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
1:30
PM ET
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.

We started with quarterback Jason Campbell, then looked at running back Cedric Peerman, receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, receiver Brandon Tate, tight end Alex Smith, tight end Jermaine Gresham, offensive tackle Clint Boling, offensive tackle Eric Winston, offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, defensive tackle Devon Still, outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga:

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."

Hue Jackson defends Andy Dalton

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
6:42
PM ET
[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton completed just 9 of 20 passes and had a costly fourth-down incompletion in Team Carter's Pro Bowl loss.

CINCINNATI -- Just before his quarterback took the field in Sunday night's Pro Bowl, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson checked out.

He fell asleep.

So he missed Andy Dalton's 9-for-20 passing performance, which was punctuated by a lifeless, thrown-off-the-back-foot, fourth-down pass with 53 seconds left that fell incomplete to effectively end his team's comeback charge in a 32-28 loss to Team Irvin, coached by former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin.

Jackson may not have witnessed the throw that helped cost the players on Team Carter (coached by Hall of Fame receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter) an additional $27,000, but he heard about it. Still, despite everything he's been told about his quarterback's latest prime-time calamity, Jackson stands firmly behind him.

"Obviously, if you have guys playing, you want them to go out and play really well," Jackson told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "If they don't, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it and be concerned about it."


(Read full post)


The trio that led the Pittsburgh Steelers to their first division title since 2010 also battled for ESPN.com AFC North Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown beat out running back Le'Veon Bell and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the award, garnering 12 points in voting by the five writers who cover AFC North teams.

Wallace
Brown
Brown, who had the second-most catches in an NFL season (129), beat out Bell and Roethlisberger for the honor. Brown led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards (1,698) and was a first-team All-Pro selection.

Bell led the AFC in rushing (1,361 yards) and also led all NFL running backs with 854 receiving yards. The first-team All-Pro selection finished with 10 points after his second NFL season. Roethlisberger, who shared the NFL passing title (4,952 yards) with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, had six points.

Players received three points for a first-place vote, two for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote.

Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett and Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill each received a third-place vote.

Forsett did more than soften the Ravens’ blow from the loss of Ray Rice. Forsett, a journeyman, rushed for 1,266 yards, fifth-most in the NFL, and led all running backs with 5.4 yards per carry.

Hill paced all rookie running backs with 1,124 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.

The second-round draft pick finished eighth among all NFL players in rushing yards and second among running backs with 5.1 yards per carry.
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.

We started with quarterback Jason Campbell, then we looked at running back Cedric Peerman (more), receiver Dane Sanzenbacher (more), receiver Brandon Tate (more), tight end Alex Smith (more), tight end Jermaine Gresham (more), offensive guard Clint Boling (more), offensive tackle Eric Winston (more), offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse (more), defensive tackle Devon Still (more) and outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (more).

Bush
Maualuga
We continue with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga:

Year signed: 2013

Length of previous deal: Two years

2014 cap value: $3,828,125

2014 role: Starting "Mike" linebacker.

Why he will be re-signed: This certainly is one of the biggest free-agency decisions the Bengals are facing this offseason. A second-round 2009 Bengals draft pick, Maualuga has only known the one franchise his six-year NFL career. It's been a career filled with a few highs and lows and a couple of injuries that cost him some meaningful snaps. Maualuga will get re-signed for a few different reasons, namely because he provides the team a spark as a run-stopping defender. Across the four games he missed this past season because of a hamstring injury, the Bengals allowed an averaged 145 rushing yards. Twice they gave up 170 yards or more on the ground.

When Maualuga returned for the final seven games of the regular season, teams averaged just 82 rushing yards in those. Teams were held to 85 yards or less in six of those games. A big reason why the Bengals' rush defense had improved was because Maualuga was back. Maualuga's presence also gives the Bengals a veteran voice the linebacker corps desperately needs, particularly if the group ends up without Vontaze Burfict; something that is a very real possibility after Burfict underwent microfracture surgery recently. The optimism the "Will" linebacker will return to Pro Bowl level play also exists, but it's much more measured.

Why he won't be re-signed: The unknown with Burfict could end up a positive for Maualuga's free-agency situation as the Bengals try to at least salvage having some veteran presence at the position. But if Maualuga isn't re-signed it will be a sign the Bengals are confident they can identify other players in free agency who could provide adequate run support from the interior linebacker position, too.

The real questions the Bengals have to ask themselves, though, is if it's worth bringing in a new player who will have to learn their scheme, get along with the players at the linebacker positions and carve out enough time to know the scheme as if he's another extension of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther? It's clear the assistant coach likes having his linebackers understand the overall system as well as him. If there are two places he values having veterans, it's at cornerback and linebacker. Corners are often in one-on-one situations and the "Mike" and "Will" 'backers help set the pressure fronts and make sure the whole unit is operating together. Some of the smartest defenders typically play those positions. That's why if Maualuga isn't re-signed, it's likely the Bengals will have identified another free agent to come in and replace him. Backup Vincent Rey could move to "Mike" in a starter's capacity to replace him, but the uncertainty about Burfict makes Rey an option to start there if need be, too. It may make the most sense to keep Maualuga.
CINCINNATI -- After spending the 2014 season on the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad, Sam Montgomery will have another chance to prove he belongs on the 53-man roster later this year.

The defensive end on Monday became the 10th player signed this offseason to a reserve/futures contract by the Bengals. It's a sign the team expects him to compete for a spot in the defensive line rotation in offseason practices and workouts. Cincinnati's pass rush was lacking this past season, and served as a point of contention for coaches who have vowed to make the unit better.

Montgomery played in three of the Bengals' four preseason games last August. He recorded four tackles and had a sack.

An LSU product, Montgomery was a third-round pick by the Texans in 2013. He didn't appear in a game that season, and was released in late October 2013 after he and two teammates had violated team rules. ESPN.com reported at the time they were suspected of smoking marijuana in the team hotel the night before a loss at Kansas City.

The Bengals picked up Montgomery last offseason in hopes he could use his experience as an outside linebacker and defensive end to help their pass rush. When he didn't make the active roster at the end of the preseason, he was added to the Bengals' practice squad.
Take a listen to this week's NFL Nation TV podcast as the crew breaks down the latest in "deflategate" and the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by two other NFL Nation reporters to discuss the big game.

Kevin Seifert (NFL Nation writer) takes us behind the multi-step process that goes into the pregame checking of football inflation, and the impetus behind the league allowing quarterbacks to play with their own footballs. He also chats briefly about the Super Bowl's head referee, Bill Vinovich, and what we might be able to expect from his mixed crew.

Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) shares his thoughts on covering the Super Bowl after having been in the press box of each championship game since Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta in 1994.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on ESPN.com this Friday at 1 p.m./10 a.m. PT as we catch up with Legwold and ESPN Insider's Mike Sando, who will fill us in on the Hall of Fame selection process that will occur this weekend.

Also, be sure to give the show's podcast a listen following each taping.

Listen to this week's podcast here.
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 the week. Consider this our version of the NFL Honors show.

For Monday, it's the 2014 AFC North Coach of the Year ...

Harbaugh
No AFC North team endured more challenges than the Baltimore Ravens, and no division team advanced further in the playoffs than them. That's a credit to the leadership of John Harbaugh, who narrowly beat out the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin for AFC North Coach of the Year.

Harbaugh directed the Ravens to a 10-6 record and the divisional round of the playoffs despite the Ray Rice scandal, 19 players on injured reserve and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata's month-long suspension. Quarterback Joe Flacco was asked about why the Ravens can handle adversity so well and he pointed immediately to Harbaugh.

"It starts with John and his attitude that he brings to the team meeting room ... and it filters throughout the rest of us," Flacco said. "So, we are able to keep that levelheadedness and keep the same mentality no matter what's happened the previous week."

It was more than Harbaugh's guidance that helped the Ravens reach the playoffs for the sixth time in his seven seasons. It was also his aggressiveness.

In early December, Harbaugh established a a must-win mentality by going for it on fourth-and-1 in Miami. It was a gamble considering the Ravens were trailing in the third quarter and they were at their own 34-yard line. But Flacco converted it with a quarterback sneak, and the Ravens were celebrating the go-ahead touchdown seven plays later.

"It was there for us to take. That was the message that was sent to us," tight end Owen Daniels said. "They were putting it on [the offense]. Our defense is playing great, but we had to do something offensively to knock the door down."

Harbaugh is at his best when the Ravens are facing adversity, and he proved that time and time again in 2014.

As far as the balloting went, Harbaugh received three of the five first-place votes to win the award in what was a good showing for all of the AFC North coaches this season. Tomlin, who took the other two first-place votes, led the Steelers back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Marvin Lewis recorded his fourth-straight playoff season (the Cincinnati Bengals didn't make the playoffs in the 12 seasons before Lewis arrived). And, despite a rough finish, first-year coach Mike Pettine helped the Cleveland Browns to their best season since 2007.

AFC North Coach of the Year voting: John Harbaugh, 17 points; Mike Tomlin, 16; Marvin Lewis, 10; Mike Pettine, 7.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT, for a special ESPN NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast as episode No. 41 will review Deflategate and look ahead to what the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots can expect heading into Super Bowl XLIX.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by EPSN NFL Insider Kevin Seifert and Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter).

Seifert, who has covered the world of NFL officiating with aplomb, will break down the process of inflating and inspecting footballs and how officials are involved in the process. He’ll also give us a scouting report on the officials assigned for Sunday.

Legwold, who covered the Broncos in last year’s Super Bowl, will then give us a day-by-day breakdown of the week and how teams attempt to stay focused with so many outside distractions.

Also, the crew will discuss the Pro Football Focus project that examined how many above-average players each NFL team was from contending for this year’s Super Bowl.

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

NFL Nation TV will have a second show this week on Friday at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict played in five games this past season but finished only two of them because of a rash of injuries.

CINCINNATI -- Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is reportedly recovering from microfracture surgery, a serious procedure performed on knees that have suffered cartilage damage.

The surgeon who operated on Burfict told NFL Network that he is hopeful the linebacker will be at full strength in time for training camp.

"I don't see any reason, if this thing heals like we want and we think it will, why he won't be back like he was," Dr. Neal ElAttrache told NFL Network. "Microfracture has a bad connotation, but there are plenty of guys who have come back and been able to play like before. But it's not really news when it works out."

Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is among players to have most recently undergone the surgery that involves drilling into bone in hopes of developing new cartilage.


(Read full post)


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 outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur:

Lamur
Lamur
Year signed: 2012

Length of previous deal: Three years

2014 cap value: $495,000

2014 role: Starting "Sam" linebacker.

Why he will be re-signed: Lamur's size and athleticism might be his best football traits. At 6-foot-4 and about 240 pounds, he's big enough to bring down a tight end with ease, but he's quick enough and agile enough to cover a tight end on deep routes downfield. As Cincinnati's top cover linebacker, Lamur has a role most teams might use a safety for instead. Because of that, it frees the Bengals up in the back end of the defense in a way that permits them to use their safeties in more traditional ways when there are good pass-catching tight ends on the field. A defense that likes playing man coverage is able to treat tight ends like additional receivers when Lamur is on the field. It's strictly because of his combination of size and athleticism that they feel comfortable doing that. Because of his size and coverage ability, the Bengals have good reason to want Lamur back. Like defensive tackle Devon Still, Lamur is an unrestricted free agent. Also like Still, he probably ought to expect a low-round tender offer.

Why he won't be re-signed: Although Lamur's size and coverage ability are an advantage, he has yet to play a consistently good season. The potential for the former undrafted free agent is there, though. His entire second season (2013) was derailed because of a shoulder injury. A couple other injuries forced him to miss two games this past season. His inconsistency and poor play against the run do not bode well for Lamur getting a high-round tender offer or being re-signed. Strongside linebackers are supposed to be one of a team's best linebackers against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Lamur's 2014 run-defense grade was second-to-last on the team to defensive tackle Domata Peko. Lamur graded at a minus-6.7.

SPONSORED HEADLINES