AFC North: Eddie Royal
"You can’t sit there and play scared, so I don’t have a problem with [Webb returning],” Harbaugh said Wednesday, a day before Webb's deal. “But I would rather have a backup doing it? Yes. If there is another option that is a better player or takes your starting corner and takes him off the punt return, that’s even better."
Webb ranked 16th in the NFL in punt returns (10-yard average), returning one for a touchdown. The other two punt returners listed on last year's Ravens depth chart -- Chris Carr (Vikings) and Tom Zbikowski (Colts) -- signed elsewhere in free agency.
Baltimore brought in Ted Ginn Jr. for a free-agent visit but he re-signed with the 49ers. The Ravens were also linked to Eddie Royal before he joined the San Diego Chargers.
“We tried to do something with a free agent or two, and it didn’t work out, but that’s OK,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll move on to the next opportunity.”
That "next opportunity" means the draft. One returner to keep an eye on is Fresno State's Devon Wylie. Other top returners coming out of college are: Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, Alabama's Marquis Maze and Stanford's Chris Owusu.
But all three did nothing to address these voids as the deep free-agent pool for wide receivers quickly evaporated. What's left? Brandon Lloyd (who could be headed for a reunion with Josh McDaniels in New England), a few second-tier wide receivers and a bunch that won't significantly improve a passing attack.
The Browns will have to look to the draft for a go-to receiver because there really isn't one left in free agency. To make matters worse, Mario Manningham said the Browns aren't even on his radar.
The Bengals' top options to pair with A.J. Green include Manningham, Laurent Robinson (scheduled to visit Jacksonville), Early Doucet, Deion Branch and Plaxico Burress. Cincinnati is looking for a more dependable No. 2 receiver than Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, both of whom are free agents.
The Ravens likely want a No. 3 receiver who can also serve as a returner. Baltimore reportedly has shown interest in the Broncos' Eddie Royal and could go after the 49ers' Ted Ginn.
Here's a recap of what happened with wide receivers on Day 1 of free agency:
Vincent Jackson: Signed with Tampa Bay (five years, $55.5 million)
Marques Colston: Re-signed with New Orleans (five years, reportedly between $35 million and $40 million)
Reggie Wayne: Re-signed with Indianapolis (three years, $17.5 million)
Pierre Garcon: Signed with Washington Redskins (five years, $42.5 million)
Robert Meachem: Signed with San Diego (four years, $25.9 million)
BENGALS: Veteran cornerback Aaron Ross is scheduled to visit Cincinnati on Thursday, according to the Star-Ledger. Slant: Ross is a solid addition as the third corner but not a starting one. A first-round pick by the Giants in 2007, he struggled at times but he did start for two Super Bowl teams.
BROWNS: The team re-signed backup tight end Alex Smith to a one-year contract, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Slant: This is a strong move in terms of locker room chemistry. His fiery attitude is contagious.
RAVENS: Wide receiver/returner Eddie Royal, who I had as a good fit for the Ravens, is working on a deal with the Redskins, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Slant: The fact that any team is closing in on Royal this fast shows you how aggressive the free-agent market is for wide receivers. Perhaps the Ravens look to another receiver/returner option in Ted Ginn.
STEELERS: The team won't be active because of cap limitations, but that hasn't stopped Steelers players from commenting on free agency. "With all these moves in the NFL! I must gotta say when my contract is up I never wanna leave the steelers!," offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert posted on Twitter. "Winning stability and a true fam." Slant: If Gilbert establishes himself as a left tackle, the Steelers need to save this tweet and bring it to negotiations when he becomes a free agent in 2015.
1. Interior offensive line: Left guard Ben Grubbs will likely sign elsewhere in free agency, and starting center Matt Birk and backup Andre Gurode are also unrestricted free agents. This is by far the biggest void on the team. The Ravens are expected to bring back Birk and draft their center-in-waiting next month (Wisconsin's Peter Konz is the favorite). But general manager Ozzie Newsome likes to fill major needs before the draft. If Baltimore adds a guard, its track record suggests a veteran one like Steve Hutchinson or Bobbie Williams.
2. Outside linebacker: The Ravens could have trouble re-signing Jarret Johnson, which makes this position a bigger need than many project. Baltimore drafted Sergio Kindle in 2010 to eventually take over for Johnson. But a fractured skull when he fell down two flights of stairs before training camp has made him a non-factor. The Ravens could try to use Paul Kruger at outside linebacker, but he isn't as physical as Johnson in setting the edge against the run. The Bengals' Manny Lawson and the Seahawks' Leroy Hill stand out in a weak free-agent group for outside linebackers.
3. Wide receiver: Baltimore has failed to find a dependable No. 3 wide receiver for Joe Flacco, striking out with T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2010, and Lee Evans in 2011. The Ravens have ruled out going after a top-tier wide receiver, so that presumably takes them out of the running for Reggie Wayne. But they need to add more punch to a wide receiver group that had two players with more than four receptions last season (Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith). The Broncos' Eddie Royal would be a solid addition, because he would fill the role as the No. 3 wide receiver and punt returner (the team would probably like to reduce Lardarius Webb's snaps on special teams). Royal's receptions have dropped off heavily since his 91-catch rookie year in 2008, but that happened to be his final season with quarterback Jay Cutler.
|Larry French/Getty Images|
|Joe Flacco had a solid game to help the Ravens to a 30-7 win over the Broncos.|
Here are seven notes and observations from Week 8 in the AFC North:
- If you're looking for one formula for success with the Baltimore Ravens (4-3), look no further than efficiency from quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens improved to 12-1 Sunday when Flacco has a quarterback rating of 81.9 or higher. He threw for 175 yards, one touchdown and had a 109.2 passer rating in Baltimore’s 30-7 win over the Denver Broncos (6-1). Flacco completed his final 14 passes and tied a team mark for completion percentage (80 percent) in a game. Baltimore also is 10-2 when Flacco doesn’t throw an interception.
- The Ravens were clearly the more physical team Sunday, and it showed in the individual matchups. Baltimore’s size and physicality gave Denver trouble throughout the game. The Broncos couldn't block Baltimore as the Ravens had two sacks, five quarterback hits and five tackles for losses. After a fast start, Denver's much-publicized defense also wore down as the Ravens scored 17 second-half points and controlled the pace.
- Described by Ravens coach John Harbaugh as "off the charts," this was as good of a special teams’ performance as I’ve seen from Baltimore the past two seasons. Not only did the Ravens get a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from rookie Lardarius Webb, but they bottled up elusive Denver returner Eddie Royal. Baltimore kicker Steve Hauschka was 3 for 3 on field goals, and two punts were nearly blocked as the Ravens really got after it in the third phase of the game.
- Did the Ravens do the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) a favor? Baltimore exposed several undiscovered holes in Denver. The Broncos are very hesitant (afraid?) to go vertical with quarterback Kyle Orton, who tends to get rattled and rushes throws when pressured. Denver's defense, while solid, can be beat on third down by attacking the slot. Expect the Steelers to see this on film and implement some of these things into their own game plan for next Monday night. They can thank the Ravens later.
- Look for a quarterback change to take place with the Cleveland Browns. It’s the only excitement the team can give its fan base following a 1-7 start. Browns backup quarterback Brady Quinn, who started the first three games, played toward the end of the fourth quarter in a 30-6 loss to the Chicago Bears after Derek Anderson (76 yards, two interceptions) had another poor performance. Quinn is past the threshold of earning nearly $11 million extra in bonuses with 70 percent playing time this season. Whether that played a factor in keeping Quinn on the bench is debatable. But regardless, the Browns no longer have that money barrier to worry about.
- I am not surprised by the announcement that Browns tailback Jamal Lewis plans to retire after this season. Lewis hinted several times in the past two years that he’s still playing to compete for a championship. That’s why he re-signed with the Browns after their 10-6 season in 2007. But after things blew up in 2008 and this year, Lewis likely regrets that decision. Lewis has a Super Bowl ring, great career stats and nothing to prove. There is a decent chance the Browns could cut Lewis anyway after the season, because he’s 30 and entering the final season of a three-year contract.
- Finally, here is a head-scratching stat: Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 1-4-1 in games after the bye week. Most teams benefit from the two weeks of preparation, but for whatever reason Lewis and the Bengals have struggled. It will be interesting to see how the first-place Bengals (5-2) respond when they host the Ravens on Sunday in a huge AFC North showdown at Paul Brown Stadium.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
CLEVELAND -- The Browns do not know how to make things easy.
For the second straight week, they entered the fourth quarter with the game under control. But Cleveland just gave up the big play.
Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler struck with a big 93-yard pass to receiver Eddie Royal to put Denver back in the game. Royal beat Browns cornerback Brandon McDonald deep. The Browns still hold a 23-20 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Last week Cleveland blew a 14-point lead in the second half to the Baltimore Ravens. Let's see if the Browns learned how to hold onto a lead in the final period.