exclusive badge: Both coordinators were hired as head coaches elsewhere. Two other teams wanted some of that Bengals magic.

"The cup now overflows with confidence here," said retired linebacker Takeo Spikes, who fled Cincinnati in 2003 but now marvels at the subsequent transformation.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsMarvin Lewis has led Cincinnati to the postseason five times in 11 seasons, but the Bengals are 0-5 in playoff games under Lewis.
This is where Marvin Lewis has brought the Bengals, through 11 painstaking years of modernization and gently tugging owner Mike Brown away from football operations. And now, in 2014, the Bengals have reached perhaps the most complex crossroads in franchise history: Just how ambitious are they? Will they reach a point when a first-round playoff loss has consequences for the man who led them into their golden age? Or would they be too scared to risk their successful perch in search of the next level?

These issues coursed through training camp during a visit to Cincinnati this week. Under Lewis, the Bengals have reached the playoffs five times, accounting for nearly half of the franchise's 12 postseason trips. They have lost in the first round on all five occasions, however, giving Lewis the unique distinction of coaching more games (176) without a playoff victory than anyone in NFL history.

So what happens now? By all accounts, the Bengals are a talented group that, despite the coordinator transition, should vie for its fourth consecutive playoff berth. Is this the year Lewis leads them deep into the postseason? And if not, will Brown react any differently than he has in the past? Should he?

Lewis is signed through the 2015 season, courtesy of a one-year extension completed this spring. Speaking to reporters last week, Brown gave no indication of impatience. Instead, he sounded an appreciative tone for Lewis' accomplishments where so many others had failed.

"Marvin's a solid coach and a good guy," Brown said. "I've gotten to know him through thick and thin. He's brought us to a good level. We're a winning team. And when you have that coach that can do that for you, I think you'd be foolish to be unsatisfied with him."

After decades of debacles, I understand why Brown is happy to not be unsatisfied. It beats an alternative he is quite familiar with. But the next step is to raise expectations for what constitutes satisfaction in Cincinnati, and now is as good of a time as any. The only NFL coach in his job longer than Lewis is Bill Belichick, who has taken the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls in 14 years and won three.

Lewis' best work in Cincinnati has taken place on a different plane. During a visit to camp Thursday, Spikes recalled his desperation to escape the Bungles. Lewis had just been hired, but Spikes didn't think he could move Brown away from day-to-day operations.

"I give Marvin a lot of credit for that," Spikes said. "He came in and built that trust factor up with Mike, and ... starting back in [the early years], he gave a little control, more, more, and then more. When I look at the roster, the roster is built not with what Mel Kiper says, not with what Mike Mayock says. It's built with football players that I've seen on tape. That's what I like about this roster. It's a bunch of players [that show up] on the tape."

According to Spikes, Lewis also raised expectations for a coaching staff that wasn't always NFL-grade.

"It used to be that you would have a head coach here or one coach [on the staff] that would have credibility," he said. "Now it's damn near the entire staff that has credibility. Proven winners. Proven teachers. That's what I see."

Lewis has charmed the Brown family, which includes Mike's daughter and heir apparent Katie Blackburn, in a way his predecessors did not.

"They have let him mold his team to his image and his vision of it," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who arrived with Lewis in 2003 and is a lifelong friend. "He's worked well with them and they've worked well with him."

Is that enough? Does Marvin Lewis need to start winning playoff games? Eventually, it's fair to expect it. That's how professional teams operate. Lewis has pulled the Bengals to that level. Are they satisfied simply by their transformation? We'll soon find out.
CINCINNATI -- As the news of longtime owner Pat Bowlen's departure from the Denver Broncos made headlines early Wednesday, I was reminded of a few comments Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown made about his own ownership status just Tuesday.

Bowlen, 70, is stepping aside after 30 years while he battles Alzheimer's disease.

The 78-year-old Brown isn't battling with health issues, but there are signs his time in charge of the Bengals has started nearing its end. Daughter Katie Blackburn has in the past few seasons been more of a behind-the-scenes player for the organization, as has head coach Marvin Lewis.

[+] EnlargeKatie Blackburn
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals president Mike Brown, left, shown in 2011 with his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn. When Brown, now 78, relinquishes control of the team, Blackburn will take over.
Blackburn's work with recent contract negotiations make it clear she is pulling some of the team's most important strings. Lewis' work with the organization's scouting department has helped Cincinnati have some of the league's best draft classes in recent seasons.

When the day comes that Brown decides to relinquish control, the Bengals are well-placed for a good transition. That is primarily because the transition has been in motion for many years now. When the Bengals were moving into Paul Brown Stadium (named, naturally after Brown's father, the legendary NFL coach) in 2000, they started making it known the organization would one day be Blackburn's to run. Here is a story from June of that year about how Cincinnati was laying the foundation for that transition, written by former Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals reporter Mark Curnutte.

Back to Tuesday and the 47th installment of the Bengals' preseason media luncheon. Just before the event at the stadium, Brown relayed his thoughts on how the transition has gone of late.

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

"One time I went up. Now I'm going down and that's just the way it is."

The Bengals have truly been a family organization for the life of their existence. Paul Brown ran the organization in some capacity every year from the time he founded it in 1968 until his death in 1991. Mike Brown has been in charge the 23 years that have followed, and he has been joined in the front office over the years by his brother, Pete, his son, Paul, and Blackburn and her husband Troy Blackburn.

Asked if he felt the transition with his son and daughter has gone as well as the transition between he and his father, Mike Brown said: "I like to think so."

Among the recent decisions he's most proud of, Mike Brown said he was glad he could give Lewis another year on his contract this offseason.

"Marvin's a solid coach and a good guy," Brown said. "I've gotten to know him through thick and thin. He's brought us to a good level. We're a winning team. And when you have that coach that can do that for you, I think you'd be foolish to be unsatisfied with him."

Before Lewis took over as head coach in 2003, the Bengals had gone through six straight losing seasons, and 12 straight seasons where they won eight games or fewer. As Lewis enters his 12th season, the Bengals are hoping to make their sixth playoff berth since 2005, and are looking to build on the nine-, 10- and 11-win totals they have amassed in the past three seasons.
CINCINNATI -- Bengals president Mike Brown, who very rarely addresses reporters these days, may have decided to discuss quarterback Andy Dalton's looming contract extension before a kickoff luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium on Tuesday, but his head coach is done discussing the issue.

Lewis
Dalton
Dalton
Apparently Dalton is, too.

"We're not going to talk about it anymore, thank you," Lewis said, stopping one questioner who was curious about when the deal needed to get done. "That's the same thing he's [Dalton] going to tell you when he gets to tell you. We've talked enough about it. It'll get settled, and when it gets settled it will be done. We don't need to continue to ask the questions, and I've asked [head of Bengals media relations] Jack [Brennan] to share that with you, to quit asking about it.

"And when the national people come in that aren't here, it's the same thing. We've talked enough about it. It's part of professional sports so just let it go."

Well, there you have it. The public conversations about Dalton's contract are officially over, as far as Lewis is concerned. That sentiment echoes other comments Lewis has made this summer. After spending his availability sessions at the combine and owners' meetings discussing the contract situation, Lewis shied away from talking about it when asked during the end of the organized team activity practices in June.

Dalton is set to make nearly $1.7 million this season, which concludes his rookie contract. He could earn more than $18 million annually on a deal that would put him a little closer to the top of quarterback heap. To that end, he'd arguably be a second-tier quarterback, although he has been regarded a tier 3 quarterback, according to a recent ESPN Insider survey Insider featuring general managers, scouts, players and coaches. ESPN's Ron Jaworski also recently dubbed Dalton the No. 18 player on his list of NFL quarterbacks Insider.

Lewis contends fans don't care about the minutia involved with extensions like Dalton's. He believes they only care once the ink has dried on the contract.

"They only care about it when it's signed," he said. "It will be a big day, so save some space for that."

Maybe that day is on the preseason horizon? If so, Lewis' lips won't be staying sealed on the matter for too long.
Examining the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
General manager David Caldwell has said he likes to keep three quarterbacks, which means all three will have to be on the active roster, because Stanzi is ineligible for the practice squad. Stanzi should start the season as the No. 2 because he’s more ready to play than Bortles, but that will likely flip-flop at some point. Stephen Morris is a practice squad candidate.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

If the Jags elect to keep only four backs, Todman and Johnson likely would battle for the final spot. That is assuming Robinson continues to be very good in camp. He might end up getting more playing time than any of the other backs after Gerhart if he shows he can be a reliable pass-catcher. Johnson has to prove he can pass block and doesn’t have problems with ball security.

RECEVIERS (6)

The first four players should be locks, but it will be an interesting competition for the final two spots among Brown, Taylor, free-agent signee Tandon Doss, undrafted rookie Allen Hurns, and former practice-squad player Chad Bumphis. Doss missed most of the organized team activities and minicamp because of a calf injury, allowing Taylor, Bumphis and Hurns to get valuable reps. Doss was not a consistent receiver in his three seasons in Baltimore and has more value as a returner, but Sanders’ strength is as a punt returner and the Jags have other options at kickoff returner. I have Taylor narrowly beating out Hurns because of his experience, but I can easily see that being flipped if the Jags want to add more size. Hurns is 6-foot-3; Taylor is 6-0.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Jensen flashed during OTAs and gets the edge over three other players. He’s a big kid (6-6, 270) who is a raw version of Lewis, one of the league’s best blocking tight ends. Jensen will need a year or two to develop and likely will be used as an extra blocker more than a pass-catcher.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

Some of the battles for starting jobs along the line are going to be intriguing during camp. Joeckel and Beadles are safe, but every other spot is up for grabs. Even Pasztor, who started 12 games last season, is uncertain because we don’t know how his surgically repaired shoulder will hold up during camp. If it’s fine, then he will win the starting job at right tackle. McClendon and Linder are battling for the right guard spot, and Brewster is going to have to hold off Bowanko and two others to be the starter at center. Bradfield has value because he can play both tackle spots.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

This should be the biggest upgraded position on the roster thanks to the additions of Clemons, Bryant and Hood. Despite public perception, Alualu isn’t on the bubble for two reasons: He played solidly last season, and there really isn’t anyone else on the roster as talented as he is to back up Bryant. The Jags are excited about Smith, who could end up playing more than Davis as the No. 3 LEO (hybrid end/linebacker) by the time the season is over.

LINEBACKERS (6)

Either John Lotulelei or J.T. Thomas, two key special teams players last season, could stick if the Jaguars decide to keep an extra linebacker instead of five cornerbacks, or if Hayes’ surgically repaired knee doesn’t respond well. Reynolds did a solid job subbing for Watson (groin) during OTAs and minicamp at the new OTTO position (replaces strongside linebacker).

CORNERBACKS (5)

The Jags will have to decide whether to keep fourth-year player Mike Harris or Jeremy Harris, a seventh-round pick in 2013 who spent his rookie season on injured reserve with a back injury. The 6-2, 185-pound Jeremy Harris is a better fit for what coach Gus Bradley wants in his cornerbacks than the 5-10, 188-pound Mike Harris, who was a member of former GM Gene Smith’s final draft class. Blackmon has been working inside as well, which also makes Mike Harris expendable. Fourth-round draft pick Aaron Colvin will begin the season on the PUP list and doesn't count against the roster limit.

SAFETIES (4)
Chris Prosinski has seemingly been a bubble player since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2011, but there is too much competition for him to survive this time. Martin started 36 games for Carolina in his first five seasons, and that experience gives him the edge. Evans seems to be the name everyone mentions when talking about the first Caldwell draft pick to get cut, but though he might lose his starting job to Guy, he’s likely to stick around at least another year.

SPECIALISTS (3)

These guys should have little or no competition to make the roster.
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 NFL Nation's Michael DiRocco examines the three biggest issues facing the Jacksonville Jaguars heading into training camp.

Offensive line: Only one of the five spots is settled heading into camp: Zane Beadles, whom the team signed in March, is the starting left guard. Almost every other spot is up for grabs. I use "almost" because Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013, will start at left tackle, and the team drafted him to be the line's cornerstone. He spent the first four games last season at right tackle and played a quarter at left tackle before a season-ending injury. While the Jags believe he's going to be an elite player, he still has to prove it. Mike Brewster is the leader at center, but he has never snapped in his three-year career. Right guard will be a battle between Jacques McClendon and rookie Brandon Linder. Austin Pasztor started 12 games at right tackle last season but will be pushed by Cameron Bradfield, who started the final 11 games at left tackle after Joeckel's injury. Regardless of who wins the position battles, the line has to be better than it was last season. The Jaguars averaged a franchise-worst 78.8 yards per game rushing last season, and a big reason was the play of the interior of the offensive line.

Wide receivers: The Jaguars know what they have in fourth-year player Cecil Shorts (123 career catches). They believe they know what they've got in second-year player Ace Sanders, provided he continues to develop following his 51-catch rookie season. But who are Nos. 3-6? It would seem second-round picks Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson would naturally be the next two, but both missed most organized team activities and all of minicamp with injuries. They're supposed to be fully cleared for camp, but they missed valuable time working with receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, a technician of the finer points of routes, footwork and hand position. Rookie receivers are a crap shoot in the NFL, and there's no guarantee if both are healthy that they'll be able to contribute as much as Sanders did. Kerry Taylor and Mike Brown combined to catch 54 passes last season. Taylor is a bit bigger (6-foot, 200 pounds) than Brown (5-10, 200 pounds), but both can play in the slot or outside. Taylor might have a slight advantage because he was healthy throughout the offseason, while Brown was one of seven receivers who missed significant time because of an injury. A group of undrafted players, led by former Miami standout Allen Hurns, also will compete for the final two spots on the roster. It's important that this group stays healthy, too, because the injuries really affected the offense during minicamp. It was hard for any of the quarterbacks to move the ball consistently.

Pass rush: The Jaguars have had one of the worst pass rushes over the past five season and finished last in the NFL in sacks in 2013 and 2012. Buffalo led the NFL with 57 sacks last season. The Jaguars have 51 in the past two seasons combined, including 20 in 2012. The team took steps to remedy that by signing defensive end Chris Clemons (58 career sacks) and linebacker Dekoda Watson, a young player whom the Jaguars plan on using in their new otto position and rushing the passer on third downs. However, he sat out OTAs and minicamp with a groin injury and former undrafted rookie LaRoy Reynolds got the reps there. Third-year defensive end Andre Branch came on late last season (five of his six sacks in the last seven games) and had a great offseason, and the coaching staff is counting on him rotating with Clemons. The Jaguars felt good enough about Branch and young players Ryan Davis and Gerald Rivers that they released Jason Babin (62.5 career sacks) on the last day of the minicamp. However, Davis and Rivers have played in a combined eight games and have a combined eight tackles and one sack, so that's making a leap of faith that they'll be able to produce in a reserve role.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- One of the expected battles of training camp has already started to play out for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first week of OTAs.

Seven players are fighting for two remaining spots at receiver behind Cecil Shorts, Ace Sanders, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. There are guys who were on the team last season, some practice squad guys, a veteran free-agent signing, and some undrafted free agents all trying to make the 53-man roster.

"That’s going to be a fierce competition throughout [the summer]," coach Gus Bradley said after Thursday’s OTA.

[+] EnlargeMarqise Lee
AP Photo/John RaouxThe Jaguars' receivers, including Marqise Lee, have been competing hard during OTAs this week, coach Gus Bradley said.
Since this is the first week of OTAs, it’s still a pretty wide open race. It would be logical to assume that Mike Brown, Kerry Taylor and Tandon Doss have a bit of an advantage since Brown and Taylor were on the team last season and the Jaguars signed Doss to a two-year, $1.5 million contract in March.

Brown caught 32 passes for 446 yards and two touchdowns and Taylor caught 19 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown playing mainly near the end of the season because of the suspension of Justin Blackmon and Shorts’ season-ending sports hernia injury. Doss has only 26 receptions in his first three seasons with Baltimore but did lead the NFL in punt return average in 2013.

Special-teams play could be the deciding factor on which receivers the Jaguars keep, Bradley said.

"My challenge to our guys is -- especially like the fourth, fifth and sixth spots -- those guys have got to be really good special-teams players," Bradley said. "The competition you’re seeing really even takes place on special teams because they know how valuable that is, so there’s a number of guys in there that are really battling. A guy like Tandon Doss had a really good day [Wednesday], so you’re seeing each one of them really try to maximize their reps."

Bradley really lit up when talking about Brown, praising his work ethic and leadership. The former quarterback at Liberty missed four games after suffering a fractured vertebra in his back in the 2013 season opener but was impressive in his return. He was on the field for all but five of the Jaguars’ offensive snaps against Denver despite only having practiced minimally because of his injury. The following week he caught five passes for 120 yards, including a career-high 43-yarder.

"Mike Brown is really, really solid," Bradley said. "That’s what I would have said last year, but I feel like he’s stepped up his game because of the competition. He’s really taking command and you’re seeing him lead other guys at that position. That in itself tells me he has a better command of things, but he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now."

Brown doesn’t worry about whether that gives him an edge over Doss and Taylor or any of the other players competing for the final two spots: 2013 practice squad players Chad Bumphis and Lamaar Thomas (who also played in two games) and undrafted rookie free- agents Allen Hurns and Damian Copeland.

"It’s the same thing every year," Brown said. "That’s one thing I love about this game. It’s all about competition. We’re all in here competing together, helping each other get better. Our focus is on being the best that we can be personally. Ultimately we don’t control the outcome of who’s here or who’s not, so there’s no use in even really thinking about it.

"You just go out there and you put your best foot forward and you get yourself to be the best that you can be and you kind of live with how it plays out. That’s the mindset you’ve got to take."

Brown, Taylor and Doss have gotten a lot of work during the first week of OTAs. The Jaguars have created what Bradley is calling an "opportunity period" specifically for the younger, less-experienced players to gain additional reps at the end of each workout. Hurns, Copeland and Bumphis have benefited from that extra work. Thomas had limited participation this week because of a knee injury.

There’s a long way to go before any kind of final decision and it will undoubtedly heat up during training camp, but the battle for those final receiver spots will be interesting to watch.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars begin organized team activities (OTAs) on Tuesday. While the players are only allowed to wear helmets and are restricted to six hours of work per day it marks the first time the veterans and rookies will be together, so it’s the first chance to get a glimpse at how the team may look in September.

Here are five things to ponder during the 10 OTAs and mandatory minicamp over the next four weeks:

Gerhart
The running back depth chart: Despite the Jaguars' confidence in Toby Gerhart, there is still some doubt among those outside the team over his ability to be a feature back. He has not done it since his days at Stanford, spending the past four seasons backing up Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. The plan is around 20 touches per game, but if he’s not able to handle that workload or be productive, there are not a whole lot of options behind him. Second-year player Jordan Todman, who backed up Maurice Jones-Drew last season and ran for 109 yards in his only start of the season, is the only proven ball carrier behind Gerhart. Denard Robinson has to fix his ball security issues. Seventh-round pick Storm Johnson has quickly become a fan favorite, but he was taken that late for a reason. Moments after drafting him, coach Gus Bradley said Johnson really struggles in pass protection and he also has trouble holding onto the football. After Johnson, it’s undrafted rookies Beau Blankenship and Terrance Cobb.

Who’s No. 5-6? There are four locks to make the team at receiver: Cecil Shorts, Ace Sanders, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. After that, there’s a wide-open competition for the fifth and sixth spots between Mike Brown, Kerry Taylor, Chad Bumphis, Damian Copeland, Tandon Doss, Allen Hurns and Lamaar Thomas. Doss has more career catches (26) than any of the others, plus he’s got good size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds). However, his issue in Baltimore the past three seasons was running routes consistently and drops. He is a solid kick returner and that gives him an advantage over the others. Brown and Taylor were on the roster last season and have valuable experience in offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s system, but so does Hurns, a former Miami standout who played two seasons under Fisch as the Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator.

Henne
Bortles vs. Henne: It’s not really a competition between first-round pick Blake Bortles and veteran Chad Henne at this point, but it will be interesting to see them throwing together. The thing to watch will be the 11-on-11, in which Henne should have a significant advantage. He is completely comfortable in the offense and therefore his throws should be quicker and more decisive. If Bortles looks comparable, that may be a clue the competition in training camp may start off closer than most anticipated.

Joeckel’s return: Luke Joeckel spent only about a quarter at left tackle before suffering a fractured ankle that kept him out for the rest of the 2013 season. He spent all of training camp and the first four weeks at right tackle, so this will essentially be his rookie season at left tackle. Defensive coordinator Bob Babich will at times put four leos on the field on third down, so it’ll be interesting to watch Joeckel match up against some of the pass-rushers. One matchup I’d like to see is Joeckel vs. rookie Chris Smith, who doesn't have prototypical leo size (he’s 6-1) but has long arms and is very quick off the line. The Jaguars want to see Joeckel play the way he did before getting injured against St. Louis when he pretty much stoned Robert Quinn, who went on to record 19 sacks last season.

Safety dance: Johnathan Cyprien is the starting strong safety. That’s set in stone. But the situation at free safety is less certain. Josh Evans (sixth round) and Winston Guy (waiver wire) shared the spot last season, but the Jaguars signed a pair of undrafted rookies -- Craig Loston and Jerome Junior -- to compete with Evans and Guy along with Chris Prosinski, Joe Young and Sherrod Martin. Evans really shouldn’t have been on the field as much as he was last season but was forced into action because of an injury to Dwight Lowery in Week 3. That experience should give him an advantage going into OTAs. This position battle will be one of the more interesting ones to watch throughout training camp and preseason.
CINCINNATI -- We knew it was going to happen. We told you it was going to happen.

The Cincinnati Bengals were in no way, shape or form out to make Teddy Bridgewater the new face of their franchise. No shot whatsoever. Were they thinking about possibly drafting him in the unlikely event that all their other targets were off the board? Yes, who wouldn't?

Coach Marvin Lewis has been saying since the middle of last season that he trusts Andy Dalton and wants him to remain his quarterback for the long term. Team president Mike Brown has mostly echoed those sentiments, making it clear he and his front office are trying hard to figure out ways they can reasonably and fairly compensate Dalton on an extended deal before his contract expires next March.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Bengals appeared to show faith in Andy Dalton by not drafting a high-profile QB on Thursday night.
So why on earth did any of us actually believe Bridgewater was going to be the Bengals' draft selection at No. 24?

It's the nature of four-month draft coverage in the social media age, I suppose.

By passing on Bridgewater ... and Derek Carr ... and Jimmy Garoppolo ... and Tom Savage and whatever other quarterbacks draft analysts had been pegging at one point or another as possible first-round selections, the Bengals sent a clear message to Dalton. They are, just as they've been saying, committed to him. Love it or hate it, the plan to keep Dalton in stripes is real. How concrete that plan is, however, remains to be seen.

The Bengals could soon tiptoe into limbo with Dalton. Negotiations haven't, by all accounts, progressed much. If they don't soon, both sides might be best served to just let him play out his final season without a renewed contract. If that happens, both sides better hope Dalton wins a playoff game or two. Another first-round postseason exit and the Bengals might be hearing the following words next spring: "With their first-round pick of the 2015 NFL draft the Cincinnati Bengals select quarterback ..."

A lot has to factor into that scenario, though. Much of it hinges upon whether the Bengals will in fact extend Dalton before, during or immediately after the 2014 season. Much of it also depends upon how Dalton fares under newly promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who has vowed to showcase a more physical, run-based offense that should take some pressure off his quarterback. I've gone on record as saying I believe Dalton will be better under Jackson. Just like I thought Bridgewater would have been good as a backup under him, too, had he been available in later rounds.

Taken 32nd overall Thursday night by coach Mike Zimmer's Vikings, Bridgewater came off the Bengals' board around the time most recent mock drafts began anticipating. Many Bengals fans who were holding out hope that Bridgewater might at some point fall to Cincinnati, were happy their former defensive coordinator was the one who landed him. Bridgewater goes to a team they don't have to see often, and one whose head coach they like. It'll make it easy for them to root for him.

By selecting Darqueze Dennard at No. 24, the Bengals sent a broader message to their overall team. The pick made it known that their commitment to continuing to draft the player they deem the best available is real. It also let the team know that while Zimmer and a few other key pieces from last year's top-3 defense are gone, the identity of this team still begins on that side of the ball.

It's hard to argue with that. Part of Jackson's emphasis on the physical and more smashmouth style of play Jackson comes from the preexisting identity of the team, one that comes from a long aggressive defense that has to compete in the physical AFC North. Noted as one of the more blue-collar divisions in the NFL, the AFC North just got even tougher from a defensive standpoint with the first-round additions of cornerback Justin Gilbert (Cleveland), linebacker Ryan Shazier (Pittsburgh) and linebacker C.J. Mosley (Baltimore). With the rest of the division going defense in picks ahead of theirs -- of course, excluding the Browns' other first-round pick, quarterback Johnny Manziel at No. 22 -- it just made sense for Cincinnati to follow suit.

Yet another reason why the Bengals had no business drafting a backup quarterback in the first round.

While the message to Dalton on Thursday night was that he was indeed the team's starter, Friday night's picks could let us know exactly how long the Bengals do envision that to be the case. If no quarterback gets picked Friday, there is a good chance Cincinnati feels rather optimistic about re-signing Dalton well beyond 2015. The same can be said if they don't pick a quarterback in Saturday's fourth round, either.

But if a draft-hopeful quarterback does in fact get a phone call from the Bengals in Rounds 2-4, the message that call sends to Dalton could be somewhat jarring for him. Andy, you're still the starter, that phone call will say. But just in case, we've got your backup and possible replacement.

Dalton may have weathered the Bridgewater pass, but there are still messages he has yet to receive.
If you've been following along on our Cincinnati Bengals blog all offseason, you know that I'm an advocate of drafting at No. 24 the most athletic player who makes the most sense for what the team needs.

Since there may be an early run on cornerbacks and the cornerback position is one the Bengals are in need of addressing, I've been pulling for the team to take a player from that position group. Between Darqueze Dennard, Jason Verrett, Kyle Fuller and Bradley Roby, the options there are strong. By the time the Bengals come back to their second-round pick at No. 55, none of them may be on the board.

Defensive end has been a first-round possibility to me, too. But recent Bengals draft history shows the team shies away from taking players at that position so early. The same goes for quarterback. Only once in coach Marvin Lewis' 11 drafts have the Bengals used a first-round pick on that position. Carson Palmer was taken first overall in Lewis' first draft as a head coach. He led the Bengals to the playoffs two years later.

Not long after daybreak Saturday, Bengals fans were jolted from their slumbers when my ESPN colleague Chris Mortensen tweeted about a scenario that for the past few months has been a recurring dream for many of them:



As soon as that message went out, the Twitter equivalent of a draft-infused Bengals block party began. Casual draft observers and die-hard Bengals fans alike were praising the possibility Mortensen's tweet raised.

They should.

But it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the Bengals are at least thinking about Bridgewater (I alluded to some of that in this Saturday's Bengals mailbag). After all, from an overall fit standpoint, he best matches the type of quarterback -- backup or starter -- who the Bengals could use in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's new scheme. Bridgewater's mobility and arm strength are two characteristics that could make him ideal for what the Bengals are hoping to execute with starter Andy Dalton this season.

So yes, absolutely Bridgewater should be a Bengals "fallback option," whether that's at No. 24 overall or 55th.

If you've watched Bridgewater's draft stock the past few weeks, you've seen its dizzying arc. There have been a few rises but mostly falls. Once seemingly a first-round lock, Bridgewater has inexplicably earned second-round or later projections of late. Some mock drafts in the past month have had teams passing on him into the third round. In their three-round mock draft just this past Thursday, ESPN draft insiders Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay had the Texans taking the former Louisville signal-caller with the first pick of the second round.

If he falls that far, his selection ought to be considered a steal.

That's why the Bengals are smart to at least consider him as a "fallback option."

Of course, that calls into question what Cincinnati should do about Dalton. He is, after all, still the starter and Lewis in particular has said publicly he wants him to remain in place for years to come. Team president Mike Brown has been a little less firm in his commitment to Dalton's long-term future with the franchise, but he also has made it clear that the organization is doing what it can to see if it can extend his rookie contract. That extension could come this offseason, but it also could come before or during next year's round of free agency. His contract expires next March.

By drafting a quarterback in the first two rounds, particularly in the first round, the Bengals could run the risk of sending the wrong message to Dalton. He's been told not to worry; a drafted quarterback won't unseat him or end his tenure.

"There's been a lot of talk that they're going to draft another quarterback, but they're not bringing in another quarterback to replace me," Dalton said late last month. "From everything they've told me they're not bringing in anybody to compete. So I'm not worried about it."

Bridgewater's potential drafting at 24 or 55 may not be about competition in 2014, but it definitely could result in Dalton's replacing if the Bengals and Dalton's representatives can't agree on his financial value to the team. He also would be replaced if Brown and the front office simply feels it prudent to move on.

So while Dalton may not feel worried about having Bridgewater behind him -- if the former Louisville star does end up getting drafted by the Bengals -- the starter would be wise to keep his head on a swivel.

Having said that, though, I'm still sticking to my guns about the Bengals' draft. I don't like to waffle on opinion. While I welcome opportunities to change my mind and to have it changed, I still like to stay firm with my beliefs. And I believe the Bengals need to focus either on bolstering their defense or their offensive line in the first round.

If Bridgewater is around when they pick in the second like some draft analysts have been suggesting in recent weeks, then you most definitely pull the trigger and turn that dream into reality.
Cincinnati Bengals president and owner Mike Brown shared his admiration for longtime Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson late Tuesday.

Wilson, 95, died at his home on Tuesday afternoon. NFL team executives like Brown were told of Wilson's death during an afternoon session at the league's owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.

"His voice carried weight in our meetings here," Brown told Bengals.com. "He was an important voice in the National Football League. He had strong opinions and he wasn't afraid to voice them. He was his own and a very successful man beyond football, and a man I admired."

Wilson founded the Bills in 1960, helping establish the team with the start-up AFL that same year. He has been the Bills' only owner.

The Bengals, founded in 1968, have a similar longevity in leadership in a league that has undergone a series of dramatic changes over the years. Brown has been both team president and its second-in-command since its inception. He is only the Bengals' second president. The first was his father, Paul Brown, who established the franchise after a split from the Cleveland Browns, an organization named after him.

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