AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

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.

CINCINNATI -- There were three notable absences and three more partial absences during the start of the Cincinnati Bengals' organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday. It appears nearly all of them are relatively minor.

Only one has a level of uncertainty about it. Defensive end Margus Hunt missed the entire practice for an undisclosed reason. He was seen at Paul Brown Stadium not long after practice began, despite not participating in the workout on the practice fields across from the stadium. It's not clear for now if he'll be practicing at all this week, let alone during the next three weeks of OTAs.

His five other teammates who were either absent or limited Tuesday could be back relatively quickly.

Safety George Iloka wasn't present for practice, either, but he was in the locker room afterward. He expects to practice soon, possibly this week.

"When I'm out there, I'm out there," Iloka said. "It's nothing serious."

Iloka's presence at the stadium should have abated any fears he was about to be in a contract dispute with the team. One of 26 Bengals entering the final years of their contracts, Iloka had a reason to not even show up in Cincinnati right now if he really didn't want to.

Along with Hunt and Iloka, defensive tackle Devon Still didn't practice. It appears he was still in Philadelphia, where he has spent all offseason taking care of his 5-year-old daughter, Leah, who is in remission from a Stage 4 cancer and going through treatments to reinvigorate her immune system. It was during the Bengals' OTAs last June that Still originally found out she had a tumor.

As for Tuesday's partial absentees, the list included receiver Marvin Jones, offensive tackle Andre Smith and linebacker Rey Maualuga. Smith didn't participate in 11-on-11 drills but was part of the walk-throughs and installment portions of the practice. He just spent the offseason recovering from a torn triceps and likely is getting eased back into action. Maualuga said he went through a recent hamstring injury and may have been sidelined by coaches out of an abundance of caution.

Jones' case was a little different. The fourth-year receiver who missed all of last season with foot and ankle injuries said he wasn't cleared of a physical last week that would have permitted him to practice Tuesday.

"I'm good, I just have to clear the physical," Jones said.

Jones tweaked a hamstring around the time physicals were occurring last week. According to him, the necessary doctor wasn't in town when he needed another evaluation to be eligible for this week's practices.

"It's nothing to be alarmed or worried about," Jones said.

Jones was going for his re-evaluation when the locker room closed to media. Instead of practicing with the team, he spent the first day of OTAs going through conditioning drills on a side field with linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Sean Porter, who are still a ways away from being fully recovered from their own injuries.

Jones is expecting a challenge when he does get to practice regularly again.

"Obviously I've been training hard and doing other stuff, but putting back-to-back-to-back-to-back days of running around and doing stuff like that, I have to adjust," Jones said, referencing his tweaked hamstring.

Receivers coach James Urban views these next few weeks as important ones for Jones.

"No matter what way you look at it, he hasn't played football for a year, and so there is rust," Urban said. "And the only way to knock off the rust is to be out there."

It seems he will be soon.

CINCINNATI -- According to findings published this week from the ESPN/SportingIntelligence Global Salary Survey, NFL teams don't pay their players, on average, as well as teams in other sports leagues. The Cincinnati Bengals, however, are among the NFL teams that do.

Strike another blow to the myth the Bengals are cheap.

Per the survey, the best-paid in the NFL play for the Dolphins, Lions, Bengals and Packers. On average, players on each team make about $2.3 million per year.

NBA teams, the survey found, pay their players $4.6 million on average annually. Major league baseball teams pay their players $4.2 million on average each year. Overall, professional athletes from the world's 333 top sports franchises in 17 sports leagues make $17.94 billion, the survey said.

The Bengals rank 126th on that 333-team list, up from 138th last year. At No. 124, the Dolphins are the highest-ranked NFL team. The survey also has Cincinnati's payroll at $123.3 million, the 21st-highest payroll of the entire list. At $272.8 million, MLB's Los Angeles Dodgers have the largest payroll in global professional sports. With their players averaging salaries of $9.1 million per year, the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team of France's Ligue 1 are the world's highest-earning pro athletes.

This year, Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green will be the Bengals' big earner. He tops the Bengals' 2015 salaries with a whopping $10.18 million that was the product the Bengals signing him to a fifth-year option last year. That salary figure could change, though, as the Bengals potentially work out a long-term extension for him later this summer. Unless re-signed this offseason, he will be playing out the final year of his rookie contract this season.

CINCINNATI -- The NFL needs more men like Marvin Lewis.

Specifically, a league that tries to figure out how to adequately hire and promote minorities into positions of power needs more men like Lewis as it attempts to address some of the failures it has encountered in minority hiring since 2003. Lewis is a minority head coach who has tangible power with the Cincinnati Bengals, which has led to hiring other minorities around him. He has started opening doors for colleagues as his coaching tree takes root, leading to some of the positive change the league has spent the last two decades pursuing.

It was in 2003 that the Rooney Rule, named after league diversity committee chair and Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, was established to give minority head-coaching candidates the full, on-site interviews they previously weren't regularly afforded. That was the same year that Bengals team president Mike Brown hired Lewis, making him the seventh black head coach in the NFL's modern era.

As ESPN's Ashley Fox noted Tuesday, the league has had successes and failures in respect to minority-coach hiring practices since the inception of the Rooney Rule. Earlier this offseason, the New York Jets made former Arizona and Philadelphia defensive coordinator Todd Bowles the NFL's 18th black head coach.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
AP Images/David KohlMarvin Lewis has more power with the Bengals than most head coaches do with their teams.

Bowles and Lewis are two of six minority head coaches in the league entering the 2015 season. That number is down from a single-season high of eight in 2011.

The numbers aren’t much better in terms of other positions of power. In 2014, there were only seven minority general managers or player personnel directors in the league.

Some of the league’s failures in respect to the Rooney Rule could be fixed not only with more minority coaches, but with minority coaches who have influential voices within their franchises.

The social capital Lewis has within the Bengals is rarely possessed by coaches, regardless of ethnic or racial background. Lewis leads a group of 18 assistant coaches and has a very real say in the decision-making of team personnel moves. The Bengals’ lack of an titular general manager helps him in that regard. Along with director of player personnel Duke Tobin, Lewis holds the unofficial title of Bengals GM.

While the final word on drafting rookies, signing free agents and hiring assistants ends with Brown, Lewis' opinion carries legitimate weight.

Credit that opinion to helping the Bengals have two black head coach candidates on their current staff.

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph were both considered for head-coaching jobs this offseason. Jackson nearly was hired to fill Buffalo’s vacancy before the job ultimately went to Rex Ryan. Joseph interviewed for the Broncos’ opening, although days after Joseph was in Denver, his ex-boss, former Texans head coach and Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, was hired as the Broncos’ coach.

Not long afterward, Denver tried to re-interview Joseph for its defensive coordinator job, but the Bengals blocked him from that opportunity, keeping him on their staff. Throughout NFL circles, many believe Joseph’s first head-coaching gig isn’t far away.

Jackson became the league’s 17th black head coach in 2011 when he coached the Raiders for one season, becoming the first of Lewis’ assistants to earn a head-coaching opportunity. Jackson had an earlier stint under Lewis when he coached Cincinnati’s receivers from 2004-06.

Last season, two more Lewis hires who aren’t minorities -- Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden -- received their first head-coaching jobs with Minnesota and Washington.

Joseph and Jackson exemplify why it is important the NFL finds more men like Lewis.

Take former Colts and Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, for example. Black coaches Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, Herm Edwards and Leslie Frazier all worked under Dungy before becoming head coaches. Like Dungy, Tomlin, Smith and Caldwell have coached in a Super Bowl. Tomlin and Dungy have both won it.

As Fox mentioned, part of the difficulty in extending the Rooney Rule's properties to assistant coach hires rests in the fact that coaches and GMs like hiring assistants they know well. If qualified minorities aren't hired as assistants, the long-term byproduct can mean a depleted pool of head-coaching candidates. In turn, that can lead to what happened two years ago, when none of the 15 head coach and GM openings went to minority candidates.

For the future of a more inclusive NFL, the type of presence Lewis commands in Cincinnati isn’t just necessary -- it needs to be replicated many times over.

Join us today at 1 p.m. ET (10 a.m. PT) for an NFL Nation TV Spreecast Special as we chat with Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and his daughter Erin. Both will be present to discuss Erin's new book "Kelly Tough: Live Courageously by Faith."

The book outlines not-so-public challenges of the former Buffalo Bills signal-caller's recent fight with cancer, and the family's strength and faith that helped him overcome the toughest opponent of his life.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) will also be joined by Mike Rodak (Buffalo Bills reporter) on the show.

As always, viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

CINCINNATI -- With three of their nine draft picks already signed, the Cincinnati Bengals added three more to the mix Monday.

Third-round selection P.J. Dawson and fourth-round picks Josh Shaw and Marcus Hardison all inked four-year deals. The Bengals' fifth- through seventh-round selections -- C.J. Uzomah, Derron Smith and Mario Alford -- had previously signed their contracts.

Now all that's left is for Cincinnati's first three picks, Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher and Tyler Kroft, to make their deals official.

According to the rookie wage scale that's spelled out in the latest collective bargaining agreement, and salary-cap figures for this year, the first-round pick Ogbuehi is slotted to make more than $9.3 million across the next four years with the possibility of receiving a fifth-year option near the end of his rookie deal.

Those same projections have Dawson slated to make nearly $2.9 million the next four years, Shaw nearly $2.8 million for four years and Hardison about $2.6 million in that same time span.

Selected 99th overall, Dawson was the final pick of the third round. The outside linebacker likely projects to play the Will position, and could become a key piece in the linebacker corps if starting Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict doesn't come back healthy right away from microfracture knee surgery later this year. Dawson, a TCU product, was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.

Shaw played two years at Southern Cal after transferring from Florida. He's the same player who got caught in a bizarre lie to USC administrators after he sprained both ankles during an argument with a girlfriend just before last season began. Originally, he said he was hurt rescuing his drowning nephew. That story went viral before he quickly backed off from it and apologized to teammates and coaches.

Suspended for 10 games, Shaw had little action to put on tape, but the Bengals liked what they saw before and after the suspension. While at USC, Shaw had six interceptions and defended 19 passes as both a safety and a corner. In Cincinnati, he could end up playing both positions, although he's slated to be an additional corner for now.

Hardison played defensive end at Arizona State where he was a pass-rush specialist. The Bengals view him as more of a defensive tackle, and will have him there playing a role similar to that of Geno Atkins. In his second of two seasons with the Sun Devils, Hardison led the team in sacks (10.0) and tackles for loss (15).

CINCINNATI -- In the two seasons he spent at LSU, Jeremy Hill only fumbled once.

Last season, as a rookie running back for the Cincinnati Bengals, he put the ball on the ground five times.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year running back Jeremy Hill hopes to work on holding on to the football more in 2015.

In one year, he quintupled the number of fumbles he had in his entire college career. Every one of the five still bugs Hill as he moves through the offseason and into his sophomore NFL campaign.

"That's obviously something I didn't build my name off of," Hill said.

One of the more positive notations about Hill when the Bengals drafted him in the second round a little over a year ago was his low propensity for losing a handle on the football. A protege of LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson, Hill prided his ability to regularly run with the ball high and tight, and for having a knack of keeping it from getting stripped.

Hill believes over-confidence in his protective abilities led him into becoming more fumble prone last season.

"I had so much confidence last year in my ability to carry the football, I kind of got lackadaisical about it and just kind of said, 'Well, no one can take the ball from me,' and just kind of wasn't respecting the guys on the other team," Hill said. "That's the worst mistake you can make, especially in this league."

The 20 fumbles the Bengals had last season tied with what they had the year before. Both 20-fumble seasons marked the most single-season cough-ups for the franchise since 2010, when it couldn't hang on to 21 footballs.

Back to Wilson. Before going to LSU in 2010, he was an assistant at three other colleges, including Mississippi. While at Mississippi, Wilson convinced a running back he used to coach against during his days as a high school coach in New Orleans to transfer there following a failed stint at Indiana.

The player was BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the former Bengals running back whose job Hill effectively took after last spring's draft.

Like Hill, Green-Ellis learned the same principles from Wilson that once made him a relatively clean running back. Before coming to Cincinnati in 2012, Green-Ellis spent four fumble-free seasons with the Patriots. The trait he began honing under Wilson at Mississippi -- Green-Ellis had three fumbles in two seasons there; down from his four in two seasons at Indiana -- paid off in New England.

Again, that changed when he got to Cincinnati.

Green-Ellis fumbled five times in his two years as a Bengal. All but one of the fumbles were lost as turnovers.

Hill must have been listening to Wilson when he was in college. According to ESPN Stats & Information, LSU's two lowest fumble-per-rush frequency percentages in the past seven seasons came the two years Hill was one of the Tigers' standout running backs. In 2012, LSU had a fumble-per-rush frequency of 1.6 percent. The year after, it was 2.0 percent. This past year, the first since Hill moved on to the NFL, the Tigers were back up at 2.9 percent.

Hill believes in order to better protect the football, he simply has to enhance his focus.

"It's just all mental," he said. "For me, it's just taking it and having the right mindset every game. That'll definitely help me going into next year."

CINCINNATI -- Leon Hall had trouble articulating the exact reason why, but to him, this offseason feels slightly different than his other seven.

"It's a big offseason, not only for me, but for the team," the Cincinnati Bengals cornerback said earlier this week. "Year after year it's a big offseason but for whatever reason, this year seems a little bit bigger."

[+] EnlargeLeon Hall
David Kohl/AP PhotoLeon Hall wasn't please with his play in 2014, saying he 'had some mental lapses which to me are something that's unforgivable.'

Maybe it's because the Bengals have 27 players who are in the final year of their contracts. Maybe it's because Andy Dalton's contract starts to slip into a more manageable pay-to-play format after 2015, making it easier for the Bengals to release him before the scheduled 2020 termination if his performance disappoints. Maybe it's because players like Hall, the old Bengals guard that turned the franchise from a perennial loser into an annual competitor, have gotten older and soon could be entering retirement or new late-career deals with different teams.

Or maybe it's because like everyone else, the Bengals are starting to sense that their window for a conference championship and Super Bowl berth is beginning to close.

Perhaps, it's a combination of all of the above.

"It's hard to explain," Hall said.

Hall doesn't quite view this as a make-or-break year for the Bengals, but he is optimistic about this team's desire to break Cincinnati's one-and-done playoff curse.

"It could be there's a lot of guys on our team in their last year and everybody knows that not everybody is going to come back and we feel like we do have a championship team," Hall said. "So you put those both together and you almost feel like this year isn't make or break, but it is one of the bigger offseason and upcoming seasons we've had for a while."

What makes it such a big offseason for Hall personally is the fact that he has had the rare pleasure of spending the past four months training his entire body, and not just rehabbing one particular body part. Ever since tearing an Achilles in 2011, Hall has spent some portion of his recent offseasons trying to get a specific are of his body healthy for the subsequent season. After working back from a thumb injury in 2013, he spent all of last spring and summer trying to return from a second Achilles tear.

Without such rehab this spring, he has had more time to relax, reflect, and condition the rest of his body.

"You are able to focus on pretty much everything, whereas seasons before, you are doing drills but you are thinking about your leg," Hall said. "It's not that you're nervous it's not going to do well, but you are mindful of if it's strong enough or what you need to do to get it stronger or have more flexibility or more power. It's definitely a different mindset."

Although he had the second-highest tackle total of his career (67) and recorded an interception, Hall felt he failed in 2014 to meet his personal expectations. He dropped other interception opportunities and was beat by quicker, younger receivers fairly regularly. Physically, he felt fine, but something was off. His focus these next few months is to figure it out.

"Looking back on it, I had some mental lapses in there which to me are something that's unforgivable," Hall said. "That's the thing about this offseason. I'm able to look back more than I have in past years."

Maybe similar reflections -- on what and who they could have been --are what has this year feeling so different to the rest of the Bengals.

CINCINNATI -- One particular Cincinnati Bengals coach will be doing his share of teaching later this offseason.

With a young and mostly inexperienced group of charges, tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes might have to give his best impression of an NFL professor.

After coaching a position group last season that had at least three players in it with four or more years of league experience, Hayes' room now contains zero with more than one season of true playing time.

Hayes now has three rookies, a second-year player who spent his rookie year on the practice squad, a second-year starter in Ryan Hewitt, and a relatively young veteran in Tyler Eifert, who is entering his third season. Eifert played just eight snaps last season after shoulder and elbow injuries derailed his second season. So after finishing rehabilitation to his shoulder this spring, Eifert will be playing regularly this fall for the first time in a whole year.

[+] EnlargeTyler Eifert
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesTyler Eifert will be the veteran among the Bengals' tight ends despite having just 45 career receptions, three last season.

Cincinnati's tight end youth movement is more pronounced in its lower ranks. Third-round draft pick Tyler Kroft should be the No. 2 tight end option behind Eifert and might require the least teaching of the trio. Although he'll still command a large amount of attention from coaches the remainder of the offseason, Kroft has been a dual-threat receiving and blocking tight end before.

"He's going to make us a lot better on the offensive side of the ball," Hayes said just after Kroft was drafted earlier this month. "He has a big catch radius, he's an elusive runner, he's an effective and willing blocker. He'll get stronger; he's got a frame that will allow him to put more [weight] on, and that's what excites you about the kid."

While Hayes also was excited about the Bengals' fifth-round pick, C.J. Uzomah, he has more work to do with him. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Uzomah has the size the Bengals like for the position, but he also has very little experience as a true tight end. Reared in Gus Malzahn's spread offense at Auburn, Uzomah was a hybrid receiver/running back who got instruction from coaches at those positions. Auburn didn't have a tight ends coach.

"He's going to take a little more time to grow, but he'll be a quick study and be able to pick it up fairly quickly," Hayes said. "We knew that he has a good understanding of what he needed to do; they just weren't articulated to him."

Similarly, the Bengals have a project in John Peters, a former Division III receiver who was signed Sunday following rookie-camp tryouts. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Peters' size and athleticism piqued the Bengals' interest.

In just eight games at nearby Mount Saint Joseph (the small school now known nationally thanks to basketball player Lauren Hill's inspirational story), Peters caught 24 passes for 424 yards and a tied team-high nine touchdowns.

"He has enough NFL traits to at least allow a chance to show himself and see if he's capable and allow him to get in position to perform some things we're going to ask him to do," said Hayes, a former Chiefs and Steelers tight end. "He's going to have to be a quick study because, let's be honest, this thing goes a lot quicker than it did back in the day when you kept guys around for a while and allowed them to develop and grow.

"Not only does he have to develop, but he has to learn a new position all at once."

With a roster group in transition, Hayes' professorial skills are about to be put to the test.

CINCINNATI -- When he was asked earlier this week about finally having AJ McCarron as a regular participant in on-field drills, Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese's face lit up.

It was "delayed gratification," he said.

"It's been so long," Zampese added. "I wanted him in our building so badly."

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron knows his role with the Bengals, but he still wants to try to unseat starter Andy Dalton.

McCarron isn't the only one in the building now, though. Zampese, coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson have others to choose from. While there won't be a quarterback controversy at the top -- Andy Dalton isn't going anywhere as far as the position's hierarchy is concerned -- the race for the No. 2 backup job should be somewhat intense.

A second-year reserve and Alabama product, McCarron enters organized team activities (OTAs) later this month as the likely No. 2 behind Dalton. McCarron has simply been here slightly longer than the other two, although the others do have more time with Zampese and Jackson.

Josh Johnson was Dalton's top reserve in 2013 before spending all of last year in San Francisco. Johnson returned to Cincinnati via free agency this spring.

As for Terrelle Pryor, the fourth quarterback in the mix, the former Ohio State standout spent three seasons quarterbacking the Oakland Raiders, the same team Jackson coached for a season. The lone year that Jackson led Oakland, he selected Pryor in the supplemental draft, giving the embattled quarterback a shot. The two have deep respect for one another, and it showed when Jackson extended Pryor a second invitation to try out with the Bengals in two years.

While last year's tryout didn't work out, this one did.

Perhaps the most important reason for the Bengals to keep Pryor around was so they could let him showcase his desperate attitude to other veterans. Nearly an NFL journeyman, he hopes he finally has found a home.

In terms of the Bengals, this looks like part of their plan to ratchet up the competition around Dalton. While none of the three backups is legitimately favored to take the job of the $115 million starter, they still can raise the level of play underneath him.

"Terrelle has a presence. This is not his first rodeo," Lewis said at the start of Pryor's tryout during last week's rookie camp. "There's an urgency in his step. That's a good role model for these young guys to observe, and even for guys that have been around a couple of years here. ...He shows how important this is to him."

At this incredibly early offseason stage, it still appears that McCarron will hold down the No. 2 quarterback job, but who does No. 3 go to? Pryor certainly appears to be a better quarterback than Johnson and is versatile enough to play another position -- even if Pryor has repeatedly said he doesn't want to.

Here in May, it appears Johnson's job is most in jeopardy. But then the question becomes, how many signal-callers will the Bengals take into the regular season? They've been known to keep two on the active roster, although in the past two years a third has typically started the season on the physically unable to perform or non-football injury lists. At the end of last season, once McCarron had recovered from a shoulder issue, he was added to the 53-man roster with Dalton and Jason Campbell.

A Dalton-McCarron-Pryor lineup might not intimidate many defenses, but it may be the best the Bengals have had since Dalton became their starter five years ago.

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Stingy defense has long been a hallmark of teams in the AFC North.

Last season, though, three of the division's teams were in the lower half of the league's total defensive rankings, allowing an average of 350 yards or more per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers (18th), Cincinnati Bengals (22nd) and Cleveland Browns (23rd) claimed the undesirable honors. Only the Baltimore Ravens, at eighth, ranked among the league's best defensively.

Those rankings were a sharp departure from the year before, when all four teams ranged from third (Cincinnati) to 13th (Pittsburgh) in total defense.

As nearly the entire division tries to reinvent itself defensively this season, which team (of the three subpar defenses from last year) has the best chance of seeing a turnaround in 2015 that could put it in the top 10? ESPN AFC North reporters made their picks:

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesMichael Johnson's return makes the Bengals' defense a strong candidate to return to prominence in the AFC North.

Coley Harvey, Bengals reporter: This seems like a no-brainer. Between the Steelers, Browns and Bengals, Cincinnati's defense has the best chance to make the jump back into the top 10. That's mainly because for so long the Bengals were already there. Remember, they had a top-10 defensive unit for several seasons before a change at coordinator ushered in transition last year. Under former defensive coordinator (and current Minnesota Vikings head coach) Mike Zimmer, the Bengals were seventh, sixth and third in total defense in 2011, 2012 and 2013. While it's easy to pin last year's 22nd ranking on Paul Guenther, who was in his first season as a coordinator, the Bengals' drop-off was the product of a few other factors. They had injuries at key linebacker positions and had trouble replacing one of their top pass-rushers, who bolted in free agency the prior offseason. This year, they anticipate being back at full health throughout the secondary, and that pass-rusher, defensive end Michael Johnson, is back. Unlike the Browns and Steelers, who have to replace veterans at multiple positions this season, the Bengals have to fill only one spot: the left corner position vacated by 36-year-old Terence Newman. Cincinnati has the best chance to be dramatically better defensively this season.

Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporter: Cleveland's defense is ready to reach new heights, and it has nothing to do with the way Danny Shelton lifted up Roger Goodell on draft day. The Browns have the potential to field one of the best secondaries in the league. Three starting defensive backs (Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson) are back after making the Pro Bowl in 2014. This secondary will be better if free agent Tramon Williams lives up to his contract ($7 million per season) and Justin Gilbert matures after being a disappointing top-10 pick. The sore spots last season were the Browns' run defense and pass rush. That's why the Browns used the No. 12 overall pick on Shelton, a nose tackle, and a second-round pick on outside linebacker Nate Orchard. The Browns produced 31 sacks last year , and Orchard and Shelton combined for 27.5 sacks last season. The improvement on defense doesn't mean the Browns will win more than a handful of games. The Browns are hamstrung by an offense that lacks a quarterback and playmakers. But the Browns wisely invested in their defense in free agency and the draft, and that will propel Cleveland back into the top 10.

Pat McManamon, Browns reporter: Being from Cleveland, it would be nice to say the Browns here. Their secondary is sound, they invested heavily in the defensive line in the draft and free agency, and they added linebacker Nate Orchard to go with Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. That's a good place to start. The problem is that the Browns ranked 32nd against the run last season with a defense that was much like this one. Until the Browns actually stop the run, they can't be considered top-10. Pittsburgh is going through transition, from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler. From Troy Polamalu to Mike Mitchell. From a stellar linebacking crew to young guys who are developing (Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones). That's a lot of change for any group. Which leaves Cincinnati as the last team standing -- and the most logical choice to improve. The Bengals re-signed Michael Johnson after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him. That fortifies a line that includes Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. Vontaze Burfict is a force, and the Bengals as a unit got better as the 2014 season went on -- a natural occurrence after the departure of Mike Zimmer to become Vikings coach. In the first half of the season, the Bengals gave up 23.8 first downs, 357.4 yards and 23.4 points per game. In the second half, the numbers dropped to 18.4 first downs, 323.4 yards and 19.6 points per game. With Atkins one more year removed from ACL surgery, the addition of Johnson and the players as a whole becoming more comfortable with coordinator Paul Guenther, Cincinnati will be the team that jumps back into the top 10.

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