AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
It's the time of year when NFL predictions and prognostications are en vogue, and they span the gamut. Paper Super Bowl champions are crowned. As are paper MVPs and paper rookies of the year. Paper (or, in this case, digital) division champions are declared, too.
None of it is official.
This week, as ESPN continues rolling out its season previews, a power panel of men and women who cover the league got together and made their picks for division winners, playoff entrants and end-of-season champions. Yours truly was among the group. You can take a look at my preseason selections at the link above by clicking on the "AFC Reporters" page. In addition to AFC reporters, ESPN.com's NFL Nation NFC reporters also participated in the voting, as did national writers and other contributors to the website.
As you can see, the Cincinnati Bengals were declared consensus AFC North victors by the panel. I was among those who voted them division winners.
Earlier this summer, I expressed some doubt, particularly because it appeared the rest of the division was doing appropriate re-tooling to make a repeat tougher than I had previously imagined. Now that I've seen the Bengals in training camp and watched some of the other teams in the preseason, I do believe Cincinnati has without a doubt the best team in the AFC North. While that may be the case, I still believe Pittsburgh will be a real challenge, meaning the Week 17 finale between the Bengals and Steelers could help decide the division. At the very least, the game could have an impact on where Cincinnati gets seeded in the postseason.
Yes, postseason. I've said it before and will continue saying it: The Bengals this season will do something they've never done in team history. They will reach the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Will they finally win a playoff game for the first time since 1990? I believe so. Will they win enough playoff games to get back to Arizona for this year's Super Bowl? Eh, I'm not sold on that being the case just yet.
... But I'm not saying a Super Bowl berth is impossible.
You can read my full regular-season game-by-game predictions from Tuesday morning here. The team I current have as AFC champion, New England, hosts the Bengals in one of their biggest games in Week 5. If the Bengals can come out of their bye and steal a Sunday night victory on the road at an expectedly hostile Gillette Stadium, then the 10-6 record I predicted will be too low. If they win that game, they ought to go on a run that won't just win them the division, but they could go on a run that could actually get them back to the desert in February.
Regardless, we do know this: The Bengals are favored to win the AFC North, and at this point, there's no reason the defending division champs shouldn't be.
ESPN.com Cincinnati Bengals reporter Coley Harvey makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Baltimore Ravens
Opening weekend hasn't been kind to the Bengals in recent years. Five of Cincinnati's past six Week 1 games have ended in losses, including their past two road openers at Baltimore. Along with those ominous first-game figures, the date Sept. 7 has been relevant throughout the franchise's history, too. The Bengals have never won on the date, going 0-4 all time. Combine all of that with the fact the Bengals are playing at a venue they've struggled at recently -- four straight losses at M&T Bank Stadium -- and a close Week 1 loss appears likely. Prediction: Loss
Week 2: Atlanta Falcons
Disappointed by their play at Baltimore, the Bengals will rally at home against a Falcons defense that's still finding some of its identity at all levels. Expect quarterback Andy Dalton to respond with a performance reminiscent of his 8-for-8 outing in the preseason home opener against the Jets. If he does and the offense can limit turnovers, the Bengals should come away with a big win. Prediction: Win
Week 3: Tennessee Titans
The Titans aren't as polished at quarterback as the Bengals and they enter the season still searching for help in certain special-teams areas. With Cincinnati back home and playing a franchise it has beaten three of the past four times, another pre-bye week victory should come. Prediction: Win
Week 5: at New England Patriots
The Bengals eked out a one-touchdown win over the Patriots in last year's close, defense-inspired contest in Cincinnati. This time around, expect New England, buoyed by the bright lights of a national stage and a raucous home crowd, to come away with a close win. In his regular-season debut, receiver Marvin Jones should make a difference for the Bengals' offense, but Tom Brady will prove just unbeatable enough. Since the Bengals were one of the few defenses that flat-out embarrassed Brady last year, snapping his 52-game touchdown streak in the 13-6 win, look for Brady to try hard to exact some revenge. Prediction: Loss
Week 6: Carolina Panthers
Back home against the Panthers, the Bengals will try to move beyond their .500 start and generate some post-bye momentum. If the Bengals are going to position themselves for a midseason run, this would be the week to do it. Carolina's numerous losses on offense this offseason won't make it quite as competitive as it was last season. Prediction: Win
Week 7: at Indianapolis Colts
Cincinnati has won the past two meetings with the Colts, and should take this one, too. Last December, the Bengals routed Indianapolis in a 42-28 game that was much more lopsided than the final score. Andrew Luck struggled with a fast, constantly blitzing defense. More of the same should come this year. With Dalton & Co. finally hitting an offensive stride in the middle of the season, don't be surprised if Cincinnati cracks 40 once again. Prediction: Win
Week 8: Baltimore Ravens
With the playoff race just starting to heat up by this time of year, the Bengals know that a win could put them somewhere in the upper reaches of the AFC North. This is only the second division game, but all division games matter. Prediction: Win
Week 9: Jacksonville Jaguars
Although the Jags made noted improvements in the offseason and Blake Bortles could make them a contender in the AFC South, this trip to Cincinnati won't go well for the upstarts. The Bengals should be rolling at this point in the year. Prediction: Win
Week 10: Cleveland Browns
Johnny Manziel could very well be the Browns' starter by this point, making this Thursday night game even more of a media spectacle than it already will be. The important midseason division game is one the Bengals have to win, and one that could seal Dalton's claim on being a more improved quarterback in big-game, pressure-packed scenarios. Entering this season, Dalton is 10-17 with a 24.2 QBR in division games, playoff games and Sunday, Monday and Thursday night games. He's 2-4 in prime time, specifically. Against a good Cleveland defense and the Browns' rookie quarterback, Dalton will shine. Prediction: Win
Week 11: at New Orleans Saints
This game begins a string of three straight road games for a Bengals team that could be banged-up by now. It will have been eight weeks since the off week, and the arduous nature of the schedule will begin catching up to Cincinnati against a good opponent that has an even better home-field advantage. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: at Houston Texans
With their five-game winning streak snapped the week before, the Bengals will be looking to rebound against a team that could still be looking for solid quarterback play. All Cincinnati has to hope for this week is the defense plays a good game and the offensive line keeps Dalton upright against an aggressive defensive line. That should happen. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Carolina expected to be down and the Falcons going through their own potential struggles, Tampa Bay could make waves in one of the more wide-open divisions in the league. The additions of former Bengals Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins this offseason gives this game another intriguing storyline. Expect the home team to win a close game. Prediction: Loss
Week 14: Pittsburgh Steelers
In a later-than-usual home game against the division rivals, the Bengals hope to kick off a series of division wins. Three of their last four games are against AFC North foes, two against Pittsburgh. Being at home will make a difference. Prediction: Win
Week 15: at Cleveland Browns
Regardless of which quarterback is under center for the Browns, the Bengals could struggle this particular week. They've lost two of their past three games at Cleveland and are playing this one later than any of the other three. Mid-December in Northeast Ohio typically means snow and brutal cold. This could be one of those typical AFC North slugfests the Bengals have been good at in recent years. Still ... Prediction: Loss
Week 16: Denver Broncos
The biggest nondivision game of the season, a win in this Monday night game would put the Bengals at the forefront of the playoff-race conversation. But Peyton Manning's offense is too good and it has played too well on the big stage in recent seasons to walk away with a loss here. Dalton's mission will be to avoid forcing turnovers, but even that might not be enough. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: at Pittsburgh Steelers
Five of Cincinnati's past seven games in the Steel City have resulted in losses. There are few reasons to believe this contest won't go similarly. If the Bengals have clinched the division and the Steelers are still trying to get in the playoffs, Pittsburgh could win this one. If the teams are both trying to either close out playoff berths or a division championship, you'll see top-notch play on both sides. Banking on that being the case, Cincinnati wins to get to 10-6. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 10-6
Same safety group: After signing veteran Danieal Manning in the offseason, the Bengals are going to end up entering the regular season in the exact same spot they were when the offseason began: with Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams backing up Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. Manning may have had versatility as a returner, and he may also have had some veteran savvy, but Williams still has promise and upside. He also has special-teams coverage ability -- a trait more valued on a team that already was chock full of possible return specialists. Mays also has potential and brings the added dimension of being able to play linebacker in certain nickel situations.
Hamilton the odd WR out: One of the more intriguing storylines to track this preseason had to do with the battle for the final wide receiver spot. Former practice-squad player Cobi Hamilton was slugging it out with rookie James Wright and veteran Brandon Tate. With bouts of inconsistency this summer, Hamilton appeared to be the odd man out, and on Saturday, he was released. Although he still could be added back to the practice squad, Hamilton was cut while the other two stuck. Wright's penalties on special teams in games this preseason concern coaches, but his upside outweighs them, Lewis said.
What's next? For 10 of the 13 players who were waived, potentially the practice squad. Lewis didn't rule out that many of them may make it on that list, which will be announced Sunday. For rookie quarterback AJ McCarron, the next six weeks will be filled with rehab and position meetings as he participates as part of the non-football injury list. He's unable to practice with the team until Week 7. Similarly, the Bengals are going to be monitoring rookie offensive guard Trey Hopkins, who was placed on injured reserve Saturday. They have until Tuesday to announce whether he will be on IR all year or if he can be IR'd with a designation to return after Week 9.
Bengals' moves: Terminated -- RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Danieal Manning, OT Will Svitek. Waived -- LB Brandon Joiner, QB Tyler Wilson, DT LaKendrick Ross, DT Devon Still, OG Trevor Robinson, WR Colin Lockett, H-back Orson Charles, FB Nikita Whitlock, RB James Wilder Jr., CB Victor Hampton, CB Onterio McCalebb, WR Cobi Hamilton, OT Dan France, DT David King, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Dontay Moch. Suspended -- CB Chris Lewis-Harris. Non-Football Injury List -- QB AJ McCarron. Injured Reserve -- OG Trey Hopkins. Waived/Injury Settlement -- CB Lavelle Westbrooks.
Those reports were all accurate.
In addition, the Bengals waived offensive tackle Dan France, cornerbacks Onterio McCalebb and Victor Hampton, receiver Cobi Hamilton, defensive tackle David King, defensive ends Dontay Moch and Sam Montgomery, fullback Nikita Whitlock and running back James Wilder Jr. All the players who were waived are eligible to join the team's practice squad, which will be named Sunday.
The Bengals expect to use all 10 practice squad spots.
Along with those moves, the Bengals also had a series of others to get down to the 53-man active roster. Offensive guard Trey Hopkins, an undrafted rookie free agent from Texas, was placed on the injured reserve with a leg injury. Hopkins was carted off the field in the fourth quarter of the Bengals' Week 3 preseason game at Arizona. Hopkins joins linebacker J.K. Schaffer on the IR.
In a corresponding move, seventh-round cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks, who cleared waivers this week after getting a thumb injury, was released with an injury settlement Saturday.
Cincinnati made one other injury-list designation when it put quarterback AJ McCarron on the non-football injury list with a shoulder issue that has plagued him since arriving in May. It means the Bengals will keep two quarterbacks, the same as they typically do. As part of the NFI list, McCarron can remain with the team for rehab and meetings but can't practice until Week 7. At that time, he will begin a window of eligibility to return to practice under a roster exemption, if medically cleared.
Additionally, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris went on the suspension reserve list after violating the league's substance abuse policy in July. He will miss the first two games.
Here is the complete list of moves made Saturday:
S Danieal Manning
OT Will Svitek
Waived (but eligible for practice squad)
OT Dan France
OL Trevor Robinson
RB James Wilder Jr.
FB Nikita Whitlock
H-back Orson Charles
WR Cobi Hamilton
WR Colin Lockett
DT David King
DT Devon Still
DE Dontay Moch
DE Sam Montgomery
CB Onterio McCalebb
CB Victor Hampton
Moved to Injured Reserve
OG Trey Hopkins (leg)
Given Injury Settlement
CB Lavelle Westbrooks (thumb)
Suspended (for 2 games)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
Moved to Non-Football Injury List
QB AJ McCarron (shoulder)
A former second-round pick out of Penn State, Still was part of the same 2012 rookie class that brought linebacker Vontaze Burfict to Cincinnati as an undrafted free agent. Charles was a fourth-round Bengals selection in that same draft. He came to Cincinnati as a tight end but was moved to H-back last season.
In his two seasons with the Bengals, Still appeared in 18 games and recorded just 21 tackles. He also had one half sack, which came his rookie year.
Injuries overshadowed much of Still's career with the Bengals, including two major injuries he fought through in 2013. After bouncing back from a dislocated elbow, he suffered a back injury that held him out of the last two games of the regular season, as well as the Bengals' opening-round playoff loss to the Chargers. This offseason, Still underwent back surgery to repair a ruptured disc. He returned in time for training camp.
Still was hopeful that he'd contribute this season, going as far as telling me last week that he felt in the best health he had been in for quite some time.
Bengals coaches apparently didn't quite see Still's playing prospects as well as he did. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther intimated ahead of last week's third preseason game at Arizona that he wanted to see more from Still.
"I still think the fourth tackle spot's kind of open right now," Guenther said. "So hopefully somebody can take the lead on that one."
That "somebody" should have been Still, the backup to Domata Peko who played at times alongside fellow 2012 draft pick Brandon Thompson. With Geno Atkins sidelined with an ACL injury last season, Thompson stepped up and filled in admirably. He continued that strong play this preseason.
Still presumably will be replaced by Christo Bilukidi. Rookie Ryan Hewitt has been Charles' challenger all preseason, and is his expected replacement.
The news on Still getting cut has some poor timing for the lineman who is going through personal hardship right now. His 4-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed earlier this offseason with a serious pediatric cancer. Just last weekend she moved from Delaware to Cincinnati, where she will be almost exclusively treated at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
Charles had his own off-field situation this offseason. In March, he was arrested for waving a gun at a motorist in Kentucky while he traveled along Interstate 75. His legal proceedings are still pending.
Along with Still and Charles, the Bengals have also reportedly cut ties with offensive lineman Trevor Robinson and receiver Colin Lockett. With cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris set to begin serving a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, the Bengals -- as of this posting -- are now in need of cutting another 13 players to get to the magical number of 53 by Saturday's 4 p.m. ET deadline.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson, defensive tackle LaKendrick Ross and linebacker Brandon Joiner were released as the Bengals made their first few cuts from the current 75-man roster. By 4 p.m. Saturday, all 32 NFL teams have to get down to 53 players on their active rosters. Wilson, Ross and Joiner could qualify for the practice squad, but until all the other cuts are made, it's unclear exactly how the practice squad will shake out.
Cincinnati's roster now sits at 71.
Wilson was signed during the preseason following No. 2 quarterback Jason Campbell's elbow injury during the preseason opener at Kansas City. Wilson has since appeared in two games. He played in the Week 2 preseason game against the Jets and got extensive second-half action in Thursday night's preseason finale against the Colts. He was 3-of-5 for 73 yards. The bulk of his yards came on a 50-yard touchdown pass to Cobi Hamilton, another roster-bubble player who was one of Wilson's receivers when the two played college ball at Arkansas.
Hamilton will learn his fate Saturday.
As for Ross, the Bengals are cutting ties for now with a 6-foot-5, 360-pound player who has raw athletic skills. He was too unpolished to make the Bengals' 53-man roster, or any team's 53-man roster. Before impressing coaches at a private workout before training camp, Ross had played only one year of high school football and one year of college football at a small school in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Ross had one tackle Thursday and appeared on 23 defensive plays.
Joiner played 29 defensive snaps and was part of 15 special teams plays in the Bengals' 35-7 win.
In addition to these four, the Bengals also cut several others earlier this week, including backup quarterback Matt Scott, kicker Quinn Sharp and linebacker J.K. Schaffer. Per the rules of the waived/injured designation, Schaffer and fellow hurt cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks were able to rejoin the team on its injured reserve Thursday. Both cleared waivers without being claimed.
Are we shocked the Cincinnati Bengals duo is so highly regarded? Are we stunned? Did we really expect anything more?
No. No. And no.
Respectively, Green and Atkins were ranked the ninth- and 10th-best players on their side of the ball. Only eight players were ahead of Green, including the top overall offensive player, Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson, and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Atkins was surpassed by nine other defensive players including Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the player tabbed in this survey as the top current defender in the league.
Atkins actually fell to 10th after being ranked seventh last year. Still, it's rather amazing he still was included in the top 10 after missing half of last season with an ACL injury. That's a testament to his past success and the optimism many share this season as he comes off the serious injury. He's set to open the season next weekend with the Bengals when they travel to Baltimore. Green remained at No. 9, where he was the year before.
Green and Atkins joined linebacker Vontaze Burfict (No. 32, defense), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (No. 86, defense), running back Giovani Bernard (No. 88, offense) and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth (No. 92, offense) as Bengals to appear on the countdown. Only two players in that group haven't been to the Pro Bowl, Bernard and Dunlap. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict attended his first Pro Bowl at the end of his second season last year.
All but two of those players also have negotiated big second deals with the Bengals. Green and Bernard are the only ones who have not. Bernard can't start speaking with the Bengals about a contract extension until after next season. Green and his representatives can begin those conversations now, but it's not likely he'll receive a long-term deal for some time. Earlier this year the Bengals exercised their fifth-year option on him, meaning he's slated to make more than $10 million next season after playing out the final year of his original four-year rookie contract this season.
Green and Atkins have been among the best at their positions in recent seasons. An NFL.com survey of players earlier this year actually considered Green the No. 2 receiver in the league behind Johnson. If you classify Graham as a tight end and not a receiver, the same holds true in the #NFLRank survey.
The #NFLRank series, which debuted last Monday, ranked the Top 100 players in the league. Players were separated into offense and defense.
Earlier this summer, many of the people behind ESPN's NFL coverage, including myself, made individual rankings for the overall project.
You can read the full series here.
Below are blurbs from the series on Green and Atkins:
Green was the most-targeted receiver in the NFL last year, leading the league with 178 targets. Green's eight touchdown receptions on passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield last season were the most in the NFL.
-- ESPN Stats & Information (@ESPNStatsInfo)
Despite missing nearly half of last season, Atkins leads all defensive tackles with 29 sacks since he entered the league in 2010. Atkins is the first Bengals defender selected to consecutive Pro Bowls since David Fulcher (1988-90).
-- ESPN Stats & Information (@ESPNStatsInfo)
As we've been mentioning, it wasn't much of a surprise. The goal in the finale was to remain healthy and spare the contributing players as much as possible. That definitely happened.
The only starter who actually took the field for the first drives was rookie center Russell Bodine. As the only rookie starter on the team, he was being trotted out to receive a little extra playing time before the regular season . Along with him, rookie running back Jeremy Hill saw serious minutes. Hill might not be a true starter in the official sense, but he should expect to receive significant playing time this season.
As you'll see below, Hill was on the field for 38 plays. Long enough to rush 20 times for 90 yards and catch six passes for 63. Coach Marvin Lewis said the objective was for Hill to get used to playing a full game. Because once the regular season begins the hope is to give him several touches a game behind fellow back Giovani Bernard.
Here's a snapshot of Cincinnati's snap counts from Week 4:
OFFENSE (56 plays)
WR Cobi Hamilton (52), OT Will Svitek (48), OT Marshall Newhouse (47), OT Tanner Hawkinson (44), WR Colin Lockett (42), OL Mike Pollak (39), RB Jeremy Hill (38), QB Jason Campbell (34), WR Dane Sanzenbacher (31), C Russell Bodine (31), OG T.J. Johnson (31), H-back Ryan Hewitt (28), TE Alex Smith (28), C Trevor Robinson (26), H-back Orson Charles (24), FB Nikita Whitlock (23), QB Tyler Wilson (23), RB James Wilder Jr. (19), OT Dan France (19).
DEFENSE (61 plays)
LB Marquis Flowers (58), S Shawn Williams (55), S Danieal Manning (52), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (51), CB Chris Lewis-Harris (49), DE Will Clarke (49), DT David King (44), S Taylor Mays (43), LB Jayson DiManche (39), DT Christo Bilukidi (38), CB Victor Hampton (37), DE Margus Hunt (33), DE Dontay Moch (32), LB Brandon Joiner (29), DE Sam Montgomery (28), DT LaKendrick Ross (23), CB Onterio McCalebb (13), LB Vincent Rey (13), DT Brandon Thompson (5), LB Sean Porter (2).
SPECIAL TEAMS (22 plays)
Hamilton (10), Svitek (5), Newhouse (1), Hawkinson (5), Lockett (10), Pollak (4), Hill (4), Sanzenbacher (8), Bodine (1), Johnson (1), Hewitt (13), Smith (7), Robinson (4), Charles (18), Whitlock (11), Wilder (12), France (5), Flowers (13), Williams (12), Manning (10), Kirkpatrick (9), Lewis-Harris (11), Clarke (2), King (4), Mays (11), DiManche (15), Bilukidi (1), Hampton (12), Moch (14), Joiner (15), Montgomery (14), Ross (1), McCalebb (13), Rey (4), Porter (4), K Mike Nugent (11), P Kevin Huber (11), LS Clark Harris (11).
"I told Troy [Blackburn] I'll be back in 2016," Burfict told ESPN.com in the Bengals' locker room after Thursday night's preseason finale. "Obviously they trust me, and like I've said, I want to be a leader of the defense. We have great things to come for the next three years while I'm here."
Blackburn is one of the Bengals' two vice presidents. He's also the husband of executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the daughter of president Mike Brown. Brown's father, Paul Brown, founded the team in 1968 and owned it until his death in 1991.
With Mike Brown beginning to transition out of the team's daily operations, the Blackburns -- most notably Katie -- have been behind some of the more recent big-salary moves the Bengals have made. It was under Katie Blackburn's guidance that Burfict's extension, as well as extensions for quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, were drawn.
Burfict said he liked the way the contract was set up.
"It's front-loaded," he said, nodding slowly, "and I'll make a lot of money in the next six months."
He clearly wasn't trying to brag, but he was telling the truth. He stands to make $7.6 million this season, with additional bonus money coming in March. Within the next six months, he'll make $10.8 million. As an undrafted free agent who signed out of Arizona State just two years ago, Burfict had been scheduled to make a little more than $570,000 this season. He certainly received quite the pay day.
As we pointed out Wednesday, you'll be hard-pressed to find too many other players make that type of raise after only two years in part because of the way the new collective bargaining agreement is set up. A player basically has to follow Burfict's path -- be undrafted, but perform really, really well right away.
"Me getting a new contract in two years was huge, and it's rare," Burfict said. "But I've put in a lot of work and I feel like I deserve it."
Burfict has 298 career tackles. Of those, a league-leading 171 came in last season's Pro Bowl campaign.
The coach just wanted Hunt to dominate.
And that's exactly what he did.
Thanks to Hunt's focus on finishing his rushes, he didn't have to worry about that happening.
"You know, he should dominate in a game like this and he did it," Lewis, the Bengals' 12th-year head coach, said. "That's what you want to see. You want to see him dominate. That's the confidence he needs, the opportunity, the chance to critique himself."
Hunt ended the game with four tackles -- all for loss. Three of his stops resulted in sacks. One of the sacks, the last one, came as a blocker was draped all over him. Despite the offensive lineman's valiant attempt at trying to keep Hunt off his quarterback, the second-year defensive end finished the play off and secured the sack.
"A lot of guys can do good things in practice, but you have to go ahead and finish the rush [in a game], so you can kind of build through your repertoire of moves and stuff," Lewis said.
In the days that immediately followed the Bengals' loss at Kansas City during the preseason opener, Hunt emphasized how important finishing was for an end like himself. He didn't feel good about the way he cut short a few of his rushes. At least one of them could have been a sack had he not slowed his momentum so soon, he said.
Part of the problem back then had to do with the fact that Hunt and the Bengals' other defensive linemen were still looking to tap into that final bit of early-year recklessness that can sometimes be hard to showcase coming off an eight-month period in which they haven't been able to tackle. That problem got exacerbated when the linemen became used to pulling up on sack opportunities during training camp. When practicing against Cincinnati's offense, particularly the first-team unit Hunt was seeing so regularly early in camp, they weren't allowed to touch the quarterback.
They still aren't in practices.
In turn, bad habits can develop and bleed over into games. That's what happened four weeks ago with Hunt, and it's not at all what happened Thursday. He made sure to finish those plays. Hunt is confident he'll continue finishing once the regular season begins next weekend.
"It's just about speed, speed and trying to get it on the edge and trying to be disruptive," Hunt said.
CINCINNATI -- In their final preseason game last year, the Cincinnati Bengals were forced to look on as promising outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was loaded onto a cart, sidelined before the end of the first quarter with a season-ending shoulder injury.
It was far from what coaches had in mind when they trotted out the player who had been expected to be their starting nickel linebacker.
Clearly, they learned from that experience. When the Bengals took the field Thursday night for this year's preseason finale, they did so with virtually an all-backup offense and defense. The Bengals pulled all their starters in favor of other players who are trying to earn spots on the roster before Saturday's 53-man roster limit goes into effect.
Health was the top priority for the Bengals against the Colts on Thursday. The result of the game was secondary.
By the way, Cincinnati won, 35-7.
Here are a few more thoughts on the Bengals' preseason finale:
- Lamur wasn't the only starter who began last year's preseason finale. Every other first-string offensive and defensive player was on the field on the first drives when the Bengals hosted the Colts in late-August 2013. This time around, only rookie starting center Russell Bodine received action. Every other starter on both sides of the ball rested and took the night off. In addition to Bodine, rookie running back Jeremy Hill also got extended playing time. While he isn't a starter, Hill is still viewed as a player who ought to be a regular contributor this season. He certainly was the Bengals' most-used back Thursday, receiving 26 touches. He rushed 20 times for 90 yards and caught six passes for 70 yards. He also came up a half-yard short of a touchdown.
- It was surprising that Hill remained in the game in the third quarter after he injured an elbow while diving -- unsuccessfully -- for a first down near the end of the second quarter. After some evaluation on the sideline and at halftime, he came back on the field on Bengals' first offensive drive of the third quarter. It wasn't until the end of that drive that James Wilder Jr. came in for consistent game action. He appeared in two just plays in the game previous to that. I can't think of many reasons as to why Cincinnati stuck with Hill for so long. As it is, they're fortunate to have avoided serious injury with him.
- In addition to Hill's rather impressive stat line, quarterback Jason Campbell had a strong one, too, against an all-backup Colts defense. Campbell was 13-for-16 with 123 yards, a 1-yard touchdown pass and a sack. His replacement, Tyler Wilson, had a 50-yard touchdown pass at the start of the fourth quarter to Cobi Hamilton, his former college teammate. It was an important catch for Hamilton, who enters Saturday's cuts still on the roster bubble.
- Cincinnati's starting defense was dominant this preseason, holding opponents to only four field goals. It didn't allow a touchdown. The reserves tried hard to match their first-string teammates Thursday, and almost did. It wasn't until the final nine minutes of the game that the group allowed its first score of the contest. Otherwise, the back end of the defense looked about as good as the front half has much of camp. Second-year defensive end Margus Hunt played a key role in that, finishing with four tackles and three sacks. After struggling at the start of the preseason with finishing plays, he made sure he did against Indianapolis' reserve linemen and quarterbacks. His last sack came as he was simultaneously fighting through a block.
Burfict's guaranteed money breaks down into two figures. First, he received $3.1 million Wednesday in the form of a signing bonus. On top of that, the remaining $3.8 million will be awarded Saturday in the form of a roster bonus. In addition to that bonus money, Burfict also will bring in a base salary of $700,000 this season, bringing the full amount of his Year 1 salary to $7.6 million.
On the fifth day of the new league year next March, he'll also make a roster bonus of nearly $3.2 million, meaning he'll be awarded just shy of $10.8 million in the next six months.
Not bad for a former undrafted free agent who, before the extension, had been set to make just more than $570,000 before bonuses this year.
Across the life of Burfict's contract extension, his base salary figure will increase. Next season, he'll be in seven-figure territory. After making a $700,000 base salary in 2014, he'll make $1,050,000 in 2015, $2,850,000 in 2016, and $3,750,000 in 2017 when the deal ends. In addition to those base salaries and workout bonuses, Burfict also has the chance to make additional money each year starting in 2015 thanks to Pro Bowl escalators.
Burfict's 2015 Pro Bowl escalator has a max level of $175,000. In 2016, it's $350,000. In 2017, it goes up to $525,000. With the escalators factored in, Burfict's total cap figure in the new deal exceeds $20 million, just like what was previously reported.
He'll average $6.3 million per year on this second deal, putting him just barely inside the top-20 earning linebackers in the league. Dallas' Sean Lee, Miami's Dannell Ellerbe and Chicago's Lance Briggs are just ahead of Burfict, earning $7 million per year on their current contracts. Just below Burfict are Chad Greenway ($6.3 million), Connor Barwin ($6 million) and Karlos Dansby ($6 million).
Below is a year-by-year breakdown of Burfict's new contract:
Vontaze Burfict is one of 12 Bengals who were listed on the "not expected to play" list that was announced about an hour and a half before kickoff. The third-year player suffered a hamstring injury in last Sunday's preseason game at Arizona. He was part of just six plays.
Earlier this week, Burfict told reporters he expected to be fully healthy in time for the Bengals' regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Baltimore.
So don't panic, Bengals fans. There's very little reason to read into his absence Thursday night. Coaches clearly know what the Pro Bowl linebacker can do, and have no reason to unnecessarily risk putting him in harm's way in the finale. Besides, the goal in this game is to keep key players as healthy as possible. He probably wouldn't play much if he were healthy enough, anyway.
Along with Burfict, rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard, tight end Tyler Eifert and three running backs -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman -- also are not expected to play Thursday. Dennard hurt his hip in the Week 2 game against the Jets. He's been rehabbing since then. He also missed the Week 3 preseason game at Arizona.
Eifert has a shoulder injury that has bothered him since before the spring. He has been touch and go all preseason, but hopes to be healthy enough to play in the opener. Green-Ellis has an undisclosed issue, although he was sick last week and missed several practices. He also didn't participate in Tuesday's workout; the only one the Bengals had this week. Burkhead's injury dates back to the Week 2 game when he was knocked out with a knee injury. Peerman left Sunday's game with an undisclosed injury, although it appeared he hurt a hip when he was slammed to the ground hard late in the contest.
Here is the full list of Bengals who aren't expected to play Thursday:
QB AJ McCarron
CB Darqueze Dennard
RB Cedric Peerman
RB Rex Burkhead
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
LB Vontaze Burfict
OT Andre Smith
OG Trey Hopkins
DT Devon Still
WR Marvin Jones
TE Tyler Eifert
WR James Wright
QB Tyler Wilson. Just like Campbell, the emphasis for Wilson will be to eliminate turnovers. The Bengals offense did an admirable job of that Sunday at Arizona. They didn't have a single interception or fumble. They retained possession, all while battling horrid field position all night. Wilson hasn't played since the Week 2 loss to the Jets after suffering a concussion late in that game. Now that he's been healthy enough to practice, look for extended action from Wilson, assuming he has been cleared to play. Not all of the players on concussion protocol this preseason have made it on the field. Offensive tackle Andre Smith still hasn't played despite practicing the past two weeks.
RB James Wilder Jr. With a battered and bruised running back group, the Bengals probably will turn to Wilder much earlier than they have at other points this preseason. Look for the undrafted rookie free agent to get heavy action in the second half as Cincinnati tries to save second-round draft pick Jeremy Hill's legs. He'll probably see extensive action in the first and second halves as the Bengals try to ease starter Giovani Bernard through a very non-taxing evening. Remember, the goal is to keep everyone healthy, particularly the starters. Since that is the case, Wilder ought to see significant action since Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis may be missing in action. All three were held out of Tuesday's practice, the only one the Bengals had this short week.
DT Christo Bilukidi. While I'm still not sure Bilukidi will end up earning a spot on the 53-man roster later this week, he's still a player worth paying attention to. Coaches have liked some of what they've seen out of the backup defensive lineman. He has helped contribute to the Bengals' pass rush when he has been in the games, even coming away with one sack through the first three preseason contests. He has three total tackles in his appearances. On Sunday, Bilukidi was on the field for 23 plays, one of the higher snap counts of the team's reserve linemen. This will be his last chance to prove where he belongs: on the 53-man roster, on the practice squad, or released for another team to grab.
DE Sam Montgomery. Like Bilukidi, Montgomery has spent the preseason lining up both at tackle and end as the team tries to test out places it could use him if he makes the team. Also like Bilukidi, I'm not high on Montgomery making the final roster, but he does have tools that could be useful for the Bengals' pass rush. A lineman who has stand-up end ability, Montgomery could give Cincinnati's defense an added dimension from its standard rushes. Dontay Moch also has some of that same playing style and ability. It will be interesting to see how both fare when the roster gets set Saturday.
LB Sean Porter. One of the more impressive players on the back of the depth chart, Porter has caught the coaches' attention now that he's had a chance to play. Placed on injured reserve all last year, the former Texas A&M standout is just now getting an opportunity to show what he can do. The fourth-round 2013 draft pick filled in for Vontaze Burfict in practices last week when the starting weakside linebacker was out sick. He also capped Sunday night's 19-13 win with a final-play interception. He could be a special-teams addition to this year's 53.