With there being plenty of concerns about the state of the Bengals' secondary, there has been a ray of hope the past couple weeks in the comeback of Leon Hall.
Four months after tearing his Achilles in a Week 10 loss to the Steelers, Hall is doing running and backpedaling as he has still targeted a return for the start of training camp.
"In six weeks I made a lot of inroads," Hall said. "Having cleats on and getting back on the field, I'm encouraged by that. I'm still not where I want to be four months in but it does feel good when I am running, backpedaling and doing side-to-side stuff."
Going into last season, Hall had never missed a game going back to high school and had the longest string of consecutive games played on the team with 73. Besides doing rehab at Paul Brown Stadium five days a week, the other difficult part has been more psychological as Hall has had to deal with a major injury for the first time.
What has buoyed Hall's confidence is the fact that he made a lot of progress from late January, when he got on a bike for the first time, to now where he is on a field and doing position-specific workouts.
"The mental aspect has been different. Obviously there were good days and bad days especially in the beginning," he said. "The hard part was early on watching the games, realizing I wasn't going to be out there. I tried to work hard and go from there. If I do that everything will fall into place."
The one area where Hall can consider himself fortunate is that he signed a four-year contract extension before last season started. Had that not happened, Hall would have been on the market but his value would have been diminished due to the injury.
Even if Hall is ready to go on the first day of training camp, the secondary during the early stages of free agency remain unsettled. With Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings being free agents, there is not a lot of experience with Rico Murray and Brandon Ghee. That means adding a veteran corner is a priority.
Hall has not met new secondary coach Mark Carrier yet but the two did talk on the phone for a couple minutes last week and had a good conversation. Hall is replacing Kevin Coyle, who left the Bengals after 11 seasons to become the Dolphins' defensive coordinator.
Added Hall about Carrier's addition: "It will be different. You have the player aspect (Carrier was a former player) but I think no matter who would have come in here it would have been different because (Kevin) Coyle had been here for what seemed like forever. It will be a change but it will be a good change."
NOTES, QUOTESRivers' status remains in doubt
--Keith Rivers' status for 2012 has been up in the air after he missed all of last season due to a wrist injury, with some even speculating on if he can return.
A league source tried to dispel those rumors, telling The Cincinnati Enquirer that Rivers' wrist condition is neither degenerative or career threatening and that he is on track to play the entire season. Two of Rivers' first four seasons have ended in trips to injured reserve.
--With training camp coming to the team's complex, the Bengals are upgrading their practice fields by replacing two bluegrass fields with Bermuda grass surfaces. The Bengals already have one Bermuda field, which is the one furthest West and near the Clyde White Bailey bridge. That used to be a synthetic surface before it was replaced by Bermuda three seasons ago.
Once the changeover begins in May, that means only one grass field and the stadium will be available for rookie minicamp, OTAs and the mandatory minicamp in May and June. The installation of the grass fields will be 800,000 which the Bengals are paying for.
--With Jonathan Fanene signing with New England, that means there are no longer any members of the 2005 draft class on the team. That group might be the biggest collection in franchise history of talent unrealized with linebacker David Pollack (first round), linebacker Odell Thurman (second round) and wide receiver Chris Henry (third round) being the top three picks.
Pollack suffered a career-ending neck injury in his second game while Thurman and Henry had numerous legal issues.
--Fullback Chris Pressley, who signed a two-year extension, said he was happy to sign with the team after being on one-year contracts with the Bengals and Buccaneers during his first three seasons in the league.
Pressley played in 15 games last year and helped add some stability to the run game as the lead blocker for Cedric Benson.
"Every game you learn more about yourself and how to be ready to play and the dynamic of how to play and figure it out," he said.
QUOTE OF NOTE: "Frostee (Rucker) and Jon (Fanene) have had productive careers here and have been great teammates, and their contributions in our line rotation have made them attractive to other clubs. They both seem to have the opportunity to play a larger role with their new clubs, and we understand that." - Coach Marvin Lewis on the departures of Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--The Bengals made their first signing of the offseason, picking up guard Travelle Wharton Saturday (March 17).
The Bengals signed the former Carolina Panther after he visited with the St. Louis Rams on Thursday and Friday.
Wharton is expected to replace left guard Nate Livings, who signed a five-year, 19 million with the Dallas Cowboys on Friday, according to profootballtalk.com.
Wharton started all 16 games for the Panthers last season and has started each of the 99 games he's played for with Carolina in his eight-year NFL career.
--With the losses of Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene in free agency, the defensive line has quickly gone from a position of strength to one that is lacking in depth.
Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are young players with lots of potential but Johnson lost his starting spot to Rucker and Dunlap has missed four games each of the past two seasons. Look for them to fill at least one of the spots in free agency and then go to the draft for the other spot.
TEAM NEEDS1. Guard: The Bengals have never drafted a guard in the first round but with Bobbie Williams and Nate Livings being free agents (Livings signed with Dallas), they need to find someone who they can plug in there for the next five years and not worry about. It would be a similar situation to tackle, where they are set with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith.
2. Cornerback: With last year's departure of Johnathan Joseph, the Bengals need another shutdown corner to pair with Leon Hall. Nate Clements is also going into the last year of his deal. The Bengals have had success in first-round corners in recent seasons with the selections of Hall and Joseph.
3. Wide receiver: A.J. Green can stretch the field and provide the big plays, but now the task is finding someone to pair with him. They also need to find a dependable option on short and medium routes since Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell will not be back.
--FB Chris Pressley had surgery on his shoulder but described it as just a "clean-up procedure." He should be ready for the start of offseason workouts.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: PK Mike Nugent (tendered at 2.654 million).
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--RB Cedric Benson has three straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Bengals but offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to go more with a running back by committee approach which Benson has balked at. Expect both sides to have a mutual parting of the ways.
--WR Andre Caldwell was second on the team in receptions in 2009 but found his role diminished the last two years as he was put in a variety of spots where he underachieved. Not expected to be back.
--OT Anthony Collins could be one of the best pass blockers on the team, but still has not been able to secure a starting spot. There is a need at guard but neither side has expressed much interest in a move. He will test the market.
--CB Kelly Jennings was mainly the corner in nickel situations once Leon Hall went down due to injury. Considering the lack of depth in the secondary, they would like to re-sign him.
--LB Brandon Johnson has been a key backup at weak-side linebacker and has been one of the top players on special teams. He is looking for a multi-year deal after three straight seasons on one-year contracts.
--CB Adam Jones has been injury plagued during his two seasons in Cincinnati and exhibited his temper late in the season. Might be back for the right price.
--LB Manny Lawson ended up starting at strong-side linebacker but was not used in nickel situations. He struggled a little bit but the Bengals would like to have him back at the right price.
--TE Donald Lee was plagued by injuries the second half of the season but was a good mentor to Jermaine Gresham and Colin Cochart. He could return on another one-year deal.
--OT Dennis Roland saw his snap counts go down this season and was mainly used as a blocking tight end. Not expected to return.
--TE Bo Scaife spent all of last season on injured reserve after injuring his neck. He is not expected to be back.
--WR Jerome Simpson has plenty of athletic potential and set career highs in catches (50), yards (725) and touchdowns (four), but he is also facing a four-game suspension stemming from pleading guilty to marijuana possession. Could be re-signed in May depending on the team's activity in free agency.
--DT Pat Sims was one of the team's best interior run stoppers but has seen only spot starts during his four-year career. He is expected to test the market.
--OG Bobbie Williams went into last season with the team's longest streak of consecutive games but ended up serving four games for a violation of the league's policy on performance enhancing substances then fractured his ankle late in the season and missed the last three games. Going into his 13th year despite being entrenched at right guard, he is not a priority to re-sign.
--S Gibril Wilson saw a mix of defensive and special teams snaps after missing 2010 due to a knee injury. Could be back on a one-year deal.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--LS Clark Harris (tendered at 1.26M with seventh-round pick as compensation) has made 395 straight clean snaps.
--LB Dan Skuta (tendered at 1.26M with no compensation) started three games in the middle last season and could be looked upon more if Rey Maualuga begins the season on suspension.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--S Jeromy Miles (tendered at 540,000) was used almost exclusively on special teams and led the team in tackles with 15.
--DT Nick Hayden: Potential ERFA; 615,0001 yr.
--S Reggie Nelson: UFA; terms unknown.
--RB Cedric Peerman: Potential ERFA; 615,0001 yr, terms unknown.
--FB Chris Pressley: Potential RFA; 2.1M2 yrs.
--LB Vincent Rey: Potential ERFA; 450,0001 yr.
--CB Jason Allen: UFA Texans; 8.2M2 yrs.
--OG Travelle Wharton: FA Panthers; terms unknown.
--DE Jonathan Fanene: UFA Patriots; 12M3 yrs, 3.85M guaranteed.
--OG Nate Livings: UFA Cowboys; 19M5 yrs, 6.2M guaranteed.
--OG Mike McGlynn: UFA Colts; terms unknown.
--DE Frostee Rucker: UFA Browns; 21M5 yrs, 8M guaranteed.