AFC North: DeAndre Hopkins

PITTSBURGH -- New York Jets coach Rex Ryan has more than film at his disposal to game plan against Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

He may also call on his son to help him figure out how to stop the first player in NFL history to score five touchdowns in his first three games, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Seth Ryan is a wide receiver at Clemson, and he and Bryant were teammates last season.

[+] EnlargeMartavis Bryant
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsMartavis Bryant has 10 catches for 167 yards and five touchdowns in the past three games.
"My son thought the world of him when he was there," said Ryan, whose team hosts the Steelers Sunday in a 1 p.m. ET game. "It's hard to cover 6-foot-4 and 210 running a 4.3 (seconds in 40-yard dash)."

The Steelers' last three opponents won't argue with Ryan.

Bryant has burst onto the scene after not dressing in the first six games of the season.

The rookie fourth-round pick has caught 10 passes for 167 yards, and Bryant's five touchdowns are more than any Steelers player not named Antonio Brown.

Bryant made a passing reference to Clemson as "Wide Receiver U" on Wednesday, and it is easy to see why he sees his alma mater that way given the prism through which he views the Tigers.

Two of Bryant's former teammates are among the top 15 in the NFL in receiving yards.

Second-year Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, is 11th with 684 yards. Sammy Watkins, whom the Buffalo Bills traded up for to take No. 1 overall in the 2014 NFL draft, is 15th (590 yards) and is going to be a star. Watkins, who overshadowed Bryant at Clemson, also has five touchdowns.

He and Bryant are the first rookies who were college teammates to combine for at least 10 touchdowns through the first nine weeks of an NFL season, according to Elias.

The contributions of the young NFL wideouts who played for Clemson make it staggering to think of the talent Tigers coach Dabo Swinney had at the position over the previous two seasons.

Hopkins, Watkins and Bryant have combined for 90 catches for 1,441 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns through the first nine weeks of the season.

"Coach Swinney always said if you work hard in practice it's going to come out in a game," Bryant said. "We just took that and ran with it. You put your work in through the week and after that you go cut loose and have fun. Like (Steelers) coach (Mike Tomlin) says, ‘Have fun.' "

Bryant is, and he is just getting started.
PITTSBURGH -- ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay don’t always agree when evaluating draft-eligible players. But their thinking falls along the same lines when it comes to Steelers fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant.

Kiper listed the former Clemson wide receiver as one five offensive players drafted in the later rounds who could make an immediate impact in the NFL. McShay also said that Bryant has a chance to contribute early for the Steelers.

“He does a really nice job of getting off the line and he’s a vertical route runner,” McShay said. “You’ve got a big, strong-armed quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger and you want a guy that can stretch the field vertically. There’s some boom or bust there, but when you get him in the fourth round you’re not worried so much about the risk factor. If he focuses and does all the right things he could wind up being a real steal from this class.”

[+] EnlargeMartavis Bryant
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesMartavis Bryant's size and speed could help the WR earn plenty of playing time as a rookie.
The 6-foot-4, 212-pound Bryant gives the Steelers the tall wide receiver that the offense has lacked. His 40-yard dash time (4.42 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine as well as his career yards per catch (22.2) at Clemson validate his potential as a big-time deep threat.

And he started only one season at Clemson where first-round picks DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins overshadowed Bryant, meaning he is far from a finished product -- something that should excite the Steelers’ coaches as well as challenge them.

“He’s what I have been hunting,” Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said. “Probably had he played more [at Clemson], stayed for another year, he would have been a first-rounder for sure. I think all that he needs to learn we will teach it to him.”

Bryant slipped to the fourth round of the draft because of concerns about his maturity as well as his inconsistency as a pass-catcher. The Steelers hosted Bryant for a pre-draft visit and were comfortable enough after what they heard from him to think that he will be fine in the right environment.

As for the drops he had in college, Mann said that is something that can be easily corrected and can probably be traced to Bryant’s hand placement or his trying to run before securing a catch.

“He does a really good job of tracking the ball and catching it over the top,” Mann said. “A lot of times guys can’t do it and it’s very hard to teach.”

McShay agreed that Bryant’s ball skills are undeniable.

“He was inconsistent catching the ball but he also makes tough catches,” McShay said, “and he can adjust to the ball below his waist, over his head, behind his body.”

It is way too premature to get overly excited about Bryant, who takes part in the Steelers' three-day rookie minicamp that starts on Friday.

Fred Gibson, the last physically gifted wide receiver that the Steelers drafted in the fourth round (2005), didn’t even make it out of training camp. And for all of the buzz created by the second-round selection of Limas Sweed in 2008, the former Texas standout caught just seven career passes for the Steelers.

Chronic drops were one of the reasons why the Steelers released Sweed in 2011.

One thing that Mann won’t do is speculate on how big of a role Bryant will have in the Steelers’ offense as a rookie. But he also won’t rule out Bryant challenging for the starting job opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

“You have to come in and work because we have other guys in the room,” Mann said. “Potentially he will be a starter, you just never know. You play the best. That’s how you win.”
Ed Reed, Ray RiceGetty ImagesEd Reed returns to Baltimore for the first time as a Texan, while Ray Rice looks to improve from his slow start.
Sunday's AFC showdown between the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens features the return of safety Ed Reed to Baltimore. Reed went to nine Pro Bowls during his 11 seasons with the Ravens and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He has missed the first two games of the season because of his surgically repaired hip and would make his Texans debut if he plays.

While there will be plenty of attention placed on the reunion with Reed, this game will factor into how the balance of power in the AFC shakes out. The Texans (2-0), one of five undefeated teams in the AFC, are the first team since the merger in 1970 to win each of their first two games of a season on the final play of the game. The Ravens (1-1), the defending Super Bowl champions, are trying to get back on track after getting routed by the Denver Broncos and struggling to beat the Cleveland Browns.

Texans team reporter Tania Ganguli and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss how this emotional and pivotal game will unfold.

Hensley: The big storyline heading into this game is whether Reed will play. Like Ravens coach John Harbaugh, I would be surprised if Reed sat out this reunion game. But it was only three years ago when Reed underwent a procedure on his hip while with the Ravens and missed the first six games of the season. When Reed returned, he picked off two passes in his first game and eventually led the NFL in interceptions despite playing just 10 games. If Reed plays, how much of an impact can he make in his first game with a new team and a new defense?

Ganguli: Anything can happen when Reed plays. He’ll have a lot of free rein when he returns, as he’s helped not just his teammates but also given coaches advice. The Texans are being cautious with him. He had a blood-spinning procedure done three weeks ago that has a range of results in patients. Reed said it helped his hip feel better. He also said this hip injury feels more mild than the surgery he had three years ago. He practiced more last week than he did before the Texans’ season opener against the San Diego Chargers, so he is progressing toward playing.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak said last week that if Reed does play, the Texans don’t plan on starting him in his first game back. They’ll use him in certain defensive packages and continue to start Shiloh Keo. Asked about it this week, though, Kubiak said he would listen to Reed’s evaluation of his health.

Reed isn’t the only legacy gone from the Ravens’ defensive roster. How has that changed Baltimore’s defense?

Hensley: The two longtime faces of the Ravens defense will be there at M&T Bank Stadium, but both won't be wearing purple. Reed is on the other sideline, and Ray Lewis will be inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime. The Ravens have seven different starters from the defense that lined up against -- and got beaten up by -- the Texans last October.

The biggest improvement has been the Ravens' run defense, especially with Daryl Smith in the middle. This is key because the Ravens gave up 98 yards and two touchdowns to Arian Foster in the last meeting.

Baltimore also upgraded its pass rush with Elvis Dumervil, but there are questions in the secondary. The Ravens have already benched cornerback Corey Graham and safety Michael Huff and replaced them with cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Matt Elam.

Talking about new looks, how much has rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins -- whom the Ravens liked in the draft -- helped the Texans passing game?

Ganguli: Hopkins had a breakout game in Week 2, catching seven passes for 117 yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown. He wears size 3X gloves, only one size smaller than J.J. Watt, who is four inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Hopkins. Those big hands give him the confidence to catch with his hands and not worry about bringing the ball into his body. Because of that, Hopkins is excellent on contested catches.

Getting to the heart of your question, though, Hopkins’ impact will be big this season. He finally gives the Texans a complementary threat to Andre Johnson. Quarterback Matt Schaub became more confident in Hopkins through the game, especially when Johnson left with a concussion and he had to. That trend will continue during the season. The Texans threw to Johnson more than all their other wide receivers combined last year, and that will surely change this season.

Sticking with offense, what would be the impact of not having Ray Rice if his injury prevents him from playing?

Hensley: Rice injured his hip toward the end of the Ravens' not-so-thrilling win over the Browns. He will likely be questionable for Sunday's game against the Texans. He's always been a big factor in the Ravens offense. Rice was one of three running backs last year (with Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller) to produce more than 1,000 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving. The Ravens are 37-6 when Rice gets at least 15 carries.

The problem is the offensive line hasn't opened many holes for Rice, who is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Backup running back Bernard Pierce has been the more physical back and has broken more tackles than Rice this season. The Ravens need to establish the run because they've lost too many weapons -- wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded, tight end Dennis Pitta is on injured reserve and wide receiver Jacoby Jones is sidelined -- to rely solely on the passing game. Any chance the Ravens' ground game can come to life against the Houston front seven?

Ganguli: The Texans’ front seven has played inspired football in spurts this season, especially inside linebacker Brian Cushing, whose play is showing just how much he missed being out there for most of last season. The Texans gave up an 80-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers but contributed to the biggest comeback in franchise history by allowing just 10 yards the rest of the game. In Week 2, Chris Johnson had only five rushing yards in the third quarter and 19 in the second half.

On one hand, the Texans defense hasn’t put together a complete game yet. On the other hand, it's been excellent with halftime adjustments. Even if the Ravens get going early, there’s a strong chance that won’t last.

A big part of that is Cushing, who has resumed his position as a leader on the defense. We talked about the on-field differences on the Ravens defense, but has anyone filled the leadership void?

Hensley: The Ravens' leadership in the past came from the veterans, like Lewis, Reed and Boldin. This team is going to rely on the likes of Terrell Suggs, Dumervil and Lardarius Webb. Suggs has taken over Lewis' role as the vocal leader, and I can see Webb becoming a more behind-the-scenes influence like his mentor Reed. The Ravens offense has strong character players such as Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith.

Suggs and Dumervil have made a similar impact on the field. Last year against the Texans, Suggs played his first game since tearing his Achilles. Now, fully recovered, Suggs looks even better than before because he is in the best shape of his career. Dumervil has been just as disruptive and destroyed right tackle Mitchell Schwartz last week. They've each had a sack in the first two games. How are the Texans tackles going to hold up against these Ravens' edge rushers?

Ganguli: That will be an interesting thing to watch in this game. Derek Newton is new as the Texans’ starting right tackle this year, and left tackle Duane Brown thinks he could be a game-time decision after suffering a turf toe injury against the Tennessee Titans. Losing Brown would be damaging to the Texans, who rely on him to win one-on-one matchups. Another matchup to watch is the kicking game.

Hensley: One of the biggest surprises last season was the consistent kicking from Justin Tucker, who hit 30 of 33 field goals. The biggest surprise Sunday was Tucker's inconsistency, missing twice wide right after only missing once in Baltimore as a rookie. Tucker isn't worried, and a short but strong body of work doesn't have the Ravens panicking either. But given all the injuries on the Ravens offense, they can't afford for Tucker to be off his game. It seems like the Ravens aren't the only team having a problem with a kicker.

Ganguli: Randy Bullock has struggled in his first two games, making only one of five attempts. They haven’t been easy attempts, none shorter than 40 yards and three longer than 50, but the Texans know he has the leg for making those. It might help his confidence if he was put in the position to kick shorter field goals. Though fans are upset, the Texans aren’t giving up on him. Why would they? He’s only two games into his NFL career, having spent his rookie season on injured reserve.

Last July, I thought it was the right move when the Cleveland Browns selected wide receiver Josh Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft. A year later, the Browns look even smarter with the decision, even though chief executive officer Joe Banner refuses to admit it.

Gordon
Gordon
After a slow first quarter of the season, Gordon kept improving throughout the season, catching 43 passes and scoring five touchdowns in his final 12 games. He showed flashes of being the team's long-term answer at the No. 1 receiver spot.

The decision to take Gordon started with the Browns choosing running back Trent Richardson over wide receiver Justin Blackmon in the top five of last year's draft. Blackmon was suspended Tuesday for the first four games of the 2013 season for his second violation of the substance abuse policy in less than a year.

Gordon was also considered a risk after he failed multiple drug tests during his college career. Still, there's a difference between investing a first-round pick and a second-round one on a player with red flags.

I believe the Browns made the right move with Gordon because I'm not sure he lasts until the Browns' second-round pick this year. The Browns gave up the 39th pick overall in this year's draft by taking Gordon last year.

Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. told me that he would have projected Gordon to be a late first or early second-round pick.

"I don’t see him getting past 41 where Buffalo took Southern Cal wide receiver Robert Woods, so I think he would have been a top-five wide receiver in last year’s class," Muench said. "It’s just tough to find that kind of size, speed and athletic ability."

Gordon might have gone as early at No. 27 in the first round, according to Muench. That's where the Houston Texans selected Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the second receiver to get drafted. "Hopkins is a good value and fit there, but the same can be said about Gordon. So the Texans would have had a tough choice," Muench said.

Muench thinks the Minnesota Vikings would've still gone with Cordarrelle Patterson over Gordon at No. 29 because of his ability to make plays in space, but Gordon might have been selected over Justin Hunter by the Tennessee Titans at No. 34.

Based on Muench's analysis, it looks like the Browns got the right value in using a second-round pick on Gordon, and got an additional year out of him because it was a supplemental pick. Still, the Browns' new regime isn't ready to applaud the move made by former president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert.

Asked if he can say now whether or not Gordon was worth the second-round pick, Banner said last weekend: "My answer is the same as it was. I think Josh has a lot of potential, and we are excited about what he can do. We’re all going to see how he develops and what he can turn into. In the end, that question will answer itself, I think. We’re certainly rooting for him to prove that was a great decision.”

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