AFC North: NFL
The AFC North has seen some changes this offseason with a new coaching staff and GM in Cleveland, where free agency and multiple first-round draft picks are conspiring to inspire some hope in Browns fans. Is it warranted?
And will there be change in Pittsburgh if the Steelers go three straight years without a playoff berth?
What about in Baltimore, where running back Ray Rice followed up a disastrous 2013 season with a highly publicized offseason arrest? Will his slide continue next season?
And the one and only question in Cincinnati remains: Can the Bengals win a playoff game with Andy Dalton at the helm?
These issues are addressed by ESPN’s quartet of AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
This will be Mike Tomlin's last season if the Steelers don't make the playoffs.
Scott Brown: Fiction. The Steelers have had just three head coaches since 1969, and patience with their field bosses has been one of the organization's hallmarks. The Steelers missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 1998 to 2000, and Bill Cowher rewarded the Steelers' patience with him by going 55-24-1 over the next five seasons and winning a Super Bowl. The Steelers have yet to experience a losing season under Tomlin, and he still commands his players' respect and attention. It is way too early to start speculating about his future in Pittsburgh.
Jamison Hensley: Fact. History is obviously against me on this one. The Steelers have been the picture of stability when it comes to head coaches, and they stuck with Bill Cowher when he went three seasons without making it to the playoffs. But the landscape of the division has changed. The Cincinnati Bengals are going to be the favorite to win a second straight AFC North title. The Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers' biggest rivals, won a Super Bowl 13 months ago. Tomlin hasn't guided the Steelers to the playoffs since 2011, and he hasn't won a postseason game since beating the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC Championship Game. If Tomlin can't get the Steelers back in the playoffs, the Rooneys need to find someone who can make this team relevant again.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. Tomlin's consecutive 8-8 seasons are disappointing in Pittsburgh, but the Rooneys will not knee-jerk a guy who has yet to have a losing season. Tomlin is wading through a major roster transition, but he's never lost his team the way some coaches do. That matters to the Rooneys, who value continuity more than anyone. Bill Cowher went 7-9 and 6-10 in 1998 and '99 and stayed seven more seasons. Belief in a system is what makes Pittsburgh successful.
The Browns will be much improved with their front-office moves, free-agent acquisitions and position in the draft.
Brown: Fiction. The Browns will be better in 2014, but there is too much uncertainty at quarterback to say improvement will come in leaps and bounds rather than in increments. Brian Hoyer is an upgrade over what the Browns have had at quarterback, but is he the long-term answer there? The top-rated quarterbacks in the draft, meanwhile, all come with different question marks and risks. There is not an Andrew Luck among the group, and until the Browns find the answer at quarterback, they will not challenge for the AFC North title.
Hensley: Fiction. I agree the Browns are going to be improved, but not much improved. The moves made on defense were lateral ones. The addition of running back Ben Tate will help, if he can stay healthy. Let's be honest, it always comes down to quarterback for the Browns. Cleveland is either going with Brian Hoyer, a journeyman who generated unrealistic expectations after two good games last season, or a promising yet inexperienced rookie. This is too bad, because the Browns have the other pieces in place to be an exciting passing attack. At this point, because of the annual question mark at quarterback, the Browns are a six- or seven-win team at best.
McManamon: Fiction: It has to happen on the field, and until it does, the Browns have everyone in Missouri, where it's a matter of showing me. With six double-digit-loss seasons in a row and some uncertainty at quarterback, the Browns have to prove to their fans they can do it. However, it must be said that a lot of logical moves have been made, and the Browns are better now than they were when free agency began. With so many high draft picks, the Browns have the chance to bring in more good players. The potential for improvement is real, but labeling it a sure thing is premature with this team.
The Bengals will never get further than the first round of the playoffs with Andy Dalton at quarterback.
Brown: Fact. You could give Dalton the benefit of the doubt after he and the Bengals fell short in his first two playoffs games. But there can be no excuses after Dalton's subpar play in January doomed the Bengals to a home loss against a Chargers team that sneaked into the playoffs. Credit Dalton for making the Bengals a perennial playoff team, but nothing in his postseason play suggests that he is the quarterback who can turn Cincinnati into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Hensley: Fiction, although I'm not going to go as far as to say Dalton will be the reason why the Bengals win a playoff game. Marvin Lewis' young team is just too talented to be one-and-done every season. There will be a time when the Bengals win because either the defense dominates a playoff game or running back Giovani Bernard breaks loose. If you're asking me whether the Bengals will make a Super Bowl with Dalton, I would bet against it. He has been awful in his three playoff games. Dalton is the anti-Flacco. He produces great numbers in the regular season but falls apart in the playoffs.
McManamon: Fiction. Many teams would like to have Dalton. Many. Last season's first-round loss to San Diego was a large disappointment, but Dalton is going through the traditional growing pains of a quarterback. For a quarterback to be asked to throw 51 times in a playoff game is ludicrous. That was asking way too much. The switch in offensive coordinator to Hue Jackson will help because he will run the ball more, and run the ball more consistently. Dalton has averaged almost 3,800 yards and just short of 27 touchdowns his first three seasons, and people want to question his future? Absurd.
Ray Rice's decline in production will continue next season while his reputation also slides after his arrest.
Brown: Fiction. This guy has too good of a résumé to think he just fell off a cliff during his sixth NFL season (and took many a fantasy football team with him). Yes, NFL running backs have a short shelf life, and Rice has a lot of wear on his tread. But the Ravens should be better up front next season, and if anything, Rice's arrest should make him as motivated as ever to show that last season was an aberration.
Hensley: Fiction, but let me explain. I honestly don't know how Rice's play could be worse than it was last season. He averaged 3.1 yards per carry, and he was held below 60 yards rushing in 12 of 15 games. Injuries were a factor, but you have to wonder whether the wear and tear has caught up to him. In what is likely a make-or-break year for him, Rice has reportedly lost weight this offseason to regain some explosion. That would be a good sign if he were the sole problem. The Ravens haven't done anything yet to improve their offensive line from last season. If the line can't open any running lanes, it doesn't matter what kind of condition Rice is in.
Pat McManamon: Fact. When a running back loses it, it goes fast. Rice showed all the signs of losing it last season, when his per-carry average dropped to a woeful 3.1. Rice is 27, the age at which a running back's production is at its peak. ESPN Stats and Information shows a steady and severe decline starting after a back is 27, a decline that continues every season. Add in Rice's troubling offseason behavior with his fiancée and that disturbing security video and it seems his career -- and perhaps personal -- path is headed in the wrong direction..
As that date approaches, we take a look at Chicago’s pending free agents, and their chances of returning to the team in the first part of our weeklong series.
2013 statistics: 8 games; 52.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
2013 salary: $7.95 million base salary and $51,575 workout bonus -- $8,001,575 cash value.
Outlook: The Bears are expected to make a strong push to keep Tillman. Although the club does want to be younger on defense, Tillman is still viewed as a key component in the immediate future. The question boils down to whether Tillman wants to return and play for head coach Marc Trestman. The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback is expected to have multiple suitors in free agency. Tillman has strong ties to Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera from their time in Chicago. Tillman will have options.
2013 statistics: 8 games, 5 starts; 1,829 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and one interception; 109.0 passer rating.
2013 salary: $840,000 base salary and $5,600 workout bonus -- $870,600 cash value.
Outlook: McCown has repeatedly expressed a desire to return to Chicago, and almost everyone in the building, ranging from general manager Phil Emery to starting quarterback Jay Cutler, say they want the reserve signal-caller back. But talks between the sides haven’t necessarily reflected what has been said publicly (that doesn’t imply talks have gone badly, but things have moved slowly). McCown holds more leverage than ever in his career after the way he played in relief of Cutler last season, but the Bears haven’t been in a hurry to get the quarterback signed to a deal. McCown will have plenty of suitors in free agency. A legitimate opportunity to compete for a starting job could lure him away from Chicago.
Position: Special teams returner
2013 statistics: 52 kickoff returns for 1,436 yards (27.6 average); 18 punt returns for 256 yards (14.2) and one touchdown.
2013 salary: $1,857,523 base salary and $250,000 workout bonus -- $2,107,523 cash value.
Outlook: Hester is unlikely to return to Chicago. The Bears probably aren’t interested in paying a couple of million dollars to a player who will strictly return kicks for a second straight year. Hester did a decent job adjusting to his new role in 2013, but he didn’t make the type of impact necessary to command the same kind of salary (or even a raise) in 2014. Like Tillman, Hester will have offers from around the league. A reunion with Smith in Tampa makes sense. Hester is also close with current Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. Maybe some interest materializes on that front. A couple other undisclosed teams expressed a certain degree of interest in Hester two weeks ago at the NFL combine. Hester will land on his feet, but he probably won’t get the chance to continue his career with the Bears.
Position: Defensive tackle
2013 statistics: Five games, four starts; 14.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for lost yardage.
2013 salary: $840,000 base salary -- $395,294 cash value.
Outlook: Ratliff didn’t show much in 2013, making his Chicago debut nearly a month after joining the team. But he performed well enough over the last five games of the season that the Bears would like to bring him back. The Bears met with Ratliff’s representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis recently to see about working out a deal, and the sides remain in contact about the defensive tackle’s potential return to Chicago. Other teams will likely show interest, too. At 32, Ratliff is still plenty capable of contributing at a high level. He also possesses the toughness the Bears want to instill on what’s expected to be a revamped defense. And let's be real, Ratliff is arguably a better player than even a healthy Henry Melton.
Or perhaps just a single number game. As in just one number. As in the number four.
In a pass-happy world gone mad, where Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning led an offense that shattered the league's single-season scoring record with 606 points and tossed a never-before-seen 55 touchdowns, the best defense is as easy as 1-2-3 and, yes, 4.
"I think it's been proven, the best defenses can rush four and get to the quarterback," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "They don't always have to be the same four from the same spots, but the best defenses can do more things to inhibit offenses in a time when it's difficult, when they can consistently make a pass rush with four [players]. It might be more important than ever."
And certainly Fox, Manning, the Broncos and the rest of the league saw just how important it can be earlier this month in a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. In that game the Seahawks essentially dismantled history as they stifled the Broncos' record-setting offense, repeatedly unsettled Manning in the pocket, sacked Manning once, intercepted him twice and returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown.
So dominant was the Seahawks' performance that even South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney got into the act. Clowney was asked at the scouting combine this past weekend why he should be the No. 1 pick of the May draft.
"The Super Bowl, defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out," Clowney said. "It takes defense to win championships, hands down. You had a great quarterback in Peyton Manning, hats off to him also, but defense wins the Super Bowl."
And with offenses trotting out more and more wide-open sets all the time, quarterbacks in the shotgun picking away at defensive formations with five, six or seven defensive backs in them, the defenses that are surviving enough to flourish are those with the best four-man rushes. The Seahawks, for example, sent an extra rusher at Manning on just six snaps in the title game.
The St. Louis Rams, not considered a blitz-heavy team -- as coach Jeff Fisher said, "we like to get there with four" -- have generated 105 sacks in Fisher's two seasons as head coach. And although disruptive players on the interior of a defensive line are certainly still coveted, rushing with four will push the draft's best edge rushers up the board. They may be drafted even higher than their actual grades -- and perhaps even into the No. 1 spot overall if the Houston Texans take the plunge.
Clowney, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and Auburn's Dee Ford are among the best pass-rushers on this year's draft board. Of that top group, Clowney, who weighed in at 266 pounds at the combine and will get some attention as a possible No. 1, is both the biggest and the fastest, having run an official 4.53 clocking in the 40-yard dash Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Barr, Mack and Ford, all between 251 and 255 pounds, are slightly smaller than Clowney and may get at least some looks from 3-4 defenses looking for outside linebackers. Mack is still the riser of the group.
Mack had 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions this past season. In the season opener against Ohio State, he had nine tackles and 2.5 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown.
"It helped with the stage, I feel like there was a lot of people watching that game," Mack said. "It helped me tremendously."
Because of Mack's play speed and power, much like the Broncos' Von Miller showed during an 18.5-sack season in 2012, some teams think Mack may fit more of the league's defensive schemes than any of the other top prospects at the position.
But there are players to complement that speed-first crowd, as well. Oregon State's Scott Crichton and Missouri's Kony Ealy may not have tested as well at the combine as some of the others but are productive players who have given scouts plenty to look at in their games. So much so, Ealy, a teammate of SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam, is expected to be selected long before Sam.
Ealy has plenty of athleticism in his game, has a natural dip to his shoulder in his outside move and has plenty of upside. A player like Crichton, who is considered raw, plays with power and high effort to go with 10 forced fumbles in his career.
"You've just got to get off the ball and attack, attack the opposing player, and you've got to just play on their side of the ball," Crichton said. "Coaches always told me, whatever you do, no matter if you are wrong, you've got to play on their side of the ball, and that's what I really took pride in this year and it's worked out for me."
Nine quarterbacks topped 4,000 yards in 2013 -- Manning and Drew Brees had more than 5,000 yards -- and 10 quarterbacks had more than 4,000 yards in 2012 and 10 others in 2011. The need for help across the defensive front isn't set to decrease anytime soon.
Or as Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has put it:
"If you can't get to the quarterback, I don't care who you have covering back there, it won't matter," Bailey said. "They want passing in this league, they want points, and with the way these quarterbacks are now, how they get the ball out, how accurate they are, if you're blitzing them all the time, they'll throw it all over you. You have to rush four and you have to get there, it's the best formula, maybe the only one now."
The Dolphins are now without three starters on the offensive line Sunday: Pouncey, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin -- due to a combination of illness and in-house controversies. Top reserve Will Yeatman also suffered a significant knee injury in practice Wednesday and was put on injured reserve.
Miami’s offensive line is in shambles. This is the same group that was a part of a franchise-low 2 rushing yards in last week’s 22-19 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The offensive line has been Miami’s biggest weakness all season, and Pouncey was easily its best player up front. Not having Pouncey will impact both quality of play and communication between the linemen and second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins have two choices to replace Pouncey against San Diego. Miami can either start backup center Sam Brenner, who was just called up from the practice squad on Saturday. Or, the Dolphins can shift starting guard Nate Garner to center and start backup Danny Watkins at guard. Neither choice is ideal.
A "Monday Night Football" audience witnessed what close observers have suspected for some time: The Steelers' offense is punchless, and their defense, while still stout at times, no longer can be counted on to make big plays. These roster-wide symptoms have left the Steelers 0-2 for the first time in the seven-year Mike Tomlin era, and they have the potential to take this franchise to unprecedented places.
"If we don't shore something up," safety Ryan Clark said, "if we don't play better than we did tonight, we won't win a game. Period. Point blank."
We should acknowledge that the Bengals played a role in what we saw Monday night. They are a good team and could be the best the AFC North has to offer, but to me the Bengals' performance only accentuated the Steelers' step back.
We saw Bengals running back Giovani Bernard darting through the Steelers' defense, averaging 7.2 yards every time he touched the ball, while the Steelers' crew of grinders slogged to 44 yards on 16 carries.
Every time we looked up, it seemed, a Steelers ball carrier was being tackled at the line of scrimmage. Most egregious: Receiver Jerricho Cotchery was dragged down for a 5-yard loss on an ill-fated reverse. In all, the Steelers ran 16 plays in the first three quarters that netted 3 or fewer yards.
Meanwhile, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of the worst games of his career as a downfield passer. He overthrew nine passes, which, according to ESPN Stats & Information, was the highest total of his career. Was Roethlibserger that off? I don't think so. Watching with an amateur eye, it didn't look like he had much room to squeeze in the ball to receivers who got little separation.
Everything that I'm used to seeing from -- and thinking about -- the Steelers was missing Monday night. They didn't run well. None of their pass-catchers enhanced a play beyond what the scheme called for. Their defense still hasn't forced a turnover this season. Indeed, the Bengals averaged a modest 5.2 yards per play, but they managed to run 79 of them because the Steelers couldn't get them off the field.
"We weren't good enough tonight," said Tomlin, who lost for the first time as a head coach when taking the field with a losing record. "We have to accept that. But I emphasize tonight, like I just emphasized to our group, there's a certain amount that we need to swallow and rightfully so, but we've got to maintain our way."
I didn’t expect the Steelers to give up on their season after this loss, but other than Clark’s pointed statement, I found a staunch refusal to process the evidence that played out Monday night.
Roethlisberger, in fact, suggested that Steelers receivers lost balls in the lights at Paul Brown Stadium. As well, Tomlin and every player I listened to mentioned a debatable tripping call that negated a 33-yard pass to receiver Antonio Brown in the third quarter. The play was a significant turning point, but it wasn’t insurmountable. In fact, the Steelers were within seven points in this game until midway through the fourth quarter.
"That's part of the game," receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "Sometimes we connect. Sometimes we don't. But I think we still made enough plays. Some plays got called back, and sometimes we didn't execute to the best of our ability."
Again, the Steelers have 14 games left to play, and presumably plenty of time to change their identity. The return of tight end Heath Miller would help, and Tomlin promised that speedy receiver Markus Wheaton could get involved.
But a 30-year-old tight end and a rookie receiver aren't going to rescue this team. The Steelers' roster can't change substantively during the season. Perhaps they can find a way to grind out victories without splash plays on offense and regular turnovers on defense, but that path offers no margin for error.
My lasting impression of this team, at least for now, will be of the final play Monday night. With 16 seconds left, Roethlisberger completed an 18-yard pass over the middle to Brown. The Steelers rushed to the line of scrimmage, and Roethlisberger motioned as if he wanted to spike the ball for one final play.
Players lined up, the clock ticked down and center Fernando Velasco -- starting one week after the Steelers signed him to replace the injured Maurkice Pouncey -- snapped the ball with one second left.
Roethlisberger spiked it, looked up and saw no seconds remaining. He and the rest of the team were just a step slow. Is this it for this group of Steelers? Watching Monday night, it sure looked like it.
Our half-hour talk kicks off at 2 p.m. today. All you need to do is click on these words right here and that will lead you to the chat. It's never too early to go and post a question. Please limit it to one question because I would like to get to everyone.
See you in a few hours.