2015: comeback players buoy Bengals

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                Yes, Tyler Eifert says he'll be ready for training camp.

Tuesday is the day Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and his staff met with Bengals president Mike Brown and his staff and with no announcements bolting out of Paul Brown Stadium it can be assumed the major changes for 2015 are going to come on a roster already bristling with the optimism of rehab.

They are looking at a treacherous  32-footer that meanders through the AFC West and NFC West if they want to get back to the playoffs for a fifth straight year with a two-putt, so, as they say, there is work to do.

They have to fix the pass rush, they have to find some linebackers, they have to re-stock their depth at wide receiver, they need more from their best players on offense, and they're going to say good-bye to some valued veterans.

But even before they make a move in free agency that opens in mid-March, they already have a haul of proven players coming out of their training room bidding to be Comeback Player of the Year that can at least start to quell the pain from Sunday's loss to the Colts.

There is a hangover, but the 2015 pot of coffee is already hissing.

At 56 years old and 12 years in without a playoff victory, Lewis sounded this week like he was just beginning instead of retiring after already putting in his first extended day of the new offseason. He doesn't sleep as well now. Not even after the wins, proven the Monday night after they made the playoffs against Denver.

But with the window closing on the 2011 re-boot, the clock is ticking.  

"We've got to wait eight months to build it back up again. But we will. And I think that part will be exciting," said Lewis during his Monday blood-letting. "We're going to tread new ground. We're going to have some new people. We're going to be better. We're going to be better than we were, and we're going to be even more focused than we've been. We're going to be more experienced with some of the guys, be less experienced with some of the others. But you know what, at the end of the day we'll be OK and we'll be ready to go."

Lewis didn't pluck his upbeat vibe from some self-help book. He just went through a 10-win season and fourth straight playoff trip without his best player on defense, his offense never had its full complement of receiving weapons and lost its right tackle down the stretch, and they got back to the playoffs without their best player having a catch in five injury-plagued games. After getting off the bus from Indianapolis Sunday afternoon, he went back to his office to break down the tape and felt good enough to snap at a question Monday, "Do you think people are releasing people that put a team in the playoffs four years in a row?"

So pencil in A.J. Green and Marvin Jones at wide receiver and Tyler Eifert at tight end in there with NFL Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hill at running back and suddenly, on paper, quarterback Andy Dalton has a chance to throw those 25 touchdowns offensive coordinator Hue Jackson envisioned a year ago to go with the new-found running game. Pencil in Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and the defense gets a head start on rebounding from its worst NFL ranking in seven years at No. 22.

They are going to be the faces of a team that returns to a re-tooled Paul Brown Stadium looking to boost attendance with new scoreboards, upgraded food and beverage, rehabbed club lounges, and expanded player amenities reshaping the locker room and weight room. It's not hard putting together a 2015 brochure that looks a lot better than many NFL teams scrambling to get into the playoffs.

But there is work to do.

"The challenge of the NFL every year, which I think we have done a very good job of, is staying young," Lewis said. "And we'll continue to stay young as we move forward. We mature on one side, but we continue to churn the other side. We've got to continue to draft well and develop our young players."

They've done a good job doing that in the secondary, where cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard look ready to step in with 36-year-old Terence Newman informing the Bengals he's considering retiring.

But they need to get more from the kids on the defensive line, where The Dean, 31-year-old Robert Geathers, isn't sure he's coming back. They want to get more work for ends Margus Hunt and Will Clarke, high picks from the past two drafts, but defensive coordinator Paul Guenther  is already looking at free agency and the draft to shore up the NFL's worst pass rush by sacks. And, they've been looking for another big backup tackle since training camp.

Guenther also needs linebackers. He's been told Burfict is going to be OK for this upcoming season, but they also said he had a shot to be back for the Nov. 16 game in New Orleans and he was never seen again. He likes Emmanuel Lamur as a cover guy, but he's looking for more oomph at SAM linebacker and Marquis Flowers doesn't seem to be the answer there yet.

So they'd really like to re-sign middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, Guenther indicated this week, and why not? There was a clear difference in the run defense when he was out of there. The Colts were in passing formations most of the day Sunday, so when he re-injured his hamstring in the second quarter his absence wasn't as glaring as it would have been in  Denver this week or against New England the week after that.

Maualuga and tight end Jermaine Gresham lead a list of their own unrestricted free agents. There is mutual interest in bringing back Maualuga, but not, it seems, with Gresham and it looks like they're prepared to team Eifert at tight end with Ryan Hewitt off his NFL rookie team season.   

They'd also like to get back kicker Mike Nugent, they'll make a run at left guard Clint Boling, and they'd probably like to keep backup quarterback Jason Campbell if Jackson is here and not the head coach in Buffalo. But after that, it's unclear.

Special teams Co-captain Cedric Peerman and returner Brandon Tate are up and they've been terrific in helping keep the Bengals at the top of the NFL special teams rankings. Same with safety Taylor Mays and wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher. But they have to decide if they want to churn that part of the roster. Especially with Tate and Sanzenbacher as they pursue more speed behind Green, Jones, and Mohamed Sanu at wide receiver.

They draft No. 21 and with left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith heading into the last years of their deals that would figure to be the top priority. Or a pass rusher. They also figure to be looking at tight end and wide receiver before the draft seeps very far into the last day.

Work to be done.

But Lewis already has supplied the copy for the brochure.

"I'm disappointed for our fans. I'm disappointed for the city. The city needs to win on a big scale. Big time. They deserve it."

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