- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:
With the Bengals expected to part ways with Cedric Benson, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden sounded like he is leaning toward a running back-by-committee approach this season.
The team's website speculated that Cincinnati could split carries between a big-back rookie -- a 205-pounder like Virginia Tech's David Wilson, a 215-pounder like Boise State's Doug Martin and a 200-pounder like Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead -- and returning backup Bernard Scott.
"It's not a bad way to go. Keep guys fresh. They play longer, they're involved," Gruden told Bengals.com. "If something happens to one, you know you've got a guy that can come in there and be productive. Where you're not relying heavily on one guy and if something happens to him, you’re like, 'Oh God, this guy doesn't have many reps.' I think it's important to have guys touch the ball, I believe, as a committee."
Of course, there is someone who could change Gruden's mind. "If you do get a big-time guy like Trent [Richardson, Alabama running back] then I'm not opposed to giving him the ball 30 times," he said.
Hensley's slant: There is virtually no chance that Richardson falls to the Bengals, who have the 17th and 21st overall picks in the first round. It'll be tempting to trade up for a back like Richardson, but I don't think they will. My feeling is the Bengals will take a guard and a cornerback with their first two picks.
BROWNS: Five days ago, the Plain Dealer of Cleveland named running back Peyton Hillis as a candidate to get the franchise tag. Now, the paper has scratched him off the list. According to the Plain Dealer, the Browns are unlikely to use the tag on Hillis but they will attempt to re-sign him before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 13. Cleveland was expected to use the tag on D'Qwell Jackson before the Browns signed the middle linebacker to a five-year, $42.5 million deal. The Plain Dealer is reporting it's "doubtful" that the Browns will use the tag but they would put it on kicker Phil Dawson if they choose to use it. Hensley's slant: It's a no-brainer to pass on putting the franchise tag on Hillis. You give $7.7 million for one season to the likes of Ray Rice and Matt Forte, not a running back who averaged 3.6 yards per carry. If the Browns don't place the tag on Dawson, he'll go elsewhere. Cleveland has to decide whether to replace him through free agency or the draft.
RAVENS: ESPN's John Clayton said Joe Flacco will be a Pro Bowl quarterback next season if the Ravens can add another receiving threat. “The way the offense is constructed; there could be a desire to make him a 4,000-yard passer," Clayton said, via the Ravens' website. "He’s got the ability, clearly, to be a 4,000-yard passer.” Hensley's slant: It's not a huge leap of faith to project Flacco over 4,000 yards passing in 2012. He threw for 3,610 yards last season with a veteran possession receiver (Anquan Boldin), a rookie deep threat (Torrey Smith) and a first-year starting tight end (Ed Dickson). The Ravens say they won't add a big-money receiver, but they can't bring back Lee Evans as the third target again.
STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette provided a plan for the Steelers to create an additional chunk of salary-cap space without restructuring any more contracts. It includes the retirement of defensive end Aaron Smith ($2.1 million in cap savings), getting one inside linebacker, either James Farrior or Larry Foote, to cut their 2012 salary in half ($1.5 million), reducing Hines Ward's salary from $4 million to $1.5 million ($2.5 million in cap savings) and chopping the salary of guard Chris Kemoeatu in half ($1.8 million). That's $7.9 million removed from the cap and only one player (Aaron Smith) is gone. Hensley's slant: This is a creative way of trimming so the Steelers can sign some free agents, their own and perhaps a few others. But getting players to take a pay cut is difficult because you have to convince them that they can't make more elsewhere. In this scenario, the biggest challenge will be to get Ward to take a 62 percent pay cut. Ward said he was willing to take a reduction in salary to stay with the Steelers, but this could be more than he anticipated.