AFC North: Alex Mack

BEREA, Ohio -- NFL players spend their offseason in various ways. Five Cleveland Browns joined players from around the league to wash the feet of orphans in Brazil.

In February, on a trip organized and funded by Browns tight end Gary Barnidge and Jets lineman Breno Giacomini, several players flew to Brazil to bring U.S. football to the country and shoes to an orphanage.

“It was a very humbling experience,” said Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo, a former first-round pick who made the trip. “Those kids are less fortunate than most, and they still found time to come out and smile with us. It just made the whole trip worth it.”

Barnidge and Giacomini founded American Football Without Borders with the mission “to spread American football to different corners of the globe with a humanitarian cause.”


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Two years ago, the two discussed a trip to Egypt with a friend who was Egyptian. The country’s revolution derailed those plans, so they decided to go global again and went to China. This February it was Brazil, and joining them from the Browns were safety Johnson Bademosi, center Alex Mack, tight end Jordan Cameron and Mingo. Among others on the trip were running back DeAngelo Williams of the Panthers, lineman Russell Okung and running back Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks, and receiver Golden Tate, now with Detroit.

The goal is to bring as many good elements of U.S. football as possible to the international community, as well as to help kids. AFWB hosts a clinic on every trip, then visits an orphanage. In Brazil, Barnidge partnered with the charitable group Samaritan’s Feet to bring shoes to kids who needed them.

Teaching football to the far reaches of the globe isn’t far-fetched. The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) has five federations worldwide and members in countries as varied as Nigeria, Mongolia, India and New Zealand.

“Everywhere we go they have something organized as far as playing football,” Barnidge said. “In China they had six teams, and now they’re up to 10 and they’ve been invited to play in other countries. It’s growing just in the two years since we’ve been there.”

Many of the NFL players who traveled did a short blog on the AFWB website about their experience. Cameron included a photo of a teenager in Brazil who had a tattoo of former Panthers and current Ravens receiver Steve Smith on his calf.

“Our overall goal is we want to get kids from other countries recognized by colleges here,” Barnidge said.

One of his 2013 campers in China came to Williams’ U.S. camp, where a Division III school offered him a scholarship on the spot, Barnidge said. The player turned it down to go to Stanford, but Barnidge took the recognition as a good sign.

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Language differences pose challenges, but Barnidge said that is overcome by simply showing the young players what to do.

“The camp alone was awesome,” Cameron said. “Just being able to help and teach the game that we love so much to other people was important to us.”

The orphanage, though, was an experience that will linger for a long time.

“One of the heaviest things ever,” Cameron said. “You see these kids and you almost want to adopt every single one of them. But at the same time they’re so positive and happy for us to be there.”

“They’re living in an orphanage,” Mingo said. “And they still found time to come out and visit with us and play. Amazing.”

Players spent time with the kids, kicked the soccer ball and did whatever they could. They then washed the feet of the kids before giving them shoes, courtesy of Samaritan’s Feet.

China’s orphanage had an entirely different level of experience.

“A lot of the kids had disabilities,” Barnidge said. “It’s heartbreaking. They’re out in the middle of nowhere and it’s just not fair. Why does this have to happen?”

But what Barnidge also remembers is that those kids were simply happy to meet American football players.

“Seeing their face smiling, that in itself is very rewarding,” he said.

The trip does involve some vacation time; the group bonds as they spend time together in the country after the humanitarian work is complete. Barnidge and Giacomini fund AFWB entirely on their own, though they’re actively looking for a sponsor.

For Barnidge, it’s part of giving, which he considers important. He works with Ohio Guidestone (formerly the Berea Children’s Home) to host 10 kids at every game and take them on a Christmas shopping spree. He said he wants to give back to “the less fortunate kids,” which is why he decided to visit the orphanages and partner with Samaritan’s Feet.

“In the position we’re in we can touch lives just by saying hi or spending time with somebody,” Barnidge said. “I don’t think people understand that enough. Just by spending 10 minutes with someone or signing an autograph you can change somebody’s life.”

“It wasn’t until we really got there,” Mingo said, “that it all made sense.”
PITTSBURGH -- The tears that made it hard for Maurkice Pouncey to talk Thursday afternoon also cut short what should have been a celebratory news conference.

Emotion choked the Pittsburgh Steelers center, and it emanated from the day last September when a teammate crashed into his right knee and left Pouncey in the kind of pain that made him wonder if he would ever walk well enough to play football again -- or at least at a high level.

What also had to overwhelm Pouncey: Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin all attended the official announcement of the five-year contract extension he signed nine months after tearing several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL.

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesMaurkice Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
Their presence as much as the new deal that could be worth as much as $44 million, affirmed to Pouncey that he is a Steeler.

And there is a difference between that and playing for the Steelers.

“It’s true love here,” Pouncey said shortly after the Steelers concluded organized team activities. “I’ll do anything for this team and I’m ready to lead us to where we’ve got to get back to.”

The Steelers concluded that Pouncey is one of the keys to them re-establishing themselves as perennial Super Bowl contenders following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

They made a bold move with the contract that is now the most lucrative for a center in the NFL.

They also made the correct move in locking up Pouncey long-term after the Jaguars had raised the ante at the position by signing Alex Mack to a five-year, $42 million contract (the Browns later matched it to retain Mack).

Pouncey is the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. His teammates respect him so much that they voted Pouncey a captain last season, not much more than a month after he had celebrated his 24th birthday. And Pouncey is the kind of player you build around on the offensive line, especially if your goal is to maximize Ben Roethlisberger's remaining seasons as a top-tier quarterback, something that Colbert has stated.

Questions have been raised about Pouncey and whether the 2010 first-round pick is prone to injury. But he had missed just three regular-season games prior to 2013.

And the injuries he suffered in the Steelers’ season opener were a result of nothing more than rotten luck, as friendly fire took Pouncey out after right guard David DeCastro whiffed on an attempted cut block.

The Steelers are obviously comfortable with Pouncey’s injury history as well as where he is from a health standpoint nine months after hurting his right knee. Pouncey’s teammates, meanwhile, were nothing short of ecstatic about his new deal.

And not because Pouncey is likely to pick up the next couple of dinner tabs.

“He worked his butt off so we’re glad to have the team commit to him like that,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “We’re more excited than he is about it.”

Just not as emotional.

“I was just telling coach (Tomlin) it seems like five years all over again, and I’m ready to start this path and help this team get back to where we need to,” said Pouncey, who turns 25 the day before the Steelers report to training camp. “This is really an awesome feeling and words can’t really say enough about it.”

Browns offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
May 23
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 With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Cleveland Browns' offseason moves:

[+] EnlargeRay Farmer
AP Photo/Tony DejakIt's looking like a smart move -- for now -- that the Browns hired Ray Farmer as their general manager.
Best move: Naming Ray Farmer general manager was a shocking move, but it was the right move. Farmer has brought stability, a clear vision and common sense back to the front office. His free-agent moves replaced players lost to free agency and added needed talent at running back. His draft picks were based on evaluations and not projections. His answers have been filled with common sense, logic and a humanity to appreciate. It's all still on paper. Farmer's team has yet to play a game. And the details behind the move from Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi to Farmer are still not known -- Banner and Lombardi could have been just as active as Farmer. But what is known is Farmer has brought many clear positives to the Browns.

Riskiest move: Drafting Johnny Manziel could be the greatest move Farmer ever makes. Or it could backfire. Prior to the draft, there were as many people saying to avoid Manziel as were saying to take him. The Browns played it coy, perhaps even leaking word they were more interested in Teddy Bridgewater. Manziel has supercharged interest in the team since the draft, but he still has to play and prove that he’s tall enough, competent enough and tough enough to be Johnny Football in Cleveland.

Most surprising move: Not taking a receiver in the draft went against all logic, especially because the Browns front office knew prior to the draft of Josh Gordon’s likely suspension. Without Gordon, the Browns lack a playmaker. They lack their only playmaker. The time to take a receiver would have been in the second round, but the Browns chose offensive lineman Joel Bitonio. That tells much about how the Browns feel about Bitonio, and about their approach in winning games this season.

Smartest move that wasn’t originally thought to be so smart: Giving the transition tag to Alex Mack. The initial thought was that would allow other teams to swoop in and steal the Pro Bowl center. In the end, Mack wound up getting a tepid offer from Jacksonville that the Browns quickly matched. Yes, the Browns are paying a center a ton of money, but it’s essentially a two-year deal that either side can end after 2015. At that point, the team can assess again how much it likes Mack.
Alex Mack's contract is a big win for the Cleveland Browns (insert "thank Jacksonville" crack here).

That's the word from an NFL Insider familiar with the workings of NFL contracts, a wise individual with no agenda who noticed Wednesday's post on Mack's contract that detailed the Browns can get out of the deal after three years, which the insider said is one year too late.

“The Browns can let him go after two years if they want,” said wise individual said. “There's nothing stopping them.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsCenter Alex Mack will make $18 million guaranteed in the first two years of his new deal.
Why would the Browns do that? They wouldn't if Mack is healthy and playing well and they can afford him. But if he's slipped at all and the team's cap situation is tighter, Mack would be 30 and he'd have given the Browns seven good years.

At that point, the wise and unbiased individual said, it may be a good time to force a pay cut or cut ties.

Mack played his first five years on a rookie deal that paid him a reported $14.6 million, or an average of $2.92 million. The first two years of this new deal will pay him $10 million and $8 million guaranteed, which the wise individual said is way too high for a center.

But it means Mack will make $4.6 million per year for seven years, which the wise individual described as good for a center from a team standpoint.

Especially a Pro Bowl center.

Mack does have an injury protection guarantee for the third year, meaning if he's hurt in the second year and can't pass a physical for 2016 he is paid the $8 million.

But Mack has been healthy, so when the third year of the deal rolls around it may well come down to another negotiation. Mack may wish to stay in Cleveland, the Browns may wish to give him a pay cut. Mack may balk, or he may feel so good about the team at that point he may go along. The flip side is true as well; Mack may be playing so well the Browns may accept another year at $8 million. And Mack himself can void the final three years if he chooses to do so.

Bottom line: There will be another negotiation after the 2015 season.

The decision becomes the team's completely in the final two years, with roster bonuses of $2 million prior to 2017 and '18.

The Browns assured themselves of keeping Mack until he's 30, and Mack will become a wealthy young man.

But, as this insider said, it's a clear win for the Browns.
It has been widely and accurately reported that Alex Mack can void the final three years of his contract and become a free agent after two seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

Mack
But the Browns also can escape either of the final two years of his deal. So both sides have some leverage.

A close look shows that the Jacksonville Jaguars really gave the Browns little to consider about matching the offer. It pays Mack well for two years, but it has no signing bonus, and though Mack can leave after two years -- he'll be 30 at that point -- the team can also let him go after three and thus not pay the final two.

Mack did receive fully guaranteed salaries of $10 million and $8 million in 2014 and 2015, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System.

He then can choose to stay or become a free agent again. What does he want to see these next two years that would keep him a Brown? Wins, he said.

If he stays, the third-year salary of $8 million is also fully guaranteed, which means he’d receive $26 million guaranteed.

After that, though, it’s up to the team.

Mack is due a $2 million roster bonus in the offseason before 2016, and another $2 million before 2017.

If the Browns pay either roster bonus, they keep Mack and also pay him a $6 million salary, a relative pittance if they feel Mack’s play warrants the roster bonus. That makes his salary-cap cost in both seasons $8 million.

But if they choose not to pay the bonus, the final two years or year would be wiped out and Mack would then become a free agent.

So Mack’s deal could be five years, it could be three or four at the team’s discretion, or it could be two years at his.

Total value of the deal if he stays all five years with the Browns: $42 million.
Cleveland Browns fans complained the past few years as the team sat idly by while free agency raged. The Browns fiddled while free agents burned holes in owners’ pockets.

Or something like that.

Since the 2014 version of free agency began, the Browns have spent $55.8 million in guaranteed money.

That’s the highest total in the AFC North, and following the matching of Jacksonville’s offer to Alex Mack, ranks third in the league in guaranteed money spent since March 11.

Which means the Browns rank third to the Bucs and Broncos in guaranteed money, with most of it going to Mack ($18 million reported, though the number has not been confirmed), linebacker Karlos Dansby ($12 million) and safety Donte Whitner ($13 million). The Browns started free agency with a glut of cap space, and they’ve not been shy about using it.

And they’ve spend more than $50 million in guaranteed contracts without even addressing the quarterback position.

Second in the division in spending are the Baltimore Ravens at $36.3 million, though their total does not include re-signing Dennis Pitta just before free agency began. That signing brings the Ravens' guaranteed money total to $52.3 million -- still short of the Browns.

Most of Baltimore’s money went to Pitta and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe ($19 million).

Take away those two re-signings and Baltimore’s guaranteed total of $18 million is more like a team that feels good about itself.

Same for the Bengals, a team that has made the playoffs three years in a row and feels it’s close to something good. Cincinnati has spent just $7.3 million in guaranteed money, the fourth lowest total in the league.

Pittsburgh? The Steelers never go overboard in free-agent spending and this year is no different. Their total of $8.7 million is just ahead of Cincinnati.
Center Alex Mack channeled The Turtles on Monday.

He and the Cleveland Browns are simply "happy together" now that the Browns matched Jacksonville Jaguars' five-year offer sheet to the Browns center.

"Imagine you and me ... "

Mack termed all the reports that he preferred to be in Jacksonville mere positioning.

"Business is business," he said. "All I can say is I'm happy to be here. I'm excited to play football. I'm ready to go to work."

Mack said all the usual things about the free agent experience. It was interesting. The uncertainty was wearing. He's happy how it worked out. And yes, he's happy to be the highest paid center in the league.

"I work hard," Mack said. "I'm going to continue to do that."

Mack is right about that. He is a hard worker, and a valuable member of the Browns offensive line.

And, thanks to the work of Marvin Demoff, he has a five-year contract that he can void after two years to again pursue free agency.

"It gives me a lot of power as a player, which is exciting," Mack said. "That's something that may happen or it may not happen."

Mack said when he received the transition tag -- which allowed the Browns to match any offer he received -- he was sent scurrying to Wikipedia to find out what it meant. He added that he knew when he signed with the Jaguars he could wind up there, so he had to be happy with the thought of the Browns or Jacksonville.

In the two years he will be in Cleveland, Mack said he wants one thing: "To win games."

"I think about you day and night, it's only right ... so happy together."

That was quick.

The Cleveland Browns didn’t need to think much at all about matching the offer sheet the Jacksonville Jaguars gave center Alex Mack.

They decided before the end of Friday to keep Mack with the Browns. Apparently, owner Jimmy Haslam meant it when he said the team had no intention of losing Mack. So the center will stay in Cleveland on a five-year deal, which he can void after two years, that will pay him $10 million, $8 million and $8 million the next three seasons -- all guaranteed.

Mack was either going to wake up rich in Cleveland or Jacksonville. As it turns out, he’s going to be rich with the team that drafted him.

He becomes the league’s highest-paid center, which the Browns accept. And they accept it because he’s been a good player for them for years, and because it continues a trend of keeping or adding players so the Browns can address the draft with the mindset of taking the best available player.

The Browns earned the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft by being a bad team in 2013.

They didn’t need to create more needs. They clearly believe they can swallow Mack’s cost and still extend the contracts of veterans like Joe Haden and Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon. As long as that’s true, there’s no reason not to keep a player if they like him. And the Browns clearly like Mack.

A week of talk and chatter simply went in a circle and wound up where it started, with Mack as the Browns starting center in 2014.
Ten random thoughts on Alex Mack's expected signing of his offer sheet from the Jacksonville Jaguars today, which would make this an "Alex Mack First and 10":

  1. A lot of contract numbers have been leaked. While the numbers are all consistently close, I'm waiting to pass judgment on the deal until the actual numbers are known. I've seen too many contracts reported as worth $50 million when the last year of the $50 million was a $24 million salary that was never expected to be paid in the first place and only put in the deal to make the player and agent feel good about getting $50 million.
  2. [+] EnlargeAlex Mack
    Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsRegardless of which team veteran Alex Mack plays for in the 2014 season, he's poised to be the NFL's highest-paid center.
    That being said, there are nine more items to fill here so ... If the deal is as reported -- five years, $42 million, $18 million guaranteed the first two years -- it's a bit of a head-scratcher. Why Jacksonville would think that would scare the Browns into not matching is puzzling.
  3. This is why I want to see the actual numbers. Because as reported, it's kind of a "Huh?" offer to a transition player.
  4. Mack made the system work. Or his agent did. Regardless of where he plays, Mack will be the league's highest-paid center. That's a good offseason.
  5. Which reminds me of one of my favorite stories about contracts, way back when baseball's arbitration system first began. Pitcher Dave Stewart was one of the first cases, and he lost. His comment after: "No problem. I was either going to wake up rich, or richer."
  6. I'm not convinced Mack prefers to play in Cleveland anymore. The fact that he will sign with an organization that has struggled as much as the Jaguars have indicates he's ready to move on. That being said, if Mack returns I would not expect him to sulk. He's been a pro since he arrived, and if it turned out he'd be rich in Cleveland as opposed to Jacksonville, there would be no reason to wonder about his commitment or effort. He'd remain a pro.
  7. If the Browns do choose to match, they'll have the core of their line for the next few years with Joe Thomas, Mack and Mitchell Schwartz in the fold. Yes, I said Schwartz. He's better than he's given credit for. Perhaps the Browns might wish to send the Jaguars a box of candy and a thank-you note.
  8. Mack also becomes the second-highest-paid player on the team, behind Thomas. This is the argument against matching. With guys like Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron ready to be extended, and with Joe Haden at the head of the line, making the center that wealthy goes against the grain. Former NFL lineman Ross Tucker summed it up this way for the Sporting News: "It's not a difference-making position that has a huge impact on wins and losses." (LeCharles Bentley would no doubt disagree.) Consider that Mack's transition cost is more than $10 million. A respectable-to-good center or guard (with John Greco sliding to center) would cost half that much. Mack is a good player, but the sky won't fall if he's not a Brown this season and beyond.
  9. Ask most anyone about building a team and they'll say the most important position is the guy who throws the ball, followed by the guy who stops the guy from having the ball caught, followed by the guy who can get to the guy throwing the ball, followed by the guy who protects the blind side of the guy throwing the ball, followed by the guy who catches the ball. The order may change from team to team depending on talent, but that's the general list. That's a roundabout way of saying the list does not include a center.
  10. So the Browns have to ask: Does it make sense to pay a center that much when they have so many of the "prime" positions lined up for extensions or deals in the future? Imagine, too, if Brian Hoyer proves to be the real deal. He is on the second of a two-year contract.
 

Things are about to turn serious for the Cleveland Browns.

By Friday, the Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to sign center Alex Mack to a five-year offer sheet, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The Browns will have five days to match the offer, but the fact it's happening indicates it will not be simple. Too, the fact it's happening drives home one point louder than loud and clear: Mack no longer wants to be in Cleveland.

Jacksonville’s offer will make Mack the NFL’s highest paid center by a wide margin, Schefter reported, and he has decided he’d rather earn that money in North Florida than North Ohio.

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns have the salary-cap space to match likely any offer for standout center Alex Mack.
The Browns have said all along that they want Mack to be in Cleveland for years. Owner Jimmy Haslam told reporters just that on Tuesday night at a pre-screening of Kevin Costner’s new Cleveland-based movie “Draft Day,” but the devil (as always) will be in the details.

The Browns took a calculated gamble when they decided to save $1.6 million and not make Mack the franchise player. That would have taken him off the market. By making Mack their transition player, they can match -- but they also gave one of the shrewdest agents working, Marvin Demoff, the chance to see what he could do for his client.

The main key will be how the five-year offer is structured, and whether Mack tells the Browns he simply does not want to be with them anymore.

As of April 7, the Browns had the cap space to match almost any offer. ESPN’s Roster Management System had them with $31 million in cap space, with the Jaguars sitting with $25 million.

The Browns entered free agency with more than $49 million, which clearly indicates they intended to match any offer Mack received. Jacksonville -- and probably Demoff -- waited for the spending spree to take place before securing their offer, complicating things a tiny bit.

Now the Browns must weigh the offer sheet with several other needs, among them the desire to extend contracts of other key players, including cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Jordan Cameron, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, linebacker Jabaal Sheard and, perhaps most important, receiver Josh Gordon. They also have 10 draft picks to pay -- including two first-rounders -- and if Brian Hoyer works out as the team’s quarterback, the Browns also would have to address his future; he is on the second season of a two-year deal.

Prior to seeing the offer for Mack, matching would be the strongest likelihood. But if the contract is beyond what the Browns want to pay their center, they will have a decision to make. One factor in using the transition tag and not the franchise tag was because the Browns felt the franchise number was well out of the range of the top paid center. Presumably this offer will be worth more than the transition tag figure. Another question is whether Mack wants to be a Brown. If he doesn’t, is it worth making him the league’s highest paid center?

Mack’s transition tender would have paid him $10.039 million. Another $1.6 million and the team could have secured him at least for this season.

The Browns chose not to do so.

Their next choice will depend on the details they will soon receive.
There are multiple reports indicating the Baltimore Ravens are close to re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe, and a deal could be complete before the start of free agency at 4 p.m.

This likely will be the first of a handful of moves in free agency as the Ravens look to improve the NFL's 29th-ranked offense. Let's take a look at who else could be on the team's radar:

WIDE RECEIVER

Smith
Steve Smith, Carolina: The Panthers are reportedly trying to trade Smith, and they could ultimately release him. Smith is the type of clutch, go-to receiver the Ravens need. He also brings an intensity and work ethic that can rub off on young receivers. The biggest problem is Smith turns 35 in May and he's coming off his second-least productive season over the past nine years. He had 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns.

Julian Edelman, New England: He fits what the Ravens want: a receiver who can make the tough catches underneath and can break tackles to convert third downs. Edelman's skill set would complement Torrey Smith's deep speed and give the Ravens two receivers hitting their prime. What is tough is gauging whether Edelman can come close to matching his 2013 breakthrough season (105 catches for 1,056 yards) without Tom Brady throwing him the ball.

Golden Tate, Seattle: Tate would be at the top of my list for the Ravens. At 25, he's just reaching the prime of his career. His receiving stats aren't overly impressive because he has played in a run-heavy offense, but the key is his numbers have improved each season. Tate's biggest selling point: He led the league in yards after catch per reception (7.75), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Plus, he's not afraid to block, and he's known for being a high-character player in the locker room.

TIGHT END

Pettigrew
Pettigrew
Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit: Even though the Ravens signed Dennis Pitta, the Ravens are expected to line up in two tight ends a lot under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Pettigrew, who is more of a complete tight end than Pitta, would be an excellent fit for the Ravens. General manager Ozzie Newsome liked Pettigrew in the 2009 draft, but the Lions selected him six picks ahead of the Ravens. Pettigrew, 29, never delivered the pass-catching numbers expected of a first-round pick. Last season's production (41 catches for 416 yards and two touchdowns) was his lowest since his rookie season. The Ravens need him as much for his blocking as pass-catching skills. He would be an upgrade over Ed Dickson, who is a free agent.

Owen Daniels, Houston: Daniels, who was released by the Texans on Tuesday, is on the list because of his obvious connection with Kubiak, the former head coach of the Texans. He runs great routes, can catch most passes thrown his way and has proved to be a functional blocker. Durability is the biggest concern. He has been limited to 11 games or fewer in three of the past five seasons. Last season, Daniels played only five games because of a fractured fibula.

Garrett Graham, Houston: Just like Daniels, Graham is here because of his history with Kubiak. He proved he could be effective in the passing game (49 catches and five touchdowns last season) and is an above-average blocker. With his age (27) and upside, some teams (like the Buccaneers) will view him as a potential No. 1 tight end. He wouldn't have that high-profile role with the Ravens.

CENTER

Mack
Alex Mack, Cleveland: There are reports the Ravens could turn their attention to Mack if they can't get a deal done with Monroe. What is going to be difficult is prying the Pro Bowl center away from the Browns, who put the transition tag on him. That means they can match any offer. If the Ravens can somehow pull this off, this would be a major step toward improving the offensive line. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I believe adding Mack would be a better move than keeping Monroe.

David Baas, New York Giants: Baas, who was cut by the Giants on Monday, would serve as a stopgap until Gino Gradkowski can get stronger. Baas is 32 and has an injury history, which is why he can be had for a one- or two-year deal. He has been the Giants' starting center since signing as a free agent in 2011, but has struggled to stay healthy. His 2013 season ended early as a result of a neck injury. The Giants could target Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who could follow offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo from Green Bay to New York.

Brian De La Puente, New Orleans: He's a three-year starter for the Saints who will draw interest because of a weak free-agent market for centers. Before joining the Saints, he was a journeyman who played on six teams in three seasons. At 28, De La Puente could be coming into his own at the right time. He's not considered a power player inside.
Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.

The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.

So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.

Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:

1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.

2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.

3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.

4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.

6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.

8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.

9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.

11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.

12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.

13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.

14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.

15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.
One of the most interesting things to watch when free agency begins next week will be what happens with Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack.

In one corner with Mack is one of his agents, Marvin Demoff, who is one of the smartest, shrewdest negotiators around. Very few “get over” on Demoff.

In the other corner are the Browns, who clearly feel that by giving Mack the transition tag they ensured they could and would keep him in Cleveland.

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsCenter Alex Mack is one of the top free agents available this offseason.
Call it a free-agent chess match, with rooks and knights moving frequently.

The one thing the Browns did was ensure Mack would be wealthy.

Because he’ll sign a long-term contract with a team that will have to be lavish to make the Browns not match it, or he’ll play for the transition figure of $10.04 million in 2014.

There are those who wonder why the Browns didn’t just franchise Mack and make sure he’d stay. No team would give up two first-round draft choices for a center, and the cost was “only” another $1.6 million. But the Browns chose the transition tag, figuring that kept Mack’s pay a little closer to the top centers. The team no doubt figures with its cap room it will be able to match any offer.

Mack’s other agent, Tim Younger, threw a bit of a curveball at that thinking, though, telling USA Today he will treat the market as if Mack is unrestricted.

Last weekend, the Browns sent a contingent of folks including line coach Andy Moeller, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, coach Mike Pettine, GM Ray Farmer and even owner Jimmy Haslam to talk to Mack. They didn’t discuss the transition tag. The discussion was about football philosophy, and the team had no obligation to tell Mack he’d be transitioned. The team is simply using a tool to try to keep him, as Mack will use his free agency to see what's out there.

What’s interesting is that he is so determined to see what might be available -- almost as if his corner has something surprising up its sleeve.

“You only get to play this game so long,” Mack told USA Today.

Mack’s stock has risen as free agency has approached. ESPN’s Bill Polian has rated him the fourth-best player available, but two of the three players ahead of Mack have been franchised -- New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and Carolina’s Greg Hardy.

At $10.04 million, Mack is overpaid for a center -- his value given his position and where he ranks in the league is probably closer to $6 or $7 million annually.

But his value to the Browns is important. He anchors the interior of the line, he fits in Shanahan’s zone-block system and he’s adept at line calls. If he leaves, he’ll create another need to fill -- much like the departure of D’Qwell Jackson created a need or the impending departure of T.J. Ward will create a need.

Nobody is indispensable. Those three were with the Browns for years and the team hasn’t won more than six games the past six seasons. The Browns can lose with or without them.

But adding more needs to a 4-12 team increases challenges.

Without the transition tag, Mack would have been in demand. With the franchise tag, he’d have been off the market. As the transition player he is somewhere in middle -- able to solicit offers but restricted in what he can take.

Demoff is the wild card.

If anyone can make it more interesting than the Browns may like, it’s him.

Free-agency primer: Browns

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
AM ET
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: C Alex Mack (transition), S T.J. Ward, G Shawn Lauvao

Where they stand: The Cleveland Browns have a ton of salary-cap space and a ton of needs. The team hopes the transition tag keeps suitors from signing Mack, but they could have ensured he’d stay in Cleveland by simply paying another $1.6 million and making him the franchise player. If he leaves, that means the Browns have added another need to others that include safety, guard, inside linebacker, running back and receiver. They could go in any direction they choose in free agency, but given the strength of the draft at receiver, that is probably one area they will bypass.

What to expect: The Browns should be active on the free agent market. They have cap room, they have needs and they have an owner in Jimmy Haslam who has made no secret he feels this offseason is critical to the team’s future. Guessing what positions the Browns focus on might be foolish, but clearly they need help at safety, and they could go after Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd. They also need help at linebacker after the release of D'Qwell Jackson, and they need help at guard. The biggest splash might just come at running back, though, where a guy like Houston’s Ben Tate might appeal to Mike Pettine’s physical approach. As for the much-needed and discussed quarterback spot, look for the Browns to bypass free agency and look to the draft.

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