AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

Jake KumerowAP Photo/John MinchilloWide receiver Jake Kumerow has the hands to stick on the Bengals' roster.

The Cincinnati Bengals wrapped up their offseason program on Thursday and are expected to open training camp in late July at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Here's a 53-man roster projection:

Quarterbacks (2): Andy Dalton, AJ McCarron. (Cut: Keith Wenning, Joe Licata)

It's a common Bengals practice to take only two quarterbacks into a season, and Dalton and McCarron certainly have proven capable of leading Cincinnati's offense.

Running backs (4): Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead, Cedric Peerman. (Cut: Tra Carson, Bronson Hill, DyShawn Mobley, Jeff Luc)

A few of the "cut" running backs, such as fullback Luc or undrafted rookie Mobley, could make the Bengals' practice squad, but the four veterans will all return.

Wide receivers (6): A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Jake Kumerow, Brandon Tate, James Wright. (Cut: Mario Alford, Cody Core, Alonzo Russell, Antwane Grant, Alex Erickson, Michael Bennett)

One of the toughest training-camp decisions confronting coaches will be choosing between Kumerow's consistency as a no-drop pass-catcher or keeping the less consistent Mario Alford on the roster for his special-teams versatility. In this scenario, Alford's special teams skills will have to come from somewhere else.

Tight ends (4): Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah, Ryan Hewitt -- H-back. (Cut: Matt Lengel, John Peters)

No surprises here. This same foursome should make the roster again.

Offensive linemen (9): Andrew Whitworth, Eric Winston, Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher, Clint Boling, Kevin Zeitler, Russell Bodine, T.J. Johnson, Christian Westerman. (Cut: Alex Cooper, Alex Redmond, Trey Hopkins, Trip Thurman, John Weidenaar, Aaron Epps)

There will be some interesting decisions here, specifically involving Hopkins, a guard who was once viewed as a promising, up-and-coming lineman. Since being signed as an undrafted player in 2014, Hopkins just hasn't dominated at his position. Injuries have contributed to that. Johnson and Westerman might be intriguing additions, but Johnson has been the Bengals' longtime backup center, and aside from Bodine, he has been the only center this spring to snap the ball with adequate consistency. Other young backups struggled in organized team activities and minicamp.

Defensive linemen (10): Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Andrew Billings, Margus Hunt, Will Clarke, Pat Sims, Marcus Hardison, DeShawn Williams, Possible PUP list -- Brandon Thompson. (Cut: David Dean, Dezmond Johnson, Ryan Brown)

The timetable for Thompson's return from an ACL injury could have an impact on what the Bengals' initial 53-man roster looks like. Although he hopes to be back in time for the season, if the Bengals remain slow and steady with his recovery, he might not be ready by Sept. 11. If that's the case, Williams will have earned a spot after impressing coaches with his tireless work this offseason.

Linebackers (6): Vincent Rey, Rey Maualuga, Karlos Dansby, Nick Vigil, Marquis Flowers, P.J. Dawson. Suspended three games -- Vontaze Burfict. (Cut: Jayson DiManche, Darien Harris, Trevor Roach)

Flowers and Dawson can thank Burfict's three-game suspension for their inclusion on this projection. Because Burfict will eventually return, both will be on the fringe of the roster at some point this year, meaning they could have quite an intriguing position battle looming later this summer. They will try to prove they not only can contribute defensively, but also on special teams. Dawson had flashes of production as a rookie last season, and before he missed all of last season, Flowers' coverage skills were lauded.

Defensive backs (9): Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Darqueze Dennard, Derron Smith, William Jackson III, Chris Lewis-Harris, Josh Shaw. (Cut: Taylor Mays, Chykie Brown, Clayton Fejedelem, Darius Hillary, Corey Tindal, Floyd Raven)

A couple of tough choices here regarding Taylor Mays, who returned this offseason after a year away from Cincinnati, and seventh-round pick Fejedelem. As a good cover safety, Mays deserves a spot on the roster, but depth might make it tough for him to stick. The same goes for Fejedelem, who should be a good practice-squad fit.

Specialists (3): Mike Nugent, Clark Harris, Kevin Huber. (Cut: Zach Hocker)

This group has been together since 2010. It's not breaking up this year.

CINCINNATI -- Although they have been present for the Cincinnati Bengals' first two mandatory minicamp practices this week, a pair of key defensive players were noticeably absent from practice drills Wednesday.

Starting linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, reportedly overweight at the end of the Bengals' springtime workouts, spent the practice running wind sprints and doing other conditioning drills off to the side. For Maualuga, it was the second straight day of such activity as he also didn't practice during Tuesday's start to the minicamp. Burfict did practice Tuesday, but by Wednesday ended up on the conditioning island with his fellow linebacker.

The Bengals end their minicamp Thursday, kicking off a five-week break until before training camp.

Vontaze BurfictAaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsVontaze Burfict looks on during the Bengals' minicamp practice Tuesday. Burfict is suspended for the first three games of the season after his hit on the Steelers' Antonio Brown in a playoff game.

Asked Wednesday if he was concerned at all about the time Maualuga has missed practicing this spring, Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said he was unfazed.

"He's working hard to get where he needs to be, and I've got confidence he will be there," Guenther said.

In addition to missing minicamp practice time, Maualuga also didn't participate in the Bengals' open organized team activities the past three weeks. He was around the facility at the time, but he didn't make it out for practice any days when reporters were present. Burfict, who was limited in the first OTA open to reporters, did participate in all three OTAs media could attend.

Earlier this week on Cincinnati's ESPN radio affiliate, Bengals radio color commentator and former Bengals player Dave Lapham said both Maualuga and Burfict showed up to OTAs overweight.

Last season, the two linebackers were among the Bengals' most prolific tacklers. Maualuga ranked third on the team with 75 tackles and Burfict had 74 through 10 games. Hobbled by recovery from a knee injury, Burfict was unavailable for the first six games of the season. He also will miss the first three this year as he serves a three-game suspension that went into effect in January.

CINCINNATI -- Giovani Bernard wants to be part of history.

It's one of the reasons the running back was compelled last week to finalize a contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals that will keep him in stripes through the 2019 season.

Giovani BernardAP Photo/Rick ScuteriGiovani Bernard says he's focused on helping end the Bengals' 25-year drought without a playoff win.

"We still have a lot to do," Bernard said. "There's a little bit of unfinished business that we want to -- not address, but -- get past."

Of course, that unfinished business revolves around winning a playoff game. It has been 25 years since the Bengals have done that, although they were mighty close this past January. When AJ McCarron connected with A.J. Green on a go-ahead touchdown pass just inside the final two minutes of the Bengals' wild-card game against visiting rival Pittsburgh, Paul Brown Stadium erupted with the kind of glee that made it seem as if years of postseason misery were about to be shaken loose from the place.

But as has been written here and many other places all offseason, a Bengals fumble and a pair of penalties on later possessions negated the key score. On their final drive of the game, the Steelers got into field goal range with seconds remaining and blasted through a game-winning chip shot.

"As an organization, there are things we want to accomplish, and I'll be there for that," Bernard said.

That pleases coach Marvin Lewis, who said Tuesday the recent extension was another sign of a player practicing what he professes to having long preached.

"The message is that if you put your head down and go to work, then good things will happen. You also get a chance to control it," Lewis said. "In our case with Gio, it all worked out well. We're glad that he's been signed."

Lewis added that other pending free agents could get extensions later this summer, too.

Besides signing his extension to help the Bengals finally win a playoff game after repeated one-and-done postseason performances, Bernard said he agreed to the deal because it allows him to stay around people he's come to care deeply about the past four years.

"I've created a lot of friendships on this team, a lot of guys I look up to," Bernard said. "The biggest thing is that I'm able to continue those friendships with these guys and these coaches in this organization."

Giovani BernardAndrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsGiovani Bernard's extension could be the first of many more to come for the Bengals.

CINCINNATI -- Nearly a week after the Cincinnati Bengals re-upped running back Giovani Bernard on a three-year extension that will keep him around through the 2019 season, coach Marvin Lewis intimated Tuesday that more extensions could be on the horizon this summer.

"We're glad that he's been signed, and we'll continue to work on some other players between now and the beginning of the season," Lewis said during a pre-minicamp news conference. "Hopefully we get some more done."

Until last Wednesday, when Bernard agreed to the three-year, $15 million extension that includes $5 million of guaranteed money, the Bengals had 17 players who were slated to be unrestricted free agents next March. Another two, H-back Ryan Hewitt and reserve offensive lineman T.J. Johnson, are scheduled to be restricted free agents.

Bernard was among the biggest names on a pending Bengals free agents list that still includes the likes of offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, defensive end Margus Hunt, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko. Bernard's extension had been anticipated, even if it's uncommon these days for running backs to get such lucrative second contracts, given all the pounding their bodies typically take.

Who might be the next to get an extension? Much of that depends upon which player the Bengals can entice the quickest to a fair deal.

Kirkpatrick and Zeitler seem like the most logical possibilities, given their status as starters on the rise. Zeitler has been anchoring the right guard position since he was drafted in 2012. Kirkpatrick worked his way into the starting rotation last fall after three years of playing behind a stable of capable veterans. Both players had their fifth-year options exercised last May, meaning the former first-rounders are under contract through this season.

Whitworth and Peko could be candidates for summertime contracts, too. But neither veteran will probably be signed to very long deals, considering their most recent contracts were for one and two years, respectively. Whitworth will turn 35 during the season, and Peko will turn 32.

Along with extending Bernard, the Bengals last month signed safety Shawn Williams to a four-year extension and exercised tight end Tyler Eifert's fifth-year option. Eifert still could be inked to an extension later this summer, but for the time being his contract isn't as big of a concern since he's under contract for the next two seasons.

Here's an updated list of Bengals veterans slated to hit free agency next spring:

RB Cedric Peerman
RB Rex Burkhead
WR Brandon Tate
WR Brandon LaFell
H-back Ryan Hewitt
OG Kevin Zeitler
OL T.J. Johnson
OT Andrew Whitworth
OT Eric Winston
DE Margus Hunt
DT Domata Peko
DT Brandon Thompson
LB Karlos Dansby
CB Dre Kirkpatrick
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
CB Chykie Brown
S Taylor Mays
K Mike Nugent

If you are still having a hard time understanding the Cincinnati Bengals' roster philosophy, then maybe you never will grasp it.

By now, the blueprint behind the Bengals' 52 wins in the past five seasons ought to be painfully obvious: draft well and keep their own.

That example was showcased again Wednesday, when the Bengals agreed to a three-year contract extension with running back Giovani Bernard. The $15.5 million deal will keep Bernard in stripes through 2019.

"This moment is about have a future," Bernard said in a news release. "It's a secure feeling knowing I'll be here and can help this team win. I can't picture myself in anything but orange and black."

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesGiovani Bernard's three-year extension will help keep the Bengals' core of offensive players together through the end of the decade.

Security also has been a clear Bengals priority in recent years. It has been at the heart of many of their latest major personnel moves. Look no further than the fifth-year option extended to Tyler Eifert and the extension through 2019 that A.J. Green signed last September to see the Bengals are fully focused on bolstering their playmaking core for years to come.

But Bernard's extension was about more than the running back's comfort -- it was about maintaining the quarterback's, too.

Once Andy Dalton reaches the end of his contract in 2020, he will be 33 and still perhaps in the prime of his career. He also will have wrapped up his 10th season by that point. If he continues to have the right pieces around him, Dalton could help his team keep alive its streak of playoff appearances all the way through the end of his current deal. That would be 10 straight playoff appearances to start a career.

But how many playoff games will they have won by then?

Certainly the playoff question is a rhetorical one. The Bengals haven't won in the postseason in 25 years, but lately have had rosters strong enough to make it not only to, but through, the AFC Championship Game. After all, the Bengals have won division titles in two of the past three seasons.

Bernard's presence could help keep those AFC North titles coming.

Since the start of the 2013 season, Bernard is one of five players in the league who have at least both 2,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. He's helped make the Bengals' offense explosive, dynamic and unpredictable. With Cincinnati still learning what its crop of mostly young wideouts can do, Bernard's role as a pass-catcher could become a much more significant one this season.

He could even earn a larger share of the running-back load in 2016, given the struggles of fellow back Jeremy Hill had last season. Not only did Hill have the crucial fumble that in part led to Cincinnati's playoff loss to Pittsburgh in January, but he had three others during the regular season, and only averaged 3.6 yards a carry, one year after averaging 5.1.

Regardless of Bernard's role this season, he can't possibly be the only person at Paul Brown Stadium happy about the extension. The rest of this long-term Bengals core -- Dalton, Green, Eifert and Clint Boling on offense; Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Vontaze Burfict, Adam Jones, George Iloka, Vincent Rey and Shawn Williams on defense -- have to be, too.

Comfort and continuity: two words the Bengals keep demonstrating they take very seriously.

If you read ESPN's list of 100 predictions that will frame the 2016 NFL season, you saw my blurb about the Cincinnati Bengals and soon-to-be-suspended linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

I wrote that the Bengals' defense would be minimally impacted by the absence of Burfict for the first three games of the season. As a matter of fact, that layoff could prove beneficial by Week 4.

Here's the complete blurb:

LB Vontaze Burfict's three-game suspension at the start of the season will have a minimal impact on the Bengals' defense. If anything, his Week 4 return will serve as jolt for the Bengals as they work through a tough early-season stretch.

We should point out that Cincinnati's first three games aren't necessarily easy ones. The Bengals open the season on the road at the New York Jets, playing on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. That game will be followed by another road contest, at bitter rival Pittsburgh, on Sept. 18. One week later, Cincinnati opens its home slate with its third game in as many seasons against the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos.

That's quite the early-season gauntlet. But here are three reasons the Bengals ought to weather Burfict's absence just fine:

Karlos Dansby is hungry for a ring. Yes, he may be 34 and on the back nine of his career, but Dansby is desperate for a Super Bowl ring. He has flirted with the Lombardi trophy before, making it all the way to the big game with the Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 season. Which team ultimately beat the Cardinals in that Super Bowl? Those pesky Pittsburgh Steelers. If you don't think Dansby remembers his disappointment following Super Bowl XLIII, think again. One interception shy of becoming only the fifth linebacker in NFL history to record 40 career sacks and 20 career interceptions, Dansby was a free-agency steal for the Bengals. He should be able to transition from the base 3-4 defense he's spent much of his career playing in quicker than James Harrison did for Cincinnati in 2013.

David Kohl/USA TODAY SportsDespite missing six games, Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict made 74 tackles during the regular season last year.

They've done it before. We can look back to 2015 to see how the Bengals made it through games Burfict missed before. Because of how well the weakside linebacker played during the final 10 weeks of last season -- and the first 59 minutes of the wild-card playoff game against Pittsburgh -- it's easy to forget that he didn't begin last season in uniform. Rehab from knee surgery kept Burfict out of the first six games. During that timeframe, the Bengals ranked in the top 10 in opposing QBR, red zone efficiency, goal-line efficiency (second), points allowed per game and points margin per game.

Vincent Rey will fill in admirably again. It's largely expected that the recently re-signed Rey will be the player who fills Burfict's shoes during this suspension, much like he did last season. Rey has been a valued member of the linebacking corps in recent seasons. Across the past two seasons, he has led the Bengals in tackles, mainly because Burfict wasn't on the field due to injuries. Through the first six games of the 2015 season, Rey had 57 tackles, including double-digit stops against Kansas City (15) and Seattle (13).

Carlos DunlapAP Photo/Gary LandersCarlos Dunlap already has the Bengals' official single-season sacks record. But he wants a much bigger one.

CINCINNATI -- Carlos Dunlap's first order of business when he entered the NFL in 2010 was to look up the league's rookie single-season sack record.

As he began his career, the Cincinnati Bengals defensive end wanted to chase down quarterbacks better than Jevon Kearse did in 1999, the year Kearse posted a rookie-record 14.5 sacks for Tennessee.

Dunlap didn't quite get there. His 9.5 sacks as a rookie were certainly commendable, but they weren't record-worthy. No worries. All he had to do was settle his sights on a few other individual milestones.

Like any pass-rusher who entered the league after Michael Strahan's record-breaking 22.5-sack 2001 season, Dunlap's biggest motivation has been to get to 23. Now that he has checked off a pair of other big items on his career goals list, besting Strahan's record has become the great carrot he's chasing.

"I look at the big one and I work for the big one and hopefully catch a couple of them along the way," Dunlap said about the hierarchy of goals he has hunted down the past six seasons.

He scratched off two key items last season when he went to the Pro Bowl for the first time and set a new official Bengals sacks record. Dunlap's 13.5 sacks in 2015 edged the 13.0 that Eddie Edwards had for Cincinnati in 1983, one year after the NFL's current guidelines for tracking sacks was put in place.

Before those changes, former Bengal Coy Bacon was credited with 26 sacks in 1976. That number is regarded as the Bengals' unofficial record. Because defensive record-keeping was so shoddy back then, some of Bacon's sacks were rewarded years later after a team official re-examined incomplete stat books and game film from each Bengals game in 1976. Bacon's sacks that year also were recorded before the NFL started adopting the practice of rewarding half-sacks, meaning even if was just around the quarterback during a sack, he was given credit for a full sack.

Dunlap doesn't think a 23-sack season is impossible in today's NFL. But he recognizes that because he's rushing alongside the likes of Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Domata Peko, getting to 23 could be difficult. Last year alone, Atkins had 11 sacks to go along with Dunlap's 13.5. Johnson has had a double-digit sack season before, and Peko had a career-high five in 2015.

"It's hard to get [20 or more]," Dunlap said. "Most of the guys who get those 20 sacks, they're like the only one [on their team] at plus-10. When you've got three guys who can get 10 sacks and a nose tackle who can get five, it's spreading the wealth. So that's good for our team."

What's also good for the team? Setting individual goals like these, Dunlap said. Yes, his biggest concern is getting the Bengals a Super Bowl trophy, but he contends players need other motivation, too.

"Along with the team goals, you've got to have your personal goals that will help you obtain the team goal," Dunlap said. "My personal goals is to get that sack title at the end of the season, one, and then two, to get Strahan's record."

NFL Network's Twitter account gave Dunlap some love last month, highlighting him as one of the active players most likely to one day overtake Strahan. That recognition came a couple of days before he was named the No. 70 player on NFL Network's top 100 players countdown. That list was voted on by current players.

Pleased to be recognized by his fellow players, Dunlap says his mission is to keep impressing them by putting more quarterbacks on their backs.

"I'm still shooting at that 23," Dunlap said.

CINCINNATI -- After the Cincinnati Bengals' organized team activities (OTAs) this spring, injured tight end Tyler Eifert shot a few quick text messages to his slightly younger protege, fellow Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft.

"He's trying to stay in it as much as he can," Kroft said about the player he considers a mentor.

Tyler EifertAaron Doster/USA Today SportsTyler Kroft (81) could be filling in for his mentor Tyler Eifert (85) and catching TD passes for the Bengals early in 2016.

The mentor role is about the only one Eifert can fulfill right now as the four-year vet recovers from surgery to fix an ankle injury sustained in this year's Pro Bowl. Eifert is expected to have a three-month recovery, meaning it could cost him playing time at the beginning of the regular season. If Eifert does miss any games, he will be replaced by Kroft, the second-year player who played sparingly as a backup last season.

"He's looking out for me," Kroft said. "He's basically like, 'It's your time to step up right now. The team's going to need you.'"

As comforting as those words may be for Kroft, they aren't the most important Eifert has dispensed to him. Long known for his steady, even-keeled, cucumber-cool presence in the Bengals' locker room, Eifert wants Kroft to emulate that part of his style, too.

Eifert's big message to Kroft: Relax.

"It came down to where he kept saying, 'Don't overthink it. You're here for a reason. You know what you're doing,'" Kroft said to reporters this week. "Ty, as you guys know, is a little bit laid back. He doesn't try to let the moment get too big for him -- which he does a very good job of. But yeah, [he says] you know why you're here and don't focus on what you need to do and don't think of all the what ifs. You're here for a reason."

Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron developed an on-field rapport with Kroft late last season when Eifert was sidelined with a concussion and stingers. As he relieved Eifert, Kroft went on to catch 11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Each of his catches came in the final seven weeks of the season. At Denver in a key Week 16 Monday night game, Kroft posted a career-high four catches. Each pass was thrown by McCarron, who had to replace starting quarterback Andy Dalton after he broke his throwing thumb two weeks prior.

McCarron views Kroft as a mirror image of Eifert. Built similarly and used similarly, he believes Kroft's playing style can make it appear as if Eifert never left the lineup.

"It's like a baby Eif almost when you think about it," McCarron said. "They both have good speed, they both have good range catching the ball, and they're both able to spread the field. It's hard to replace Eif, it is. But [Kroft] is definitely the guy that you want there.

"He's an explosive player, and I think he's a mismatch. He's a nightmare for defenses just because he's able to spread the field with his speed, and he still has good size. So if you put a smaller DB on him or a safety, it's harder for them to guard him just because he's a bigger-bodied guy."

For Kroft and the Bengals, it will be hard replicating Eifert's red-zone production from last season. Of Eifert's team-high 13 touchdown receptions, 11 came from inside the opposing 20.

CINCINNATI -- These are important days for Cincinnati Bengals' William Jackson III and other NFL rookies.

As teams start passing the halfway point of organized team activities, as the Bengals did Wednesday, the time to shine this spring for first-year players is drawing to a close. After next week's OTAs, all Jackson and other Bengals rookies will have is a three-day minicamp before practices conclude until training camp in late July.

It means now is the time for Jackson to prove why he's in Cincinnati.

"I'm just trying to go out there and make a statement, and let them know why they drafted me," said Jackson, the 24th overall draft pick, simplistically outlining his goal for the remainder of the spring.

Making a statement means always being around the football, flashing some of the pass-breakup techniques that made him a star in college at Houston, intercepting a few passes and proving to coaches and Bengals veterans that he's willing to listen and accept their guidance.

According to 12-year veteran cornerback Adam Jones, Jackson has already begun doing much of that.

"He's good," Jones said. "The kid is quick as hell, too. He's just got to work on the little stuff. It'll be my job to help him, me and the coaches. And he can be really good."

William Jackson IIIJohn Minchillo/AP PhotoBengals cornerback William Jackson breaks up a pass intended for receiver Cody Core on May 24. With long arms and quick reflexes, Jackson has impressed veterans in organized team activities.

The "little stuff" includes fine-tuning Jackson's footwork so he can consistently smother elite NFL receivers with his coverage. It also includes trusting his fellow Bengals defensive backs, realizing where in the secondary he'll receive help on any given play, and removing the college mentality that he can bait quarterbacks to throw in his direction.

"It's no baiting in this league," Jones said, smiling. "A couple things look good in practice won't look good in the game, just because of the mental aspects of the quarterbacks and the wide receivers. You get behind, they're going to stack you. It's just the little stuff like that that he'll pick up as we go."

At Houston, all Jackson did was make statements. Only 40 percent of the passes thrown in his direction the past two years resulted in completions. Last fall, he led the country in passes defensed with 28. He also closed the season by being named the defensive MVP of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl after he recorded 10 tackles, intercepted two passes and broke up another two in Houston's victory over Florida State.

Many of Jackson's best college highlights are of of him leaping high with one hand for passes it would initially appear he had no business defending. Even in practices with the Bengals this spring, there have been times when receivers have sprinted past him, only for passes to deflect at the last moment off his outstretched hand.

In those cases, it helps Jackson to have good closing speed and his 31¾-inch arms, the second-longest among corners drafted in the first round. Only Artie Burns, taken by Pittsburgh one spot later, had longer arms among this year's first-round corners.

"It definitely helps for my arms to be long," Jackson said. "I cannot be there and then be there at the same time."

Perhaps that's one reason it won't be too difficult for Jackson to make his statement this spring after all.

"He's got a chance to be really special," Jones said.

CINCINNATI -- Whether it was in one-on-ones, seven-on-sevens or full-team drills, it didn't matter.

Whenever Andy Dalton threw a football in A.J. Green's direction during the Cincinnati Bengals' open organized team activity practice Tuesday, the veteran wide receiver was practically assured of catching the pass, regardless of how good the coverage on him was. There might have been just one throw all day in which they didn't connect.

According to cornerback Adam Jones, who Green slipped past once in the practice for a deep-ball reception, the team's quarterback and receiver are on the same page so far this spring. In his eyes, and theirs, it shouldn't be any other way.

"That's what they're supposed to do," Jones said. "Those guys have been together what, five or six years now? The chemistry between those two should be like a bolt nut. It should go in every time."

Selected by the Bengals in the first and second rounds of the 2011 draft, Green and Dalton are entering their sixth seasons.

"We've been playing together for a long time," Dalton said. "We feel comfortable. I know where he's going to be. I know what to expect from him."

Andy Dalton/A.J.GreenAP Photo/Ron SchwaneAndy Dalton and A.J. Green are working with a new coordinator this offseason.

They have had some great moments, and a few disappointing ones, along the way.

The Dalton-Green combination has averaged 79 completions the past five seasons, and that includes numbers from Green's injury-riddled 2014, and Dalton's injury-plagued 2015. Last season, Dalton missed the final three regular-season games with a broken thumb. The year before that, Green missed parts of six games because of toe and head injuries.

Since 2011, the Dalton-to-Green connection has yielded 40 touchdown passes, including double-digit totals in 2012 and 2013.

However, that connection has engineered 31 interceptions for defenses, too, including 12 in 2013. In the playoffs, the pairing has been virtually nonexistent, with Green having never caught a touchdown pass from Dalton in the postseason. Dalton has thrown four interceptions while targeting Green in the playoffs, and he's only amassed 161 yards on postseason passes that Green catches. It's important to note that because of their respective injuries the past two seasons, Dalton and Green didn't play together in the 2014 and 2015 playoffs.

Dalton said the on-field relationship between himself and Green should be smooth right now because of how long they have been together. As two of the oldest skill players in an offense that has changed coordinators, he knows both of them will need to remain vocal.

"When I'm on the field, if something doesn't go exactly as it's planned, I'm going to say something before a coach is going to say something," Dalton said. "I'm going to get to it quicker and try to get it corrected.

"A.J.'s to the point where he's not a young guy anymore. He's been around a while; he has all the experience and so he'll be able to help guys out. That's part of the process of the longer you play, you can help the guys around you."

The mere observation of Dalton and Green going live together for the first time has already had an effect on second-round rookie Tyler Boyd.

"It was great just seeing that combination out there, period, because those are some of the two best to do it in this league," Boyd said. "And just seeing them work motivated me to go out there and want to work with them so I can hopefully play alongside the guys and help them win."

CINCINNATI -- So far, the big story out of the Cincinnati Bengals' organized team activities involves tight end Tyler Eifert and the injury that could force him to miss a couple of games at the start of the season.

The hope is that his rehab from a surgery that was conducted Wednesday will be fully wrapped up by training camp, and that he can return to action before the Bengals open the season at the New York Jets on Sept. 11.

But in case he isn't ready, where do the Bengals turn? We answered the Tyler Kroft pass-catching portion of that question earlier Wednesday morning. Second-year tight end Kroft's role would increase, as would opportunities for Bengals playmakers A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. But what about on the blocking side of the tight end position? It appears the Bengals have that answered, too.

Perhaps it's ultimately unrelated, but it is hard to avoid drawing parallels with the timing of Eifert's surgery, the early OTA absence of H-back Ryan Hewitt and the appearance of time linebacker Jeff Luc at fullback during Tuesday's open OTA session.

Jeff LucWilfredo Lee/AP PhotoJeff Luc, shown in the Dolphins' training camp last season, is working at fullback with the Bengals in OTAs.

A first-year player who spent part of last season on New Orleans' practice squad, Luc was signed by the Bengals as a free agent early in the offseason. He's one of many players simply hoping to make the roster. At the Bengals' rookie camp two weeks ago, he played the position he has occupied since his junior year of high school: linebacker.

But that changed Tuesday.

"I would say it was a mutual thing," Luc said of the decision to move him. "It's up to the coach to make the decision and it's up to me to go out and do the best I can. It was brought up to me and I said, 'Sure, whatever I can do to help the team.' I just want to win."

One of Florida's top high school recruits at linebacker in 2010, Luc originally signed to play at Florida State. Among the first of then-new FSU coach Jimbo Fisher's recruits, he was considered the player who helped get Fisher's Seminoles off and running on the recruiting trail. Florida State won the national championship three years later. That same year, Luc completed a transfer to the University of Cincinnati, where he played linebacker for two seasons.

During Luc's recruitment, several schools, including Cincinnati, once viewed him as a tight end. As a high school sophomore, he turned heads there as both a blocker and receiver.

So maybe it shouldn't have been too alarming to see him on offense at Bengals practice. Besides, Hewitt's absence for an undisclosed injury, for now, also leaves an extra hole at the blocking positions. As the Bengals go through this part of their offseason practice schedule, why not test out a young player's versatility?

Luc isn't sure if the move will be permanent, but he is glad to have the opportunity to keep proving himself.

"I have an advantage [at fullback], because as a linebacker, I know what I don't like what a fullback would do to me," Luc said. "Now seeing it from a fullback perspective, I can really take advantage of that."

Luc's transition, so far, hasn't been too difficult.

"The fullback position is not as tough as the 'Mike' [linebacker]," Luc said. "The 'Mike,' you are the quarterback of the defense. With that being said, I've got one role. I've got to go block here from different formations, so I'm picking it up here and there. It's not as hard as people think it is."

CINCINNATI -- Four road games, a night game and meetings with three 2015 AFC playoff teams. The Cincinnati Bengals face all of that within the first six weeks of the season, making it among the toughest stretches of the year.

And it has just gotten a whole lot tougher.

With news early Wednesday morning from Adam Schefter that tight end Tyler Eifert could miss the first couple of games this season after undergoing ankle surgery Wednesday, an already young, transitioning offense faces a stiffer challenge at the start of the year. The Bengals already had to replace two of their top pass-catchers from 2015. Now they must also figure out who will replace their most prolific pass-catching scorer early. Eifert had a team-high 13 touchdown receptions last season.

Tyler KroftKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsTyler Kroft's production in the passing game ramped up toward the end of his rookie season.

While some of that burden will shift to Pro Bowler A.J. Green and running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, some of it will settle upon second-year standout Tyler Kroft too.

If Kroft didn't already know, his time in the limelight has arrived.

By the end of last season, Kroft had emerged as a legitimate backup to Eifert. Although he appeared in all 17 games (including the Bengals' playoff game against Pittsburgh), it wasn't until Week 12 that Kroft started popping up as an offensive playmaker on the stat sheet. His first career catch came that Sunday afternoon, when he hauled in a 4-yard pass as part of the Bengals' 31-7 win over the Rams.

Kroft worked his way up from one reception in the Week 13 win over the Browns to four in the Week 16 loss to the Broncos. In the Bengals' two final road games (at San Francisco in Week 15 and at Denver a week later), Kroft caught seven passes off nine targets. He also had 77 yards receiving and a touchdown in those two games.

Overall, Kroft had 11 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown last season.

Much of the late rise in Kroft's production was the result of more sideline time for Eifert. The veteran tight end dealt with a concussion and a stinger toward the end of the season.

Where did Kroft come from?

The first of two third-round Bengals picks in 2015, Kroft was a Rutgers standout who was forced into changing his playing style throughout college. Former Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu, also a Rutgers product, vouched to coaches and scouts about Kroft's ability and his personality away from the field.

More of a pass-catching tight end as a sophomore (leading the team with 43 catches and 573 receiving yards), Kroft had to hone his blocking skills as a junior. That was when a new offensive coordinator with a run-heavy scheme took over. At the end of that season, Kroft entered the draft. Kroft received the 2014 Loyal Knight Award, an honor that goes to the Scarlet Knights player "who has displayed great character in sacrificing personal goals for the good of the team."

Kroft has adapted to change before, and he'll have to do it again this fall. Only this time, he shouldn't be sacrificing catches and yards.

CINCINNATI -- We're now one significant step closer to the start of the season.

With the arrival of organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday, the Cincinnati Bengals are joining the rest of the league in transitioning to full-team practices. The 10 practices the Bengals are holding across the next three weeks are still voluntary, but expect the Bengals to have close to perfect attendance for them.

As those practices kick off Tuesday, here are a few players who could benefit from the extra springtime work:

William Jackson IIIAP Photo/John MinchilloWilliam Jackson III looked impressive against other rookies at minicamp. Can he keep it up against veterans in OTAs?

CB William Jackson III: The first-round cornerback had an impressive showing during the Bengals' rookie camp two weeks ago, but now he has the chance to practice with veteran cornerbacks like Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick, and against Pro Bowler A.J. Green. Those times when Jackson gets Green one-on-one definitely could provide a confidence boost if the rookie can keep up with the veteran receiver. These next few weeks are Jackson's chance to prove to older teammates he belongs.

WR Tyler Boyd: Much like Jackson, Boyd is in the "show me" stage of his very young career. The pressure to perform may be a little more intense for this rookie, though, considering many are viewing him as the possible answer to the Bengals' No. 2 receiver quandary. Behind Green, uncertainty reigns at the receiver position. The Bengals' returning receivers besides Green had just three catches between them last season. Their free-agent addition, Brandon LaFell, is coming off a down year in New England, and for now, it's hard to say what he will be able to provide Cincinnati. LaFell likely will start off OTAs as the No. 2 receiver, but Boyd has every chance -- starting now -- to push past him.

LB Marquis Flowers: On the defensive side of the ball it's been easy to forget about Flowers, the third-year linebacker who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. Mostly used on special teams as a rookie, Flowers will be hoping to compete this offseason and preseason for action at linebacker, too. Noted for his coverage ability when he was being drafted, the former college safety could definitely help the Bengals as they start polishing packages that focus on the coverage of tight ends and running backs. This is a big offseason for Flowers.

DE Margus Hunt: Few players on Cincinnati's roster are in Hunt's position. The defensive end is entering a contract year and the former second-round pick has been mostly underwhelming in his time in stripes. Injuries have certainly played a role in that. As he begins the fourth year of his rookie deal, Hunt needs to consistently flash in practices from now until the end of the year. Before injuries slowed him the past two seasons, coaches kept saying they thought he was closer and closer to finally putting it all together and having a promising career.

K Jonathan Brown: Remember this guy? A tryout player who made it past rookie camp, Brown still has a ways to go before he makes an NFL roster. He's currently the Bengals' third kicker. Maybe Cincinnati won't be his home long term, but in this camp he will have a chance to impress coaches enough that they'll have him back for training camp. If that happens, he'll be able to put some kicks on tape this preseason and perhaps catch the attention of another team. When he was signed earlier this month, Brown said the Bengals were the only team that reached out to him.

video
CINCINNATI -- Why in the world would the Cincinnati Bengals sign a player with just four games of starting NFL experience to a four-year extension that includes $19.5 million in new money?

That's a pretty good question.

Well, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, what say you?

"You don't just go off game snaps," Guenther said, after being posed a similar question Tuesday afternoon. "You go off practice, the way he prepares, the way he takes care of his body. It's just another example of drafting a guy, developing a guy and you just push him forward. That's the way we have done things around here and it's worked good. Hopefully we can continue on that trend."

AP Photo/Don WrightShawn Williams helped the Bengals start 7-0 last season with this late interception in a 16-10 November win over the Steelers.

Indeed, two months after the Bengals re-signed George Iloka, Vincent Rey and Brandon Thompson -- three players who have spent their entire careers in Bengals stripes -- Cincinnati added one more to the mix with Shawn Williams' extension. He goes down as yet another player who has been carefully molded by a coaching staff and personnel department that favors familiarity over most anything else.

It's because of such familiarity that the Bengals are often slow-movers when free agency opens every spring. After trying to re-sign as many of the players who they want back as they can, the Bengals typically stand put until late March when they can add quality, lower-priced free agents for depth. Look no further for examples of that than with Karlos Dansby and Brandon LaFell signing this year in late March, or Taylor Mays' return to Cincinnati in April after he spent 2015 playing in Oakland.

Yes, familiarity got Williams his new deal. But so did everything he's done away from the defensive huddle the past three seasons.

"It’s the practice, meeting room, everything," Guenther said. "He sat there for a couple years and just watched. He was a special-teams guy; last year he got in there and did it. Next year we are looking for him to take the next step, be more involved as a starting player."

After the Bengals passed on re-signing Reggie Nelson this spring -- a safety who ultimately signed with Oakland -- the writing appeared on the proverbial wall. Williams' days toiling as a backup safety and occasional coverage linebacker were over. He was moving full-fledged into the starting rotation. His contract extension, which goes through the 2020 season, would pair him with Iloka for many years to come.

"We've kind of every year grown closer and closer together," Williams said. "I'm really looking forward to what we can build upon and seeing how high we can go."

As much as Williams' extension was about what he has done away from the field, the Bengals are also handsomely compensating him for what he has done on it. Despite being a rotational reserve, Williams still has been a special-teams star the past three seasons. On defense, he also had one of the most important plays of last season when he dove and picked off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger late in a 16-10 win at Pittsburgh. The interception helped push the Bengals to an unprecedented 7-0 record to begin a season.

He finished 2015 with a career-high 28 tackles and two interceptions.

Now that his opportunity for a brighter spotlight has come, the usually media-shy Williams isn't planning on changing.

"Just to continue to be yourself and stay true to who you are, and always work hard, and put forth the best effort that you can, and everything will take care of itself," Williams said. "No added pressure needed. Just go out and do what I love doing."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

AFC NORTH SCOREBOARD