AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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With offseason workouts and minicamps in the rearview mirror and training camps just a few weeks away, we assess the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason moves and assign a letter grade in the video above.

Best move: Michael Johnson's free-agency return was the highlight of a mostly boring offseason for the Bengals. A team that returned 20 starters at its 22 offensive and defensive positions, the Bengals really didn't have much to do in the way of adding players from the outside. Their offseason hinged in large part on the re-signing of kicker Mike Nugent, offensive guard Clint Boling and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Once those moves were made, the Bengals' top priority was to get a good pass-rusher who could aid a defensive line that was among the league's worst the past season. Johnson, a 2009 third-round Bengals pick, ended up being that addition. In the one year he spent away from Cincinnati (with the Buccaneers), the Bengals collected a league-worst 20 sacks. They didn't have a true No. 2 pass-rusher to pair with Carlos Dunlap, but now they do.

Riskiest move: It's hard to qualify any of the Bengals' moves as risky. They didn't have many they absolutely had to make this year, thanks to solid returning depth. Perhaps the riskiest moves were at quarterback. Terrelle Pryor's signing and subsequent controversial release last week caught a lot of attention. That clearly didn't pan out. Cincinnati was looking for the former Ohio State star to compete with AJ McCarron for the top backup quarterback job. Before being waived, Pryor was the Bengals' fourth-string signal-caller. Also risky was the decision to bring back Josh Johnson, the current No. 3 quarterback, who apparently won't be taking any meaningful snaps for Cincinnati this year. It will be good to have a third arm around for training camp, but that's about all the use the Bengals appear to have for Johnson.

Getting healthy: Free agency and a good, depth-building draft aside, what made the Bengals' offseason most successful was they got healthier and maintained that health through organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp. Receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert were among those who fully recovered from injuries that held them out nearly all of the past season. Eifert suited up for eight plays in the season opener before dislocating an elbow. That injury, along with a shoulder issue, sidelined him all year. Jones never made it on the field for a game after suffering multiple foot and ankle injuries in the offseason and preseason. Both were impressive during this year's OTAs and minicamp, though. Offensive tackle Andre Smith was another starter who recovered from a late-season triceps issue. Only rookie Cedric Ogbuehi (ACL) and linebacker Vontaze Burfict (microfracture surgery on his knee) appear to be question marks entering training camp.

Training camp outlook: If the Bengals get Burfict back at some point during training camp, they'll be as close to full strength entering the season as they could hope to be. It's doubtful they will have him back that quickly, though, as they are trying to remain patient with his return from a serious January knee surgery. There's a possibility he could begin the year on the physically unable to perform list. Otherwise, the roster is pretty well set. There will be battles later this summer at cornerback (where it appears Dre Kirkpatrick holds a slight advantage over Darqueze Dennard), receiver (can Jones beat out Mohamed Sanu for No. 2 receiver duties?) and defensive tackle (eight players are vying for possibly four spots).

NFL Nation reporter Coley Harvey assesses which rookies on the Bengals could earn a starting berth this season.

[+] EnlargeMario Alford
AP Photo/John MinchilloBengals rookie wide receiver Mario Alford could make an impact with his elite speed.

Why Mario Alford could start: Let's preface all of this by saying all of the drafted and undrafted players the Bengals added to their roster this offseason will have a tough time cracking the team's starting rotation. Without having lost many key veterans to free agency and retirement, Cincinnati brings back one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. That said, Alford stands as good a chance to start as any of the rookies simply because he has something that can't be learned, nor taught: speed. Clocked with a sub-4.3-second 40-yard dash time during his pro day, the receiver possesses a quickness that had Bengals coaches intrigued right away. Although a seventh-round pick, Alford's versatility as a runner, receiver and special-teams returner makes him a logical fit as an occasional contributor to the Bengals' offense. Can he really break through, though? A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and James Wright should occupy the first four spots, but along with Alford, there are five other players competing for likely two other receiver jobs.

Why Jake Fisher could start: While Alford's playmaking ability gives him the best chance of starting, Fisher might actually be the rookie who has the most opportunities to start. Injuries can occur often on the offensive line, meaning the offensive tackle has good odds to enter in relief at some point this year. Right tackle Andre Smith, for example, missed seven games last season to injuries. Fisher's versatility also works in his favor. In addition to playing both tackle positions during spring practices, he also lined up at left guard and as a extra blocker in unbalanced line sets. If anyone on the offensive line goes down, he certainly will be one of the first ones off the bench. If it's a starting tackle who misses time, Eric Winston likely would be the first to relieve him. But if two tackles are forced out of the rotation, expect to see Fisher come in, too. A second-round pick, Fisher was actually the second lineman the Bengals picked. First-round tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was injured in a December bowl game (torn ACL), Ogbuehi doesn't stand much of a chance to start this season as he slowly continues rehab.

Why C.J. Uzomah could start: Honestly, we could have picked any of three Bengals draft picks to be the last player on this list of potential rookie starters. Third-round tight end Tyler Kroft and third-round linebacker P.J. Dawson had solid college careers and play positions in which the Bengals are currently in need of some help. With Vontaze Burfict's recovery from offseason microfracture surgery still coming along slowly, Cincinnati could have an opening for a starting "Will" linebacker. Until Burfict is able to join the team -- possibly after the season has started -- A.J. Hawk and Vincent Rey appear to be the most likely candidates to take his place, not Dawson. Playing time issues also affect Kroft. Although coaches have expressed confidence in their tight ends' performances this spring, few of the tight ends have looked impressive, other than Tyler Eifert, during open practices. Although still comparatively raw, Uzomah -- a fifth-round selection -- seems to have a better handle on things than Kroft, who dropped his share of passes during organized team activities and minicamp. Because the Bengals likely will employ some two-tight end sets, look for Kroft, Uzomah (or even undrafted rookie Matt Lengel) to be among the rookies who potentially get playing time this year.

CINCINNATI -- Whenever Wallace Gilberry has peeked inside the packed, loaded-to-the-gills Cincinnati Bengals meeting rooms he's walked past the last two months, one thought has repeatedly popped into his mind.

"This is about reinventing."

With a new season on the horizon and another training camp about six weeks away, his annual goal of personal reinvention has returned. His focus each offseason revolves around tweaking his style of play and focusing on making changes that can make him a better player. Minicamp and organized team activities can be perfect times for that. There's less pressure from a pure competition standpoint, and the spring workouts can afford players time to see what more they need to fine-tune before camp opens.

"I've been like that since I've been in the league," the eight-year veteran said. "I'm always proving myself and always having to reinvent myself. Everybody should feel like that, starter or not. You have to go out and compete, and you have to go out and reinvent yourself every year. Because at the end of the year, it may be the same guys, but we're definitely a new team. It's a new feeling, a new mindset."

Gilberry said he believes players involved in tight, ultra-competitive position battles ought to cling close to the notion of reinvention.

While Gilberry's job looks secure on the surface -- he's likely entering this year as the third defensive end in a rotation that should get him on the field regularly with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap -- there are others along the defensive line that aren't as certain.

Devon Still, Pat Sims, Marcus Hardison, Kwame Geathers, DeShawn Williams and Kalafitoni Pole all seem deadlocked at this point for the last couple of defensive tackle spots.

"We're excited to put this thing together," Gilberry said. "But we've got a lot of time to work and get better. We still have a lot of time ahead."

So, how exactly does one reinvent themselves?

"I go back and watch all my bad plays," Gilberry said. "If I miss a tackle, I go back and watch it. Maybe my hands were wrong coming off the line of scrimmage or maybe I stepped underneath myself, how can I figure out how not to do that? You just go back to the lab and reinvent yourself and come back out and try to apply those new things from the mistakes that you learn and hopefully it all gets better."

Devon StillChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesDevon Still was excited to be back at practice Tuesday after missing OTAs while dealing with his daughter Leah's medical condition.


CINCINNATI -- Devon Still had been aching to get back in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room.

While his teammates spent the last two months building camaraderie as they went through the team's offseason workout program, he was out East, looking after a 5-year-old whose story and strength have captivated the nation for nearly a year.

It wasn't long after Leah Still went into remission in March following a long fight with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer, that she had a setback with her post-cancer treatment. The setback kept Still close to her side and forced him to miss the last three weeks of voluntary organized team activities (OTAs).

But positive news from Leah's doctors Monday gave him the comfort in knowing he could get away for a couple days this week, just in time for the start mandatory minicamp Tuesday. Relieved, he told reporters he was glad to be standing back in front of his locker.

"I've been gone for long enough," Still said. "I have a lot of family and friend support that is there with my daughter now. So it feels good to get away for a couple days and just get back to being here with the team and going out there and practicing."

For 43 days, Leah has been inside an all-too-familiar room at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. But if the trends doctors are seeing continue, she could be going home in less than a week. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had told Still if he needed to stay in Philadelphia, he would have been excused from missing these workouts.

Although uninjured for the first time in about two years, Still was limited during Tuesday's practice with what he was permitted to do football-wise. Lewis plans to keep Still out of most team drills in this camp simply because he hasn't practiced yet. Although the Bengals are confident in his offseason regimen, they still want to put him through a few more of their conditioning exercises before clearing him for full practice activity.

"He's a guy that we support so much with all the stuff he's going through with Leah," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "You know he's not the only one going through tough stuff, either. There's been other things that have happened to guys. That's one thing that's great about this locker room. We support each other and we're there for the guys that need it."

Still has lost 18 pounds since January. His body has made a clear transformation, as evidenced by before and after photos from his Instagram page.

The 314 pounds he carried last season was mostly the product of living in airports -- he would fly back to Philadelphia late on Sundays after games last season, and then fly back to Cincinnati the following Tuesday -- and eating fast food. Able to live near his daughter, Still carved out time this offseason to better tend to his diet and work out with a personal trainer whenever possible. They didn't have a set routine because of Leah's treatments. The goal was simply to get workouts in every day, regardless of when in the 24-hour cycle they came.

"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in my football career, period -- college or pro," Still said. "I'm playing motivated now. My daughter has won the battle against cancer, and I know she wants me to go out and prove myself on the football field. So that's what I'm working towards."

CINCINNATI -- George Iloka was a little more forthcoming Tuesday about his return from a still undisclosed injury.

While the Cincinnati Bengals safety still didn't want to discuss the mystery ailment that has had him sidelined for all of the team's offseason workout program, he said he was eyeing a return in time for training camp.

"That's the target," Iloka said.

The Bengals haven't formally announced the date for when training camp will commence, but it likely will be July 31. Iloka expects to be ready to go by that time.

For the first time all offseason, Iloka was out at practice alongside his teammates. While the rest of the Bengals opened this week's three-day mandatory minicamp, he trained off to the side, going through a series of conditioning exercises. He joined fellow injured players Margus Hunt, Sean Porter and Cedric Ogbuehi in the rehab area. The uninjured Devon Still, practicing for the first time after spending the offseason taking care of his 5-year-old daughter Leah, joined them, too.

A fourth-year defensive back, Iloka had career-highs in tackles (74) and interceptions (three) last season. He also was credited by Pro Football Focus with having the highest percentage of snaps in coverage per reception of any safety in the league. PFF also said the 18.4 QB rating Iloka allowed was an NFL-best among safeties.

One of nearly 30 Bengals eligible for free agency next offseason, Iloka hopes he gets a new contract before the start of this season. While he has arguably earned a new deal for this summer, Iloka said he wouldn't be disappointed if he had to wait until March before getting a new contract.

"It's how this sport goes, how this business goes. Any player would like to have their contract done sooner than later," Iloka said. "But that's for my agent and the Bengals to decide if they want to get something done before the season.

"For me, it's just rehabbing and getting back healthy. I'll be back this whole summer with these guys and getting right and putting on a show this year."

CINCINNATI -- Only three days separate the Cincinnati Bengals from the end of their offseason workout program.

Once they get through this week's minicamp, players and coaches will have about a month to get away from Cincinnati, go on vacation, train individually at their offseason facilities and start gradually directing their attention to this upcoming season.

[+] EnlargeMcCarron/Dalton
AP Photo/Al BehrmanAndy Dalton and the Bengals will take part in their final OTAs before returning for training camp in July.

But what makes this week's workouts different than what the Bengals were doing the past three weeks during organized team activities? Not much really. The only real difference is that players are required to be at all three of these workouts. The OTAs were all voluntary, although the Bengals had nearly perfect attendance during each of the open OTAs media was permitted to watch.

Reporters will get to watch all three minicamp sessions, beginning with Tuesday afternoon's workout. Here are a couple of items they'll be paying attention to:

Crisp practice pace and tempo. Although players mostly consider minicamp to be an extended set of OTAs, they believe practice pace and tempo will be among the biggest differences between the sessions of workouts. It was clear during the Bengals' final OTAs last week that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wasn't pleased at times with the way his players got in and out of the huddles. Quarterback Andy Dalton agreed, saying this minicamp will be about shoring up the "little things." He said, "You want guys to be moving fast and being able to hear plays and knowing what to expect [when the team returns for training camp]. It's just being smart in all the little things."

Last glimpse of Rex. Like we mentioned Monday, "versatility" has been the big buzzword in Bengals camp this offseason, much like it has during others. This minicamp provides the final glimpse of some of that player-to-player versatility before training camp. The deeper they get into August, the more specialized the Bengals' roles likely will become. So some of the players who have played in multiple spots all spring -- like running back James Wilder Jr., who has played fullback, too, for example -- could be taking some of their final regular snaps at these spots if they haven't juggled their new responsibilities well. One player who has juggled his diverse obligations this offseason is running back Rex Burkhead, who will be back at receiver throughout the minicamp. It'll be interesting to see how his duties at the two positions gets broken down in the fall.

Keeping healthy. While the Bengals may be looking for crisper practice tempo and want to keep rotating players at a variety of positions, nothing will be as important this week as keeping the team healthy. This time last year, receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert were among two players who had offseason injuries and tried to practice through them. The two only ended up playing eight snaps all of last season, in part thanks to those injuries. Because of that experience with offseason injuries, Cincinnati's goal is to keep players upright, and for them to avoid unnecessary contact that could affect their returns for training camp. Eifert, Jones and several other team stars likely will have certain reps limited this week in hopes of avoiding injury.

CINCINNATI -- Andrew Whitworth has played a key role in the attitude adjustment that has occurred in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room in recent years.

His leadership has helped the Bengals go from perennial league laughingstock and daily fodder for police blotters, to a better behaved, regular postseason contender.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
Thomas J. Russo/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Whitworth said a tougher attitude can help the Bengals overcome their recent playoff woes.

But as much positive change as he has seen the past 10 years, the Pro Bowl offensive tackle believes something is missing.

"We need some -- young kids now call it swagger -- but we need some of that ability to have a confidence in us that says, 'You know what? It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from or how good the football team is we're playing, we're really good, too, and we're going to bring it and you better stop it,'" Whitworth said.

"We need a little of that attitude."

If he says it, it must be true.

Although the Bengals have made it to the wild-card round of the playoffs the past four years, 24 have passed since the franchise won a playoff game. In that time, Cincinnati has had just six winning seasons. Five came with Marvin Lewis serving as head coach, and four happened under Whitworth's watch.

During many of those losing years, the locker room was replete with individual swagger. T.J. Houshmandzadeh for example, a receiver on the 2001-08 teams, relished letting his cornerbacks know they couldn't beat him in practice.

"When I came in it was sort of learn on your own, a do-what-you-want-to-do type of thing," said Houshmandzadeh, who joined the coaching staff last week for a two-week internship.

Whitworth spent three seasons with Houshmandzadeh and remembered the receiver's practice chatter as a tactic he used to boost his confidence, and in turn, his play. A seventh-round draft choice, expectations weren't universally high for Houshmandzadeh.

"A lot of the guys we have have always had the skill set to play in the NFL, but are they going to play tough enough and gritty enough and be relentless with the competition?" Whitworth said. "That's the way T.J. was. Every day in practice was almost a fight because he was going to get that football and he was going to get open and he was going to fight for position every single snap.

"The fire and tenacity he played the game with is something that definitely can carry on."

Make no mistake, the Bengals currently have players who play with fire and tenacity, but the locker room confrontations are less frequent. Aside from a couple of notable exceptions, players now aren't as brash in the way they hold each other accountable.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been on a mission the past two years to reclaim a touch of that abrasiveness. He got A.J. Green speaking up a little more last year, and encouraged Andy Dalton to be more vocal offensively, too. He also encouraged Jeremy Hill's touchdown celebrations, and wanted Rex Burkhead's gritty practice habits replicated.

"Hue's touched on grit and adversity and toughness and being able to adapt," Whitworth said. "The real thing you can adapt to is the football game, and rise to the occasion when a great play needs to be made. Or make a great play when you're tired and you have to grit it up and make the next play exhausted."

Whitworth believes that style of play can be learned, but "at some point a guy has to click it on and say, 'That's what I want to do.'"

Can the Bengals reclaim their old swagger while also building upon recent success? That's a question Whitworth, among others, hopes will be answered affirmatively.

CINCINNATI -- As the Cincinnati Bengals opened a series of 1-on-1 receiving drills during this week's open organized team activity (OTA), quarterback Andy Dalton let go of a tight-spiraled deep ball toward the left pylon.

At first glance, you had to wonder if the receiver would catch up to the ball.

[+] EnlargeMario Alford
Julio Cortez/AP PhotoBengals rookie receiver Mario Alford runs a sub-4.3 40-yard dash.

But then that's when you only needed to look across the field and see who the player was chasing after the pass. It was rookie Mario Alford, arguably the fastest receiver the Bengals have and one of this draft class' most explosive players.

Sure enough, the wideout with sub-4.3 40-yard speed ran past the corner covering him, sprinted underneath the ball and grabbed it with ease. Touchdown.

OK, so the Bengals were only wearing shorts and helmets, but the reception still provided a glimpse into what Alford's speed can do for them when he's put in similar situations during games. Dalton, for one, certainly is pleased with what he's seen from the seventh-round draft pick so far.

"When the ball's in his hands, he can really go," Dalton said.

Alford's speed had been well-advertised throughout the pre-draft process, and it's been on full display since he arrived for rookie camp last month. In addition to catching deep passes, he's been used like other receivers on shorter routes where he can get into space and pick up yards after the catch. He's also had his share of touches off reverses and double reverses as the Bengals tinker with getting him the ball in a variety of ways.

It's much the same versatility Alford showed in college in West Virginia's spread scheme, where he was a secondary receiving option to first-round pick Kevin White. Alford also returned kicks in college and figures to do so in some capacity with the Bengals.

"He's still learning, especially with what he was doing in college," Dalton said. "It was a little different. He was moving all over the place. He's explosive, you definitely can see that.

"The more he learns, the better he will be."

CINCINNATI -- Former Cincinnati Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is back working in the Queen City -- briefly.

He's one of four men to spend part of the spring and summer with the Bengals as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship program.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Houshmandzadeh
AP Photo/Luis M. AlvarezT.J. Houshmandzadeh, who played in Cincinnati between 2001 and 2008, is serving as a coaching intern with the Bengals through the end of minicamp.

In its 28th year, the fellowship has helped launch several professional coaching careers, including that of the Bengals' Marvin Lewis. Before becoming an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992, Lewis interned as part of the program with the 49ers and Chiefs. His current defensive line coach, Jay Hayes, and an offensive assistant, Brian Braswell, also worked in the program.

"This program helped me get ahead as a coach, and it's great to see it continue as strong as it is," Lewis said in a news release.

Houshmandzadeh, a Bengals seventh-round pick in 2001 and one-time Pro Bowler, has been working recently as a high school coach in the Los Angeles area. The Southern California native still holds the franchise record for receptions in a season (112). He also ranks in the top 10 in team history in career receptions (507), receiving yards (5,782) and receiving touchdowns (37).

Houshmandzadeh played in Cincinnati from 2001 to 2008. His career ended in 2011, when he appeared in nine games for the Raiders. That year current Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, himself a minority, coached in Oakland. Jackson and Houshmandzadeh previously had worked together when Jackson was the Bengals' receivers coach in 2004-06.

Officially, Houshmandzadeh's first day was Monday. He will be interning through June 18, when the Bengals end minicamp and break until training camp.

In addition to Houshmandzadeh, former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith was interning the first two weeks of organized team activities. His portion of the program ended last Thursday. He spent his share of time working with the Bengals' pass-rushers during OTAs, backing up Hayes. Since his own retirement after the 2000 season, Smith has been a personal trainer to NFL players.

Beginning in late July, the Bengals will be joined by two other coaches from the fellowship. One of them, like Houshmandzadeh, has a history with the Bengals.

Keith Rucker spent two of his six NFL seasons (1994-95) as a defensive tackle in Cincinnati. He currently is the defensive line coach at Ohio Wesleyan. He'll be joined for two weeks near the start of Bengals training camp by Kelvin Bell, the director of on-campus recruiting for the University of Iowa's football program.

CINCINNATI -- OK, file this under "we probably already knew this," but in an exercise conducted this week by ESPN Insider Mike Sando, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was ranked as having the least-player-friendly contract among current quarterbacks who aren't on rookie deals.

To go along with another column that published earlier in the week, Sando on Friday ranked veteran quarterback deals based upon how appealing they were from a player standpoint. He took out Pro Bowlers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who recently adjusted their contracts in team-friendly ways. So, discounting them and the starters who are still on rookie deals, there were 15 to rank among the pool of quarterbacks.

Where did Dalton check in out of those 15 signal-callers?

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAndy Dalton's contract is big, but very team-friendly if the Bengals wish to part ways with their quarterback.

That's right. Fifteenth.

The rankings came from a combination of factors. Sando took into account each deal's overall average per year (APY), the three-year APY associated with them, true, non-injury-only guarantees, and a variety of factors based upon his conversations with agents and team contract negotiators. As a result, this is a completely subjective ranking. The value of Dalton's deal might not actually be as bad as it appears, but like Sando said, "the cap charges associated with his deal appear unlikely to force the Bengals back to the table."

The way the six-year, up-to-$115-million deal was structured last August, the Bengals are able to walk away from the quarterback each offseason beginning next March if his performance doesn't meet the team's expectations. Each year Dalton is a Bengal, it becomes easier for the Bengals financially to separate themselves from the quarterback.

Next season, for example, the Bengals get a cap savings of $5.9 million if Dalton is released. If he were to be released right now -- a hypothetical that never will occur -- they wouldn't get a cap savings, nor would they take a cap hit. In 2017, though, they will receive a cap savings of $10.9 million of Dalton is let go. Each year that number increases until it hits $17.7 million at the end of the deal in 2020.

It's a structure like that, not to mention the additional escalators that are tied to Dalton's performance, that makes it appear the Bengals have little incentive to negotiate a third contract with Dalton. At this point, he would have to rattle off a string of Pro Bowl seasons and multiple years with playoff victories to likely warrant a more favorable deal in the next five years. Given his play at the start of his career -- inconsistent, yet good enough to make the playoffs four years in a row -- it's hard for now seeing Dalton post the type of numbers that put him at the top of this list in 2020, instead of at the bottom.

As Sando mentioned here, the problem with having pay-as-you-play contracts like Dalton's is that teams must have legitimate replacements squared away when they are ready to make that change. Cincinnati doesn't currently have that on its roster, even if coaches are encouraged by AJ McCarron's potential and Terrelle Pryor's athleticism and desire.

CINCINNATI -- How will the Cincinnati Bengals' rushing attack look this season?

That's one of the more intriguing offseason questions considering how well Jeremy Hill played as a rookie last year.

As 2014 wore on and the injuries mounted in the Bengals' pass-catching ranks, more and more responsibility was placed on Hill's shoulders. Giovani Bernard's health issues contributed to Hill's increased opportunities too. Hill responded well to the expanded role, pacing the NFL in yards gained on the ground the final nine weeks of the season.

In May, in the middle of his first true NFL offseason, Hill is optimistic he will perform even better this year. But with a fully healthy Bernard and a passing attack that's now significantly healthier, he may not be the workhorse back many in Who Dey Nation want him to be.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals leaned heavily on Jeremy Hill down the stretch last season, but that may not be the plan for 2015.

"Obviously there's going to be a balanced attack," Hill said, referencing what he thought offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's plans were for the running game. "I don't think he's got to wear either one of us out, so that way we can make it through all 16 games for a playoff push."

Jackson began last season placing a heavier emphasis on Bernard. Hill was still in his first couple of months on the job as an NFL player, and the coach wanted to bring him along slowly. As well as Hill might have played in training camp, Jackson knew he needed him in peak form by the middle of the season.

Before injuries sidelined Bernard for three games starting in Week 9, he got the bulk of the snaps, carries and passes out of the backfield. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he had 296 snaps through the first eight weeks compared to Hill's 135. Bernard also ran the ball 109 times compared to Hill's 50.

Bernard averaged 15.6 carries and 42.3 snaps per game before Week 9. Hill averaged 7.1 carries and 19.3 snaps. Starting in Week 9, that totally changed.

Hampered by a series of injuries, Bernard only appeared in six games during the last half of the regular season. Across the final nine weeks, Bernard's rushing and participation averages plummeted. He had only 9.8 carries and 30.8 snaps per game in the last half of the year. Hill, meanwhile, nearly tripled the number of times per game he carried the football, and doubled his average snap counts.

"As the year went on, [Jackson] learned our strengths and our weaknesses," Hill said.

Hill's strengths late last season involved breaking timely long runs for touchdowns. Bernard's included playing cleanly. While Hill had five fumbles last season, Bernard had none.

In the latter half of last season, three games best exemplified the balance Jackson may be seeking: Week 13 at Tampa Bay, Week 15 at Cleveland and Week 16 versus Denver.

During those games, Hill and Bernard combined for 5.06 yards per carry. In two of them, the Browns game and the Broncos game, Hill rushed for more than 140 yards. It was also in the 30-0 win over the Browns that Bernard had 79 yards on the ground.

When one running back struggled in those games, the other typically picked up the offense some other way. For example, in the 14-13 win at Tampa Bay, Hill barely hit the 40-yard rushing mark. He ultimately caught four passes to make up for it. In that same game, Bernard only had one catch but averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

"We want to lift ourselves to the next level and earn the respect of this league," Hill said. "We have the guys in the [running back] room to do that."

Almost three more months to see just how balanced that attack will be.

CINCINNATI -- Just before free agency began in March, ESPN Insider and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik praised Ndamukong Suh for being the biggest-name free agent since Reggie White.

Apparently, that got him thinking.

Who were the other players in the league who could warrant consideration as a "32-team free agent?" That is to say, who else in the NFL would be similarly coveted by every single team and still be worth the investment from both a financial and off-field perspective?

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesA.J. Green is considered a valuable receiver, both by the Bengals and former Bucs GM Mark Dominik.

Dominik on Thursday published a list of 24 namesInsider who he believed could be a Suh-like free agent that every team in the league would be willing to pay if it had the money.

A.J. Green appeared on the list.

The Cincinnati Bengals' receiver was praised by Dominik for his ability to run downfield and make difficult catches that other wideouts might struggle corralling. A four-time Pro Bowler, Green certainly has the pedigree to back up his status as a 32-team free agent. He has had more than 1,000 yards receiving every year of his career, including last season, when injuries plagued him and forced him to miss parts of six games.

To make Dominik's list, players couldn't have major durability or red flags that might cause multiple teams to rule out signing them. The players also had to have the ability to perform in any team's scheme. With West Coast -- or, as people in this part of the country are apt to call former Bengals assistant Bill Walsh's scheme, Ohio River -- offenses the rage in the league, Green definitely fits multiple offensive systems.

It's important to note Dominik's list is purely hypothetical. While Green may actually privately be coveted by every team in the league, there is no reason to think he would actually sign elsewhere next offseason.

Green enters this season on his fifth-year option, and will be making $10.2 million before becoming eligible for free agency next spring. He and the Bengals have both reiterated how they want to keep him in stripes, but all parties involved have plenty of time to get a new deal done.

If linebacker Vontaze Burfict was healthy and hadn't been hurt last season (he had microfracture surgery in January), he might be another Bengal to consider for this list. While he's best suited as a Will linebacker in a 4-3 system, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't be effective as an inside linebacker in a 3-4. Burfict simply knows one thing when he's on the field: run to wherever the football is. Considering he was an undrafted free agent who got a nice pay bump when he signed an extension last August, Burfict certainly would be within the price range for other teams.

One other Bengal could draw consideration from Dominik in future seasons. Second-year running back Jeremy Hill performed well as a feature back late his rookie season. His pass-blocking is improving and he can catch passes, as well. With no red flags nor injury concerns, one has to think countless other teams would want to sign him one day in the future, too.

CINCINNATI -- Tyler Eifert learned a valuable yet costly lesson on the very first day of organized team activities (OTAs) last May.

Stay on your feet.

Instinctively, the Cincinnati Bengals tight end dove to the ground during the offseason workout trying to make a play that was better suited for Week 17 of the regular season. A split second after the dive, Eifert realized exactly why he shouldn't have done it.

Right after Eifert hit the ground, safety George Iloka, unable to slow his own momentum in time, fell on his teammate, tearing the labrum in Eifert's left shoulder in the process.

[+] EnlargeTyler Eifert
AP Photo/Nick WassBengals tight end Tyler Eifert is hoping to make it through OTAs healthy after an injury-plagued 2014.

Eifert's shoulder became pain-free for the first time since then just a few weeks ago. The year he effectively lost with an unrelated dislocated elbow and the shoulder's eventual surgery has Eifert approaching this year's OTAs much more carefully.

"It's your instinct [to dive]," Eifert said, asked about reaching for difficult passes, "but it's just not worth it in practice."

Eifert ended up taking just eight snaps last season. His year was cut short by the dislocated elbow at the end of a promising quarter in the season opener. On those eight snaps, Eifert caught three passes for 37 yards and had just put the Bengals in goal-line territory when he went down.

The recovery from the elbow injury took a little longer than originally expected, so once it appeared late last season that he might not get his conditioning back up in time to make much of a difference if he returned, he and the trainers decided it was best to place him on injured reserve and fix the shoulder once and for all. Before the December surgery, Eifert had fought through pain since last May in order to participate in limited capacity in various offseason and preseason practices. It was enough to get him to the opener before the elbow dislocation.

"It's going to make us better," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said of Eifert's return this year.

In addition to getting back Eifert, who has been limited by injuries for much of his first two seasons, the Bengals also will have receiver Marvin Jones healthy again after his year-long layoff with foot and ankle issues. Receiver James Wright also will be back after spending the last few weeks of last season recovering from a knee injury suffered Week 13 at Tampa Bay.

While Eifert participated in OTAs Tuesday, he was limited to only 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 work. He didn't go through the 11-on-11 drills, allowing H-back Ryan Hewitt and rookies C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, Matt Lengel, Jake Murphy and John Peters to get action.

"We're just kind of taking it day to day, just easing back into things," Eifert said. "My shoulder and elbow are cleared 100 percent, but I'm just getting back into things gradually.

"I'll be out there soon enough."

Given Eifert's scare last spring, this year is all about precaution for the Bengals. Offensive tackle Andre Smith, who is months removed from having a triceps surgically repaired, didn't participate in 11-on-11 activity Tuesday, either.

"We're out there going 100 percent, but we practice smart," Eifert said. "Coach [Marvin Lewis] always says we've got to get to the starting gate healthy but also get our work in at the same time. We're just being smart about it."

CINCINNATI -- It came as little surprise Tuesday seeing Vontaze Burfict open the Cincinnati Bengals' organized team activities (OTA) practices on a side field and without a helmet.

Still overcoming a knee injury that required microfracture surgery in January, Burfict has been in rehab for more than five months. At the time, doctors expressed little optimism that he would be able to do much by the time training camp started in July.

That still appears to be the case.

"Vontaze will be in rehab all the way through the summer," coach Marvin Lewis said. "So he's got a long ways to go."

Asked if that meant Burfict could miss the start of training camp, Lewis coyly responded by saying the prolific tackler would be back once he was cleared medically.

"It's like Marvin Jones," Lewis said, referring to the Bengals receiver who also missed Tuesday's practice after being hurt the past year. "When they get here and prove that they're ready, then they'll prove that they're ready."

Unlike Burfict, Jones said Tuesday he was close to returning. Burfict looked anything but close to returning during the 10 minutes of conditioning he endured while reporters were present. He walked with a hobble and generally looked uncomfortable after he ran.

"That's a surgery that takes a bit," Lewis said. "He's trying to beat the odds and [recover] quicker, but he's got a lot of work to do."

Burfict only played in parts of five games last season before getting lost for the year with a knee injury. It occurred in Week 8 against Baltimore when Burfict was trying to avoid a low block. He came off for a couple of plays and then went back out on the field to assist Cincinnati's defense in a dramatic goal-line stand in the opening half of the AFC North contest.

Along with the knee issue, Burfict missed parts of other games due to head and neck injuries.

The 2013 Pro Bowler had only 29 tackles last season after leading the league with 171 stops the year before.

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