AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Count Rey Maualuga among the believers.

While some around the Cincinnati Bengals are concerned about how well linebacker Vontaze Burfict will respond this offseason to microfracture surgery on his left knee, his teammate and fellow linebacker expects the recovery to go well.

"I know Tez. He's a fighter. He'll come back," Maualuga said Friday following a news conference regarding the three-year contract extension he signed Thursday.

Maualuga was asked about Burfict because the Bengals' interest in re-signing him appears to have stemmed, in part, from the fact nobody knows yet what to expect.

Microfracture surgery is regarded as one of the most career-threatening procedures athletes can endure, with patience and persistence a necessary virtue.

"He's a tough guy," Maualuga said. "With the healing process, that's going to take some time. But with the spring and OTAs (organized team activities) and all of that, it's a chance for guys to get better. It's a chance for coaches to see what guys can be put in that role and look comfortable in it. We don't have to worry. We have time to find the right guys to take on that role if he doesn't come back in time."

Maualuga said he was optimistic the same old Burfict would be running around when training camp begins in July and August.

For now, that's the timeline the Bengals are hoping for. Head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther were told Burfict's slow recovery process ought to have him back in time for the start of camp. They likely will take it easy with him when he first gets on the field, but the hope is that when he's 100 percent, he will not have lost the explosiveness and burst that made him a virtual wrecking ball in the middle of the defense during the first two of his three seasons in stripes.

His 2014 season was almost completely derailed because of injuries, but Burfict, led the Bengals in tackles in 2012 and 2013. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict made the Pro Bowl following his second season before signing a contract extension that is scheduled to pay him about $20 million through 2017. He's still just 24 years old.

"Vontaze is a big reason for this linebacker group to be what we need it to be," Maualuga said. "With his presence and his understanding of the game, we're a lot more comfortable. If he's not out there, it's like we're playing not so much a catch-up game, but it's like that overall mindset is off for us. It changes a little bit."

Part of the reason Maualuga anticipates Burfict to make an adequate return is because he knows what drives him.

"Doctors are going to say what they want to say: 'This guy will come back in six months' or whatever," Maualuga said. "No, it's on the player. Just like my hamstring the first time [last season]. They said, 'Oh, it's going to be 6-9 weeks.' Well, I came back in four. It's all about how bad you want it and how fast you can come back."

Anyone who has spent time around Burfict knows there really is no questioning how much he wants to play at a high level again.
CINCINNATI -- Let's say this one last time, and with feeling: the Cincinnati Bengals will not be signing Ndamukong Suh.

Randall Cobb, for as much as he's reportedly seeking ($12 million per year), also will not be placing his name on a Bengals contract this year.

Neither would DeMarco Murray nor Adrian Peterson, if the Bengals had a serious need for a running back.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceDon't expect Ndamukong Suh, or any of the NFL's high-end free agents, to be signing with the Bengals next week.
Why? Because Cincinnati simply doesn't have enough in its coffers this year to ink what are sure to be massive deals for each of the aforementioned free agents. They believe they have just enough to make moves with their current free agents who need extensions, and to sign a couple of other second- and third-tier players from outside.

While it is true the Bengals, at nearly $40 million, have some of the league's largest salary-cap space based on records from the NFL Players Association and ESPN Stats & Information, the team expects to actually operate this year at a significantly lower figure.

That's because of other costs that factor into the salary cap that occasionally get overlooked both here and elsewhere.

Money for draft picks, undrafted college free agents, injury protections and the practice squad roster are among other budgetary items that get included into the cap-space figure. Also included is the $8.7 million rollover the team likes to use during the summer months when it tries to re-sign players who are going into the final year of their current deals (a la Andy Dalton last August). That money could go fast this year with 17 players, including receiver A.J. Green, currently due to hit free agency next March.

All of that explains why, when it's all said and done, the $40 million looks a lot more like about $15-18 million to the Bengals.

Suh won't be signing for $15 million. And he certainly won't be signing for half that.

Maybe Greg Hardy -- a defensive end who had a $13.1 million franchise tag last year with Carolina, but who also hits free agency with off-field baggage that could force him into signing a discounted contract wherever he lands -- will. Hardy had domestic violence charges dismissed last month, and was in New York on Wednesday meeting with league officials as they investigate the off-field incident further. Their investigation is expected to determine whether or not he'll be punished for any games next season, after spending all but one in 2014 on the exempt list while the charges were pending.

Maybe the Bengals don't go with one $9 million-per-year splash free agent. Perhaps they'll stick to their normal routine when free agency starts next week and wait for the Day 1 and Day 2 smoke to clear before moving on multiple free agents who would be worth closer to $4 million or $5 million a year. Whichever of the methods they choose for adding external free agents, they also have to account for re-signing their own free agents like Clint Boling, Rey Maualuga and Mike Nugent, too. That $15-18 million also covers them. Expect all three to have new deals in the coming days.

Having Suh on their defensive line would be a dream for the Bengals. But the reality is, the dollars and cents just don't make sense.
CINCINNATI -- The search for defensive linemen who can improve the Cincinnati Bengals' pass rush has begun.

Indications are the organization would like to use both free agency and the NFL draft to address the pressing issue. The bulk of the emphasis, though, is currently being placed on free agency. If they can get them, the Bengals would like to add a veteran player or two who have already proven they can get to an opposing quarterback.

For a defense that had Pro Football Focus' worst pass-rush grade this past season, and one that finished with 20 sacks -- one of the lowest single-season totals in franchise history -- the reasons it's important to bolster the defensive line are infinitesimal.

With the start of free agency now less than a week away, it's a good time to come up with ways to best identify free-agent pass-rushers.

Earlier this week, ESPN insider and former NFL general manager Bill Polian published his 2015 free-agent big board Insider. In it, he also outlined 14 dos and don'ts for league executives as they search for veteran talent this offseason.

One of them made perfect sense, especially when applied to pass-rushers: "Don't give A- or B-money [or years] to a player who doesn't play well on third down."

For a defensive lineman, third downs are when he earns his salary.

Polian considers "A" money earners to be those who ought to have $6 million or more of annual average value with three-plus years of guaranteed money placed on their new deals. He considers "B" money earners to be those who should have an annual average value between $2-6 million with two years or less of guaranteed money.

Traditionally, on the top end of their free-agent spending, the Bengals go after "B" money free agents.

George Johnson and Greg Hardy are two ends who Polian thinks meet his "B" money criteria.

Perhaps the least-recognizable name from the Detroit Lions' defensive line, Johnson is a former undrafted free agent who had a breakout season in Detroit's rotation. He was the equivalent of what Wallace Gilberry was for the Bengals in 2013. Before getting thrust into more playing time as the Bengals sought to replace Michael Johnson this past season, Gilberry was Cincinnati's No. 3 defensive end. A third-down specialist, Gilberry did his best damage two seasons ago in clutch situations.

As for Hardy, the Panthers' defensive end who had domestic violence charges dismissed last month, the numbers this past season were essentially nonexistent. He only played in one game due to the charges. It's unclear if he'll miss any more time in 2015 because of the off-field incident that led to them. Before the trouble, Hardy had 15 sacks in 2013 and 11 in 2012.

If Polian's rule about third-down play was to be applied to Johnson or Hardy, this accompanying charts show both would deserve getting paid. Who else might?

To find an answer, we looked at third-down numbers of some of the current notable free-agent pass-rushers. In an effort to account for Hardy's missed time, and to also avoid giving too much credence to players who may have had strong performances in contract years, we looked at numbers not only from 2014, but from 2013, as well.

While Ndamukong Suh would be the ideal addition, because of his anticipated mammoth contract, don't expect him in Bengals stripes. But cheaper options such as Jerry Hughes, who had six third-down sacks the last two seasons, also exist. So does Johnson and Hardy, among others.

CINCINNATI -- Last week, with the help of ESPN Stats & Information, we looked at the previous projection for the Cincinnati Bengals' salary-cap space based on their top-51 contract commitments and money they rolled over from last season.

At that time, it was expected the Bengals would have about $36.5 million in cap space when the new league year opened next week.

But that was one day before the releases of receiver Greg Little and defensive end Robert Geathers, and it also was before the NFL told teams Monday morning that the 2015 salary-cap would be $280,000 more than recent reports had indicated.

With the per-team cap officially set at $143.28 million, the Bengals are looking at having just south of $40 million in cap space for the new year. They'll have $39,883,842, to be exact. Only six teams will have more space available. Just one of them, the Colts, made the playoffs with the Bengals.

Using Stats & Information's numbers, Cincinnati's adjusted cap will be $152,030,435. That figure includes the $8.7 million the Bengals are rolling over from 2014.

Since the Bengals aren't quite as pressed to sign multiple large-salary contract extensions like they were last offseason with quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict, they ought to have some room to maneuver under the cap this year to make a couple of larger-than-normal free-agent signings. Cincinnati typically is an observer during the early stages of free agency. Coach Marvin Lewis already has indicated the franchise will be more aggressive this year.

It's important to note that the salary-cap limit of $143.28 million doesn't include player benefits. When that's factored in, the total projected player cost teams will be allowed to spend is $180.8 million. The Bengals' front office often highlights those costs when discussing player spending.
CINCINNATI -- Let's stress this at the very beginning: it's only a visit.

Free-agent visits don't always lead to a signing.

Still, the fact that, according to reports, former Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones was meeting Monday with the Cincinnati Bengals ahead of a stop in Tennessee is something that can't easily be dismissed. Especially considering the Bengals just released one wide out, have another two set to hit free agency next week, and are expected to make multiple moves at the position later this offseason.

Jones' trip to Cincinnati can be read any number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is this: it's a sign Brandon Tate's time in the Queen City will soon end.

Tate is one of two Bengals receivers expected to hit unrestricted free agency next week. As Cincinnati pushes to revitalize a receiving unit that was decimated by injuries this past season, it's hard to see him and Dane Sanzenbacher returning for new deals. Bengals coaches have already expressed their desire to enhance the position's speed and return ability through the draft. With a deep pool of fast wide outs with return experience coming out of college this year, it makes sense to go that direction.

But what if there is a veteran who can provide all of those things, too, and who can contribute without needing to get acclimated to the league first? Do you go after him?

We Ted Ginn Jr. or Jacoby Jones?" href="" target="_blank">sought to answer those questions last week when Jones was cut by Baltimore, just after the Arizona Cardinals did the same with Ohio State product Ted Ginn. At the time it seemed to make more sense for the Bengals to take a peek at Ginn, whose size made him a bit of a better fit for the style wideout they are interested in adding through the draft.

Both releases, though, came before Greg Little was cut by Cincinnati last Friday.

With Little, a larger-bodied boundary receiver now off the roster, the Bengals have a spot for a player of Jones' stature. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Jones is about the same size as Little, and would be a natural fit in the rotation behind bigger receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu. It's worth pointing out that all of Cincinnati's wideouts eventually end up in the slot. But some get there more often than others.

As for Tate, his days appear numbered because visits like this one are a sign the Bengals are identifying and targeting players who can do exactly what he can.

The Bengals paid the 27-year-old Tate about $1.02 million in 2014 to primarily be a backup receiver and to return kickoffs and occasional punts. Used more than in his previous seasons as a Bengal because of the numerous injuries, he caught 17 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. He also returned 18 kicks for an average 22.1 yards, and 18 punts for an average 9.7 yards.

Jacoby Jones, now four months shy of turning 31, had a cap value of about $1.9 million this past season. He caught nine passes for 131 yards for the Ravens, and also had four drops. As a returner, he averaged 30.6 yards per kick and had a touchdown. Only Cincinnati's Adam Jones had a higher kick-return average of players with more than 20 returns.

Sure, Jacoby Jones' drop numbers are high and his age is up, too. Maybe that combination will prevent it from working out for him and the Bengals.

Even if that happens, this visit shows Cincinnati is looking for Tate's replacement.
CINCINNATI -- In an effort to clear a little cap space and to start making room on the roster for offseason additions, the Cincinnati Bengals released Friday veteran defensive end Robert Geathers and receiver Greg Little.

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

The Bengals also released offensive guard Mike Pollak last Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is, but consider this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It could be next year."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides the potential affordability aspect of re-signing Boling, the Bengals also have a track record of pushing hard for re-signing players they trust. It's why Domata Peko earned an extension last offseason, and why Whitworth has been a stalwart of the offensive line. The Bengals this year will have to determine if the trust they have in Boling matches the dollar amount they're willing to spend on him.