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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: Cincinnati Bengals

Green AP

The Bengals rarely are the trendy pick to do anything other than not be very good.  Heading in to the 2013 season, the Bengals are better than very good.  The Bengals are becoming one of the elite teams in the NFL.

Even at No. 6, there’s a long way to go to get to the top of the mountain.  For starters, the Bengals need to end a postseason losing streak that dates back to the game in which they ended Bo Jackson’s football career by destroying his hip on a routine tackle.  And they need to get past the other elite teams in the AFC, like the Ravens, Broncos, and Patriots.

Regardless of whether it happens, the Bengals have become something they haven’t been for more than a generation:  Relevant.  And to the teams they’ll play this year:  Dangerous.

Strengths.

Receiver A.J. Green quickly has become one of the very best receivers in the league, after only two NFL seasons.  He’s Randy Moss without the play-when-I-wanna-play-goalpost-butt-rubbing-I-wouldn’t-feed-this-to-my-dog attitude.  If Green played for a big-market team, he’d already be one of the faces of the league.

The tight end position became much stronger, too, with the selection of first-rounder Tyler Eifert to go with former first-rounder Jermaine Gresham.  Look for the Bengals to get both of them on the field often, taking advantage of the extra attention paid to Green.

On defense, tackle Geno Atkins anchors an underrated line that includes franchise-tagged end Michael Johnson and end Carlos Dunlap, whose 20 sacks despite two career starts helped him earn last week a five-year, $40 million extension.  Coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose inability to get a head-coaching job has worked to Cincy’s benefit, knows how to get the most from all his players, making the Bengals as balanced as any team in the league.

Weaknesses.

Quarterback Andy Dalton isn’t a weakness per se, but he’s not a strength, yet.  More importantly, in a league that has two types of teams (those with franchise quarterbacks and those looking for franchise quarterbacks), Dalton needs to become a franchise quarterback or he’ll eventually be replaced.  Like Christian Ponder in Minnesota, the influx of weapons makes it harder for the quarterback to blame anyone but himself if he doesn’t step up in year three.

The offensive line is more strength than weakness, but there’s a chance the recent surge from right tackle Andre Smith may have been a mirage.  He re-signed for something other than the big-money deal he wanted, and yet by all appearances he’s acting like he got paid.  Chances are he never will.

Beyond A.J. Green, the depth chart at the receiver position remains muddled.  Mohamed Sanu emerged last year as a rookie, but a foot injury ended his season prematurely.  If he’s healthy, he should be the starter across from Green.  The rest of the wideouts need to find ways to contribute, or the Bengals could decide to use plenty of Green-Gresham-Eifert looks.

Changes.

Former Steelers 3-4 linebacker James Harrison provides depth and flexibility for the Bengals’ 4-3 defense, where he can play outside linebacker in non-passing situations and slide to defensive end (or blitz effectively while stacked on a defensive end) on passing downs.

Rookie running back Giovani Bernard diversifies the rushing attack and short passing game, and Bernard possibly could knock BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the bench.  Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert helps make the offense even more dynamics.

Beyond that, there weren’t many major changes, which is a good thing for a team that has been to the postseason for two straight years for the first time in franchise history when one of those years wasn’t shortened by a strike.  Coach Marvin Lewis enters his 11th season with the franchise, and his third with offensive (Jay Gruden) and defensive (Mike Zimmer) coordinators.  For plenty of the team’s free agents, Cincinnati’s patience was rewarded — and the end result is even more continuity.

Position battles.

Running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will battle each other for playing time, and the rest of the skill-position players for touches.  Ditto for tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, who may also take reps and touches away from the team’s receivers if the team’s receivers can’t get it done.

Quarterback Andy Dalton has been durable, but if he gets injured it’ll be Josh Johnson or John Skelton replacing him.  Johnson could earn some opportunities in a Wildcat-style package.

On defense, a deep and talented defensive line (along with James Harrison, who could play some defensive end) provides a great rotation.  How the opportunities ultimately shake out will hinge in some respects on how well the various players perform during training camp and the preseason.

In the secondary, it’s Leon Hall at one corner and Dre Kirkpatrick, Pacman Jones, and Terence Newman vying for the other starting job.

Prospects.

But for the Broncos, who enter the second year of the Peyton Manning experiment, it would be tempting to predict that the Bengals will make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.  It’s more likely that the Bengals will get back to the playoffs for a third straight year — and perhaps finally win a postseason game.

If  the break the curse of Bo Jackson’s broken hip, coach Marvin Lewis could be destined to lose one or both of his coordinators.  Also, any free agents will be more attractive to other teams, forcing the Bengals to do something other than wait for them to not get offered more money elsewhere.

So this may be the year to go all in, which means the Bengals should be willing to take chances every week in order not just to get to the playoffs but to position themselves for success when they get there.  Which could lead them all the way to New York, for an open-air Super Bowl with conditions that could resemble the 1981 AFC title game against the Chargers.

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Draft delay not good for the NFL

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Mark Cuban may have been right.

It took me a while to type that.  I don’t want Mark Cuban to be right, for various reasons.  Including, you know, Mark Cuban.

But I’ve come to wonder whether Cuban may be on to something when he talks about the NFL getting too big for its own good.  Of the league getting so big that the audience becomes taken for granted.

Whatever the motivation — the given excuse was a scheduling conflict at Radio City Music Hall for an event that eventually was canceled due to lack of interest — the NFL’s decision to bump back the draft by two weeks has been as much of a dud as the NFL-sanctioned film Draft Day.  A palpable fatigue has emerged regarding the draft.  We sense it, and we (or at least I) currently have it.

While the league reportedly would like to space out the three major offseason tent poles (Scouting Combine, free agency, and draft) to March, April, and May, moving the draft to May while leaving the other two in place has created the worst thing any media-driven industry can have:  A lull.

No one likes the lull.  Also, agents don’t like the fact that teams have more times to ask players to engage in private workouts.  Teams don’t like having more time to evaluate and obsess and think and re-think.

As one G.M. said via text on Wednesday night, “Remind me again why the draft is not tomorrow? Is it so we can see another two weeks of mock drafts?”

We’ve yet to hear from anyone who likes the two-week delay, and the lag that it creates in the offseason.

By the time the draft begins, nearly two months will have passed since the start of free agency.  And while the schedule release provided a temporary oasis from the lagging of the offseason calendar, a feeling remains that too much time is elapsing between major offseason events.

Here’s hoping the NFL, in its admirable desire to always improve the product, recognizes and admits that the effort to improve the product by delaying the draft by two weeks hasn’t.  Here’s hoping that the NFL moves the draft back to what would have been tonight, keeping it there unless and until the other two major offseason events move deeper into the calendar as well.

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Should the Vikings draft a first-round quarterback?

Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel AP

Will the Vikings draft a quarterback with the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft? That’s the big question as we examine the Vikings’ draft needs.

Three years ago, the Vikings used their first-round pick on a quarterback, Christian Ponder. Although Ponder remains on the roster, no one thinks he’s the franchise quarterback of the future. That raises the question of whether the Vikings will use this year’s first-round pick on a quarterback. If they do, Blake Bortles of Central Florida, Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M are all candidates.

But quarterback is far from the only need for a team that also has question marks at several other positions and is coming off a very disappointing 2013 season. The Vikings may be better off turning elsewhere at No. 8.

Tell us what you think the Vikings should do, and check out our look at the Vikings’ draft needs here.

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Ravens agree to deal with WR LaQuan Williams

Jacksonville Jaguars v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

The Ravens have reportedly reached a deal with wide receiver LaQuan Williams, who played 23 regular season games for the club from 2011 through 2012.

Williams indicated he would be returning to Baltimore on his verified Twitter account. The Baltimore Sun and WNST-AM in Baltimore also reported Williams’ agreement with the Ravens. According to Aaron Wilson of the Sun, Williams will receive a one-year contract.

The 25-year-old Williams notched nine special teams tackles and caught four passes for 46 yards in his two seasons with the Ravens. The club waived him in September 2013. After his departure from Baltimore, Williams had a 10-day stint with the Patriots during the 2013 regular season.

A University of Maryland product, Williams seems likely to compete for the reserve wideout and special teams coverage roles he had in his previous stint in Baltimore.

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Bears worked out Darius Reynaud on Wednesday

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The Bears, who signed tailback Shaun Draughn on Wednesday, also took a look another veteran running back with kick-returning experience yesterday.

According to Howard Balzer of The Sports Xchange, the Bears tried out Darius Reynaud, who had stints with the Jets and Titans a season ago. Other media outlets have also reported Reynaud’s workout for Chicago.

The 29-year-old Reynaud has made his biggest impact as a kickoff and punt returner on the NFL level. The sixth-year pro from West Virginia has returned 104 kickoffs for 2,347 yards, and he has brought back 102 punts for 985 yards. He has three career return touchdowns: two on punts and one on a kickoff.

The Bears allowed Devin Hester to leave in free agency, leaving the club a little more unsettled at the returner positions than it’s been in some time. However, the Bears do have multiple players with return experience on the roster, with Draughn, Eric Weems and Josh Morgan among the potential candidates to return kicks.

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Goodell: Playoff expansion to be discussed at next owners meeting

Goodell AP

An expanded NFL playoff field is probably inevitable, even if it’s not imminent.

But don’t tell that to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Goodell told Bob Glauber of Newsday that owners would discuss the proposal at their May 20 meeting in Atlanta, with a vote possible.

Of course, even the owners involved aren’t sure it can be fast-tracked for the 2014 season, with Giants president John Mara saying this week he wasn’t sure there was time to implement such a plan for the coming season.

Then there’s also the matter of getting the players to sign off.

Mara noted “my guess is that it’s going to pass at some point,” and that’s probably the right approach to take. Even if some believe the NFL risks oversaturation by fiddling with a good product, the move to 14 teams looks like something that’s happening, and the only real discussion is the when.

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No holes in Vikings schedule, despite presence of Gophers

Minnesota v Indiana Getty Images

Making an NFL schedule is complicated enough, but with the Vikings in someone else’s building, it added a layer to the proceedings.

According to Master Tesfatsion of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the league had to work around a number of requests from the University of Minnesota while the Vikings are using TCF Bank Stadium.

The agreement between the Vikings and the school said that the Vikings could only have one weeknight game when class was in session (which they avoided by playing their Thursday night game on the road).

They also have to work preseason games around move-in week in August, and finals in December. The Vikings play at Detroit while Minnesota students are studying for finals.

The Vikings and Gophers will only have one shared weekend of home games, when the University plays Northwestern on Oct. 11 and the Vikings host the Lions the next day.  (So much purple in Minneapolis that weekend, even Prince will be confused.)

Perhaps most importantly, they were able to avoid conflicts with the Minnesota State Fair (Aug. 21-Sept. 1).

For the sake of the enthusiasts of walleye-on-a-stick and rhubarb pie contests, we can all breathe a sigh of relief for that.

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Report: Bucs would seriously consider Manziel at No. 7

Manziel Getty Images

Since the draft should be today but won’t be today because the NFL moved it to two weeks from today, we’ll spend today and the next 13 tomorrows wondering what will happen when draft day finally is today.

The guy about which everyone wonders the most is quarterback Johnny Manziel.  Though some continue to insist Manziel won’t be taken in round one, we’d be shocked if he’s on the board when Thursday night ends.

We won’t be shocked if Manziel hears his name called in the top 10.  The latest team to join the list of potential top-10 teams that could take Manziel is the Buccaneers.

Ed Werder of ESPN reports that the Buccaneers would “seriously consider” taking Manziel, if he’s on the board at No. 7.  The Bucs see Manziel as being “very unique,” having a “good arm and accuracy,” and generally being a “great athlete.”

That all may be true, but we can’t help but “seriously consider” whether the Bucs would like to see someone cut the line in front of the Buccaneers and take Manziel, pushing down the board a player the Bucs actually prefer.  There’s otherwise no reason to let it be known that the Bucs would take Manziel.

But since we’ve got two more weeks to go, get ready for more smokescreens and obfuscations (hey, watch your mouth) before the time comes to pick the players.

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Paul McCartney to perform at final concert at Candlestick Park

Paul McCartney AP

The headliner at Candlestick’s Park final concert is a legendary musical performer who has some experience playing at the soon-to-be closed stadium.

Via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Paul McCartney will play the closing show at Candlestick Park on Thursday, August 14, a website dedicated to the artist’s work announced Thursday.

The show, according to PaulMcCartney.com, has been tabbed “Farewell to Candlestick: The Final Concert.”

PaulMcCartney.com bills itself as the “Official Website” of the 72-year-old performer.

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle had reported that the 49ers had wanted McCartney to perform the first show at Levi’s Stadium.

According to McCartney’s website, The Beatles’ final concert was at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966.

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Spurrier thinks the Texans “have to” take Clowney

Steve Spurrier AP

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier says the Houston Texans have only one option with the first overall pick in the NFL draft: Select former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

“Yeah, I think you have to,” Spurrier said when asked by Dan Patrick if the Texans should take Clowney.

Spurrier said if there was a franchise quarterback like Andrew Luck in this draft, it might be a different story. But Spurrier doesn’t believe any of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft is that kind of elite talent, and as a result he says CLowney is the clear choice.

“He’s a really good football player, and obviously pass rushing is what he does best,” Spurrier said. “He’s a pass rusher like nobody I think I’ve ever seen in college football.”

Spurrier has been candid about Clowney not always having the best work ethic, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s no question about who the most talented player in this draft is. That’s Clowney.

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Report: Patriots sign Josh Hull

970e5d8a1342b9813e117b6a9541927f-1 AP

Linebacker Josh Hull was released by the Redskins earlier this month, but it looks like he’s landed a new job.

Adam Caplan of ESPN reports that the Patriots have signed Hull to a one-year deal.

No financial terms were disclosed, but it is unlikely that Hull got more than the minimum salary for a player with four years in the league. Hull had 14 tackles in 11 games for the Redskins last year in a special teams role. The 2010 seventh-round pick also played 28 games for the Rams before they cut him at the end of the summer.

His work in St. Louis was mostly on special teams as well, so you’d expect that New England will be asking him to compete for a role on those units in 2014.

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More physicals in Indy for some top prospects

Scott Crichton AP

It seems like the Scouting Combine was forever ago, but some prospects are heading back to Indianapolis for one of the final steps in the pre-draft process.

According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among a group of players going back to Indy for a medical re-check.

Players are given vigorous and thorough examinations at the Combine, and teams view those checks as the main benefit of the event. Any players with red flags then are brought back in for a re-check later.

Crichton had a stinger, which was the reason he has to head back, but said he had no serious neck issues.

Assuming the physical confirms that, Crichton could be a second-round selection.

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PFT Live: Draft preview with Corey Chavous, PFT Planet calls and tweets

Sammy Watkins AP

The NFL Draft kicks off two weeks from tonight and we’ll be looking ahead to it on Thursday’s PFT Live.

Former NFL defensive back Corey Chavous of DraftNasty.com will join Mike Florio to break down the latest about what he’s hearing about how things will play out over three days next month. They’ll take a look at players who could go earlier and later than expected, profile some lesser known prospects and more when Chavous drops by the show.

The NFL schedule was released on Wednesday night and we’d like to hear what PFT Planet thinks about it, the draft and everything else in the NFL. Florio will be responding to those thoughts during the show, so send them in on Twitter — @ProFootballTalk — or give a call to 888-237-5269 to share what’s on your mind. 

Whether you have a question or not, it all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Sherman changes his tune about Crabtree rant

Sherman AP

In the aftermath of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s on-field tirade against 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree after the NFC title game, Sherman vowed to stop belittling other players.

Now, Sherman is singing a different tune.

In January, in an item that he wrote for TheMMQB.com, Sherman suggested that he’d be turning a new leaf when it comes to verbally tearing opponents a new orifice.

“No one has ever made himself great by showing how small someone else is,” Sherman wrote at the time.  “That’s not mine.  It belongs to Irvin Himmel.  Somebody tweeted it at me after the NFC Championship Game.  If I could pass a lesson on to the kids it would be this:  Don’t attack anybody.  I shouldn’t have attacked Michael Crabtree the way I did.  You don’t have to put anybody else down to make yourself bigger.”

On Wednesday, Sherman expressed no remorse for his verbal assault on Crabtree.

I don’t regret anything,” Sherman said during a panel discussion at Harvard Business School, via Ben Volin of the Boston Globe.  “People said I had no class.  What is class in sports?  What exactly is it?  Do I say great game and go cookie cutter?  No.  I don’t think he played a great game. . . .  If it was Larry [Fitzgerald], and the same situation happened, I wouldn’t have said a thing.  Because I respect Larry.”

So which is it, Richard?  Have you learned not to put someone else down?  Or would you — and will you — do it again, to Crabtree and others whom you deem to be unworthy of your respect?

Often inappropriately, Sherman has been called many things in recent months.  One thing he can’t currently be called is consistent.

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Bernie Kosar: Concussions cost me a broadcasting job

Bernie Kosar, Rick Sponaugle AP

Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar says concussions suffered during his NFL career have caused him to develop a speech problem, which in turn led to his dismissal as the color commentator for Browns preseason games.

“I was informed yesterday by the Cleveland Browns and WKYC that I have been replaced as a 2014 preseason game day color commentator,” Kosar said in a statement, via Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I believe that this decision stems from my slurred speech impairment, which is a direct result of the many concussions I received while playing in the NFL.”

Kosar’s slurred speech was noticeable when he was hired for the job, however, which raises the question of why he would get fired for it now if the Browns and WKYC didn’t have any problem with his speech at the time they hired him. It seems much more likely that Kosar’s unprofessional comments during a preseason game last year, and the DUI Kosar got a month later, caused the Browns and WKYC to conclude that he’s not someone they want representing them.

But Kosar believes he’s the right person for the job.

“I would hope that WKYC would reconsider utilizing my in-game talents and overlook my concussion-induced impairment,” Kosar said.

That’s probably not going to happen. But Kosar’s comments will, if nothing else, cause the lawyers for the Browns and the NFL to take notice: At a time when concussion litigation is a major concern in pro football, this is a prominent former player claiming that concussions are costing him the opportunity to make a living now that his playing days are over.

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Phil Taylor would like the Browns to pick up his 2015 option

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Several players picked in the first round of the 2011 draft have already found out whether or not their teams will be exercising options for the fifth year of their contracts by May 3, but others are still waiting to see what will happen.

Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor is in the latter group and he knows what he wants the Browns to do. Taylor would like to have his option, which would set him up to make about $5.5 million, exercised so that he can remain in Cleveland.

“I would love to be here, but that’s not up to me,” Taylor said, via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. “So we’re going to wait and see what [the front office] is going to do about it.”

Taylor started 15 games last season, but only played 555 snaps as a two-down player used to thwart opposing running games. The switch to Mike Pettine as head coach will bring a different defensive look and could bring Taylor more playing time, but, obviously, Cleveland has to make a call on Taylor before they see how he fits into the new scheme. That option is guaranteed against injury only, which gives the Browns some flexibility but they may prefer the freedom to hold off on any call until the season has played out.

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