Dating Game

Updated: 2:30 p.m.

Dates to circle:

» Free agency starts March 5 as the NFL dips its toe in the unchartered waters of a season with no salary cap. Then the Bengals veterans convene a few weeks later at Paul Brown Stadium to begin defense of the AFC North title when offseason workouts begin March 29.

» The Bengals will welcome their rookies a month later when the NFL tries a three-day draft format that holds the first round on Thursday night, April 22, the second and third rounds Friday night, April 23, and the final four rounds Sunday morning and afternoon, April 24. With the Bengals picking No. 21 in the first round, that ought to come down some time before the 11 o'clock news.

» Going off last year, start looking for their regular-season schedule to be released in mid-April.

» As head coach Marvin Lewis indicated earlier in the week, his coaching staff doesn't appear to be undergoing any massive changes. On Monday, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said he was back for his 10th season and on Tuesday defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer signed up for three more years. No word yet on the status of special teams coach Darrin Simmons.

» The offense looks intact except for the Bears' interest in quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and the search to replace assistant offensive line coach Bob Surace, now the head coach at Princeton. *The Cincinnati Enquirer *reported that offensive line coach Paul Alexander, heading into his 16th season in that spot, has signed a three-year deal.

One possibility to replace Surace is former NFL offensive line coach Bob Wylie, who coached the Bengals tight ends with Alexander under head coach Bruce Coslet in 1997 and 1998.

If Zampese leaves to become the Bears offensive coordinator, the Bengals could already have his replacement on staff. Wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard's resumé includes stints as a quarterbacks coach with former Bengal Jon Kitna in Seattle and Aaron Brooks in New Orleans.

» With players and coaches expressing confidence in the foundation that was established this season, indications are the Bengals are going to be more attentive with their own roster than others. They'll tinker with additions (for instance expect them to sign a kicker as they mull the Shayne Graham situation), but for the most part they will most likely try to extend the deals of some key players.

Heading the list have to be their starting cornerbacks, second Pro Bowl alternate Johnathan Joseph and fourth Pro Bowl alternate Leon Hall. Joseph is heading into the final season of his five-year deal and Hall has two left on his own five-year rookie deal.

Running back Cedric Benson, arguably the team's Most Valuable Player, is also working on the last year of a two-year deal. Others that could also get attention are center Kyle Cook, who had an impressive first season as a starter, and outside linebacker Brandon Johnson, a valuable and versatile player who has flourished under Zimmer as both a starter and backup.

Under the rules for a capless system, Johnson is a restricted free agent, as is a group of players the club would no doubt like to keep intact for the most part in backup SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty, left guard Evan Mathis, who started seven games, and Frostee Rucker, a backup defensive lineman that plays both spots.

Cook is an exclusive rights free agent, as is special teams captain Kyries Hebert, but that wouldn't preclude reaching a long-term deal.

As for the unrestricted free agents, that list is headed by Graham, whose one-year franchise tag of $2.44 million expires. His missed field goals from 28 and 35 yards in Saturday's Wild Card game have to be weighed against a body of work that consists of seven seasons he has been the most accurate kicker in club history but look for the Bengals to try out some guys as they try to decide. They've had a track record of doing that even when Graham was under contract.

» Zimmer has expressed interest in keeping his two starting free agents, safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson, but the offense has to decide on the future of two aging but key locker-room leaders in right guard Bobbie Williams and tight end Reggie Kelly. Since he was signed from the Eagles as a free agent in 2004, Williams, who turns 34 next season, has started all but two games and both playoff games. Kelly, a month shy of 33, is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Williams followed Zimmer to Cincinnati last season and impressed before a recurring injury to the forearm he broke in 2008 put him out four of the first eight games and on injured reserve for the final eight. But Williams indicated late in the season he felt good enough to play and is looking forward to this season.

Fullback is also an area of decision. Jeremi Johnson, 29, a veteran of 96 Bengals games, is a free agent. The Bengals kept seventh-rounder Fui Vakapuna on the roster even though they didn't dress him for the 10 games they played after he was re-signed in the middle of the season.

KEY OFFSEASON DATES

» Jan. 25-27: Practices for Jan. 30 Senior Bowl, Mobile, Ala.

» Feb. 24-March 2: NFL Scouting Combine, Indianapolis, Ind.

» March 5: First day of free agency

» March 21-24: NFL owners meeting, Orlando, Fla.

» March 29: Bengals offseason workouts begin

» April 14: Estimated release of NFL schedule. This is 2009's release date.

» April 22: NFL Draft, Round 1, 7:30 p.m.

» April 23: NFL Draft, Rounds 2-3, 6:30 p.m.

» April 24: NFL Draft, Rounds 4-7, 10 a.m.

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