AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- In addition to terminating the contract of veteran running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis on Friday, the Cincinnati Bengals also waived three other players.

Quarterback Tyler Wilson, defensive tackle LaKendrick Ross and linebacker Brandon Joiner were released as the Bengals made their first few cuts from the current 75-man roster. By 4 p.m. Saturday, all 32 NFL teams have to get down to 53 players on their active rosters. Wilson, Ross and Joiner could qualify for the practice squad, but until all the other cuts are made, it's unclear exactly how the practice squad will shake out.

Cincinnati's roster now sits at 71.

Wilson was signed during the preseason following No. 2 quarterback Jason Campbell's elbow injury during the preseason opener at Kansas City. Wilson has since appeared in two games. He played in the Week 2 preseason game against the Jets and got extensive second-half action in Thursday night's preseason finale against the Colts. He was 3-of-5 for 73 yards. The bulk of his yards came on a 50-yard touchdown pass to Cobi Hamilton, another roster-bubble player who was one of Wilson's receivers when the two played college ball at Arkansas.

Hamilton will learn his fate Saturday.

As for Ross, the Bengals are cutting ties for now with a 6-foot-5, 360-pound player who has raw athletic skills. He was too unpolished to make the Bengals' 53-man roster, or any team's 53-man roster. Before impressing coaches at a private workout before training camp, Ross had played only one year of high school football and one year of college football at a small school in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Ross had one tackle Thursday and appeared on 23 defensive plays.

Joiner played 29 defensive snaps and was part of 15 special teams plays in the Bengals' 35-7 win.

In addition to these four, the Bengals also cut several others earlier this week, including backup quarterback Matt Scott, kicker Quinn Sharp and linebacker J.K. Schaffer. Per the rules of the waived/injured designation, Schaffer and fellow hurt cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks were able to rejoin the team on its injured reserve Thursday. Both cleared waivers without being claimed.
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green is currently the second-best receiver in the NFL -- one pass-catching tight end notwithstanding -- and Geno Atkins is the fourth-best defensive lineman in the league, according to ESPN's #NFLRank project that concluded on ESPN.com on Friday.

Are we shocked the Cincinnati Bengals duo is so highly regarded? Are we stunned? Did we really expect anything more?

No. No. And no.

 Respectively, Green and Atkins were ranked the ninth- and 10th-best players on their side of the ball. Only eight players were ahead of Green, including the top overall offensive player, Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson, and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Atkins was surpassed by nine other defensive players including Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the player tabbed in this survey as the top current defender in the league.

Atkins actually fell to 10th after being ranked seventh last year. Still, it's rather amazing he still was included in the top 10 after missing half of last season with an ACL injury. That's a testament to his past success and the optimism many share this season as he comes off the serious injury. He's set to open the season next weekend with the Bengals when they travel to Baltimore. Green remained at No. 9, where he was the year before.

Green and Atkins joined linebacker Vontaze Burfict (No. 32, defense), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (No. 86, defense), running back Giovani Bernard (No. 88, offense) and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth (No. 92, offense) as Bengals to appear on the countdown. Only two players in that group haven't been to the Pro Bowl, Bernard and Dunlap. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict attended his first Pro Bowl at the end of his second season last year.

All but two of those players also have negotiated big second deals with the Bengals. Green and Bernard are the only ones who have not. Bernard can't start speaking with the Bengals about a contract extension until after next season. Green and his representatives can begin those conversations now, but it's not likely he'll receive a long-term deal for some time. Earlier this year the Bengals exercised their fifth-year option on him, meaning he's slated to make more than $10 million next season after playing out the final year of his original four-year rookie contract this season.

Green and Atkins have been among the best at their positions in recent seasons. An NFL.com survey of players earlier this year actually considered Green the No. 2 receiver in the league behind Johnson. If you classify Graham as a tight end and not a receiver, the same holds true in the #NFLRank survey.

The #NFLRank series, which debuted last Monday, ranked the Top 100 players in the league. Players were separated into offense and defense.

Earlier this summer, many of the people behind ESPN's NFL coverage, including myself, made individual rankings for the overall project.

You can read the full series here.

Below are blurbs from the series on Green and Atkins:
Green was the most-targeted receiver in the NFL last year, leading the league with 178 targets. Green's eight touchdown receptions on passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield last season were the most in the NFL.
-- ESPN Stats & Information (@ESPNStatsInfo)

Despite missing nearly half of last season, Atkins leads all defensive tackles with 29 sacks since he entered the league in 2010. Atkins is the first Bengals defender selected to consecutive Pro Bowls since David Fulcher (1988-90).
-- ESPN Stats & Information (@ESPNStatsInfo)

Bengals snap counts vs. Colts

August, 29, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- In all, the Cincinnati Bengals kept 33 players sidelined Thursday night for their final game of the preseason.

As we've been mentioning, it wasn't much of a surprise. The goal in the finale was to remain healthy and spare the contributing players as much as possible. That definitely happened.

The only starter who actually took the field for the first drives was rookie center Russell Bodine. As the only rookie starter on the team, he was being trotted out to receive a little extra playing time before the regular season . Along with him, rookie running back Jeremy Hill saw serious minutes. Hill might not be a true starter in the official sense, but he should expect to receive significant playing time this season.

As you'll see below, Hill was on the field for 38 plays. Long enough to rush 20 times for 90 yards and catch six passes for 63. Coach Marvin Lewis said the objective was for Hill to get used to playing a full game. Because once the regular season begins the hope is to give him several touches a game behind fellow back Giovani Bernard.

Here's a snapshot of Cincinnati's snap counts from Week 4:

OFFENSE (56 plays)
WR Cobi Hamilton (52), OT Will Svitek (48), OT Marshall Newhouse (47), OT Tanner Hawkinson (44), WR Colin Lockett (42), OL Mike Pollak (39), RB Jeremy Hill (38), QB Jason Campbell (34), WR Dane Sanzenbacher (31), C Russell Bodine (31), OG T.J. Johnson (31), H-back Ryan Hewitt (28), TE Alex Smith (28), C Trevor Robinson (26), H-back Orson Charles (24), FB Nikita Whitlock (23), QB Tyler Wilson (23), RB James Wilder Jr. (19), OT Dan France (19).

DEFENSE (61 plays)
LB Marquis Flowers (58), S Shawn Williams (55), S Danieal Manning (52), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (51), CB Chris Lewis-Harris (49), DE Will Clarke (49), DT David King (44), S Taylor Mays (43), LB Jayson DiManche (39), DT Christo Bilukidi (38), CB Victor Hampton (37), DE Margus Hunt (33), DE Dontay Moch (32), LB Brandon Joiner (29), DE Sam Montgomery (28), DT LaKendrick Ross (23), CB Onterio McCalebb (13), LB Vincent Rey (13), DT Brandon Thompson (5), LB Sean Porter (2).

SPECIAL TEAMS (22 plays)
Hamilton (10), Svitek (5), Newhouse (1), Hawkinson (5), Lockett (10), Pollak (4), Hill (4), Sanzenbacher (8), Bodine (1), Johnson (1), Hewitt (13), Smith (7), Robinson (4), Charles (18), Whitlock (11), Wilder (12), France (5), Flowers (13), Williams (12), Manning (10), Kirkpatrick (9), Lewis-Harris (11), Clarke (2), King (4), Mays (11), DiManche (15), Bilukidi (1), Hampton (12), Moch (14), Joiner (15), Montgomery (14), Ross (1), McCalebb (13), Rey (4), Porter (4), K Mike Nugent (11), P Kevin Huber (11), LS Clark Harris (11).
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict has barely begun his second professional contract, but he wants the Cincinnati Bengals to know that he already has deal No. 3 on his mind.

Burfict
When he signed his new three-year contract extension worth about $20 million Wednesday, Burfict let front office officials know that he'd be back in a little more than two years when it's time to renegotiate. His plan? To stay in stripes as long as possible.

"I told Troy [Blackburn] I'll be back in 2016," Burfict told ESPN.com in the Bengals' locker room after Thursday night's preseason finale. "Obviously they trust me, and like I've said, I want to be a leader of the defense. We have great things to come for the next three years while I'm here."

Blackburn is one of the Bengals' two vice presidents. He's also the husband of executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the daughter of president Mike Brown. Brown's father, Paul Brown, founded the team in 1968 and owned it until his death in 1991.

With Mike Brown beginning to transition out of the team's daily operations, the Blackburns -- most notably Katie -- have been behind some of the more recent big-salary moves the Bengals have made. It was under Katie Blackburn's guidance that Burfict's extension, as well as extensions for quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, were drawn.

Burfict said he liked the way the contract was set up.

"It's front-loaded," he said, nodding slowly, "and I'll make a lot of money in the next six months."

He clearly wasn't trying to brag, but he was telling the truth. He stands to make $7.6 million this season, with additional bonus money coming in March. Within the next six months, he'll make $10.8 million. As an undrafted free agent who signed out of Arizona State just two years ago, Burfict had been scheduled to make a little more than $570,000 this season. He certainly received quite the pay day.

As we pointed out Wednesday, you'll be hard-pressed to find too many other players make that type of raise after only two years in part because of the way the new collective bargaining agreement is set up. A player basically has to follow Burfict's path -- be undrafted, but perform really, really well right away.

"Me getting a new contract in two years was huge, and it's rare," Burfict said. "But I've put in a lot of work and I feel like I deserve it."

Burfict has 298 career tackles. Of those, a league-leading 171 came in last season's Pro Bowl campaign.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis' expectations for Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt were simple Thursday night.

The coach just wanted Hunt to dominate.

And that's exactly what he did.

[+] EnlargeMargus Hunt
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsMargus Hunt had a mammoth finish to the preseason, registering three sacks on Thursday night.
With a battered and bruised Colts offensive line opposite him, and series of inexperienced backup tackles and guards shuffled in and out of the preseason finale, Hunt had no choice but to dominate. If he couldn't handle the down-on-the-depth-chart players tasked with facing him, then the Bengals would have found that they had some work left before anointing him a key piece of their pass rush.

Thanks to Hunt's focus on finishing his rushes, he didn't have to worry about that happening.

"You know, he should dominate in a game like this and he did it," Lewis, the Bengals' 12th-year head coach, said. "That's what you want to see. You want to see him dominate. That's the confidence he needs, the opportunity, the chance to critique himself."

Hunt ended the game with four tackles -- all for loss. Three of his stops resulted in sacks. One of the sacks, the last one, came as a blocker was draped all over him. Despite the offensive lineman's valiant attempt at trying to keep Hunt off his quarterback, the second-year defensive end finished the play off and secured the sack.

"A lot of guys can do good things in practice, but you have to go ahead and finish the rush [in a game], so you can kind of build through your repertoire of moves and stuff," Lewis said.

In the days that immediately followed the Bengals' loss at Kansas City during the preseason opener, Hunt emphasized how important finishing was for an end like himself. He didn't feel good about the way he cut short a few of his rushes. At least one of them could have been a sack had he not slowed his momentum so soon, he said.

Part of the problem back then had to do with the fact that Hunt and the Bengals' other defensive linemen were still looking to tap into that final bit of early-year recklessness that can sometimes be hard to showcase coming off an eight-month period in which they haven't been able to tackle. That problem got exacerbated when the linemen became used to pulling up on sack opportunities during training camp. When practicing against Cincinnati's offense, particularly the first-team unit Hunt was seeing so regularly early in camp, they weren't allowed to touch the quarterback.

They still aren't in practices.

In turn, bad habits can develop and bleed over into games. That's what happened four weeks ago with Hunt, and it's not at all what happened Thursday. He made sure to finish those plays. Hunt is confident he'll continue finishing once the regular season begins next weekend.

"It's just about speed, speed and trying to get it on the edge and trying to be disruptive," Hunt said.
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CINCINNATI -- In their final preseason game last year, the Cincinnati Bengals were forced to look on as promising outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur was loaded onto a cart, sidelined before the end of the first quarter with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It was far from what coaches had in mind when they trotted out the player who had been expected to be their starting nickel linebacker.

Clearly, they learned from that experience. When the Bengals took the field Thursday night for this year's preseason finale, they did so with virtually an all-backup offense and defense. The Bengals pulled all their starters in favor of other players who are trying to earn spots on the roster before Saturday's 53-man roster limit goes into effect.

Health was the top priority for the Bengals against the Colts on Thursday. The result of the game was secondary.

By the way, Cincinnati won, 35-7.

Here are a few more thoughts on the Bengals' preseason finale:
  • Lamur wasn't the only starter who began last year's preseason finale. Every other first-string offensive and defensive player was on the field on the first drives when the Bengals hosted the Colts in late-August 2013. This time around, only rookie starting center Russell Bodine received action. Every other starter on both sides of the ball rested and took the night off. In addition to Bodine, rookie running back Jeremy Hill also got extended playing time. While he isn't a starter, Hill is still viewed as a player who ought to be a regular contributor this season. He certainly was the Bengals' most-used back Thursday, receiving 26 touches. He rushed 20 times for 90 yards and caught six passes for 70 yards. He also came up a half-yard short of a touchdown.
  • It was surprising that Hill remained in the game in the third quarter after he injured an elbow while diving -- unsuccessfully -- for a first down near the end of the second quarter. After some evaluation on the sideline and at halftime, he came back on the field on Bengals' first offensive drive of the third quarter. It wasn't until the end of that drive that James Wilder Jr. came in for consistent game action. He appeared in two just plays in the game previous to that. I can't think of many reasons as to why Cincinnati stuck with Hill for so long. As it is, they're fortunate to have avoided serious injury with him.
  • In addition to Hill's rather impressive stat line, quarterback Jason Campbell had a strong one, too, against an all-backup Colts defense. Campbell was 13-for-16 with 123 yards, a 1-yard touchdown pass and a sack. His replacement, Tyler Wilson, had a 50-yard touchdown pass at the start of the fourth quarter to Cobi Hamilton, his former college teammate. It was an important catch for Hamilton, who enters Saturday's cuts still on the roster bubble.
  • Cincinnati's starting defense was dominant this preseason, holding opponents to only four field goals. It didn't allow a touchdown. The reserves tried hard to match their first-string teammates Thursday, and almost did. It wasn't until the final nine minutes of the game that the group allowed its first score of the contest. Otherwise, the back end of the defense looked about as good as the front half has much of camp. Second-year defensive end Margus Hunt played a key role in that, finishing with four tackles and three sacks. After struggling at the start of the preseason with finishing plays, he made sure he did against Indianapolis' reserve linemen and quarterbacks. His last sack came as he was simultaneously fighting through a block.
CINCINNATI -- We knew Vontaze Burfict became a well-paid man when he signed his three-year contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals on Wednesday. Now we know just how well paid he is.

Burfict
According to contract numbers obtained by ESPN Stats & Information, Burfict will make $6.9 million in guaranteed money across the life of his new deal. In theory, he'll see every dime of it before even taking a regular-season snap.

Burfict's guaranteed money breaks down into two figures. First, he received $3.1 million Wednesday in the form of a signing bonus. On top of that, the remaining $3.8 million will be awarded Saturday in the form of a roster bonus. In addition to that bonus money, Burfict also will bring in a base salary of $700,000 this season, bringing the full amount of his Year 1 salary to $7.6 million.

On the fifth day of the new league year next March, he'll also make a roster bonus of nearly $3.2 million, meaning he'll be awarded just shy of $10.8 million in the next six months.

Not bad for a former undrafted free agent who, before the extension, had been set to make just more than $570,000 before bonuses this year.

Across the life of Burfict's contract extension, his base salary figure will increase. Next season, he'll be in seven-figure territory. After making a $700,000 base salary in 2014, he'll make $1,050,000 in 2015, $2,850,000 in 2016, and $3,750,000 in 2017 when the deal ends. In addition to those base salaries and workout bonuses, Burfict also has the chance to make additional money each year starting in 2015 thanks to Pro Bowl escalators.

Burfict's 2015 Pro Bowl escalator has a max level of $175,000. In 2016, it's $350,000. In 2017, it goes up to $525,000. With the escalators factored in, Burfict's total cap figure in the new deal exceeds $20 million, just like what was previously reported.

He'll average $6.3 million per year on this second deal, putting him just barely inside the top-20 earning linebackers in the league. Dallas' Sean Lee, Miami's Dannell Ellerbe and Chicago's Lance Briggs are just ahead of Burfict, earning $7 million per year on their current contracts. Just below Burfict are Chad Greenway ($6.3 million), Connor Barwin ($6 million) and Karlos Dansby ($6 million).

Below is a year-by-year breakdown of Burfict's new contract:

 
CINCINNATI -- One day after signing a three-year contract extension that will pay him more than $20 million the next four years, the Cincinnati Bengals' newest well-paid defender will be resting Thursday night when the Bengals host the Colts in the preseason finale.

Vontaze Burfict is one of 12 Bengals who were listed on the "not expected to play" list that was announced about an hour and a half before kickoff. The third-year player suffered a hamstring injury in last Sunday's preseason game at Arizona. He was part of just six plays.

Earlier this week, Burfict told reporters he expected to be fully healthy in time for the Bengals' regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Baltimore.

So don't panic, Bengals fans. There's very little reason to read into his absence Thursday night. Coaches clearly know what the Pro Bowl linebacker can do, and have no reason to unnecessarily risk putting him in harm's way in the finale. Besides, the goal in this game is to keep key players as healthy as possible. He probably wouldn't play much if he were healthy enough, anyway.

Along with Burfict, rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard, tight end Tyler Eifert and three running backs -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman -- also are not expected to play Thursday. Dennard hurt his hip in the Week 2 game against the Jets. He's been rehabbing since then. He also missed the Week 3 preseason game at Arizona.

Eifert has a shoulder injury that has bothered him since before the spring. He has been touch and go all preseason, but hopes to be healthy enough to play in the opener. Green-Ellis has an undisclosed issue, although he was sick last week and missed several practices. He also didn't participate in Tuesday's workout; the only one the Bengals had this week. Burkhead's injury dates back to the Week 2 game when he was knocked out with a knee injury. Peerman left Sunday's game with an undisclosed injury, although it appeared he hurt a hip when he was slammed to the ground hard late in the contest.

Here is the full list of Bengals who aren't expected to play Thursday:

QB AJ McCarron
CB Darqueze Dennard
RB Cedric Peerman
RB Rex Burkhead
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
LB Vontaze Burfict
OT Andre Smith
OG Trey Hopkins
DT Devon Still
WR Marvin Jones
TE Tyler Eifert
WR James Wright
CINCINNATI -- In no particular order, here are six Cincinnati Bengals you'll want to pay attention to during Thursday night's preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts (7 p.m. ET).

[+] EnlargeJason Campbell
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriJason Campbell is expected to get a lot of action in the Bengals' last preseason game.
QB Jason Campbell. Expect a heavy dose of the Bengals backup quarterbacks Thursday night as Cincinnati attempts to fulfill it's primary preseason objective: staying healthy. Of course, there have been injuries this preseason, and Campbell is among those who have gotten hurt. Still, the plan for the Bengals is to get to opening weekend with a fully healthy Andy Dalton. So don't be surprised if he's only in for one series with other starters. Campbell, who missed the Week 2 game against the Jets because of an elbow injury, will look to get extended action in his final tune-up before the regular season. The veteran is 13-for-29 for 130 yards in two games this preseason. He also has two touchdowns and two interceptions.

QB Tyler Wilson. Just like Campbell, the emphasis for Wilson will be to eliminate turnovers. The Bengals offense did an admirable job of that Sunday at Arizona. They didn't have a single interception or fumble. They retained possession, all while battling horrid field position all night. Wilson hasn't played since the Week 2 loss to the Jets after suffering a concussion late in that game. Now that he's been healthy enough to practice, look for extended action from Wilson, assuming he has been cleared to play. Not all of the players on concussion protocol this preseason have made it on the field. Offensive tackle Andre Smith still hasn't played despite practicing the past two weeks.

RB James Wilder Jr. With a battered and bruised running back group, the Bengals probably will turn to Wilder much earlier than they have at other points this preseason. Look for the undrafted rookie free agent to get heavy action in the second half as Cincinnati tries to save second-round draft pick Jeremy Hill's legs. He'll probably see extensive action in the first and second halves as the Bengals try to ease starter Giovani Bernard through a very non-taxing evening. Remember, the goal is to keep everyone healthy, particularly the starters. Since that is the case, Wilder ought to see significant action since Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis may be missing in action. All three were held out of Tuesday's practice, the only one the Bengals had this short week.

DT Christo Bilukidi. While I'm still not sure Bilukidi will end up earning a spot on the 53-man roster later this week, he's still a player worth paying attention to. Coaches have liked some of what they've seen out of the backup defensive lineman. He has helped contribute to the Bengals' pass rush when he has been in the games, even coming away with one sack through the first three preseason contests. He has three total tackles in his appearances. On Sunday, Bilukidi was on the field for 23 plays, one of the higher snap counts of the team's reserve linemen. This will be his last chance to prove where he belongs: on the 53-man roster, on the practice squad, or released for another team to grab.

DE Sam Montgomery. Like Bilukidi, Montgomery has spent the preseason lining up both at tackle and end as the team tries to test out places it could use him if he makes the team. Also like Bilukidi, I'm not high on Montgomery making the final roster, but he does have tools that could be useful for the Bengals' pass rush. A lineman who has stand-up end ability, Montgomery could give Cincinnati's defense an added dimension from its standard rushes. Dontay Moch also has some of that same playing style and ability. It will be interesting to see how both fare when the roster gets set Saturday.

LB Sean Porter. One of the more impressive players on the back of the depth chart, Porter has caught the coaches' attention now that he's had a chance to play. Placed on injured reserve all last year, the former Texas A&M standout is just now getting an opportunity to show what he can do. The fourth-round 2013 draft pick filled in for Vontaze Burfict in practices last week when the starting weakside linebacker was out sick. He also capped Sunday night's 19-13 win with a final-play interception. He could be a special-teams addition to this year's 53.
CINCINNATI -- The world still has yet to see the best of Jeremy Hill.

At least, that's what the Cincinnati Bengals running back believes.

Hill
  About a half hour after the Bengals held on to beat the Cardinals in Sunday night's preseason contest that saw Hill handed the ball a game-high 12 times, the rookie took to Twitter to pronounce that he didn't quite hit the gear he knows he can reach.

"Had fun out there with the fellas tonight great team win but I didn't get as #turnt as I would've liked," Hill tweeted.

Yes, "turnt." For the uninitiated, "turnt" is a word made popular by the 2010 release of rapper Roscoe Dash's "All the way turnt up" that has become a pop culture phenomenon. An online site defined it, in part, as a way of describing someone who is "excessively excited or prepared for the current event. In it's entirety, it can commonly be seen used as 'turnt up,' as in 'turned up.'"

In layman's terms, Hill doesn't think he has quite hit the peak excitement level he knows he has in him. What will help him get all the way "turnt" up?

Scoring touchdowns.

"I've got to get in the end zone," Hill said, laughing earlier this week as he was asked about his tweet. "As an offense, and for myself, we pride ourselves on not turning the ball over and scoring touchdowns. If I get in the end zone, I'll definitely be fully turnt, as I always say."

At LSU last season, he found the end zone 16 times. The season before, in his first with the Tigers, he scored 12 times.

So crossing the goal line isn't a foreign concept to him. But to this point in his NFL career, it has been. Hill still hasn't scored this preseason, but he's hoping to change that Thursday night when the Bengals host the Colts in the preseason finale. If he can find his way into the orange-and-black painted area on Paul Brown Stadium's field, he'll feel a little more at ease, and a little more confident entering the regular season.

"I had a few occasions to break long runs [this preseason]," Hill said, "and I kind of got stopped by a shoelace tackle. In college, I would have taken that to the house. So for me, it's just getting that rhythm and being able to break a couple of tackles at the second level."

Hill, who has faced both first- and second-team defenses so far this preseason, has found that it isn't as easy to just turn a corner and sprint through a hole for an easy score in the NFL. Defensive backs are faster than they are in college. Lanes tend to close up quicker. Jump cuts and juke moves aren't always as effective against savvy defenders who have been in the league for several years.

While Hill may not yet be averaging the 6.9 yards per carry that he had his final season at LSU, he still has to be proud of the 4.8 yards he's averaged to this point in the preseason. On 21 carries, he's rushed for 100 yards. Only veteran Cedric Peerman, who was hurt Sunday and may not play Thursday night, has a higher average. Peerman has collected 6.0 yards per carry on his 18 rushes for 108 yards this preseason. More of his carries have come against reserve-filled defenses than Hill's.

Only second-year starter Giovani Bernard has a rushing touchdown for the Bengals this preseason following a 1-yard dive against the Jets two weeks ago. Part of Hill's plan for the finale is to join Bernard. With Peerman and fellow backups Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis potentially out with injuries, he could have his share of opportunities to do just that.

Whenever that first score comes, Hill believes he'll finally be fully "turnt."

"That'll let me come out of my shell more and build my confidence level up and just continue to better my play," Hill said. "That's what I'm looking forward to."
CINCINNATI -- There's a nugget buried in our Wednesday afternoon news story on Vontaze Burfict's now-official contract extension with the Cincinnati Bengals.

You have to read near the bottom in order to find it.

While I do encourage you to do me a favor and still click the link above and read the full story, I've decided to go on and include it right here, high in this column, to help make everything else I'm about to write make sense. The nugget is in the quote below.
"It's unusual to sign a player this early in his career to a contract extension, but Vontaze is a player who merits this," Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn said. "He has proven to be an exceptional find for us and we are happy to reward him now for his accomplishments. It's good for him and good for our team."

There's your nugget: Burfict's extension is "unusual."

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesVontaze Burfict could be considered the best player in one of the top defenses in the league.
It's so unusual that thanks to the latest collective bargaining agreement, we may not see many other players get the type of contract extension Burfict just landed at such an early stage in their careers. In fact, because of the CBA and its limitations on the rookie contracts of draft picks, we definitely won't see a drafted player in the near future receive a more than $20-million raise after just two seasons in the league.

"It's rare," as one source familiar with Burfict's deal put it to me Wednesday afternoon, "in today's NFL for a young player to get a contract extension of any kind after two years. He's certainly on the path to be heavily financially rewarded."

Burfict's deal puts him in rare company, good company. He has no one to thank for that other than himself.

After just two seasons the former undrafted prospect from Arizona State -- one who was bashed by his college head coach before the 2012 combine, blasted by draftniks during it for his incredibly slow 40-yard time, and belittled after it by fans and sportswriters alike for having apparent maturity issues -- has certainly made a name for himself. He's cleaned up his image off the field, and completely shirked the "overlooked" label he once carried on it.

How has he done all of that? By putting his head down, keeping his mouth shut and playing some pretty good football.

Through two seasons, Burfict has recorded 298 tackles, trailing only Luke Kuechly (320) and Paul Posluszny (301) in that span. The next closest Bengal to Burfict is fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga who is 101 tackles behind with 197 since 2011.

Oh, and yeah, Burfict's also been to the Pro Bowl.

If you looked at those facts alone, you could make a good case for why Burfict ought to be considered the best player on a defense that ranked third in the league last season. His defensive coordinator and former position coach, Paul Guenther, wouldn't out-right disagree. Guenther has called Burfict his smartest pupil, and has valued his input throughout his transition this year to the Bengals' top defensive assistant's position.

When Guenther first started coaching Burfict, he saw a leader who didn't really know how to lead.

"He's so competitive that he would get mad at guys," Guenther said. "I said, 'Look, you can't do that because now that's going to set him off, which is going to set a fire.' I really worked on his leadership abilities and how to go about it in different ways."

As a reward for that and other lessons, Burfict had Guenther tag along when he went to the Pro Bowl.

With the potential for more Pro Bowls on his horizon, Burfict has positioned himself nicely the next several years of his career. Had he not signed an extension this year, he could have slipped into restricted free agency in March. Even if offered the highest possible tender, he still would have been grossly underpaid what he was worth for the 2015 season. He also would have had to wait until 2016 to see any real free-agency pay day. With this newly signed deal, the money he'll get in 2016 when he can start renegotiating should be more than he could ever fathom.

Burfict is indeed in good financial company and in rare company. And he has no one to thank but himself.
CINCINNATI -- Posed a question similar to the one in the headline above, 30 NFL insiders answered, just barely, in the affirmative.

Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis may only be five losses from going .500 in a head-coaching career that ranks second in tenure only to New England's Bill Belichick, but he's done good enough of a job turning around the once-lowly franchise that he has earned tier-2 coaching status, according to a recent survey conducted by ESPN Insider Mike Sando.

Lewis
In a poll published Tuesday, Sando found that to league insiders, Lewis ranked 15th among current coaches.

Atop the list was Belichick, the winner of three Super Bowls. At the bottom? Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen, primarily because he's in control of a bad franchise, one that just Monday was named the least desirable to play for in an anonymous survey of current players conducted by ESPN's NFL Nation.

As he collected votes for his poll, Sando broke coaches down into five tiers. The top three on the list belonged in the first tier. The next 12 were part of the second tier. At No. 15, Lewis rounded out that section. According to Sando's findings, Lewis received 15 tier-3 votes, 14 tier-2 votes and one tier-1 vote.

Voters apparently grappled with many of the same concerns Bengals fans have -- balancing Lewis' regular-season success with his postseason failures.

When Lewis became Cincinnati's head coach in 2003, he took over an organization that hadn't had a winning season in the previous 12 years. He walked into a situation similar to what Allen has found himself currently in. Just three years after his arrival, Lewis took the Bengals to their first playoff berth since the 1990 season. He has made four other trips in the years since.

He hasn't had a playoff win in any of those seasons.

One general manager told Sando: "Sometimes you give people extra credit for where they coach and that whole Cincy place has been a tough place to win."

That GM thought Lewis probably was more of a tier-3 coach because of the 0-5 playoff record, but because of external forces Lewis has had to coach around, he should be regarded with fringe tier-2 status, the GM said.

"They used to make the coaches do the scouting work," the same GM said. "They ask a lot of their coaches. They are a talented team and [Lewis] is part of that."

Since 2011, the Bengals have changed much of their structure. Team president Mike Brown has had a dramatically decreased role, with his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, handling many of the front-office administrative duties. Lewis and director of player personnel Duke Tobin have had larger roles in scouting and giving the final word on the drafting of prospects and signing of free agents. It's one of the reasons the Bengals, since 2011, have routinely had some of the league's best draft classes and found more hidden gems, like former undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict, than most other teams.

Combine that with the fact the Bengals have at least been to the playoffs, and you have some who question why Lewis didn't poll higher.

Like one coordinator told Sando: "Marvin took over a franchise that is troubled and, no, they have not won a playoff game, but look at the Cleveland Browns today. If you asked every person in that organization or who comes to the stadium if they would take a winning season but lose in the playoffs, they would take it."
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict finally spoke to reporters on Tuesday, but it was what he didn't say that warranted a headline.

For the first time since before he reportedly agreed with the Cincinnati Bengals last week on a contract extension that was said to pay him more than $20 million, Burfict fielded questions about the suddenly troubling extension and the apparent stalemate that has happened since.

When asked if he wanted to comment about the talks that have been stagnant since Wednesday's reports about the agreement, the linebacker whispered, "No comment."

Burfict
Asked if he was ready for the extension to reach a resolution, Burfict answered once more with a "no comment."

A locker away, listening to the whole pre-practice interview session, veteran cornerback Terence Newman chimed in: "I know I would like for him to get it resolved."

Burfict isn't answering any questions about the apparent extension debacle, and no one else involved in the situation really is, either. The Bengals aren't addressing the extension until it's finalized, and so far attempts to reach his agents for comment have been unsuccessful.

Last Friday, coach Marvin Lewis seemed to take exception with the way news of the pending agreement was publicized. In his only comments on Burfict's contract impasse, Lewis said at that time that the deal "is not signed off."

It still isn't.

"I would guess we expect him to sign," Lewis added. "Obviously the agent believes he has a deal. We didn't release it."

Burfict switched representation in February, hiring Paradigm Sports to help him get his second deal.

As he enters the third and final season on his rookie deal, the Pro Bowl linebacker is scheduled to make $570,000. Last week, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the agreement Burfict and the Bengals reached would have paid him $7.6 million this season on the first year of the new deal.

With 298 career tackles in 32 regular season games, Burfict has been arguably the Bengals' best defender since he has been in Cincinnati. He had a league-high 171 tackles last year. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has often praised his football intelligence and credits Burfict for knowing the system better than any other player on the team.
Most significant move: Few of the Cincinnati Bengals' cuts were very surprising, but quarterback Matt Scott's release might have been the most significant because he had been viewed as the No. 3 quarterback on the roster behind Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell. Tyler Wilson, fresh off concussion protocol, reverts into that role. When Wilson was signed after an injury to Campbell two weeks ago, it appeared the writing was on the wall for Scott, a mobile quarterback who doesn't fit the Bengals' scheme as well as the others. Although he played well during the Week 1 loss at Kansas City, Scott completed only 45.5 percent of his passes and was sacked five times in the three games he played.

Sharp should find a home: Kicker Quinn Sharp's release had been expected after he was signed in the offseason to help keep starter Mike Nugent's leg fresh throughout training camp and offseason workouts. While Nugent is the starter and has the more accurate leg of the two, Sharp's power is one of his more impressive traits. In Sunday night's preseason game, hours before he was cut by the Bengals, Sharp went 2-for-2 on field goals with one of them a 51-yarder. The Oklahoma State product should help someone's team this season desperate for a kicker.

What's next? The Bengals aren't technically done with this round of moves. They could end up sending two of their Tuesday cuts, J.K. Schaffer and Lavelle Westbrooks, to injured reserve Wednesday. Both were cut via the waived/injured designation and have until Wednesday to be claimed by another team. If neither is claimed and they clear waivers, they will be added to Cincinnati's IR. It's also worth keeping an eye on safety Taylor Mays, rookie linebacker Marquis Flowers, stand-up defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Dontay Moch, receivers Cobi Hamilton and James Wright and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the Bengals cut to 53 on Saturday.

Bengals' cuts: QB Matt Scott, DT Larry Black, S Isaiah Lewis, K Quinn Sharp, WR Ryan Whalen, CB R.J. Stanford, TE Kevin Brock, WR Jasper Collins, LB J.K. Schaffer, CB Lavelle Westbrooks, LB James Davidson, WR Alex Neutz, WR Jeremy Johnson, OT Curtis Feigt, WR Conner Vernon, P T.J. Conley, DT Zach Minter, OG Chandler Burden.

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