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What we learned from the AFC Coaches Breakfast

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BOCA RATON, Florida -- For football writers, the Annual League Meeting offers one true gem: The coaches breakfasts.

During a week when league decision-makers play something of a hide-and-seek game with reporters -- who can blame them, they're basically on vacation here -- the AFC and NFC breakfasts offer an extraordinary amount of access to all 32 coaches. Even Bill Belichick.

We spent time Tuesday with Marvin Lewis, the longtime Bengals coach who found himself sitting 15 feet away from Hue Jackson, his friend and former offensive coordinator now tasked with turning around the Cleveland Browns. Equally close was Miami's Adam Gase, who snatched away Bengals defensive assistant Vance Joseph in January to serve as the Dolphins' new coordinator.

With Minnesota Vikings coach and former Bengals defensive play-caller Mike Zimmer also set to speak Wednesday, the Marvin Lewis coaching tree is in full bloom.

For Lewis, there's a pride in seeing his aides advance, one which overshadows the loss of a quality assistant.

"We've had a plan of succession each and every time with the coaches and tried to work within that," Lewis said on losing Jackson, one of the league's top play-callers. "We've had the coordinators move on to be head coaches and position coaches to be coordinators, and so we try to build the staff and empower guys to do more. So when these opportunities come, they give me a comfort level of where we are with that and I'm excited about that."

While Jackson earned most of the praise for helping quarterback Andy Dalton turn in a career year, Lewis sees equal potential in new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese, the son of former iconic NFL play-caller Ernie Zampese.

"I mean, Kenny's been coaching the quarterbacks since we drafted Carson (Palmer) in '03," Lewis said. "He's been right there with his hands on it the entire time. Hue did a great job of directing it and so forth and holding everyone accountable, and now we're just going to adjust a little bit. ... It's an adjustment, but we've got new ideas and fresh thoughts in the building, and I feel really good about that."

Here's what else we learned during Tuesday's AFC coaches breakfast:

1. I sat down with all four AFC South coaches, who -- to a man -- seem convinced that their long-laughed-about division is ready to turn the corner. Chalk that optimism up to the presence of four young and promising quarterbacks in Indy's Andrew Luck, Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, Houston's Brock Osweiler and Tennessee's Marcus Mariota. Jaguars coach Gus Bradley went so far as to parallel the growth of the AFC South to what he experienced as a Seahawks assistant in the once-chuckled-at NFC West, saying: "I've been a part of that, where the NFC West was a division that everyone was commenting on, and then it came out to be one of the strongest. So, a lot of the same traits. ... I think you're going to see this division really take a step."

2. Ravens coach John Harbaugh caught fire when asked about a rule change proposed by Baltimore that would allow officials to take a second look at helmet-to-helmet hits and on-field collisions impacting player safety. "Safety should be in replay," Harbaugh said. "The fact that safety is not in replay right now just makes absolutely no sense whatsoever." Holding court in front of a gaggle of reporters, Harbaugh vowed that expanded replay -- a stretch to be voted on and approved this week -- will "pass eventually," adding that "at some point in time, it's going to shift and everything's going to be reviewable except certain categories, and that's what our proposal says. So it's either going to be done now, or it's going to be done soon."

3. Baltimore's replay rule is still being discussed, but the NFL Competition Committee on Tuesday saw seven of its proposed rule changes pass, per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport. Most importantly, owners agreed to ban chop blocking entirely and permanently move PATs to the defensive team's 15-yard line. You can read about all the rule changes here, via one-man gang Conor Orr.

4. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin was a runaway star on Tuesday. The Steelers coach gave firm advice to suspended wideout Martavis Bryant -- "I want to see him get better as a man," Tomlin said -- and dug deep on the topic of in-game clock management. Telling us that he follows "his gut," Tomlin said he doesn't worry about the criticism heaped on coaches for their decisions. "I think there's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks," Tomlin quipped. "I'd love to put a headset on them, stand them on the sideline in a stadium and watch them make no decision." Laughter ensued.

5. Tomlin also made it clear that Pittsburgh's No. 2 receiving role alongside superstar Antonio Brown is open for business after Bryant's suspension. "Everybody's got a chance to compete for that job," Tomlin said, before heaping praise on second-year wideout Sammie Coates as a player who could make a "quantum leap" in 2016.

6. Buffalo's Rex Ryan was predictably swarmed by reporters, but it wasn't all fun and games for the Bills coach. Ryan was quizzed more than once about the future of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who will make a lowly $2 million in base salary this season before hitting the open market in 2017. After Taylor's agent, Adisa Bakari, warned that "31 other teams ... have watched and will be watching Tyrod," Rex held his ground and refused to promise a contract extension. "First off, our entire organization believes in Tyrod Taylor," Ryan said. "There's no doubt. However, sometimes when you look at your situation cap wise or whatever, anything that would include an extension for him would have to be in the best interest of both Tyrod and the Bills and right now, it's probably hard to bring those two things together with our cap situation."

7. With Belichick just a stone's throw away, Ryan also admitted that he's puzzled how the Bills will stop the Patriots two-headed tight-end monster of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, saying: "I have no idea. I just think it's unusual to have two guys that are like 6-(foot)-7 and can run, catch, block. So, yeah, it's going to be a major challenge." The Patriots will also get a healthy Dion Lewis back in time for the season. This time around, we suggest that Rex admits that New England's electric satellite back actually exists.

8. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak admitted this week that he's barely had time to sit back and enjoy winning Super Bowl 50. Faced with major questions at quarterback and a rash of free-agent defections, Kubiak's plate has been full. Still, he hopes his players "enjoy what they did and what took place," especially star pass rusher Von Miller, who is competing on Dancing With The Stars. "I'm proud of Von. I've said this to you all many times: I know Von, who he is, where he's come from," Kubiak said. "I've watched the leader he is, he does a really good job with the younger players on the team. We all know he likes to have fun, but he knows when it's time to go to work too, so I'm proud of him, I hope he's having a good time out there. I'll just make sure he knows that April 18 we look forward to seeing him."

9. Bill O'Brien doesn't care what you think about Brock Osweiler. The Texans coach has fallen hard for his new quarterback -- and he's telling all the world.

10. Hue Jackson said it's no sure thing the Browns draft a quarterback at No. 2, but Cleveland's new coach sure sounded enthusiastic about Cal's Jared Goff, saying, per The Plain Dealer: "The guy threw the ball tremendously. He can make all the throws. For a big guy, he's more athletic than people think. He has quick feet. He obviously has a quick release. What I've seen on videotape to go along with the (pro day) workout is he has tremendous poise in the pocket. He's a young man that can keep his eyes downfield when people are bearing at him and, to me, that's an unbelievable asset. Because a lot of people can't do that."

Goff sounds like someone the always-quarterback-needy Browns could use, but don't rule out the team signing Robert Griffin III. Jackson confirmed that he's already told the former Redskins passer that "he would have to compete and I don't ever worry about that."

11. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon was a massive disappointment during his rookie season. We were expecting much more from the former Wisconsin star after Vegas-based draft svengali Bradley Alan Spieser -- aka The Spice Rack -- told the Around The NFL Podcast last offseason that Gordon would evolve into an NFL sensation. It's not too late, according to Bolts coach Mike McCoy, who said Tuesday, per ESPN.com, that Gordon would "be a better player" in Year 2, adding: "I think the big thing for any young player is you're going to learn from your younger years. He's going to look back in a year or two and say, 'God, I wish I would have known that.'"

12. Is our society prepared for the comeback of Trent Richardson? Harbaugh said Baltimore has an "unofficial" agreement in place to sign the former Browns and Colts running back once he gets into better shape, per The Baltimore Sun. There was also this glorious gem from Harbaugh on the NFL's completely baffling rules on what is -- and isn't -- a catch:

13. Finally, we'll leave you with this from the always bubbly/quirky Belichick:

We'll have more on Wednesday from the NFC's coaches breakfast. See you then.

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