Bengals on the move into opener

Thomas Howard

It was the only way the Bengals could have concluded their busiest 41 days in history Sunday when they made three more roster moves before going on the field to start preparing for this week's regular season opener.

And they aren't done, said head coach Marvin Lewis. That means the Bengals may still not only make moves for the 1 p.m. kickoff in Cleveland but also for the future in the spirit of this tornadic activity spawned by the lockout.

With dust clearing from the contract extensions for left tackle Andrew Whitworth, cornerback Leon Hall and center Kyle Cook, it is believed the Bengals have spent up to the $120 million salary cap in cash.

But in accounting terms, they are still somewhere between $17-18 million under the cap, according to published reports of the recent extensions, and Lewis says there is more on the way.

"I think that's a huge statement made by the organization, and we're not done," Lewis said of the extensions. "We're going to continue to retain our young starting players and guys we feel have bright futures in the NFL not just here, but across the board."

The Bengals are also keeping some cap in reserve for three reasons. Still uncertain of quarterback Carson Palmer's plans, they have said they're going to set aside his $11.5 million salary. It is believed they have also kept a $5.5 million chunk available, which is due right tackle Andre Smith if he plays 45 percent of the snaps and he looks headed that way. Plus, the Bengals always keep cap room available to replace injured players because when a player is on the Opening Day roster he's guaranteed that year's salary.

But even with that money reserved, the Bengals have enough flexibility to try to extend other players as they did the First Three. The whirlwind is spurred by the inability to do deals during the lockout, but Lewis says they'll keep working even though the season is underway.

"We've got some more on defense that will come up and get done and a couple of other guys possibly on offense as we go through this season," Lewis said. "I think it's good for players in-house to see the reward to guys who have played their tails off and gone about things the right way. I think that's a good message as well."

Until the collective bargaining agreement expired last year, the Bengals had a solid track record of keeping their own players that they pursued. The only one they really lost that they wanted to keep in the Lewis era was right tackle Stacy Andrews until the Texans nabbed cornerback Johnathan Joseph back in July.

Lewis indicated that the uncertainty of what the CBA would eventually look like hampered extensions the last couple of years. Plus, the Bengals were trying to get a gauge on guys like Andrews and Joseph, excellent players that at times had to fight to stay healthy.

"There was an uncertainty, and you're wondering about longevity," Lewis said. "You're wondering about durability and things like that. You know that durability in the National Football League is a big thing. You want to make sure you invest in the guys you can count on, guys who are going to be out there both in practice and playing. Once you put that chip down on that guy, everyone else is looking to see, 'Is he out there with me?' That's important."

But after the barrage of transactions, it turns out this is Lewis' kind of team, a la the 2009 club that formed its character in the ashes of the 2008 disaster. The Lewis Underdogs (2003, 2005, 2009) always seem to do better than Lewis Favorites expected to make the playoffs (2006, 2007, 2010).

"I know we'll be a better football team than a 4-12 team," Lewis said. "There's not the star-power on paper that maybe we possessed last year, but when it comes down to it, I think we'll all be all-in, and they'll be all in together. And that's the biggest statement we can make heading into the regular season."

While adding Terrell Owens last year at the start of training camp was the only move to make for a team trying to repeat as a division champion, the reality show that evolved with his wide receivers went against every bone in Lewis' body.

Whitworth, Hall and Cook are more like Lewis's guys. Smart, veteran team guys. So are his big three free-agent acquisitions on defense. Lewis has coveted outside linebacker Manny Lawson since the 2006 draft. Cornerback Nate Clements is a no-nonsense sort with Ohio roots and 11 years in the league while outside linebacker Thomas Howard is regarded as an effective, unselfish player that brings size and speed to the pass defense.

Lewis had a chance Sunday to take a deep breath and reflect on what is a roster slightly younger than the 2009 AFC North champs that started the season with the NFL's youngest roster. That team averaged about 3.98 years of NFL experience and this one is about 3.8.

"We addressed some needs in the secondary. We addressed some needs through the draft," Lewis said. "We put together a back end we feel really good about. On the defensive line, in bringing back (Jonathan) Fanene, we added depth through a guy we've had. We obviously have some young developing players there. We addressed linebacker through the free agent period."

Of course, the elephant in the room is rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and his band of inexperienced receivers led by Andre Caldwell's career 87 catches. At tight end the Bengals have 21 career NFL games. Their Opening Day right guard is more than likely a rookie.

But Lewis likes the makeup of a team that is clearly going to be smashmouth on offense. He's preached fast and physical to this group of players and if he doesn't have a lot of experience he does have speed and size.

"They give us the opportunity to play physical football and get after it. I'm pleased with where we are right now," he said. "Looking at the offense, we addressed the skill positions through the draft and re-signed (Cedric) Benson. On the offensive line: kind of a little bit of both. We have some guys we feel like are young and developing. We feel good about where we are in that situation."

In the spirit of this summer's whirlwind, the situation appears to be fluid.

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