AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- In an effort to clear a little cap space and to start making room on the roster for offseason additions, the Cincinnati Bengals released Friday veteran defensive end Robert Geathers and receiver Greg Little.

Combined, the two releases will give the Bengals roughly $3.2 million in cap savings.

The Bengals also released offensive guard Mike Pollak last Friday.

Geathers
Little
Geathers' release wasn't much of a surprise, as it had been expected that either he or tackle Domata Peko would be on the defensive line's chopping block this offseason. It also was expected that Little wouldn't be brought back to the club. The fourth-year receiver had a rather disappointing six-game run in Cincinnati this past season, and didn't do much to convince the Bengals he belonged in the Queen City for another year.

Signed last October to help the Bengals address a need at the injury-plagued receiver position, Little caught just six passes for 69 yards during his brief stay. He also dropped two passes.

Geathers' departure brings an end to one of the franchise's longest-standing tenures. An 11-year NFL vet -- all of them spent in Cincinnati after his fourth-round selection in 2004 -- Geathers ranks third in team history in games played by a defensive lineman. Tim Krumrie (188) and Eddie Edwards (170) outpace him. Geathers also was part of all five playoff appearances under head coach Marvin Lewis. Cincinnati is 0-5 in those games. Geathers is one of the few players in franchise history who has played in that many postseasons.

"Robert has been with us for all my seasons except the first one," Lewis said about the 31-year-old in a statement, "and he has been a team leader as well as a very productive player. He's an incredible teammate and a true professional, a big part of the winning seasons we've achieved. If Robert elects to pursue an opportunity with another NFL team, the timing of this move will allow him the best possible chance at that."

Geathers' younger brother, Kwame, joined the team late last season as a practice squad addition. He was signed to a future's contract in January, and is expected to be among the linemen competing for playing time when mini camp opens in May.

One of only 19 players to have spent 11 or more seasons with the Bengals, Geathers leaves behind some significant memories. He was a two-time team leader in sacks. He had a career-high 10.5 of his 34 sacks in 2006. He also scored two touchdowns off a fumble return and interception. The score off the fumble was a 75-yard return, the longest fumble return in team history.

An elbow injury ended Geathers' 2013 season after just two games. He didn't fully bounce back from it.

With Geathers and Little gone, the Bengals are expected to double their efforts to find players who can contribute at those positions. Cincinnati last season had the worst grade among NFL pass-rush units, according to Pro Football Focus.

Little's biggest claim to fame while in Cincinnati came about three weeks after his arrival when he was asked about his rocky departure from Cleveland. Days before the Bengals' Thursday night game against the Browns, he said "somebody has to pay" for the way he was released.

No one did. The Bengals lost the game 24-3, and Little caught just one eight-yard pass of three targets.
CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson was encouraged by the work his running backs showcased near the end of the 2014 season, but the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator is convinced the unit has barely scratched the surface of what it can do overall.

"I was happy we ended the season running the ball the way we did but there is still so much more there," Jackson at last week's NFL combine. "We left a lot of meat on the bone."

While many outside the locker room praised rookie Jeremy Hill's play -- particularly during the final nine weeks of the regular season when he led the league in rushing -- Jackson was letting Hill and fellow back Giovani Bernard have it.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsRookie Jeremy Hill led the league in rushing during the final nine weeks of the regular season.
Their harshest critic, Jackson made no qualms about wanting to see them break even more tackles, slip more defenders and get even bigger gains. He was only so critical because he still believes the two running backs can be the bedrock of his offense.

In 2013, Bernard was an outside candidate for the NFL's rookie of the year award. Hill was in the mix this past season. Neither won, but the recognition they received was a testament to how well they fit in the Bengals' multiback scheme that's designed for the load to be shared. Unlike other teams, Cincinnati doesn't want to be paced by a single back. Jackson believes a player wears down faster if he is the only running and passing option out of the backfield.

When it came to catching passes out the backfield, the first-year Bengals coordinator was truly impressed.

His running backs combined for 80 receptions last season. That's more than the position group had during any other year in this four-season playoff run. The running backs had 60 receptions in 2013, 43 in 2012 and 53 in 2011, the year the Bengals began this stretch of postseason appearances. The team still, of course, hasn't won a playoff game since 1991.

Bernard did the heavy lifting in the passing game in 2013, catching 56 passes to the four that BenJarvus Green-Ellis had. There was a more even split this past year. While Bernard caught 43 passes, Hill caught 27. Backups Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman combined for the other 10.

"People keep saying, 'Well, Gio didn't catch a lot of balls,'" Jackson said. "Well, that's because we had another guy who could catch the ball very well. That gives us another threat. That position caught 80 balls last year. That is quite a bit for a running back position."

It is, but consider this.

Two running backs, Chicago's Matt Forte and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, had more than 80 receptions this season by themselves. There also were eight other teams that had two or more running backs who caught 25 or more passes each. Only two of them, however, the Lions and Colts, made it to the playoffs with the Bengals.

As encouraged as he was about his running backs' receiving numbers, Jackson still isn't convinced Hill has done his best job helping quarterback Andy Dalton have time to pass to other players.

"You earn the right [to play] by pass protection," Jackson said, adding that injuries to Bernard helped accelerate Hill's playing time. "It wasn't his running ability. That's [pass protection] what we drafted him for. He would be the first to tell you we need to grow in that area."

Growth is precisely what Jackson is predicting for Hill and Bernard in 2015.

"There is more in there for both of them," he said.
CINCINNATI -- The NFL still has yet to announce the official salary-cap spending limit teams will be allowed to hit this coming season, but recent reports have indicated it soon will be set around $143 million.

If that is the case, it means the Cincinnati Bengals will have about $36.5 million of cap space to work with, according to numbers ESPN Stats & Information updated Thursday afternoon.

Earlier this month, we reported a projection close to $33 million for the Bengals. That was using the previous $140-million-per-team projection.

Regardless of where the salary cap ultimately settles, the Bengals ought to have some of the most space to work with in the league. Based on Thursday's projections, they rank seventh in available cap space. Their anticipated $36.5 million is some $5 million shy of the team with the sixth-largest amount of cap space, the Indianapolis Colts. With an expected $67.1 million of cap space, the Jacksonville Jaguars pace all teams in the amount of money they will be able to spend this year.

It's good news for the Bengals, who typically are frugal with their offseason spending habits compared to other teams. Unlike last offseason, when the Bengals had multiple big-money, long-term extensions they wanted to take care of, this year they only have one. It's not even a necessity, either. With at least two more years to sign A.J. Green to a new contract, the Bengals don't have to be in a rush to extend the Pro Bowl receiver. That said, though, there is interest from both sides in possibly addressing an extension this year.

Even if they set aside money for Green, the Bengals still should be able to spend more freely in free agency. Coach Marvin Lewis already has indicated he anticipated the team being more aggressive on the free-agent market. With more than an $36 million to spend on this season alone, the Bengals ought to be able to re-sign some of their current free-agent targets and invest in another one or two who could warrant larger deals.

Ndamukong Suh still probably is off the table, but is Greg Hardy? Nick Fairley? We'll find out in about two weeks, when the Bengals can start spending.
CINCINNATI -- One of the Cincinnati Bengals' greatest offseason needs involves getting receivers who also can provide good kick-return value.

With the possibility that unrestricted free agent Brandon Tate isn't re-signed, and given the fact the Bengals haven't added a true return specialist in several draft and free-agency cycles, there are compelling reasons as to why they are looking for players this year who fit that mold.

So can they just use free agency to address that need?

It's possible. And this week, they've been given two good options of free-agent kick-returning receivers.

Ginn
Ginn
Jones
But should the Bengals sign either Ted Ginn Jr. or Jacoby Jones, a pair of eight-year veterans who were released from their respective teams this week?

No.

Here's why. This year's draft class is full of speedy, athletic and productive pass-catchers who had success as kick returners throughout college. Unlike the near-30-year-old Ginn and the already 30 Jones, each of those players has projected upside and potential. Earlier this week, we looked at a few of them.

Various times this offseason, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has expressed an interest in going after fast wideouts who, like the 5-foot-11 Ginn, likely will be on the shorter side of the height chart. Only one of the prospect receivers in the link above is taller than 6-foot. Jones, at 6-2, is more of a bigger-bodied outside receiver. That alone likely rules him out.

One of the reasons the Bengals are expected to go after smaller receivers is because they need wideouts to play in the slot alongside the bigger A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. In addition to Tate, fellow slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher also is eligible for unrestricted free agency, and also might not be re-signed. If one or both is gone, there will be an opening that must be filled.

The Bengals also favor smaller receivers because there is a belief that in the short-passing game, receivers of smaller stature are easily lost by the linebackers and safeties who might cover them. It's one of the reasons Cincinnati has liked lining up 5-9 running back Giovani Bernard in the slot and putting him on a linebacker. The times the Bengals did it last year, it worked. He caught two touchdown passes last season that were the product of using his speed to exploit such mismatches.

Again, this draft has many receivers who can do exactly that.

While the Bengals generally might be placing a greater emphasis on free agency this year, it doesn't appear they will be doing that with this particular position. Things can always change, but it seems they favor grooming a hybrid receiver/returner. Their approach at defensive end, however, might be different. In need of immediately bettering their anemic pass rush, veteran players there won't have to learn much. Their only charge will be to get after the quarterback. Because speed is the focus at receiver, there's always the belief that a faster wideout can be found anywhere, in Rounds 1-7 or even as an undrafted free agent. The same might not be the case for athletic edge rushers.

Money won't be an issue for whoever signs Ginn or Jones. Ginn made $2.3 million this past season and Jones signed a contract extension last offseason that would pay him an average of $3 million across four seasons. The Bengals could afford that.

But they also can pay a fourth-round or fifth-round draft pick significantly less, giving them slightly more to work with to sign free agents at other positions of need.
CINCINNATI -- Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals are targeting receivers in this year's draft.

But no, they aren't going after tall, jump-ball threats like A.J. Green.

With Green lining up on one edge and Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu expected to return as legitimate Nos. 2 and 3 options at the position behind the Pro Bowler, the Bengals have no reason to look for a long, above 6-foot wideout.

Instead, they're on the hunt for shifty and explosive playmakers. They can be 5-foot-2 or 5-foot-10 for all head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson care. They just want the receiver(s) they draft to be able to run fast and elude defenses -- and likely special-teams units.

As the Bengals continue their pre-draft evaluations, expect them to eye wideouts who also can return kicks and punts.

"That's an area we would always like to fill," Lewis said about adding returners for special-teams coordinator Darren Simmons. "Darren ends up sometimes being a little frustrated about that because we don't quite end up getting that filled as well as we maybe could."

That seems to suggest the Bengals are placing a greater emphasis on adding a new return specialist this year. Brandon Tate, the team's primary kick returner since his arrival in 2011, is eligible for free agency. Cornerback Adam Jones is expected to remain the top punt returner, but he would need a new backup if Tate isn't re-signed.

"It's always been an emphasis," Lewis said. "It just happens to fall into place that that guy's role is a little larger than maybe it seems."

So maybe the push for getting a receiver who can double as a kick/punt returner is the same it's been in recent years, but it certainly appears the Bengals would favor draft prospects who have a returner's background.

When Jackson detailed to reporters last week his ideal receiver target, he could have been talking about any one of the players in the accompanying graph.

"He has to be a playmaker that is fast," Jackson said. "I don't think it's about size. We have big guys already.

"I'm looking for a great football player, if we do decide to go that way, who can give us something we don't already have. We have some very talented players at the [receiver] spot, but again, I don't think you can ever have too many playmakers. It was shown. As our season wound down last year we kind of lost some battles in that area because we were kind of short-handed [due to injury]."

Some of the most dynamic playmakers on the field are those who can turn momentum just by juking coverage-team players.

No wide out in this draft class was as good at doing that as a kick returner as Alabama-Birmingham's J.J. Nelson. A possible late-round prospect, Nelson led the nation with an average 38.3 yards per kick return in 2014. He bolstered his case for being drafted over the weekend when he ran a combine-best 4.28-second 40.

Early-round possibilities include Maryland's Stefon Diggs, who averaged 23.9 yards per kick return last season. Tyler Lockett, a Kansas State product who had 106 catches and a second straight double-digit touchdown performance last year, had eight punt returns over 20 yards. Nelson Agholor from USC had a pair of punt-return touchdowns, as did Duke's Jamison Crowder.

Only one of the four, Agholor, is taller than 6-foot.

Remember, the Bengals value across-the-board versatility. Their return backgrounds alone ought to get these players on Cincinnati's big board.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was an opportunity for Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to give one of his biggest unrestricted free agents a ringing endorsement.

The endorsement didn't come. It's possible it never will.

Asked at the NFL combine Thursday afternoon if there was a place on the roster for Jermaine Gresham, the embattled veteran tight end who will enter free agency next month, Lewis didn't say yes and he didn't say no. Instead, he put the ball in Gresham's court, saying the former Bengals first-round pick needs to figure out how he wants his career to progress.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Gresham
Nick Wass/Associated PressJermaine Gresham played 15 games during the 2014 season, notching 62 catches for 460 yards and 5 TDs.
"Jermaine, he's got a lot of things ahead of him," Lewis said. "And he's got to figure out what Jermaine Gresham wants to do. That's the most important thing. We were very fortunate to draft Jermaine when we did five years ago, and he's had five seasons where he's contributed to this football team.

"He's at a crossroads. It's, whats Jermaine want next? When he commits to whatever he wants next, then things will work out."

It's anyone's guess what those wishes are.

It's been written before but must be rehashed. There are some around the team who were disappointed with Gresham's decisions not to play in two of the more meaningful games late this season because of injuries.

After hobbling slightly while testing a bad toe before the Week 15 game at Cleveland, he decided to shut himself down for the game. Former Bengal and team radio analyst Dave Lapham was among the many who thought he looked OK enough to play in the important late-season AFC North game, and as a result was so surprised by Gresham's decision that he commented about it on-air during the pregame radio show. After the game, Gresham heard about what Lapham said and challenged him in the locker room while he was conducting a live radio interview with Lewis. Three days later, the tight end was back practicing.

Just before the wild-card round playoff game last month in Indianapolis, Gresham was on the field early testing out a back injury. Most who saw the pregame workout could tell he was banged-up, but believed he looked good enough to play.

He didn't.

In addition to being without Gresham that day, the Bengals already knew they wouldn't have Pro Bowler A.J. Green, and key pass-catchers Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert had been out since the start of the season. The Bengals were so depleted at pass-catching positions that running back Rex Burkhead was used that afternoon as a slot receiver.

Regardless what perceptions exist about Gresham's decisions to not play in the two games, he still wasn't as dynamic in 2014 as he had been at earlier points in a rather rocky career. Called upon to be the only true pass-catching tight end with Eifert shelved, he caught 62 passes -- the second-most he's had in a season -- but had his lowest yards per reception average. He also fumbled three times, and had a series of drops and inexplicable cut-off routes that negated multiple would-be touchdown catches.

Gresham had a $4.8 million cap value in 2014, and made an average $2.8 million per year across his five seasons. Jordan Cameron, a Browns' unrestricted free agent and former fourth-round pick, made $1.6 million this past season. He could be among the free agents the Bengals consider if they don't bring Gresham back.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL combine enters its fourth day at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday, and I'm here covering the event from a Cincinnati Bengals' perspective.

This week we've looked at three key areas the Bengals will want to address during this draft process. There are others, and that's why these few days in Indianapolis are so important to helping determine the direction the franchise goes. At the start of each day, we will provide a quick rundown of what to expect as the team starts examining players it wants on its big board heading into the draft.

Here are three things I'll have my eye on during Day 4 of the combine:

1. On-field workouts begin. The always anticipated on-field workouts begin as the offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists train on Lucas Oil Stadium's turf. A day after bench pressing, their 40-yard times will be recorded, and they'll be taken through other speed and agility and position-specific drills. This will be the final stage of combine testing for the three position groups.

2. Time to meet the pass-rushers. Another group of prospects will meet the media Friday as interviews continue. While it's possible the Bengals ultimately decide to use free agency to fix their pass-rushing issues, they still will take a look at the various defensive linemen and linebackers who arrived in Indianapolis on Thursday. Bottom line: they need help getting to the quarterback after last season's abysmal 20-sack showing. Linebackers who can play Sam, Will and nickel roles are the biggest necessities at that level of the defense.

3. Defensive updates. Speaking of the pass rush, it is sure to be among the topics broached by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who is expected to meet with Bengals reporters briefly. Also be on the lookout for more updates from him on linebacker Vontaze Burfict's recovery from knee surgery, and his early thoughts on how the cornerback rotations could break down in 2015.

4. Wrapping up a busy Thursday. You'll also want to keep checking back to the Bengals blog throughout the day as we continue wrapping up a busy Thursday. Head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson spoke, and there still is plenty from them to get to.
INDIANAPOLIS – Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the NFL combine Thursday that he and team president Mike Brown have not had conversations about extending his contract, which expires at the end of the 2015 season.

At last year's combine, Lewis acknowledged he and Brown had discussions about keeping him in Cincinnati. A month later, the team announced a one-year extension that allowed him to coach the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Lewis
Much as he did 12 months ago, Lewis said Thursday that his focus wasn't on getting a new deal.

"I don’t worry about my contract," Lewis said. "As I told you a year ago, my contract will take care of itself. It always does. It's not about me. It's about the football team. That's what's most important."

At last year's combine, in giving a reason for his lack of an extension, Lewis cited the dozen or so assistant coach hirings or re-signings the team had to make first. This year, he didn't say anything more than the comment above.

The second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL, the 56-year-old Lewis has led the Bengals since 2003.

Lewis joked at the Super Bowl about possibly vacating his post as early as next season. During a segment on ESPN’s "NFL Live," Lewis laughed as he brought up the possibility that Bengals assistant Vance Joseph might take his spot in the very near future.

"My boss and owner sees him as a star," Lewis said, "and a guy that, as I told Vance, he could be sitting in my chair very quickly.

"It could be next year."

Joseph, who has spent one season as the Bengals’ co-defensive backs coach, was courted earlier this offseason by the Broncos and 49ers for their defensive coordinator positions. He's viewed across the league as a rising star and is expected to be a head coach somewhere in coming years.
INDIANAPOLIS -- This should come as little surprise, but expect the Cincinnati Bengals to have their hands full as they bid for Clint Boling's services when free agency begins next month.

It's possible the versatile 25-year-old left guard draws significant interest when the market officially opens March 10. This tweet from ESPN senior writer Jeremy Fowler from Thursday morning provides a good indication why.


So what exactly makes Boling a potential "under-radar" favorite?

There's a number of reasons. Chief among them is Boling's aforementioned positional flexibility. Although he spent the bulk of his career at left guard, Boling also has spent some time at right tackle. In addition to playing a little there in college, he practiced at the position in preseason camps and ended up there for parts of two games this past season after starter Andre Smith was lost for the year with a torn triceps.

Boling also has to be attractive because of how well he played in 2014 considering he was less than nine months removed from ACL surgery. While his defensive teammate, tackle Geno Atkins, struggled to bounce back from his own ACL tear, Boling was strong on the line, particularly in opening holes for the running game. Pro Football Focus graded him as the Bengals' third-best run-blocker behind Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler.

For teams that want to make the ground game the priority, Boling has value.

Clearly, with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard such a focal point of their offense, the Bengals are one such team. As a result, they're going to make a play to keep Boling.

With a $1.6 million cap charge in 2014, Boling was one of the cheapest starting guards in the league. Forty-eight guards had higher cap values than him, including his backup, Mike Pollak.

The Bengals come into this year's free agency with an anticipated $33 million in cap space. The NFL has yet to announce what the final 2015 cap limit will be, but it's expected to hover just above $140 million per team.

Besides the potential affordability aspect of re-signing Boling, the Bengals also have a track record of pushing hard for re-signing players they trust. It's why Domata Peko earned an extension last offseason, and why Whitworth has been a stalwart of the offensive line. The Bengals this year will have to determine if the trust they have in Boling matches the dollar amount they're willing to spend on him.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL combine enters its third day at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Thursday, and I'm here covering the event from a Cincinnati Bengals perspective.

This week we've looked three key areas the Bengals will want to address during this draft process. There are others, and that's why these next few days are so important to helping determine the direction the franchise goes. At the start of each day, we will provide a quick rundown of what to expect as the team starts examining players it wants on its big board as we get closer to this year's draft.

Here are three things I'll have my eye on during Day 2 of the combine:

1.State of the Bengals: Part of what separates the combine from other pre-draft events is that coaches and general managers from nearly every team are assembled in one place, and get to chat with reporters about the latest that's happening with their teams. Cincinnati's turn is Thursday. Coach Marvin Lewis will speak publicly for the first time since the Super Bowl.

2. Injury updates: With several players rehabbing injuries, we'll see if Lewis will have any updates. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict still is in the early weeks of his recovery from microfracture surgery, and receiver Marvin Jones continues to move past ankle and foot issues he had this past season. Tight end Tyler Eifert has apparently been doing so well in his recovery from shoulder and elbow surgery that he's been participating in hockey shootouts the past two weeks.

3. Cincy's free agency plans? Don't expect Lewis or any other Bengals representatives to share every secret about which direction the team goes in free agency. But also don't be surprised if we start getting a slightly better idea of what the organization might like to do with its current free agents now that the start of the free-agency period is a little closer.

4. Bench presses begin: We'll start seeing the first testing results of the combine as offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists participate in the bench press. The exercise is an important test in determining players' strength. Last year, North Carolina product Russell Bodine paced all combine participants in bench reps by lifting 225 pounds 42 times. The Bengals were impressed by that and drafted the center in the fourth round.

5. Who to watch? Quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs all arrived to Indianapolis late Wednesday. Those players will speak with media Thursday. In Cincinnati's case, it will be important to keep an eye on receivers. Devin Smith (Ohio State), Phillip Dorsett (Miami of Florida), Breshad Perriman (Central Florida), Rashad Greene (Florida State), and Nelson Agholor (USC) are possible early round options the Bengals could consider.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- To play for the Cincinnati Bengals, an offensive lineman must possess one important quality: versatility.

Versatile linemen, in the eyes of Bengals coaches, are ones who aren't specialized. They're players who have no qualms about switching sides of the line if need be, or switching between interior and exterior blocking positions when asked.

LSU product and potential Bengals target La'el Collins considers himself to be precisely that type of player.

"I don't have any preference," Collins said Wednesday afternoon at the NFL combine, speaking specifically about playing left or right tackle. "I can go wherever."

Throughout his college career, Collins bounced back and forth between the two edge-blocking spots, and even did the same on the interior. His later years at LSU were spent playing left tackle. During the Senior Bowl, he took reps at four different line positions.

That's called versatility.

If you've followed the Bengals the last few seasons, you understand why the organization values such flexibility.

Two seasons ago, veteran Andrew Whitworth, the organization's stalwart left tackle moved to left guard the last six games when Clint Boling was lost due to an ACL tear. It wasn't the most ideal scenario for Whitworth, but he volunteered to make the switch anyway. While he preferred the comfort and familiarity of the left tackle position, he felt that moving inside would make the team even better. It arguably did, with the Bengals posting some of their best rushing performances in those end-of-season games.

This past season, the Bengals were forced to make similar switches when right tackle Andre Smith was lost in Week 11 due to a triceps tear. With him out of the rotation, Boling briefly moved from left guard to right tackle before the Cincinnati ultimately found a reliable replacement in veteran tackle Eric Winston.

Versatility; it's what can help a line during harrowing moments like those.

"It's a big advantage," Collins said about playing multiple positions. "It's about understanding the personnel you are blocking. When you're inside you are going against bigger guys. They are stronger, not faster, but on an island you are going against fast guys who are long with speed. You have to be able to understand where you're at on the field and understand the personnel you're going against."

Collins' versatility even extends to the other side of the ball. Before transitioning to the offensive line in high school, he spent the majority of his early playing years -- Collins started football in the third grade -- on the defensive line.

"I always had the mentality of a defensive lineman since I was a defensive guy," he said. "I was able to bring that over on the offensive side, but also bring that intelligence over as well to be able to play the offensive line position. To me, being able to go out with a mentality to just get after it is something I can bring to the table."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard at the NFL combine on Wednesday:

1.Key offensive tackle target speaks. Among the several offensive line prospects who came into the interview room, LSU product La'el Collins was one of the few who figures to be a Cincinnati Bengals target in this year's draft. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound lineman told reporters he has meetings set up with 22 teams while attending the combine. A team with a very real need at offensive tackle, the Bengals are likely one of those teams. Specifically, the Bengals are on the hunt for another backup swing tackle, while also looking for a player who could eventually take over at left tackle for Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth, who will turn 34 late next season.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey"Could I come in right now and play left [tackle]?" La'el Collins asked. "I feel very confident in what I do so for me it wouldn't be a problem."
2. Could Collins be a Bengals fit? Some of the feedback Collins has received so from teams suggests he would be a good fit for Cincinnati. "A lot of teams have told me I am their favorite offensive lineman," Collins said. "A lot of teams asked me if I could slide to the right side and then in two years maybe come over to the left. Could I come in right now and play left? I feel very confident in what I do so for me it wouldn't be a problem."

3. Interviews have impact. With all the pro days and the Senior Bowl and the myriad other ways teams can evaluate players these days, what is the main reason teams still flock to the combine? The interviews. While in Indianapolis, coaching and scouting staffs that don't attend the Senior Bowl can talk to players for the first time. Staffs that may have started conversations at the college all-star game can continue them at the combine. Here's what Washington head coach and former Bengals assistant Jay Gruden said about the benefit of interviews: "Your needs can change. I may be thinking about [one player at] a position but somebody else will stand out in the interview room or out on the field out there, and then you go back and watch the tape on them."

4. Looking for character. One of the benefits of the interview process is that it gives teams a chance to better vet players who may bring "red flags" or off-field issues to the draft process. Browns coach Mike Pettine was asked if he missed anything in evaluating quarterback Johnny Manziel last year. "There's a danger in that if you just say listen, we're only going to add players to our roster that are National Honor Society and in the school choir, there's a danger in that. You look across the league, it's not just the league, it's society in general. It's rare that you're going to have somebody that has impeccable, clean character. ... You can't just knee-jerk react to it and just look in the other direction with anybody that has some type of red flag and you shy away from them."

5. Bengals up Thursday. Cincinnati's coaches didn't address media Wednesday, but will Thursday. In addition to head coach Marvin Lewis' time at the podium, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is expected to meet with local media.
The NFL combine officially kicks off Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and I'll be there covering the event from a Cincinnati Bengals perspective.

So far this week we've looked at three key areas the Bengals will want to address during this draft process. There are others, too, though, and that's why these next few days are so important to helping determine the next direction the franchise goes. At the start of each day, we'll provide a quick run-down of what to expect as the team starts examining players it wants on its big board as we get closer to this year's draft.

Here are three things I'll have my eye on during Day 1 of the combine:

1. Sizing up the OL and TE prospects. Offensive linemen, tight ends, punters, kickers, one long-snapper and three smaller-school quarterbacks were the first to arrive to the combine Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, they'll get measured and go through medical evaluations before spending time conversing with media. They won't go on the field for actual workouts until Friday, but this first day gives them an opportunity to start showing the results of the training they've been part of since their college seasons ended. I'm looking to see if the heights and weights of certain offensive tackles and tight ends match up to what's currently out there. It'll also be interesting to talk to certain prospects to get a better understanding of their back stories, and to hear them describe their own styles of play. Teams did much of the same with them Tuesday night.

2. Who to watch? After getting a center last year (Russell Bodine, who had the most bench reps at the combine), the Bengals' primary offensive line concerns revolve around the tackle position. It's possible they evaluate tight ends, too, in what is seeming like the likely scenario that Jermaine Gresham isn't re-signed in free agency. If the Bengals have to replace him, the emphasis likely would be on adding more of a pass-catching tight end over a blocking specialist. Ryan Hewitt was a blocker whose versatility as an H-back impressed the Bengals last year. Signed as an undrafted free agent, he played a big role in the offense's success this past season.

So who are some tackles to watch? T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh), La'el Collins (LSU), Cameron Erving (Florida State), Ereck Flowers (Miami -- Florida), Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M), Jake Fisher (Oregon). Here are a few tight ends: Maxx Williams (Minnesota), Clive Walford (Miami -- Florida), Nick O'Leary (FSU), Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State), Nick Boyle (Delaware).

3. Around the division. In addition to player evaluations, the combine provides a chance for representatives from nearly every team to address media. Only Marvin Lewis will take the podium for Cincinnati, and he won't do so until Thursday afternoon. Coaches and general managers from every other AFC North team will speak Wednesday, though. We'll keep our ears peeled for any interesting nuggets from the rest of the division.
The least-expensive position in the NFL for the franchise tag is tight end.

The Cleveland Browns' best player who can be an unrestricted free agent is a tight end.

But don’t automatically assume that the Browns will tie up Jordan Cameron with the franchise tag, because the price does not seem to be something the team will want to pay.

Today is the first day the team can use the tag, with the deadline to name a franchise or transition player March 2 at 4 p.m. There is no need to expect an instant decision; most teams wait as long as possible to gauge the market and interest before deciding to apply tags to their players.

The non-exclusive franchise tag allows the Browns to match any offer a franchised player receives. If they don't match, they would receive two first-round picks as compensation.

[+] EnlargeJordan Cameron
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsIf the Browns don't tag Jordan Cameron, he would surely be one of the most prized tight ends available in free agency.
Essentially, applying the franchise tag ensures a player is not going anywhere. And from a player's perspective, the franchise tag takes away a player’s ability to market himself as a free agent.

The secondary tag -- the transition tag -- allows a team to match an offer a free agent receives and forces the team that signs him to be creative with a contract. Using the transition tag last offseason allowed the Browns to keep center Alex Mack for two more years.

Of the Browns' unrestricted free agents, Cameron is the most likely to receive a tag, though it’s far from a certainty it will happen.

Sidelined five games by a concussion and one with a shoulder issue, Cameron had just 24 catches for 424 yards and two touchdowns in 2014. But he led the league among tight ends with four receptions of 40 yards or more, and in 2013 he went to the Pro Bowl with 80 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.

Some financial numbers on the tight end position are worth considering.

  • If the salary cap jumps to $145 million, the franchise cost for tight ends is expected to be at or about $8.4 million. That figure would count completely against the Browns' salary cap.
  • Last season, NFL teams averaged $5.66 million in cap costs for all tight ends, and $6.1 million in cash paid for the position, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System.
  • The franchise cost would make Cameron the league’s second highest paid tight end in terms of base salary. In terms of cash (base salary plus bonuses) he’d be behind Rob Gronkowski's $15 million (again per the Roster Management System).
  • Witten was the most expensive tight end under the cap in 2014, at $8.4 million. Cameron’s franchise tag would be right at that price, but in 2015 he’d be behind Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Gronkowski and Jason Witten.

Clearly paying Cameron the franchise tag would put him among the best paid at the position.

The Browns have the cap space to carry the franchise cost, but they must answer a few questions:

1) Is Cameron worth the money?

It’s easy to say yes because Cameron has rare skills for a tight end. He can get downfield, he can run and he has excellent hands. He’s also a pro, a guy the team would seem to want because he fits the “play like a Brown” qualities they seek. On talent and professionalism, it’s easy to advocate keeping him.

However, the team no doubt looks and sees that Cameron had just 24 catches a year ago, and making a player with that number among the highest paid at his position takes some gumption. The Browns may also look at the six games he missed and see they went 4-2 without him.

2) Does Cameron want to come back?

This has been the subject of much debate. What’s clear is the constant change and upheaval wore on Cameron as the year progressed, and at season’s end he seemed (at best) lukewarm about wanting to stay. In four seasons in Cleveland, Cameron has had nine quarterbacks, four offensive coordinators, three tight end coaches, three general managers and three head coaches. He has a young son to whom he is devoted who lives in Los Angeles. He may prefer to be closer to his son, and if so the Browns have to weigh the value of forcing him to stay in a place he does not want to be.

3) Does injury matter?

The team will consider Cameron’s history of concussions. He’s had three in three seasons, the last one the result of a vicious and frightening hit from Oakland safety Brandian Ross. Given the effects of concussions can be cumulative, teams have to weigh that and so does Cameron. But his abilities have to be tempting to a coach like Seattle's Pete Carroll, who coached Cameron in college at USC. Given he's just 26, Cameron has a terrific future ahead of him if he stays healthy.

Given all the factors and given the Browns pulled the transition tag out of mothballs a year ago, it seems more likely the team uses the transition tag than the franchise tag on Cameron.

However, it seems even more likely the Browns apply neither. There seemed to be a feeling during the season that the team realized it could win without paying top dollar to a tight end. The Browns tried to re-sign Cameron a year ago to no avail. They may try again, but there's a lot of frustration under that bridge.

It appears most likely that Cameron will hit the free-agent market.

(Later today: A look at the other Browns free agents as they relate to the franchise tag.)

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