AFC North: Cam Newton

Browns vs. Panthers preview

December, 18, 2014
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: CBS

Welcome to Johnny Football versus Who Will Get The Football.

There's still some uncertainty whether the Carolina Panthers will start Cam Newton or Derek Anderson at quarterback opposite the Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel.

If it's Newton, who broke two small bones in his lower back when his truck rolled in a two-vehicle accident last week, it will be the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner versus the 2012 winner.

If it's Anderson, it will be the Browns' quarterback of the past (2005-09) versus the Browns' quarterback of the future.

The Panthers remain in the hunt for the NFC South title. At 5-8-1, they need to win out and they need New Orleans to lose one of its final two games to repeat as division champions. The Browns (7-7) have lost three straight and four of their past five to fall out of playoff contention.

ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon are here to break this one down:

Newton: Pat, now that the Browns have opened up the Johnny Football can of worms, do you think he gives Cleveland the best chance to win this week?

McManamon: If it's based on hype and hope, sure. He can win. But so can Connor Shaw, and he's on the practice squad. If you base it on college achievement, Manziel should win. He was tremendous in college. But college achievement means less than nothing in the NFL. If you base it on reality and the way Manziel played against Cincinnati, he gives them less than a 1-in-10 chance to win. Not even Mike Pettine tried to sell the "best chance to win" card, as Monday he said Manziel gives the Browns "an opportunity to win."

Manziel should improve in his second start. Logic says there's nothing to do but improve. The Browns have to desperately hope he does, because if Manziel doesn't show more than he did in his debut there are serious issues at quarterback in 2015. As for winning, the final two games are about evaluating No. 2.

Let's flip the script on Manziel, David. The Bengals were nearly jumping out of their uniforms to hit, sack and taunt Manziel on Sunday, and they were largely successful. Do you feel that's an attitude the Panthers will share, and would you expect some money signs on Sunday?

Newton: I haven't gotten that sense. The Panthers simply are happy when they get to the quarterback this season. They have only 31 sacks after leading the league with 60 last season. The absence of 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is heard in 2015, is a major factor there. And if anybody was going to do money signs it would be Hardy, who is all about the money. Perhaps cornerback Josh Norman would have a little fun with the money sign, but he'll be busy shadowing Josh Gordon. Never know, though.

Who do you think the Browns would rather see at quarterback for the Panthers? Newton and his running ability, if indeed the back injury will allow him to run? Or Anderson, who will face his former with something to prove?

McManamon: I'd guess they'd much rather see Anderson, because nobody wants to face an effective passer who also can run. If a quarterback is one or the other, defenses can take away what he does best. If a guy does things as well as Newton does throwing and running, the challenge increases. In the week leading up to Manziel's debut, Pettine admitted that it's easier when a defense can draw an X on the field and envision the quarterback being near that X most of the time. Newton is a 58 percent passer with 16 touchdowns. He averages 5 yards per carry. Anderson has a big arm and more experience than he had in Cleveland, and he'd be motivated to beat the Browns. But I'd still guess the Browns would rather face an immobile Anderson than a mobile Newton.

Are there any apologies taking place in Charlotte for the fact the Panthers are 5-8-1 and in the playoff hunt? Can they really win the division?

Newton: They hear the jokes nationally, but around here the fans and players are thankful there is a meaningful game in December. I'm pretty sure the Browns would trade places in a heartbeat if it meant they had a chance to make the playoffs. Can the Panthers really win the NFC South? As far as I'm concerned, it all comes down to what happens between New Orleans and Atlanta this Sunday. If the Falcons beat the Saints, as they did in Week 1, I can see Carolina winning out to take the division. If the Saints win, I can't see any way they lose to Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale. Then again, it has been a wacky season in the South, so predicting anything seems kind of silly.

What's the biggest reason for the Browns' skid after a solid start that had them looking like a contender to win the division?

McManamon: Three things. First, injuries depleted depth. The loss of center Alex Mack was crippling to the running game. Injuries to the defensive line and ILB Karlos Dansby affected the defense. Second, the running game took a serious turn south, which affected the play-action passing game. Finally, the uncertainty at quarterback affected Brian Hoyer, who pressed, and the team, which for the umpteenth year in a row found itself in the midst of a raging quarterback debate. One year the Browns will find themselves in a season when they know the starter and use the backup as a backup. Until that happens, real success will be elusive.

Luke Kuechly is an Ohio guy, from Cincinnati. His numbers seem nearly impossible. Is he that active, and does he rank among the best defensive players you've covered?

Newton: You're right, the numbers -- including 138 tackles this sesaon -- are ridiculous. At times it seems Kuechly is in on every play. While I'm partial to Carolina's original middle linebacker, Sam Mills, even at his best Sam wasn't in on the number of plays Kuechly is. I hesitate to say he's the best defensive player I ever covered. End Julius Peppers was pretty special. And when it came to sacks, Kevin Greene was a beast. But as far as all-around player, few can touch Kuechly. His work ethic is second to none, and he's always looking for ways to improve. He usually does, too. He'll be a factor in this game as he is in most for Carolina.

CINCINNATI -- Once again, Vontaze Burfict's reputation has affected the long-tenuous perception about him.

And just like the many occasions in the past, he isn't doing himself any favors this time.

ESPN's Ed Werder reported Tuesday that the NFL will review allegations from the Carolina Panthers that Burfict, the Cincinnati Bengals' formerly undrafted, third-year Pro Bowl linebacker, deliberately twisted the ankles of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen during Sunday's 37-37 tie at Paul Brown Stadium. The alleged twisting of Newton's ankle has been perhaps the most alarming of the incidents in question, considering the former No. 1 overall draft pick was just starting to get comfortable running again following offseason ankle surgery.

In the 24 hours since Olsen called for the NFL to suspend the Bengals linebacker, the question has become a popular one in NFL circles: Is Burfict a dirty player?

Those around Burfict say "no." Those in Carolina say "you betcha."

During a season that saw him make it to Hawaii for his first Pro Bowl, Burfict led the Bengals in penalties as a second-year player in 2013. Among those were eight unnecessary roughness penalties. This season, despite playing just one full game -- Sunday's -- he is tied for the team lead in penalties after picking up three this weekend.

Burfict wasn't flagged for any of the incidents the Panthers are alleging.

It should be made clear that in this particular case Burfict's side of the story still isn't known. For two straight days he has rebuffed media in Cincinnati seeking to speak with him not only about Carolina's claims but also about his return Sunday from a concussion-induced two-game absence. When the Bengals' locker room reopens to reporters Wednesday, it would be in his best interest to try to clear the air.

That is, if the new multimillionaire cares about the negative connotation his reputation is continuing to have.

Even if deep down he doesn't, it still is time publicly for the linebacker, who signed a contract extension that will pay him more than $20 million over the next four years, to start thinking more seriously about the impression his habitual line-toeing style of play is leaving on his opponents.

"I'm telling you, now that the league sees this, they're going to hone in on him like a homing pigeon," former Bengals offensive guard and current Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham said to ESPN on Tuesday. "Everything he does is going to be super scrutinized, not that it already isn't. Now it's going to be heightened. He's not doing himself any favors in that regard."

People around Burfict know all too well how he is being perceived. He has been called dirty since high school when he was alleged to have tried to take out Matt Barkley's knee on a sack attempt during a game between their Southern California schools. That play led Barkley three years ago to call Burfict "dirty" ahead of a college matchup between Burfict's Arizona State Sun Devils and Barkley's USC Trojans.

During that game, Burfict was seen pointing and shouting at Barkley before intercepting him and returning the ball near midfield.

What gets forgotten about that play is the end of it. After Barkley was tackled by Burfict, the linebacker immediately reached down and helped the quarterback up off the turf. It was a similar gesture to what Burfict did at one point Sunday when Panthers linebacker and Cincinnati native Luke Kuechly went down after getting hit hard during a Carolina interception return.

At the end of that play, Burfict jogged on the field and helped the visibly woozy Kuechly to his feet. A source close to Burfict mentioned that play Monday when asked about the linebacker's style of play.

But even if acts like that are more closely aligned with who Burfict the person is, rightly or wrongly, it's hard to keep them in mind when other gestures, like last season's fine-worthy groin tap on Packers tight end Ryan Taylor take place.

If this ultracompetitive player wants to salvage his reputation regardless of what the NFL finds this week, he will take Lapham's advice and curtail the shenanigans.

"He's a great player, and I don't think he needs to cloud the issue of being a great player with some of those things," Lapham said. "That's not necessary. He's a great football player. Why do anything to sully that reputation?"

Why, indeed?

CINCINNATI -- Adam Jones has a personality as blunt as you will find in the NFL.

He's a self-proclaimed straight shooter who revels in telling the truth, regardless of how brutally honest or ugly it may be. There's no sugarcoating what goes on when he opens his mouth to speak.

So it shouldn't have been surprising late Sunday afternoon when the Cincinnati Bengals cornerback blasted himself and his teammates for abandoning the types of defensive principles that would have prevented Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers from posting 431 yards of total offense in a 37-37 tie that made the Bengals walk away feeling more like they had just lost a second straight game.

"When the coaches put you in position to win the game after everything we went through to come back, there's no reason why we should not win the game right there -- period," Jones said.

There also was no reason why his defense should have given up 107 yards rushing to Newton alone, Jones added. As the veteran corner and others put it, the Bengals knew the read-option was part of Newton's arsenal, shaky ankle or not. They also knew the quarterback sneak could be an option on short-yardage plays.

They couldn't stop either.

Newton successfully executed two sneaks in the game, one on a third down and another on a second-and-1. Along with those two plays, he helped the Panthers to an 8-for-17 on third-down conversions and picked up the bulk of his yards on designed runs and read-option plays.

Even though Newton hadn't run much in games earlier this season, the Bengals still were expecting him to do that this weekend. They noticed where he started slowly getting back into his old ways last week against the Bears and assumed the read-option that Newton has flawlessly performed since arriving in the NFL would creep into the Panthers' game plan. His six carries against Chicago were the most he had this season before Sunday.

"He's a threat. We know he's a threat," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We knew that going into the game he was going to be a threat. He was a threat last week. So that didn't change."

So what went wrong?

The Bengals just didn't do their jobs.

"[On the option] one guy got the dive, the other guy got the pitch," Jones said. "Stay on who you got, even in coverage."

Jones insinuated that defenders were abandoning their responsibilities and making "little dumbass" mistakes that should never happen.

"We're a way better team than what we're playing," Jones said. "I expected to win the game. I came here fully confident that we would come home with a victory."

After all, this was a defense that entered the season regarded as arguably the best unit on the team. And this was a team that began the year red-hot at 3-0 and looking like a true Super Bowl contender. If this defense and this team is going to make it that far, though, it's going to have to start taking Jones' advice to clean up the problems that have suddenly started plaguing them.

This performance against Newton comes on the heels of an outing last Sunday at New England that saw the Bengals allow 220 yards rushing. Of those yards, 112 came on just six carries.

If defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system is to go where so many once believed it could, it will have to start performing better and flat-out executing.

"Paulie had great calls," Jones said. "But it's just little stuff that we keep messing up on. It's really simple."
CINCINNATI -- It's time to start turning our attention to the Cincinnati Bengals' next game.

The Patriots are in the rearview.

On deck: The Carolina Panthers.

Record: 3-2

How they got there
The Panthers will be on the road for a third time this season Sunday when they visit the Bengals. It will be just the second trip they'll make to Cincinnati after visiting Paul Brown Stadium back in 2006. More on that game and others in this series down below. Prior to this week's contest the Panthers opened the year by knocking off the Buccaneers and Lions in consecutive weeks before dropping two straight. Blowout losses to the Steelers and Ravens put Carolina at .500 before last weekend's win over Chicago.

Key players
QB Cam Newton. Like Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, Newton was part of the 2011 draft class that featured several of the league's starting signal-callers. Some like Minnesota's Christian Ponder could be considered busts. But the two playing in this game can't be. Newton is coming off the first playoff appearance of his career. With a down division this year, he could be headed back there.
[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesIt didn't take long for rookie Kelvin Benjamin to become an impact player for the Panthers.
WR Kelvin Benjamin. A tall, thick wideout from Florida State, Benjamin is the Panthers' equivalent of a Jimmy Graham-type of player. He has great leaping ability and has already come down with his share of circus catches this season. The rookie has three touchdowns and is averaging 15.3 yards per reception.
LB Luke Kuechly. Through four games the Cincinnati native is leading the league in tackles with 61. Yes, you read that right, 61. The St. Xavier High School product has been wracking up tackles since he was an area prep star, and he continued the trend in college at Boston College, where he was perennially the leading tackler in the ACC. His lateral quickness will be something the Bengals will have to key on this week.

Panthers' base defensive scheme: 4-3

Series history
The series is tied at 2-2. This is only the second meeting the teams will have in Cincinnati after the Bengals visited Carolina three times and went 1-2 in those three games. The Bengals won the last meeting in Cincinnati, 17-14, in 2006. They also won the most recent meeting in 2010 when the teams played in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Week 6 stat to consider
Bengals cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones hates to call for a fair catch. He hates it so much that he hasn't called for a fair catch in 82 punt-return opportunities dating back to Nov. 16, 2006, when he played for the Titans. For perspective, consider that for the 1,094 punts that were returned in the NFL last season, another 636 were fair caught. He didn't have a single one. Jones also ranks second among active players with five career punt-return touchdowns.

Uni watch
For the first time this year, the Bengals are expected to break out the orange jerseys, and they will wear them with black pants. They are 12-5 since 2004 in that combination. According to the team, the Bengals are next slated to wear their orange "specialty" jersey Nov. 2 at home against Jacksonville. The NFL permits teams to wear specialty jerseys twice a season.

Whom to follow
You'll want to be sure to follow my colleague David Newton on the Panthers blog and also on Twitter (@DNewtonespn) for all things Panthers this week. You'll learn much more from David later this week in our game preview.

Steelers vs. Panthers preview

September, 19, 2014

The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 despite playing their opener without starting quarterback Cam Newton and their second game without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-1 after losing 26-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in prime time.

Carolina defeated the Steelers 10-0 in Pittsburgh in the preseason finale for both teams, when few starters were on the field. Now these teams will see how they match up for real. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown are here to break this one down:

Newton: Scott, the Panthers have forced a league-best six turnovers in the first two games, and the Steelers haven't forced one. Pittsburgh also committed three against Baltimore. Do you see that being a big factor Sunday night?

Brown: Absolutely. The Steelers have to take care of the football against an opportunistic Panthers defense, and they have to start taking the ball away. It has been an issue the past three-plus seasons; the Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 in large part because they have consistently lost the turnover battle.

The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to give them a speedy playmaker on the back end of their defense, but he has not flashed in the first two games. I'm sure Mitchell would love nothing more than to make a couple of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays Sunday night against his former team.

How is former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery fitting in for the Panthers and how much of a positive influence has the 11th-year veteran been for promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin?

Newton: From a leadership standpoint, I'd have to give Cotchery an A. It's a much different climate on the field and in the locker room with Cotchery instead of Steve Smith, as you probably can imagine. Benjamin has all the physical tools at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- not to mention hands the size of a catcher's mitt. Having Cotchery and Jason Avant there to mentor him on how to block and handle not being a part of the play has been important. The improvement Benjamin made on the little things from Week 1 to 2 was noticeable.

There is not much Cotchery or anybody can teach Benjamin about catching, though. In each of the first two games, he has made the type of phenomenal catch Cotchery and Avant probably only dream about. I have to admit I was starting to get skeptical of what Cotchery would offer on the field after the preseason. But in the first two games he has eight receptions for 78 yards. He is a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who has been outstanding.

The Steelers have struggled to stop the run so far. The Panthers have struggled to run, and that is a big part of their game. What has been the problem on Pittsburgh's side?

Brown: Wait a second, here. Are you trying to tell me that Jonathan Stewart and De'Angelo Williams aren't Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Tomlin sure made them sound like a fabled running back tandem this week. And since no coach has ever employed hyperbole in talking up an upcoming opponent, I'm going to assume Carolina's problems running the ball are an aberration.

Seriously, whatever Carolina's struggles have been running the ball might simply be fixed by playing against a defense that always used to stuff the run. The Steelers haven't been good against the run since 2012, which was, not coincidentally, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's final season with the team.

Hampton rarely lost ground while clogging the middle of the defense and often commanded double-teams. The Steelers' current defensive line has not consistently tied up blockers or maintained assigned gaps and, through two games, Pittsburgh has given up 170 rushing yards per game. The line simply has to start winning more battles up front for the run defense -- and the Steelers' defense as a whole -- to show significant improvement.

Cam Newton is a running threat. Does the Carolina quarterback gain most of his rushing yards after escaping a collapsing pocket, or will Carolina run some read-option with him?

Newton: What? No comparing Newton to Y.A. Tittle? Seriously, it's a combination of both, and the healthier Newton gets with his fractured ribs the more he will run. He took off for 13 yards Sunday on a read-option play that was similar to, if not exactly like, one coach Ron Rivera said his quarterback should have handed off on in practice to protect the ribs.

The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March still isn't completely healed, which might explain why Newton looked somewhat awkward at times running against the Lions. But what makes him a weapon is you don't know when he's going to take off, whether it's a scramble when the pocket collapses or the read-option. He also refuses to slide and protect himself, as we saw last week. If the Steelers are as bad as you say at stopping the run, I'm sure Newton will take a few shots at them with his legs.

What about Ben Roethlisberger? Is Big Ben still a quarterback who can carry a team?

Brown: He'd better be able to carry the Steelers because Roethlisberger is the biggest hope they have of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons. I think he is still playing at a high level and I'm not ready raise serious concerns about Roethlisberger and the offense, although the Steelers have managed just nine points in their past six series. If the offensive line holds up, the Steelers are going to score points with the talent they have at the other skills positions, such as receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.

David, where are the Panthers vulnerable, and are you surprised by their 2-0 start?

Newton: I'll answer the second part first. Not really. I actually picked them to start 3-0. The defense really is as good as advertised, and I figured that would be enough at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. But I was surprised that Newton didn't play in the opener and that the offense played so well without him. I've been saying since early in organized team activities that Carolina is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago, and so far that group has proved me right.

As far as vulnerability, the lack of a running game has to be concerning. The Panthers want to control the clock and want to keep the pressure off of Newton having to run. Without a running game, that gets tough. It will also be interesting to see whether Hardy's situation ultimately becomes a distraction. So far, it appears to have galvanized the locker room.
Mitchell/CotcheryUSA TODAY SportsThe swap of safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers and receiver Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers bring a veteran presence to each locker room.

It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. Steelers writer Scott Brown and Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.

Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?

David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.

Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?

Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.

I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.

Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?

Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.

Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?

Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.

The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.

David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?

Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.

How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?

Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.

I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.
They are two veterans at two positions of need.

One seemed like almost a sure thing to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers just a couple of weeks ago. The other became a surprising target of a team that has a starting running back, but needs depth at the position.

Here is my take on Jerricho Cotchery and Maurice Jones-Drew:

Cotchery: I still like the chances of the veteran wide receiver returning to the Steelers even though he visited the Panthers this week. If the money offered by the teams is anywhere close, it wouldn’t make much sense for Cotchery to sign with the Panthers.

He wouldn’t get a chance to work with a new quarterback until training camp because of the ankle surgery that will sideline Carolina's Cam Newton for the next four months. Cotchery would also be joining a group of wide receivers that has been stripped of almost all of its parts. Toney Clemons, a former seventh-round pick by the Steelers, has the most catches of any wide receiver on Carolina’s roster, and he has a grand total of three receptions.

Cotchery is more of a complementary receiver at this stage of his career, and he excelled as a No. 3 wideout last season when he caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes. Why not reprise that role given his comfort with it, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense?

The wild-card here is money -- and whether the Panthers are so desperate for wide receivers they are willing to overpay for a player who has logged 10 NFL seasons and turns 32 in June.

The Steelers want to bring back Cotchery, but it has to be at the right price.

Jones-Drew: The Steelers created a buzz by hosting a player who has rushed for more than 8,000 yards for an extended visit. If Jones-Drew is looking for significant money or a starting job following eight seasons with the Jaguars, he won’t find it in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are committed to Le'Veon Bell, and they don’t have enough salary-cap room to offer anywhere close to the $4.95 million Jones-Drew made in his final season in Jacksonville.

Also, they simply have too many other holes to fill to spend a sizable chunk of money on a player who won’t start for them.

One thing, however, intrigues me about the possibility of adding Jones-Drew to the Steelers’ offense. He and Bell and have good hands, and the latter is adept at running actual pass patterns and not just catching dump-off or screen passes.

Given their skill sets, the Steelers could try to create mismatches by designing packages in which both are on the field at the same time. Such creativity could help offset the inexperience the Steelers have at wide receiver, especially if Cotchery signs with the elsewhere.

Jones-Drew’s presence would also allow the Steelers to limit the amount of pounding Bell absorbs as their No. 1 back and provide injury insurance.

While the Steelers aren’t in a position to offer Jones-Drew the kind of money he will likely command elsewhere, the market isn’t a good one for running backs, and there are ways for them to create more cap room.

It’s probably a long shot that Jones-Drew is wearing black and gold in the fall, but there is a scenario in which the Steelers could make it work.

Pro Bowl selections: Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 27, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Wide receiver and team MVP Antonio Brown and strong safety Troy Polamalu were the two Pittsburgh Steelers selected to the Pro Bowl.

The team was selected after a vote by players, coaches and fans and, as usual, it stirred immediate debate. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and right guard David DeCastro were among the Steelers' most notable omissions. The Browns placed five players on the team -- most in the AFC North -- even though they only have four victories.

Brown makes the Pro Bowl for the second time and first as a wide receiver. His selection was a no-brainer as Brown has already set a Steelers record for receiving yards in a season (1,412) and has an outside chance of breaking Hines Ward's franchise record for receptions in a season.

Brown needs 12 catches Sunday against the Browns to surpass the 112 receptions Ward had in 2002. He is third in the NFL in both catches and receiving yards.

Polamalu made the Pro Bowl for an eighth time, and he has played every game this season after missing nine last season because of a calf injury. Polamalu is tied for the Steelers lead in interceptions (two) and passes defensed (12).

Polamalu is tied for second in the AFC with five forced fumbles and he is third on the Steelers with 81 tackles.

Roethlisberger was not one of six quarterbacks voted to the Pro Bowl -- the teams were selected regardless of conference for the first time -- even though he is having one of the best seasons of his career.

Roethlisberger, who became the Steelers’ all-time leader in touchdown passes earlier this season, has already set a franchise record for completions (356) in a season. He needs 247 passing yards on Sunday to break the record he set in 2009 for passing yards in a season (4.328).

Russell Wilson and Cam Newton were among the quarterbacks who made the Pro Bowl ahead of Roethlisberger, and it’s hard to argue with either pick given the success of their respective teams.

Roethlisberger will almost surely get added to the team as players bow out due to injuries or the fact that their team is playing in the Super Bowl, which is a week after the Pro Bowl.

DeCastro is also a strong candidate to get added to the Pro Bowl at a later date. The second-year man has established himself as one of the top guard in the NFL in his first full season as a starter.

The Pro Bowl will be played Jan. 26 in Honolulu.

A draft will be held Jan. 22 as captains Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders will pick their respective teams among those who made the Pro Bowl.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
It's hard to predict whether the Cleveland Browns will take a quarterback in the draft. If you agree that they will draft a quarterback, it's difficult to agree on which one they will select.

Even ESPN's draft experts have differing opinions on the Browns' quarterback issue. Todd McShay has the Browns picking West Virginia's Geno Smith with the No. 6 overall pick, and Mel Kiper Jr. has them taking Florida State's EJ Manuel in the third round.

I believe it's a long shot that the Browns would take Smith that high, even though they have worked him out. McShay also acknowledges this isn't likely to happen.

"I don’t think Cleveland necessarily wants to take him at No. 6," McShay said. "I had to unload him somewhere. I do think there is a small chance that they could take him. I know [general manager Mike] Lombardi doesn’t like [Brandon] Weeden very much, but that doesn’t mean the coaching staff doesn’t like him."

So, where does McShay expect Smith to land?

"I can honestly tell you that I’ve never been this close to a draft and had no clue with a top quarterback like this," he said. "I know how I evaluate him. I know what I believe are his strengths and weaknesses. I feel like I’ve got him down as well as any quarterback I’ve ever evaluated but I don’t know where he’s going."

Taking Manuel in the third round is a more realistic scenario. I could see the Browns picking him in the second round if they can acquire another pick by trading down in the first round. The Browns have a private workout scheduled with Manuel for Saturday, a league source told The Plain Dealer.

Some have compared Manuel to Cam Newton, who ran Browns coach Rob Chudzinski's offense in Carolina. Manuel has a strong arm and can be a bullish runner at 6-foot-4, 237 pounds.

"I don't think he's anywhere near to a finished product, but I do think he has a big upside," ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said. "He has a tremendous skillset that allows him to do a lot of different things. If you're with a creative offensive coach, look out."

The Browns aren't in a position where they need to draft a quarterback this year. They can be patient and see if Weeden makes strides in his second NFL season after the team invested a first-round pick in him a year ago. Cleveland also has a veteran backup in Jason Campbell.

Chudzinski refused to tip the team's draft plan. Asked about the workout with Smith, Chudzinski told reporters Tuesday, "We've had the chance to work out a number of guys and all have gone well. I'm not going to get too much into detail on those. I know that we're going to talk later on this week about some of the draft things."

Browns, Ravens trim down rosters

August, 26, 2012
The Browns and Ravens have already made some cuts as teams need to get down to the 75-player limit by Monday at 4 p.m.

As everyone knows by now, the Ravens cut kicker Billy Cundiff in a gutsy move by the team. That means undrafted rookie Justin Tucker takes over as kicker.

“Billy had a great camp, the best he has had with us," coach John Harbaugh said in a statement. "He showed, like he always has, a toughness and an ability to come back and be a top-flight NFL kicker. These decisions are never easy, and this one was difficult for all of us -- Ozzie [Newsome, general manager], Jerry [Rosburg, special-teams coordinator] and me."

Harbaugh added, "Of course, that says something about Justin, the way he has kicked and our belief in him. But, that does not say something less about Billy. Billy was ready in every way to be our kicker. He’ll kick in the NFL. He’s a very good kicker and an even better person.”

The Ravens had signed Cundiff to a five-year, $14.7 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus just 19 months ago.

The one notable player waived by the Ravens was center Cecil Newton, the brother of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Cecil Newton was on the team's practice squad last season. Here are the other players waived: tight end Davon Drew (a 2009 fifth-round pick), receiver Devin Goda, OL Addison Lawrence, cornerback Jordan Mabin, long-snapper Patrick Scales, quarterback Chester Stewart and receiver Patrick Williams.

These cuts bring the Ravens' roster down to 81 players, meaning six more need to go by Monday's deadline. One move could be placing wide receiver Tommy Streeter, who didn't practice Saturday, on injured reserve to store him away for a year.

For the Browns, the biggest name to go was wide receiver Carlton Mitchell.The Browns had hopes they could develop Mitchell when they drafted the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder in the sixth round in 2010. But he managed three catches for 31 yards in two seasons. Cleveland decided to move on after drafting Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft and taking Travis Benjamin in the fourth round in April.

Here are the other players waived by the Browns: offensive linemen Jake Anderson and Matt Cleveland, defensive back Emanuel Davis, linebacker JoJo Dickson, punter Spencer Lanning and wide receivers Bert Reed, Jermaine Saffold and Owen Spencer.

The Browns now have 80 players on their roster and need to make five more moves by Monday's deadline.
Brandon WeedenJason Miller/Getty ImagesThe Browns made 28-year-old Brandon Weeden the oldest first-round draft selection in NFL history.

BEREA, Ohio -- No one can say whether Brandon Weeden is going to lead the Cleveland Browns from the ranks of the worst teams in the NFL. No one, and this includes Mike Holmgren as well as Pat Shurmur, can declare that Weeden is going to stop the Browns' quarterback carousel that has spanned 16 starters since the city's return to the NFL in 1999.

But, after 40 days and 10 practices with the Browns, there is one assessment of Weeden that everyone can agree upon: The rookie first-round pick has the look of a franchise quarterback.

It only takes one practice to see how Weeden has the size and the arm to live up to that billing. The building excitement with Weeden comes from the fact that his potential extends beyond physical gifts.

He has the comfort level to tell quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple about a couple of red-zone plays he "wasn't a big fan of." He has the courage to throw a deep touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin after nearly getting picked off. He has the confidence to tell reporters about his goal of winning a Super Bowl even before taking a snap in a regular-season game.

While it's way too early to predict Weeden winning championships, he has brought hope to a franchise that has recorded 10 double-digit loss seasons and no playoff victories over the past 13 years. Everyone else in the AFC North went to the postseason last season, and everyone in the division has a franchise quarterback. The only way the Browns can get out of last place is to find one of their own. That's why Weeden is the crucial piece of the Holmgren era in Cleveland.

Browns officials haven't named Weeden the starter because they want him to earn the job. Technically, he's battling Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. Unofficially, the Browns' mandatory minicamp this week has served more as a coronation than a competition.

Weeden took the first snaps with the starting offense throughout Tuesday's practice. He was the quarterback standing at the podium addressing reporters after the workout. He looks like "the guy" in Cleveland, even though Weeden himself refuses to acknowledge it.

"Not yet, just because nothing is formal," Weeden said. "We're still two months out until we play our first preseason game. I'm still working my tail off just to get better and keep learning. I'm getting more comfortable with what we are doing, but I still have a long ways to go."

The most overused term with Weeden is that he's mature. This has become a polite way to say Weeden is old. He'll turn 29 during the season, which makes him the Betty White of rookie quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
David Richard/US PresswireFrom his big arm to his confidence, Brandon Weeden is the picture of the franchise QB the Browns are aching for.
The better description for Weeden is he's grounded. He hasn't been coddled like many first-round quarterbacks. He has tasted failure as a minor-league pitcher (he went 19-26 after being drafted in the same round as Joey Votto) and only became a winning quarterback at Oklahoma State after making the climb from a third-stringer.

Weeden understands what it takes to rebound from struggles, which will serve him well this year. All rookie quarterbacks make mistakes. The successful ones don't crumble from them.

Weeden's resiliency came through Tuesday when a miscommunication with Josh Cribbs led to an interception. He came right back to hit Mohamed Massaquoi on a deep cross pattern.

"I won't make that same mistake again and if I do, shame on me," he said "I think you guys will find I'm pretty even-keeled, but I think my track record shows -- I put that one behind me. They always say, 'Wash your hands and move on.' That's kind of the approach I take, and that comes from baseball. I gave up a lot of home runs in baseball and they're very similar. So you've just got to toe the rubber, you've got to take snaps and move on and make the next play."

Shurmur was reluctant to give any glowing remarks about Weeden on Tuesday. It was kind of a game to watch him turn questions specifically about Weeden into answers that addressed the entire quarterback group.

He was even hesitant to put a timetable on naming the starting quarterback. "I think it's important to do it as quickly as possible," Shurmur said. "But yet, it needs to happen at a pace where the guys here have a chance to compete."

If Weeden's progression since his first practice on May 11 is any indication, he'll be ready to start against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 9.

"I'm leap years farther along right now than I was obviously Day 1, Day 2," Weeden said. "I think even from rookie minicamp, where I'm at right now is that I look like two totally different quarterbacks -- in my footwork, and you can tell I'm processing stuff a little bit faster and I'm not thinking quite as much."

Weeden added, "When you stop thinking so much and you just react and go through your reads one, two, three to your back, that's when you start moving the ball down the field and start getting completions and first downs."

Moving the ball down the field in short chunks isn't Weeden's forte. What stood out about him in Tuesday's practice was the amount of deep shots he took.

"Sometimes in this West Coast offense it can get labeled as an underneath route, catch-and-run route [scheme]," Weeden said, "but any time you can really step into one and let it rip, that's fun."

Weeden is entering the NFL at a time when expectations for rookie quarterbacks are at an all-time high.

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco led their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons in 2008. Mark Sanchez helped the Jets to the AFC championship as a rookie in 2009. And Cam Newton threw for over 4,000 yards and Andy Dalton went to the Pro Bowl last year.

This doesn't faze a quarterback like Weeden, who has already said he wants to win a Super Bowl before he's done playing.

"We put the pressure on ourselves to win games," Weeden said. "We want to get to the playoffs. We want to take our team as far as we can. That's the way good quarterbacks should think."

That's exactly the way franchise quarterbacks should talk.
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.


1. STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger remains the best quarterback in the division, and it's still not even close. Despite three injuries (sprained foot, broken right thumb and high ankle sprain), he threw 400 more yards than any other quarterback in the AFC North. Roethlisberger's highlights were throwing five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueling Tom Brady and beating Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg. He was the true most valuable player on the Steelers, even though Antonio Brown was named that by his teammates. When Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in early December, the Steelers offense was never the same. With a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers don't lose at Denver in the playoffs. In Charlie Batch's only start, the 37-year-old backup completed 15 of 22 passes for 208 yards against the Rams. What could change: The Steelers have to make a decision at backup quarterback. Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are all unrestricted free agents. Leftwich is the favorite to get the No. 2 job.

2. RAVENS: The biggest frustration for the Ravens is that Joe Flacco can look like a championship quarterback one week and a confused one the next. Another uneven season included four games with 300 or more yards passing and seven with less than 200 yards passing. When Flacco was at his best, he threw three touchdowns in the first quarter at St. Louis, delivered a last-minute comeback at Pittsburgh and completed 79 percent of his passes in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati. His biggest moment came in the AFC championship game in New England where he threw the winning touchdown that sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl ... until the ball was stripped from Lee Evans. Rookie backup Tyrod Taylor threw one pass. What could change: The size of Flacco's contract. The Ravens have made it a priority to sign Flacco, who is entering the final year of his contract, to an extension. It should get done before the end of August because both sides don't want this issue to hang over their heads entering the regular season.

3. BENGALS: Andy Dalton was the best rookie quarterback in the AFC and would've been the top one in the NFL if not for that quarterback named Cam. A second-round pick in 2011, Dalton became the only rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 or more touchdowns passes while winning eight or more games as a starting quarterback. The most impressive part of Dalton's game is his anticipation. He gets rid of the ball before the wide receiver gets out of his break, which is quite a feat for a first-year passer. His biggest challenge is overcoming the best defenses in the division. In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Backup Bruce Gradkowski replaced an injured Dalton in the season opener and led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in rallying the Bengals to a 27-17 victory at Cleveland. What could change: The playbook is set to expand for Dalton in his second season. Dalton will progress as long as the Bengals improve his supporting cast. They need to upgrade the No. 2 wide receiver spot and find a more consistent starting running back.

4. BROWNS: No one questions Colt McCoy's leadership or toughness. It's his arm strength, accuracy, recognition of blitzes and ability to make plays in the pocket that are the question marks. You can argue that he doesn't have playmakers in the passing game and the Browns receivers were tied for the NFL lead in dropped passes. While all of that is correct, it's also true that McCoy is limited as a quarterback no matter who the Browns put around him. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 27th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 33rd in yards per attempt (5.9), 27th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8). His season ended with a concussion that resulted in a vicious hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Backup Seneca Wallace isn't the answer. He is 1-6 in seven starts for the Browns. Wallace didn't look like an experienced backup with his poor clock management at the end of the first half in Baltimore. What could change: The Browns need to find a franchise quarterback, whether it's signing Matt Flynn in free agency or trading up to draft Robert Griffin III, which is what I endorse. The fallback option is keeping McCoy as the starter for another season.

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line; Feb. 28: Wide receivers; Feb. 29: Tight ends; March 1: Running backs.

AFC North weekend mailbag

February, 26, 2012
It's never a good Sunday when it's Sunday without football games. But it does give us time to open some mail ...

Todd from Vallejo, Calif., writes: My question relates to the Bengals draft picks. By all accounts, the players they want to select (guard David DeCastro, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, running back Trent Richardson, etc.) will all be gone by picks 17 and 21. I have a hard time seeing them reach for a running back with those picks or even a lesser guard (like Cordy Glenn) or risky corner (Janoris Jenkins). What do you think they will do? Trade up or down?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: The Bengals are more likely to trade down, especially at No. 21. It seems like every draft there is some team wanting to jump back into the bottom part of the first round to get a quarterback. Since the Bengals have Andy Dalton, they would be happy to drop back and acquire more picks. The only player that I could envision the Bengals trading up for is Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Cincinnati wouldn't mortgage the entire draft for Richardson, but it would be willing to move up a few spots if he surprisingly falls out of the top 10. Of course, I would be extremely surprised to see Richardson slip that far.

Abe from Baltimore writes: Don't you think the Ravens will be better suited going for Pierre Garcon, Mario Manningham, or Robert Meachem rather than breaking the bank for any of these big-name wide receivers?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: The Ravens don't have the salary-cap room to go after a wide receiver like Vincent Jackson. As I wrote last week, the best fit is the Colts' Reggie Wayne, whose value will be lowered by the number of young deep threats available in free agency. If Wayne proves to be too expensive, the Ravens still need to add a free-agent wide receiver because Lee Evans was a flop and Tandon Doss apparently isn't ready to get on the field. Baltimore only had two wide receivers with more than four catches, so the Ravens have to upgrade here.

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: Even if Robert Griffin III is every bit as good as Cam Newton, there's no way he'd have that kind of success in Cleveland. Newton was throwing to a pair of good tight ends and Steve Smith, with a nice running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. RG3 comes into an offense with no running game and, frankly, a terrible group of receivers and tight ends. I understand Colt McCoy probably isn't getting the most out of the players around him, but even Tom Brady would have a hard time scoring points for the Browns. The Browns need a lot more than a new quarterback to be even solid on offense.

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: I understand your argument for a lack of playmakers, but you can't downplay the fact that a franchise quarterback elevates the talent around him. That's why Cam Newton had more success with this supporting cast than Jake Delhomme, Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore. There's no doubt that the Browns have to significantly improve the players at the skill positions. But McCoy isn't a quarterback who gets the most out of his teammates. I'm not saying RG3 will do this. I'm just saying the Browns have to look elsewhere because McCoy isn't the answer.

Jared from Orlando, Fla., writes: Do you think that Heath Miller will ever get to the Pro Bowl again? Granted the one time he made it, it was because one of the tight ends chosen was in the Super Bowl that year. I'm extremely biased as a Steeler fan who grew up in the same town as Heath. However, it seems like the only tight ends to make the pro bowl are pass catchers. Heath has great hands, but he's at least top three in the league as a blocking tight end. Thoughts?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Miller has been underused the past two seasons, especially in the red zone. But he won't get to another Pro Bowl because he's on the decline. Over the next couple of drafts, the Steelers have to take a look at adding an athletic pass-catching tight end like Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham and Baltimore's Ed Dickson. That's the direction the NFL is headed, and Pittsburgh is going to be forced to fill the void there sooner than later. Miller is entering the final year of his contract.

Cameron from Cincinnati writes: If the Bengals are going to get a guard and a cornerback with their first two picks, which looks likely, what position do they address next? Running back, or wide receiver?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Running back comes next in the draft, and wide receiver is among the priorities in free agency. The Bengals need to get younger and faster at running back. That means the draft is the best way to address the position. As far as wide receiver, Cincinnati needs a dependable route-runner as the second option to A.J. Green. The Bengals can find one in free agency.

Gene from San Diego writes: What's more important in the draft for the Ravens: an outside linebacker opposite [Terrell] Suggs, an inside linebacker for the future or a center?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: In order of priority, I would go inside linebacker, center and outside linebacker. It wouldn't be a surprise to see others rank these differently because it's a tough call. I put inside linebacker first because this is the time to find that heir apparent to Ray Lewis, so the rookie can learn under the future Hall of Fame linebacker. The Ravens can get by this year with Matt Birk at center and Paul Kruger at outside linebacker.

Sean from Van Wert, Ohio, writes: I know that Cleveland needs help at receiver. With all the big names out there, we should worry about overspending. Which is why, I keep bringing up Pierre Garcon. He would be a great fit for Cleveland's West Coast offense, and we could get him for less than DeSean Jackson or any of the other big names wide receivers. I believe we could land Garcon around the $13-15 million range over three to five years. What are your thoughts on Garcon landing in Cleveland?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: I put Garcon on the top of my list in terms of the best fit for Cleveland. The reason? Garcon provides what the Browns desperately need at wide receiver -- speed. He showed he can stretch the field, and he proved that he doesn't need an elite quarterback to do so after Peyton Manning was sidelined all season.

DJ from Brockport, N.Y., writes: Have the Browns actually shown interest in Robert Griffin III or is it all rumors and assumptions at this point?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Browns officials met with RG3 for a 15-minute interview on Friday night. But it doesn't take a top analyst like Trent Dilfer to answer this question. The Browns need to upgrade at quarterback, and RG3 will be top quarterback available after Andrew Luck gets drafted by the Colts. Cleveland officials don't have to draft RG3, but they do have to consider it.

John from Medon, Tenn., writes: With Rashard Mendenhall's injury, could you see the Steelers potentially having an interest in Peyton Hillis? I know they don't spend much in free agency, but Hillis could possibly be had at a decent price after a bad year. Hillis' hit-the-hole-hard style would actually be a better fit than Mendenhall's constant hesitation at the line of scrimmage. Hillis in a Steeler uniform would be very intriguing.

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: The Steelers aren't going to make many free-agent signings because of their limited cap space. So it would surprise me if they chose to use that precious cap room on a player who struggled on the field for most of the season, got hurt and became a malcontent in the locker room. I believe the Steelers need to address running back in free agency, but it would be out of character for Pittsburgh to pursue Hillis.

Michael from Cleveland writes: How crazy is it to think the Colts will draft Robert Griffin III and the Browns move up to draft Andrew Luck?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: This is beyond crazy. Actually, this is the very definition of fantasy football for Browns fans.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

New Ravens quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell is turning his focus to Joe Flacco after a decade of working with the Colts' Peyton Manning.

But no one should expect Caldwell to morph Flacco into Manning.

“Everybody’s different,” Caldwell told the team's website. “[Flacco] has his own strengths, and what we want to try to do is accentuate those. I'm not here to make him like any other quarterback in this league, like Peyton Manning or Brad Johnson or the other guys I’ve coached. That’s not my goal. He is who he is. What we want to do is just help him perfect what he does well.”

In three years as the Colts head coach, Caldwell faced Flacco three times. The most recent meeting was in December, when Flacco threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns.

“We knew he was dangerous because we knew he could make all the throws,” Caldwell said. “He could make all the finesse throws, all the intermediate throws, and under duress. He’s a tough guy to handle.”

Hensley's slant: Still not sold on how much Caldwell will raise Flacco's game. It's difficult to tell how effective Caldwell was as the Colts' quarterbacks coach when he worked with a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Manning. But it was a good move to add a quarterbacks coach this year after the one-year experiment of Cam Cameron overseeing the position.

BENGALS: Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, a former defensive backs coach in Cincinnati, might lure a couple of Bengals free agents to Miami. Among the possibilities listed by the Miami Herald were: safety Reggie Nelson and defensive tackle Pat Sims. "[Coyle] somehow got Nelson, an early-round draft bust in Jacksonville, to play well in Cincinnati," the Herald's Armando Salguero wrote. "Maybe Nelson might be the answer to getting some plays out of the Miami free safety spot." Hensley's slant: The loss of Nelson would hurt because he is one of the top three free agents the Bengals would like to re-sign. But Coyle would like to bring a veteran along who is familiar with his system and style. Luckily for the Bengals, they have plenty of cap room to sign a replacement if Nelson does leave.

BROWNS: The Canton Repository's Steve Doerschuk suggests that the Browns keep running back Peyton Hillis and pursue quarterback Matt Flynn and wide receiver Pierre Garcon in free agency. That would allow Cleveland to fill other holes in the draft, where they have three of the top 37 picks. Hensley's slant: Signing Flynn would make a lot of sense. He would make more of an immediate impact than any of the rookie quarterbacks, and the Browns would have the freedom to draft the best player that falls to the No. 4 pick. This has the potential to backfire if Flynn becomes this year's Kevin Kolb and Baylor's Robert Griffin III becomes this year's Cam Newton.

STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook says it's time for the Steelers to realize that they owe wide receiver Hines Ward nothing. "There is no room in pro sports for sentimentality or loyalty, not when so much money is at stake and the pressure to win is so great," Cook wrote. "Unfortunately, Ward's inevitable parting from the Steelers looks as if it will be awkward with hurt feelings for Ward." Hensley's slant: This is the bad part about the business, because you want to see all of the stars finish their careers with one team. But that rarely happens these days in the NFL. Just ask another longtime wide receiver, Jerry Rice, who finished his career with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks and not the San Francisco 49ers.