AFC North: Chris Kemoeatu

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. named the Pittsburgh Steelers among his winners in Thursday night's first round. No other AFC North teams made his list of winners or question marks.

It's an Insider piece Insider, so you'll need a subscription to read the entire article. Here's what Kiper had to say about the Steelers, who selected Stanford guard David DeCastro at No. 24:
Nothing sexy about this, but the value is off the charts. For instance, the first six guys on my Big Board Insider make up the first six picks in the draft. Only two guys in my top 10 didn't get drafted in the top 10. Melvin Ingram fell to No. 18, and DeCastro falls all the way to No. 24. Again, nothing thrilling -- no nifty trade to swoop in and get top value, but look at the interior of that offensive line now. Maurkice Pouncey and DeCastro are both studs, and I had guard as a key need for Pittsburgh.

DeCastro certainly adds stability to the Steelers' offensive line. Last season, four linemen started at least two games at guard for Pittsburgh: Chris Kemoeatu, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Trai Essex.
Mike TomlinMichael Hickey/US PresswireMike Tomlin and the Steelers need to tap into their draft magic this year more than many.

Nearly a full month into free agency, the Steelers finally signed their first player Tuesday. It was -- yawn -- Leonard Pope.

Not excited about adding a backup tight end? Well, this is essentially a repeat of last year, when the Steelers' big free-agent signing was wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Let's face it, Steelers free agency contains as much action as a Sarah Jessica Parker flick. Everyone knows this, and that's why no one is wringing their Terrible Towel over the inactivity.

The Steelers find players in April, not March. They hit on first-round picks every year -- at least in recent memory -- and develop undrafted prospects into starters. No one has built their team through the draft quite like the Steelers this decade. If the season started today, only one of the projected starters (safety Ryan Clark) joined the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent.

The Steelers need this remarkable track record in the draft to come through for them again. In some ways, this is the most important draft of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not saying this is a crucial draft in terms of finding immediate starters. But the pressure is on the Steelers to find "potential" starters for the 2012 season.

The organization lost a piece of its history when it parted ways with wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Chris Hoke and guard Chris Kemoeatu this offseason. Some have downplayed these departures because none were major contributors last season. Farrior was a part-time player, Ward was being phased out, Kemoeatu was benched and Smith and Hoke were both injured. The Steelers, though, could have used their experience as backups this season.

The loss of these veteran safety nets makes injuries a major concern. Two starters -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton -- are candidates to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (and miss at least the first six games) after ACL surgeries this offseason. Tomlin has expressed concern about whether right tackle Willie Colon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can shake their injury histories. And the Steelers have to be worried about Maurkice Pouncey's ankle, LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings and Doug Legursky's shoulder.

If Hampton is placed on the PUP, the starting nose tackle would likely be an out-of-position Ziggy Hood. If Legursky is hurt, the current top backup at guard is John Malecki. If Colon goes down, the Steelers have to turn to the often-struggling Jonathan Scott. If Sanders can't play, the third receiver would be ... well, no one right now. These are all painful scenarios for the Steelers.

This is where the draft comes into play for Pittsburgh. Taking the right college player has always kept the Steelers in the mode of reloading, not rebuilding. No one knows whom the Steelers will select with the 24th overall pick. It could be Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener or someone not even linked to Pittsburgh. Based on the Steelers' history, the only certainty is that the pick will become an impact player.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDefensive end Brett Keisel, taken in the seventh round, is just one of the Steelers' draft finds.
Since 2000, the Steelers' first-round selections have been wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. The only one who didn't quite live up to expectations is Mendenhall, and he is hardly a major disappointment, having led the team in rushing for the past three seasons. This great run is more amazing when you consider that only two (Burress and Roethlisberger) were selected in the top half of the first round. Even the Ravens, who are known for excelling in the draft, have had two busts during this span with quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Travis Taylor.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, one of the underrated decision-makers in the NFL, can't explain this string of success.

"We've been fortunate," he told reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We are capable as anybody of making a mistake. We never keep score. There's only one score that matters and that's the last game of the year."

If the Steelers had been keeping score, they would realize their success goes beyond the first round. They have come away with current starters in the second round (linebacker Woodley), third round (wide receiver Mike Wallace), fourth round (cornerback Ike Taylor), sixth round (wide receiver Antonio Brown) and seventh round (defensive end Brett Keisel). And don't forget about the undrafted finds like Legursky, right guard Ramon Foster and running back Isaac Redman.

This is why the Steelers don't have to write a $100 million check to free agents. This is why the Steelers can sign one player in the first 28 days of free agency and not sweat about it. Pittsburgh's way of business is about patience and faith. The Steelers believe in their front office to select the right college players and they believe in their coaching staff to develop them. It's a proven system that has led to five AFC North titles in 10 seasons and three trips to the Super Bowl during that span.

As players come and go, the Steelers' goals never change. Like Tomlin always preaches: "The standard is the standard."

"If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible."

And the organizations that are able to sustain success are often quiet in free agency and make the most noise in the draft.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:


Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).


Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.


Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.


Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.
I've given my grades out to all the AFC North teams after the first wave of free agency was complete. Now, it's your turn.


What grade would you give the Pittsburgh Steelers so far in free agency?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,253)

Give me your grade and a two-line assessment (good, bad or indifferent) of how the Steelers have fared so far this offseason. You can also send your grade and comment to the AFC North mailbag.

This is our final installment of the week-long series, and I will post a fans' report card on Monday.

Here's a recap of the Steelers' offseason:






WR Hines Ward, LB James Farrior, DE Aaron Smith, CB William Gay, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu, CB Bryant McFadden, WR Arnaz Battle, P Daniel Sepulveda.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Cincinnati Bengals

Key additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Reggie Nelson, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Adam Jones, DE Jamaal Anderson, DE Derrick Harvey

Key losses: DE Frostee Rucker (Browns), G Nate Livings (Cowboys), G Mike McGlynn (Colts), DE Jonathan Fanene (Patriots), WR Andre Caldwell (Broncos)

Grade after first wave of free agency: B. The Bengals were the most active team in the division and they should have been. Cincinnati entered free agency with more than $50 million in salary-cap space, which was more than the rest of the AFC North combined. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.

The prize of the Bengals' signings is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is an improvement over Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis isn't known for breaking long gains, but he is a force in the red zone and has never fumbled in the NFL. Wharton is a step up from Nate Livings at left guard because he is a strong run-blocker who will open holes inside. The biggest losses came on the defensive line, where Cincinnati will miss Frostee Rucker on run defense and Jonathan Fanene in the pass rush.

What’s next: The Bengals can still close the gap between the Ravens and Steelers because they have two first-round picks in the draft (No. 17 overall, which came from Oakland in the Carson Palmer trade, and No. 21). Even with the signing of Wharton, Cincinnati needs a right guard and could have a shot at the top interior offensive lineman coming out of college. Stanford's David DeCastro is one of the safest picks in the draft and would start immediately for the Bengals.

The second first-round pick could be used on a wide receiver or a cornerback. The Bengals surprisingly didn't add a free-agent wide receiver to pair with A.J. Green. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill or Baylor's Kendall Wright should be available in the bottom third of the draft. Another need is cornerback because Cincinnati could use an eventual replacement for Nate Clements, who is entering his 12th season. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, the second best corner in the draft, has a chance of sliding to the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns

Key additions: DE Frostee Rucker, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson, DE Juqua Parker

Key losses: RB Peyton Hillis (Chiefs), S Mike Adams (Broncos), G Eric Steinbach, OT Tony Pashos

Grade after first wave of free agency: C. Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert said they were building this team through the draft and they weren't joking. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right tackle. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. Blame the Washington Redskins. The Browns attempted to move up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III, and the Rams instead traded the second overall pick to the Redskins. Cleveland reportedly pursued wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and both took high-priced deals from Washington.

The Browns provided more help to the defense in free agency. Frostee Rucker will make an impact in stopping the run, which was the biggest weakness on the NFL's 10th-ranked defense. Juqua Parker, who has 31.5 sacks over the past six seasons, will team with Jabaal Sheard to give Cleveland a strong rush coming off both edges. The Browns didn't try to keep Peyton Hillis and Mike Adams from going elsewhere.

What’s next: Offense, offense and offense. Did I mention offense? The Browns need a quarterback but there's no one worthy of the fourth overall pick. Cleveland could trade down to select Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill or wait until the second round for Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. The big decision comes if the Browns stay put at No. 4. Cleveland's choices are Alabama running back Trent Richardson or Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The Browns could use either one because they don't have a starting running back or a No. 1 wide receiver.

Cleveland has a second first-round pick as a result of last year's trade with the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns need to target a wide receiver (if they don't take one earlier in the first round), right tackle or outside linebacker with the 22nd overall pick. Baylor receiver Wright, Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie and Nebraska outside linebacker Lavonte David have been linked to Cleveland.

Baltimore Ravens

Key additions: C Matt Birk, ILB Jameel McClain, OLB Brendon Ayanbadejo, CB Corey Graham, S Sean Considine

Key losses: G Ben Grubbs (Saints), OLB Jarret Johnson (Chargers), DE Cory Redding (Colts) and CB Domonique Foxworth

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. It was a rough start to free agency for Baltimore, which didn't sign any of its first three visits (guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Mark Anderson and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr.). The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

Baltimore was able to keep two free-agent starters, Matt Birk and Jameel McClain, and boost a struggling special-teams group that allowed three touchdowns last season. The Ravens signed Cory Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player from the Bears; Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special-teams standout; and Sean Considine, who played special teams for three seasons under John Harbaugh in Philadelphia.

What’s next: The Ravens' biggest need is at left guard, but there might not be one that warrants being taken at No. 29. Wisconsin center-guard Peter Konz's stock has slipped recently even though he can play guard right away before switching to center in future seasons. It's hard to pin down a player for Baltimore, which can go in a lot of different directions in the first round.

The Ravens could take the best wide receiver available (especially if he's a returner) because they need a third target who can eventually take Anquan Boldin's starting spot. They could take a safety because Ed Reed turns 34 at the start of the season and Bernard Pollard is a free agent next year. And they could take an offensive tackle because they don't have a reliable backup and Bryant McKinnie is a free agent in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key additions: None

Key losses: CB William Gay (Cardinals), LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE Aaron Smith, WR Hines Ward

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. It's been a quiet free-agency period so far for the Steelers. Then again, it's usually quiet for the Steelers at this point in the offseason. The only team that consistently does less than the Steelers in free agency is the Green Bay Packers.

The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've lost only two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership. Injuries would force young players to step up into starting roles.

What’s next: There are question marks at running back, guard, inside linebacker, nose tackle and cornerback. Despite all of those needs, the consensus has been Pittsburgh will draft Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower if he's available at No. 24. He has a great combination of size and speed and excelled in a 3-4 defense in college. It seems like Hightower would be the perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

There's no chance that Memphis' Dontari Poe falls to the Steelers, but there some quality nose tackles in the draft. Those who should be available after the first round are: BYU's Loni Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) and Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round). The Steelers likely will become active later in free agency, especially in retaining their own players. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, running back Mewelde Moore and quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch could potentially return to the team.

AFC North team needs: Steelers

March, 12, 2012
Free agent officially kicks off at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, so let's take a look at the three biggest needs for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are historically minor players in free agency:

1. Nose tackle: Casey Hampton turns 35 before the season begins and had ACL surgery in January, which means the Steelers need to find their future anchor of the defensive line. Longtime backup Chris Hoke retired, and Steve McLendon isn't a full-time starter in the middle. The Steelers might consider starting Ziggy Hood at nose tackle, even though he is a little undersized for that position. The Steelers would be ecstatic to take Memphis' Dontari Poe in the first round, but he's now considered a top-15 prospect. Other nose tackle prospects who could be on the Steelers' radar include: BYU's Loni Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) or Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round). In free agency, Ravens backup nose tackle Brandon McKinney would be an upgrade over McLendon.

2. Offensive line: The Steelers have a hole at left guard and need to improve their depth at offensive tackle. Pittsburgh benched mistake-prone Chris Kemoeatu at left guard and replaced him with Doug Legursky, whose strength is being a versatile backup. The Steelers could stick with Legursky at guard, but that wouldn't be their top choice. Pittsburgh is expected to switch Marcus Gilbert from right to left tackle, a move he handled well in the playoff game in Denver. The risk is giving the right tackle job back to Willie Colon, who has missed two seasons with injuries. If something happened to Colon again, the Steelers would turn to Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily every time he has stepped onto the field. The Steelers could always go back to free-agent stand-by Max Starks once he is recovered from ACL surgery.

3. Inside linebacker: The Steelers need another starter to go with Lawrence Timmons after they released James Farrior. Pittsburgh still has backup Larry Foote, but he isn't an every-down linebacker anymore. The Steelers don't have a great amount of cap room to find someone in free agency, so look for them to address inside linebacker early in the draft next month. Alabama's Dont'a Hightower has been heavily linked to Pittsburgh in the first round. He's a great athlete and has experience in a 3-4 defense. Hightower, who was also the signal caller for the Alabama defense, would eventually take over some of Farrior's leadership role.

AFC North links: Ravens not after Manning

March, 8, 2012
Baltimore Ravens

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the team is not interested in Peyton Manning, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Would Randy Moss be a fit for the Ravens? John Eisenberg of mulls it over.

Cincinnati Bengals

Fullback Chris Pressley agreed to a two-year extension, Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes.

Time is running out for the Bengals to re-sign safety Reggie Nelson.

Reedy also wonders if former local high school standout Luke Kuechly could fall to the Bengals in April's draft.

Cleveland Browns

How will Peyton Manning's release affect the Browns and a possible trade up to No. 2 in the draft to select Robert Griffin III? Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer runs through the scenarios.

Joe Haden and Joe Thomas are in the running to don the cover of "Madden NFL 13."

Pittsburgh Steelers

Four veteran Steelers -- Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Chris Kemoeatu -- have been officially released, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

AFC North weekend mailbag

March, 4, 2012
Let's try to open some mail before another AFC North player gets the franchise tag or gets cut ...

Lance from Akron, Ohio, writes: Do the Browns get draft pick compensation if Peyton Hillis leaves?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: What it boils down to is this: Teams receive compensatory picks if the number of their unrestricted free agents who sign elsewhere (players whose contract expires and not the ones who are released) is more than the number of unrestricted free agents they sign from other teams. For example, if Hillis and five other Browns free agents sign with other teams and the Browns only sign four free agents, they will receive compensatory picks. The level of the picks assigned -- a third-rounder or a seventh-round one -- are based on the contracts signed by their former players sign and how they play in the 2012 season.

Cameron from Allen, Texas, writes: Would the Browns be at all interested in wide receiver Lee Evans? I know that he was a huge disappointment in Baltimore, but wasn't he supposed to be quite good when they signed him? Did he just have a bad (and injury-riddled) year that he can get over, or is he really just not that great?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: I believe Evans is done. His body is starting to break down, and his confidence is shot. Evans was one of the most durable wide receivers in the game, playing in the first 109 games of his career. But he has now missed 10 of his past 19 regular-season games because of injuries. His numbers have declined for the past four seasons, dropping from 63 catches in 2008 to four in 2011. The Browns definitely need a deep threat, but they need a deep threat who will get out on the field. Evans is a huge question mark.

Ryan from Elkton, Md., writes: With all the cuts the Steelers have done this week, who do you think the Ravens may try to sign to add depth or upgrade if anyone? I was thinking guard Chris Kemoeatu if we are not able to re-sign Ben Grubbs.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: Kemoeatu wouldn't be a bad addition as long as you're not counting on him to be a starter. The Ravens can't bank on Kemoeatu replacing Grubbs when the Steelers benched him in favor for Doug Legursky. Some team is going to sign Kemoeatu for depth initially and possibly give him another shot to start down the line. He was the Steelers' highest-paid offensive lineman, so he has talent. His biggest problem was being a penalty magnet, which continually held back the offense. Kemoeatu has to became a more disciplined player before he could be considered a candidate to start again.

Megslin from Albany, N.Y., writes: I normally love your writing, and was all ready to agree with everything you said about the Steelers linebacker James Farrior cut being the last. But then you commented that "his play had declined so much he was sharing playing time with Larry Foote." Not exactly. He still ranked as the fourth highest tackler on the team, even while playing less downs. True, with his age, he did have to get spelled with another player on some downs (like Casey Hampton typically does). However, that doesn't mean his play is so awful he needed to come off the field. I realize that's not how you intended to mean it, but as a big Farrior fan who is sad to see the defensive leader, heart of the team, and yes, Steeler starter go, I had to disagree with how you worded it.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: You can never question Farrior's leadership but you can question his play. It was really noticeable in passing situations. He couldn't cover anyone downfield. That's why he had to be taken off the field. But it was his age (37) that proved to be the biggest factor in why the Steelers chose to cut him over backup Larry Foote (31).

Kory from Hillsborough, Calif., writes: It seems like for the most part historically, kickers who have gotten the franchise tag have gone on to stink it up the following season. I attest that to the fact that kickers need 100 percent of their head into kicking but that they're thinking about their contract situation or about how unpleased they are without a long term commitment by the team. Every year, the kicker's success seems to always come down to the mindset they have out on the field. Should Bengals fans be concerned about Mike Nugent getting tagged? We're all thinking about the Shayne Graham situation that went downhill quickly.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: It's only natural for Bengals fans to think of how the franchise tag failed to work with Shayne Graham after Cincinnati placed it on Nugent on Friday. I agree with your assessment that the year-to-year nature of the tag can affect the mindset of a kicker, whose play relies heavily on their focus. But I think Nugent will handle the tag just as well as the Browns' Phil Dawson did last year. Dawson converted 24-of-29 field goal attempts, and two of those misses were the result of bad snaps. He also hit seven field goals of 50 yards or longer, and no one in the NFL had more from that distance in 2011. The tag didn't affect Dawson's play.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Pittsburgh Steelers are about $25 million over the salary cap and need to cut about 20 percent of their payroll by the March 13 deadline, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But the Steelers aren't panicking, at least not publicly.

"It's not a situation where we're looking to tear things apart and start over," team president Art Rooney II told Pittsburgh reporters yesterday.

Rooney, though, acknowledged there will be "some tough decisions."

"I would say it's probably as big an issue as we've had to face," Rooney said. "There will probably have to be some contracts that get restructured and things like that. No question, there's a lot of work to be done."

In the half-hour state-of-the-team interview, Rooney said wide receiver Mike Wallace will be among the priorities this offseason. He becomes a restricted free agent March 13.

The Steelers will also add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field after the 2012 season.

Hensley's slant: Those "tough decisions" will likely come down to players such as nose tackle Casey Hampton ($4.8 million salary in 2012), wide receiver Hines Ward ($4 million), guard Chris Kemoeatu ($3.5 million), inside linebackers Larry Foote ($3 million) and James Farrior ($2.8 million) and cornerback Bryant McFadden ($2.5 million). If these players don't take a pay cut, they probably will be released. The good news for the Steelers is that they bring back their core with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, three young receivers (unless Wallace goes elsewhere as a restricted free agent), two top-notch pass rushers and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.

BENGALS: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was considered one of the front-runners for the Dolphins head coaching job earlier this week. Now he is out of the running for it, according to the Miami Herald. The search has been narrowed down to Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Dolphins interim coach Todd Bowles, the paper reported. Hensley's slant: Based on the candidates remaining, it appears that the Dolphins want an offensive-minded coach, which eliminated Zimmer from consideration. This is bad news for Zimmer but a good development for the Bengals. While Zimmer still has a chance to get the head-coaching position with the Buccaneers, the Dolphins job was considered his best shot.

BROWNS: The Akron Beacon-Journal's Marla Ridenour was envious of the playoff teams' tight end play over the weekend. This is what Ridenour wrote: "Against Denver, the Patriots got 261 yards (200 receiving) and four touchdowns out of [Rob] Gronkowski and [Aaron] Hernandez. The Browns’ four tight ends — Ben Watson, Evan Moore, Alex Smith and rookie Jordan Cameron — totaled seven touchdowns all season. Hernandez also had a 43-yard run against the Broncos, longer than any Browns’ rush in 2011." Hensley's slant: The Browns are also trailing the rest of the division when it comes to tight ends. Cleveland was the only AFC North team not to have a tight end catch more than 50 passes. The Bengals' Jermaine Gresham (56 catches, six touchdowns), the Ravens' Ed Dickson (54 catches, five touchdowns) and the Steelers' Heath Miller (51 catches, two touchdowns) are all important pieces in the passing game.

RAVENS: I will be at the Ravens' facility where I will post blogs this afternoon. There will be a Joe Flacco column posted at some point today, and the featured blog yesterday was the Double Coverage segment.

AFC North mailbag

January, 14, 2012
If you have a question about the AFC North, send it to my mailbag. It's Saturday morning, so let's open up some mail ...

Jac, from Ohio, writes: Lately you have been saying that the Bengals need a No. 2 receiver, if and when Jerome Simpson leaves. I would think that Jordan Shipley would fill the No. 2 role in the slot behind A.J. Green. Or would Shipley be more of a No. 3 working the slot? And if Andrew Hawkins improves in the offseason, that would be a plus, right?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Shipley and Hawkins are more on the level of being No. 3 receivers. That was the Bengals' biggest problem in the passing game. They had top targets in Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. But the rest (Simpson and Andre Caldwell) are No. 3 receivers on many teams. Both are very athletic but both struggle with route-running, which can be a big problem, especially for a developing young quarterback like Andy Dalton. Cincinnati needs to look in free agency for an upgrade.


Chris, from Milford, Conn., writes: Just wondering what your thoughts are on the Steelers rebounding next season after that awful loss to Denver. Also, how can the Steelers be $20 million over the salary cap when they never sign any big free agents and don't have that many mega-deals with current players?

Hensley responds: The Steelers will always be competing for the division title if Ben Roethlisberger and his young receivers are healthy and the core of the NFL's top-ranked defense remains intact. And the reason why the Steelers are projected to be over the cap is because many veterans are entering the point of their contracts where the salaries escalate. Players with high salaries for 2012 are: outside linebacker James Harrison ($5.3 million), guard Chris Kemoeatu ($3.5 million), inside linebackers Larry Foote ($3 million) and James Farrior ($2.8 million), defensive end Brett Keisel ($2.8 million) and cornerback Bryant McFadden ($2.5 million). Those players represent $19.9 million. Some could be facing the decision of restructuring to stay with the team or getting released.


Bryan, from Wickliffe Ohio, writes: I was just wondering what you think the Browns' chances are of drafting Robert Griffin III. To me it just seems like he is too much of a talent to pass up. No disrespect to Colt McCoy, but let's face it -- he's not going to win us any games based primarily on his skill level and I see RG3 as somone who can do that.

Hensley responds: It's really to early for teams to lock into one player. There are still all-star games, combine workouts and interviews as well as private workouts. Players will rise and fall up and down teams' draft board from now until April. There's no doubt that the Browns need a playmaker. But don't forget that the Bengals drafted wide receiver A.J. Green in the No. 4 spot last year — so you can see the level of impact player that Cleveland can get if it hits on the right prospect. At this point, Griffin has to be on the Browns' radar. But it's too early to say that he's their man with the fourth overall pick.


Dave, from Burke, Va., writes: With the Bucs and Dolphins in the mix for Mike Zimmer's services, what are the chances that he returns as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator?

Hensley responds: It's a very real possibility that Zimmer could be hired elsewhere, particularly since Jeff Fisher spurned Miami and went to St. Louis. Both the Buccaneers and the Dolphins needed big-name splashes to generate some interest with apathetic fan bases. But there are really no buzz-worthy candidates left. That's why Zimmer has a legitimate shot at both places. If Zimmer goes, the Bengals can promote defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle, who has been on the staff since 2001. There's also been some talk that former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio could take over as defensive coordinator. But Del Rio is still owed $5 million next season, so he doesn't need to find a job.


Lucas from Severn, Md., writes: I've been watching the Ravens closely all season and there have been some real flashes of greatness by Joe Flacco. There have also been some of his worst passing games as a quarterback (the Jets and Jags games specifically). Other than the playoff game against Kansas City last year, he hasn't proven to be solid in the playoffs. What are the chances that he will have a breakout game against Houston if the Texans choose to focus on stopping the run?

Hensley responds: Flacco has been extremely ragged when it comes to the playoffs. He's averaged 150 yards passing in seven games, throwing four touchdowns and seven interceptions. But remember that all of those games were on the road and three of them came when he was a rookie. This is the time for Flacco to shine. He's at home where he has thrown 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his past 19 games (97.6 rating). And he threw for 305 yards against the Texans three months ago in Baltimore. So to answer the question, all indications point to a strong effort by Flacco on Sunday.

AFC North injury report

January, 6, 2012
Here are the major injuries for the division teams in this weekend's wild-card games:

BENGALS: Outside of key starters on injured reserve (cornerback Leon Hall and guard Bobbie Williams), the Bengals look like one of the healthiest teams in the playoffs. Two backups, S Taylor Mays (hamstring) and LB Dontay Moch (illness), are both doubtful and won't play. There are seven players who are probable. One of them is QB Andy Dalton (illness), who had his first full practice of the week today. ... As for the Texans, QB T.J. Yates (left shoulder) and WR Andre Johnson (hamstring) are both probable. Both had full practices all week.

STEELERS: C Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) is officially listed as questionable after not practicing the past two days. But The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that the Pro Bowl center is out after aggravating his left ankle last Sunday at Cleveland and again in practice. If Pouncey is sidelined, Doug Legursky (probable, shoulder) would move from left guard to center, and Chris Kemoeatu will start at left guard. QB Ben Roethlisberger (ankle), who said he had a setback with the injury in last Sunday's game, is probable after full practices on Thursday and Friday. Three defensive starters -- LB James Harrison (toe), S Troy Polamalu (calf) and DE Brett Keisel (groin) -- are all probable after missing practices Wednesday and Thursday but returning for a full one Friday. This could mean that Woodley and Harrison will both be playing Sunday. They have started just one game together since Week 4. ... For the Broncos, S Brian Dawkins (neck) is out as expected. This will be his third missed game in four weeks. Third-year safety David Bruton (questionable, Achilles) is expected to replace Dawkins.

Pouncey adds to injury concerns

December, 8, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- Shortly after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went out with an ankle injury, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey left the game with an ankle injury, too. His return is considered questionable.

Doug Legursky, who started the Super Bowl for the injured Pouncey last season, moved to center. Recently benched Chris Kemoeatu took over for Legursky at left guard.

The Steelers have been dealing with injuries throughout the season. Pittsburgh was already playing without sacks leader LaMarr Woodley, who missed four out of the past five games.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the AFC North family. As always, here's your AFC North wake-up call:

Running back Montario Hardesty will start Sunday if he’s able to play, Browns coach Pat Shurmur said, via the Akron Beacon-Journal.

Hardesty has been sidelined since suffering a torn calf muscle in his right left on Oct. 30. Hardesty participated in team drills for the first time, although he was listed as limited participation.

"If Montario can go, he’ll start," Shurmur said, "but you’ll see Chris Ogbonnaya in there quite a bit.”

Hardesty and Ogbonnaya would be the top two running backs because Peyton Hillis (hamstring) has already been ruled out.

Hensley's slant: There's growing support to start Ogbonnaya because he's rushed for 205 yards the past two games. At this point, there really is no decision. Hardesty, a second-round pick, is feature-back material and Ogbonnaya isn't. Maybe both will convince me otherwise over the next couple of weeks. But the Browns are 4-6 and need to find out whether Hardesty can be the top back next year. Ogbonnaya might be a nice fit as the third-down back.

BENGALS: Wide receiver A.J. Green (knee injury) told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he did have significant improvement but was unsure of his status for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns. “It’s pretty tough not being out there and being able to help my team out,” Green told the paper. “But that comes with football. I’m just going to try to get healthy.” Hensley's slant: The Bengals had more than 400 yards of total offense without Green last Sunday, but there's no doubt that they're a better team with him in the lineup. Personally, I really want Green to get out there so we get to see Round 2 between him and Browns cornerback Joe Haden.

RAVENS: Head coach John Harbaugh said he remains unsure whether linebacker Ray Lewis (toe) will play tonight against San Francisco. He is officially listed as questionable. Asked today about his expectations for Lewis on Thanksgiving night, Harbaugh said via the Baltimore Sun, "None that I would share. I really don’t know. It’s not like we’ve got some secret that we’re holding back from anybody on any of these guys. We’ve got three, four, five guys that are up in the air. Our biggest issue right now is nicks and bumps and bruises." Hensley's slant: Just get the feeling that Lewis is going to play. The national spotlight has a tendency to bring out the best in him. If he does suit up, Lewis will need to be ready for a physical matchup against 49ers running back Frank Gore.

STEELERS: Left guard Chris Kemoeatu, the Steelers' highest paid offensive lineman, has been benched in favor of Doug Legursky, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Kemoeatu said his coaches told him the demotion came because of poor performance recently. Hensley's slant: This isn't really that much of a surprise because Kemoeatu has been the Steelers' worst lineman recently. The offensive line has rebounded nicely with the play of left tackle Max Starks, center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard Ramon Foster and right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Legursky is a dependable backup, but he isn't the long-term answer there.

AFC North injury report impact

October, 14, 2011
A look at Friday's injury report and what it means:


Out: MLB Rey Maualuga (ankle)

Doubtful: WR Ryan Whalen (hamstring)

Questionable: CB Kelly Jennings (hamstring), LB Dontay Moch (foot)

Probable: SS Chris Crocker (knee), TE Donald Lee (groin), RB Brian Leonard (groin)

Impact: Cincinnati suffered a major blow when Maualuga was declared out after he sprained his ankle in Thursday's practice. The timetable for his return is unknown. Dan Skuta gets his second career NFL start. ... For the Colts, four starters are questionable: RB Joseph Addai, LT Anthony Castonzo, RG Ryan Diem and CB Jerraud Powers.


Questionable: CB Joe Haden (knee), C Alex Mack (illness), CB Josh Cribbs (knee), OT Tony Pashos (ankle), LB Titus Brown (ankle)

Probable: DB Eric Hagg (knee)

Impact: Mack returned to practice with limited participation, which provides some hope that he could play Sunday. If Mack can't play, Steve Vallos would start. Haden hasn't practiced since spraining his knee, but coach Pat Shurmur refuses to rule him out. If Haden is sidelined, Dimitri Patterson would start at cornerback. ... For the Raiders, two starters -- CB Chris Johnson and DE Matt Shaughnessy -- are out. Two others are questionable: FS Michael Huff and MLB Rolando McClain.


Out: WR Lee Evans (ankle), CB Chris Carr (hamstring), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle), SS Tom Zbikowski (concussion)

Questionable: LG Ben Grubbs (toe)

Probable: WR David Reed (shoulder), LB Dannell Ellerbe (thigh), FS Haruki Nakamura (knee), RB Anthony Allen (thigh)

Impact: Evans will miss his third straight game, which means Torrey Smith will continue to start alongside Anquan Boldin. With Zbikowski out, Bernard Pollard starts against his former team in the Texans. Grubbs' foot got stepped on during practice but he should return Sunday. David Reed might also resume his kickoff return duties. ... For the Texans, WR Andre Johnson was ruled out as expected. There were 19 players listed as probable, including quarterback Matt Schaub (right shoulder) and RB Arian Foster (quadriceps).


Out: LB James Harrison (eye), NT Casey Hampton (shoulder), DE Aaron Smith (foot), LG Chris Kemoeatu (knee), RT Marcus Gilbert (shoulder), LB Jason Worilds (quadriceps), RB Mewelde Moore (ankle)

Probable: FS Ryan Clark (quadriceps), DB Cortez Allen (ankle)

Impact: The Steelers will be without Harrison, Hampton, Smith and Kemoeatu for a second straight week. That means Lawrence Timmons starts at OLB along with replacements NT Chris Hoke, DE Ziggy Hood and LG Doug Legursky. Jonathan Scott, who struggled at LT, fills in for Gilbert at RT. ... For the Jaguars, two starters could be sidelined. CB Derek Cox is doubtful and LT Eugene Monroe is questionable.