AFCN Roundup: Now or Never in Cincinnati

Highlights from recent news stories on the Browns AFC North rivals

Cincinnati Bengals: It’s Now Or Never For Bengals’ Playoff Hopes

Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill may only be heading into his second season in the NFL, but he knows that the Bengals’ playoff window isn’t going to stay open forever. The Bengals have reached the postseason each of the last four years but haven’t won a single playoff game. Their head coach, Marvin Lewis, is 0–6 when it comes to Bengals’ playoff wins. Though Cincinnati has a roster well-positioned to return to the playoffs in 2015, Hill is concerned that if they cannot win in the postseason this year, they may not get another chance to redeem themselves in the years that follow.

In speaking with ESPN’s Coley Harvey on Monday, Hill said, “It’s now or never… It’s been four years in a row, and if it doesn’t happen this year, then it’s probably never going to happen. That’s the mentality and the sense of urgency that we bring in every day. Something has to change.” This isn’t just lip service, either. Hill isn’t simply saying the same thing all NFL players do this time of year—that the Super Bowl is the goal, that the locker room is more motivated—as there really is a sense of urgency in Cincinnati.

Twenty-six Bengals veterans are in the final year of their respective contracts. Though the Bengals have long been a frugal organization and should possess enough salary cap wiggle room to extend contracts to some of them, bringing back all 26 is not going to be possible. The Bengals, who have enjoyed a great deal of roster stability and with it, success, in recent years will look markedly different in 2016. That will make it hard for them to quickly regain their footing as a playoff-caliber team.

Everything from Lewis’ coaching style to the limits of quarterback Andy Dalton have been blamed for the team continuously going one-and-done in the playoffs. Last year, it was less Dalton or Lewis but the Bengals’ defense, which struggled to create a pass-rush all season long, leading to the defense totaling just 21 regular-season sacks.

As Hill noted, “Getting to the playoffs every year, that’s cool and all, but we want to get to the next level… The sense of urgency needs to pick up and just the get-up and the want-to to do it. Everyone has that mentality right now and that’s going to definitely help us going into the season.” Veteran cornerback Leon Hall said something similar to Harvey last week: “Year after year it’s a big offseason but for whatever reason, this year seems a little bit bigger.”

But there’s a long way to go—and a lot of football to play—before the Bengals and the NFL reach January and the postseason. But Hill isn’t off base when he says that 2015 might be the team’s last best chance for playoff glory. With so many roster changes looming, this group won’t be together much longer.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Steelers Claim QB/WR Devin Gardner Off Waivers

ESPN’s Field Yates was the first to report that the Pittsburgh Steelers had claimed former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner off of waivers on Tuesday. Gardner had been waived by the New England Patriots on Monday; he initially joined the team as an undrafted rookie free agent on May 8. The Steelers released wideout L’Damian Washington to make room for Gardner.

Though a quarterback to close out his college career, Gardner was not brought aboard to compete with Steelers backups Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones and Tajh Boyd, but rather to round out their receiving corps. Gardner did some receiving—as well as running—in college, with a career total of 18 receptions for 286 yards and four scores. He did most of that work in 2012, when he caught 16 passes for 266 yards and all four of his touchdowns.

Gardner also rushed 342 times for 916 yards and 24 touchdowns over his five years with the Wolverines. He certainly possesses athleticism and speed, and at 6’4” and 216 pounds, has the ideal build for a wideout. But Gardner is a project at wide receiver. He needs to work on his hands. He will have to learn how to block. He’ll need more experience running routes and shaking off defenders in coverage.

Therefore, it will require patience on the Steelers’ part if they foresee a future for Gardner on their roster. Unless he improves significantly and far more quickly than expected, Gardner’s 2015 will be spent on the practice squad if he can last through summer’s training camp for the Steelers or any other team. But Gardner does have an intriguing skill set that, if tapped to its fullest potential, could make him a viable professional receiver down the line.

Baltimore Ravens: Head Coach John Harbaugh Interested in Limiting WR Steve Smith’s Snaps

In a column previewing the impact that rookie wideout Breshad Perriman will have on the Baltimore Ravens’ offense this year, ESPN’s Jamison Hensley casually tossed out a fascinating piece of information: Veteran receiver Steve Smith Sr. will be on a pitch count for the 2015 season.

Hensley wrote: “[Perriman] has a shot to become the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver because coach John Harbaugh talked about how he wanted to reduce Steve Smith’s snaps to save on his wear and tear.” Smith joined the Ravens prior to the 2014 season and was the team’s leader in targets, receptions and receiving yards. He had 79 catches on 134 targets, earning him 1,065 yards and six scores.

But, with Smith entering his 15th season in the NFL and having turned 36 years old earlier this month, Harbaugh’s concerns about wear and tear aren’t imaginary. Though tougher than ever and smarter than practically any other wideout in the league, age cannot be reversed. It was evident even in 2014 that Smith has slowed somewhat.

He started out the season with 100-plus receiving yards in four of his first six contests; after that, he never had more than 89. He also scored four of his touchdowns in that span and only two from Week 7 on. With the addition of Perriman—and also second-round draft pick tight end Maxx Williams—targets will certainly be taken away from Smith this year.

Smith may not want to admit it, but the rigors of an NFL season do take a greater toll as a player gets older. The Ravens—and Smith—will be better off with Smith fresh late in games and late in the season. But Smith being on a snap count will also depend on the development of the young Perriman as well as second-round 2015 draft pick, tight end Maxx Williams.

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