AFC North: Brodney Pool
1. The road to the Super Bowl now goes through Pittsburgh. The Steelers caught a break Sunday night with the Jets' upset win against the New England Patriots. Pittsburgh, the AFC's No. 2 seed, will play host to the conference title game for the second time in three years. The Steelers said Saturday night that they were confident regardless of the opponent. But playing at home in the postseason is always a preference, and the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady have had Pittsburgh's number in recent years.
2. Don't forget the Jets beat Pittsburgh too. While the Steelers avoided a trip to New England, the team with the best record in the regular season, they will face a Jets team that went into Heinz Field on Dec. 19 and handed Pittsburgh a 22-17 defeat. New York outplayed Pittsburgh in Week 15, particularly on special teams. The Steelers also were without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who missed the game with a calf/Achilles injury.
3. There are tons of AFC North connections in this game. This will be a big week for Jets receiver Santonio Holmes, whom Pittsburgh traded this offseason to New York. Holmes will make his second trip to Pittsburgh this season, but this time a ticket to Super Bowl XLV is at stake. Jets coach Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott and defensive lineman Trevor Pryce are among those who joined New York from the Baltimore Ravens' organization. Receiver Braylon Edwards was acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, and the Browns traded their No. 5 overall pick to the Jets in 2009 to allow New York to draft quarterback Mark Sanchez. Jets safety Brodney Pool also played five seasons in Cleveland.
Out: DT Terrence Cody (knee), OT Jared Gaither (back), WR Donte' Stallworth (foot)
Probable: CB Lardarius Webb (knee), OT Oniel Cousins (head), DE Paul Kruger (shoulder)
Out: LB Calvin Pace (foot),
Questionable: S Brodney Pool (ankle)
Probable: TE Jeff Cumberland (not injury related)
Potential unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington
Potential restricted free agents: OT Jared Gaither, K Billy Cundiff, S Dawan Landry, CB Fabian Washington, P Sam Koch, OG Chris Chester, QB John Beck, QB Troy Smith, OT Tony Moll, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Prescott Burgess, WR Mark Clayton, WR Demetrius Williams
Franchise tag: None
What to expect: The Ravens have a ton of quality free agents. It will be interesting because Baltimore is the only division team which has to abide by the "Final Eight Plan" for making the divisional playoffs. This will restrict Baltimore from making a lot of moves. Therefore, expect the team to keep most of its key restricted free agents while trying to explore the trade market. On the unrestricted side, the Ravens are negotiating with receiver Derrick Mason and are expected to keep him. But two players who could get some interest in the open market are defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. Baltimore likes both players but could lose at least one.
Potential unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams, TE J.P. Foschi
Potential restricted free agents: LB Brandon Johnson, LB Rashad Jeanty, OL Evan Mathis, C Kyle Cook, DE Frostee Rucker, CB David Jones, LB Abdul Hodge, QB Jordan Palmer, TE Daniel Coats, DT Shaun Smith
Franchise tag: None
What to expect: The Bengals have yet to announce their tenders, so this list could change by Thursday evening. But traditionally they are not big spenders in free agency and will stay true to that even with an uncapped year. Cincinnati could make one or two decent outside signings that may help the team. Finding a receiver would be the most likely target. The most interesting in-house name is offensive guard Bobbie Williams, who likely will test the market. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also would like to keep veteran Roy Williams and Tank Johnson. But the team hasn't made a major push for either player before they're let loose Friday.
Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates
Potential restricted free agents: RB Jerome Harrison, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers, S Brodney Pool, S Abram Elam, DE Matt Roth
Franchise tag: None
What to expect: Cleveland has the money to spend and the biggest talent deficit. So look for the Browns to attempt to make up ground in free agency. Major names like defensive end Julius Peppers and tailback Thomas Jones have been mentioned as possibilities for Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Internally, the Browns should be interested in keeping Harrison and Vickers in their backfield. Jackson also has value. None of their unrestricted players are priorities for the team and will be allowed to hit free agency.
Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend , FB Carey Davis, OG Darnell Stapleton
Potential restricted free agents: OT Willie Colon, CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda, TE Matt Spaeth
Franchise tag: K Jeff Reed
What to expect: The Steelers are pretty predictable. Pittsburgh intends to keep all of its restricted free agents, get a long-term deal complete with Reed, who has the franchise tag, and let nearly all of their unrestricted free agents test the market. The exception is Clark, who the Steelers targeted as a priority but has yet to reach a long-term extension before Friday's deadline. Negotiations have been ongoing and should go to the final hour to decide whether both sides can come to an agreement or allow Clark to test the market.
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Busts and late-round gems.
Busts: The Ravens have one of the most consistent front offices in the NFL, so you have to look all the way back to 2005 to really find an underperforming first-round pick in Mark Clayton. The receiver has shown flashes with several big games in Baltimore. But Clayton never developed the consistency to become a No. 1 receiver. In the second round, linebacker Dan Cody was another miss in 2005. His career never got off the ground, because he couldn't shake the injury bug. Also, it's too early to determine the status of 2009 second-round pick Paul Kruger. But the linebacker/defensive end was mostly a non-factor in his rookie season. Gems: Baltimore has several contributing players that were found in the late and middle rounds. Most recently, 2009 third-round cornerback Lardarius Webb looks like a potential starter and has the ability to return kicks. Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain was another great, under-the-radar pick in the fourth round in 2007. Starting left tackle Jared Gaither was found in the supplemental draft in 2007 and started 26 games the past two seasons. Other key contributors include starting safety Dawan Landry and punter Sam Koch, who were fifth- and sixth-round picks in 2006, respectively.
Busts: It's well-documented that Cincinnati doesn't put nearly the same resources into scouting as most teams, and it shows in its list of draft busts. Eight players the Bengals selected in the first three rounds since 2004 are no longer with the team. Several -- such as first-rounders Chris Perry and David Pollack and second-rounders Odell Thurman and Kenny Irons -- are out of the NFL. Most recently, the career of 2009 No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith got off to a poor start. But he has time to turn things around. Receiver Jerome Simpson, who was a second-round pick in 2008, is running out of chances and may not make the 53-man roster next fall. It's difficult to maintain a steady level of success when you're missing this often in the first and second rounds. Gems: Seventh-round pick Chinedum Ndukwe was not highly touted out of Notre Dame but continued to make plays for the Bengals until coaches had no choice but to play him. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was a fourth-round pick in 2006 who developed into one of Cincinnati's most important players. Last year's sixth-round pick, tailback Bernard Scott, showed flashes as a rookie.
Busts: The Browns are on their third regime in three years. With that kind of turnover, you can expect a lot of misses in the draft as the team continues to switch philosophies. The Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel era began in 2005 with receiver Braylon Edwards and safety Brodney Pool. Edwards didn't live up to expectations and was traded to the New York Jets last season. Pool likely will be let go to free agency. It has been three years, and we still don't know exactly what to make of 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn. The new regime led by Mike Holmgren doesn't seem too impressed, as the team continues to explore its options at quarterback. Receiver Brian Robiskie and linebacker David Veikune, both second-round picks in 2009, also need to step up for Cleveland in 2010. Gems: Starting fullback Lawrence Vickers, a sixth-round pick in 2006, was another great find. He paved the way for Jamal Lewis to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2007 and 2008. Vickers also helped tailback Jerome Harrison (862 rushing yards), another late gem, put up career highs last season. Most recently, 2009 fourth-round pick Kaluka Maiava may turn out to be a decent linebacker from the middle rounds.
Busts: Similar to the Ravens, the Steelers do not make a lot of mistakes at the top of the draft. Six of Pittsburgh's past seven first-round picks are starters. That includes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, receiver Santonio Holmes and tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Pittsburgh has had some issues in the second round. In 2008, the Steelers were hoping Limas Sweed could be the big receiver they were looking for, but that hasn't panned out. In 2004, second-round cornerback Ricardo Colclough had zero starts in four years before being released. Gems: Last year's third-round pick Mike Wallace already is a significant addition to Pittsburgh's offense. His deep speed was needed, and he had 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. Pittsburgh also has been fortunate to find starting offensive linemen late in the draft. Offensive tackle Willie Colon and guard Chris Kemoeatu were taken in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively. Dennis Dixon, who was taken in the fifth round in 2008, also could develop into a solid backup quarterback.
"After consulting with our medical team, we felt that this was in the best interest of both Jamal and Brodney at this time," Browns coach Eric Mangini said in a statement.
This likely will signal the end of both players' tenure in Cleveland. Lewis said he would retire after this season, while Pool becomes a free agent.
- After a two-game absence, Cincinnati Bengals tailback Cedric Benson (hip) is expected to start next weekend against the Detroit Lions.
- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco tweaked his ankle in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the injury is not considered major.
- As expected, recent comments from Steelers receiver Hines Ward towards quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are making a lot of headlines in Pittsburgh.
|Getty Images/US Presswire|
|Baltimore's Ray Rice and Pittsburgh's Limas Sweed could be poised for big seasons.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
When it comes to spotting this year's breakout players, most are aware of the usual targets such as Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, or linebackers Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Keith Rivers of the Cincinnati Bengals. As former first-round picks, each has received plenty of attention from the AFC North blog and other national outlets despite their lack of playing time or starting experience.
But being a true NFL sleeper is a little different. Consider it a step or two below the label of breakout player.
Expectations aren't nearly as high for a sleeper. Unlike Quinn, Timmons and Rivers, a sleeper can avoid the hype and enter the season without much fanfare.
Although fans may not be talking about these players at the moment, here are the top 10 AFC North sleeper players you might be discussing by season's end:
10. Daniel Sepulveda, P, Steelers
Why: Most casual fans outside of Pittsburgh are not aware of how poor the Steelers' punting was last season. On a bad week, it was horrendous. On a good week, it was average. Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense last year overshadowed this issue. But help is on the way in Sepulveda, who averaged 42.4 yards a punt in 2007 (38.4-yard net). He missed all of 2008 with major knee surgery and has become a free-agent pickup of sorts for the Steelers.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 16 games, 43.4-yard average, 21 inside the 20-yard line.
Why: One of just two rookies to make this list, Kruger is a second-round pick who appears to have an NFL motor and size. Also keep in mind that Kruger got extensive work with the first team this offseason as starting defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs missed minicamp and organized team activities. Now, Kruger gets to find his niche as a situational player while learning from some of the best defenders in the league.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 34 tackles, four sacks.
8. Dawan Landry, S, Ravens
Why: A little-known fact in Baltimore is that Landry was having an impressive offseason for the Ravens before the 2008 season. The coaching staff really liked the progress he was making, but it was cut short by an early season neck injury that sidelined him for the season. The Ravens are hoping Landry can gradually get back his confidence this season. The team was confident enough in Landry not to overpay for veteran safety Jim Leonhard, who followed coach Rex Ryan to the New York Jets. That should tell you something.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 55 tackles, two interceptions.
7. Brian Robiskie, WR, Browns
Why: The Browns aren't expected to air it out much this season, but Robiskie should be ready to make plays when the opportunity presents itself. Robiskie remains unsigned as of Wednesday, so it's important that he gets into training camp on time when the full team takes the practice field Saturday. Cleveland's No. 2 receiver job is wide open this season, and with Braylon Edwards currently sidelined with an unspecified leg injury, Robiskie will get plenty of early reps with the first team. If he is as polished as scouts and the Browns believe he is, Robiskie could earn a starting job with Cleveland at some point in his rookie season.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 35 receptions, 484 yards, two touchdowns.
6. Tavares Gooden, LB, Ravens
Why: Entering his second year, Gooden has become the latest linebacker to fill the role next to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Can he do it? The Ravens believe he can. Gooden is speedy, athletic and very high energy. But injuries during his rookie season prevented people from seeing his potential. Gooden enters training camp as the favorite to replace Bart Scott and could have a solid second season on a veteran unit stocked with playmakers.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 64 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles.
5. Limas Sweed, WR, Steelers
Why: There is not as much pressure on Sweed as some may think. He is expected to fill a role as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver, so that doesn't require him to start. But the Steelers and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians love to use the trips package, which helped Nate Washington earn a big contract with the Tennessee Titans this offseason. It is much more difficult to get open in the NFL than it is to catch the football. So Sweed already has the difficult part figured out.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 39 receptions, 528 yards, four touchdowns.
4. Brodney Pool, S, Browns
Why: For four years, the Browns have been waiting for the light to come for Pool. He has above-average ability, but so far has been just an average NFL safety. Pool is arguably the best athlete Cleveland has on its roster. But to date no one has been able to get the best out of his abilities. Now that new coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have their hands on Pool, this sleeper could be primed for his best sea
son to date.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 85 tackles, three interceptions.
3. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers
Why: Can a former first-round pick be a sleeper? Yes, when you are a backup tailback coming off a major injury with the defending Super Bowl champions. Mendenhall is actually in a good spot. The pressure is on him to contribute, not to take over games. He didn't show much in his first season. But combined with Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore, Mendenhall should help Pittsburgh restart its ground attack.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 107 carries, 440 yards, four touchdowns.
2. Chris Henry, WR, Bengals
Why: Quarterback Carson Palmer is already calling Henry a mini version of Randy Moss. That is probably stretching it. But considering Palmer has played with his share of Pro Bowl receivers, his words carry some merit. Henry has always been a talent-in-waiting. He has size, speed and athleticism, but immaturity on and off the field have held him back. According to the Bengals, Henry has matured knowing he is down to his final shot in the NFL. A contract year also helps Henry's focus, as he is expected to produce for a full season in a pass-happy offense.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 44 receptions, 681 yards, five touchdowns.
1. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Why: How confident is Rice? He recently switched agents in anticipation of putting up good numbers in just the second year of a four-year contract. Part of the deep running back class of 2008, Rice often got lost in the mix of strong rookie seasons by contemporaries Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Steve Slaton. Rice showed flashes last season with 454 yards as part of Baltimore's three-headed monster. This year he is the favorite to start in Baltimore behind a solid and physical offensive line. With Willis McGahee returning from injuries and Le'Ron McClain playing more at fullback this year, look for Rice to get plenty of opportunities in his sophomore season.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 170 carries, 710 yards, four touchdowns.
|Baltimore's Ed Reed, right, and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu were voted best all-around and smartest player by their AFC North peers.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Both are versatile safeties.
The two also are perennial Pro Bowlers and unique talents.
During the offseason, ESPN.com's AFC North blog surveyed 32 players and granted them anonymity -- eight from each team in the division -- on topics that will be revealed periodically during July. The players surveyed could not vote for themselves or their teammates.
This week we take a look at Reed, who was voted best all-around player, and Polamalu, who was selected the division's smartest player. As evidence of their dominance, both safeties finished second in the other category too.
Best All-Around Player: Ed Reed
When it came to choosing the top all-around player in the AFC North, Reed and Polamalu accounted for 21 votes -- more than two-thirds of the 32 players surveyed.
But Reed (14) still received twice as many votes as Polamalu (7), who was tied with teammate James Harrison (7) for second place in this category.
"I feel he's just a great player," one opponent said of voting for Reed. "You have to be aware of him at all times."
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are several notes and observations from within the division:
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Steelers linebacker James Farrior plans to play without the neck protector he wore in 2008.|
- The Baltimore Ravens really believe rookie second-round pick Paul Kruger has a lot of potential. The Ravens were convinced Kruger, a rush defensive end from Utah, was a good fit for them early in the scouting process based on his college tapes and interviews. He confirmed many of those thoughts last week in minicamp with some good moves and a good motor. Kruger will be fighting for playing time behind some very good players in Baltimore, but the Ravens think he could a steal for them down the road.
- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Farrior recently said he plans to do away with the neck protector he wore behind his helmet for 2009. Towards the end of last season Farrior was having some neck issues and wore the protector for precautionary reasons. But Farrior never seemed fully comfortable with it, and now that he's rested and healthy, the extra support likely will stay on the sideline.
- The Cincinnati Bengals' decision to be the latest team on HBO's "Hard Knocks" series this summer likely has a lot to do with improving the organization's image. In my different conversations with NFL people over the years, the Bengals are generally viewed as a poorly-run franchise. Some feel it's the worst-run franchise in the league. By completely opening their doors during training camp, it's an opportunity for the Bengals to show the league and the rest of the country how they operate. It should make for good television.
- The Cleveland Browns are hoping the recent addition of Abram Elam, paired with teammate Brodney Pool, creates interchangeable parts at safety. Both players have versatility, and new head coach Eric Mangini doesn't want a traditional free safety who only plays the deep ball and a strong safety who only plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Ideally, Mangini is hoping Pool and Elam can do both well and blitz the quarterback when asked. Mangini wants as many versatile players on his defense as possible.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
This month the Cleveland Browns have two second-round picks for the first time since the 1999 NFL draft. These picks (No. 36 and 50 overall) will be key in how fast the Browns turn around the franchise.
Second-round picks are extremely valuable to NFL coaches and general managers, because the contracts are relatively cheap and the talent value remains high.
The Browns have a good track record in recent years of getting productive players in the second round, and new GM George Kokinis and coach Eric Mangini will try to continue that trend.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
- The Baltimore Ravens have agreed in principle to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million with former Philadelphia Eagles tight end L.J. Smith.
Morning take: This is a good move for Baltimore. With Smith, Todd Heap and the return of Quinn Sypniewski, the Ravens will have a lot more depth and athleticism at the tight end position than they did a year ago.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed backup cornerback Fernando Bryant and backup offensive lineman Trai Essex.
Morning take: Pittsburgh continued its trend of signing its own players. At this rate, the Steelers may not add a new player outside of their building until April's NFL draft.
- The future of Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Levi Jones could be in doubt, based on what the team does with the No. 6 overall pick.
Morning take: Jones has struggled the past couple of seasons with injuries and performance. We will have more on his status in Cincinnati later today.
- The New York Jets matched the Cleveland Browns' offer for safety Abram Elam to keep the restricted free agent.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
|David Drapkin/Getty Images|
|Brady Quinn will get his first NFL start when the Browns take on Detroit this Saturday.|
BEREA, Ohio -- Training camp is officially over.
The major news was, as expected, backup quarterback Brady Quinn will get his first career start Saturday against the Detroit Lions. Starter Derek Anderson suffered a mild concussion Monday and wasn't at practice. So Quinn got all the reps Wednesday with the first team.
"You gotta have fun with it, especially my first time," Quinn said. "I get to start now. So it will be a good opportunity, and I'm looking forward to it."
Here are some other items from Wednesday's practice:
- Browns head coach Romeo Crennel was in midseason form today as he was not very forthcoming with injury information. Anderson, safety Brodney Pool (concussion) and kick returner Joshua Cribbs (sprained ankle) were all hurt Monday against New York, but the team isn't providing an estimated timeline for any of the players.
"Nope, you know I don't give you timelines," Crennel said. "They're going to work hard to get back, and they'll be back when they can."
- In other injury news, starting running back Jamal Lewis sat out of practice with a tweaked hamstring, but it's nothing major. Safety Sean Jones also practiced light today with general soreness.
- Several questions revolved around what happened in the first half of Monday's game when the starters fell behind 30-3. The Browns scored the game's first points on a field goal, and it went all downhill from there as the Giants scored 30 unanswered points in less than two quarters.
"We'll learn from it," Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis said. "It will be a good thing for us. It brought us back down to earth."
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
This is the first of a three-day series examining drafts for each AFC North team over the past three years. Grades are based on performance, where players were picked (too high, too low) and whether they remain with their original team.
Here is a look at the Browns' 2005 draft:
Analysis: The first draft of the Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel era is littered with misses. However, the team did well in the first two rounds with receiver Braylon Edwards and safety Brodney Pool. Both are starters, and Edwards ascended to a Pro Bowl level with a big year in 2007. Pool, meanwhile, is a decent starting safety with room to grow. Charlie Frye had a chance to be the starting quarterback but failed in Cleveland. He's currently a backup with the Seattle Seahawks. David McMillan has been a three-year contributor on special teams, which isn't bad for a fifth-rounder. Antonio Perkins, Nick Speegle, Andrew Hoffman and Jon Dunn are no longer in the NFL.
Next is a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers.