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AFC North notebook: Bengals are spending money to compete

Those old jokes about Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown supposedly being a miser too cheap to spend what it takes to win no longer seem to apply.

Brown has spent a lot of money expanding his scouting department in recent years, and he made another hefty investment this week.

The old-school, hands-on owner rewarded Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins with a five-year contract extension worth $54.755 million, including a $15 million signing bonus, making him the second-highest paid defensive tackle in NFL history behind Ravens Pro Bowl lineman Haloti Ngata.

Atkins is regarded as the scourge of the AFC North, shooting gaps and bull-rushing blockers to set a franchise record with 12.5 sacks to go with 15 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles last season.

Instead of a scheduled $1.4 million base salary for 2013, Atkins is now due a $4 million base salary for 2013. He'll make a total of $36 million in the first three years of the contract.

As rich as the deal is with an $11 million annual average, it falls shy of Ngata's five-year, $61 million contract signed two years ago. Ngata is a larger, more established player at 6 feet 4, 340 pounds and his contract averages $12.2 million per year.

Ngata also trumped Atkins with a $25 million signing bonus and a $10 million option bonus for a total of $35 million in guaranteed money.

It's still an extremely respectable deal that continues to show a willingness from the Bengals to pay their core players after making the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.

Now that the Bengals have Atkins and defensive end Carlos Atkins ($40 million extension) locked up, they've likely set their sights next offseason on pursuing long-term contracts for their passing tandem of Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.

That will follow their third year when they're eligible for new contracts under collective bargaining agreement guidelines for players signed under the new rookie salary system.

With the Atkins signing, the Bengals now rank in the top five NFL teams in cash player spending for 2013. That includes over $180 million total spent on new veteran contracts so far this year.

"Geno's extension is exciting news," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "It puts the issue of his future behind him and the club and allows his focus to be on football and on a great start to our season."

Like all NFL teams dealing with a $123 million salary-cap limit, the Bengals can't keep everybody they want to on their roster.

Defensive end Michael Johnson is expected to leave Cincinnati as a high-dollar unrestricted free agent after this season.

Johnson figures to cash in at a level similar to Dunlap and below Atkins, but his payday will probably happen in another NFL city.

Steelers need receiving targets

When in doubt, the Pittsburgh Steelers can always rely upon franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. A nagging question remains, though.

Who is Roethlisberger going to deliver spirals to this season?

The Steelers didn't try to hold onto wide receiver Mike Wallace, who signed a $60 million Miami Dolphins contract.

They may miss him as a deep threat, though. Wallace's 64 receptions for 836 yards and eight touchdowns could be extremely difficult to replace. It's up to Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to make people forget about Wallace.

The Steelers have a health issue at tight end where Heath Miller, Roethlisberger's most reliable target, is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament and other ligament damage from eight months ago and could miss some games.

Last season, Miller was invaluable with 71 receptions and eight touchdowns.

The Steelers felt good enough about Miller's progress that he's no longer on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he could potentially return within the first six weeks of the regular season.

Miller is making progress, but he's not ready yet.

"It's the next step in the process," Miller told reporters. "I'm getting closer and closer to being where I want to be, so that's a good thing. I can be more part of the team."

Cousins gets a chance in Cleveland

The Browns could be in trouble at right offensive guard, forced to go with former Ravens offensive guard Oniel Cousins due to injuries to Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao.

Pinkston was placed on injured reserve-designated to return this week with an ankle injury, meaning he's out for at least the first eight games.

Cousins is a former Ravens fifth-round draft pick who was known more for practice brawling than blocking skills when he was in Baltimore.

Although Cousins is a legitimate tough guy and fairly experienced with 44 games and five starts, his rawness hurt his prospects in Baltimore.

Browns coach Rob Chudzinski sees signs of progress, though, since shifting Cousins inside from offensive tackle.

"I have been pleased with how quickly he has made the transition," Chudzinski said recently. "It's not been perfect by any means, and he is still working and still needs to continue to work, but it has been relatively smooth. I feel better about the situation with Oniel and what he has done and what he has shown what he can do."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider

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