The Pittsburgh Steelers usually draft so logically and sensibly that predicting the position and player they take is not that huge of a challenge.

This draft is no different. Pittsburgh, coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons, could use a receiver, a defensive lineman or a cornerback. Any would make sense.


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The NFL draft is exactly three weeks away. When the Cincinnati Bengals make their first pick, they'll do so late in the first round at No. 24 overall.

They have needs at cornerback, quarterback, outside linebacker, safety, defensive end and on the offensive line. They also could add a running back or receiver at some point during the draft. Just whom will they wind up selecting with their picks in the first two rounds? ESPN's Mel Kiper has made his predictions. His second-round pick is a player who once had a first-round projection.


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In Mel Kiper Jr.'s previous three mock drafts, he had the Baltimore Ravens going offense in the first round. He had the Ravens picking North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron in his first two mock drafts, and he went with Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks in his third one.

Kiper's latest mock draft is out on ESPN Insider on Thursday, Insider and he has the Ravens taking a defensive player with the No. 17 overall pick.


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The three top quarterbacks are all on the board for the Cleveland Browns when they make their first first-round selection in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s Jr. Mock Draft 4.0 Insider.

It’s no surprise Kiper has the Browns taking one at that spot. Everyone and their cousin seems to believe the Browns absolutely have to have a quarterback with the No. 4 pick.


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The Baltimore Ravens were unable to reach an extension with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata despite offering a "lucrative, long-term" deal, according to the NFL Network. The Ravens are looking to reduce Ngata's $16 million cap number, which is the highest on the team and the second-highest for any NFL defensive tackle (only Ndamukong Suh's $22.4 million cap hit is higher).

Ngata
Is Ngata a bad teammate for not helping out the Ravens? Does this mean Ngata doesn't want to retire a Raven like Terrell Suggs?

No, on both accounts. There's really no incentive for Ngata to agree to an extension this year. He is going to make $8.5 million in salary this season, and he knows the Ravens are going to have to pay him. The Ravens would only gain $1 million in salary cap space if they cut Ngata and would carry $15 million in dead money on this year's cap. In other words, the Ravens have no leverage and Ngata is making the smart business decision.

Ngata's inflated cap number has become a hot topic since Suggs signed his extension in February. But the contract situations with Ngata and Suggs are different. Suggs was entering the final year of his contract, and the Ravens would've created $7.8 million in cap space if they released him. In this instance, Suggs decided the Ravens' extension offer was better than any deal he would get elsewhere if he became a free agent.

Ngata could face a similar scenario next offseason when he is headed into the final year of his contract. He's scheduled to make $8.5 million again, but this time, the Ravens can free up $8.5 million in cap space if they cut the five-time Pro Bowl lineman. The Ravens now have some power in negotiations. Just like Suggs did this year, Ngata may have to determine whether he can make more as free agent than what the Ravens are offering.

The market may have been set this offseason for Ngata, who turns 31 next season. Based on the deals recently signed by Atlanta's Paul Soliai and Washington's Jason Hatcher -- two interior linemen in their early 30s -- Ngata can expect a deal that averages a little less than $7 million per season and includes around $11 million in guaranteed money if he became a free agent.

So, no one should count on an extension for Ngata this offseason. But no one should jump to conclusions about Ngata's future either. The Ravens and Ngata still have another year before tough decisions have to be made.
Kevin CostnerDale Robinette/Summit EntertainmentIn portraying the Cleveland Browns' general manager, Kevin Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr. is obsessed with pleasing the fans above all.
Fair warning: Spoiler alert.

The most cutting reviews of "Draft Day" suggested it was nothing more than a big-screen NFL infomercial, a modern-day NFL Films-like effort to glorify and dramatize what is now a $10 billion industry. That interpretation piqued my interest in ways that a movie about draft trades and team building did not.

So as I plunked down my $5.50 this week -- no free screenings for this hack -- I wanted to know: How does the NFL see itself? Or at least, what would the NFL look like if it could leverage its own portrayal?

After all, the NFL received a rights fee and a percentage of revenues for allowing its logos and team names to be used in the film, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell. It also exerted editorial control in at least one instance: Star Kevin Costner told reporters that the league nixed a scene in which angry fans hung a team official in effigy.

The league didn't write, direct or produce the film. In fact, director Ivan Reitman is the same guy who brought us "Animal House." Still, the NFL's cooperation and tacit approval was vital to the extent of the realism that its logos, access and cameos provided. The chief defender of the NFL shield, commissioner Roger Goodell, appears frequently.

Now then: What does an NFL-endorsed movie show us? Basically, a general manager who wants to please fans and players who aren't the character risks they might otherwise seem.

Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr., the Browns’ fictitious general manager, wants nothing more than for the team to have a great draft because, as we hear a radio host intone, sports are all Cleveland has. Weaver’s goal is to lift up the city and its people with draft excitement. Any and all distractions must be set aside. Making good with his secret pregnant girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) must wait. Sorry. Spreading his father’s ashes must go on without him.

There is nothing subtle about the intent and motivation of high-ranking team officials in this movie. The fictitious Seattle Seahawks general manager, Tom Michaels (played by Patrick St. Esprit), is shaken when he sees fans protesting a trade outside his office window. Weaver leverages the presumed fear of fan rejection -- and the glory of their appreciation -- in several negotiations. Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) is driven mostly by the adoration received in making a draft splash; ensuing profits are presumed but go unmentioned.

The rousing final scene of the movie, in fact, is set at the Browns' draft party. Molina, Weaver and the Browns' coach (Denis Leary's coach Penn) appear on stage with the team's top two draft picks. There is no greater reward, we sense, than making your fans happy.

None of the players in "Draft Day" are angels, of course, but the two selected by the Browns are overtly exonerated by circumstances. The malfeasance, we're shown, was not their fault.

One player's reputation as a hothead is debunked upon further review of game tape. At first glance, he appears to have thrown a ball into the stands, was subsequently penalized, and then ejected for bumping an official during a protest. We soon learn he had, in fact, simply handed the ball to his dying sister, excusing his subsequent tantrum, in Weaver's eyes. We then understand why this player spends draft morning driving his nephews to gymnastics practice.

The second player -- a running back portrayed by the Houston Texans' Arian Foster -- blurts in one of his first lines that he is not a gang member. He acknowledges he was involved in a violent fight, but we are strongly led to believe he didn't start it and that his hospitalized antagonist was an adult who should have known what he was getting into.

Meanwhile, the Browns pass on drafting a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback largely because he is too slick and his teammates don't appear to like him. Instead, they stick with an incumbent who has worked hard to improve his strength during the offseason and who is so passionate about winning that he trashes Weaver's office upon hearing rumors he might be replaced.

And that, we're told, is what the draft and playing football are all about. It's about team and sacrifice and heart and the whole being more important than the parts. It's why one of the great evils of "Draft Day" is trading away future draft choices. One player can't be better than three. (It's odd to hear this addressed most frequently by Leary's character, given how rarely NFL coaches worry about the state of the team two or three years hence.)

I can only presume this underlying theme explains why the impropriety of Weaver impregnating his salary-cap manager (Garner) is never addressed. They're both on the same team, right? They worked together to have a great draft, didn't they? What's the problem? (Fortunately, she tells Weaver repeatedly that she is not upset with his inattention.)

I'm no film critic, so this post isn't meant to tell you whether "Draft Day" was good or bad, or whether you should see it or not. I watched the movie through the lens of product portrayal. The movie tells us that the NFL draft is all about making fans happy, with players who aren't as bad as they're being made out to be and with a team concept that emphasizes the whole over the parts. (What it's not about: Medical issues of any kind. No injury histories and not a single doctor was invoked in this film.)

"Draft Day" comes at a time of great paradox in the industry. Its business has never been more prosperous, yet debate on its future remains fierce. How does that look when you can buy Hollywood influence? I can think of no better way to express the answer than through the lyrics of "Born to Rise," a little ditty featured in the closing credits that puts the best of "Rocky" training montages to shame:

What you know about standing up when the odds get stacked?
Time stands still, ain't no turning back
When everything you're worth is under attack
What you know about heart? What you know about that?
Write it off as criminal, a place to cast a stone
On and on we carry on when one is not enough.

CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton is standing at a career crossroads. This could be a make or break year for him.

OK, maybe "break" isn't quite the word to use here. For the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, it's more like this could wind up being a make or keep middling type of year.

If he keeps playing like he has so far in his three-year career -- good, but occasionally bad in the regular season and overwhelmingly awful in the postseason -- then he'll continue being regarded as so-so quarterback who never really hit his stride, nor turned into an easily identifiable bust. He'd continue to be average -- a lukewarm signal-caller on a team with white-hot talent.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAndy Dalton has yet to make the jump from average to elite as an NFL quarterback.
Another season of such mediocrity would be considered worthy of the title "break." So what then would a "make" year look like for Dalton? Chiefly, leading the Bengals to a playoff win or two. Secondarily, keeping his interception numbers in career-low territory while also surpassing his franchise-record 33-touchdown total from a year ago. If he does both those things, win in the postseason and have a favorable touchdown-interception ratio, he'll have traveled down the right road in the junction he's facing.

If you ask some experts, there is no chance Dalton takes that avenue to success during this pivotal fourth season.

"He is what he is, and he will never change," ESPN insider scout Matt Williamson said in fellow ESPN insider Mike Sando's story Wednesday about forecasting success for quarterbacks at a crossroads. Insider "He will be too good to cut and not good enough to win with. He wins three or four [games] a year for his team and loses one or two, but he is so much less gifted than all the other guys we are talking about here. Maybe if he was playing indoors, he could get away with it more."

Sando's story is the basis for this blog. He focused on using metrics (mainly QBR) to determine where young quarterbacks rank among their peers, and how those metrics could predict where their careers might head. Sando compared the QBR numbers from the first 16 career games of quarterbacks who entered the league after 2006.

He found that the QBR numbers from those first 16 games correlated to three tiers of "crossroads quarterbacks." There's an elite tier which had first 16-game QBRs that were higher than 65.2. Then there's a middle group with those same 16-game QBRs between 60.1 and 42.0. A lagging group had QBRs that only got as high as 40.3. The seven-man "QBR-elite" group featured three players who appeared in recent Super Bowls. The middle group had a sizable mix of young quarterbacks and veterans, with only one having appeared in a recent Super Bowl. The final group had several players who were drafted after 2006, and who are no longer in football.

The better the QBRs were, the more promising the quarterback's career should be, it appears.

That, of course, becomes a tricky subject matter with Dalton. He is one of the few players who was forced to play from Week 1 of his rookie year. He hasn't looked back since, starting all 48 regular season and three playoff games the Bengals have appeared in since 2011. Other quarterbacks might not even appear in a game their first two seasons. Coupled with his middle-of-the-road play the first three years, the fact he's played so much early makes it tough to forecast Dalton's career.

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Back to Williamson's comment on Dalton playing indoors. Dalton has struggled at times during games played in December and January. While he's still 0-3 in the postseason in January, he did change his December woes in 2013. After tossing a combined eight touchdowns, getting sacked a combined 27 times and compiling a 41.5 QBR through his first two Decembers, Dalton had 12 touchdowns, a 71.1 QBR and was sacked just three times last December. The effort was good enough to post a 4-1 record across the final month of the season.

Perhaps he's starting to turn a corner.

The thing is, as Dalton flirts with a contract extension this offseason before his rookie deal expires next March, he needs to do more than turn that corner. He has to turn it, run -- not walk -- down the block to the next one and the one after, and keep going until he reaches the Super Bowl. He has the receivers, tight ends, offensive line, dynamic running back and talented defense to make a deep postseason trip a possibility sometime soon.

He also has had each of those, but the combination has yet to yield a run past the wild-card round of the playoffs. Is Dalton the common denominator behind Cincinnati's postseason misfortunes? Bengals coach Marvin Lewis doesn't necessarily think so, but his quarterback's six interceptions and one touchdown pass in those three playoff games are hard to overlook.

Maybe having an offensive coordinator who is more dedicated to the run than the previous one will help Dalton. Hue Jackson's ground-game tweaks ought to ease the pressure off the quarterback's shoulders.

A looser Dalton would make the Bengals a better team. A more decisive Dalton would make him a better player.

But on-field decisions aren't the only ones he has to make right now. Soon we'll find out which path Dalton chose to take in this all-important make or break year at the crossroads.
It has been widely and accurately reported that Alex Mack can void the final three years of his contract and become a free agent after two seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

Mack
But the Browns also can escape either of the final two years of his deal. So both sides have some leverage.

A close look shows that the Jacksonville Jaguars really gave the Browns little to consider about matching the offer. It pays Mack well for two years, but it has no signing bonus, and though Mack can leave after two years -- he'll be 30 at that point -- the team can also let him go after three and thus not pay the final two.

Mack did receive fully guaranteed salaries of $10 million and $8 million in 2014 and 2015, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System.

He then can choose to stay or become a free agent again. What does he want to see these next two years that would keep him a Brown? Wins, he said.

If he stays, the third-year salary of $8 million is also fully guaranteed, which means he’d receive $26 million guaranteed.

After that, though, it’s up to the team.

Mack is due a $2 million roster bonus in the offseason before 2016, and another $2 million before 2017.

If the Browns pay either roster bonus, they keep Mack and also pay him a $6 million salary, a relative pittance if they feel Mack’s play warrants the roster bonus. That makes his salary-cap cost in both seasons $8 million.

But if they choose not to pay the bonus, the final two years or year would be wiped out and Mack would then become a free agent.

So Mack’s deal could be five years, it could be three or four at the team’s discretion, or it could be two years at his.

Total value of the deal if he stays all five years with the Browns: $42 million.

Bengals sign punter T.J. Conley

April, 16, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- On the same day they announced the start date of their training camp, the Cincinnati Bengals signed a special-teams player whose primary function will be to give them an additional training camp leg.

Punter T.J. Conley, formerly of the Browns and Jets, was signed Wednesday by the Bengals to serve as a backup to starting punter Kevin Huber, who ought to be fully recovered by late July from a December jaw injury. Huber missed the final two games of the regular season and a playoff game after breaking his jaw following a hard blindside hit from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Terence Garvin.

Conley comes to the Bengals after having spent the 2013 preseason with the Browns. He didn't make the team once the regular season started.

The 28-year-old last appeared in a regular-season game in 2011. He punted in all 16 games for the Jets that year, averaging 42.7 yards on 92 punts. His 38.8-yard net average was the highest in Jets history; the statistic was first tracked in 1976. He also had 32 kicks that fell inside the 20 and six touchbacks. Like he did with the Browns last season, Conley started the 2012 season with the Jets, but didn't make the main club by the regular season.

He entered the NFL with the Jets in 2009 as a free agent.

In an attempt to save their punters' and kickers' legs in the preseason, teams often sign multiple punters and kickers to help with the load. Conley will get some experience backing up Huber, just as kicker/punter Quinn Sharp ought to do the same behind kicker Mike Nugent. Sharp was signed to a future's contract at the end of the 2013 season.
Ray RiceAP Photo/Tom DiPaceRay Rice has been the Ravens' lead running back the past five seasons. Are those days over?
BALTIMORE -- Shortly after becoming the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak made this pronouncement: "As Ray Rice goes, we’ll go." Two months later, Kubiak obviously has to make his first audible.

The Ravens need to take a running back in this year's draft, because they need insurance not only for this season but for the future. The best investment the Ravens could make in the middle rounds is to select a running back such as Towson's Terrance West, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Florida State's Devonta Freeman, Boston College's Andre Williams or West Virginia's Charles Sims.

Much of the talk at running back has centered on how much time Rice will miss in 2014, and it's a legitimate concern after he was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault after allegedly striking his now-wife unconscious. Rice was arrested and charged with simple assault-domestic violence Feb. 15 after a physical altercation with Janay Palmer at the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. Even if Rice is found not guilty or avoids jail time, he is expected to face punishment from the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy.

The Ravens have repeatedly voiced their support for Rice, and owner Steve Bisciotti said he believes Rice has a future with the team. But the Ravens' front office is too shrewd to rest all of its hopes on Rice. No one knows what to expect out of Rice when he does line up in the Ravens' backfield. He is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry and produced more fumbles (two) than 20-yard runs (one).

The Ravens have done their part to help this offseason by re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and trading for center Jeremy Zuttah. Rice is working hard to rebound and has reportedly lost 15 pounds. What if this isn't enough? Bisciotti acknowledged at the end of the season that the team did bring up the question of whether Rice is done.

Numbers suggest Rice's days as a premier playmaker in the league are over. The wear and tear of the position has caught up to most of the running backs in the 2008 draft class. Of the top 10 backs taken that year, six averaged less than 4 yards per carry last season, and two are out of the league.

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Those who defend Rice will say he lacked explosion after injuring his hip in Week 2 and he didn't have any running room because of the Ravens' dreadful offensive line. There is just no reasoning behind why Rice failed to make plays when catching the ball in space. He averaged 5.5 yards per reception, which was the worst of his career by an average of two yards. Since that memorable "Hey Diddle Diddle Ray Rice Up The Middle" moment in November 2012 -- when Rice converted a fourth-and-29 in San Diego with a 29-yard catch and run -- he has had three catches over 20 yards. That is over a span of 24 games, and only 13 of those came after Rice's injury.

Rice turned 27 this year, which is a telling age for NFL running backs. As ESPN's Kevin Seifert pointed out, running backs are peaking at 27 before suffering significant drop-offs. This is why 72 percent of running backs currently under contract are 26 or younger.

If Rice misses games or struggles again, the Ravens don't have much of a safety net. Backup running back Bernard Pierce's stock dropped last season. Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry, which was second-worst among qualified running backs, and couldn't stay healthy for a second straight year. He won't practice until the start of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery. There is no guarantee that he'll be at full strength when the season begins or whether he has the durability to handle the starting job for an extended period.

The need to draft a running back increased this offseason when the Ravens signed Justin Forsett in free agency instead of LeGarrette Blount as their third running back. Forsett has experience in Kubiak's system, but it's never a good sign to have "cut by the Jaguars" on your résumé.

It's no longer a question of if the Ravens should draft a running back. It's a matter of when. Most draft analysts have the Ravens selecting an offensive lineman and a safety in the first two rounds. The Ravens might consider using a pick on a running back in the third round, where they have two picks (79th and 99th overall), or fourth round (138th overall).

ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench's top picks in the middle rounds are:

  • West Virginia's Sims: "Doesn't have great power but sudden with quick feet and outstanding in the passing game."
  • Boston College's Williams: "Minimal production in passing game, and to a lesser degree, injury history, are concerns. As a runner he's a battering ram, and he shows deceptive speed when he gets a seam."
  • Towson's West: "He's a tough, hard-nosed runner who has flown under radar at Towson, and it would be a great story if he ended up staying in Maryland. If they can get him late fourth he could prove to be a steal."

Running the ball has long been a foundation of the Ravens' offense, and it will be a big part of Kubiak's play calling. Over the past five seasons, only five other teams ran the ball more than Kubiak's Texans. Establishing a strong running game is his blueprint to set up the play-action pass.

The importance of a running back in Kubiak's offense can't be overstated. That is why the Ravens have to make it a priority to draft a running back this year, whether it's for a contingency plan in 2014 or an investment for the future.

No one expected the Ravens to take a running back in 2008, when they drafted Rice in the second round. Six years later, it would be a surprise if the Ravens didn't draft his potential successor.
Cleveland Browns fans complained the past few years as the team sat idly by while free agency raged. The Browns fiddled while free agents burned holes in owners’ pockets.

Or something like that.

Since the 2014 version of free agency began, the Browns have spent $55.8 million in guaranteed money.

That’s the highest total in the AFC North, and following the matching of Jacksonville’s offer to Alex Mack, ranks third in the league in guaranteed money spent since March 11.

Which means the Browns rank third to the Bucs and Broncos in guaranteed money, with most of it going to Mack ($18 million reported, though the number has not been confirmed), linebacker Karlos Dansby ($12 million) and safety Donte Whitner ($13 million). The Browns started free agency with a glut of cap space, and they’ve not been shy about using it.

And they’ve spend more than $50 million in guaranteed contracts without even addressing the quarterback position.

Second in the division in spending are the Baltimore Ravens at $36.3 million, though their total does not include re-signing Dennis Pitta just before free agency began. That signing brings the Ravens' guaranteed money total to $52.3 million -- still short of the Browns.

Most of Baltimore’s money went to Pitta and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe ($19 million).

Take away those two re-signings and Baltimore’s guaranteed total of $18 million is more like a team that feels good about itself.

Same for the Bengals, a team that has made the playoffs three years in a row and feels it’s close to something good. Cincinnati has spent just $7.3 million in guaranteed money, the fourth lowest total in the league.

Pittsburgh? The Steelers never go overboard in free-agent spending and this year is no different. Their total of $8.7 million is just ahead of Cincinnati.
A look at what the national media is predicting for the Baltimore Ravens with the 17th overall pick:

Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Posted: April 10
Pick: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama
Banks' comment: "The Ravens are having the kind of strong offseason you'd expect them to assemble after getting the smelling salts treatment under their noses: coming off a playoff-less season for the first time since the close of the Brian Billick coaching era in 2007. And having Clinton-Dix, the top-rated safety, waiting for them at 17 makes this one of the easier draft debates conducted in the Ravens' war room."

Bucky Brooks, NFL.com
Posted: March 25
Pick: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Brooks' comment: "Gary Kubiak's arrival in Baltimore will change the core traits the Ravens' personnel department looks for in offensive linemen. Martin's athleticism, balance and technical skills are ideal fits for the Ravens' new zone-based blocking scheme."

Cooks
Charlie Campbell, Walter Football
Posted: April 7
Pick: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Campbell's comment: "The Ravens missed Anquan Boldin last season and need to get more receiving weapons for Joe Flacco. Steve Smith is on his last legs and may not provide much next season. A receiver like Cooks could cause a lot of mismatch problems on the other side of the field from Torrey Smith."

Charles Davis, NFL.com
Posted: March 18
Pick: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Davis' comment: "Not a need pick, but too talented to pass up if he lasts this long."

Doug Farrar, Sports Illustrated
Posted: April 3
Pick: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Farrar's comment: "What we do know is that the team wants to move 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam to strong safety, leaving it in the lurch when it comes to deep coverage. Pryor, who I actually like a bit better than Clinton-Dix, is physical in the run game and can handle everything from slot duty to center field. He’s not quite as fast as Earl Thomas, but he plays with a similar disregard for his own body -- and the bodies of his opponents."

Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network
Posted: April 9
Pick: Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville
Jeremiah's comment: "The Ravens could look at the receiver position here, but safety is a higher priority."

Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports
Posted: April 11
Pick: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Kirwan's comment: "Big Cyrus had a very good pro day and the doctors declared him ready to go. The Ravens have to do a better job of protecting Flacco, so it comes down to Zack Martin or Kouandjio. The upside is with the latter, and Ozzie Newsome is an Alabama guy."

Ourlads' Scouting Service
Posted: March 26
Pick: Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Ourlads' comment: "The Ravens need help at center, guard and tackle. Martin fills one of the three positions. He projects inside from left tackle. He will get a chance to play on the edge first because he uses his hands well and is an efficient pass protector. Intense and focused. Good body control and balance."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports
Posted: April 10
Pick: Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame
Prisco's comment: "He can play either guard or tackle, which would give the Ravens some flexibility."

Rob Rang, CBS Sports
Posted: April 14
Pick: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Rang's comment: "General manager Ozzie Newsome is a master on draft day in large part because he sticks to the Best Player Available strategy. Lewan is a top 10 talent, whose propensity for over-aggression on and off the field could result in a bit of a slide."

If you have an Insider subscription, you can click here for the latest mock drafts from Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider.
Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, and Johnny Manziel USA Today Sports, Getty ImagesTeddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel are options the Cleveland Browns will consider with their top pick in May's NFL draft.
And then there was one.

The Cleveland Browns' busy offseason leaves them having addressed the possible loss of Alex Mack (he stayed) and the departures of T.J. Ward and D'Qwell Jackson (Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby). They added a running back (Ben Tate) and they added depth at several spots, including the offensive line (Paul McQuistan), receiver (Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson), tight end (Jim Dray) and cornerback (Isaiah Trufant).

On Monday, they even added the long-lost fullback, a guy the team did not give Rob Chudzinski a year ago. Chris Pressley is coming off a missed season due to ACL surgery so he is not a lock to make the team, but if he can give anything at all it’s more than the Browns had a year ago.

All this does is set the Browns up to draft the way they want to draft, not the way they have to.

"[GM] Ray [Farmer] talked about that process of just stabilizing, leveling the ship," coach Mike Pettine told the gathered media at the NFL owners meetings.

Which basically leaves one spot to address: quarterback.

Yes, Virginia, there will be a new quarterback in Cleveland before training camp.

Probably two.

The team must add a veteran before the “voluntary” minicamp the end of the month. They can’t go into camp with only two guys, especially because Brian Hoyer will probably be limited as he comes off knee surgery. Given that the market of veterans left are the Rex Grossmans of the world, the Browns also will add a quarterback in the draft.

When is the million-dollar question.

If it’s fourth overall, the choices remain the same three: Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater. If it’s later, there is a bundle from which to pick.

"That's the position that needs to be addressed," Pettine said. "But we're not locked into, 'We're drafting a starter.'"

Which is good to hear.

Because if the Browns draft a guy to start and they force him in too quickly they'll be following the wash-rinse-repeat cycle that has contributed to so many problems since 1999. The challenge comes in managing the situation.

Because if the team selects a quarterback with the fourth pick, Hoyer will find out quickly what it’s really like to play for his hometown team. Assuming he starts, the first time he has a two-interception, one-touchdown game in a 23-14 loss, the clamor will start from fans and media about the guy drafted fourth.

If it’s Manziel, that clamor will be loud and ornery.

If it’s Bortles, folks might be a little more patient because the word on him is he will need a year or two.

If it’s Bridgewater, it’s anyone’s guess.

Then if the young guy plays the negativity will continue if he struggles.

This negativity has affected Browns quarterbacks since '99 – all the way back to Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb. It’s unrealistic to think it didn’t, because quarterback is a confidence position. He who hesitates is lost. It may sound like an easy excuse, except it affects a player’s psyche.

The spiral is almost natural. Young guy has to learn, to grow, but because he’s learning he makes mistakes, which leads to criticism, which he says he doesn’t hear but he does. Which leads to self-doubt, which leads to tentative play, which leads to more mistakes and more questions and clamor – and soon enough, the environment to succeed is damaged, which only exacerbates the issue.

There is the Bruce Arians argument, which says a team needs to pass-protect and run the ball to help a young quarterback, but if the guy can play he can play. But Bill Walsh, the great quarterback guru and leader of the San Francisco 49ers, once talked about protecting a young quarterback from a damaging environment. He talked almost emotionally, as if the damage to the player was almost permanent.

The word he used: traumatic.

The Browns have to be aware of this, and if they’re not they need only look at their history since their return. The good thing is whoever plays will have a much fuller deck than many of his predecessors. That’s the result of the offseason work.

But the Browns have saved the most important position for last.

How they handle it not only in the next two months but also through the entire 2014 season could have as much impact on the team as the selection itself.
Center Alex Mack channeled The Turtles on Monday.

He and the Cleveland Browns are simply "happy together" now that the Browns matched Jacksonville Jaguars' five-year offer sheet to the Browns center.

"Imagine you and me ... "

Mack termed all the reports that he preferred to be in Jacksonville mere positioning.

"Business is business," he said. "All I can say is I'm happy to be here. I'm excited to play football. I'm ready to go to work."

Mack said all the usual things about the free agent experience. It was interesting. The uncertainty was wearing. He's happy how it worked out. And yes, he's happy to be the highest paid center in the league.

"I work hard," Mack said. "I'm going to continue to do that."

Mack is right about that. He is a hard worker, and a valuable member of the Browns offensive line.

And, thanks to the work of Marvin Demoff, he has a five-year contract that he can void after two years to again pursue free agency.

"It gives me a lot of power as a player, which is exciting," Mack said. "That's something that may happen or it may not happen."

Mack said when he received the transition tag -- which allowed the Browns to match any offer he received -- he was sent scurrying to Wikipedia to find out what it meant. He added that he knew when he signed with the Jaguars he could wind up there, so he had to be happy with the thought of the Browns or Jacksonville.

In the two years he will be in Cleveland, Mack said he wants one thing: "To win games."

"I think about you day and night, it's only right ... so happy together."

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