AFC North: 2012 NFL Free Agency

While most of the attention focused on the Steelers getting the best guard available (Stanford's David DeCastro), they quietly made an important addition even before the draft began. Pittsburgh agreed to terms on a one-year deal with quarterback Byron Leftwich.

Leftwich
Leftwich
Bringing back Charlie Batch less than two weeks ago was an insurance policy if the Steelers couldn't keep Leftwich. Now, Leftwich is the favorite to be the primary backup to Ben Roethlisberger, as long as he remains healthy. He has started 49 games and passed for 10,260 yards and 58 touchdowns.

Leftwich, 32, is five years younger than Batch, and is a more viable option to lead an offense if Roethlisberger went down for an extended period. The Steelers have always preferred Leftwich to Batch. Leftwich was supposed to start for the suspended 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.

The Steelers now have five quarterbacks on the roster: Roethlisberger, Leftwich, Batch, former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, and Jerrod Johnson. Striking a deal with Leftwich decreases the chances of Pittsburgh drafting a quarterback in the later rounds.
Bengals free-agent wide receiver Jerome Simpson received a three-game suspension from the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Relatively speaking, Simpson couldn't have asked for a better resolution to his legal situation or his discipline from the NFL.

Simpson fared better than most expected after having about two pounds of marijuana shipped to his northern Kentucky home in September. Many presumed the NFL would suspend Simpson at least four games.

This comes in the same month he was sentenced to 15 days in jail and three years' probation for a felony charge. Simpson had struck a plea agreement for 60 days before a judge reduced the jail time.

While the Bengals should part ways with Simpson because of this baggage, his future with the team likely will be determined by the draft. The Bengals have three of the first 53 picks in this week's draft and could use one on a wide receiver to take Simpson's role as the No. 2 wide receiver. If the Bengals don't draft a wide receiver early in the draft, it should increase his chances of coming back to them.

Simpson, 26, recently visited the Minnesota Vikings, but this doesn't rule out his return to Cincinnati. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sent a letter in support of Simpson to the judge before he was sentenced to 15 days in jail. The Bengals said in a statement after the hearing that they believe Simpson "has, and will continue to, deal accountably with the consequences of his actions."

He has been a disappointment as the Bengals' second-round pick in 2008, but he is coming off his most productive NFL season. After 21 catches in his first three seasons, Simpson set career highs in catches (50), yards (725) and touchdowns (four), which included a sensational somersault flip into the end zone.
Steelers officials said wide receiver Mike Wallace won't affect the team's draft plans.

Wallace, a restricted free agent, told some within the Steelers organization that he does not plan to sign his first-round tender "until he has to," a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. This means that Wallace could wind up holding out for some or all of training camp.

"We're not worried about the reports," coach Mike Tomlin said at Monday's pre-draft press conference. "He's still here. We will deal with it day-to-day."

General manager Kevin Colbert reiterated that Wallace remains in the team's future plans.

"Our intension has always been to sign Mike to a long-term contract," Colbert said. "We want Mike for the long haul, and he knows that. Hopefully, we'll get that done."

It's clear that restricted free agent Mike Wallace is not happy with the Pittsburgh Steelers right now. He is prepared to sit out offseason drills and at least the start of training camp, league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Does this hurt the Steelers' chances of keeping him long term? Not at all. Players get upset about their contract status all the time and skip workouts on a regular basis to show their dissatisfaction with their current situation.

Just remember the recent predicament with guard Logan Mankins, who was unhappy and wanted out of New England because he didn't want to play as a restricted free agent. How did that get resolved? Mankins signed a six-year contract last summer that included a $20 million signing bonus.

It was a similar ugly standoff last year between the Tennessee Titans and running back Chris Johnson. In the end, the sides were shaking hands on four-year, $53.5 million contract extension that included $30 million guaranteed.

Wallace wants a long-term deal instead of a $2.7 million first-round tender. He has outplayed his contract, and the Steelers have repeatedly said they want to sign him to a multiyear deal. This problem probably won't get resolved this year, but Wallace would only be hurting himself by dragging this out beyond June 15 (when the Steelers can cut the tender to $577,500 if he doesn't sign).

The Steelers don't a have long history of re-signing their wide receivers in free agency -- only Hines Ward has been retained -- but there's also no reason to doubt the team's desire to keep him. Pittsburgh has rewarded Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons with extensions.

Plus, Wallace is a key part of the Steelers' deep passing game. His receiving yards (3,206) and touchdowns (24) both rank as the second most by an NFL receiver in his first three seasons. And, even when Wallace isn't catching the ball, the threat of him running deep opens up the underneath for wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller.

So, Wallace is ticked off by his contract status, and the Steelers aren't going to like him missing workouts in a year with a new offensive coordinator. But NFL history shows that a multiyear contract can turn a temporarily bad situation into a happy long-term one.
Ravens fans can relax: there's not going to be a Kyle Boller reunion.

The Ravens signed quarterback Curtis Painter instead of Boller and Dennis Dixon, according to NFL Network. Painter is expected to compete with Tyrod Taylor to be the team's backup to Joe Flacco.

While Boller isn't returning to Baltimore, there is a reunion taking place. Painter rejoins new Ravens quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who was the Indianapolis Colts' head coach last season. Painter made eight starts for the injured Peyton Manning last season but did not win a game before being benched.

I thought Painter was the front-runner for the job because of his connection to Caldwell. Based on potential and experience, he should have been last on the list.

It's understandable that the Ravens passed on Boller. Bringing back Boller would've been a public relations nightmare because he flopped as a first-round quarterback.

What I'm scratching my head over is the Ravens not signing Dixon. He's 27 and athletic. He has much more potential than Painter.

In the end, it probably doesn't matter whether it's Dixon or Painter or Taylor. Flacco has yet to miss a start in his NFL career.
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.
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.
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.


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.

The Bengals didn't cut Chris Crocker on Friday because of one game, but they do part ways with some bad memories by releasing the starting strong safety.

While several Bengals made mistakes in last season's 31-10 playoff loss at Houston, Crocker's errors are the ones that will be remembered as what stood in Cinicnnati's way of winning its first playoff game in 21 years.

He dropped a sure interception that could have been returned for a touchdown, which would have tied the score in the third quarter. Then he failed to push Arian Foster out of bounds on a 42-yard touchdown run, which was the game-clinching score in the fourth quarter.

“It’s sad that I don’t have a chance to redeem myself and get to start all over again here this season," Crocker told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "but the league is unfortunate and cruel that way sometimes.”

Crocker, 32, showed character by talking to reporters immediately after the playoff loss. He was a defensive captain for the Bengals and was named the team's Good Guy by the Cincinnati media.

On the field, Crocker had some lapses. He struggled in covering athletic tight ends, and he wasn't strong in run support. He finished seventh on the Bengals in tackles this season, and seventh in passes defensed (four). Crocker also didn't intercept a pass.

The Bengals told him that durability was the biggest reason for his release, according to Crocker. He missed the last half of 2010 after injuring his MCL, but he played in all but 47 of the team's 1,066 defensive snaps last season, according to the Enquirer.

“I know as a player I feel a certain way, but not everybody in the building felt the same way,” Crocker told the Enquirer. “This was one of the best stops of my career. I got to go to the playoffs two of my three full seasons here.”

The Bengals could promote Taylor Mays, a 2010 second-round pick, to Crocker's spot, or they could draft a safety. Cincinnati has three of the first 53 picks in the upcoming draft.
The Baltimore Ravens reached a six-year agreement with cornerback Lardarius Webb, the team announced.

Webb, 26, was among the biggest surprises on the Ravens' defense last season. Injuries to Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr pushed Webb into the starting lineup during training camp and he ended up being one of the top cornerbacks in the AFC North.

"Lardarius is an important player for the Ravens, and we're happy he will be with us for a long time," general manager Ozzie Newsome said a statement.

A third-round pick by the Ravens in 2009, Webb was a restricted free agent this year and had received a first-round tender ($2.74 million).

I will blog more of my reaction to this signing shortly.
Matt Williamson, of Scouts Inc., handed out grades to the AFC teams after the first wave of free agency. It's an Insider piece, but I will share a small portion for each of the AFC North teams:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Williamson's grade: B-minus. While I am a proponent of not overspending on other teams' castoffs, and bearing in mind that the Bengals have a great opportunity to add quality talent in the draft with two first-round picks, I can't help but feel that the Bengals let a great opportunity slip through their hands this offseason. I would have attacked a high-end free agent or two such as Carl Nicks or Cortland Finnegan.

Hensley's grade: B. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Williamson's grade: D. The biggest crime of the offseason was the Browns allowing the Redskins to outbid them for the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, but even after losing out on the right to draft Robert Griffin III, the Browns didn't add nearly enough to consider them as anything but a bottom feeder for yet another year.

Hensley's grade: C. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right tackle. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. The Browns did improve their run defense by signing Frostee Rucker and their pass rush by adding Juqua Parker.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Williamson's grade: C. The Ravens lost several starters to other clubs over the past few weeks and will need younger players to step up in their place, but this remains a very strong roster.

Hensley's grade: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Evan Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Williamson's grade: C. Pittsburgh was greatly handcuffed by its salary-cap situation. But even though the Steelers released quite a few older brand name players, they sit in good shape for the 2012 season.

Hensley's grade: D. The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've lost only two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership.

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