AFC North: Demaryius Thomas

Another honor for Antonio Brown

January, 3, 2014
1/03/14
12:45
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown added to his honors Friday when he earned a spot on the Associated Press’ All-Pro team.

Wallace
Brown
Brown made the second team, along with Demaryius Thomas and A.J. Green.

Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon were the first-team wide receivers, and it’s hard to argue with either selection. Johnson is one of the top-five players in the NFL regardless of position and Gordon led the league in receiving despite playing with three different quarterbacks.

Brown finished second to Gordon in receiving, and his 1,499 receiving yards set a single-season Steelers record. He made the Pro Bowl as both wide receiver and a punt returner. Brown also won the Steelers’ MVP award for the second time in three seasons.

That award may have meant the most to him since it was voted on by the Steelers’ players.

“These are the guys who see you on a daily basis,” Brown said. “How they feel about me and the respect I earn from these guys is most important.”

Brown is a tireless worker, and he indicated that the next step in his development is becoming one of the team leaders.

“Just how I encourage and how I challenge the guys around me,” Brown said. “It’s not words per se.”

As for what he can improve on after authoring the best seasons by a wide receiver in Steelers history, Brown said, “Being a better blocker. There’s always little things I can tighten up. There’s always room to get better. It’s never ending in that battle.”

Manning makes huge fantasy splash, too

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
1:49
AM ET
A look at the Denver Broncos' 49-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Thursday's NFL season opener from a fantasy perspective:
  • Not only did Peyton Manning tie an NFL record with seven touchdown passes, but his 46 fantasy points were the third-most by a quarterback since the merger, according to ESPN Fantasy’s Tristan H. Cockcroft … and 10 more than he had ever scored in a game himself. It was his first game with at least 30 fantasy points since 2004. Not a bad way to start the season for the No. 3 quarterback in the preseason ESPN Fantasy rankings.
  • If you're seeking more historical perspective, here is the link to a story Cockcroft updated last year after Doug Martin's monster game against the Raiders.
  • The Broncos were the only team with three wide receivers ranked in ESPN Fantasy's top 20 at the position (Demaryius Thomas at No. 6, Wes Welker at No. 12 and Eric Decker at No. 20), so it's no surprise that two of them (Thomas and Welker) put up solid numbers.
  • Thomas' 28 fantasy points were a career high, and Welker had 16 in his Broncos debut. But it was third-year tight end Julius Thomas who was the biggest surprise.
  • Thomas, who had only one career catch in his first two seasons, had two first-half touchdowns on his way to 23 fantasy points. The former Portland State basketball forward was the 20th-ranked tight end by ESPN fantasy in the preseason. He is owned in just 26.1 percent of ESPN leagues, and was started in just 9.3 percent of ESPN leagues.
  • Not many positives for the Ravens, but undrafted free agent Marlon Brown took advantage of an injury to Jacoby Jones in the first half and finished with 12 fantasy points. Fantasy first-rounder Ray Rice found the end zone, but did not have a great night, totaling 12 fantasy points on his 20 touches (12 rushes, eight receptions).
  • Danny Trevathan's early celebration not only cost the Broncos (and fantasy owners of their defense/special-teams unit) six points immediately, but probably more than that since the Ravens immediately went downfield for a touchdown.
  • Meanwhile, the Ravens' defense scored minus-6 points. Last season, the unit finished with a negative total only once, in a 43-13 blowout loss in Houston.

It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.



DENVER -- My thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 38-35 victory at the Denver Broncos:

What it means: The Ravens' improbable Super Bowl run continues. After losing four of their final five regular-season games, the Ravens advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the third time in five seasons with quarterback Joe Flacco and coach John Harbaugh. A nine-point underdog, the Ravens beat the AFC's top seed for the third time in their playoff history. Baltimore will play at the winner of Sunday's New England-Houston game.

Capitalizing on turnovers: The Ravens pulled off the upset on Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal with 13 minutes, 18 seconds remaining in the second overtime. The winning score was set up by Corey Graham's second interception of Peyton Manning. The Ravens converted 17 points off three Denver turnovers.

Fourth-quarter heroics: With 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Flacco stepped up in the pocket and heaved a 70-yard touchdown to Jacoby Jones, who got behind two defenders (Tony Carter and Rahim Moore) to tie the game at 35. Flacco's third-down pass traveled about 60 yards in the air. It was a game of big downfield passes for Flacco.

Red-zone defense struggles: The Ravens uncharacteristically allowed three touchdowns inside their 20-yard line. Baltimore had ranked second in the NFL this season in red zone defense and stopped the Colts on three trips inside the 20 in the wild-card game. The third one given up by the Ravens came with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter and put the Broncos ahead, 35-28. Ravens safety Ed Reed missed a tackle on Demaryius Thomas, who scored on a 17-yard catch.

Touchdown Torrey: Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith scored two touchdowns in the first half against 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, reaching the end zone on catches of 59 and 32 yards. This is the first time a Ravens receiver scored two touchdowns in one playoff game.

Not-so-special teams: It was a bad time for the Ravens to allow their first touchdowns on special teams this season. The Broncos' Trindon Holliday became the first player in NFL playoff history to score touchdowns off a punt and kickoff return in the same game. The Ravens allowed three special-teams touchdowns in 2011, but they ranked in the top half of the NFL in punt and kickoff coverage this season.

Unreal start: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was the first playoff game in NFL history with an offensive, defensive and special-teams touchdown in the first quarter. The Ravens and the Broncos combined to achieve this feat in the first 5 minutes, 11 seconds. Holliday returned the game's first punt 90 yards for a touchdown, Smith caught a 59-yard touchdown on the second drive and Graham brought back an interception 39 yards for a score on the third drive.

The big chill: The temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees, the second-coldest start to a home game in Broncos history. By halftime, it dropped to nine degrees with a minus-three windchill.

What's next: The Ravens know they will play the AFC championship game on the road next Sunday. Their opponent is to be determined. The Ravens will face the winner of Sunday's New England-Houston game. During the regular season, the Ravens beat the Patriots (31-30) and lost to the Texans (43-13).

Wrap-up: Broncos 31, Steelers 19

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
12:28
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As these teams felt each other out early, it was apparent the Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to bludgeon the soft interior of the Denver Broncos defense with the power running game. But as the game went on, Pittsburgh went more no-huddle and put the game on Ben Roethlisberger, who played a great game despite taking a beating -- right up until the pick-six he threw to Tracy Porter seal the game in Denver’s favor.

The Steelers lost Marcus Gilbert in the second quarter, forcing rookie Mike Adams into an unfamiliar role at right tackle -- often facing Von Miller on passing downs. Adams got help on most of these instances, but that left Max Starks alone against Elvis Dumervil. Later in the game, Ramon Foster was sidelined with an eye injury, leaving the Steelers without any reserve offensive linemen. False starts were a huge problem for this line. But the Steelers offense was effective enough to keep the Denver offense off the field through the middle of the game.

Roethlisberger made quite a few vintage Roethlisberger plays by shrugging off pass-rushers and making impromptu plays with his legs and big arm. He really had to work hard for everything the Steelers offense got. But Pittsburgh took very few shots deep downfield -- probably because of protection concerns -- even with Mike Wallace now on board. The Steelers did incorporate Heath Miller more than in recent memory, and Miller could be their best red zone weapon. He came up big, time and time again. But that wasn’t enough on this night.

Peyton Manning's anticipation as a passer is as fantastic as ever. It took Denver too long to go to its no-huddle attack, where Manning thrives and controls the pace of the game, but in the end it didn’t matter. Dick LeBeau dialed up a wide variety of blitzes and got noticeable pressure on Manning early, which is extremely difficult to do. But Manning also appeared to adeptly read where Troy Polamalu lined up and based his play call accordingly, often effectively audibling to a run play when the Steelers’ star safety was aligned deep.

In the third quarter when Manning finally did see the field after nearly an hour of real time rest, he quickly hit Demaryius Thomas on a quick-hitting route, which Thomas took 71yards to the house. An easy throw, but Manning did recognize that the defense was prone to such a play call and acted accordingly. That was the single biggest play of the game.

This was a masterful performance from Manning with his ability to consistently have his team in the right call for the given defense and situation. As the game went on, the future Hall of Famer grew stronger. Manning won this game with his mind.

Final Word: AFC North

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Steelers' inside running game: Pittsburgh lost first-rounder David DeCastro (knee), but its interior offensive line trio of Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster is a massive group that could dominate Denver's suspect interior triangle, which may be the team's biggest weakness. Also, DE Elvis Dumervil will be at a disadvantage in the running game against Steelers OT Max Starks, and LB D.J. Williams will miss the game due to a suspension. That makes the Broncos vulnerable against a power running game, particularly up the middle. Pittsburgh will mix in small doses of Chris Rainey, but for the most part, look for the Steelers to feature Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, two heavier power backs who could wear the Broncos down. This approach also would be beneficial for keeping Peyton Manning on the sideline and possibly opening shots deep downfield off play-action to Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Brandon Weeden
David Richard/US PRESSWIREThe Browns will discover in Week 1 what kind of NFL quarterback they have in rookie Brandon Weeden.
Which Ravens' offense will we see Monday night? Over the past few seasons, Cam Cameron's offense in Baltimore has been about as bland and predictable as any in the league. To some degree, that made sense considering Joe Flacco was a young quarterback adjusting to the NFL from a small college and Baltimore had Ray Rice at its disposal. Why not feature the running game with some deep shots downfield that often came off play-action? But in today's NFL, that style of offense can take you only so far. In the preseason, Baltimore featured a lot of no-huddle, with Flacco being the focal point of the offense. This change could allow Baltimore to catch opposing defenses, Cincinnati in this case, in favorable personnel groupings and control the tempo of the game. To run it successfully, Flacco needs to be adept at exposing the weaknesses that Cincinnati's defense presents and making the correct play calls before the snap. By the preseason indications, Baltimore is ready to trust Flacco with such responsibilities.

Bad draw for Browns, Weeden: The Browns' Brandon Weeden is my least favorite of the five rookie quarterbacks starting across the NFL. He is a good pocket passer with a big arm, but he doesn't move his feet well, can stare down receivers and hasn't shown he is adept at handling pass-rush pressure. Well, the Eagles are a brutal opponent for this aged rookie's first start, as their pass rush and defensive line rival any in the league. Philadelphia is extraordinarily deep up front and will consistently rotate fresh bodies into the game to attack upfield and disrupt Weeden, who can be statuesque in the pocket. Compounding matters, the Eagles' corners figure to play a high percentage of press-man coverage, and the Browns' young wide receivers have yet to show they can consistently beat such coverage at this level. This doesn't bode well for the Browns or Weeden.

Where's Ike? Almost as much as any team in the NFL, Pittsburgh likes to match up its top cornerback, Ike Taylor, on the opponent's No. 1 receiver. When the Steelers and Broncos met in the postseason, it was Demaryius Thomas against whom Taylor most often lined up. That ended poorly for Pittsburgh on what was Tim Tebow's best day as a professional throwing the football. But Eric Decker was knocked out of that game and was not a factor. Because of his sticky hands and precision route running, Decker looks to be the more Peyton Manning-friendly target. It will be interesting from the start of this game how Pittsburgh views the Broncos' two starting wide receivers. It could be a tactic that Denver's future opponents mimic going forward.

Cincinnati's run game: Bernard Scott is a better outside runner, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the reliable between-the-tackles back who can sustain a large workload. Running against the Ravens is never an easy task, but in this matchup, going to the outside might be the preferred route, as Baltimore lost two elite outside run-stoppers in Jarret Johnson, who is now with San Diego, and Terrell Suggs, who is sidelined with an Achilles injury. Scott might not be healthy for this contest, and Cincinnati favors Green-Ellis overall. Assuming Green-Ellis is the main ball carrier, most of the Bengals' runs should be aimed up the middle. That could be a problem considering Cincinnati's interior line has been decimated with injuries, and simply put, the Ravens are fantastic at stopping the inside run. Expect the Bengals to rely on Andy Dalton and the passing game plenty Monday night.

Poll: AFC North's best cornerback

August, 15, 2012
8/15/12
12:30
PM ET
Statistically speaking, no one played better pass defense than the AFC North last season. The Steelers, Ravens and Browns all ranked in the top four against the pass, and the Bengals were a more-than-respectable No. 9 in the league.

A major reason why this division has been successful in shutting down passing attacks has been the play of the cornerbacks. But who is the best cornerback in AFC North? That's what is up for debate in this week's poll.

SportsNation

Who is the top cornerback in the AFC North?

  •  
    36%
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    18%
  •  
    25%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,892)

Here are the candidates for best corner in the division:

Joe Haden, Browns: He led the Browns with 19 passes defensed, which ranked ninth in the NFL and fourth in the AFC. His 37 passes defensed since the start of the 2010 season are tied for third-most in the NFL. Haden, though, is facing a possible four-game suspension for a failed drug test.

Leon Hall, Bengals: An Achilles injury that limited him to nine games last season showed Hall's impact on defense. In the first nine games with Hall last season, the Bengals gave up eight touchdown passes. In the final seven regular-season games after Hall's season-ending Achilles injury, they allowed 12 touchdown passes.

Ike Taylor, Steelers: His 20 passes defensed led the NFL's top-ranked pass defense and finished tied for first in the AFC North. It was his most pass breakups since the 2005 season. The one smudge on a strong season was giving up an 80-yard winning touchdown to Demaryius Thomas in an overtime playoff loss in Denver.

Lardarius Webb, Ravens: He led the team with a career-high five interceptions, which was tied for third in the AFC. Webb also picked off three passes in the playoffs. His 20 passes defensed were tied for first the AFC North.
The AFC North has a small presence in this year's voting for the ESPYS, which will be held July 11.

Here's the good news: Someone in the division is up for the best player in the NFL. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs is going against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who is the favorite to win), New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson and New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The bad news: a division team is on the wrong end of a nominated best moment. The Tim Tebow-Demaryius Thomas overtime touchdown to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs ranks among the top four moments in sports this past year. The others nominated are: Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit, Bubba Watson's win at the Masters, and the drama on the final night of the baseball season.
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. STEELERS: Pittsburgh had the top-ranked pass defense, and it wasn't all about the pass rush this time. Actually, the pass rush was extremely inconsistent this season, so that No. 1 ranking is more of a reflection of the Steelers' secondary. Cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark had career years. Taylor's season, though, was marred by a late-season decline that ended with him getting stiffed-armed by the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas on the touchdown that ended the Steelers' season. Clark had the best season of any safety in the division, which is saying a lot when Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are in the AFC North. He finished second in the division with 100 tackles. Polamalu was solid, but didn't play up to his usual spectacular level. William Gay was a pleasant surprise, taking back the starting cornerback job that he lost in 2010. What could change: Gay is an unrestricted free agent, but it shouldn't take much to retain him. Look for rookie cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to make more of an impact in their second seasons.

2. RAVENS: This group exceeded expectations, and did so in a surprising manner. Instead of starting Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr at cornerback, the Ravens finished fourth in pass defense with Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. Webb was the division's top cornerback, recording five interceptions and breaking up 20 passes (and that doesn't include three interceptions in the playoffs). Williams was a physical presence at corner. The biggest disappointment was Reed, who intercepted three passes -- his fewest in a season where he played more than 12 games. The Ravens' other safety, hard-hitting Bernard Pollard, provided more of an impact than Reed. First-round pick Jimmy Smith endured an up-and-down rookie season. What could change: Smith should take over for Williams as a starting cornerback this season. Foxworth is expected to get cut, and the same could happen to Carr. Both backup safeties, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, are free agents, but I suspect Nakamura will get re-signed.

3. BROWNS: Joe Haden showed signs of being a shutdown corner, even though he failed to make an interception. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His worst games came against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. While Haden is among the division's best cornerbacks, Sheldon Brown was the worst starting corner in the AFC North. Brown's biggest asset is the experience he provides to a young secondary. The defensive backfield was hurt by the loss of strong safety T.J. Ward, who missed the final 10 games with a foot injury. Teams took advantage of Ward's replacement, Usama Young. Free safety Mike Adams beat out Young for a starting job in training camp. Dimitri Patterson was a reliable nickelback, breaking up a dozen passes. What could change: The Browns might replace Adams, who is a free agent, and they could give rookie seventh-round pick Eric Hagg a shot at doing so. Cleveland is very interested in bringing Patterson back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Patterson starts in place of Brown.
4. BENGALS: Leon Hall is perhaps the most valuable cornerback in the division. In the first nine games with Hall, the Bengals gave up eight touchdown passes. In the last seven regular-season games without him (he had a season-ending Achilles injury), they allowed 12 touchdown passes. The Bengals replaced Hall with Adam Jones, who was extremely erratic in coverage. The Bengals value the veteran leadership of Nate Clements, but the cornerback is looking past his prime. Only nickelback Kelly Jennings struggled on a more consistent basis. Safety Reggie Nelson allowed some big plays early, but he was stingy in pass defense late in the season. The other safety, Chris Crocker, had trouble covering the more athletic tight ends in the league. What could change: The Bengals need to draft a cornerback in the first round to press Clements for a starting role and become his eventual replacement. Nelson is a free agent, but he is considered a priority to get re-signed. The Bengals are expected to part ways with Jones, who is a free agent.

Feb. 20: Special teams

Feb. 21: Defensive line

Feb. 23: Linebackers

For Monday: Offensive line

Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Tim Tebow touchdown pass that beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime shouldn't have counted.

That's the assertion of the San Jose Mercury News, which says the Broncos should have been flagged for illegal formation. Using a pre-snap picture, the paper points out that Denver had six players -- and not the required seven -- on the line of scrimmage.

It appears that the tight end lining up next to the left tackle is not on the line. Based on that, the officials should've thrown the flag and moved the Broncos back five yards. Instead, Tebow threw an 80-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play in overtime.

Former head of officiating Mike Pereira was asked by the Mercury News whether it was an illegal formation.

"Watch on any Sunday. This is a good formation compared to many. They are not technical with this," Pereira said.

Hensley's slant: This is one of many plays that highlight how bad the officiating was for that game. There was a Ben Roethlisberger pass that was ruled incomplete that should have been a fumble because it wasn't a forward pass. But the officials said the play was whistled dead, and the Steelers went on to score. So both sides benefited from and were hurt by the officials throughout the game.

BENGALS: The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy officially called the Carson Palmer trade one of the "all-time steals in league history" after coach Hue Jackson, who helped orchestrate the deal on Oct. 18, was fired by Oakland. The Raiders were 4-2 at the time of the trade and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. The Bengals get the Raiders' first-round pick, which turned out to be the 17th overall. Hensley's slant: Most people thought it was a steal the day it happened. The Raiders, the only team that would be bold enough to send two high draft picks for a 31-year-old quarterback, continue to be the NFL's most unstable franchise. The next head coach will be Oakland's seventh in the past 10 seasons, following Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and Jackson.

BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi offered up another candidate to be the Browns' next starting quarterback: Kevin Kolb. He disappointed in his first season with the Cardinals (going 2-6 as the starter) and is due a $7 million roster bonus from Arizona in March. Grossi believes Kolb would be more effective in the West Coast offense that he ran in Philadelphia, where his quarterbacks coach was Pat Shurmur. Hensley's slant: There's no doubt that Kolb is a better fit in Cleveland's system that the one in Arizona, which attacks downfield more aggressively. But I don't see the Cardinals cutting their ties with Kolb after giving him $21.5 million guaranteed six months ago. Getting Kolb seems more like wishful thinking at this point.

RAVENS: The team confirmed that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was at the Texans-Bengals wild-card playoff game to do some advance scouting. “He’s done that quite a few times over the years when we’ve had bye weeks and stuff like that,” coach John Harbaugh said, via The Baltimore Sun. “So that’s something that I think he likes to do. It gives him a feel, watching the game live, scouting the game live. It’s not so much X’s and O’s as it is a feel for the tempo and things like that. That’s something he likes to do, and he’s done that over the years.” Hensley's slant: Cameron hasn't turned the Ravens into a top-10 offense yet (they were No. 15 this season) but he's done a solid job considering the quality of defenses that Baltimore has faced. The Ravens have played 11 games against top-10 defenses this year. The only top-10 defense that the Ravens didn't play (outside of itself) was the Philadelphia Eagles. So it's status quo for Baltimore when it lines up against Houston and the league's second-ranked defense.

Reviewing the mock drafts

April, 8, 2010
4/08/10
10:00
AM ET
NFL draft gurus Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay posted their latest mock drafts Insider on ESPN.com. With the 2010 draft exactly two weeks away, let's examine what they have in store for the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns (No. 7 overall)

Kiper's pick: Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State

McShay's pick: Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee

Analysis: Both Kiper and McShay whiffed on these two picks, in my opinion. Williams would be a significant reach for the Browns at No. 7, and Bryant is a player reportedly falling on most team’s draft boards because of inconsistent workout and character concerns. Teams that draft receivers with a top-10 pick often regret it. The Browns recently did that in 2005 with Braylon Edwards at No. 3, and I don't see new team president Mike Holmgren taking the same risk. Perhaps McShay was overreacting to Shaun Rogers' recent arrest at a Cleveland airport and figured the Browns need to take a big plugger immediately at No. 7 overall. But unless that defensive tackle's last name is "Suh" or "McCoy," I don't see that happening, either. Here are my options for the Browns at No. 7.

Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 18)

Kiper's pick: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida

McShay's pick: Pouncey

Analysis: I'm having a hard time finding fault with most of the potential targets with Pittsburgh. If the Steelers get help on the interior offensive line by drafting Pouncey -- the top-rated center -- it makes sense. If they get an offensive tackle to help with the team's shaky pass protection and possibly move Willie Colon inside to guard, it makes sense. If Pittsburgh drafts a cornerback in the first round or a nose tackle to be the eventual successor to Casey Hampton, that makes sense, too. In general, I think the Steelers are very fortunate to hold a mid-round pick this year in an extremely deep draft. Ideally, I believe Florida cornerback Joe Haden would be the perfect fit for the Steelers. But he may not be available unless they move up a few spots.

Cincinnati Bengals (No. 21)

Kiper's pick: Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma

McShay's pick: Bryant

Analysis: Both Kiper and McShay are precise with these two picks. The Bengals need help in the passing game, and Gresham and Bryant are the two top-rated players at their respective positions. With Cincinnati thin at tight end, Gresham has the potential and ability to start for the Bengals in Week 1. Blocking is his biggest concern. After signing Antonio Bryant in free agency to a $28 million contract, receiver is no longer a desperate need for Cincinnati. But if Bryant falls into the Bengals' lap at No. 21, he would be a great value pick in this spot and perhaps too hard for Cincinnati to pass up.

Baltimore Ravens (No. 25)

Kiper's pick: Demaryius Thomas, WR, Georgia Tech

McShay's pick: Thomas

Analysis: After the blockbuster deal to land three-time Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin, signing Donte' Stallworth and re-signing Derrick Mason, I just about scratched receiver off my list for Baltimore in the first round. There are several more immediate needs for the Ravens, such as cornerback, an extra pass rusher and tight end. But with that said, Thomas is a decent pick. He's a physical specimen whose stock fell a little because of a recent foot injury. Going to Baltimore would give him time to learn the NFL game and eventually grow with quarterback Joe Flacco.

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