AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals open training camp on July 29 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Here's a starting lineup projection:
Quarterback (Andy Dalton): Dalton has been the Bengals' Week 1 starter the past five seasons, and each of those years has culminated with the team in the playoffs. Yes, AJ McCarron was great in relief late last year, but a healthy Dalton will be given QB1 duties as he tries to get the Bengals off to a second straight 8-0 start.
Running back (Jeremy Hill): Giovani Bernard may have been given a shiny new contract this offseason, but that should have minimal impact on who will be the first running back used in the Bengals' backfield rotation. Despite lower-than-expected production last year, Hill remains the Bengals' bellcow back. That said, his end-of-season production likely will be comparable with Bernard's.
Receiver (A.J. Green): The sixth-year receiver is a five-time Pro Bowler for a reason. He isn't leaving the Bengals' starting lineup anytime soon.
Receiver (Brandon LaFell): LaFell has the best chance of being the Bengals' No. 2 receiver alongside Green. Sure, the seven-year veteran didn't play as he'd have hoped in an injury-affected 2015 season in New England, but coaches like him and believe he will be back to the 2014 form that helped get the Patriots another Super Bowl.
Receiver (Tyler Boyd): Much of the Bengals' projected Week 1 lineup depends upon the formation they come out in at the start of their opener against the Jets. But assuming they have a three-receiver set, the rookie Boyd appears poised to form an explosive trio with Green and LaFell. Like the others, he can line up at any receiver position.
Tight end (Tyler Kroft): Later in the season, Tyler Eifert will be the player listed here. But with uncertainty about the timeline concerning Eifert's return from offseason ankle surgery, Kroft gets the nod. In limited action relieving an injured Eifert last season, Kroft had 11 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Left tackle (Andrew Whitworth): The Pro Bowler may be turning 35 in December, but he can still anchor this offensive line. One of the best players on a stout unit, he's entering the last year of his contract.
Left guard (Clint Boling): Like Whitworth, Boling isn't going anywhere. He's an athletic pocket protector who has value in the run game.
Center (Russell Bodine): Shotgun-snap troubles have made Bodine a pariah in his two preseasons with the Bengals. But the young lineman hasn't really had those issues once the regular seasons begin. Although Pro Football Focus has regarded him as the weak link on Cincinnati's offensive line, Bodine has the unwavering support of offensive line coach Paul Alexander.
Right guard (Kevin Zeitler): Entering a contract year himself, Zeitler could really help his stock as a possible free agent next spring. When healthy, his presence has truly bolstered the Bengals' interior line.
Right tackle (Cedric Ogbuehi): Be on the lookout for a position battle at right tackle when camp begins. It's possible 11-year vet Eric Winston earns the job, but it's more likely to go to the young Ogbuehi. Possessing more athleticism than previous right tackle Andre Smith, Ogbuehi has been regarded since his first-round selection last year as the likely heir apparent at right tackle.
Defensive end (Michael Johnson): If Johnson can record five sacks every season (like he did in 2015) with the other pass-rushers the Bengals have on their line, he'll be doing just fine. Until backups Margus Hunt and Will Clarke demonstrate they can outplay Johnson, he'll be in the starting lineup.
Defensive tackle (Geno Atkins): Aside from Aaron Donald, there may not be a defensive tackle in the NFL as intimidating and productive as Atkins. Atkins was back to his old dominant self last season, recording 11 sacks. Expect more of the same from the newlywed this season.
Nose tackle (Domata Peko): Peko is among those entering a contract year, so he'll have the motivation to outperform expectations. Don't be surprised if that happens with the 31-year-old Peko, who had a career-high five sacks last season.
Defensive end (Carlos Dunlap): Dunlap reached a career-high of his own, with 13.5 sacks last season. That's a new Bengals single-season record. Think he deserves to be out of the starting lineup?
Outside linebacker (Vincent Rey): Rey, who signed a three-year extension this spring, could find himself starting at either the weakside or strongside spots. The new contract was a reward after six years of being the equivalent of a star sixth man. He'll mostly play on the weakside for the first three weeks as Vontaze Burfict serves a suspension.
Outside linebacker (Karlos Dansby): This could change after Burfict's suspension ends, but Dansby appears to be the Bengals' top fit on the strongside for Week 1. That's also a position that could see a rotation throughout the season. Dansby is one interception shy of becoming the fifth NFL player to have 40 sacks and 20 interceptions in a career.
Middle linebacker (Rey Maualuga): Assuming he stays at a weight coaches are comfortable with, Maualuga will resume his duties starting in the middle. He and Burfict were slightly overweight this spring. It meant Maualuga didn't participate in any of the open organized team activities (OTAs) or minicamp sessions in May and June.
Cornerback (Adam Jones): As the oldest player in the defensive backfield, Jones is viewed as a leader by his younger teammates. He also has been one of the league's best cover corners recently. Last season, he gave up only one touchdown -- an unbelievable circus catch DeAndre Hopkins made while Jones blanketed him.
Cornerback (Dre Kirkpatrick): This is a pivotal year for Kirkpatrick, who like many others enters the final year on his current deal. How he plays in his second year as a starter could determine whether he has a future in Cincinnati. His mission: tighten up his downfield coverage.
Safety (Shawn Williams): It'll be the first year Williams factors as an every-down contributor. With Reggie Nelson ahead of him the past three years, Williams has toiled as a backup. He made the most of his opportunities, though, with timely interceptions and tackles. He signed a contract extension this spring.
Safety (George Iloka): Iloka got his own extension in March, meaning he will be seen as the deepfield anchor through the 2020 season.
Punter (Kevin Huber): Two years removed from a Pro Bowl campaign, Huber will again be called upon to keep the Bengals in favorable field position.
Long-snapper (Clark Harris): Like the others, Harris has been a Bengals special-teams stalwart. He isn't leaving his post.
The Cincinnati Bengals open training camp July 29 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Here's a closer look at the Bengals' camp, which wraps up Aug. 16:
Finding a complement: The No. 1 storyline entering camp revolves around finding pass-catching complements to Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, who is arguably one of the top players in the league at his position. But the free-agency departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu left questions about who Cincinnati's best receiving options were behind Green. Brandon LaFell (formerly of the Patriots) and Tyler Boyd (2016 second-round pick) are the most likely candidates, but the Bengals are hoping to figure out in camp how they will use both this season. Then there are concerns about Green's other pass-catching partner, tight end Tyler Eifert, who is still recovering from May ankle surgery. He could miss time at the start of the season, so the Bengals will work out his temporary replacements over the next couple of weeks.
If the starting QB doesn't get hurt the Bengals might finally win a playoff game. Heck, maybe their starting quarterback makes a legitimate push for the league MVP award, too. Don't forget, Andy Dalton was one misguided tackle attempt away from possibly leading the Bengals to a first-round bye. Before breaking his right thumb on Steelers lineman Stephon Tuitt's knee, Dalton had led the Bengals to a 10-2 record and their first 8-0 start in franchise history. Even with a new offensive coordinator (his old quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese), Dalton has complete ownership of the Bengals' offensive scheme. His knowledge of this dynamic system can be enough to carry the Bengals this season.
Player who will have fans buzzing: Without a doubt, Jake Kumerow. Heck, fans are already interested in the undrafted receiver after spring media reports practically called him a pass-catching messiah. (Or maybe it's because of the beard and flowing locks.) Only once during open minicamp and organized team activities did he drop a pass, helping solidify his stature as a true possession receiver. Keep an eye on how well Kumerow gets off the line of scrimmage and effortlessly makes tough catches look easy.
Position battle worth watching: There aren't many starting jobs at stake in this camp, but you'll want to look for reports on the backup defensive end battle featuring Margus Hunt and Will Clarke. They're in for a true fight this summer, though more pressure could be on Hunt, who is entering a contract year. These next few weeks will be about one thing for this pair: proof. They must execute each time they get an opportunity because there won't be many. Also, keep an eye on the right offensive tackle battle between Eric Winston and Cedric Ogbuehi.
That rookie should start: Certainly the Bengals' first-round pick, William Jackson III, is good enough. But the way the Bengals' depth chart is set up, none of their rookies will have the opportunity to start (barring injuries). That said, look for Jackson, Boyd and perhaps third- and fourth-round picks Nick Vigil and Andrew Billings to consistently be part of rotations during the season. Boyd probably will get the most playing time of all the rookies, but Jackson could be a good change-of-pace at corner, and Vigil could be a quality coverage linebacker. Billings may see time on the D-line in run-stopping situations.
Veteran whose job is in jeopardy: It's hard to say whether there's a well-known vet whose job is truly on the line. There's concern about whether Brandon Tate's punt return ability will be enough for him to stick, but with a relatively young receivers' room, it's unlikely he will be let go this fall. Coaches like having his veteran presence. Perhaps Taylor Mays, a safety signed back in free agency this year, could see his job in jeopardy, but even that's a little bit of a reach.
Division of labor: Cincinnati probably won't tip its hand in camp on the planned workload distribution for running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, but keep an eye on those two. Hill spent last season as the Bengals' starting back, despite his struggles. A year after averaging 5.1 yards per carry, he posted an average of just 3.6 yards per catch in 2015. Even though Hill started nearly every game, Bernard was still used regularly. In fact, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, Bernard (552) outpaced Hill (434) on snaps.
Bolstering Burfict's backups: Another important mission for the Bengals in camp will be preparing for Vontaze Burfict's three-game suspension. Rest assured, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther already has a plan in place for the stretch when he will be without his top playmaking defender, but this camp will help reaffirm some of what has already been put on paper. Vincent Rey and Karlos Dansby should factor heavily in spelling Burfict during his absence, and so could Rey Maualuga ... assuming he comes back to camp in shape.
What fans will be saying after camp: Fans who get a chance to see one of the open practice sessions will be abuzz about Kumerow. They'll finally get a chance to see why he could have a role in Cincinnati's receiving rotation this season. Fans also will come away impressed with the strides Dalton and Green have made as a passing duo. The pair was more in sync this spring than they have been during any offseason workout of their career, and they'll likely carry that into a summer where contract uncertainty is no longer lingering over their heads. Fans also ought to come away impressed with the Bengals' rookies, most notably Jackson and Boyd. Be prepared for the times when they go head-to-head in man coverage.
For daily updates at camp, check out the Cincinnati Bengals clubhouse page.
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green was all smiles when he met with reporters at his youth camp just outside Cincinnati last week.
He had good reason to be.
Unlike last July, when a large chunk of a similar camp interview session revolved around his then-looming contract uncertainty, this time Green only needed to discuss what he was going to do to help the Cincinnati Bengals perform better once the 2016 season begins.
"Definitely my mind is at ease this year," Green said, grinning. "I don't have to worry about contracts or anything like that. I just go in there free, clear head, just go out there work and have fun. Training camp is fun to me. I just love getting back out there with the guys."
Green will be having that fun late next week when training camp officially starts for the Bengals July 29.
This has been a tamer offseason for Green, soon to be a first-time father. In fact, picking baby names (he and his wife, Miranda, have settled on Easton Ace Green) and gearing up for fatherhood have been among his most challenging tasks of the offseason. He hasn't been doing the same mental somersaults he did a year ago.
All last spring and nearly all last summer, the Pro Bowl wideout was constantly asked about his future. Entering what was to be his fifth-year option season, it wasn't clear what the long term held. Would he be with the Bengals in 2016? Would someone else snatch him up with a more attractive deal? Would he one day have to think about retiring somewhere other than Cincinnati? But those weren't his only concerns.
"My wife and I were just talking about how I can go in there and I don't have to worry about, 'Aw, dang, if I get hurt in training camp, what's going to happen?' I can just go out there and play," Green said. "Not saying I didn't play hard, but to have that in the back of your head -- that, 'What if I get hurt? What am I going to do with this contract?'"
Green no longer has to answer those questions because last Sept. 11, two days before the Bengals' 2015 opener at Oakland, he agreed to a four-year, $60 million extension. It should keep him in Bengals stripes through the 2019 season, and it might set up a later deal that could keep him in Cincinnati long after that.
"All is good," Green said.
The Bengals hope all will be good with their pass-catchers this season, too, as they bring a young group of receivers to training camp. Although he'll be joined by fellow veterans Brandon Tate and Brandon LaFell, Green is still the leader of a mostly inexperienced group. Well aware of that, he has started doing something he hadn't previously done much of earlier in his career: talking.
"I'm being more vocal, teaching guys," Green said. "Even between [practice] routes, I pull them to the side and tell them what we're looking for. What we need to do on this route. What's Urb [receivers coach James Urban] looking for? What's Andy [Dalton] looking for on this route, and what you've got to do? That's what I'm trying to do. Don't be that crazy, crazy, trying to change so much that I'm out of my comfort level, but being comfortable being uncomfortable is what I'm trying to be."
If all goes according to plan, Easton Ace Green will be raised the same way his father says his parents raised him.
"It's about respect and the morals and the value of life," A.J. Green said. "And treat people how you want to be treated. That's the biggest thing I was brought up on from my parents."
Green spoke Thursday during his youth football camp in suburban Cincinnati, a day after NBA superstars Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul made an emotional plea for athletes to help promote social change in the country during Wednesday night's broadcast of the ESPYs.
Their message came on the heels of high-profile shootings in Minnesota, Texas, Florida and Louisiana.
"As a black, African man, it's challenging like they [Paul, James and the others] were saying," Green said. "We have to stop the violence and it starts from us, these adults, in raising our children the way we were raised. That's the biggest thing. It starts from the top, and it's not going to quit until the top takes control, and that's the adults, by handing it down in morals and respect to their kids."
One of the NFL's biggest stars, Green has been a Pro Bowl selection every year he has been in the NFL. The former University of Georgia standout and South Carolina native enters his sixth season with an understanding of the impact he and his comrades from the NBA can have. It's why he hopes he can help Easton and the kids at his camp see the humanity in others.
"As an athlete, our platform is so high," Green said. "A lot of people look up to us. So if they see us doing something positive, it can change the world. Because a lot of these kids look up to us and want to be us when they get older. By doing that, it makes the world a better place if we can touch one kid."
The Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their offseason program on Thursday and are expected to open training camp in late July at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Here's a 53-man roster projection:
It's a common Bengals practice to take only two quarterbacks into a season, and Dalton and McCarron certainly have proven capable of leading Cincinnati's offense.
A few of the "cut" running backs, such as fullback Luc or undrafted rookie Mobley, could make the Bengals' practice squad, but the four veterans will all return.
One of the toughest training-camp decisions confronting coaches will be choosing between Kumerow's consistency as a no-drop pass-catcher or keeping the less consistent Mario Alford on the roster for his special-teams versatility. In this scenario, Alford's special teams skills will have to come from somewhere else.
No surprises here. This same foursome should make the roster again.
Offensive linemen (9): Andrew Whitworth, Eric Winston, Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher, Clint Boling, Kevin Zeitler, Russell Bodine, T.J. Johnson, Christian Westerman. (Cut: Alex Cooper, Alex Redmond, Trey Hopkins, Trip Thurman, John Weidenaar, Aaron Epps)
There will be some interesting decisions here, specifically involving Hopkins, a guard who was once viewed as a promising, up-and-coming lineman. Since being signed as an undrafted player in 2014, Hopkins just hasn't dominated at his position. Injuries have contributed to that. Johnson and Westerman might be intriguing additions, but Johnson has been the Bengals' longtime backup center, and aside from Bodine, he has been the only center this spring to snap the ball with adequate consistency. Other young backups struggled in organized team activities and minicamp.
Defensive linemen (10): Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Andrew Billings, Margus Hunt, Will Clarke, Pat Sims, Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams, Possible PUP list -- Brandon Thompson. (Cut: David Dean, Dezmond Johnson, Ryan Brown)
The timetable for Thompson's return from an ACL injury could have an impact on what the Bengals' initial 53-man roster looks like. Although he hopes to be back in time for the season, if the Bengals remain slow and steady with his recovery, he might not be ready by Sept. 11. If that's the case, Williams will have earned a spot after impressing coaches with his tireless work this offseason.
Flowers and Dawson can thank Burfict's three-game suspension for their inclusion on this projection. Because Burfict will eventually return, both will be on the fringe of the roster at some point this year, meaning they could have quite an intriguing position battle looming later this summer. They will try to prove they not only can contribute defensively, but also on special teams. Dawson had flashes of production as a rookie last season, and before he missed all of last season, Flowers' coverage skills were lauded.
Defensive backs (9): Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Darqueze Dennard, Derron Smith, William Jackson III, Chris Lewis-Harris, Josh Shaw. (Cut: Taylor Mays, Chykie Brown, Clayton Fejedelem, Darius Hillary, Corey Tindal, Floyd Raven)
A couple of tough choices here regarding Taylor Mays, who returned this offseason after a year away from Cincinnati, and seventh-round pick Fejedelem. As a good cover safety, Mays deserves a spot on the roster, but depth might make it tough for him to stick. The same goes for Fejedelem, who should be a good practice-squad fit.
This group has been together since 2010. It's not breaking up this year.
CINCINNATI -- Although they have been present for the Cincinnati Bengals' first two mandatory minicamp practices this week, a pair of key defensive players were noticeably absent from practice drills Wednesday.
Starting linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, reportedly overweight at the end of the Bengals' springtime workouts, spent the practice running wind sprints and doing other conditioning drills off to the side. For Maualuga, it was the second straight day of such activity as he also didn't practice during Tuesday's start to the minicamp. Burfict did practice Tuesday, but by Wednesday ended up on the conditioning island with his fellow linebacker.
The Bengals end their minicamp Thursday, kicking off a five-week break until before training camp.
Asked Wednesday if he was concerned at all about the time Maualuga has missed practicing this spring, Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said he was unfazed.
"He's working hard to get where he needs to be, and I've got confidence he will be there," Guenther said.
In addition to missing minicamp practice time, Maualuga also didn't participate in the Bengals' open organized team activities the past three weeks. He was around the facility at the time, but he didn't make it out for practice any days when reporters were present. Burfict, who was limited in the first OTA open to reporters, did participate in all three OTAs media could attend.
Earlier this week on Cincinnati's ESPN radio affiliate, Bengals radio color commentator and former Bengals player Dave Lapham said both Maualuga and Burfict showed up to OTAs overweight.
Last season, the two linebackers were among the Bengals' most prolific tacklers. Maualuga ranked third on the team with 75 tackles and Burfict had 74 through 10 games. Hobbled by recovery from a knee injury, Burfict was unavailable for the first six games of the season. He also will miss the first three this year as he serves a three-game suspension that went into effect in January.
CINCINNATI -- Giovani Bernard wants to be part of history.
It's one of the reasons the running back was compelled last week to finalize a contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals that will keep him in stripes through the 2019 season.
"We still have a lot to do," Bernard said. "There's a little bit of unfinished business that we want to -- not address, but -- get past."
Of course, that unfinished business revolves around winning a playoff game. It has been 25 years since the Bengals have done that, although they were mighty close this past January. When AJ McCarron connected with A.J. Green on a go-ahead touchdown pass just inside the final two minutes of the Bengals' wild-card game against visiting rival Pittsburgh, Paul Brown Stadium erupted with the kind of glee that made it seem as if years of postseason misery were about to be shaken loose from the place.
But as has been written here and many other places all offseason, a Bengals fumble and a pair of penalties on later possessions negated the key score. On their final drive of the game, the Steelers got into field goal range with seconds remaining and blasted through a game-winning chip shot.
"As an organization, there are things we want to accomplish, and I'll be there for that," Bernard said.
That pleases coach Marvin Lewis, who said Tuesday the recent extension was another sign of a player practicing what he professes to having long preached.
"The message is that if you put your head down and go to work, then good things will happen. You also get a chance to control it," Lewis said. "In our case with Gio, it all worked out well. We're glad that he's been signed."
Lewis added that other pending free agents could get extensions later this summer, too.
Besides signing his extension to help the Bengals finally win a playoff game after repeated one-and-done postseason performances, Bernard said he agreed to the deal because it allows him to stay around people he's come to care deeply about the past four years.
"I've created a lot of friendships on this team, a lot of guys I look up to," Bernard said. "The biggest thing is that I'm able to continue those friendships with these guys and these coaches in this organization."
CINCINNATI -- Nearly a week after the Cincinnati Bengals re-upped running back Giovani Bernard on a three-year extension that will keep him around through the 2019 season, coach Marvin Lewis intimated Tuesday that more extensions could be on the horizon this summer.
"We're glad that he's been signed, and we'll continue to work on some other players between now and the beginning of the season," Lewis said during a pre-minicamp news conference. "Hopefully we get some more done."
Until last Wednesday, when Bernard agreed to the three-year, $15 million extension that includes $5 million of guaranteed money, the Bengals had 17 players who were slated to be unrestricted free agents next March. Another two, H-back Ryan Hewitt and reserve offensive lineman T.J. Johnson, are scheduled to be restricted free agents.
Bernard was among the biggest names on a pending Bengals free agents list that still includes the likes of offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, defensive end Margus Hunt, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko. Bernard's extension had been anticipated, even if it's uncommon these days for running backs to get such lucrative second contracts, given all the pounding their bodies typically take.
Who might be the next to get an extension? Much of that depends upon which player the Bengals can entice the quickest to a fair deal.
Kirkpatrick and Zeitler seem like the most logical possibilities, given their status as starters on the rise. Zeitler has been anchoring the right guard position since he was drafted in 2012. Kirkpatrick worked his way into the starting rotation last fall after three years of playing behind a stable of capable veterans. Both players had their fifth-year options exercised last May, meaning the former first-rounders are under contract through this season.
Whitworth and Peko could be candidates for summertime contracts, too. But neither veteran will probably be signed to very long deals, considering their most recent contracts were for one and two years, respectively. Whitworth will turn 35 during the season, and Peko will turn 32.
Along with extending Bernard, the Bengals last month signed safety Shawn Williams to a four-year extension and exercised tight end Tyler Eifert's fifth-year option. Eifert still could be inked to an extension later this summer, but for the time being his contract isn't as big of a concern since he's under contract for the next two seasons.
Here's an updated list of Bengals veterans slated to hit free agency next spring:
RB Cedric Peerman
RB Rex Burkhead
WR Brandon Tate
WR Brandon LaFell
H-back Ryan Hewitt
OG Kevin Zeitler
OL T.J. Johnson
OT Andrew Whitworth
OT Eric Winston
DE Margus Hunt
DT Domata Peko
DT Brandon Thompson
LB Karlos Dansby
CB Dre Kirkpatrick
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
CB Chykie Brown
S Taylor Mays
K Mike Nugent
If you are still having a hard time understanding the Cincinnati Bengals' roster philosophy, then maybe you never will grasp it.
By now, the blueprint behind the Bengals' 52 wins in the past five seasons ought to be painfully obvious: draft well and keep their own.
That example was showcased again Wednesday, when the Bengals agreed to a three-year contract extension with running back Giovani Bernard. The $15.5 million deal will keep Bernard in stripes through 2019.
"This moment is about have a future," Bernard said in a news release. "It's a secure feeling knowing I'll be here and can help this team win. I can't picture myself in anything but orange and black."
Security also has been a clear Bengals priority in recent years. It has been at the heart of many of their latest major personnel moves. Look no further than the fifth-year option extended to Tyler Eifert and the extension through 2019 that A.J. Green signed last September to see the Bengals are fully focused on bolstering their playmaking core for years to come.
But Bernard's extension was about more than the running back's comfort -- it was about maintaining the quarterback's, too.
Once Andy Dalton reaches the end of his contract in 2020, he will be 33 and still perhaps in the prime of his career. He also will have wrapped up his 10th season by that point. If he continues to have the right pieces around him, Dalton could help his team keep alive its streak of playoff appearances all the way through the end of his current deal. That would be 10 straight playoff appearances to start a career.
But how many playoff games will they have won by then?
Certainly the playoff question is a rhetorical one. The Bengals haven't won in the postseason in 25 years, but lately have had rosters strong enough to make it not only to, but through, the AFC Championship Game. After all, the Bengals have won division titles in two of the past three seasons.
Bernard's presence could help keep those AFC North titles coming.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Bernard is one of five players in the league who have at least both 2,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. He's helped make the Bengals' offense explosive, dynamic and unpredictable. With Cincinnati still learning what its crop of mostly young wideouts can do, Bernard's role as a pass-catcher could become a much more significant one this season.
He could even earn a larger share of the running-back load in 2016, given the struggles of fellow back Jeremy Hill had last season. Not only did Hill have the crucial fumble that in part led to Cincinnati's playoff loss to Pittsburgh in January, but he had three others during the regular season, and only averaged 3.6 yards a carry, one year after averaging 5.1.
Regardless of Bernard's role this season, he can't possibly be the only person at Paul Brown Stadium happy about the extension. The rest of this long-term Bengals core -- Dalton, Green, Eifert and Clint Boling on offense; Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Vontaze Burfict, Adam Jones, George Iloka, Vincent Rey and Shawn Williams on defense -- have to be, too.
Comfort and continuity: two words the Bengals keep demonstrating they take very seriously.
I wrote that the Bengals' defense would be minimally impacted by the absence of Burfict for the first three games of the season. As a matter of fact, that layoff could prove beneficial by Week 4.
Here's the complete blurb:
LB Vontaze Burfict's three-game suspension at the start of the season will have a minimal impact on the Bengals' defense. If anything, his Week 4 return will serve as jolt for the Bengals as they work through a tough early-season stretch.
We should point out that Cincinnati's first three games aren't necessarily easy ones. The Bengals open the season on the road at the New York Jets, playing on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. That game will be followed by another road contest, at bitter rival Pittsburgh, on Sept. 18. One week later, Cincinnati opens its home slate with its third game in as many seasons against the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos.
That's quite the early-season gauntlet. But here are three reasons the Bengals ought to weather Burfict's absence just fine:
Karlos Dansby is hungry for a ring. Yes, he may be 34 and on the back nine of his career, but Dansby is desperate for a Super Bowl ring. He has flirted with the Lombardi trophy before, making it all the way to the big game with the Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 season. Which team ultimately beat the Cardinals in that Super Bowl? Those pesky Pittsburgh Steelers. If you don't think Dansby remembers his disappointment following Super Bowl XLIII, think again. One interception shy of becoming only the fifth linebacker in NFL history to record 40 career sacks and 20 career interceptions, Dansby was a free-agency steal for the Bengals. He should be able to transition from the base 3-4 defense he's spent much of his career playing in quicker than James Harrison did for Cincinnati in 2013.
They've done it before. We can look back to 2015 to see how the Bengals made it through games Burfict missed before. Because of how well the weakside linebacker played during the final 10 weeks of last season -- and the first 59 minutes of the wild-card playoff game against Pittsburgh -- it's easy to forget that he didn't begin last season in uniform. Rehab from knee surgery kept Burfict out of the first six games. During that timeframe, the Bengals ranked in the top 10 in opposing QBR, red zone efficiency, goal-line efficiency (second), points allowed per game and points margin per game.
Vincent Rey will fill in admirably again. It's largely expected that the recently re-signed Rey will be the player who fills Burfict's shoes during this suspension, much like he did last season. Rey has been a valued member of the linebacking corps in recent seasons. Across the past two seasons, he has led the Bengals in tackles, mainly because Burfict wasn't on the field due to injuries. Through the first six games of the 2015 season, Rey had 57 tackles, including double-digit stops against Kansas City (15) and Seattle (13).
CINCINNATI -- Carlos Dunlap's first order of business when he entered the NFL in 2010 was to look up the league's rookie single-season sack record.
As he began his career, the Cincinnati Bengals defensive end wanted to chase down quarterbacks better than Jevon Kearse did in 1999, the year Kearse posted a rookie-record 14.5 sacks for Tennessee.
Dunlap didn't quite get there. His 9.5 sacks as a rookie were certainly commendable, but they weren't record-worthy. No worries. All he had to do was settle his sights on a few other individual milestones.
Like any pass-rusher who entered the league after Michael Strahan's record-breaking 22.5-sack 2001 season, Dunlap's biggest motivation has been to get to 23. Now that he has checked off a pair of other big items on his career goals list, besting Strahan's record has become the great carrot he's chasing.
"I look at the big one and I work for the big one and hopefully catch a couple of them along the way," Dunlap said about the hierarchy of goals he has hunted down the past six seasons.
He scratched off two key items last season when he went to the Pro Bowl for the first time and set a new official Bengals sacks record. Dunlap's 13.5 sacks in 2015 edged the 13.0 that Eddie Edwards had for Cincinnati in 1983, one year after the NFL's current guidelines for tracking sacks was put in place.
Before those changes, former Bengal Coy Bacon was credited with 26 sacks in 1976. That number is regarded as the Bengals' unofficial record. Because defensive record-keeping was so shoddy back then, some of Bacon's sacks were rewarded years later after a team official re-examined incomplete stat books and game film from each Bengals game in 1976. Bacon's sacks that year also were recorded before the NFL started adopting the practice of rewarding half-sacks, meaning even if was just around the quarterback during a sack, he was given credit for a full sack.
Dunlap doesn't think a 23-sack season is impossible in today's NFL. But he recognizes that because he's rushing alongside the likes of Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Domata Peko, getting to 23 could be difficult. Last year alone, Atkins had 11 sacks to go along with Dunlap's 13.5. Johnson has had a double-digit sack season before, and Peko had a career-high five in 2015.
"It's hard to get [20 or more]," Dunlap said. "Most of the guys who get those 20 sacks, they're like the only one [on their team] at plus-10. When you've got three guys who can get 10 sacks and a nose tackle who can get five, it's spreading the wealth. So that's good for our team."
What's also good for the team? Setting individual goals like these, Dunlap said. Yes, his biggest concern is getting the Bengals a Super Bowl trophy, but he contends players need other motivation, too.
"Along with the team goals, you've got to have your personal goals that will help you obtain the team goal," Dunlap said. "My personal goals is to get that sack title at the end of the season, one, and then two, to get Strahan's record."
NFL Network's Twitter account gave Dunlap some love last month, highlighting him as one of the active players most likely to one day overtake Strahan. That recognition came a couple of days before he was named the No. 70 player on NFL Network's top 100 players countdown. That list was voted on by current players.
Pictured or not, player most able to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record? pic.twitter.com/qjh0luJRIJ
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) May 23, 2016
Pleased to be recognized by his fellow players, Dunlap says his mission is to keep impressing them by putting more quarterbacks on their backs.
"I'm still shooting at that 23," Dunlap said.
CINCINNATI -- After the Cincinnati Bengals' organized team activities (OTAs) this spring, injured tight end Tyler Eifert shot a few quick text messages to his slightly younger protege, fellow Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft.
"He's trying to stay in it as much as he can," Kroft said about the player he considers a mentor.
The mentor role is about the only one Eifert can fulfill right now as the four-year vet recovers from surgery to fix an ankle injury sustained in this year's Pro Bowl. Eifert is expected to have a three-month recovery, meaning it could cost him playing time at the beginning of the regular season. If Eifert does miss any games, he will be replaced by Kroft, the second-year player who played sparingly as a backup last season.
"He's looking out for me," Kroft said. "He's basically like, 'It's your time to step up right now. The team's going to need you.'"
As comforting as those words may be for Kroft, they aren't the most important Eifert has dispensed to him. Long known for his steady, even-keeled, cucumber-cool presence in the Bengals' locker room, Eifert wants Kroft to emulate that part of his style, too.
Eifert's big message to Kroft: Relax.
"It came down to where he kept saying, 'Don't overthink it. You're here for a reason. You know what you're doing,'" Kroft said to reporters this week. "Ty, as you guys know, is a little bit laid back. He doesn't try to let the moment get too big for him -- which he does a very good job of. But yeah, [he says] you know why you're here and don't focus on what you need to do and don't think of all the what ifs. You're here for a reason."
Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron developed an on-field rapport with Kroft late last season when Eifert was sidelined with a concussion and stingers. As he relieved Eifert, Kroft went on to catch 11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Each of his catches came in the final seven weeks of the season. At Denver in a key Week 16 Monday night game, Kroft posted a career-high four catches. Each pass was thrown by McCarron, who had to replace starting quarterback Andy Dalton after he broke his throwing thumb two weeks prior.
McCarron views Kroft as a mirror image of Eifert. Built similarly and used similarly, he believes Kroft's playing style can make it appear as if Eifert never left the lineup.
"It's like a baby Eif almost when you think about it," McCarron said. "They both have good speed, they both have good range catching the ball, and they're both able to spread the field. It's hard to replace Eif, it is. But [Kroft] is definitely the guy that you want there.
"He's an explosive player, and I think he's a mismatch. He's a nightmare for defenses just because he's able to spread the field with his speed, and he still has good size. So if you put a smaller DB on him or a safety, it's harder for them to guard him just because he's a bigger-bodied guy."
For Kroft and the Bengals, it will be hard replicating Eifert's red-zone production from last season. Of Eifert's team-high 13 touchdown receptions, 11 came from inside the opposing 20.
As teams start passing the halfway point of organized team activities, as the Bengals did Wednesday, the time to shine this spring for first-year players is drawing to a close. After next week's OTAs, all Jackson and other Bengals rookies will have is a three-day minicamp before practices conclude until training camp in late July.
It means now is the time for Jackson to prove why he's in Cincinnati.
"I'm just trying to go out there and make a statement, and let them know why they drafted me," said Jackson, the 24th overall draft pick, simplistically outlining his goal for the remainder of the spring.
Making a statement means always being around the football, flashing some of the pass-breakup techniques that made him a star in college at Houston, intercepting a few passes and proving to coaches and Bengals veterans that he's willing to listen and accept their guidance.
According to 12-year veteran cornerback Adam Jones, Jackson has already begun doing much of that.
"He's good," Jones said. "The kid is quick as hell, too. He's just got to work on the little stuff. It'll be my job to help him, me and the coaches. And he can be really good."
The "little stuff" includes fine-tuning Jackson's footwork so he can consistently smother elite NFL receivers with his coverage. It also includes trusting his fellow Bengals defensive backs, realizing where in the secondary he'll receive help on any given play, and removing the college mentality that he can bait quarterbacks to throw in his direction.
"It's no baiting in this league," Jones said, smiling. "A couple things look good in practice won't look good in the game, just because of the mental aspects of the quarterbacks and the wide receivers. You get behind, they're going to stack you. It's just the little stuff like that that he'll pick up as we go."
At Houston, all Jackson did was make statements. Only 40 percent of the passes thrown in his direction the past two years resulted in completions. Last fall, he led the country in passes defensed with 28. He also closed the season by being named the defensive MVP of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl after he recorded 10 tackles, intercepted two passes and broke up another two in Houston's victory over Florida State.
Many of Jackson's best college highlights are of of him leaping high with one hand for passes it would initially appear he had no business defending. Even in practices with the Bengals this spring, there have been times when receivers have sprinted past him, only for passes to deflect at the last moment off his outstretched hand.
In those cases, it helps Jackson to have good closing speed and his 31¾-inch arms, the second-longest among corners drafted in the first round. Only Artie Burns, taken by Pittsburgh one spot later, had longer arms among this year's first-round corners.
"It definitely helps for my arms to be long," Jackson said. "I cannot be there and then be there at the same time."
Perhaps that's one reason it won't be too difficult for Jackson to make his statement this spring after all.
"He's got a chance to be really special," Jones said.
CINCINNATI -- Whether it was in one-on-ones, seven-on-sevens or full-team drills, it didn't matter.
Whenever Andy Dalton threw a football in A.J. Green's direction during the Cincinnati Bengals' open organized team activity practice Tuesday, the veteran wide receiver was practically assured of catching the pass, regardless of how good the coverage on him was. There might have been just one throw all day in which they didn't connect.
According to cornerback Adam Jones, who Green slipped past once in the practice for a deep-ball reception, the team's quarterback and receiver are on the same page so far this spring. In his eyes, and theirs, it shouldn't be any other way.
"That's what they're supposed to do," Jones said. "Those guys have been together what, five or six years now? The chemistry between those two should be like a bolt nut. It should go in every time."
Selected by the Bengals in the first and second rounds of the 2011 draft, Green and Dalton are entering their sixth seasons.
"We've been playing together for a long time," Dalton said. "We feel comfortable. I know where he's going to be. I know what to expect from him."
They have had some great moments, and a few disappointing ones, along the way.
The Dalton-Green combination has averaged 79 completions the past five seasons, and that includes numbers from Green's injury-riddled 2014, and Dalton's injury-plagued 2015. Last season, Dalton missed the final three regular-season games with a broken thumb. The year before that, Green missed parts of six games because of toe and head injuries.
Since 2011, the Dalton-to-Green connection has yielded 40 touchdown passes, including double-digit totals in 2012 and 2013.
However, that connection has engineered 31 interceptions for defenses, too, including 12 in 2013. In the playoffs, the pairing has been virtually nonexistent, with Green having never caught a touchdown pass from Dalton in the postseason. Dalton has thrown four interceptions while targeting Green in the playoffs, and he's only amassed 161 yards on postseason passes that Green catches. It's important to note that because of their respective injuries the past two seasons, Dalton and Green didn't play together in the 2014 and 2015 playoffs.
Dalton said the on-field relationship between himself and Green should be smooth right now because of how long they have been together. As two of the oldest skill players in an offense that has changed coordinators, he knows both of them will need to remain vocal.
"When I'm on the field, if something doesn't go exactly as it's planned, I'm going to say something before a coach is going to say something," Dalton said. "I'm going to get to it quicker and try to get it corrected.
"A.J.'s to the point where he's not a young guy anymore. He's been around a while; he has all the experience and so he'll be able to help guys out. That's part of the process of the longer you play, you can help the guys around you."
The mere observation of Dalton and Green going live together for the first time has already had an effect on second-round rookie Tyler Boyd.
"It was great just seeing that combination out there, period, because those are some of the two best to do it in this league," Boyd said. "And just seeing them work motivated me to go out there and want to work with them so I can hopefully play alongside the guys and help them win."