CINCINNATI -- It's so easy to pin a team's failures squarely on the shoulders of the man who has the football in his hands more often than anyone else.

If he's the highest-paid player on his team, the finger-pointing seems even more fitting.

Combine that with a quarterback who has been as inconsistent as Andy Dalton is, and it becomes that much easier to target such a signal-caller for complaints about the Bengals' recently poor postseason play.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports"He's not a one-man team," A.J. Green said of teammate Andy Dalton. "... He can't beat the team by himself."
But the truth is, as two prominent members of the team pointed out this week, the Bengals' problems go much deeper than Dalton. This is a teamwide issue; one that won't be ameliorated until each player at Paul Brown Stadium looks in the mirror and comes to such a realization.

It appears some already have.

"We really know that we have to all get to the next level. We have to do better," coach Marvin Lewis said Thursday during an appearance on ESPN's "NFL Insiders." "That includes our quarterback, Andy Dalton. He's got to continue to raise the level around him, and he's got to raise his own level to bring everybody to his level all the time."

To get Dalton to step his game up, Lewis wants the quarterback's receivers, running backs, offensive linemen and defensive and special-teams teammates to do the same.

Apparently A.J. Green has been listening.

Like Lewis, Green spent the week in Arizona participating in Super Bowl week interviews. Green spoke with NFL Network's Michael Irvin about the Bengals' playoff troubles. Cincinnati has been to four-straight postseasons, but lost in the opening round in each. The franchise hasn't won a playoff game since January 1991, most recently losing at Indianapolis 26-10 in a wild-card round game earlier this month.

Green, who was drafted four years ago with Dalton, explained how bothered he gets when the bulk of blame settles onto his quarterback.

"He's not a one-man team," Green said. "When you look at those games ... we don't play well as a whole. We don't protect him well, we're not running the ball good and we're not playing defense. He can't beat the team by himself.

"We're all the supporting cast of our team and we have to step up our game to help him."

Green was unavailable in this year's playoff game after suffering a concussion in the regular-season finale. Regardless, he hasn't been very good in the postseason, catching only 13 passes for 162 yards and no touchdowns off 32 targets in three games.

Dalton, who had one of his worst regular seasons statistically, actually had one of his better playoff performances against the Colts. He only threw for 155 yards, but had his second-highest passer rating of the four playoff games, and he didn't throw an interception. Through the first three playoff games, he threw six.

Consistency and stability are among the reasons Lewis believes the Bengals will eventually clear this postseason hurdle.

"The thing we need to do is we've got to keep putting physical people out there, and people who understand that each play is so critical to our success," Lewis said. "We've got to raise our level. We've been at this spot for four seasons now and it's not good enough.

"What I've told our coaches is that we've got to start again. We've got to start from scratch."
Le'Veon Bell came within 42 yards of leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2014. He joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only players in NFL history with at least 1,350 rushing yards and 850 receiving yards in a season, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

And yet nothing reflected his value more than the one game that Bell missed.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense struggled in a 30-17 AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens with Bell watching helplessly on the sidelines because of a hyperextended knee.

Bell
The Steelers rushed for only 68 yards and gave up five sacks -- they had yielded four in the their last four regular-season games -- in the loss that ended their season. The critical turnover of the game came in the fourth quarter, when a Ben Roethlisberger pass bounced off the hands of running back Ben Tate and into the arms of Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

The Steelers could only wonder what might have been had Bell been healthy enough to play against the Ravens since he excels as a runner and receiver and is also adept at picking up blitzing linebackers.

Bell’s all-around game earned the second-year man a truckload of accolades, and he has been voted the AFC North’s Most Valuable Player.

Bell beat out Roethlisberger, who tied New Orleans’ Drew Brees for the most passing yards (4,952) in 2014, for the honor, which was voted on by ESPN reporters who cover AFC North teams.

“The things that he can do in all three phases of the game to run, to catch the ball, and to block are some of the most special things I’ve ever seen a running back do,” Roethlisberger said during Bell’s breakout season.

Bell set numerous Steelers records, including the one for most yards from scrimmage (2,215) in a season. He also joined the late Walter Payton as the only players in NFL history with at least 200 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive games.

Payton accomplished the feat in 1977. Bell matched it with 711 yards from scrimmage during a three-game stretch that bridged November and December.

“When they were talking about me and Walter Payton being the only ones having that (record), it kind of hit me a little bit,” Bell said, “like, OK, all the hard work I’ve been putting in for 17 years playing football and all the hard work I’ve been putting in is paying off. Being looked at as one of the better players in the NFL is something that I take pride in.”

And Bell only turns 23 when he celebrates his birthday Feb. 18.

"This is only my second year so I feel like I have room for improvement,” Bell said. “There’s still a lot of things I can work on and get better at.”

AFC North Most Valuable Player voting: Le'Veon Bell, 12 points; Ben Roethlisberger, 8; Joe Flacco, 4; Justin Forsett, 3; Antonio Brown, 2; Jeremy Hill, 1.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

Click here to see the other free-agency breakdowns.

Nugent
We conclude with kicker Mike Nugent:

Year signed: 2013

Length of previous deal: Two years

2014 cap value: $1,400,000

2014 role: Kicker.

Why he will be re-signed: As we've mentioned often enough this offseason, the Bengals' front office values loyalty and likes to retain players and staff it feels it can trust. That's among the reasons head coach Marvin Lewis has continued to survive after all these years of stagnant postseason play. It's the same reason Domata Peko was re-signed last offseason and why Rey Maualuga has a good shot of coming back this one. Although he wasn't a Bengals' draftee, it's still safe to lump Nugent into that same boat. A Southwest Ohio native who has spent the past five seasons with the Bengals, Nugent is one of the few "local" players who gives the team part of its down-home charm. Certainly, he has compelling reasons for wanting to be re-signed.

Although he had one big missed field goal that loomed over the season with his end-of-overtime hook against Carolina, Nugent also had his share of clutch makes in 2014. His 57-yarder in the playoff loss at Indianapolis was the second-longest make in franchise history. Another reason the Bengals could re-sign Nugent to a short one- or two-year deal is because between unrestricted free agency and the draft, there are few legitimate and cost-effective options of players to replace him this year. Next year, though, Florida State's Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Roberto Aguayo will be draft-eligible. The year after, West Virginia's All-America kicker Josh Lambert could be an option, too.

Why he won't be re-signed: At 32, age isn't much of an issue for Nugent -- because of the comparative lack of consistent punishment their bodies take, kickers age a little more slowly than most other positions in the NFL -- but the Bengals may begin using that as a basis of searching for a replacement the next time Nugent becomes a free agent. That's assuming he gets re-signed this time. The only truly compelling reason the Bengals have for letting Nugent sign elsewhere is if they really are bothered by his problems kicking field goals from beyond 50 yards. He's 10-for-24 in his career from that distance. Excluding the playoff make, he was 0-for-3 from that far this past regular season. His completion percentage also has declined each season since 2011, reaching the lowest point of his Bengals' tenure this year when he made just 78.8 percent of his attempts. The Bengals don't appear too terribly troubled by that, though. Lewis has mentioned often in the past year how much he still trusts Nugent's ability.
video

Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still joins "SportsCenter" to talk about his daughter Leah's battle with cancer.
During an appearance Thursday afternoon on ESPN's "NFL Insiders," Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis gave a couple of quick injury updates.

Three key injured offensive players are "all progressing well," Lewis said.

Specifically, he was referring to offensive tackle Andre Smith, tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones. Each of them ended up on season-ending injured reserve after dealing with a series of serious injuries.

Smith was lost after Week 12 following a triceps injury he suffered while trying to block the Houston Texans' JJ Watt. Eifert originally was designated for return after dislocating his right elbow in the season-opening win at Baltimore. He remained on IR throughout the season, though, because the elbow took longer to heal than expected. As a result of that, the Bengals felt it was wise Eifert eventually be shut down and for him to undergo shoulder surgery to clear another injury that had nagged him as far back as last offseason.

Eifert told reporters the day after the Bengals' Jan. 4 playoff loss that he thought he doubted he would be 100 percent by minicamp, but he expected to participate fully in training camp.

Unlike Smith and Eifert, Jones didn't suit up at all this season after suffering an ankle injury while training last offseason. He ended up breaking a foot later in the year during training camp. Once the foot injury cleared, though, the ankle still was enough of an issue in the middle of the regular season that the Bengals shut down the player who was their second-leading receiver the year before.

The Bengals are hopeful injured linebacker Vontaze Burfict can progress as well as it appears these others have so far. The Pro Bowler underwent microfracture surgery earlier this month. It's a procedure that doesn't have a great track record as far as allowing athletes to get back to their same level of production once they recover from it. Some can. In order for Burfict to be among the fortunate few, he will have a long and grueling several months of rehab.

Earlier this week, the doctor who performed the surgery expressed optimism Burfict could be back by training camp.

"He's got a hard road," Lewis said on "NFL Insiders." "As I've said publicly, because I keep putting it in his ear, he's got to work his tail off. He worked hard to get to the NFL, he's got to work harder to get back to that level."
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis made the media rounds in Arizona on Thursday as he fulfilled various Super Bowl Week appearances.

It was during a seven-minute appearance on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" in the afternoon that Lewis spoke publicly for the second time about the standoff the Bengals and Broncos had this month over assistant coach Vance Joseph.

Joseph
Last week during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, Lewis told Bengals.com and the Cincinnati Enquirer that the decision to block Joseph, one of the Bengals' co-defensive backs coaches, from leaving for Denver was "a hard one."

It was so hard because team president Mike Brown recognizes Joseph's value, Lewis said on the television show Thursday.

"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."

Lewis then added, laughing: "It could be next year."

Viewed in several NFL circles as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, the 42-year-old Joseph had been granted permission by the Bengals to interview for the Broncos' head-coaching vacancy that came open when John Fox was fired following Denver's divisional-round playoff loss to Indianapolis. Four days after Joseph's interview, former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was announced as Fox's replacement.

Not long after, word leaked that Kubiak and his new bosses favored bringing Joseph on board as they tried to fill their empty defensive coordinator position. Before joining the Bengals last offseason, Joseph had served as Kubiak's defensive backs coach for three years when Kubiak was the head coach of the Houston Texans.

Once they discovered the Broncos' intentions, the Bengals blocked Joseph from voiding his contract in order to leave for the coordinator position. Had he instead been offered the head-coaching job, perhaps their stance would have been different.

Denver on Wednesday hired longtime coach Wade Phillips to run the defense.

"Vance understands how things work. All coaches do," Lewis said Thursday. "Anytime you're in that situation as a coach, the very first thing should be if I can be released from my contract. As we know, as you look across the league, some are and some aren't, and that's part of the process.

"As Mike reminds me, his No. 1 devotion is to the Cincinnati Bengals. That's what he's in charge of is his club and our club, and what's best for us."

Though Lewis might have been joking about it, the Bengals do seem to have the makings of a succession plan in place in the event 2015 is his final season. For now, Lewis is set to coach next season on the final year of a contract. The team hasn't given any indication if it plans to sign him to an extension sometime this offseason.

Along with Joseph, the Bengals also already have another former head coach on their staff in Hue Jackson, the offensive coordinator who interviewed for the Buffalo Bills' opening this month.
One was an absolute wrecking ball on defense, consistently finding his way to the football. The other was eased into his team's offense before ultimately taking it over the second half of the season, and helping it earn a postseason berth.

But only one would be named the AFC North's Rookie of the Year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesIn his rookie season, Ravens LB C.J. Mosley registered five or more tackles in every game.
That honor went to Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who barely edged out Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. From the five-person voting panel, Mosley received 12 overall points to Hill's 11. Mosley also had three first-place votes to the two that went to Hill.

Out of the pair, Hill is the only one up for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award that will be announced this weekend in Arizona. He's the only AFC North representative, contending with a group made up of all offensive players. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, receiver Mike Evans and receiver Sammy Watkins also are up for the honor. No defensive player has earned the award since 2010, when Ndamukong Suh received it.

Mosley was seemingly everywhere for the Ravens this season. He had 129 tackles, the eighth-highest total for any defender in the league. He also was part of a defense that ranked eighth in the league.

In addition to the 129 tackles, Mosley also had three sacks, two interceptions and forced and recovered a fumble. The Alabama product also had 19 tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games, including 10 in the divisional-round loss to the Patriots. In a Week 5 loss at Indianapolis, he had a season-high 14 stops.

Hill became a threat for the Bengals starting in Week 9 when he rushed for a season-high 154 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 win against the Jaguars. It was his 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped ice the win, and firmly put him in his fan base's consciousness. That week, and for the two after it, Hill started in place of Giovani Bernard. The third-year running back was resting after experiencing a series of injuries following hard hits in previous games.

Also during Bernard's absence, Hill rushed for 152 yards in a homecoming game at New Orleans. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native and LSU product went on to become the Bengals' top option at running back after Bernard returned. Across the final nine weeks of the season, Hill rushed for 929 yards, more than any other back in that stretch.

In addition to their Rookie of the Year award, ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on four other honors for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player). We've been handing out the awards daily since Monday.

Mosley finished third in the division Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Hill finished third in Offensive Player of the Year voting.

AFC North Rookie of the Year: Mosley, 12 points; Hill, 11; Joel Bitonio, 8, Cleveland; Martavis Bryant, 1, Pittsburgh.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.

NFL Nation TV talks Hall of Fame

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
11:00
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Join us at 3 p.m. ET, 12 p.m. PT Thursday for the second special NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast.

Episode No. 42 will review ESPN.com's recent joint venture with Pro Football Focus, which broke down how many "above-average" players each team is from contending for the Super Bowl.

The crew will also preview the Super Bowl matchup between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and three-time winner New England Patriots as well as break down how the Pro Football Hall of Fame's upcoming class may shake out Saturday.

Host Paul Gutierrez (ESPN Nation's San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) and ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, both of whom are among the Hall's 46 selectors.

 

CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

Click here to see the other free agency breakdowns.

We continue with safety Taylor Mays:

Mays
Year signed: 2014

Length of previous deal: One year

2014 cap value: $795,000

2014 role: Backup safety, key special teamer.

Why he will be re-signed: The decision to have Mays re-sign could rest more in his hands than the Bengals'. Perhaps more than some of the other players mentioned in this free-agency breakdown series, Mays could have to think about whether he would want to come back for more time as a backup, or if he would like to have a better chance of earning playing time elsewhere. That hinges on the interest he receives on the open market. But assuming for now that he wants to stay in Cincinnati, the Bengals would re-sign Mays because of the important role he plays as a versatile reserve.

In addition to playing safety, he also has gotten on the field the past two seasons playing more of a hybrid linebacker position. It's been in nickel situations when "Sam" linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was injured that Mays shifted over into that spot and covered tight ends and occasionally receivers. Mays' combination of size, athleticism, and coverage ability has made him a good off-the-bench option. The Bengals also would re-sign him because of the positive impact he has had on the punt and kickoff coverage teams. Routinely, he was among the first tacklers around the football on opposing kick returns.

Why he won't be re-signed: Again, the ball appears to truly be in Mays' court. It's possible that he might decide against returning, because the odds that he beats out George Iloka or Reggie Nelson for one of the starting safety jobs is slim. As he goes into his sixth season, Mays might want to be in a place where he can play more. If that's the case, then he will be gone. Because of the depth Mays provides on defense and special teams, the Bengals have little reason to want to part with him. That's another indication of how much this decision could hinge on what Mays wants.
CINCINNATI -- To the Cincinnati Bengals fan who may have already begun envisioning a future without tight end Jermaine Gresham, hold off.

At least, that's the underlying message behind comments made earlier this week by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

Asked if there was still a place on the Bengals' roster for the embattled soon-to-be-free-agent Gresham, Jackson answered in the affirmative.

"There's a place for him," Jackson said to ESPN.com. "But again, he's free, so that's going to work itself out for him however it works itself out."

Gresham
Gresham's five-year rookie contract will come to an end in March when he becomes one of 13 Bengals to become eligible for unrestricted free agency. He and his representatives are free at that point to talk to whichever interested teams they would like. Reading into Jackson's comment it seems possible the Bengals could be one of those teams.

"We have a way that we do things, and how we want to accomplish things," Jackson said. "Within what we asked him to do this year, he did some good things. There are some things he knows he needs to do to be better, and he will work at them to be better."

It should be noted there was some concern among some around the team right after the season about Gresham's apparent inability to play in two meaningful late-season games because of injuries. After testing out respective ailments ahead of the Week 15 game at Cleveland and the wild-card round playoff game at Indianapolis, Gresham decided he couldn't play in either game. The decisions came despite cutting, running and jumping as he went through pregame evaluations from trainers and coaches.

Gresham was asked multiple times after the playoff loss to comment about what made him hesitant to play in the game. He declined each request.

Without the veteran tight end, the Bengals were forced into tweaking a game plan that already took a hit the day before when receiver A.J. Green wasn't cleared of the concussion protocol. Forced to shelve two of their top pass-catchers, the Bengals turned to backup running back Rex Burkhead as an alternate receiver, and mixed up protection fronts to account for Gresham's absence in run-blocking sequences. The Bengals already were without fellow tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones; two of their leading 2013 pass-catchers who practically missed all of 2014.

"A doctor says he can't go, and I don't get to control that," Jackson said about Gresham's playoff absence. "When they said, 'Hue, here's the offensive football team you get,' you have to go out and coach. Were we at full strength? No. But we were the best we could be that day from an injury standpoint and it wasn't good enough."

The Bengals lost 26-10. Despite repeated trips to the postseason, they haven't won a playoff game since January 1991.

Gresham caught 62 passes for 460 yards this season and a division-high five touchdowns. He also fumbled three times.
CINCINNATI -- Paul Guenther made major waves at the start of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason four weeks ago when he told reporters covering the team that defensive tackle Geno Atkins was "just a guy out there" at times this past season.

Hours before making the proclamation, the defensive coordinator shared a similar message in a closed-door meeting with his lineman, imploring him to take it with him into the rest of the offseason.

Atkins
Asked earlier this week if he believed Atkins could make his disappointing 2014 season a distant memory, Guenther told ESPN.com he expected the lineman to do exactly that.

"I'm confident that he'll come back next year and be the guy that we all know," Guenther said. "After going through the year of working through his injury, I feel confident he's going to come back with a vengeance."

Atkins missed the second half of the 2013 season after tearing his ACL and undergoing surgery to fix it. All last offseason, he rehabbed the injury and had hardly any time to build up the rest of his body for the grind of a full regular season. As a result, it appeared his explosion and lauded first-step pass-rush technique suffered. In turn, his production took a sharp dip.

Despite having just 34 tackles and three sacks, numbers that were among the lowest for a regular season in his career, Atkins still made this year's Pro Bowl. After playing in all of Cincinnati's games this year, he appeared in Sunday's game for winning Team Irvin, coached by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin. He didn't record a statistic.

Two years ago, the last full season Atkins played, he recorded 12.5 sacks. He also led the NFL that year with a 12.7 pressure-percentage rating, a metric tracked by Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, he either hurried, hit or sacked quarterbacks on 12.7 percent of the snaps he was part of in 2012. This season, he did the same on 6.7 percent of his snaps, a figure that was mediocre this season, at best.

After Sunday's Pro Bowl, Atkins told Bengals.com in Arizona that he felt strong this season. He also said he hadn't given much thought yet to how his offseason conditioning will go this year. For now, there's only one item on the offseason to-do list: to relax.

"I'm looking forward to having an offseason and chill," the typically uncommunicative Atkins said. "Football season is over. It's a long season."

Still, the goal Guenther, other coaches and trainers have for Atkins these next six months involves training for football specifically.

That's the same process cornerback Leon Hall endured as he recovered from a second Achilles surgery in three years. It's the same process linebacker Vontaze Burfict will go through this spring and summer as he tries to get his left knee healthy again following microfracture surgery earlier this month. The Bengals hope he'll be ready by training camp.

"They're two of our marquee players," Guenther said of Atkins and Burfict. "They're a key fit and part of what we do here. As for Geno, we just have to get him back to full strength where he once had it. That would be huge."

For a pass rush that was arguably the league's worst in 2014, it certainly would be.

Bengals 'farm system' ranked 10th

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
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CINCINNATI -- One of the cornerstones of success for NFL teams revolves around their ability to identify talent, and to grow with it.

Of course, there is no "farm system" in the NFL like there is in Major League Baseball, but professional football hinges nonetheless on the ability of its youngest stars to produce when their times to shine arrive. In recent years, the Cincinnati Bengals have been regarded in league circles as being among the best at finding, evaluating and building through the draft process.

Look no further than the 2011 draft class as an example.

Since the year Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were taken in the first two rounds of the draft and became instant starters, the team has undergone an unmatched run of success. Each of the four seasons since that one, the Bengals have made it to the playoffs. It's the first time in franchise history they have advanced to the postseason in that many consecutive years. Of course, despite reaching the postseason each of those seasons, the Bengals still haven't advanced beyond the wild-card round.

Still, the broader point remains. Since 2011, many of the Bengals' most productive players have been drafted by Cincinnati. Draftees such as Jeremy Hill and Dre Kirkpatrick emerged in 2014. So did undrafted Bengals signees like Ryan Hewitt and Vincent Rey.

For years the Bengals have used the draft and undrafted free agency to land players. Very seldom have they viewed veteran free agency as the place to land talent to build with, unlike many other teams. Economically speaking, it has made more sense -- particularly after the latest collective bargaining agreement -- for them to sign cheap, young players and to re-sign them four years later when their contracts expire. Since talented players will always be available for drafting, it can be a cyclical philosophy, if executed properly.

So it was no surprise the Bengals' "farm system" ranked 10th in an exercise conducted earlier this week by ESPN Insider Matt Williamson. Matt ranked each team based on the existing 25-and-under talent they had. The goal was to rank teams by the way they were set up for the next 10 years. He took into account positional value, durability, contract status and performed a sort of balancing act so as not to punish teams like the Packers whose quarterbacks are in the prime of their careers.

Age was measured by how old the players were on Jan. 1. Dalton and Green may have gotten Cincinnati's recent run going, but they weren't included in this exercise since they are both 26.

Among the players of note Williamson mentioned in his analysis were Giovani Bernard (23 years old), Hill (the youngest on the team at 22), Vontaze Burfict (24), Kevin Zeitler (24) and Tyler Eifert (24). If the Bengals continue building around these players in particular, Williamson surmises they would make the Bengals a top-10 team over the next 10 seasons.

I'd agree with that assessment, but I would take it a step further. Because of the Bengals' aforementioned philosophy on building through the draft, and their success doing it of late, I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually became a deep playoff contender the next 10 seasons. Of course, myriad other factors (like coaching) must work out for that to happen, but from a personnel standpoint, there is no reason the Bengals can't continue being a playoff team the majority of the next decade.
ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on five awards for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player), and one will be handed out each day throughout this week. Consider this our version of the NFL Honors show.

For Wednesday, it's the 2014 AFC North Defensive Player of the Year ...

There was no overwhelmingly dominant defensive player in the AFC North in 2014. That’s the result of this voting, as eight players were nominated, the most for any award. No player received more than two first-place votes.

Dumervil
The winner: Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil, who led the division and ranked third in the league with 17 sacks. Dumervil paired with Terrell Suggs (who finished tied for third) to form the best pass-rushing tandem in the division, and perhaps the league. The two combined with 29 sacks.

Dumervil was a smart pickup by Ozzie Newsome after he left Denver following a snafu in faxing him a restructured contract offer in 2013. He had one game this past season with 3.5 sacks, and he set Baltimore’s single-season sack record.

Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden finished second, with Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley and Suggs tying for third.

Haden went to his second consecutive Pro Bowl after a season when he had three interceptions and 20 passes broken up. Haden ranked first in the division and second in the league in passes defensed.

Suggs had his usual excellent season with 61 tackles and 12 sacks. Mosley’s 133 tackles ranked seventh in the league.

Dumervil had two first-place votes, with Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Suggs and Mosley receiving one vote each.

AFC North Defensive Player of the Year: Elvis Dumervil, 10 points; Joe Haden, 5; C.J. Mosley, 4; Terrell Suggs, 4; Lawrence Timmons, 3; Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland, 2; Vincent Rey, Cincinnati, 1; George Iloka, Cincinnati, 1.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
CINCINNATI -- Free agency is right around the corner for the Cincinnati Bengals, who have 15 players with contracts that expire in March.

Of the 15, 13 are unrestricted free agents and two are restricted free agents. To help you understand the decisions the Bengals must make, we're taking a daily look at the respective free agents and the reasons why they will or won't be re-signed.

Click here to see the other free agency breakdowns.

Newman
Newman
We continue with cornerback Terence Newman:

Year signed: 2013

Length of previous deal: Two years

2014 cap value: $2,000,000

2014 role: Starting cornerback.

Why he will be re-signed: It all comes down to two decisions that must be made by both the Bengals and Newman himself. First, the 36-year-old defensive back has to ascertain whether he has more football left in him, or if his career is over. He told reporters the day after the Bengals' wild-card round playoff loss at Indianapolis that he would be pondering retirement the next few months. But he added that his body felt fine at the end of the season. It wouldn't be surprising if he came to the conclusion that he still felt he had another season or two left to play. Besides, with Newman, age really is only a number. He doesn't like discussing his advanced football years. He also takes care of himself better than most normal 30-somethings, helping him stay in good enough condition to play. If Cincinnati re-signs him, it's because the Bengals believe their young cornerbacks could benefit from having at least one more year of guidance from the veteran, and that he still can produce.

Why he won't be re-signed: All of that said, Newman's days in Cincinnati really appear to have come to an end. Part of the reason he was signed was to give the Bengals another veteran presence in their secondary, while bridging the gap to a few up-and-comers at the position. Dre Kirkpatrick was a rookie when Newman was originally signed in 2012, and Darqueze Dennard was just drafted last year. Kirkpatrick really emerged late in the season, particularly during a Monday night win over Denver when he was inserted into the game late for a struggling Newman. That moment seemed a clear sign the baton will be passed now that Newman is entering free agency. Dennard also didn't play much as a rookie, but he impressed coaches to the point that they have to figure out a way to get him more defensive playing time. Without Newman around, they'll be able to get Dennard that playing time.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis received a pair of firm endorsements from his top two assistant coaches who told ESPN.com on Tuesday they believed Lewis pulled off one of his best head-coaching jobs in 2014.

"Outstanding," Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.

"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said, referring to the lockout-affected 2011 season. That also was the year that began a playoff streak that reached four seasons earlier this month. Like all their playoff appearances since 2005, the Bengals have failed to get out of the wild-card round in each of the last four years.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
John Grieshop/Getty Images"It was the best coaching job Marvin had outside of Andy Dalton's and A.J. Green's rookie year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
In the immediate wake of the latest postseason defeat, a 26-10 loss at Indianapolis, calls sounded for Lewis' firing. Inside the offices at One Paul Brown Stadium, they fell on deaf ears.

Team president Mike Brown had no plans of making a swap at the top of his coaching staff. Like others around the organization, he continues to believe Lewis gives the organization its best chance for finally clearing the playoff hurdle.

"What's happened here, which is great, is that it's expected that you're going to be in the playoffs," Jackson said. "The expectation's changed. At one time, that wasn't even the expectation. Now, that's the expectation, and this is a good, young team. He did an outstanding job. One, of coaching his coaches. Two, of coaching the football team, motivating the football team and leading the team and the staff and putting us in position."

Jackson wants those still irked by the string of first-round exits to blame the players and the coaching staff.

"We have to reward him for a job well done," Jackson said. "He helped get us to the dance, and now we have to go dance."

The Bengals went 10-5-1 and were potentially a lost fumble away from winning the AFC North.

The assistants lauded Lewis specifically for the way he managed, with two first-year coordinators and two new position coaches, the flood of injuries that hit the team at various times of the season. One of the newest position coaches, linebackers coach Matt Burke, was hit by the injury bug harder than most others. Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict only finished two games after dealing with head, neck and knee injuries. Fellow starters Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur missed multiple games due to hamstring issues.

There also were injuries to tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed all but one quarter of the season opener; receiver Marvin Jones, who was hampered by injuries since early last offseason and never made it on the field for a game; and tight end Jermaine Gresham, receiver A.J. Green and offensive tackle Andre Smith. Veterans Geno Atkins and Leon Hall played all year, but spent all last spring and summer rehabbing serious injuries instead of spending their time actually training for optimal play during the long season.

"If you want to know the truth, it's amazing," Guenther said.

Neither assistant wanted to call the season a success. Both were quick to point out the many flaws their sides of the ball had in 2014, and how they are working with Lewis to resolve them and to finally win that playoff game.

"I would hope everybody feels it in the pit of their stomach like our coaches do, like I do," Jackson said. "You've got to have that fire that burns in order to get over to the other side. We've got to take it and work our tails off to get there."

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