Learning the ropes
When Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks was selected in the third round of last year's NFL supplemental draft, most figured that the Cincinnati Bengals were taking a flier on a player whose promising college career ended abruptly after he was dismissed by Cavaliers coach Al Groh after his junior year in Charlottesville.
The plan to bring Brooks along slowly changed during his rookie year when middle linebacker Brian Simmons missed four games in five weeks. In his first start, Brooks made 10 solo tackles and assisted on four more in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in October.
But Brooks didn't produce those kinds of numbers in his other three starts and he spent most of the season in and out of coach Marvin Lewis' doghouse because of his lack of attention in practice and at meetings. Simmons is gone and if Brooks matures, he could be just what the Bengals need behind a solid defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan isn't giving up on Brooks being the starting middle linebacker and a star.
"There are going to be growing pains, but we've got to live through it and continue to grow with him and keep it simple for him," Bresnahan told The Columbus Dispatch recently.
THE RUNNING GAME Cincinnati finished eighth in total offense last season because of Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer and a terrific group of receivers led by perennial Pro Bowl selection Chad Johnson. But the Bengals must improve the running game after finishing a franchise-low 26th last season. Rudi Johnson, who rushed for 1,309 yards and 12 touchdowns, needs help.
TAKING IT AWAY The Bengals forced 31 turnovers last season, 13 fewer than 2005. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal fell from 10 interceptions in 2005 to one last season, as he also missed four games because of injuries. Getting the ball back to the offense could return the Bengals to the top of the division.
DOWN THE STRETCH Cincinnati has been a fast starter the past two years. Winners of three straight out of the box last year and four straight to start the 2005 season, the Bengals faded down the stretch, losing their last three in 2006 and their last three, including a playoff game, two years ago.
STAY OUT OF JAIL Given the problems some of the Bengals had off the field last season, a quiet training camp and preseason portends well for Marvin Lewis' team. If the Bengals can remain solid citizens and stay off the police blotters, it will help keep the locker room unified.
9-10 Ravens 7 p.m. 9-16 @Cleveland 1 p.m. 9-23 @Seattle 4:05 p.m. 10-1 New England 8:30 p.m. 10-7 Open date 10-14 @Kansas City 1 p.m. 10-21 N.Y. Jets 4:05 p.m. 10-28 Pittsburgh 1 p.m. 11-4 @Buffalo 1 p.m. 11-11 @Ravens 4:05 p.m. 11-18 Arizona 1 p.m. 11-25 Tennessee 1 p.m. 12-2 Pittsburgh 8:15 p.m. 12-9 St. Louis 1 p.m. 12-15 @San Fran. 8:15 p.m. 12-23 Cleveland 1 p.m. 12-30 @Miami 1 p.m.
Kellen WinslowTight end
Returning the favor
Kellen Winslow came out of Miami three years ago with proclamations that he would quickly take the reins away from Tony Gonzalez of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jeremy Shockey of the New York Giants and become the NFL's pre-eminent tight end.
It hasn't happened, for a number of reasons.
After reporting 12 days late to training camp as a rookie, Winslow broke his leg in his second NFL game and missed the rest of the 2004 season. Then came the near career-ending motorcycle accident in May 2005 that forced him to miss that season.
Winslow returned last season to catch 89 passes for 875 yards and three touchdowns, then underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee in January. All indications are that Winslow is fully recovered and ready to take his place among the game's most dangerous receivers.
"He's a talented guy, he works hard and puts a lot of hours in when nobody else is looking," said backup tight end Darnell Dinkins.
Winslow seems to understand how far a road he still has yet to travel. He appears appreciative that the Browns didn't release him after he broke the terms of his contract by riding a motorcycle.
"It's never been about the money for me," Winslow told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "But it's great they did that because other organizations would have just left me in a trunk or let me go. I made a mistake. I have to prove everybody wrong."
J. LEWIS' MISSION Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis wants to show those he left behind -- in particular coach Brian Billick -- that he isn't worn down or washed up. Lewis demonstrated flashes of the past in the preseason, and if he can be a 1,300- to 1,500-yard rusher, the Browns have a chance to be respectable.
BUILDING BLOCKS One of Lewis' complaints in Baltimore was that his offensive line had deteriorated. Whether Lewis was right might play out in Cleveland this season, where the Browns upgraded by drafting left tackle Joe Thomas out of Wisconsin, re-signing center Hank Fraley and getting free-agent guard Seth McKinney.
STOPPING THE RUN The Browns ranked No. 27 defensively in the NFL in 2006, mostly because their run defense gave up a whopping 142.2 yards per game. The Browns are hoping that adding defensive ends Robaire Smith and Shaun Smith to the line will help solve the problem.
QUINN AT QUARTERBACK? When Browns coach Romeo Crennel was an assistant in New England, a rookie quarterback named Brady transformed the Patriots and eventually helped them become a dynasty. Will history repeat itself with Brady Quinn? If he proves as quick a study in Cleveland as he was under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, the Browns might be competitive.
9-9 Pittsburgh 1 p.m. 9-16 Cincinnati 1 p.m. 9-23 @Oakland 4:05 p.m. 9-30 Ravens 1 p.m. 10-7 @New England 1 p.m. 10-14 Miami 1 p.m. 10-21 Open date 10-28 @St. Louis 1 p.m. 11-4 Seattle 4:05 p.m. 11-11 @Pittsburgh 1 p.m. 11-18 @Ravens 1 p.m. 11-25 Houston 1 p.m. 12-2 @Arizona 4:05 p.m. 12-9 @N.Y. Jets 4:15 p.m. 12-16 Buffalo 1 p.m. 12-23 @Cincinnati 1 p.m. 12-30 San Francisco 1 p.m.
Willie ParkerRunning back
Carrying the load
Willie Parker has played in the shadows for most of his first three seasons in the NFL.
Used sparingly as a rookie in 2004, Parker shared the load with Jerome Bettis in 2005, finishing with 1,202 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He also had a 75-yard touchdown run in Pittsburgh's Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks.
With Bettis retired, Parker ran for a career-high 1,494 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, but still found himself being compared with Bettis. With coach Mike Tomlin trying to get quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to play more like he did his first two seasons, the focus should be on giving Parker the ball.
"There's no pressure at all," Parker said during training camp, where a knee injury forced him to miss two preseason games. "Each year you've got to start over. Got a clean slate. That's the way I look at it. I'm competing all over again."
Exactly whom Parker is competing against isn't clear, though he might merely be trying to put himself in the category of beloved Steelers backs such as Bettis and Franco Harris.
Bruce Arians, the team's new offensive coordinator, believes Parker can build off what he did last season.
"I expect him actually to get better because he works so hard at it," Arians said. "He still attacks like he's trying to make the team. He's really improved his hands and his pass blocking, so hopefully we can keep him on the field on third down."
9-9 @Cleveland 1 p.m. 9-16 Buffalo 1 p.m. 9-23 San Francisco 1 p.m. 9-30 @Arizona 4:15 p.m. 10-7 Seattle 1 p.m. 10-14 Open date 10-21 @Denver 8:15 p.m. 10-28 @Cincinnati 1 p.m. 11-5 Ravens 8:30 p.m. 11-11 Cleveland 1 p.m. 11-18 @N.Y. Jets 1 p.m. 11-26 Miami 8:30 p.m. 12-2 Cincinnati 8:15 p.m. 12-9 @New England 1 p.m. 12-16 Jacksonville 1 p.m. 12-20 @St. Louis 8:15 p.m. 12-30 @Ravens 1 p.m.