Bengals keeping it together

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Pro Bowl WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, who went on PUP Saturday, is eligible to start practicing Oct. 19.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis tipped his hat to Greg Little, gave a bow to Devon Still, and saluted Derron Smith's youth. But he's still not giving daily updates on Vontaze Burfict, their Pro Bowl WILL linebacker starting the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) for the first six games of the season.

Such is the state of the Bengals' roster after Saturday's cut to 53 players confirmed it is a tough place to crack after four straight post-season berths.

Eight of the nine draft picks made it and first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi figures to join them when he's eligible to practice Oct. 19 off the reserve/non-football injury list.  But for the first time since they were re-made into the Green-Dalton Bengals in 2011, an undrafted rookie didn't make the roster and only two vested veterans (safety Shiloh Keo and cornerback Brandon Ghee) were cut.

That's not a lot of turnover (just 26 percent) as the team looks to build on the 39 returning players from a team that won 10 games despite a massive number of injuries.

Things could change Sunday after the Bengals sift through the waiver wire, but it won't change much. For the second straight year the Bengals have found a way to carve out the best-case scenario. They picked up more years of NFL experience (the average is 4.79) while getting slightly younger at an average of 25.84 years, down from 25.96 at the 2014 cut down.

The mix of youth and age could be best seen on the defensive line, site of the club's most competitive roster battle. The free-agent acquisitions of right end Michael Johnson and tackle Pat Sims dovetailed with relatively high picks from the last three drafts: 2015 fourth-rounder Marcus Hardison, 2014 third-rounder Will Clarke and 2013 second-rounder Margus Hunt.

The Bengals opted to keep 10 of those defensive linemen, choosing to go light on the offensive line with eight and at linebacker with six.

"We feel good on the defensive line about our depth,' Lewis said. "We've got veteran players at the D-Line spot as well as some of the younger guys who come on now. Hardison has a chance to make a real impact for us."

The moves also forced the toughest cut when veteran tackle Devon Still got his release after a season he became a national voice in his five-year-old daughter Leah's fight against cancer. Last year, immersed in her struggle, Still was also released on Cut down day. But he went to the practice squad, where the Bengals allowed him to visit his daughter each week and where he earned medical coverage for the next five years. A fourth-year player, he's no longer eligible for the practice squad.

"We bridged that last year to make sure Leah was covered," Lewis said "We made decisions last year based on that. And frankly, for both Devon and the Bengals, we could both just focus on football (this year) and make sure everything was right for the football team.

"You can only keep so many players. Devon had a good preseason for us and he's got to feel good about that, that he put good foot forward," Lewis said. "I think he did a good job in the preseason. That's the unfortunate part of pro spots. Not everyone can stay and be there at the end."

Not even an undrafted rookie defensive lineman who had two sacks in the four preseason games.  Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, like his father Ronald in Bengals preseason 22 years before him, found the waiver wire.

The most high-profile move was the release of Still. But the most significant move was Burfict going to the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and missing the first six games of the regular season. Both were not surprises. Although it was a surprise that Lewis said it was a close call on Burfict.

Burfict, a Pro Bowl WILL backer in 2013, underwent micro fracture knee surgery in January and has yet to practice. The Bengals have been bracing for his absence, first by signing free-agent A.J. Hawk and his 10 seasons of experience and then drafting TCU linebacker P.J.  Dawson in the third round.

"Vontaze has done a really good job and it was a very difficult decision and one, frankly, that could have gone either way,' Lewis said. "But I think it came down to the end that the best thing for Vontaze's future is to make sure we give him enough time and not to rush him back to the field."

Lewis said the extra time would allow them to make sure that Burfict is closer to 100 percent because he'll be able to complement his rehab with football conditioning "rather than trying to fudge it." But Lewis admitted it was a tough sell to the ultra-competitive Burfict.

"He has worked hard. We know what he means to the team. It's a difficult thing to do for him," Lewis said. "We've had a candid conversation about it. This is a hard call."

Burfict and Ogbuehi are eligible to return to practice the Monday of the Bengals bye week on Oct. 19. Asked if he's confident Burfict is going to be ready for the next game on Nov. 1 in Pittsburgh, Lewis said, "Today's not about Vontaze. Vontaze is on PUP."

But it is about two other linebackers who surprisingly and suddenly were lost for the season, apparently in Thursday night's pre-season finale.

Marquis Flowers, who was expected to be the seventh linebacker, and Jayson DiManche, who played in 28 straight games before he fractured his forearm last season, were waived injured. If they clear waivers, they'll revert to the Bengals' season-ending injured reserve list.

No matter what happened, Lewis indicated that Chris Carter would make the club. Carter, a fifth-year player working on his third team, re-invented himself as a pass rusher with the help of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and linebackers coach Matt Burke and was rewarded with a team-high 3.5 sacks in the preseason. The last one came against the Colts, the team that cut him last season after he played for them in just one game.

The sixth and last linebacker spot was where they opted to keep the veteran. They went for the rookie for the fourth and final safety when they went with sixth-rounder Derron Smith over Shiloh Keo, a veteran of 42 games with the Texans, most of them with Bengals cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph when he was in Houston.

"Close call," Lewis said. "Derron has a lot of upside in his future and he's a young guy. Close call to make. Keo certainly worked his tail off. He's got nothing to be ashamed for what he's done here."

The best long-shot story next to Carter is Little. The Bengals cut him last season after he played six games and struggled in the Wild Card. But when James Wright (knee) was lost for the season just as training camp started, they picked him up out of a workout and he ended up having a good enough preseason to go from camp body to No. 4 receiver.

In the pre-season finale, Little gave one last effort on specials teams, making a tackle on the opening kickoff and delivering the block that ignited rookie receiver Mario Alford's 17-yard punt return. Little and Alford, along with veteran Brandon Tate, back up The Big Three at wide receiver.

"He did what we asked him to do," Lewis said of Little. "To come in and have an opportunity to really digest and learn the offense. He was able to participate in two different positions in the game in Indy last week and that was a big benefit to him and to us.

"When James was lost to us we went out and got who we felt was the best player available and who we really felt did good things for us last year. If he could pick up where he left off and also be a contributor on special teams, which he did this preseason, then he could earn a job here. You have to take your hat off to him for really handling that and taking it and running with it."

Ten of the players released are going to regroup by noon Sunday as members of the practice squad, unless any of them get claimed. It's not a ceremonial position. Last year Still came off the practice squad to play ten games.

 Here's how it breaks down:

(Parenthesis denote years in the league:)

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Andy Dalton (5), AJ McCarron (2)

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

Brandon Tate (7), A.J. Green (5), Greg Little (5), Marvin Jones (4), Mohamed Sanu (4), Mario Alford (R)

RUNNING BACKS (5)

Cedric Peerman (6), Giovani Bernard (3), Rex Burkhead (3), FB Ryan Hewitt (2), Jeremy Hill (2).

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Tyler Eifert (3), Tyler Kroft (R), C.J. Uzomah (R)

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

T Andrew Whitworth (10), T Eric Winston (9), T Andre Smith (7), G Clint Boling (5), G Kevin Zeitler (4), C Russell Bodine (2), C-G T.J. Johnson,  T Jake Fisher (R).

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

NT Domata Peko (10), E-T Wallace Gilberry (8), T Pat Sims (8), E Michael Johnson (7), T Geno Atkins (6), E Carlos Dunlap (6),  T Brandon Thompson (4), E Margus Hunt (3), E Will Clarke (2), E-T Marcus Hardison (R).

LINEBACKERS (6)

A.J. Hawk (10), Rey Maualuga (7), Chris Carter (5), Vincent Rey (5), Emmanuel Lamur (4), P.J. Dawson (R).

* SECONDARY (10)*

CB Leon Hall (9), CB Adam Jones (9), S Reggie Nelson (9), S George Iloka (4), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (4), CB Chris Lewis-Harris (3), S Shawn Williams (3), CB Darqueze Dennard (2), CB Josh Shaw (R), S Derron Smith (R).

SPECIALISTS (3)

K Mike Nugent (11), LS Clark Harris (7), P Kevin Huber (7.

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