AFC North: 2012 NFL Free Agency

The deadline for a team to sign restricted free agent Mike Wallace to an offer sheet is 4 p.m. ET today. All indications point to Wallace remaining with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2013 season.

I gave my take on why no team has gone after Wallace, a Pro Bowl wide receiver who finished 11th in receiving yards with 1,193 last season. In the video above, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter offers his reasoning on why Wallace hasn't been offered a contract by any other team.
This will probably cause Ravens fans to erupt, but former first-round pick Kyle Boller is working out for Baltimore on Thursday.

That's according to the NFL Network's Jason LaConfora, who is also reporting that Steelers free-agent quarterback Dennis Dixon is meeting with the Ravens as well.

And this will probably cause Ravens fans to erupt more -- I like the idea of bringing back Boller as a backup.

There's no question that Boller was a bust as a starter. The Ravens reached for him in the first round of the 2003 draft, and Boller was overmatched in the No. 1 role. He was 20-22 as a starter during his five seasons in Baltimore (2003 to 2007).

What many forget is how effective Boller was as a backup in 2006 behind Steve McNair. When McNair went down a couple of times that season, Boller played well and actually clinched the division that season with a win over Cleveland. He finished with a 104.0 quarterback rating, which was among the best for backups that season.

Of course, if the Ravens are looking for a backup with a higher upside, they should try to sign Dixon. But Boller wouldn't be a terrible signing.

Based on these workouts, the Ravens are clearly looking to provide more experience behind Joe Flacco. Last year, Baltimore went with Tyrod Taylor, a 2011 sixth-round pick.

UPDATE: NFL Network's Albert Breer is reporting that Colts free-agent quarterback Curtis Painter is also working out for the Ravens.
The Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed Charlie Batch to a one-year deal on Monday, but this doesn't necessarily mean he will be the team's top backup in 2012.

There's still a sense that Byron Leftwich is still the favorite for that spot. But there's no guarantee that Leftwich is coming back. He reportedly has drawn interest from the Indianapolis Colts and former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, although he remains unsigned.

Bringing back Batch is a logical move for the Steelers. He's been their decade-old security blanket when it comes to the backup quarterback position. When you need a spot starter, he won't single-handedly win you games but he won't make the glaring errors to lose them either.

If Leftwich goes elsewhere, the Steelers have Batch, who is 5-2 as a spot starter for the Steelers. If Leftwich returns to Pittsburgh, the Steelers get a quarterback who is five years younger than Batch and appears to be the preferred choice. Leftwich was supposed to start for the suspended Ben Roethlisberger in 2010, but he hurt his knee in the final preseason game. He was also projected to be the team's No. 2 quarterback last season before breaking his arm in the preseason.

Even though Leftwich has major durability questions, you have to be equally unsure whether Batch can hold up for an extended period at his age. Last year, Batch looked solid in his only start, a 27-0 win over St. Louis, but he looked ragged in replacing Roethlisberger in the first meeting against Cleveland. The only quarterback from last year that is expected to move on is Dennis Dixon.

The backup quarterback position is the most critical No. 2 job on the Steelers, especially with the annual beating that Roethlisberger takes. Roethlisberger has managed one full season in his eight years in the NFL. The most games that Roethlisberger has missed in a season is four.

This is the latest in a series of moves by the Steelers to address their depth. Pittsburgh has signed tight end Leonard Pope, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and guard Trai Essex over the past week. Keeping Batch was the most important one considering the only other quarterbacks on the roster were Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson.
The Baltimore Ravens are among three teams interested in Steelers free-agent quarterback Dennis Dixon, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos are also in the running for Dixon, who is not expected to return to Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have been inconsistent in how they've addressed the backup quarterback position recently. In 2010, Baltimore spent $3.8 million on Marc Bulger to have veteran insurance behind Joe Flacco. In 2011, the Ravens went with rookie sixth-round pick Tyrod Taylor.

One reason why the Ravens could go with Bulger in 2010 was the uncapped year, but it's definitely a major philosophical switch to go from a playoff-tested quarterback in Bulger to a raw prospect like Taylor. Of course, Baltimore hasn't needed a backup, because Flacco has never missed a start in his four-year career (64 straight, the third-longest current streak in the NFL). But the Ravens' playoff chances would get decimated if Flacco got hurt, and the team had to turn to Taylor for an extended period.

Dixon, 27, the No. 3 quarterback last season for Pittsburgh, has made three career starts in his four seasons with the Steelers. He has a 2-1 record, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Dixon's first start came against the Ravens in 2009, when his interception in overtime set up the winning field goal.

Here are the backup quarterback situations for the rest of the AFC North:

BENGALS: Cincinnati is set with journeyman Bruce Gradkowski. When Andy Dalton was hurt in last year's season opener, Gradkowski rallied the Bengals to a 27-17 win at Cleveland.

BROWNS: At this point, the Browns are going with Seneca Wallace, the team's backup for the past two seasons. But the depth chart could get moved around if Cleveland drafts a quarterback in the early rounds. If the Browns don't take a quarterback, Wallace won't be competing with Colt McCoy for the starting job, the team said.

STEELERS: Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the only quarterbacks on the roster are Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson. The Steelers likely will bring back Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch. The favorite to return is Leftwich, who reportedly drew interest from the Colts.
In a move that should surprise no one, running back Ray Rice won't report Monday when the Ravens' voluntary offseason workouts begin, a source told the NFL Network.

This would have been bigger news if Rice had decided to show up Monday. Rice has yet to sign his franchise tag and isn't expected to do so anytime soon.

He recently expressed a desire to attend the workouts, but this is strictly a smart business decision. By putting the tag on Rice, the Ravens are only on the hook for this season. The team has given no long-term security to Rice, so why should he risk long-term consequences by participating in any team-related activity this spring?

Rice's absence shouldn't hurt the team even if it extends into training camp. He has always reported to camp in shape, so there's no concern about his conditioning. This is also Rice's fifth season in the same offensive system, which means he won't be behind in the playbook once he returns.

Ravens officials have been resigned to the fact that Rice would skip the workouts.

"Up until a guy actually signs his franchise tender, he's not under contract and we're not even allowed to ask him to our mandatory minicamp," general manager Ozzie Newsome said earlier this month. "We understand those things and lived them through [Terrell] Suggs, Chris [McAlister] and even Wally Williams. We've experienced that before. Would Coach [John] Harbaugh want 100 percent participation in every offseason program and every OTA and every minicamp? Yes he would. But he knows that unrealistic also."

The date to watch isn't Monday. It's July 16. That's the deadline for teams to reach long-term deals with players who received the franchise tag. Otherwise, Rice will play the entire season under the tag, which pays him $7.7 million this season.

In related news, cornerback Cary Williams is also expected to be a no-show Monday, according to the NFL Network. Williams, a restricted free agent, is in talks for a new deal with the team.

This is hardly news. He is still recovering from hip surgery and he wouldn't be able to participate even if he wanted to do so. Unlike Rice, it's in Williams' best interest to report as soon as he can. His absence only increases the likelihood that Jimmy Smith takes over the starting job next to Lardarius Webb.
The Bengals retained veteran tight end Donald Lee, the team announced. The signing of a blocking tight end doesn't stir a lot of debate, but it got me to think about Cincinnati's level of activity in free agency.

These have been some busy Bengals. Lee is the 14th player signed by the Bengals in free agency, which is now 30 days old. That's almost an average of one signing every two days. Even after the flurry of signings, the Bengals still have the most salary-cap room in the NFL, a reported $20 million in cap space.

Seven of those free agents were re-signed: Lee, safety Reggie Nelson, linebacker Manny Lawson, cornerback Adam Jones, defensive tackle Pat Sims and offensive tackles Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland.

Seven of the free agents came from other teams: running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Patriots), guard Travelle Wharton (Panthers), cornerbacks Jason Allen (Texans) and Terence Newman (Cowboys), guard Jacob Bell (Rams) and defensive ends Jamaal Anderson (Colts) and Derrick Harvey (Broncos).

By keeping Lee, the Bengals will return their top three tight ends from last season with Jermaine Gresham and Colin Cochart.
A handful of teams are interested in trading for Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace, a league source told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

There's one snag to this happening -- the Steelers shouldn't be interested in trading Wallace. There's no logical reason for the Steelers to do this. Wallace isn't happy that he is playing under his restricted free-agent tender, and the Steelers won't be happy if Wallace decides to skip offseason workouts because of that. But all signs point to Wallace catching long passes from Ben Roethlisberger this season.

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireIf Mike Wallace leaves as a free agent after the 2012 season, the Steelers could expect to get a third-round compensatory pick.
First of all, the Steelers can't expect to get a first-round pick for Wallace on draft day because that's the price to acquire him right now as a restricted free agent. If any team is willing to part with a first-rounder, it will sign Wallace to an offer sheet before the April 20 deadline.

Another nugget of information to remember when trying to validate this trade rumor: The Steelers know they will get a compensatory third-round pick for Wallace if he leaves as a free agent after this season. While no one really knows the league formula for handing out compensatory picks, the Cincinnati Bengals received a third-round compensatory pick for wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2009. Enough said.

The only remaining scenario is a team offering a second-round pick (and perhaps a package that includes a second-rounder and multiple later-round picks) for Wallace. But this deal shouldn't interest the Steelers either. Why get only a second-round pick for a No. 1 wide receiver? He's an integral part of the Steelers making another Super Bowl run this year, and Pittsburgh still has 10 months to get Wallace signed to a long-term deal. And, if the Steelers fail to sign Wallace, they still get a third-rounder for him.

Trading their top wide receiver wouldn't be unprecedented for the Steelers. Pittsburgh traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick 10 days before the 2010 draft. But Holmes and Wallace are two receivers who represent two different issues. Holmes was facing a four-game suspension at the time after a series of off-the-field incidents. Wallace is coming off a Pro Bowl season and has produced the second-most receiving yards ever (3,206) in a player's first three seasons in the NFL.

So, there's no surprise that there's a handful of teams interested in trading for Wallace. It would just be shocking to see the Steelers actually trading him.
The Bengals officially traded Keith Rivers to the New York Giants after the linebacker passed his physical today.

Cincinnati receives a fifth-round pick (167th overall) in exchange for Rivers, who has missed 29 games in four seasons because of injuries including all of last season after wrist surgery. As in their other recent player trades, the Bengals got the better end of this deal because Rivers wasn't going to start for the team this season.

A look at which recent players who have been taken at No. 167: Wide receiver Ryan Whalen (Bengals, 2011), linebacker Nathan Triplett (Vikings, 2010), guard Herman Johnson (Cardinals, 2009), defensive end Erik Walden (Cowboys, 2008) and safety Kevin Payne (Bears, 2007). The last Pro Bowl player to be selected at that spot was punter Reggie Roby in 1983.

The Bengals now have nine draft picks: First round (17th and 21st overall), second round (53rd), third round (83rd), fourth round (116th), fifth round (156th, 166th and 167th) and sixth round (191st).
There's only a week remaining for a team to sign restricted free agent Mike Wallace to an offer sheet. It doesn't seem like Wallace is going anywhere, but there's still a question of when he plans to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wallace doesn't intend to sign his restricted free-agent tender, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. That's a strong indication that he won't show up for Pittsburgh's offseason workouts unless he gets a long-term deal. If he doesn't sign his tender, he can't be fined for missing any offseason training activities because he's technically not under contract.

The next date to circle for Wallace is June 15. That's the deadline for Wallace to sign his tender or risk losing a lot of money. If Wallace remains unsigned by June 15, the Steelers can reduce his tender to 110 percent of last year's salary and still retain his rights. No team can sign Wallace to an offer sheet at that point because that deadline would have passed. Wallace's tender of $2.742 million can get cut to $577,500 -- a loss of $2.1 million. So, if Wallace wants to make a stand, the Steelers can take a bigger one.

All the Steelers have to do is notify Wallace of this possibility in a letter leading up to that deadline. This is what happened in 2010 to guard Logan Mankins in New England and wide receiver Vincent Jackson in San Diego. They chose not to sign their tenders to protest the restricted free-agency rules in the uncapped season and reported to their teams two months into the regular season.

I don't see Wallace taking it this far. He wants to show his displeasure for not getting a long-term deal, and he can do so by skipping most of the offseason workouts. The Steelers would prefer to have their No. 1 wide receiver at these practices because it's their first season under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, but it's more important that Wallace is there in training camp.

Everyone will know whether Wallace plans on showing up for training camp by June 15. That will reveal whether the sides are in for a long standoff. Again, I don't see that happening. When the time comes in June, Wallace should sign his tender, play this season for $2.7 million and get ready for free agency in 2013 if he doesn't have a new deal from the Steelers.
The statistics suggest the Pittsburgh Steelers simply signed a backup for the second straight day of free agency. But don't overlook the Steelers keeping wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery.

A source told the New York Daily News that Cotchery signed a two-year deal with the Steelers, and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter has confirmed the report. This is a much more important addition than tight end Leonard Pope, who agreed to a deal Tuesday.

Cotchery finished with his lowest reception total since his 2004 rookie season, but he gained a chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger as the season progressed. A 31-yard touchdown pass to Cotchery with 3:48 remaining in the fourth quarter sent the playoff game at Denver into overtime.

This is why Roethlisberger publicly campaigned to re-sign Cotchery. "Without Hines [Ward], I think you have to do everything you can to sign Jerricho back," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in early March. "He's not only a veteran leader in that room but a really good player. I'd love to see him come back because he's a really good receiver and I like what he brings to the team."

Before the Steelers brought back Cotchery, they had no one with any experience behind Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The lack of depth was an obvious concern because coach Mike Tomlin said he was unsure whether Sanders could remain healthy for an entire season.

The Steelers needed to bring back Cotchery for much-needed insurance. If he plays the way he did in the second half of last year (15 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns), there's a good shot that he could get the No. 3 wide receiver job over Sanders. Cotchery received the chance to play a more important role when Sanders was injured and Ward was being phased out of the offense.

Cotchery drew interest from the Rams and Chiefs before returning to Pittsburgh.
Mike TomlinMichael Hickey/US PresswireMike Tomlin and the Steelers need to tap into their draft magic this year more than many.

Nearly a full month into free agency, the Steelers finally signed their first player Tuesday. It was -- yawn -- Leonard Pope.

Not excited about adding a backup tight end? Well, this is essentially a repeat of last year, when the Steelers' big free-agent signing was wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Let's face it, Steelers free agency contains as much action as a Sarah Jessica Parker flick. Everyone knows this, and that's why no one is wringing their Terrible Towel over the inactivity.

The Steelers find players in April, not March. They hit on first-round picks every year -- at least in recent memory -- and develop undrafted prospects into starters. No one has built their team through the draft quite like the Steelers this decade. If the season started today, only one of the projected starters (safety Ryan Clark) joined the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent.

The Steelers need this remarkable track record in the draft to come through for them again. In some ways, this is the most important draft of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not saying this is a crucial draft in terms of finding immediate starters. But the pressure is on the Steelers to find "potential" starters for the 2012 season.

The organization lost a piece of its history when it parted ways with wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Chris Hoke and guard Chris Kemoeatu this offseason. Some have downplayed these departures because none were major contributors last season. Farrior was a part-time player, Ward was being phased out, Kemoeatu was benched and Smith and Hoke were both injured. The Steelers, though, could have used their experience as backups this season.

The loss of these veteran safety nets makes injuries a major concern. Two starters -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton -- are candidates to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (and miss at least the first six games) after ACL surgeries this offseason. Tomlin has expressed concern about whether right tackle Willie Colon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can shake their injury histories. And the Steelers have to be worried about Maurkice Pouncey's ankle, LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings and Doug Legursky's shoulder.

If Hampton is placed on the PUP, the starting nose tackle would likely be an out-of-position Ziggy Hood. If Legursky is hurt, the current top backup at guard is John Malecki. If Colon goes down, the Steelers have to turn to the often-struggling Jonathan Scott. If Sanders can't play, the third receiver would be ... well, no one right now. These are all painful scenarios for the Steelers.

This is where the draft comes into play for Pittsburgh. Taking the right college player has always kept the Steelers in the mode of reloading, not rebuilding. No one knows whom the Steelers will select with the 24th overall pick. It could be Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener or someone not even linked to Pittsburgh. Based on the Steelers' history, the only certainty is that the pick will become an impact player.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDefensive end Brett Keisel, taken in the seventh round, is just one of the Steelers' draft finds.
Since 2000, the Steelers' first-round selections have been wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. The only one who didn't quite live up to expectations is Mendenhall, and he is hardly a major disappointment, having led the team in rushing for the past three seasons. This great run is more amazing when you consider that only two (Burress and Roethlisberger) were selected in the top half of the first round. Even the Ravens, who are known for excelling in the draft, have had two busts during this span with quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Travis Taylor.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, one of the underrated decision-makers in the NFL, can't explain this string of success.

"We've been fortunate," he told reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We are capable as anybody of making a mistake. We never keep score. There's only one score that matters and that's the last game of the year."

If the Steelers had been keeping score, they would realize their success goes beyond the first round. They have come away with current starters in the second round (linebacker Woodley), third round (wide receiver Mike Wallace), fourth round (cornerback Ike Taylor), sixth round (wide receiver Antonio Brown) and seventh round (defensive end Brett Keisel). And don't forget about the undrafted finds like Legursky, right guard Ramon Foster and running back Isaac Redman.

This is why the Steelers don't have to write a $100 million check to free agents. This is why the Steelers can sign one player in the first 28 days of free agency and not sweat about it. Pittsburgh's way of business is about patience and faith. The Steelers believe in their front office to select the right college players and they believe in their coaching staff to develop them. It's a proven system that has led to five AFC North titles in 10 seasons and three trips to the Super Bowl during that span.

As players come and go, the Steelers' goals never change. Like Tomlin always preaches: "The standard is the standard."

"If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible."

And the organizations that are able to sustain success are often quiet in free agency and make the most noise in the draft.
There are rumors going around that the Bengals may be trading former first-round pick Keith Rivers to the New York Giants. The Newark Star-Ledger's Mike Garafolo addressed the rumblings by reporting "there might be some fire behind this smoke."

The Bengals would probably like to move Rivers, a projected backup linebacker who is making $2.16 million this year. But one holdup to this speculated move is Rivers' ability to pass a physical to complete any trade. Rivers missed all of last season with a wrist injury. The Cincinnati Enquirer referred to the injury as degenerative, but a source later told the paper that the injury is neither degenerative nor career threatening.

Given his injury history, Cincinnati probably wouldn't get anything more than a late-round pick for Rivers, the ninth overall pick in the 2008 draft. The Bengals already have moved on from him, signing Thomas Howard last year to replace him. Howard was the team's most consistent linebacker last season and led the Bengals with 99 tackles.

Of top 15 free agents I ranked in the AFC North this offseason, only four have not re-signed with their current team or signed elsewhere.

1. Ray Rice, Ravens running back: Baltimore gave him the franchise tag ($7.7 million) on March 2 to keep him off the free-agent market. He has yet to sign the tender and could hold out of offseason training activities and training camp.

2. Mike Wallace, Steelers wide receiver: No team has signed Wallace, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet. The deadline to do so is April 20.

3. Ben Grubbs, former Ravens guard: Signed a five-year, $36 million contract with the New Orleans Saints that includes a $10 million signing bonus and $15.9 million guaranteed.

4. Lardarius Webb, Ravens cornerback: The restricted free agent agreed to a five-year, $50 million extension with a $10 million signing bonus and a $5 million option bonus. The extension will begin after the 2012 season.

5. Reggie Nelson, Bengals safety: Re-signed with the Bengals on a four-year, $18 million deal that includes a $2.5 million signing bonus.

6. Jarret Johnson, former Ravens linebacker: Signed a four-year, $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers that includes a $6 million signing bonus and $10 million guaranteed.

7. Cedric Benson, Bengals running back: He remains an unrestricted free agent, and there's been no reported visits.

8. Peyton Hillis, former Browns running back: Signed a one-year, $2.8 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs that includes $2.4 million guaranteed.

9. Dimitri Patterson, Browns cornerback: Re-signed with the Browns for a three-year, $16 million contract that includes $6 million guaranteed.

10. Phil Dawson, Browns kicker: Signed his franchise tag worth $3.81 million on March 13.

11. Frostee Rucker, former Bengals defensive end: Signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Cleveland Browns that includes a $5 million signing bonus and $8 million guaranteed.

12. Manny Lawson, Bengals linebacker: Re-signed with Cincinnati, agreeing to a one-year, $2.1 million deal. He made $3 million last year for the Bengals.

13. Jameel McClain, Ravens linebacker: Re-signed with Baltimore, agreeing to a three-year, $10.5 million contract that includes a $3.6 million signing bonus.

14. Mike Nugent, Bengals kicker: Given the franchise tag ($2.654 million) by the Bengals on March 2 to keep him off the free-agent market.

15. William Gay, former Steelers cornerback: Signed a two-year, $3.2 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals that includes a $500,000 signing bonus.

Some might have been surprised when the Bengals agreed to a one-year deal with guard Jacob Bell. It has been four weeks since he visited Cincinnati.

But adding Bell makes sense, especially signing him to a short-term contract. The Bengals needed a right guard heading into the draft, and they could do much worse than a lineman who has 100 career starts. This isn't to say Bell was signed to be the starter, because he's a below-average run-blocker.

So, what does the signing of Bell mean? He's a one-year insurance policy. The Bengals will still likely draft Stanford's David DeCastro or Georgia's Cordy Glenn if one is available at one of the team's two first-round picks. The addition of Bell means they don't have to draft one of them.

The Bengals have more flexibility and can take the best player available at the 17th and 21st overall picks. They don't have to draft solely on need. And, even if the Bengals don't draft a guard, Bell will probably have to beat out Clint Boling and Otis Hudson for the job.

Finding someone to fill the spot long manned by Bobbie Williams was one of the last glaring holes in Cincinnati's starting lineup. The Bengals addressed left guard earlier this offseason when they signed Panthers free agent Travelle Wharton.