AFCN Roundup: Battle Brewing for Baltimore

Safeties Will Hill and Matt Elam clashing for starting role for Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals: Continued Experimentation with RB Rex Burkhead in Slot Receiver Role, More

Running back Rex Burkhead was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the sixth round of the 2013 draft but has found himself behind Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill on the depth chart. That may not matter in 2015, however, with Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson experimenting with Burkhead as a slot receiver during OTAs, reports The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr.

Burkhead saw limited action as a rookie, thanks to a nagging hamstring injury. He showed up late in 2013 on special teams and then watched as the Bengals selected Hill in Round 2 of the 2014 draft. But Jackson saw versatility in Burkhead’s game. Though he played only 45 snaps in 2014 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and didn’t play an offensive down until Week 9, he ran nine times for 27 yards and one touchdown while catching seven passes on 10 targets for 49 more yards. He even recorded a start at receiver in the team’s Wild Card loss, thanks to injuries depleting the Bengals’ receiving corps: A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham were among those sidelined for the game.

Jackson simply wants to maximize the talents of a weapon like Burkhead, saying to Dehner that, “He's very talented. You have a talented player on your team you see if you can find a way to get him involved. He can do a little bit of everything. He can run the ball, too. He can catch, protect. He's one of the better players on our team so we will see what we can do with him.”

Burkhead is spending half of his time during OTAs working with the running backs and the other with the receivers. He’s learning to master the nuances of working in the slot receiver position. Burkhead said of his progress, “When you're coming out of the backfield you're usually going against a linebacker and you're usually going against straight-up man. Or it's a simple zone you can read off of. Now you've got cover-2, quarters, cloud coverages, and other things you have to learn about. And you're running against nickel, dimes with corners and safeties. So it's new, especially when I'm running some routes I've never run before.”

While not new to catching passes — Burkhead had 60 catches for 507 yards and five touchdowns in four collegiate seasons for Nebraska — having such an expanded role is all new territory for him. But having Burkhead available to catch passes for the Bengals will certainly help if they suffer from injuries, as they did last year. It also gives Andy Dalton more options, which no quarterback will ever complain about.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Cornerback Cortez Allen to Get a Shot at Redemption After Disappointing 2014

Just days before the 2014 NFL season kicked off, the Pittsburgh Steelers gave cornerback Cortez Allen a five-year, $26 million contract, one that would hopefully justify itself by him taking the reins of the starting job he won after Keenan Lewis left in free agency. Instead, Cortez found himself first demoted to slot cornerback and then to the bench altogether, in favor of the as-then untested Brice McCain and Antwon Blake.

But, with Ike Taylor retiring and McCain heading to the Miami Dolphins in free agency this offseason, Allen is getting another shot at the starting job, whether on the outside or in the slot. And he’s spent a lot of time working with defensive backs coach Carnell Lake in order to rebuild confidence that took a heavy hit last year.

Allen spoke with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette following the Steelers’ OTAs this week and discussed what happened last year and his second chance to hold down a starting job this year. Allen said, “There’s a lot of little things [that went wrong]. A lot of fundamental things I was so critical on in college that I sort of got away from, in my opinion. That’s what I’m working on now, just getting back to the basics of football as far as technique and stuff.”

In term’s of Lake’s role in this process, Allen said, “I asked Coach to help me with everything—anything he sees or feels that I’m doing, however small or big. I like to be coached. I have a desire to be better. I’m all for any coaching he can give me.”

Last year, Allen totaled 41 combined tackles, two interceptions and 11 passes defensed. But, according to Pro Football Focus, Allen also allowed five touchdowns on 34 receptions and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 106.8 when throwing in his direction.

But Allen still has the edge over rookies Senquez Golson and Doran Grant simply because he has the greater on-field experience. If coaching can get Allen where he needs to be, this summer’s battle for playing time among Pittsburgh’s corners could be a big one to watch.

Baltimore Ravens: Strong Safety Battle Heats Up Between Matt Elam and Will Hill

Though Will Hill was the Baltimore Ravens’ starting free safety in 2014, the signing of free agent Kendrick Lewis means that he will have to battle it out for the strong safety job if he wants to be a starter this year. But he’ll have to go through 2013 first-round draft pick Matt Elam to get there.

The Baltimore Sun’s Aaron Wilson reports that Hill and Elam have split time with the Ravens’ first-team defense during OTAs thus far. Hill joined the Ravens last year but was suspended for the first six games owing to a positive drug test for marijuana dating back to his time with the New York Giants. But he returned from that suspension and two weeks later won the Ravens’ starting free safety job, totaling 41 combined tackles, an interception returned for a touchdown and four passes defensed. He also recorded 14 defensive stops.

Elam, meanwhile, was the Ravens’ starting free safety during Hill’s suspension but lost his starting job at strong safety, his natural position, after Hill returned. Elam did appear sparingly at numerous defensive back positions as the season wore on, thanks to the Ravens’ cornerback position being decimated by injuries. But he still totaled just 50 combined tackles, four passes defensed and no interceptions while appearing in all 16 games.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been very impressed with Hill this offseason. Hill has put more dedication into his conditioning and it’s not lost on the coach: “I almost say [Hill is] light-years ahead of where he was last year. Came in kind of late and under challenging circumstances that he was in and missed six weeks [last season] to start with, which is hard. You’re off the field for six weeks, and a lot of rust builds up, especially a guy just learning the system. Here he is.”

Harbaugh added, “He has been here every single day in the offseason that I’m aware of. Heck, he brought his family in here to work out with him when he was on his own. I see him pushing the stroller with his wife and his baby down the street here in Owings Mills. I just think he has really dug in to have a great season, and we’ll see how it goes for him. But right now, he looks the part.”

Elam, too, has been putting in the work, losing five percent of his body fat during his offseason conditioning. He said to Wilson this week, “All I'll say is, I can't wait until September. I’m ready.” As long as the Ravens can find more stability in their secondary in 2015, Harbaugh is going to be happy.

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