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.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is beginning his seventh NFL training camp with a new playbook, a new veteran receiver and two new starters on the offensive line.

What he doesn't want to hear is excuses, and what he doesn't want to see is repeated mistakes.

In a span of a year, Flacco went from being the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player to the quarterback of the NFL's 29th-ranked offense, which was the team's worst offensive ranking in nine years.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
AP Photo/Duane Burleson"I don't care if its' a new offense or not. I expect to come out there and be precise and operate at a high level," Joe Flacco said.
Flacco is putting the pressure on the Ravens to not only grasp Gary Kubiak's new offense but run it effectively and efficiently.

"I don't care if its' a new offense or not. I expect to come out there and be precise and operate at a high level," Flacco said two days before the Ravens' official start of training camp. "This is where it counts. We've got a couple of weeks and we're going to be playing real games. We have to execute at a high level in order to win those because they're going to come down to little things like that. That's why we can't expect and make little mistakes."

Flacco and his teammates had 13 offseason practices to learn the new system, and the offense has been installed three different times. Now, the Ravens have 16 days until their first preseason game and 47 days until the regular-season opener against the AFC North defending champion Cincinnati Bengals.

A lack of productivity with the Ravens offense hurt the team's chances of a seventh straight trip to the playoffs. In the Ravens' eight losses, they averaged 17.7 points and scored 20 or fewer points seven times.

This led to an offseason of change on the offensive side of the ball. The Ravens hired Kubiak as their offensive coordinator, signed wide receiver Steve Smith in free agency and added center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Ricky Wagner to the starting lineup.

"Yeah, we're still going to make mistakes but they have to be corrected quickly and you can't keep making them again and again," Flacco said. "You have to come out here right after that, and that mistake should be gone. I think we can expect a pretty high level of pace and I think we can expect a pretty high level of precision being that we've done it for a couple of months. That's what I'm going to expect."

Flacco said learning a new offense for the first time in his NFL career is "fun" and "exciting." When driving over to the Ravens' facility, he and Tyrod Taylor were jokingly reciting the cadence to make sure they remembered how to say it.

"I think we've passed the test," Flacco said with a smile.

Flacco acknowledged that the toughest part about adjusting to a new offense is wiping out everything that had become second nature in the old offense. He believes he has the athleticism to run bootlegs and can make all the throws required in the new system. The mental part, especially absorbing the terminology, remains the biggest hurdle.

Like Flacco said, there is little time to waste. And there's not an easy game for the offense in the first month of the season.

The first four defenses the Ravens face this season all ranked in the top half of the NFL: Cincinnati Bengals (No. 3), Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 13), Cleveland Browns (No. 9) and Carolina Panthers (No. 2).

That's why confidence is going to be key, Flacco said.

"If I show everybody else that they should execute at a high level and they will execute at a high level, I think we'll get that confidence to go out there on Sundays and kind of play with a little bit of swagger," Flacco said. "I think that's what it's going to take."
CINCINNATI -- When Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown said Tuesday that some parts of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's contract extension was intriguing to him and his front office, he sent a message worth paying attention to.

"There's always something that cuts for the team or cuts for the player," Brown said. "In Kaepernick's case, there's some things we like."

Like Kaepernick, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been the subject of contract extension talks this offseason. As the 35th overall (Dalton) and 36th overall (Kaepernick) picks in the 2011 draft, the two have been linked ever since they got in the league. Both were targeted by the Bengals ahead of the 2011 draft, causing some fans to wonder what might have been for the Bengals had they picked Kaepernick instead of Dalton.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Andy Dalton
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCould a new contract extension for Andy Dalton include incentives for winning playoff games like Colin Kaepernick's new deal does?
It's not much of a surprise that Brown likes Kaepernick's contract considering its tiered, play-for-pay structure benefits his franchise. All owners and team presidents ought to have been intrigued by such a deal. San Francisco reserves the right to release Kaepernick after each season if his performance isn't up to par. He also likely won't see the full amount of his six-year deal.

In order to see the full amount of his contract, Kaepernick would need to play nearly like a Hall of Famer over the next seven seasons. It will be difficult for him to sustain that level, offering one reason many think the deal greatly favors the team. On the flip side, it could be argued that the deal was good for Kaepernick because he has already gathered his fair share of accolades, and shouldn't have too much trouble earning his full annual salary.

Based on his track record of success, Kaepernick has to feel good about his chances of seeing a significant chunk of money from the contract that is scheduled to pay him about $19 million each season through 2020.

Don't be surprised if you see something similar come down the pike for Dalton when he finally signs.

"Kaepernick's a good player. He's been successful," Brown said. "We tend to think our deal [with Dalton] should be something in that rang, not way beyond it."

"Way beyond it" would put Dalton in a performance-based contract that's in the territory of $20 million a year, with an average cap value that's dramatically closer to what the elite passers in the league are making. Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks making more than $20 million annually. They also have three Super Bowl rings between them, and all four have been to conference championship games.

The Bengals haven't been out of the first round of the playoffs since 1991. As you well know, Dalton has taken them to that game each of the three seasons he's been in Cincinnati, but his six postseason interceptions have helped push the Bengals to each early exit.

Still, his lack of playoff success notwithstanding, Dalton, who is set to make nearly $1.7 million this year, has been just solid enough in the regular season. He's helped the Bengals -- a franchise that not so long ago saw a 14-season stretch in which it couldn't win more than eight games -- get 30 wins in his brief career, and has been a key figure behind their overall dramatic turnaround. Brown was quick to mention that Tuesday.

"I like him on the field," Brown said. "He's Steady Eddy. He competes. He doesn't do stupid things. We might not outshine everybody. We are the turtle in the race, if you will, but don't count us out. We are going to keep on chugging. That's what he does for us. He keeps us focused. He makes us a winning team. I don't discount that. I hold that in high regard."

Make no mistake, Brown holds something else in high regard, too: winning in the playoffs.

"[Dalton] knows and we know -- everybody knows -- we didn't win in the playoffs. We have to get over that hump," Brown said. "That is going to be difficult but we are counting on him to get us to that point. We'll see."

We'll also see when the Bengals move on extending Dalton. While the sides have been talking more of late, and are trying to get closer to an agreement before the season begins, Brown said he had no deadline for when a deal needed to get done.

"These negotiating things take their course," Brown said. "This one has been going on for some while. We have had numerous discussions and I think it will -- like most of these matters -- find an ending soon enough. But I am not going to stand here and predict exactly when that is going to be. I don't really know."

Brown added he was content letting Dalton playing the season out and hoping he can get a better deal next offseason or later.

"He will have to make a choice, we will have to make a choice," Brown said. "One of the options is he plays this year. One of the options is that we franchise [tag] him for the following year. So, you can count on one thing: he's going to be the quarterback here for the immediate future."

If the Bengals franchise Dalton next year, he could be looking at upward of $16 million for 2015. This year's franchise tag for quarterbacks was $16.2 million. That figure is expected to increase next offseason.

Regardless of when Dalton's deal comes, keep Kaepernick's contract in mind.
CINCINNATI -- Many of the plays Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson cued on the projection screen during unit meetings back in May and June ended with one player receiving a compliment: running back Rex Burkhead.

"That joker," fellow back Giovani Bernard said, "he's a good player."

Bernard apparently considers Burkhead to be so good, Bernard has made it his mission to copy one aspect of Burkhead's game in particular. That's right, Cincinnati's do-everything starting running back who was in the running for the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award last season wants to emulate the backup who might not even make the team this training camp.

"It's just his effort," Bernard said. "You can't teach that. That's something you kind of have to have in yourself."

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Al BehrmanRunning back Rex Burkhead has the type of attitude Bengals coaches love to see.
Routinely in practices you will see Burkhead finish runs or catches 30, 40, even 50 yards beyond where the whistle blew and the play ended. That is the effort Bernard has been slightly envious of. It is the same effort Jackson has been quick to point out when he re-watches practice film, and it is the effort other coaches referenced when they brought up the mantra of the minicamp and organized team activity portion of the offseason: "finish."

Back in June when organized team activities were winding down, receivers coach James Urban told ESPN.com just how much "finishing" had been stressed as the team started implementing Jackson's new offensive scheme.

"There was a lot of talk about finish," Urban said. "Talking about doing things down the field. Most of these guys have been with me, been with us, for the last four years or so. So they know what to expect, and we've done great things. So how do you get their attention? We get their attention by overemphasizing finishing, overemphasizing getting off the ball and getting out of the huddle and getting set."

Jackson said Burkhead was a great example of that.

"I can always in the meetings point to something he's doing that's giving us a chance to have success," Jackson said. "It's every day. There's not a day that goes by. And that's what matters to me: that guys are playing hard, finishing and taking care of business. He does that, there's no question about that."

There is also no question that as he enters his second season, Burkhead finds himself mired in one of the more intriguing position battles of the Bengals' training camp which begins Thursday. He's fighting for the team's third or fourth running back spot with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, James Wilder Jr. and Nikita Whitlock. The universal belief is that the Bengals likely will end up using Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill as their top two running backs, and that Peerman's more expansive special teams background and experience makes him an ideal candidate for the No. 3 spot. That would mean Burkhead and Green-Ellis will be dueling for the other roster spot as Wilder and Whitlock likely duke it out for a possible practice-squad job.

Burkhead has played the various scenarios in his head. He has a strong understanding of what is at stake for him right now. He knows he's not the fastest back on the team, and he knows he might not be the most powerful. But he still believes he has what it takes to stick with the club.

"I love the competition," Burkhead said. "I feel like it brings out the best in me and helps me improve as a player. So whenever my opportunity comes, I'll be ready for it because I've already been practicing at that level. This competition, it makes us all better. It makes the team better and that's what wins you championships, is having that high level of competitiveness around you."

Burkhead didn't contribute statistically to the Bengals' division championship last season. Declared inactive for all but one game, he was primarily a practice body. But he was a practice body that still commanded attention.

"This game, it's tough. It's tough to win, it's tough to score. It comes down to inches," Burkhead said. "That's what finishing plays is. Hopefully I can set that example, and if I can help someone do that, too, that's what I'm going to do."

So far, he's at least rubbed off on Bernard.

"It's effort like that that Coach Hue really sees and that he wants the whole offense to follow," Bernard said.

Burkhead, 24, wasn't the only one Jackson singled out regularly in his practice-film review sessions with the offense. Veterans like 32-year-old Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth showcased some of what Jackson has been pleading for since he took over as offensive coordinator in January.

Bernard said Jackson showed a couple of times where Whitworth was running downfield on routine practice plays to block for receivers.

"If all the linemen could do that, if all the running backs could do that, if all the receivers could do that, the quarterbacks could do that, that'll show and it'll prove to everybody how much better we really are," Bernard said.

As camp opens, stay on the lookout for how well effort translates to roster spots and offensive identity.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers report to training camp in three days and it looks like coach Mike Tomlin has pre-ordered heat and humidity, two of his favorite ingredients for the practices that will take place at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Here is a different kind of primer for camp, and it is the first of two posts recapping the Steelers' offseason in the words of the coaches and the players.

Here is what the players said during the offseason practices.

Polamalu
“We could put Usain Bolt and the whole track team out there but that doesn't make us a good football team. So, we'll see how everything works out.” – strong safety Troy Polamalu on what an infusion of speed will mean for the defense

“I’m excited about this team and the direction we’re headed. I think that we have a lot of speed. That’s running the ball, that’s throwing the ball, whatever. I want us to be fast and to put a lot of points on the board. I feel younger than ever." – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on expectations for the offense after the Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games last season

“You see guys finishing to the end zone, the whole defense running to the ball, everyone coaching each other. I think we’re just a hungry young group that’s aspiring to win games. When you’ve got a young motivated group that everyone bought into what we’re trying to do it just speaks highly when you see it on the practice field.” – Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown on the urgency the Steelers showed during offseason practices

“I’m in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it. He’s always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don’t push myself, but there’s always a next level and that’s what he’s brought to our whole unit.” – outside linebacker Jarvis Jones on new defensive assistant Joey Porter

Miller
“I expect to be better than last year for sure. That’s better because I should be able to put more preparation in, should be able to work like I’m used to working. Last year was about trying to find a new normal for myself and I’m a creature of habit so that wasn’t easy for me.” – tight end Heath Miller on participating in offseason practices after missing them the previous year while recovering from a torn ACL

“You’ve got a few guys and there time is right now. Cortez Allen is one of those guys. Will Gay is still one of those guys regardless of what people don’t want to say about him. The man’s real solid.I think last year was the best year of his career. And Cortez Allen toward the end was breaking out to what we all thought he could be -- a ball hawk.” – veteran Ike Taylor on the Steelers’ cornerbacks

“It’s nothing right now and I say that in the sense that that’s been talked about the last few years. The talent is there but if we come out here and [falter] we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.” – left guard Ramon Foster on the whether offensive line’s strong finish in 2013 will translate into a big season for the unit this year

“He’s one of my better friends on the team now. It’s crazy the relationship I built with him over the last couple of months. He’s a lot like I am, outgoing, more jokes. Dri is the same way. It’s crazy how we all mesh together and get along.” – starting running back Le'Veon Bell on new backfield additions LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer


“Think about it. You’ve got a Hall of Famer in waiting and I’m coming in to play right after him. That’s pressure. Everybody knows what Casey was. He’s on a top five defense his whole career. I’ve seen the man play. There’s nothing else like him. I’m far from Casey. I’m never going to try to be Casey. The only thing I can do is work every day, do my best and just be the best Steve that I can be.” – nose tackle Steve McLendon on replacing five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton last season

Mitchell
“I don’t really care about Pro Bowl. I want to be All-Pro. I have to do what I did last year again plus get better. A lot of times last year people were talking about the front seven I played with and they were very talented but this defense here is very talented. Sometimes you’re overlooked but that’s just another chip to put on my shoulder and play football.” – new free safety Mike Mitchell on his goal for this season

“He’s like a sponge right now. The coaches tell him, ‘Don’t say much at all. Just try and soak everything up right now.’ It’s going to be tough on him but he’s the type of athletic he can do it. He’s willing and able to do whatever it takes.” – inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons on first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier

“I feel like I was overlooked by a lot of teams. A lot of guys that went ahead of me aren’t even on teams right now so that gives me a chip on my shoulder every day. When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted.” – cornerback Antwon Blake on what drives him

“I’ve gotten a chance to see who wore this number before me and the person who wore the number before me was a great player for the Steelers. With that comes a great opportunity to become the best and that’s somebody I want to become as great as or greater than. I love pressure. I thrive off that.” – rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt on wearing No. 91, Aaron Smith’s old number

“Ben is strong-armed with a sense of boldness. He’s going to throw some balls that maybe some other guys wouldn’t, even guys with strong arms. I love that as a receiver.” – new wide receiver Lance Moore on playing with Roethlisberger

“He’s like Paul Bunyan. He’s huge. He’s thick but he’s definitely agile. I think we can get a lot out of him. His potential is out of the roof. It’s about getting him to the next level.” – defensive end Cameron Heyward on rookie defensive tackle Dan McCullers
Johnny Manziel's stock continues to soar.

The NFL announced Monday that Manziel jerseys outsold all others for sales from April 1 through July 17.

Manziel
Imagine when the Cleveland Browns rookie completes a pass.

Meanwhile, another former NFL great weighed in with thoughts on Manziel.

This time it was Brett Favre's turn to answer a question, as the former Packers, Jets and Vikings great told ESPN 1000 in Chicago that Manziel is “a superb talent” who is “fun to watch” but also must understand it’s now about the team.

"It’s not about him,” Favre said, stressing he does not know Manziel. “It has been about him, and rightfully so. He’s been fun to watch and won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. My goodness, the spotlight is on you.

“But you have to try to deflect that as much as possible and just be team player. I’m not saying he isn’t; again I don’t know him.

“But there’s a lot of excitement around Cleveland right now, and what he is capable of doing. I would just say do all you can to make that team better, and again, it’s all about the team.”

In a nutshell, these statements and the jersey sales illustrate what Mike Pettine will deal with in his first training camp with the Browns.

A guy drafted in the first round who has had it be all about him in college now must make it about the team -- while his jersey is the most popular one in the NFL.
Examining the Cincinnati Bengals' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
The Bengals were content with having just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster last season, but expect them to take three this year. McCarron would be the odd man out, but since they drafted him this year and made him a de facto heir apparent to the position in case something happens with Dalton in the next few seasons, they probably won't cut him or place him on the practice squad. In Campbell, the Bengals also get a tried and true veteran who could step in if Dalton's play is unsatisfactory, or if he gets hurt.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

This grouping includes Charles at H-back, meaning the Bengals are more likely to take four true running backs. I'd argue that neither Green-Ellis, Peerman nor Charles is a lock right now to make the team, but there are compelling reasons for each being part of the 53-man roster. Rex Burkhead and James Wilder Jr. also have real chances to be part of the full roster.

RECEIVERS (5)

The top three on this list are locks to make the team. The true battle during training camp will be for the other two spots. If this group holds, that means veterans Brandon Tate and Jasper Collins, former Bengals practice squad player Cobi Hamilton and undrafted rookies Colin Lockett and Alex Neutz won't make the team. Tate would be the real notable cut here after performing well as a kick returner and filling in at punt returner last year. With a fully healthy secondary around him, though, expect Adam Jones to get back to returning punts. While the Bengals will give Tate opportunities to contribute in the passing game (he's had only 14 catches in three seasons with Cincinnati) this preseason, Sanzenbacher can also do much of what Tate can. Sanzenbacher has been more consistent in the passing game and could fill in as a returner on punts or kickoffs. Hamilton's size (6-foot-2) and leaping ability make him a possible pick to make the team, but performance would be a reason for cutting him. Wright's special-teams background and his strong showing in minicamp and organized team activities make him a possibility too.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Gresham is entering a contract year, and expectations have never been higher for him. The Bengals believe he can play better than he has in recent years and hope to get that type of production out of him. An offseason hernia surgery might have Gresham out of the mix early in training camp, but he ought to make the team, just like Eifert and Smith, who re-signed this spring to help bolster the position group after Gresham's injury.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

It's possible the Bengals end up taking only nine linemen so they can fit additional players at other positions. For instance, they could end up taking another running back or another receiver. It's common for most teams to have nine or 10 linemen, and this group seems to provide the versatility coaches are seeking. Hopkins, an undrafted rookie, was used at a variety of spots in the spring. Of the undrafted free-agent linemen the Bengals signed this year, Trey Hopkins -- a versatile guard who was used in a variety of ways this spring -- has the best shot to make the team, but even he's just barely left off this list.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

The only player on this list who wasn't on last year's 53-man roster is Will Clarke. The rookie was drafted in the third round in May. He effectively takes the roster spot of Michael Johnson, who signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason. This may be the most set group on the team.

LINEBACKERS (6)

Like the receivers, the top spots at linebacker are pretty much squared away. In this case, it's a veritable lock that Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Vincent Rey and Rey Maualuga will make the team. The two remaining linebackers, on the other hand, will be part of one of the better position battles on the team. DiManche and Flowers have the best chances among the rest of the outside linebackers to make the team, but they'll have to fend off Sean Porter, Brandon Joiner and James Davidson too. Dontay Moch could make the team because of his versatility as a stand-up defensive end and hybrid linebacker. J.K. Schaffer was snubbed on this list at middle linebacker, but there's a lot about his drive and internal makeup that could make him a repeat roster surprise.

CORNERBACKS (6)

The top four positions are effectively locked down. Kirkpatrick runs the risk of being cut for performance reasons, but it's unlikely he will be dismissed because the Bengals would take a $1.2 million cap hit if they let go of the former first-round pick. The sixth cornerback spot will be a battle between Hampton, R.J. Stanford, Lavelle Westbrooks, Chris Lewis-Harris and Onterio McCalebb. Hampton has some versatility and ability the Bengals like, as well as special-teams leanings.

SAFETIES (4)

This may end up being one of the tougher cuts Bengals coaches have, if they end up keeping just four safeties. Taylor Mays would be the odd man out in this situation, which might come as a surprise given how well his spring practices seemed to go. Nelson and Iloka are virtual locks, Manning seems like a good possibility and Williams appears to factor into the team's future at the position.

SPECIALISTS (3)

These guys aren't going anywhere. The punter, kicker and long snapper will make the team.
Examining the Pittsburgh Steelers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
The Steelers are set at their No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the depth chart. Rookie Brendon Kaye has an outside shot of beating out Jones, but the undrafted free agent is likely using the preseason games to audition for other teams.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

This is the one position where someone under the radar has a chance to play his way onto the 53-man roster. The Steelers can probably afford to go with three running backs -- Johnson is a fullback/tight end -- and stash a back or two on the practice squad in the event of injuries.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)
Darrius Heyward-Bey makes the team if the Steelers keep six wide receivers because of his ability to play special teams. The Steelers may need an extra spot at wide receiver this year if Bryant isn’t ready to contribute as a rookie.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

I went a little light here because Johnson could play a significant amount at tight end this season. David Paulson and Michael Palmer are incumbents but neither has shown enough to hold off Blanchflower, who could be another late-round find for the Steelers.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

I could see the Steelers going with eight offensive linemen if they think they can sneak Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick, onto their practice squad. This group will be among the hardest to crack given how many returners the Steelers have up front.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (7)

Yep, I see Keisel making the Steelers' 53-man roster, whether the Steelers re-sign the 12th-year veteran before the start of training camp or during it. A surprise player or two always makes the team. I’m thinking Lapuaho has a chance to be that guy with sixth-round pick Daniel McCullers needing a year on the practice squad.

LINEBACKERS (8)

The Steelers could have some tough choices at linebacker, especially if Spence’s knee holds up during training camp and the former third-round pick looks as good practicing in pads as he did in shorts. Terence Garvin may be the odd man out inside while veteran outside linebacker Chris Carter could get bumped from the roster by Zumwalt.

CORNERBACKS (6)

McCain could be in trouble here if the Steelers go with five cornerbacks because Blake is so valuable on special teams. Richardson is no lock to make the roster after Terry Hawthorne, the cornerback the Steelers drafted in the fifth round in 2013, didn’t even make the practice squad last year.

SAFETIES (5)

I think the first four safeties are set barring injury. A couple of spots are reserved every year based solely on special-teams play. That’s how Golden makes the 53-man roster again this season.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The only battle is at punter where Podlesh will try to hold off Brad Wing. The latter is an intriguing prospect because of his physical ability and his past work at LSU. Given that Podlesh has a track record in the NFL, Wing will have to clearly outperform him to make the team.
Examining the Cleveland Browns' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
If an alien landed from outer space, he or she would look at this list and think it’s a guy with three starts, a rookie and a veteran who didn’t play last season. Which is accurate. Thigpen did little to impress in the offseason work, but the Browns have to keep a third behind Hoyer and Manziel.

RUNNING BACKS (3)

Tate and West are givens. Lewis was a favorite of the team a year ago, but that was a year ago. He could be a third back (at the expense of a cornerback or fullback) if he has the kind of training camp he had in 2013. Isaiah Crowell appears to be a strong candidate for the practice squad.

FULLBACK (2)

By taking a quick look at Chris Pressley in the offseason and then releasing him, the Browns showed they don’t want a road grader at the position. By moving Gray there later, they confirmed that they want their fullback to be more active. Ogbonnaya is the kind of guy teams like and need. Smart, plays anywhere and contributes on special teams.

WIDE RECEIVER (5)

For these purposes, we’ll assume that Josh Gordon is suspended. If he’s not, add him and remove Armstrong. A casual glance at the list from the same alien who looked at the quarterbacks would indicate why many believe things are dire for the offense if/when Gordon is suspended. Look for one or two of the young receivers to be on the practice squad.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Gray moved to fullback during the offseason, so we’ll assume he stays there. The Browns are well fortified with the three tight ends they have.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

If there is a 10th, Reid Fragel joins the group. The Browns have built an offensive line that is talented, deep and smart. They have a lot of money invested here, but they have some good players as well.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

Another deep group with a lot of talent. Coaches should be able to keep fresh linemen on the field, and keep active linemen playing.

LINEBACKERS (8)

The coaching staff has high hopes for Mingo, who figures to get a lot of time if Sheard moves to a down end position as frequently as Sheard said he would. Dansby missed a fair amount of the offeason, and the Browns have to hope for more from Kruger than they got a year ago after he signed his big contract.

CORNERBACKS (6)
Leon McFadden's brief Browns career could end after one season. The most interesting competition will be between Skrine and Gilbert to see who starts opposite Haden. Finding a cornerback who can play press-man coverage is vital in this defense.

SAFETY (4)

No big mysteries here, but Bademosi makes the team based on his value on special teams. Whitner seems to be a very good veteran addition.

SPECIALISTS (3)

No need to change anything here from last season, as all were strong and dependable contributors.
Examining the Baltimore Ravens' roster:

Quarterbacks (3)

Flacco is the Ravens' starter for the seventh straight season, and Taylor will be the backup for the fourth year in a row. The big decision at quarterback is with Wenning, a rookie sixth-round pick. The Ravens haven't gone with three quarterbacks since 2009 (Troy Smith and John Beck were the backups), and it seems like a waste to carry two backups when Flacco hasn't missed a start in his six-year NFL career. But, if the Ravens believe Wenning is going to be their top backup in 2015, they can't afford to put him on the practice squad.

Running backs (4)

Rice, Pierce and Juszczyk are locks to make the team. Taliaferro is a near certainty as well, based on the fact that he's a fourth-round pick. If Rice begins the season on the suspended list, it increases the chances of the Ravens carrying Forsett for veteran depth.

Receivers (5)

Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Brown and Jones form one of the deepest receiving groups in franchise history. The tough question is whether the Ravens will carry five or six receivers, because Butler, Michael Campanaro, Deonte Thompson and LaQuan Williams could all be competing for one spot. Butler, an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee-Martin, has the edge coming off an impressive offseason. Campanaro, a seventh-round pick who has dealt with hamstring issues, could be placed on injured reserve at the end of the preseason and essentially redshirted.

Tight ends (3)

The Ravens' top three tight ends are guaranteed to make the team, barring injury. Pitta and Daniels would be starters if the Ravens go with two tight ends as their base offense. Phillip Supernaw, who was added after an offseason tryout, has a history with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in Houston and has an outside shot to earn a spot because this is an offense that uses a lot of tight ends.

Offensive linemen (9)

Monroe, Osemele, Zuttah and Yanda are the guaranteed starters, and Wagner is penciled in at right tackle. During offseason workouts, Gradkowski was the top backup at center, Shipley has been the second-team guard and Jensen has worked at both guard and tackle. The versatility of Osemele and Jensen to play tackle doesn't force the Ravens to carry Jah Reid or James Hurst, an undrafted tackle who had a rough offseason. John Urschel, a fifth-round pick, should make the team but likely won't play as a rookie.

Defensive linemen (7)

Ngata and Canty are returning starters and bring the most experience to the line. Williams is the favorite to start at nose tackle. Tyson earned more playing time after showing flashes last season, and Lewis-Moore has generated buzz this offseason. Jernigan and Urban, two rookie draft picks, should play a role in the rotation. This would leave out Terrence Cody, a second-round pick in 2010.

LINEBACKERS (9)

There won't be much change here because the Ravens return every linebacker from last season's team. The only addition is Mosley, the No. 17 overall pick in this year's draft. Because the Ravens aren't expected to keep 10 linebackers, the tough call will come down to Bynes or Albert McClellan, who has made the team the past three seasons.

Cornerbacks (5)

Smith and Webb are a starting tandem for the second straight year. Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson have been competing for the No. 3 cornerback spot all offseason. The competition became more crowded when the Ravens signed veteran free agents Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks at the end of the offseason. Ross, the former New York Giants defender, is the early favorite, given his history with secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo.

Safeties (5)

Elam is making the move from free safety to strong safety. Many assumed Brooks, a rookie third-round pick, would start at free safety. But Stewart, a free-agent pickup from the St. Louis Rams, strengthened his hold on the starting job this offseason. Levine is a valued special teams player. Miles gets the last spot right now based on his experience. But the Ravens might opt to go with Brynden Trawick or Omar Brown if they play as well as Miles because they're younger and cheaper.

Specialists (3)

There is no drama on special teams. Tucker, Koch and Cox team up for the third straight season.
CINCINNATI -- Good for A.J. Green.

Kudos to him for beginning to heed the advice that was offered to him in January.

At long last, Green has started implementing an attitude worthy of a player of his lofty stature. He's embracing his role as a vocal team leader and has started opening his mouth in ways the Bengals had long been anticipating.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's A.J. Green
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports"I've got to speak up when [my teammates] are not having a good day," A.J. Green said.
Based on comments he made during his youth football camp in suburban Cincinnati on Thursday, Green has emerged from his shell. He's asserted his support for quarterback Andy Dalton this offseason more adamantly than he has in years past and he's emphasized that the entire team needs to play better in the postseason, sending loud messages not only to his teammates, but to those of us looking from the outside in.

It's about time.

"If you're a great athlete, I feel like you'll think you always left something [on the table]," Green said. "I feel like I still haven't reached my peak yet."

He knows the Bengals haven't, either.

Part of what Bengals coaches think will get him dramatically closer to his personal summit is him being more vocal.

After the Bengals lost their wild-card playoff game to the Chargers, Green met with head coach Marvin Lewis and then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as part of the standard exit meetings. The general theme in the conversations was that Green needed to be louder and more assertive on the sidelines and in the huddles.

They wanted him to lead with his voice. If his teammates needed to be called out, he needed to be the one to do it. If they needed to hear more praise, he had to be the one to provide it.

Green knew those requests would be a lot easier to make than to fulfill.

"That's a big thing for me, stepping out of my box," he said. "I'm not really a vocal guy in general. I let my play, my work, speak for itself. ... It's definitely an adjustment for me because I'm more of a quiet guy, more of a lead by example by what I do on and off the field guy. That's the biggest thing for me is that I've got to speak up when we're not having a good day or we're down or things like that."

While taking a break during the second day of his sold-out, two-day camp, Green told the few reporters listening that he felt his transition was going well.

It certainly appears he's right.

Just look at a few of his comments from the interview session. He was unflinching in his critique of his own postseason play. Asked to characterize his three career playoff games, two words immediately came out of his mouth: "Not good."

Had he been asked that question in the past, he may have ultimately meandered to same answer, but only after giving a stock answer about just simply needing to execute better. This time around, not only did he put pressure on himself to perform better, but he prodded all his teammates to step up their postseason games. He said Thursday that Cincinnati's recent postseason woes weren't only the result of poor performances by he and Dalton, but he challenged the defense to play better, as well.

That's what a vocal leader does. He doesn't just challenge himself, he pushes those around him.

That's also what an 0-3 postseason showing gets you: a frustrated superstar who's eager to prove his worth.

What also makes Green's comments interesting was the manner in which they were delivered. There was no hesitancy in his voice, no uncertainty about whether he was saying the right things or not. Let's just say that he sounded more sure of himself when answering these questions than he did last year.

So where has this new vocal and assertive Green come from? He doesn't have a complete answer. He probably doesn't really need one.

It's safe to say that new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has had something to do with it. Known for a confidence that some might say borders on arrogance, Jackson has a personality that may be rubbing off on Gree. Like Lewis and Gruden, Jackson believed Green, as one of the team's elite players, needed to make his presence known a little better in the locker room.

"He's never satisfied with where I am," Green said of Jackson. "That's one thing about him. No matter what I do or what I've accomplished these first three years, there's always more I can do.

"I remember when the [NFL Network's] top 100 came out and I was the No. 2 receiver, he said, 'OK, let's go be No. 1.'"

Deep down Green may have previously believed he could be the best in the league. But now, based on the comments he made Thursday, it seems he actually believes it, and is doing more to prove it.

Listen up, NFL. A.J. is talking. But will the chatter be enough to help reverse his team's postseason fortunes and to make him even more respected than he already is?

Time will tell.

Camp preview: Cincinnati Bengals

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
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NFL Nation's Coley Harvey examines the three biggest issues facing the Cincinnati Bengals heading into training camp.

Stay healthy: As Cincinnati saw last year, injuries that arise in training camp and the preseason can have a big impact on the rest of the season. Among the biggest preseason setbacks last year were receiver Andrew Hawkins' ankle injury and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur's shoulder injury. Hawkins was hurt attempting to dive for a ball in practice, and Lamur got banged up during the preseason finale against the Colts. Hawkins was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return (by Week 9), but Lamur was lost for the year. Without Lamur, the Bengals had to use linebackers and additional defensive backs to accomplish everything they previously had planned to do defensively with him on the field. Just as it will be for every team, the focus this training camp will be on working hard but minimizing injury.

Continuing to push the tempo: During the mandatory minicamp and voluntary organized team activities, the Bengals harped on tempo and pacing, and how they want to push both offensively this season. If the Bengals are able to carry over what they did in May and June, they'll be calling plays faster than in recent years. The goal for new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is getting his unit into a rhythm for four quarters, running a lot of plays, and the affect that tempo will have on opposing defenses by the end of the game. Watch during camp for how in sync the Bengals are while playing up-tempo offensively.

Establishing defensive rotations: The Bengals are going through their share of defensive changes, too. Former linebackers coach Paul Guenther takes over as the new defensive coordinator, getting his first chance to serve as a lead assistant on an NFL team. In years past, he already had a fairly large impact on Cincinnati's defense, setting linebacker rotations and helping draw up blitz packages for the entire unit. He's been praised by current and former players for his attention to detail. The organization's hope is that he'll be coaching the full defense the way he did his position group. You'll notice often this season that the Bengals will rotate players in and out of various position groups based on the sub-package personnel they want to trot onto the field. You'll even see them do some switching at the line of scrimmage, as ends might rotate sides or switch into interior positions during pre-snap maneuvers. The goal has always been to mask coverages and rushes, and to confuse offenses, but Guenther's scheme seems as if it will predicate itself on keeping an offense more off rhythm than even Mike Zimmer's defense did. It will be interesting to note some of the many defensive rotations that arise during training camp and preseason as the roster starts getting smaller.

Camp preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation’s Scott Brown examines the three biggest issues facing the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into training camp:

Continued growth on offense: The Steelers averaged 26.6 points in winning six of their final eight games last season, and the foundation is in place for them to build on that. It all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t miss a snap last season and is still in the prime of his career. Roethlisberger never looked more in control than when he was running the no-huddle offense, something the Steelers did frequently in the second half of the season. The offseason practices were critical for Roethlisberger and new wide receivers (Lance Moore) and younger ones (Markus Wheaton) to work together in the no-huddle offense. Roethlisberger said the Steelers will add to their no-huddle playbook during the offseason and training camp before picking the best plays. He must be in sync with the wide receivers; Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery must be replaced for the no-huddle attack to hum again. Repetitions during training camp and preseason practice are critical, especially because the players will be in pads and hitting one another. That means the Steelers’ wide receivers especially have to stay relatively healthy during the most important time for team building, developing a rapport with Roethlisberger and earning his trust.

Getting after the quarterback: The Steelers managed just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990, and they must get more production from their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds supplanted LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker the second half of last season and led the Steelers with eight sacks. Worilds, hampered by a nagging calf injury during offseason practices, has to show that he can be a pass-rushing force for more than half a season. The former second-round pick has no one blocking his path to the field with Woodley now in Oakland. Jarvis Jones has to justify the Steelers using the 17th overall pick of the 2013 draft on him. The former Georgia All-American managed just one sack as a rookie but has improved his strength both physically and in regard to his grasp of the playbook. Jones also has Joey Porter mentoring him, and the Steelers will give Jones every opportunity to succeed. Depth is a concern at outside linebacker, so in addition to providing a consistent pass rush, Worilds and Jones have to stay healthy. If general manager Kevin Colbert is looking to add depth, Steelers fans will be quick to remind him that James Harrison is only a phone call away. What would most help the defense, however, is if Jones can provide the same kind of pass rush that Harrison supplied from the right side of the Steelers’ defense when Harrison made the Pro Bowl in five consecutive seasons.

Improving their run game and rushing defense: The Steelers struggled running the ball and stopping it in 2013. Both still matter, even at a time when NFL teams are slinging the ball early and often and using the pass to set up the run. Le’Veon Bell should improve on his 3.5 yards per carry in his second season, and the Steelers have improved their overall talent at running back. LeGarrette Blount is a significant upgrade over Jonathan Dwyer and third-round pick Dri Archer is a burner who gives the Steelers a home-run threat in the backfield. The Steelers should significantly improve on the 86.4 rushing yards they averaged in 2013. Not as certain is whether the Steelers will be appreciably better in stopping the run after yielding 115.6 rushing yards per game last season. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has gotten bigger and appears ready to assert himself this season, but defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward is a question mark. First-round pick Ryan Shazier should be an upgrade at weakside inside linebacker, but he will inevitably endure some rookie struggles, even if he is ready to start this season. Everything with the Steelers’ defense starts with shutting down the run, so it has to do a much better job this season.
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South


NFL Nation's Jamison Hensley examines the three biggest issues facing the Baltimore Ravens heading into training camp.

Filling in for Ray Rice's expected absence: The Ravens are coming off the worst rushing season in franchise history and likely will have to revive the ground game without having Rice for a period of time. He is expected to be suspended by the NFL for his off-the-field incident this offseason. After not signing a high-profile free agent such as LeGarrette Blount, the Ravens are left with no experienced starters in the backfield beyond Rice. Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro have combined for eight career starts. Pierce is the favorite to take over the starting job, but he was limited this entire offseason after having shoulder surgery. Forsett, the primary backup this spring, had a total of six carries last season. And Taliaferro is a fourth-round rookie from Coastal Carolina. Defenses could see a heavy dose of Pierce if he's healthy, or the Ravens could go with a running back by committee. Even when Rice returns, he has to prove he can be a productive runner again after averaging a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season. The Ravens believe they can turn around their running attack with the hiring of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has built successful ground games in the past with his zone-blocking scheme.

Sorting out secondary competition: Two of the biggest questions on defense involve position battles in the secondary -- free safety and nickelback. The competition at free safety didn't unfold as expected this spring. It was presumed that Terrence Brooks was the front-runner for the job after the Ravens selected him in the third round. Instead, Brooks hasn't seen time with the first or second teams this offseason, and Darian Stewart has taken most of the reps at free safety. When the Ravens signed Stewart in free agency, he was considered a fallback option. He had six starts last season for the St. Louis Rams. Now, it looks as if free safety is Stewart's job to lose. At nickelback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown were fighting for the job all offseason. But it was presumed the Ravens would add a veteran when neither stood out this offseason. The Ravens, in fact, brought in two free agents, Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks, to make it a four-player race for the No. 3 corner spot behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. If Ross and Stewart end up winning the open jobs, they can thank secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who previously coached them in the NFL.

Preparing Rick Wagner to start at right tackle: The Ravens were expected to draft an offensive tackle. They didn't. There was speculation the Ravens might sign free agent Eric Winston, who has ties with Kubiak. But again, the Ravens didn't make a move. By standing pat, the team has given a major vote of confidence to Wagner. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has been penciled in to replace Michael Oher, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. As a rookie last year, Wagner struggled when he had to replace an injured Oher in the season opener. Wagner improved throughout his rookie year as the team's No. 6 offensive lineman, playing when the team wanted an extra blocker on the field (12 percent of the offensive snaps). The Ravens realized Wagner needs a lot of snaps to gain confidence in his technique, and they've been giving him plenty of reps during offseason practices. If Wagner doesn't live up to expectations when the hitting begins in training camp, the Ravens have other options. They could move left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle, give Ryan Jensen more snaps at that position or sign Winston. At this point, the Ravens are banking on Wagner as their season-opening starter at right tackle.

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