AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- For much of this pre-draft period, this blog has examined the Cincinnati Bengals' draft history by focusing on what the franchise has done in the 13 years since Marvin Lewis took over as head coach.

While that's certainly not a bad tactic, it's also worth pointing out what the team has done since it's top officer has been making those choices. After all, with as much input as Lewis provides in draft meetings, team president Mike Brown contributes his fair share, too.

Remember, this is Brown's team. That point was driven home Wednesday when Brown surprised many by signing Lewis to a one-year contract extension. The move eliminates the pending lame-duck status Lewis would have had in 2015, the final year of his previous contract. It also should keep the coach around through the 2016 season.

So, as it pertains to this year's draft that begins in Chicago next Thursday, can anything from Brown's past be used as an indicator of how Cincinnati will proceed with its first-round pick?

That's what we tried to explore here. The short answer? This year, history doesn't really tell the story.

That's because the Bengals' biggest needs this season don't much align with the pattern the team has had in the 23 drafts since Brown became team president.

The below chart shows that since the 1992 draft, the Bengals have picked more linebackers (five) in the first round than players at any other position. Defensive backs are a close second, with four. Each of them has been selected since 2003, the year Lewis became head coach.

Although the Bengals have a need for linebackers, they aren't likely to draft any until the second day of the draft this year, at the earliest. The cornerback position also isn't high on their list of priorities this year.

Of the positions the Bengals have drafted the most in the first round under Brown, offensive tackle appears to be the team's biggest draft need this year. If the draft shakes out the way the Bengals would hope, it seems most likely that will be the position they target with the 21st overall pick. Miami's Ereck Flowers, Oregon's Jake Fisher and Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi are potential tackles who could be there when the selection is made.

In the Lewis era, the Bengals have drafted only one tackle in the first round -- current starting right tackle Andre Smith. He was picked sixth overall in 2009. Levi Jones and Willie Anderson were the other two picked during Brown's tenure.

If Brown's draft history isn't the strongest indicator of what the Bengals might do in the first round, can it still help project what the Bengals will do in the overall draft? Yes, that seems more possible.

Each of the five most-drafted positions during Brown's reign are among this year's draft needs. Expect them to take a safety, go after a receiver or two, draft a linebacker or two, commit to an offensive tackle and make a move on a couple of defensive linemen. With a massive group of potential 2016 free agents and aging veterans on the current roster, that's the driving force behind drafting at those positions.

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CINCINNATI -- Fresh off his best year in the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary, safety George Iloka begins his most important season this September.

Scheduled to hit free agency next March, the 25-year-old is one of 28 players on the Bengals' current roster entering a potential contract year.

That's why Iloka will be paying close attention in eight days when the Bengals start making their nine draft picks and signing undrafted first-year free agents. With the understanding Cincinnati could be tooling up for life after him or fellow starting safety Reggie Nelson, Iloka knows a player from his position likely will be part of the Bengals' draft plans.

"We only have four safeties on the roster. We normally carry about five or six," Iloka said. "So I wouldn't be surprised if they drafted a safety."

He's right. Each of the three seasons Iloka has spent in the league, the Bengals have had at least five players at his position. Typically there have been two starters, two backups (one of which has played slightly more than the other reserve and who had the versatility to either also match up as a slot corner or as a cover linebacker in nickel) and another reserve who primarily spends time on special teams.

The last two years, Taylor Mays was routinely the top safety off the bench, and he played a key role on special teams alongside fellow backup Shawn Williams. With Mays' free-agency departure, the Bengals would like to add a defensive back who could give them the downfield tackling ability on coverage teams Mays routinely showcased.

Beyond that, the Bengals also appear to be in the market for a safety who can play close to the line of scrimmage defensively, blitz on occasion and cover downfield in rare circumstances. In theory, that player would be a carbon copy of Nelson, the 31-year-old whose contract also expires next offseason. As the highest-earning safety on the team, Nelson likely would command more than the $4.78 million cap charge he will have this season.

Combine that with the fact Iloka had arguably a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2014 (although he wasn't selected to the all-star game) and could have the same kind of performance in 2015, and it suddenly becomes difficult seeing the Bengals paying for both standout defensive backs next spring. Conventional logic favors them keeping the younger player, even if both have high potential in upcoming seasons.

Iloka will be most curious about where the Bengals select a safety next week. He rightfully believes that could be a good indicator of whether the front office thinks the secondary will be broken up next March.

"If they drafted a safety high, it means they are putting something in position to replace the guys that may be done next year," Iloka said. "That's what they have to do in their standpoint. That's actually smart. You got two safeties up next year."

Landon Collins is this year's top-rated safety in the draft and could be in the Bengals' plans at No. 21. They also could wait until Round 3 or later to add a safety.

Unconcerned with his contract status, Iloka has told his agent not to even tell him if or when talks progress. Due to performance-related escalators connected to the collective bargaining agreement, he'll be making about $1 million more this season than originally expected. So getting a new deal before the season isn't an issue, he said.

"It's just do my part, play my contract out and hopefully put some good stuff out there to help us win," Iloka said.

CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' 2015 schedule has been released it's a good time to quickly review some of the top storylines entering this season's games.

Perhaps the biggest on-field issue pertaining to this schedule has to do with all the travel the Bengals will have this year. After flying 8,222 miles round-trip for road games in 2014, they will traverse 18,636 miles total in 2015. That's thanks in large part to road games at San Francisco, Oakland, Denver and Arizona.

Here are a few other intriguing storylines to be aware of:

Week 1, at Oakland

In addition to this being the Bengals' home opener, it also will be the first time offensive coordinator Hue Jackson goes against his former employer. Although Jackson has served on coaching staffs for several different teams, the Raiders are the only ones who have given him a head-coaching opportunity, hiring him in 2011 before firing him at the end of that year. The Raiders went 8-8 that season and the year before (when he was their offensive coordinator). Both .500 seasons were the closest they've come to having a winning record since 2002. Bengals defensive tackle Pat Sims also will be returning to Oakland after leaving the Raiders in free agency last month.

Weeks 3 and 17, Baltimore

The two Baltimore games have the obvious divisional intrigue, but they also will be the first between the teams since the controversial pass-interference penalty late in last year's midseason meeting helped the Bengals complete a sweep of the season series. Will Cincinnati be able to pull off another 2-0 showing against a Ravens team that lost several key pieces this offseason?

Week 5, Seattle

This will be the first meeting between young quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton. In three seasons, Wilson has been to two Super Bowls. Dalton has reached the playoffs all four years he's been in the league.

Weeks 8 and 14, Pittsburgh

Like versus Baltimore, the Bengals have a lot on the line in this AFC North series. One intriguing preseason storyline here concerns the possible drama between Bengals safety Reggie Nelson, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and running back Le'Veon Bell. In last year's finale at Pittsburgh, Nelson delivered a hard shot to Bell's knee at the end of a run that forced Bell from the game and to miss a playoff game. After the final whistle, Tomlin was seen saying something to Nelson as the teams walked off the field.

Weeks 9 and 13, Cleveland

How Johnny Manziel responds to last year's 30-0 shelling in his starting debut may be the biggest preseason "Battle of Ohio" storyline. The teams also have another nationally televised game in the mix, allowing the Browns to show off their new uniforms to a broad audience.

Week 11, at Arizona

Another reunion game of sorts, the Bengals will be facing their former No. 1 overall pick, Carson Palmer, for only the second time. This game also marks Cincinnati's second trip to Arizona in two years. The teams played a preseason game there last August.

Week 15, at San Francisco

The Bengals are hoping this will be the first of two games at Levi's Stadium this year. San Francisco hosts Super Bowl 50 in February. This game pits two former 2011 draft picks against one another. Dalton for the first time will be facing Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback taken one spot behind him in the draft.

It's hard to see the Cincinnati Bengals making it to 10 wins this year. But with a timely bye, a veteran roster and some favorable late-season matchups, they can get double-digit wins even after playing .500 ball (going 5-5) heading into Thanksgiving. Despite road prime-time games in Weeks 15 and 16 (the Bengals are 1-12 on the road at night since 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information) they can go 5-1 to close out the year, and reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season.

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 13, at Oakland, 4:35 p.m.

Nope, it isn't the sexy home Monday night opener many in the Queen City had hoped for with the Cincinnati Reds leaving town that Sunday, but this is an important game to start off the year, nonetheless. The Bengals, making their first trip to Oakland since 2009 -- the last year they started a season at home -- should be able to win. After all, the Raiders had just three wins last year and will be in the first game of a new coaching staff. Bengals 35, Raiders 10. Record 1-0.

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 20, San Diego, 1 p.m.

The Bengals' home opener will be a bit of a revenge game. It's their first time facing the Chargers since dropping a 2013 wild-card round playoff game to San Diego at Paul Brown Stadium. Andy Dalton, Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green each played key roles in the loss, and ought to be desperate to prove to their home crowd that they are far better than they were that day. Bengals 23, Chargers 17. Record 2-0.

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 27, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Historically, games at Baltimore haven't been kind to Marvin Lewis' Bengals. They are 5-7 all time under Lewis at M&T Bank Stadium, and had a string of four straight losses there from 2010-13. Last year's 23-16 win in the opener at Baltimore halted that troubling trend. Although the Bengals are probably the more talented team, they won't pass their first true test of the season. Ravens 21, Bengals 16. Record 2-1.

Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 4, Kansas City, 1 p.m.

Back home and desperate to get back in the "W" column, the Bengals will craft an adequate game plan to stop the Chiefs. This could be an important game from a run defense standpoint, as the 2014 sixth-ranked rushing offense (Cincinnati) squares off with last season's 10th-ranked rushing unit (Kansas City). As for the Bengals, they'll be charged with containing the speedy Jeremy Maclin in the passing game, and corralling rushers Knile Davis and Jamaal Charles. Bengals 24, Chiefs 21. Record 3-1.

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 11, Seattle, 1 p.m.

The Bengals will be hosting consecutive games for the first time and have a chance to really leave an early-season mark. But the defending NFC champs, led by the mobile Russell Wilson and the bruising Marshawn Lynch, will prove too much. The Bengals drop what figures to be a physical game. Seahawks 31, Bengals 24. Record 3-2.

Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 18, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

Cincinnati's last two games against Buffalo have been decided by three points, and it's hard seeing this one going any differently considering the Bills upgraded an already good defense in the offseason. It will be interesting to see what new Bills head coach Rex Ryan, a friend to Lewis and defensive savant, does at quarterback where the leash is shortening on EJ Manuel. It may not take a Mike Nugent overtime field goal to decide this one, but it'll still be close. Bengals 20, Bills 17. Record 4-2.

Week 7: BYE

Week 8: Sunday, Nov. 1, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

In their second division game, the Bengals travel to the Steel City for a game that could be flexed into prime time depending upon where both teams are record-wise at this point of the year. Games at Heinz Field haven't gone well for Cincinnati, which has lost four of its past five there. Although the losses of Steelers defenders Troy Polamalu, Jason Worilds and Ike Taylor to retirement should help the Bengals, they still will have problems solving Bengal slayer Antonio Brown, the receiver/returner that has for so long been a thorn in their proverbial side. Steelers 24, Bengals 16. Record 4-3.

Week 9: Thursday, Nov. 5, Cleveland, 8:25 p.m.

Recognize this week? Exactly 364 days after the Bengals had a performance reminiscent of their days as the Bungles, they will host the Browns once again for an early-November Thursday night game. It's their first scheduled prime-time game, and as a result, the nerves will show. Don't be surprised if Dalton plays better than his 2.0 passer rating in last year's 24-3 Thursday night loss to Cleveland, but don't be surprised if he has a typically frustrating big-game performance, either. Browns 17, Bengals 7. Record 4-4.

Week 10: Monday, Nov. 16, Houston, 8:30 p.m.

Entering this season, the Bengals are 3-11 in prime-time games since 2008. With 11 days to get refocused after facing the Browns, they will rally for a second straight win over the Texans, who they beat in Houston last November. Look for Green to play well, building off the career-high 12 catches he had in last year's meeting. Bengals 31, Texans 21. Record 5-4.

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 22, at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.

Similar to the game against the Seahawks early in the season, this could be one of the pivot points upon which the Bengals' season hinges. A victory here could be the difference between a nine-win year or a 10-win one. In what should be Carson Palmer's second career game against the team that drafted him first overall in 2003, the Bengals will come out a loser. That's primarily because this game is on the road. Cardinals 27, Bengals 24. Record 5-5.

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 29, St. Louis, 1 p.m.

And now for another pivot point. If the Bengals are at .500 or slightly worse at this point in the year, this game could make or break their season. Another loss, and their road to a fifth straight postseason game becomes tremendously more difficult. A win, and they could change their post-Thanksgiving momentum, as they did two years ago when they went 4-1 to close out the year. The final stretch has been kind to the Bengals in recent years. Since 2011, in regular-season games played Nov. 29 or later, the Bengals are 13-7. Bengals 31, Rams 17. Record 6-5.

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 6, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

Cincinnati returns to division play as they face a Browns team that lately has started fading by this point in the season. Even if Cleveland wins the Thursday night game in November, don't be surprised if the Bengals take the end-of-year grudge match. Last year, they blanked the Browns, 30-0, following the November beatdown at home. Bengals 27, Browns 17. Record 7-5.

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 13, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

Although the Bengals were swept in 2014 by the Steelers, it won't happen in 2015. The teams will split the season series with the home team winning, in part because by this point in the year, the Bengals' rushing offense ought to be rolling. With the weather potentially a factor, this could be the Le'Veon Bell versus Jeremy Hill Show. Hill's offensive line will give him just a few more holes, though. Bengals 17, Steelers 14. Record 8-5.

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 20, at San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.

As the season starts winding down, the Bengals' playoff push continues. Expect the 49ers to still have their growing pains as they continue getting acclimated to new coach Jim Tomsula, not to mention life after linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland. The fact the Bengals have to travel for this one adds a challenge, but they ought to sweep their Bay Area matchups. Bengals 21, 49ers 16. Record 9-5.

Week 16: Monday, Dec. 28, at Denver, 8:30 p.m.

The Bengals could, in theory, stay on the road between these games with back-to-back prime-time games in the two westernmost time zones. It's doubtful, though, since Christmas will be in between the games. Peyton Manning certainly hasn't forgotten the two interceptions he gift-wrapped to Dre Kirkpatrick in the closing minutes of last year's Bengals Monday night win over the Broncos. Manning will be the difference-maker in this one. Broncos 34, Bengals 24. Record 9-6.

Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 3, Baltimore, 1 p.m.

It all comes down to this. Just like last year, an AFC North title will be on the line in the Bengals' finale, and possibly a playoff berth. A 9-7 mark might not be enough to reach the playoffs in such a tough conference. Cincinnati is helped by the fact this game is at home, and that it will be facing a mostly one-dimensional, run-focused Ravens offense. Bengals 20, Ravens 13. Record 10-6.

Andy DaltonGregory Shamus/Getty Image

Breakdown: Sure, the Cincinnati Bengals' schedule starts off with an uninspiring yet winnable road game against an Oakland team that finished 3-13 last year and has a new head coach, but it heats up quickly. After beginning their sixth straight season on the road, the Bengals host potential playoff contenders San Diego, Kansas City and Seattle before breaking for a reasonable midseason bye. On the heels of last year's Week 4 bye, this one falls in the perfect spot -- later in the year -- and one week before a challenging division game against Pittsburgh that could be flexed into prime time.

Speaking of night games, the Bengals currently have four scheduled, including a Monday night rematch with Denver, the AFC West champion they held off under the lights at home last December. The four scheduled prime-time games match a franchise record set in 1990 and 2007. Since 2008, the Bengals are 3-11 in regular-season games played at night.

Complaint department: In fairness, considering they already knew how challenging their schedule would be based on the divisions they are paired with this season, the Bengals don't have much to complain about. The schedule is fairly balanced in terms of home and road games, unlike last year's stretches of three straight at home then three straight away from Paul Brown Stadium. Still, the Bengals probably aren't too happy about the consecutive road prime-time games late in the year at San Francisco and Denver. A lot will likely be on the line in both, and given Cincinnati's recent history at night -- particularly on the road, where the Bengals are 1-12 since 2005 -- there ought to be valid concern about how the games could impact the playoff push.

Pivot points: It's hard on paper to see the Bengals winning 10 or more games, but there are a couple of pivot points in the schedule that could get them there. Since it'll be a tough year for the entire division, one has to imagine 10 wins will get an AFC North team into the postseason this coming season. Nine wins might even get the job done. That said, the Bengals definitely want to take advantage of the Oct. 11 game against Seattle, both games against Pittsburgh, each of the prime-time games, the contest at Arizona and the finale against Baltimore. As happened last year, the division could be won in the last week. Wins over either Seattle or Arizona might be the biggest difference between a 10-win or nine-win season.

Strength of schedule: 2nd, .563

Bengals regular-season schedule (all times Eastern)

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 13, at Oakland, 4:35 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 20, San Diego, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 27, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 4, Kansas City, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 11, Seattle, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 18, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Nov. 1, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Thursday, Nov. 5, Cleveland, 8:25 p.m.
Week 10: Monday, Nov. 16, Houston, 8:30 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 22, at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 29, St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 6, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 13, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 20, at San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 28, at Denver, 8:30 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 3, Baltimore, 1 p.m.

CINCINNATI -- How does quarterback Andy Dalton plan to improve this season?

In part by trading more text messages and phone calls with a couple of new friends in Southern California than he did last fall.

As the Cincinnati Bengals opened their offseason workout program Monday, Dalton revealed that at times late last season he unintentionally got away from the mechanical tweaks he had made to his throwing motion months beforehand while working with throwing specialist Tom House. With the playoff chase revving up and the pressures of figuring out which of his few uninjured receivers he'd be passing to each week, Dalton's mind became preoccupied with other concerns.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsBengals QB Andy Dalton threw for 3,398 yards, 19 TDs and 17 interceptions during the 2014 season.

The further he got from the brief week he spent training in California with House, the harder it became for him to keep focus on the slight modifications that had him on a tear at the start of the season.

"Towards the end of the year, I felt like some things weren't in sync where if I keep up with it now, it would be," Dalton said. He took four games before getting sacked and three before throwing an interception; it was one that deflected off running back Giovani Bernard's hands.

All this year, his goal will be to pay more consistent attention to the mechanical enhancements House and his assistant Adam Dedeaux worked on during Dalton's longer visit with them early this offseason.

"That's the big understanding for me is keeping up with the process, having those guys and talking with those guys," Dalton said. "They can help me by seeing it on TV or watching it on film and they can say, 'Hey, we saw this. Try to work on that.' Having them as a resource was huge."

Dalton contends the changes made during both visits weren't major. He intimated that this year's adjustments were similar to those made last spring. Back then, House wanted Dalton to focus more on keeping his front side closed through the duration of the throw, rather than opening his lead shoulder up too quickly, as he had a tendency to do. The early-opening shoulder and subsequently low release point likely accounted for many of the lame-duck passes Dalton had in 2013, ones that were free-floating in the air for safeties and corners to easily pick off.

The Pro Bowl quarterback set a career high with 20 interceptions that season.

Earlier this offseason, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said film review indicated that nine of Dalton's 17 interceptions in 2014 were the product of poor decision-making or poor throws. His charge to Dalton the past three months has been simple: clean up the turnovers.

For Dalton, that's where House and Dedeaux come in.

"I should have used them more as a resource [last year]," Dalton said. "Now I know."

House has worked with other NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer. While Dalton was training this year, new Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Tim Tebow was getting instruction, too.

"It's helped me out where I have an understanding to make throws easier for me," Dalton said. "It's just trying to fine-tune certain things to have everything working for me. I've got a better understanding of where I am mechanically and how things feel when things don't go right, and how to be able to make a quick fix."

House's training methods include getting throwers to strengthen muscle groups that are connected to the throwing motion. Dalton hasn't gained weight this offseason but returned looking larger in the chest and shoulders than he did last April.

"I feel like I'm the right kind of strong right now," he said.

CINCINNATI -- How far away are the Cincinnati Bengals to filling out their preseason 90-man roster?

They are exactly 22 positions away.

With Cedric Peerman's re-signing Wednesday, the Bengals signed their 68th player to a contract for the upcoming season. Not all the players on their eventual 90-man roster (not to mention all the ones on the current roster) will end up making the final team when training-camp battles come to an end in early September and final cuts are made.

Before getting to the final cuts, they have to go into August's training camp with a deep roster to work out and as full a team as they're permitted to have.

That's why between now and the start of camp, you'll see the Bengals continue making a few moves. Specifically, as of now, they have 22 moves to go. They still could sign or re-sign a few veteran free agents. They'll also get the final 22 spots filled by signing their draft picks, and other rookies in the post-draft college free-agency frenzy.

Here's some quick roster math that shows how they could get to it. To reiterate, these numbers are all projections of what the Bengals could do:

Veteran free agents: Three potential spots available

It's reasonable to believe the Bengals have 3-4 available roster spots for veteran free-agent additions, considering what they probably will do in the draft and post-draft process. If we assume the Bengals will try to sign three more veteran free agents, we have to believe at least two will be players who didn't spend the 2014 season with the Bengals. Tight end Jermaine Gresham, a Bengals 2010 first-round draft pick, has the best chance of returning of all the Bengals' four remaining unrestricted free agents. It all depends in part upon his recovery from recent back surgery.

Draft picks: Nine spots

For now, the Bengals have nine draft picks, thanks to a two-pick coup as part of the compensatory award process.

Undrafted free agents: 10 spots

It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see the Bengals hold off on signing one or two of the veteran free agents until after the draft. Doing so would will give them a measure of flexibility in respect to the number of undrafted free agents they can sign in the hours after the draft. For now, it's best to assume the Bengals will be adding an additional 10 players who went undrafted. That's about the norm for post-draft signings. Last season, they ended up signing 11. Other players currently under contract could be cut between now and the end of the draft, giving the Bengals additional spots. For now, though, this is a basic roadmap for where they could be going with their next series of personnel moves.

CINCINNATI -- When the NFL releases the 2015 regular-season schedule later this month, it will be worth noting the date it picks for the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers to face each other in their first game.

That's because if the first of two games with the Steelers gets slotted for September, the Bengals' defense could catch a key early-season reprieve.

ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported early Thursday that Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell is staring at a three-game suspension and a fine for violating the league's substance abuse policy. According to Schefter, Bell is appealing the decision.

This all stems from an arrest last August on marijuana possession and DUI charges with former Steelers teammate LeGarrette Blount. The pair were arrested after a motorcycle officer smelled marijuana during a stop of their vehicle hours before the Steelers were flying to a preseason game at Philadelphia.

Blount, who was later released by the Steelers before signing with New England, was suspended earlier this week for this year's regular-season opener.

So how does this affect the Bengals?

Well, if Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are scheduled to play a game in September, it will mean the Steelers will be without one of their biggest offensive playmakers. Had it not been for Bell last season, the Bengals could have at least split the teams' two meetings and earned a second straight AFC North title.

Per ESPN Stats & Information, in the two games against Cincinnati last season, Bell averaged 6.0 yards per rush on 34 carries. He also had three touchdowns, each of which came in the Week 14 Steelers win at Paul Brown Stadium that featured Pittsburgh's 22 unanswered fourth-quarter points. Bell sparked that late comeback rally with a 13-yard touchdown run that came one possession after the Bengals lost a fumble when Andy Dalton and Jeremy Hill botched the hand-off.

In the latter game at Pittsburgh, the Bengals did a much better job keying on Bell, holding him to just 20 yards on eight carries. He also was run from that game after taking a hard shot to his knee from safety Reggie Nelson, who upended Bell with a low, hard tackle.

For his career, Bell is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and four touchdowns in three games against the Bengals. Against the other 30 teams, he's averaging 4.1 yards per carry with 15 touchdowns in his two-year career.

It's quite possible the Bengals and Steelers won't meet in September considering they just had a Monday night game in Week 2 of the 2013 season. It hasn't been since 1989 that they had games in the month occur within fewer than three seasons.

Last year's meetings were tremendously late. The teams played two games in December (including the regular-season finale that determined the division championship) for the first time in their franchise histories.

Of their 90 all-time meetings, the Bengals and Steelers have played only 12 times in September. Those early-season meetings have gone the Bengals' way. They hold an 8-4 advantage in them.

Four times since Marvin Lewis was hired as Cincinnati's head coach 13 seasons ago the teams have played in September (the Bengals are 3-1). Before the first of those meetings in 2003, they hadn't matched up in the September since 1993.

As much as the Bengals would benefit from Bell missing one of the games against them, until they know any different, they have to imagine he'll be a key part of Pittsburgh's plans just as he was last year.

CINCINNATI -- This year, there will be no restricted free-agent drama for the Cincinnati Bengals.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Lamur
Rogelio Solis/AP PhotoEmmanuel Lamur, who isn't just an outside linebacker in the Bengals' defensive scheme, re-signed with the team on Wednesday.

Outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur formally re-signed with the team Wednesday, agreeing to the one-year, $2.36 million, second-round restricted free-agent tender that had been offered to him last month. He was the Bengals' only restricted free agent this offseason. Defensive tackle Devon Still was about to enter the new league year as an RFA, but when the team declined to tender him at the low-round amount, he ended up later re-signing to a smaller contract as an unrestricted free agent.

Lamur's signing had been expected, but he had until April 24 to officially do it.

Within that month-and-a-half window, opposing teams had a chance to extend counter offers that exceeded the $2.36 million amount. If they had, the Bengals would have been forced into either matching or exceeding the counter offer if they wanted to re-sign him.

Last spring they came out on the losing end of that very scenario when the Cleveland Browns offered RFA receiver Andrew Hawkins a contract that was significantly higher than the low-round tender the Bengals originally offered him. Since Cincinnati didn't want to match for the higher amount, Hawkins was lost in free agency to the Browns.

Lamur isn't simply an outside linebacker in the Bengals' defensive scheme. He specifically plays a role that makes him a pseudo-safety. A cover linebacker in passing situations, he's regularly lined up on tight ends. He had quite the gauntlet of them last season, too, matching up with Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen and Delanie Walker, among others. Gronkowski caught six passes for 100 yards a touchdown in New England's win against the Bengals last October.

"Emmanuel is a player we see as still emerging," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in a news release. "He has a great blend of size and athleticism. We had him tabbed for a big role two years ago and an injury held him back, but he was full go last year and fulfilled our expectations. We believe the best is yet to come."

Since Taylor Mays, a safety who could play Lamur's cover linebacker spot, signed with Minnesota earlier this offseason, there's even more importance being placed on Lamur's ability to grow at the position and to stay healthy. Hamstring issues nagged him at times in 2014, one year after he missed an entire season because of a shoulder injury. Because of the injuries, he's only played two seasons despite being in the NFL for three.

Optimism has been high among coaches this offseason that this will be the year it all comes together for Lamur. He's shown flashes of good play, but they want more.

Lamur had 90 tackles and two interceptions in 14 games last season.

CINCINNATI -- Consider this the Cincinnati Bengals' version of "Back to the Future."

For the fourth time in less than a month, the Bengals signed another former player as they start adding roster depth ahead of next month's minicamp and organized team activity workouts.

On Thursday it was quarterback Josh Johnson, a backup who spent the 2013 season with the Bengals before serving as an inactive backup in San Francisco last year. Johnson was on the 49ers' roster for 13 games in 2014, but he wasn't part of the 46-man game-day lineup for any of them.

In Cincinnati two seasons ago, he appeared in two games. He didn't log any offensive statistics in either, but he was on the active roster each game that year as the top backup quarterback behind starter Andy Dalton. The seventh-year veteran will be vying for a chance at resuming those duties this year.

Bengals team president Mike Brown already has given second-year quarterback AJ McCarron a nod of approval. At last week's owners meetings, he told reporters he believed McCarron had what it took to be the team's No. 2 quarterback.

For that reason, among others, don't read too much into Johnson's signing. He appears to have been added as a camp body, brought back to give the Bengals a little extra competition at the quarterback position heading into spring and summer. Veteran Jason Campbell, signed last March to a one-year deal, still is an unrestricted free agent. The Bengals had hoped earlier this offseason to bring him back, but Johnson's return seems an indication they are moving on from the 33-year-old Campbell, who backed up Dalton this past season.

The Bengals believe Campbell's addition was important last offseason as Hue Jackson began his first season as offensive coordinator. Jackson coached Campbell in Oakland in 2010 and 2011, so the veteran knew his terminology and system and was used as a buffer to Dalton, who got to know Jackson's game plan for the first time.

Now that Dalton has spent time in Jackson's system, it's not as important he have that bridge to the coordinator.

The Bengals still could draft a quarterback, as Brown also indicated at the owners meetings. There's enough second-tier quarterback talent in the draft this year that they could find a player who could increase the competition for the No. 2 spot behind Dalton. In the event that player doesn't work out, then the Bengals still will have Johnson.

Also on Thursday, ESPN Insider Field Yates labeled the Bengals as a team that had a "veteran [quarterback] signed, but questions remain." The listing was part of an insider post Yates had about teams that needed to draft quarterbacks.

Last month, the Bengals also signed in free agency defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Brandon Ghee, two other players who also spent the 2014 season elsewhere after having played in Cincinnati. Defensive tackle Pat Sims came back last week after having been in Oakland the previous two seasons.

CINCINNATI -- In a move that seems to be all about establishing training-camp competition, the Cincinnati Bengals re-signed receiver and kick returner Brandon Tate on Wednesday.

It appears he will be inked to a one-year deal as the Bengals try to determine if the former unrestricted free agent can retain his job later this summer.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has said multiple times this offseason that he wants to draft one or two speedy, shifty, smaller receivers who can also factor into the Bengals' special teams as returners. While he never suggested Tate might be re-signed, it has been clear Jackson wants to take his receivers at the bottom of the Bengals' depth chart in a new direction.

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John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsLast season, Brandon Tate averaged 22.1 yards on his 18 kickoff returns for the Bengals.

"He has to be a playmaker that is fast," Jackson said about possible draft targets at the combine in February. "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."

Head coach Marvin Lewis appeared to back up Jackson at the combine, suggesting it was time the Bengals look for playmakers in this draft class who had return ability.

Tate's return prowess has been in question for much of his three seasons in Cincinnati. Last season, he was no longer the team's dominant kick returner as cornerback Adam Jones split more time with him in that role than before. Among those with 20 or more returns last season, Jones led the NFL in kick-return average with 31.3 yards per return. His 27 kick returns were the second-most of his career, outpaced only by the 43 he had as a rookie in 2005.

Last season, Tate averaged 22.1 yards on his 18 kickoff returns. He also had 17 catches, his most since 2010. Tate also averaged 9.7 yards per punt return.

He ranks third on the Bengals' all-time list in kickoff returns (127) and punt returns (126). With just 20 kickoff returns and 15 punt returns, he could take over the franchise's all-time lead in both categories this season.

"Brandon has been a big contributor to the success of our team in qualifying for the playoffs the past four seasons," Lewis said in a news release. "We are happy he has decided to remain a Bengal."

Of speed receivers with return ability the Bengals could target in the draft, Miami (Florida) product Phillip Dorsett could be at the top of the list. At his pro day Wednesday, Dorsett ran 40-yard dash times of 4.25 and 4.27 seconds, according to ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker, who covered the event. Walker also reported that Jackson was in attendance for the Bengals.

Some draft insiders are projecting Dorsett to be available when the Bengals make their second-round pick at No. 53 overall.

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CINCINNATI -- In addition to the scouts and coaches taking a look at potential pro prospects at LSU's pro day Friday, a key member of the Cincinnati Bengals' offense was on the scene, too.

Andrew Whitworth, an LSU product who calls Louisiana his offseason home, was at the pro day to support the latest crop of draft hopefuls from his alma mater. Arguably Cincinnati's most vocal leader, the veteran Pro Bowl left tackle's words carry weight at Paul Brown Stadium.

In this particular case, it wasn't necessary for coaches and front-office personnel to hear him out. Whether they were there to witness Friday's workout or not, Bengals scouts and coaches already know La'el Collins can play. They know he could be a good fit for them. Anything Whitworth had to add about him would just be a bonus.

"At the end of the day, he can be an excellent guard or he can be a great tackle," Whitworth told ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett.

Whitworth should know. Although he's spent the bulk of his nine pro seasons at left tackle, he came to the league with some guard experience. Late in the 2013 season it paid off when left guard Clint Boling suffered a season-ending ACL injury in an early-December game at San Diego. The Bengals moved Whitworth to Boling's spot and pulled their swing tackle off the bench to play fill in for Whitworth at left tackle.

The Bengals ended up having one of their best rushing performances of the season in their next game, a key late-season win. But with Boling's year done, how would they adequately replace him?

Like his coaches, Whitworth sensed the Bengals had no other viable options to fill Boling's spot. So Whitworth volunteered to move there the rest of the season.

It was one of the more brilliant adjustments the Bengals made that year.

As for Collins, an athletic showing at the combine in February proved he ought to be a first-rounder in the draft that begins April 30. Since then, his noted versatility as both an interior and exterior blocker has made him climb even higher up the mock draft boards.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., for instance, didn't have Collins going anywhere on his first 32-team mock draft early this offseason. In his latest mock, though, Kiper had Collins getting picked 16th by the Texans. In his mock for CBSSports.com on Sunday, draft analyst Dane Brugler sent Collins to St. Louis with the 10th overall pick.

"If they can already consider you at two positions, that means they have a high opinion of you," Whitworth said. "To me, it's more of a compliment, because that means they think you're tough and strong and physical, and that you can also play on the edge."

While it's looking more unlikely that Collins will be on the board when the Bengals select at No. 21, he continues to be the ideal first-round selection if he ends up falling that far.

Not only do the Bengals value versatility in linemen, but they value mentoring among players. The LSU tie would be a natural bind for Collins and the 33-year-old Whitworth, who is on the back stretch of his career. Collins could be his eventual replacement and play alongside fellow former LSU teammates Jeremy Hill and James Wright, who were drafted by Cincinnati last year.

CINCINNATI -- Now that Terence Newman and Taylor Mays have signed with the Minnesota Vikings, the Cincinnati Bengals have lost three players to free agency this year. Since it's been a while, let's take a quick look at where things stand with the Bengals at this stage in free agency.

It's also worthwhile to check out ESPN's Free Agent Tracker in order to see what the Bengals and other teams have done throughout this busy month.

Signed
*DE Michael Johnson (added after being cut by Tampa Bay)
LB A.J. Hawk (added after being cut by Green Bay)
*CB Brandon Ghee
*DT Pat Sims

Re-signed
OG Clint Boling
MLB Rey Maualuga
K Mike Nugent
OT Eric Winston
DT Devon Still
TE Kevin Brock (as exclusive-rights free agent)
CB Chris Lewis-Harris (as exclusive-rights free agent)

Tendered
OLB Emmanuel Lamur (second-round tender offered)

Lost to free agency
OT Marshall Newhouse (signed with the New York Giants as an unrestricted free agent)
CB Terence Newman (signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent)
S Taylor Mays (signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent)

Released
OL Mike Pollak
DE Robert Geathers
WR Greg Little

Remaining unsigned Bengals unrestricted free agents
TE Jermaine Gresham
QB Jason Campbell
RB Cedric Peerman
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
WR Brandon Tate
TE Alex Smith

*-Denotes a former Bengal who was signed for a second stint with the team.

CINCINNATI -- All of a sudden, the pool of talent on the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive line has grown deep.

The team's primary offseason objective has been accomplished.

Fresh off a year in which their defensive line was arguably the weakest link of a defense that ranked 22nd in the league, the Bengals put much of their focus on shoring up the ineffective front. With a league-low 20 sacks -- one of the worst sack totals in franchise history -- the Bengals were graded by Pro Football Focus as having the worst pass rush in the NFL in 2014.

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesWith the re-signing of Michael Johnson and other additions, the Bengals now have 12 players for nine spots on the D-line.

Thursday's signing of former Bengal defensive tackle Pat Sims was a prime example of how they've devoted much of their free-agency plans to bolstering the defensive line. With that signing the Bengals soon will have big decisions to make when it comes to determining who actually plays on the line.

When the offseason began, it was unclear exactly how they would address deepening the line's depth, but the Bengals still knew they needed to sign a veteran free agent with pass-rushing promise. If they could get at least one end and one tackle through free agency and the draft, they would have done exactly what they set out to do.

Along with Sims' signing this week, the Bengals also re-signed tackle Devon Still last week and brought back end Michael Johnson nearly a week prior after he spent the past year in Tampa Bay. Of their last four free-agency moves, three of them have come on the defensive line.

It means there are now 12 players competing for what's believed will be nine spots on the defensive line. That's five ends and four tackles. Another two linemen likely will make it onto the practice squad. And don't forget the probability another lineman could be on the horizon. Cincinnati could use one of its draft picks on a lineman, and could even go for a college free agent, too.

If they add only one lineman through the draft, that still means 13 players will be vying for nine spots.

So who makes the 53-man roster?

Well, there's a whole spring and summer of organized team activities (OTAs), minicamps, voluntary workouts and training camp to get through to find out. You won't find anyone around the team making any grand pronouncements about an opening-weekend roster in March.

But who are the most likely candidates to play this year?

At end, you'll certainly see Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke. The Bengals are financially committed to Johnson and Dunlap and won't be cutting either of them, and it's clear coaches want to get Hunt and Clarke more involved. One has to imagine Wallace Gilberry factors into the mix, too, as he can get back into being more of the true third-down rusher that he was before Johnson left last year. Some of that also depends upon what the Bengals do in the draft. Sam Montgomery could be one of the practice squad players.

At tackle, Geno Atkins isn't going anywhere. Neither is backup Brandon Thompson or veteran Domata Peko (for now). The staff likes Peko's locker-room presence, but the talent around him means he could be in for a battle this summer to prove he still belongs on the field. Likely competing for the fourth and potentially final tackle position are Still, Sims and Kwame Geathers. If Montgomery will be one practice squad lineman, Geathers could be the other.

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