AFC North: Devin Hester

Teams around the NFL can start contacting and negotiating with agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents beginning on Saturday, but deals can’t be executed until March 11 at 3 p.m. CT when the new league year starts.

As that date approaches, we take a look at Chicago’s pending free agents, and their chances of returning to the team in the first part of our weeklong series.

2014 free agent: Charles Tillman

Position: Cornerback

2013 statistics: 8 games; 52.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

2013 salary: $7.95 million base salary and $51,575 workout bonus -- $8,001,575 cash value.

Outlook: The Bears are expected to make a strong push to keep Tillman. Although the club does want to be younger on defense, Tillman is still viewed as a key component in the immediate future. The question boils down to whether Tillman wants to return and play for head coach Marc Trestman. The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback is expected to have multiple suitors in free agency. Tillman has strong ties to Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera from their time in Chicago. Tillman will have options.

2014 free agent: Josh McCown

Position: Quarterback

2013 statistics: 8 games, 5 starts; 1,829 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and one interception; 109.0 passer rating.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary and $5,600 workout bonus -- $870,600 cash value.

Outlook: McCown has repeatedly expressed a desire to return to Chicago, and almost everyone in the building, ranging from general manager Phil Emery to starting quarterback Jay Cutler, say they want the reserve signal-caller back. But talks between the sides haven’t necessarily reflected what has been said publicly (that doesn’t imply talks have gone badly, but things have moved slowly). McCown holds more leverage than ever in his career after the way he played in relief of Cutler last season, but the Bears haven’t been in a hurry to get the quarterback signed to a deal. McCown will have plenty of suitors in free agency. A legitimate opportunity to compete for a starting job could lure him away from Chicago.

2014 free agent: Devin Hester

Position: Special teams returner

2013 statistics: 52 kickoff returns for 1,436 yards (27.6 average); 18 punt returns for 256 yards (14.2) and one touchdown.

2013 salary: $1,857,523 base salary and $250,000 workout bonus -- $2,107,523 cash value.

Outlook: Hester is unlikely to return to Chicago. The Bears probably aren’t interested in paying a couple of million dollars to a player who will strictly return kicks for a second straight year. Hester did a decent job adjusting to his new role in 2013, but he didn’t make the type of impact necessary to command the same kind of salary (or even a raise) in 2014. Like Tillman, Hester will have offers from around the league. A reunion with Smith in Tampa makes sense. Hester is also close with current Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. Maybe some interest materializes on that front. A couple other undisclosed teams expressed a certain degree of interest in Hester two weeks ago at the NFL combine. Hester will land on his feet, but he probably won’t get the chance to continue his career with the Bears.

2014 free agent: Jeremiah Ratliff

Position: Defensive tackle

2013 statistics: Five games, four starts; 14.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for lost yardage.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary -- $395,294 cash value.

Outlook: Ratliff didn’t show much in 2013, making his Chicago debut nearly a month after joining the team. But he performed well enough over the last five games of the season that the Bears would like to bring him back. The Bears met with Ratliff’s representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis recently to see about working out a deal, and the sides remain in contact about the defensive tackle’s potential return to Chicago. Other teams will likely show interest, too. At 32, Ratliff is still plenty capable of contributing at a high level. He also possesses the toughness the Bears want to instill on what’s expected to be a revamped defense. And let's be real, Ratliff is arguably a better player than even a healthy Henry Melton.

What Antonio Brown can do for Steelers

September, 21, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- Devin Hester is probably expecting to leave Heinz Field in the early hours of Monday morning with a Chicago Bears victory and a wallet that is a little heavier.

It seems, when it comes to the latter, that Pittsburgh Steelers receiver/return man Antonio Brown still has an outstanding shipping bill from a car transaction he made with Hester.

“I know he’s going to be looking forward to me bringing money to the game,” Brown said with a laugh. “That’s my guy, though.”

The two friends share a Miami connection -- Brown grew up there; Hester played his college ball for "the U" -- and Bears coach Marc Trestman linked them in another way earlier this week.

He said Brown has the same kind of ability as Hester to change a game via special teams.

That is high praise, considering that Hester continues to build a case that he is the best kick returner of all time.

He had kickoff returns for 80 and 76 yards last Sunday against the Vikings and set a Bears record with 249 kickoff-return yards in Chicago’s 31-30 victory.

Hester has 17 career touchdowns via kickoff and punt returns, and that number is all the more astounding when you consider how often opposing teams kick the ball away from the eighth-year veteran.

“I definitely love his game, look up to him as a returner and what he’s been able to do in this league,” Brown said.

Brown has a lot of catching up to do if he wants to be approach Hester as a return man.

The fourth-year veteran has returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown, but the Steelers no longer use him on kickoffs because Brown is plenty busy serving as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver and primary punt returner.

He almost broke a punt return Monday night in Cincinnati, and his 40-yard return set up a Shaun Suisham field goal.

“I was close,” Brown said of scoring a touchdown.

Close enough that Brown is confident a punt return for a touchdown is on the horizon for him and a team that needs all of the help it can get scoring points?

“Absolutely,” he said with a smile.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North: Morning take: Optimism is running high with Kindle lately, which is a good thing. The Ravens need help with their pass rush. There is certaintly a spot open for what Kindle potentially offers.
  • According to Pro Football Focus, Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth was second in the NFL is pass-blocking efficiency.
Morning take: Whitworth is one of the league's most underrated players. Will he make Tuesday's Power Rankings or continue to be underrated? Find out later today.
  • Is Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester better than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger?
Morning take: According to the NFL Network's survey of players, Hester is better. There have been some questionable placements, and this is one of them.
  • Does Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy need more than the 2011 season to prove himself?
Morning take: Ideally, yes, a young quarterback needs time to grow with a team. But McCoy likely gets only the 2011 season and half of last season to prove he's the long-term solution.
Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs is making the media rounds in Bristol, Conn., Monday. On ESPN's "First Take," he discussed his unhappiness with his contract.

Cribbs was paid a base salary of $900,000 this past season after making his second Pro Bowl. The Browns offered to raised his annual salary to $1.4 million over the final three years of his deal, which disappointed Cribbs and his representatives.

Cribbs said he wished the dispute could've been settled privately. But he feels he's not getting offered fair-market value.

"To this point, I have not gone public with how I felt," Cribbs said. "But I went two times trying to get a different contract, and two times [I was] turned down and told to wait and be patient, and I have. I feel like I’ve played and did what I had to do on the field to show them why I deserve it."

According to a recent report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, other returners such as Devin Hester, Roscoe Parrish and Andre Davis are making a minimum of $3.2 million per season. At this point both Cribbs and the Browns appear far apart.
As I correctly predicted Monday, the AFC North had its most explosive news week of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers fired assistants, Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren retained head coach Eric Mangini, and two teams have huge playoffs games this weekend.

But the most interesting story, according to our division inbox, was Browns Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs' contract situation.

Let's get to some questions on Cribbs and the Browns.

Andy from Canada writes: Can you clarify exactly what the Browns are offering Cribbs?

James Walker: Andy, Cleveland offered to raise Cribbs' salary to $1.4 million per season over the final three years of his contract. He made a base salary of $900,000 in 2009, which means the team offered a $500,000 raise from last season for the next three years.

Kovacs from Santa Monica wants to know what it would take to keep Cribbs in Cleveland.

Walker: As far as specific numbers to stay, that's really up to Cribbs, Kovacs. But in talking to his camp this week, the sense I got was that $3 million or $3.5 million per season would've been a good starting point. Maybe it would take more in negotiations. Maybe it would take less. I don't know. But that's just an educated guess on my part based on what other players are making and how shocked Cribbs was by Cleveland's $1.4 million offer.

Matthew King from Liberty Township, Ohio wants to know what players comparable to Cribbs are making.

Walker: That’s a great question, Matthew, because that’s part of the problem. Cribbs is very unique. Who else returns kicks, plays on coverage teams, and lines up at quarterback and receiver? Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears would be the closest comparison, because plays some special teams and is a full-time receiver. According to a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Hester averages $5.45 million per season. Others returner/receivers like Andre Davis of the Houston Texans and Roscoe Parrish of the Buffalo Bills average $4.3 and $3.2 million per year, respectively.

Jordan from Annapolis, MD wants to know if the Baltimore Ravens would show interest in Cribbs.

Walker: At this point, I doubt Cleveland wants anything to do with trading Cribbs, Jordan. But in the event the Browns make a move, Baltimore would be the last team on their list. Cleveland would rather Cribbs sit a year than play for a division rival.

Jon Douglass from Murfreesboro, TN writes: James, I am curious about your thoughts on Cleveland bringing in Mike Holmgren and what the future may hold for the Browns?

Walker: This was a great move for the Browns, Jon. This team finally has an experienced, proven leader in the building who brings instant credibility to Cleveland. Holmgren should make the Browns better, but he has a big climb ahead of him. The Steelers and Ravens do not make a lot of mistakes when it comes to personnel. So they’re consistently in the running to win the AFC North. In addition, the Bengals right now are on the upswing. So Holmgren has little room for error if he aims to catch up, pull the Browns out of the basement, and reach the top of the division.
We tapped into Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson to assess three terrific Week 15 performances in the AFC North:



Small man, big game

Cleveland Browns tailback Jerome Harrison rushed for 286 yards -- the third most all time -- in a 41-34 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Entering the game, the 5-foot-9 Harrison had just 301 yards rushing. He found his groove after halftime, rushing for three touchdowns.

"People forget this guy led the NCAA in rushing not too long ago," Williamson said of Harrison, who attended Washington State. "He knows how to accumulate yards, and he’s a very good runner who doesn’t get enough credit. Part of the problem is the Browns don’t trust him in pass protection."

Harrison's 34 carries Sunday were a career high. With tailback Jamal Lewis (concussion) on injured reserve, Harrison will continue to get more opportunities.


Cribbs takes it to the house

The price tag continues to rise for Browns kick returner Joshua Cribbs. He scored touchdowns on kickoff returns of 100 yards and 103 yards Sunday, giving Cribbs an NFL-record eight for his career.

Cribbs has 2,336 all-purpose yards this year and needs 323 more yards to break the NFL season mark held by receiver Derrick Mason (2,659 yards) in 2000.

Cribbs has a special mix of skills. He has the field vision of a quarterback, the speed of a receiver and the strength of a running back to break through tackles. The combination makes Cribbs arguably the NFL's most dangerous returner.

"I think he’s clearly the best right now," Williamson said. "Part of it is because Devin Hester has taken a back seat. He’s trying to be a full-time receiver, so Chicago doesn’t use him as a returner like they used to. But that’s not to take anything away from Cribbs. Cribbs is terrific, and I think he’s clearly the best all-around special-teams player in the league."

The Browns and Cribbs have been in a contract dispute for two seasons, but it appears he will have his contract redone after another great year.


Big day for Big Ben

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for 503 yards, the 10th-best performance in NFL history, in a 37-36 win over the Green Bay Packers. Pittsburgh needed every yard as Roethlisberger’s 19-yard touchdown throw to receiver Mike Wallace won the game with no time remaining.

Roethlisberger has had big games before, but none more explosive than this one. His first throw was a 60-yard touchdown pass to Wallace.

"I thought they had a really great game plan against Green Bay," Williamson said. "It was the first time that I can really say [Packers cornerback] Al Harris has been missed. Charles Woodson is great, but the other corners can be exposed, and Pittsburgh exposed them."

Roethlisberger has another chance for a big game Sunday against the depleted secondary of the Baltimore Ravens (8-6). Ravens cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington are out for the season with knee injuries, and safety Ed Reed has missed the past three games with groin and foot ailments.

Morning take: Cribbs vs. Hester

October, 29, 2009
Posted by’s James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:
  • Two of the NFL's best return specialists will meet Sunday when Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears faces off against Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns.
Morning take: With the way both teams performed last week, special teams may be the most exciting part of this matchup.
  • Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth believes the defense will improve Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
Morning take: With two weeks to correct some issues, I agree with Foxworth. Expect to see a solid defensive performance from Baltimore in a big game.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who has sickle-cell, has a tough decision to make when the team travels to play Denver in high altitude on Nov. 9.
Morning take: The last time Clark played in Denver he had serious complications and health issues. Football is just a game. Perhaps he should pass.
  • Cincinnati Bengals tight end J.P. Foschi has moved ahead of Daniel Coats for the starting role.
Morning take: I’m not surprised by this move. Coats couldn’t catch the football, and in Cincinnati’s offense that’s not going to fly for very long.

Posted by's James Walker

Former Pro Bowl kick returner Joshua Cribbs outperformed his contract and said the team promised to renegotiate his deal.

The Cleveland Browns have new leadership that didn't make any promises and does not feel the need to honor promises by the old regime.

Are both sides correct?

The Cribbs-Browns contract debate is a tricky one that sometimes happens in the NFL. A player is unhappy, the team promises to take care of that player down the road, then the old front office is fired and everything falls by the wayside.

Cribbs and his representatives say the team agreed in good faith to rework his deal if Cribbs quietly played out the 2008 season, which Cribbs did. Cleveland, on the other hand, sent a release Monday stating "no one from the current Browns organization, including owner Randy Lerner, has made any promises to Josh Cribbs with regard to his contract status."

The keyword in that statement is "current."

It doesn't mean Cribbs didn't receive someone's word. It just means the people who likely gave Cribbs their word are no longer employed in Cleveland.

Cribbs is reportedly scheduled to earn $645,000 this year. Other return specialists (Devin Hester and Roscoe Parrish) make much more. Yet new coach Eric Mangini and first-year general manager George Kokinis would like to keep Cribbs at a bargain rate.

Is it Kokinis' responsibility to uphold something former general manager Phil Savage may have said last summer? That's a tough question with many layers.

For now, Cleveland's offseason program is voluntary. So you're probably not going to see either side bend in the coming weeks. But, at some point, one side may have to do something they're uncomfortable with, whether it's playing through an empty promise or agreeing to fulfill someone else's statement.

Posted by's James Walker

Here is your one-stop shopping for the most interesting storylines in the AFC North:

  • According to multiple sources, Pro Bowl returner Joshua Cribbs and his representation recently approached the Cleveland Browns about restructuring his contract.

Morning take: Devin Hester's deal (four years, $40 million, $15 million guaranteed) with the Chicago Bears caught the attention of many, including Cribbs. Now the AFC's version of Hester is reconsidering his value.

Morning take: This is great news for Bengals fans, who can only hope Johnson's happiness lasts throughout a full 16-game season.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping center Justin Hartwig can fill a gaping hole on the offensive line this season.

Morning take: If Hartwig proves to be an upgrade over Sean Mahan this year, which many expect, Pittsburgh's offensive line could improve.

  • Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has yet to decide on a starting quarterback for Thursday's preseason opener against the New England Patriots.

Morning take: Baltimore should continue an AFC North tradition and flip a coin. It worked in Cleveland.

(Update: Harbaugh named Kyle Boller the starter Tuesday afternoon.)

Take your pick: Hester or Cribbs?

July, 18, 2008
 Jason Bridge/US PRESSWIRE
 Joshua Cribbs returned punts full time last season.
Posted by's James Walker

In Friday's article on Joshua Cribbs, Cleveland Browns special teams coach Ted Daisher said he would take Cribbs over any special teams player in the NFL.

And that includes explosive Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester, who is widely regarded as the best in the league at fielding kicks.

Now, it's your turn.

Who would you rather have on your team: Hester or Cribbs?

Both are considered the best returners in their respective conferences and were Pro Bowlers last season.

 AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
 Devin Hester has 11 returns for TDs in two seasons.

Hester could go down as the most dangerous returner in NFL history. He already has 11 returns (seven punts, four kickoffs) for touchdowns in two seasons.

Cribbs is tied with Hester with four career kickoff returns for touchdowns, and just began fielding punts full time last season. He averaged 13.5 yards per punt return in 2007, including a 76-yard touchdown.

But unlike Hester, Cribbs also covers kicks extremely well and led the Browns in special teams tackles the past two seasons. Cribbs plays on four special teams total, compared to Hester's two.

So there is the case for each player. If you could only pick one ace on special teams, who would it be?

In the video below, the NFL Live crew also debates the issue of Cribbs' all-around special teams versatility.