AFC North: Aaron Curry
|Which is going to be the stronger team next season: the Seahawks or the Bengals?|
By ESPN.com's James Walker and Matt Williamson
Every season there is a sleeper team that comes out of nowhere and does major damage in the NFL. For the most recent example, look no further than the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who were moments away from winning Super Bowl XLIII.
But picking this year's underdog in May could be a very difficult task.
That is why we recruited ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to provide their sleeper picks for 2009 -- the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks, respectively -- who could most resemble last year's Cardinals.
What makes the Bengals and Seahawks sleeper candidates for 2009?
James Walker: First of all, a sleeper is a team that very few people feel has a chance -- and the Bengals are certainly in that category. With one winning season since 1990, the Bengals have fallen off just about everyone's radar.
But when examining the Bengals closely, you notice they have two things that make for a dangerous club: a great quarterback and an improving defense.
Carson Palmer is still one of the league's top quarterbacks when healthy. In 2008, a season-ending elbow injury cut his campaign short and the Bengals quickly went in the tank with an 0-8 start and a 4-11-1 finish. Before that, he threw for more than 8,000 yards combined the two previous seasons.
Also, Cincinnati's defense is sneaky good. The Bengals finished No. 12 in the NFL defensively in 2008 during a season when the offense couldn't stay on the field or score points. Consider new additions such as defensive tackle Tank Johnson, rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga and veteran safety Roy Williams, and Cincinnati's D has the potential to crack the top 10 for the first time since 2001.
A No. 22-ranked strength-of-schedule doesn't hurt the Bengals, either.
Matt Williamson: Few teams were crushed by injuries like the Seahawks in 2008. The Seahawks won't be snakebitten like that in 2009. Also, overtaking Arizona to win the NFC West doesn't seem all that daunting a task. But, probably most importantly, I think that the Seahawks' passing game and defense should be vastly improved.
The Seahawks had just 35 sacks last season, but I expect that number to increase dramatically in 2009. It's possible the Seattle defense could record at least 45 sacks, as it did in 2007. The reason why is simple: This is a much-improved front seven. With the drafting of Aaron Curry, Seattle nabbed someone who is quite possibly the best and most NFL-ready defensive player from this past class. Now, there are few sets of starting linebackers in Seattle's class. But the Seahawks had a talented group of linebackers a year ago.
Where they are most improved is on the defensive line. Cory Redding is an up-and-down player, but he is versatile and could thrive in his new environment, especially in a rotational role. Colin Cole is more of a plugger in the middle than Redding, but that was an aspect that Seattle was lacking last year. It is imperative in allowing middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu to stay protected and attack ball carriers more freely.
Also in the middle, Brandon Mebane very well could take another step forward and another space eater, Red Bryant, could emerge in his second season. The defensive end situation also should be vastly improved. Lawrence Jackson, a 2008 first-round selection, could take a substantial step forward. His presence should help prevent Daryll Tapp from wearing down. Keeping with the theme of the Seahawks returning to health, defensive end Patrick Kerney also should log more playing time in 2009. He missed the last nine games of the 2008 season.
While all of these projected leaps might not occur, all the Seahawks need is a few of them to materialize. The linebackers are exceptional and an improved front four will decrease the pressure on the secondary and allow the linebackers to make plenty of big plays.
|Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images|
|Seneca Wallace's future in Seattle may be dim with the return of Matt Hasselbeck.|
How stable is the quarterback situation for each team?
Matt Williamson: Matt Hasselbeck missed quite a bit of time last year with a back injury. By all accounts, including from Hasselbeck himself, his back is doing very well. He is expected to be at full strength when the season arrives. However, the back ailment is worrisome and Hasselbeck's age doesn't help alleviate concerns. With the fourth overall selection in the draft, Seattle passed on a chance to pick USC quarterback Mark Sanchez in favor of selecting Curry. Clearly, the Seahawks are in win-now mode and also feel confident that Hasselbeck's back will not be a problem this season.
The Seahawks seem much better set at the most important position on the field now. No offense to Seneca Wallace -- who substituted for Hasselbeck much of last season -- but there isn't a quarterback of the future presently on the roster and the backup situation is tenuous at best.
The Seahawks will go as far as Hasselbeck can take them and needless to say, in my opinion, that is much further than they went last season. He is surrounded with a now-exceptional group of pass catchers. The signing of T.J. Houshmandzadeh should be a steadying force in this regard and will open room up for Seattle's other receivers. Houshmandzadeh has caught at least 90 passe
s in each of the last three seasons. As a rookie, tight end John Carlson was the Seahawks' best pass catcher and should only improve in his second season -- especially with Houshmandzadeh in the fold. The chance that Deion Branch and Nate Burleson face as many injury problems in 2009 is slim, but still possible, given their history. But drafting Deon Butler looks like a prudent move; he's a dangerous slot option with rare speed. Hasselbeck could have a big season passing.
James Walker: Similar to Hasselbeck, Cincinnati's quarterback situation is as stable as Palmer's throwing elbow. So it is certainly a topic for debate.
Palmer, who didn't have off-season surgery, says he feels 100 percent. Yet the team has him on a pitch count during off-season workouts, which means there is at least some level of concern and caution internally from the team's perspective.
Throwing is fine, Palmer says, but his elbow will not be tested truly until it gets hit a few times. I doubt even Palmer knows for sure how well his arm will respond to the physical punishment from defensive linemen and linebackers.
Similar to last season, if Palmer goes down Cincinnati's season is over. But this is why the Bengals' offensive line is so important.
They drafted offensive tackle Andre Smith No. 6 overall to make sure Palmer doesn't have another season-ending injury. Talent-wise, Smith is one of the best players in this year's draft. But it will be important for the coaching staff to push Smith and get the best out of him. Cincinnati is going to pay Smith a contract in the range of $50 million, most likely to protect Palmer's blind side.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Forty-eight hours before the NFL draft, it's officially "smoke-screen day" in the media and AFC North.
- According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers are looking at wide receivers with their first-round pick.
Morning take: (Cough) Sorry, some smoke just entered the room.
- According to the Baltimore Sun, the Ravens are looking at cornerbacks with the No. 26 overall pick.
Morning take: (Cough, cough).
- According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Bengals are hoping to draft Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry (and not an offensive tackle).
Morning take: (Cough, cough, cough).
- According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns want nothing to do with Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree.
Morning take: (Cough, cough, cough, cough).
- Also according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns "have fallen in love" with Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree.
Morning take: (Cough, cough, cough, cough, cough) OK, get me out of here! I'm suffocating.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Team needs: Linebacker, receiver, defensive line
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Because it's unlikely Aaron Curry will be on the board, the Browns should consider defensive lineman Brian Orakpo (above).|
Plan B: If Curry is off the board, the Browns could turn their attention to Texas linebacker/defensive end hybrid Brian Orakpo. New head coach Eric Mangini needs versatile players for his 3-4 defense. Orakpo also brings a pass rush, which was a major weakness last season in Cleveland. Do not completely rule out Cleveland looking at receiver. It recently released receiver Joe Jurevicius and starter Donte Stallworth is facing legal woes that have put his career in jeopardy. With top receiver Braylon Edwards a big name on the trading block, Cleveland will need someone to throw to in '09.
Scouts Inc. take: "Their needs are many. Going across their offense, the Browns need receivers now. I think receiver all of a sudden is a huge need and Michael Crabtree might be a great pick for them. They need a running back-in-waiting. But they really need a pass-rusher. Their pass rush is atrocious, so Orakpo makes sense for them, putting him on the other side of Kamerion Wimbley. I think Wimbley has proven that he is not a No. 1 pass-rusher. He could be OK as a complementary guy. But he's been disappointing when the attention is rolled in his direction. So Orakpo or Crabtree makes the most sense, but they need a lot." -- Matt Williamson, Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: Contractually, first-year general manager George Kokinis has final say on the 53-man roster. But based on the team's moves in free agency -- acquiring four Jets last month -- it's clear that new coach Eric Mangini is pulling many of the strings behind the scenes. The company line is that both Mangini and Kokinis will work together as an equal tandem.
Now on the Clock: Seattle Seahawks.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North:
- Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich signed a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to compete for a starting job.
Morning take: With this domino falling, expect the Steelers to strike a deal with veteran quarterback Charlie Batch very soon to become Ben Roethlisberger's backup in 2009.
- The Kansas City Chiefs signed veteran linebacker Zach Thomas to a one-year contract this weekend.
Morning take: Why is this important to the AFC North? With starting linebackers Thomas, Mike Vrabel and Derrick Johnson in Kansas City, it is now possible for Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry to fall to the Cleveland Browns with the fifth overall pick.
- Will the Cincinnati Bengals trade receiver Chad Ocho Cinco?
Morning take: The feeling I gather is the player wants out and the team does not want to comply -- unless it's at the right price. Coming off a down year, the "right price" for Cincinnati doesn't seem attainable.
- New St. Louis Rams quarterback Kyle Boller says he has few regrets from his time with the Baltimore Ravens.
Morning take: Boller took a pounding early in his career and never recovered with the Ravens. It will be interesting to see if he can take advantage of a fresh start.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- GM Ozzie Newsome is at his best when selecting talent in the draft, writes the Baltimore Sun's Ken Murray.
- Former Nicholls State cornerback Lardarius Webb recently visited the Ravens, reports
- KYPost.com has "cruiser cam" video and a partial transcript of cornerback Leon Hall's arrest.
- The Browns are going to host former Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry and former Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells next week in preparation for the draft, reports The Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot.
The Steelers offered quarterback Byron Leftwich a two-year contract this week for close to the veteran minimum. Leftwich spent Thursday visiting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
- USA Today has an offseason review for the Steelers as well as a look at what the team needs in this month's draft.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
As the NFL draft nears, AFC North teams are narrowing their lists of prospects to take with the first-round picks. This week we look at those players and how each would fit with their teams.
Thursday we look at potential prospects for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who own the No. 32 overall pick:
1. Alex Mack, C, Pittsburgh Steelers
Starting center Justin Hartwig is in the final season of his two-year deal, so Pittsburgh will eventually need a long-term solution to work with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Mack could develop into that type of leader for the Steelers. Every good team needs at least six or seven solid offensive linemen. The Steelers were fortunate to be able to replace starters Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons when they were injured last year. Both of those players are now gone, which means depth is needed.
2. Darius Butler, CB, Connecticut
This is a deep year for cornerbacks and receivers, which is good for the Steelers because they should have a pick of solid players at either position with the final pick of the first round. If all things are equal, Pittsburgh could choose corner over the other skill position after losing starter Bryant McFadden to Arizona. Butler could be a good fit.
3. Alphonso Smith, CB, Wake Forest
If Pittsburgh wants to go for bigger-school experience, Smith could be the pick. He was the other stud defensive player for Wake Forest last year, opposite linebacker Aaron Curry. Smith (5 feet, 9 inches tall) is undersized, but he makes it up with aggressiveness and great speed. The Steelers could also look to take the best available offensive tackle here if the right player slips down the draft board.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
As the NFL draft nears, AFC North teams are narrowing their list of prospects to take with the first-round pick. This week we look at those select players and how each would fit with their respective division teams in 2009.
On Monday we start with potential prospects for the Cleveland Browns, who own the No. 5 overall pick:
1. Brian Orakpo, DE/OLB, Texas
Assuming Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, the best-case scenario, is taken off the board, Texas hybrid Brian Orakpo could be the next best option on Cleveland's radar. He has a mean streak and the ability to rush the passer from the defensive end or outside linebacker position. The Browns desperately need those assets added to their defense. If Orakpo fulfills his projection to become a No. 1 pass rusher, he would take a lot of pressure off outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who would get fewer double teams and develop into a better player in his own right. The pair of Orakpo and an energized Wimbley in 2009 would be a significant upgrade from last season.
2. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech
Although a lot of NFL people are against taking a wide receiver in the top five, the Browns just might do it. The recent release of Joe Jurevicius and serious legal trouble for starter Donte Stallworth have suddenly added to the urgency to getting another playmaker at the position. Crabtree would give Cleveland a big-time playmaker opposite starter Braylon Edwards, which would help the quarterback to be named later and open up the running game. Plus Edwards set to become a free agent in 2010 and, barring a franchise tag, he likely will not return. Crabtree could step into the top receiver role in Cleveland for years to come.
3. B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College
Cleveland has very little depth on the defensive line and needs to add players to the rotation. The Browns haven't stopped the run in a very long time and could use Raji's ability to do so. But Raji has to prove he could play defensive end in a 3-4 defense, because there is very little playing time available behind Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers. Pairing Rogers with Raji and a third d-lineman (Shaun or Robaire Smith?) would be a significant upgrade and a very physical unit, which is necessary in the AFC North. There was a report last week of Raji failing a drug test which, if confirmed, would likely take him out of the running.
Next up Tuesday: A look at the Cincinnati Bengals
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Perhaps more than any other position, the Cleveland Browns needed linebackers heading into the 2009 season.
That need became somewhat less vital Tuesday as the Browns signed former New York Jets linebacker David Bowens to a four-year contract. According to ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton, the deal is worth $7.2 million.
Bowens is versatile and can play inside or outside for Cleveland coach Eric Mangini, who spent time with Bowens in New York. Bowens, 31, was primarily a backup in New York but is expected to start for the linebacker-deprived Browns, who lost two starters (Willie McGinest and Andra Davis) this offseason.
The acquisition of Bowens doesn't mean Cleveland will stop looking for linebackers in the NFL draft, where the team hopes Aaron Curry of Wake Forest will be available at No. 5. But the Browns have at least three penciled-in starters for next season in Bowens, Kamerion Wimbley and D'Qwell Jackson.
In other AFC North news, the Browns also signed restricted free-agent safety Abram Elam to a one-year deal. The Jets have seven days to match Cleveland's $1.5 million offer. Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon also signed his one-year tender of $2.189 million Tuesday to officially return to the defending Super Bowl champions. Here is the full story.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The Wolf from Cleveland, OH writes: James, I have just read your post on Mangini fixing up the Browns. I have a few questions for you in regards to the Browns in the off season. 1. Who do you think the Browns will keep if they decide to get rid of one of them...Braylon Edwards or Kellen Winslow Jr? 2.Will Mangini and his staff better utilize Josh Cribbs and Jerome Harrison than Romeo's staff did? 3. What will the Browns do at #5 in the draft? I think they should trade down to get more picks unless Crabtree is available then they should take him based on his talent and the Browns needs at WR. 4. Finally I have to ask it, in your opinion, if you were in Mangini's position would you start Quinn or Anderson? Thank you for your time. The Wolf
JW: Mr. Wolf...buddy...you had so many questions that I had to give you your own post. There was no way I could get to these in one mailbag filled with other questions.
So let's break it down into parts.
Who do you think the Browns will keep if they decide to get rid of one of them...Braylon Edwards or Kellen Winslow Jr.?
With a new regime, I'm not sure the Browns are interested now in moving either player. But if they did, Winslow would be traded before Edwards. But keep in mind there is depth issues behind both players. At tight end, Darnell Dinkins is a free agent, Steve Heiden injured his knee late in the year and may not be ready for training camp, and Martin Rucker didn't show much in his first year. At receiver, Edwards was the only (somewhat) reliable option the Browns had last season.
Will Mangini and his staff better utilize Josh Cribbs and Jerome Harrison than Romeo's staff did?
Absolutely, even if it's by default. I cannot see these two players being used any worse than they were the past couple of seasons. With just running him up the middle, things became predictable when Cribbs was in the game, which defeated the purpose. Harrison, meanwhile, always seemed to be on a "pitch count” of three or four carries per game, even if those carries netted 30 yards. Expect better utilization of this pair in 2009.
What will the Browns do at #5 in the draft? Michael Crabtree?
Cleveland's roster will look much different in April than it does in February. But right now, before free agency, the Browns need to fill a need at linebacker. There are several options, such as Aaron Curry of Wake Forest and Everette Brown of Florida State. Cleveland has other needs. But if the team wants to play a 3-4 defense, it cannot have Leon Williams and Alex Hall making up half of the starting linebacker group. Crabtree is a great talent, but I'm not big on taking WRs in the top 5. That's a quick way to run your organization into the ground because the position is not that important. See the Detroit Lions.
If you were in Mangini's position would you start Quinn or Anderson?
If the assumption is the Browns won't get a good trade offer for Derek Anderson, I would open up an old-fashion quarterback competition. As a new head coach, I would have no ties to either player. Anderson didn't lead my team to 10 wins in 2007, and my general manager didn't take Brady Quinn in the first round. So without the behind-the-scenes politics or favoritism, I would aim to find who really is the better quarterback for my team. But the team will at least try to trade Anderson this offseason.
Thanks for the questions, Wolf.