AFC North: Andra Davis
|Robert E. Klein/Icon SMI|
|Former Belichick disciples Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels face off as head coaches for the first time on Sunday in Denver.|
As the New England Patriots continue their immense success throughout this decade, the coaching tree of Bill Belichick also continues to grow in the NFL.
In that respect, Sunday will be a landmark day as two assistants Belichick raised from the ground up will face off as head coaches when Eric Mangini’s Cleveland Browns (0-1) travel to play Josh McDaniels of the Denver Broncos (1-0) at Invesco Field.
Former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel was another Belichick assistant, but Crennel also learned mostly under Bill Parcells before arriving to New England. McDaniels, 33, and Mangini, 38, are more considered Belichick prodigies as former entry-level assistants with the Patriots.
McDaniels and Mangini, both friends, were part of the same staff in New England from 2001 to 2005. McDaniels was a defensive assistant in 2002-03 under Mangini, who at the time was a defensive backs coach. Now they’re adversaries and a significant part of the NFL’s current youth movement of head coaches.
"Back then I’m sure neither one of us really thought much about that, but we are where we’re at," McDaniels said. "I’m sure he’s looking forward to the game as I am."
All indications are that McDaniels left New England on good terms, while it’s no secret the ire Belichick has for Mangini after the "Spygate" fiasco.
Therefore, Mangini said he doesn’t expect any good-luck notes from Belichick this week, despite two of his former pupils facing each other Sunday.
"I’m sure [Belichick is] concentrating on whoever they’re playing this week; I don’t remember who they’re playing this week," Mangini said. "I’m sure that’s what he’s focused on. Hopefully, it won’t come down to luck. It will come down to the way that we prepare."
Jury still out?
Overall, Belichick’s disciples have had mixed results as head coaches.
|Robert E. Klein/Icon SMI|
|A former offensive coordinator in New England, McDaniels started out with the Pats as an assistant under Mangini.|
Mangini was 23-25 in three seasons with the New York Jets before he was fired in 2008. Crennel was 24-40 in four seasons in Cleveland, and Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis currently faces a lot of heat in South Bend during his fifth season.
McDaniels is the only undefeated coach of the bunch after winning his debut in miraculous fashion. After trailing 7-6 late, Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley caught a tipped pass and turned it into an 87-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining to take a 12-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The sequence already is an early candidate for play of the year in the NFL.
"We’re very fortunate to be 1-0," McDaniels admitted. "But we also feel we played hard for 60 minutes and never gave up."
Was it all beginners’ luck or Belichick-like skill?
"They did a lot of things right leading up to that point," Mangini explained. "They were in that position. Sometimes the ball bounces that way."
The Browns actually interviewed McDaniels for their coaching opening that eventually went to Mangini. McDaniels said the experience was very valuable, and later that offseason he wowed the brass in Denver to land the Broncos’ job.
A lot was being made of McDaniels' inexperience after some early run-ins with star players Jay Cutler, who was traded to the Chicago Bears, and receiver Brandon Marshall. But in Week 1 Denver played very hard for its rookie head coach and looked organized down to the final seconds in beating the Bengals.
"One of the early lessons that I learned is that it doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, you could be 80, you could be 20, right on down the line," Mangini said. "If the players know that you’re giving them an opportunity to get better, and a chance to win, that’s what they respect. With a guy like Josh, he does that."
Broncos middle linebacker and former Brown Andra Davis said it’s clear in Denver that McDaniels is seasoned despite his youth.
"He’s been around football all his life," Davis said. "His father is a legendary coach out there in Ohio. He’s coached under a Hall of Fame coach in Belichick. So he knows football.
"It doesn’t matter the age. If you know what you’re talking about, guys are going to follow and pay attention."
This is a big early-season matchup for both teams and its head coaches.
Mangini and McDaniels are working hard to change the culture and quickly put their imprint on their teams. The easiest way to do that is by winning games.
The Broncos are off to a good start, and going 2-0 in the AFC West would put them in a great spot where many are automatically crowning the San Diego Chargers (1-0). The Browns (0-1), meanwhile, are trying to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start, where they would quickly fall behind in a tough AFC North.
Cleveland also has a tough road game next week against a division rival and AFC contender in the Baltimore Ravens (1-0), making this week’s game even more important.
But to get their wish, one Belichick pupil will have to outcoach the other this Sunday.
“It’s a very difficult preparation,” McDaniels said of facing Mangini. “He’s going to test you in every way, shape or form possible. You know his team is going to be very well-coached.”
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
BEREA, Ohio -- By the midpoint of the 2008 season, it was pretty clear that linebacker Andra Davis’ days were numbered in a Browns uniform.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Andra Davis, a former Brown, had nine tackles and a sack in his Broncos debut.|
But Davis, 30, signed to become a starting linebacker for the Broncos (1-0) and has seemingly found the fountain of youth, registering nine tackles and a sack in Denver’s 12-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Sunday will mark the first time Davis meets Cleveland (0-1), which drafted him eight seasons ago.
“I’m happy for him because he needed new scenery,” Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “He was here for so long. I talk to him all the time and he’s loving it out there. If you watch him on film, the guy is flying around.”
The Broncos are playing scrappy defensively and are tied for second in the NFL in points allowed after Week 1. Davis is playing some of his best football early and has extra motivation facing many of his friends and former teammates.
“When they get here, I’m going to make sure I see them and talk to them before and after the game,” Davis said. “But during the game it’s going to be a war. I expect their best, as well as I know they’re going to expect my best. But after the game it’s all love again.”
Although Denver’s win over Cincinnati will be remembered mostly for receiver Brandon Stokley’s 87-yard touchdown catch at the end of the game, its defense did a good job before that to hold a very talented offense to just seven points.
The Broncos intercepted Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer twice and registered three sacks, displaying some of the problems Denver and Davis could pose for Cleveland’s offense this weekend.
“They got pressure on Carson and they shutdown some big-play wide receivers, whether it was Chad [Ochocinco] and Laveranues [Coles],” Browns quarterback Brady Quinn said. “They did a good job of making plays when they had to, as well, in key situations.”
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|After being traded to Tampa Bay and signing a new, hefty contract, Kellen Winslow will be one of the most prominent faces of the Buccaneers' new regime.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and James Walker
When head coach Eric Mangini and general manager George Kokinis took over in Cleveland and head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik were hired in Tampa Bay, the four men instantly began re-shaping their franchises.
No move was bigger for either team than the deal the Browns and Buccaneers made for tight end Kellen Winslow at the start of free agency. In exchange for a second-round pick this year and a fifth-round choice in 2010, the Bucs got Winslow and the Browns got rid of him.
There are two ways to look at this deal. Cleveland got rid of a potential headache because Winslow was looking for a new contract and might not have fit with the new regime. On the flip side, he might be a perfect fit in Tampa and the Bucs already have turned around and given Winslow a new six-year contract worth $36.1 million.
The trade comes with potential positives and negatives for both teams. James Walker and Pat Yasinskas take a look at who might be the winner in the Winslow trade.
Why didn't Winslow fit with Cleveland? How does he fit in Tampa?
James Walker: When the Browns changed regimes, the writing was pretty much on the wall for Winslow. Mangini and Kokinis wanted to start over -- completely. Cleveland quickly went on a purge where it traded or released veterans such as Winslow, receiver Joe Jurevicius and offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer. The Browns also didn't retain in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and veteran linebackers Andra Davis and Willie McGinest. To put it bluntly, there aren't many players on Cleveland's current roster that Mangini is enamored with, because he wants to win or lose with his players. Winslow had trade value so the Browns didn't pass up the opportunity. He was also in his sixth year and wanted a new contract, so that played a factor as well. Winslow's skill sets could have fit with the Browns on the field, so I doubt this particular move had much to do with talent. But in terms of personalities, Winslow is not shy about speaking his mind, while Mangini often likes his team shrouded in secrecy. This oil-and-water combination probably would not have worked anyway. So this was a good separation for both sides.
Pat Yasinskas: Tampa Bay is starting over, too, and one team's trash is another's treasure. The new contract should make Winslow happy and he's landing in an offense that's going to be built largely around his skills. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski will build a downfield passing game around Winslow and wide receiver Antonio Bryant. While Winslow's outspoken nature caused him some problems in Cleveland, that shouldn't be an issue with the Bucs. Morris is only 32 and excels at relating to players. Morris also isn't one of those coaches who tries to control his players' actions and words at all times. He lets them be individuals and Winslow will be allowed to be himself. The change of surroundings also give Winslow a fresh start and that could help more than anything. Although there will be lofty expectations because of the contract, he won't be under the microscope as much as he was in Cleveland. Tampa Bay fans are intense, but this isn't a situation like Cleveland, where Winslow's high draft position meant anything less than perfection was failure.
How will the Browns replace him and how will the Bucs use him?
|Jerome Davis/Icon SMI|
|The Browns will attempt to replace Winslow with a committee of tight ends, including free-agent signee Robert Royal.|
James Walker: The Browns no longer have a tight end with 80-catch potential on their roster. So they are hoping to replace Winslow's production by committee. Cleveland signed former Buffalo Bills tight end Robert Royal, who could be a serviceable starter but never had more than 33 catches in a season. The Browns also have veteran Steve Heiden returning from a serious knee injury and second-year player Martin Rucker, who is still learning but has some potential. If the three tight ends can contribute a combined total of 50-60 receptions next season, I think Cleveland's coaching staff would be happy with that type of production. The tricky thing is Winslow's ability to create mismatches in the middle of the field would have made life much easier for Cleveland's quarterbacks, particularly Brady Quinn, who often likes to check down to his short and intermediate options. If Quinn is the starter, I think he is going to miss Winslow's presence the most. Winslow has tremendous hands and was one of the few consistent weapons in Cleveland's offense the past few seasons who showed up ready to play every week. So how will Winslow be utilized in Tampa's offense, Pat?
Pat Yasinskas: James, while Cleveland is going away from having a pass-catching tight end as a big part of the offense, the Bucs are going in the exact opposite direction. Tight end wasn't a big part of the offense in former coach Jon Gruden's system, but it will be with Morris and Jagodzinski. They've scrapped Gruden's West Coast offense and will go with a system that is supposed to balance the run and the pass. The Bucs don't yet know if Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich will be their quarterback. But they do know they want the quarterback throwing often to Winslow and Bryant. The Bucs have plenty of depth at tight end with Alex Smith, John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens on the roster. Those other three tight ends will get some playing time and they'll be asked to take on some blocking duties in the running game. But Winslow wasn't brought in here to be a blocker. He'll line up at tight end, but he'll also get some snaps in the slot and out wide. It's a pretty safe guess that the Bucs will be looking to get somewhere around 80 catches out of Winslow.
Did the Bucs overpay with the $36.1 million contract extension?
Pat Yasinskas: There's no doubt Tampa Bay went overboard in giving Winslow a new six-year deal that makes him the highest-paid tight end in history. In theory, that kind of contract should go to the league's best tight end. Winslow hasn't qualified as that -- yet. But the Bucs based this deal on his enormous potential. Yes, it's true he hasn't ever fully reached his potential.
The Bucs are banking Winslow can stay healthy and be the best tight end in the league. They're going to make him a focal point of the offense and his acquisition was the first big move by Dominik and Morris. The contract is a further statement about how huge a role the Bucs want Winslow to play.
James Walker: After watching Winslow the past three seasons, I think he's going to do well in Tampa, and the change of divisions will help his production to the point where fans could forget the extension.
Nothing against your NFC South, Pat. But Winslow had to face the top-flight defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens four games a year and still put up very good numbers. He had tremendous battles with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Ravens safety Ed Reed, and those two players often said Winslow was one of their toughest matchups annually. I would guess Winslow is licking his chops looking at some of the safeties and linebackers in the NFC South, compared to the personnel he had to face earlier in his career. As you mentioned, Pat, health is the only question.
As far as your contract theory, contracts are relative to the current market. Two years ago Daniel Graham of the Denver Broncos was the highest-paid tight end. Last season it was Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts. And those are not the league's two best tight ends. A year from now someone else likely will become the highest paid at the position, because that's how the market works.
How will this trade work out?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2008 STATS REC YDS TD AVG LNG 43 428 3 10.0 30
Pat Yasinskas: After firing Gruden and releasing Derrick Brooks, the Bucs were lacking star power. The Glazer family, which owns the team, likes star power and they got some flash in Winslow. He instantly gives the team a big name and his personality should help liven up a locker room that didn't have a true spirit last season. Yes, the price tag was steep and there are plenty of other needs the Bucs could have filled if they kept their second-round pick. But they would not have gotten an instant star in the second round. They get that in Winslow and, for better or worse, he'll be one of the front men for this new regime.
James Walker: For the Browns, they will probably use the additional second-round pick (No. 50 overall) on either a receiver or a running back. Cleveland's offense was abysmal and ranked No. 31 out of 32 teams in the NFL in 2008. The Browns used four different quarterbacks and couldn't get anything established on the ground or through the air. So help at running back or receiver makes the most sense. This is particularly the case if the Browns trade No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards. There have been talks involving at least one team in the New York Giants. The Philadelphia Eagles also are a possibility. In addition, Donte Stallworth's legal situation makes the receiver position a priority. The Browns need all the help they can get. So there is some pressure on Cleveland to select the right player with this pick, particularly since the team gave up one of its best players.
Who got the most of this trade?
Pat Yasinskas: Things could change in the long term if the Browns hit big with their draft picks. But there's no question the Bucs are the winner in the short term. They got a very good player, who still has the potential to become great. If he does, the price tag won't be that big a deal. I've always thought NFL general managers treat draft picks too preciously and are too hesitant to part with them. I'm glad Dominik broke that tradition because I believe that any pick beyond the first round is just a guess anyway. There's no guessing with Winslow. We already know the guy is good. Yes, he had some injury problems and has been a little controversial at times. But there's no question he's one of the most tale
nted tight ends in the league. Now, he'll get his chance to produce.
James Walker: Although I have no problem with Cleveland starting from scratch, I do also believe Tampa got the most of this trade. It will pay immediate dividends for the Buccaneers, because they get a proven commodity. No tight end Tampa would have drafted this year comes with the game-breaking ability of Winslow, particularly if they chose to draft a tight end in the second round or lower. The Browns now have two second-rounders (No. 36 overall and No. 50) to plug an additional hole. But as I mentioned, they have to nail the pick first to get value in return for this trade. With a first-year general manager leading his first draft, there certainly are no guarantees. A fifth-rounder in 2010 is pretty much a non factor. It won't help Cleveland next season, and statistically there is a little probability a fifth-round pick could ever significantly help unless the Browns found a gem. This is a "win-now” league and Tampa helped itself the most to win in 2009. The Browns might be able to help themselves with this trade down the road. Maybe.
|Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images; Andy Lyons and Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|The AFC North has lost some star power, with Bart Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh departing through free agency and Kellen Winslow Jr. sent off in a trade.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
With the busiest portion of free agency coming to an end, it is officially time to evaluate the decisions made by all four AFC North teams.
The range of activity in free agency varied this year. For instance, the Baltimore Ravens were extremely active in signing and losing players, while the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers only visited with a couple of players without reaching deals.
Let's examine the moves.
Analysis: Going into free agency, I thought the Ravens were doomed for failure with the amount of big names set to hit the open market. Baltimore certainly lost some of those players, but a creative and cost-effective plan allowed general manager Ozzie Newsome to soften the blow. The Ravens lost three key starters in linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown and safety Jim Leonhard. They also released starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. But Baltimore quickly added talent in free-agent cornerback Domonique Foxworth, veteran center Matt Birk, tight end L.J. Smith and return specialist Chris Carr. Keeping Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were vital. And if the Ravens put together another solid draft class, which is Newsome's forte, Baltimore should be fine in 2009. This good grade is given to the Ravens for their resiliency in coming up with a plan to stay in contention despite losing a wealth of talented players.
Key pickups: WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier
Analysis: No one was surprised when former Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for the Seattle Seahawks. But it was surprising when the Bengals paid former New York Jet Laveranues Coles $28 million over four years-- including a whopping $9.75 million in his first year -- to replace Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh had 90-plus receptions the past two seasons, while Coles is more of a 60- to 70-catch receiver. Someone will have to make up that missing production whether it is a bounce-back year from Chad Ocho Cinco or a career year from one of the young receivers -- Chris Henry, Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson -- in the No. 3 role. Keeping tailback Cedric Benson was important, but the team still needs a big-play threat at that position. J.T. O'Sullivan was a decent pickup to back up quarterback Carson Palmer. With Palmer's return, a stellar draft could put Cincinnati in position to surprise next season.
Analysis: The Browns are cleaning house, and they probably are not done yet. New coach Eric Mangini and first-year general manager George Kokinis are turning over the roster quickly through every avenue possible. The Browns have not retained most of their in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and linebackers Andra Davis
and Willie McGinest. They also cut offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer and receiver Joe Jurevicius and traded former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay for a pair of draft picks. The replacements have not been overwhelming. Former Jets linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens are both stop-gap players who are 30-plus. Royal is not nearly as dynamic a tight end as Winslow, and Cleveland still has a lot of holes left to fill in the draft. The Browns are clearly starting from scratch, which is why they are attempting to stockpile draft picks. Coming off a 4-12 season, Cleveland appears to be headed for another transition year in 2009.
Key pickups: None
Analysis: Pittsburgh hasn't signed anyone outside of its building. Instead, the team placed its focus on keeping together last year's championship team. The Steelers retained three starters from their offensive line in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks and brought back a host of backups and special-teams players. They are staying true to their identity of not being major players in free agency. But it would have been beneficial to add at least one or two offensive linemen from the outside to compete and provide depth. That probably won't happen until next month's NFL draft. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden bolting to the Arizona Cardinals could be softened if William Gay continues to develop in 2009. The Steelers are banking on it. Pittsburgh also brought in a few intriguing free agents, such as receiver Joey Galloway and cornerback/return specialist Chris Carr, for visits. But its reluctance to pay much on the open market this offseason forced those two players to sign with other teams.
|Laveranues Coles, Domonique Foxworth and Matt Birk headline this year's free-agent additions in the AFC North.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
NFL free agency was created to improve the competitive balance and shake up rosters on an annual basis. This year is no different.
Therefore, meet the replacements -- AFC North style. There are no Shane Falcos in this group, although Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco developed that "The Replacements"-inspired nickname with his team last year.
Nonetheless, these players filling in will have a major impact on the success of their respective AFC North teams next season.
Replacing: Bryant McFadden
Reason for hope: Gay began to earn a decent amount of playing time during the second half of the Steelers' season, and there was no significant drop-off in production. He impressed the coaching staff so much that even when McFadden returned from a broken arm, the team still didn't want to keep Gay off the field. Now he gets to play full time.
Reason for concern: Sometimes the hardest adjustment for a cornerback is jumping from being a situational player to a full-time starter. Gay will no longer defend a team's No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. If he proves not to be ready for that jump, Pittsburgh will hope to get one more year out of aging veteran and longtime starter Deshea Townsend. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers replace McFadden, now with the Cardinals.
Domonique Foxworth, CB, Baltimore Ravens
Reason for hope: Combined with teammate Fabian Washington, Foxworth gives the Ravens one of the fastest cornerback tandems in the NFL. The Ravens run a lot of blitz packages from their 3-4 defense and need to make sure nothing gets behind them in case the call doesn't lead to a sack. Usually, safety Ed Reed will play deep centerfield to protect against the big play. But with two speedy corners, the coaching staff can move Reed around more next year and allow him even more flexibility, which is scary.
Reason for concern: Until last season in Atlanta, Foxworth had the label of "career backup." Sure, he was backing up two good corners in Champ Bailey and Dre Bly in Denver. But it is somewhat of a risk to pay a player $27 million after one season of starting with the Atlanta Falcons. Foxworth will have to answer those critics who will question his inexperience. Someone will have to step up since the Ravens waived McAlister and Rolle might see the same fate or be used as a nickelback.
Matt Birk, C, Baltimore Ravens
Replacing: Jason Brown
Reason for hope: The Ravens lost up-and-coming center Brown -- a free agent who signed with the Rams -- but signed a six-time Pro Bowler in Birk. He has been one of the best centers in the NFL for the past decade and will bring stability and more veteran leadership to the offensive line that already has tackle Willie Anderson. Birk also will help bring along a young signal-caller in second-year quarterback Flacco.
Reason for concern: In signing Birk, the team gained experience but also got six years older at the position. Birk will be 33 at the beginning of the 2009 season and has some wear and tear on his body after playing in the trenches for 12 seasons. He has started all 16 games the past three seasons. The Ravens are hoping that clean bill of heath continues for Birk in 2009.
Replacing: Bart Scott
Reason for hope: The Ravens have two potential replacements for Scott, now with the Jets. Therefore, they have twice as good a chance to find a suitable replacement in time for next season. Gooden was a third-round pick in 2008 from the University of Miami and a player who impressed fellow Hurricane Ray Lewis. The veteran Lewis has tutored many linebackers before, including Scott, and will have to teach another young player the position. McClain was an undrafted surprise from the University of Syracuse and registered 2.5 sacks in limited playing time. Sometimes he is compared to Scott in Baltimore because both players were undrafted.
Reason for concern: Scott is as physical a linebacker as there is in the NFL. He did a lot of the dirty work, such as blowing up fullbacks and offensive linemen at the point of attack to allow teammates like Lewis and Terrell Suggs to clean up and make plays. Both Gooden and McClain have ability. But it remains to be seen if either can bring that same type of physicality in what is essentially a "bodyguard” role for Lewis, Suggs, Reed and others.
Replacing: T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Reason for hope: Coles is a savvy veteran receiver who has meshed well with a lot of different quarterbacks. Last year, he developed good on-field chemistry with Brett Favre and should have no problems playing with Carson Palmer, who remains one of the league's best quarterbacks when healthy. Coles should fit in seamlessly.
Reason for concern: Coles is no longer a game-breaking receiver. He will be asked to replace current Seahawk Houshmandzadeh's tremendous production, but Coles is not the type of player who will record 90 to 100 receptions per season. Therefore, a combination of players will have to make up for those numbers, whether it is Chad Ocho Cinco having a monster year or Coles combining with one of the younger receivers to equal Houshmandzadeh's output.
Replacing: Kellen Winslow Jr.
Reason for hope: First-year Browns coach Eric Mangini is familiar with Royal after battling the former AFC East division rival Buffalo Bills during Mangini's days with the New York Jets. The signing is out of respect for Royal's ability and hopes that he can bring some stability to the position. There is also depth with teammates Steve Heiden and Martin Rucker.
Reason for concern: Current Buccaneer Winslow is a unique talent and a top-five player at his position when healthy. Browns fans have become accustomed to tremendous production from that position over the years with Ozzie Newsome in the 1980s and Winslow most recently, but Royal is simply not that caliber of player.
David Bowens, OLB/ILB, Cleveland Browns
Reason for hope: Bowens, who just signed Wednesday night, has the versatility to play inside or outside in a 3-4 defense. Mangini had Bowens for two seasons as coach of the New York Jets. Bowens will be able to start right away and help the younger players quickly adapt to the new scheme. With 32.5 career sacks, he should also bring a much-needed pass rush to Cleveland.
Reason for concern: Bowens was mostly a career backup who is now being asked to be a full-time starter in Cleveland. At 31, he is a stopgap player who will be able to teach the young players the position for a few seasons. Bowens never has had more than 41 tackles in a season. Bowens is talented enough to do his part, but he is not the difference-maker defensively that the Browns have long searched for. McGinest is not on the Browns' roster and Davis signed with the Broncos.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Let's dig into some questions for AFC North readers:
Austin from Palm Springs, Calif., writes: I've been reading a lot about T.J. Alphabet (Bengals) lately and he seems to be very unhappy where he's at. He also seems to have been sweet-talking the Steelers organization lately. Knowing that Nate Washington is a free agent, could T.J. be campaigning for a black and gold uniform? And do you see any chance of the Steelers sign him? Assuming the Bengals allow that to happen, of course.
James Walker: Austin, the Steelers will not spend a lot of money on a receiver this year. They do not need a starter as Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes will man those positions next season. If they pay Houshmandzadeh big bucks, who does Pittsburgh put on the bench? If anything, the Steelers will try to retain Nate Washington for the No. 3 spot or hope Limas Sweed develops into that role in his second year.
Matt from Lima, Ohio, writes: James, I enjoy reading all your material and insight. Being a longtime Browns fan I'm just wondering if they're going to finally get it right this year with the draft and with free agency? Maybe new LB's and a new RB? I hear Detroit may have to release Bodden for cap reasons. Any chance on resigning him?
James Walker: Thanks, Matt. The Browns need linebackers in the worst way. Two starters, Willie McGinest and Andra Davis, are free agents and probably won't return. So that's two big holes with no suitable replacements currently on the roster. Leon Williams and Alex Hall would be starting linebackers if the season started today. As far as Leigh Bodden, he probably wouldn't mind coming back. But he flourished under the old coaching staff. It's unknown how the new coaching staff, led by Eric Mangini, feels about Bodden.
Tate from Wis. writes: What are your thoughts on Jim Leonhard for 2009?
James Walker: As you know, Tate, this is a tough decision for the Ravens. Leonhard's reps will fight for starter money, but it's questionable that he would start in Baltimore next year with the pending return of Dawan Landry. With so many free agents, the Ravens will make a pitch. But I think Leonhard will get a bigger offer somewhere else and bolt.
Jerry from Pa. writes: Larry Foote? Staying or going? If he does go, trade or release?
James Walker: Foote stays put, Jerry. He may have to compete for a starting job in training camp with the hard-charging Lawrence Timmons next season. But Pittsburgh runs a 3-4 and always needs depth at linebacker.
Nick from Baltimore writes: Do you really think that the Ravens won't be able to resign Ray Lewis? And how upset would he be with the franchise tag?
James Walker: It's a possibility, Nick. But I think the Ravens will do everything they can to re-sign Lewis to an extension. The franchise tag would be pretty upsetting for Lewis, 33, who feels he deserves better. Lewis is a career Raven, he never made his contract an issue, and he went out and played great football in leading the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game. He hopes that goodwill will be returned.
Here are some first-half notes:
- There was a lot of feistiness going between these two teams in the first half. Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis was trash-talking the Pittsburgh Steelers sideline to start the game, and there were at least two near-scuffles in the opening quarter.
- Steelers starting receivers Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward are having their way with Cleveland's secondary. The pair have combined for seven receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Currently the duo have accounted for all of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's completions in the first two quarters.
- Cleveland starting quarterback Derek Anderson did not have a good start, missing 9 of his first 11 throws. He got hot towards the end of the second quarter, but threw a last-second pick to Steelers safety Troy Polamalu before the half that ended Cleveland's scoring threat. It was Anderson's second interception of the half.
- Pittsburgh starting defensive end Brett Keisel injured his right calf towards the end of the first quarter. It was announced right before halftime that he will not return to the game.