AFC North: Eric Steinbach

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

The Ravens are scheduled to work out veteran guard Eric Steinbach on Tuesday, according to CBS Sports.

Steinbach was cut by the Browns on March 14 after he refused to take a pay cut. He has reportedly recovered from back problems that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season.

CBS Sports reports there are other AFC teams interested in Steinbach, 32, who was expected to be ready to work out for teams in mid-July.

Hensley's slant: The Ravens are taking an AFC North approach in solving their left guard spot. If Steinbach is signed, he would battle former Bengals guard Bobbie Williams for the starting job. Both are short-term solutions. This would allow rookie second-round pick Kelechi Osemele time to develop before getting pushed into the starting lineup.

BENGALS: In honor of former Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco officially changing his name back to Chad Johnson, the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy gave his "8.5 moments" of the Ochocinco era. The top moment was Ochocinco's appearance on Dancing with the Stars. Hensley's slant: Yes, it's a slow news day for the Bengals when you have to rely on a former receiver changing his name as the news item. If I had to choose a favorite moment, it would be the time when Ochocinco honored the late Chris Henry, who was one of his best friends on the team. After a 49-yard touchdown catch, Ochocinco knelt down in the end zone and said a prayer.

BROWNS: Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, the last unsigned first-round pick in the AFC North, wants all four years of his rookie contract guaranteed, something that doesn't often happen with picks taken in the bottom third of the first round. "What I'm asking for is not too much. I think it's fair," Weeden told ESPN.com's Lynn Hoppes. "If they see me in their plans as the starting quarterback, it doesn't make sense why they wouldn't do it." Hensley's slant: Weeden might think his demand is "fair" but it's not realistic. Chandler Jones, who was selected one spot ahead of Weeden, had about half of his $1.5 million fourth-year salary guaranteed. David DeCastro, who was taken two spots after Weeden, only had the first three years of his contract fully guaranteed. I would be surprised to see the Browns guaranteeing all four years for Weeden even if it means getting him to training camp on time.

STEELERS: In breaking down the position battles for training camp, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review analyzed the competition between Chris Rainey and Baron Batch for one of the backup running back spots: "Rainey’s speed potentially adds a different dimension to Todd Haley’s offense, but Batch might have been the breakout player of the 2011 camp until he injured a knee." Hensley's slant: Rainey probably won't be in too many position battles because he won't have a specific position. He should be the Steelers' version of Dexter McCluster, who played under Todd Haley in Kansas City. Rainey will line up at running back and wide receiver for the Steelers, who should have specialized packages for him. I still consider Rainey among the biggest steals of the fifth round this year.
The addition of former Bengals guard Bobbie Williams reveals how desperate the Baltimore Ravens are at that position.

This shows a lack of confidence in rookie second-round pick Kelechi Osemele and Jah Reid, who were expected to compete for that starting spot. While Williams adds much-needed experience, I'm not sure if Baltimore really improved itself. The Ravens are still going to go from a Pro Bowl guard (Ben Grubbs) to one who will turn 36 in September and is coming off ankle surgery (Williams).

The best-case scenario is that Williams holds up like another former Bengals lineman did in 2008, when Willie Anderson started at right tackle for a Ravens team that went to the AFC Championship Game. But you have to have doubts because the Bengals, who were in desperate need of a guard this offseason, didn't try to keep Williams. Cincinnati signed Jacob Bell, who has since retired, as a backup over bringing back Williams.

“Bobbie is a guy who has been in the league for a long time,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a statement. “We’ve played against him, and we like his style of play and his demeanor as a person and as a player. We’re excited to have him as a member of our team.”

In nine games for the Bengals last season, Williams took a step back as a powerful run blocker but he graded out positively as a pass protector. Williams, who played right guard for the Bengals, might not technically be replacing Grubbs, who played on the left side. If the Ravens go with Williams at right guard, they would move Marshal Yanda to the left.

The Ravens potentially have one of the oldest lines in the league now. They might have three starters in their 30s: Williams, left tackle Bryant McKinnie (32) and center Matt Birk (35).

Baltimore tried to fill the void at left guard in free agency. The Ravens fell a few million short of re-signing Grubbs and couldn't lure Evan Mathis away from the Philadelphia Eagles. Baltimore is also limited in what moves it could make because of limited salary-cap room.

I thought the Ravens would look at former Browns guard Eric Steinbach, who missed all of last season with a back injury. The signing of Williams rules out that move.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Wide receiver Lee Evans, whose failed catch cost the Ravens a trip to the Super Bowl, has agreed to a one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported.

Evans will long be remembered as the player who had a fourth-quarter touchdown pass stripped away from him in the AFC championship game. If Evans held onto the ball, the Ravens would have taken a 27-23 lead with 22 seconds remaining.

This will be the third team in three seasons for Evans. The Ravens traded a fourth-round pick last year for Evans, who managed four catches in the regular season.

Hensley's slant: The Ravens might have considered bringing him back if they didn't add a wide receiver in the draft, but it's best for both sides that Evans moved on. Evans not only represents one of the worst moments in Ravens history but he was involved in one of the team's worst trades. The Ravens now have to figure out who will fill the No. 3 wide receiver spot on the team.

BENGALS: Newly-signed cornerback Terence Newman believes the Bengals are ready to win a Super Bowl title. "I want the ring," Newman told the team's official website. "That's all that matters right now. These guys have a good line and linebackers. They're a playoff team. They can help me and I can help them." Newman also explained that his play declined last year after suffering a hamstring injury early in the year. "I'm a rockhead about some things and I tried to play through it," he said. "I wanted to be there for my teammates and I ended up probably hurting them." Hensley's slant: In order for Newman's championship dream to happen, a couple of droughts have to end. Newman has never played in a conference championship game in his nine NFL seasons, and the Bengals haven't won a playoff game since January 1991.

BROWNS: Eric Steinbach, who started at left guard for the Browns from 2007 to 2010, wouldn't regain his job if he returned to the team, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Browns are apparently committed to guards Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao. Steinbach was released by Cleveland last month after he refused to take a pay cut. Hensley's slant: Steinbach likely won't be out of work long, even if his starting job is taken in Cleveland. Teams who don't get one of the top guards in the draft will be calling Steinbach. Potential interested teams include: the Ravens, Chargers, Seahawks, Bears and 49ers.

STEELERS: Stevenson Sylvester feels he is the heir apparent to inside linebacker James Farrior. "I feel like I'm the linebacker of the future," Sylvester told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I've still got a lot of work to do, but I'm confident I can do this job. I really feel good about this upcoming year." Head coach Mike Tomlin has said veteran backup Larry Foote will get the first crack at replacing Farrior, a 10-year starter who was released on March 2. Hensley's slant: Foote is the obvious front-runner because Sylvester only took 35 defensive snaps in 2011. But the player called "Sly" could surprise in training camp this year. This point could be moot if the Steelers draft Dont'a Hightower.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks have made inquires about free-agent guard Eric Steinbach, sources told ESPNChicago.com. The site also reports that the Ravens might be interested in the former starting left guard for the Browns.

It's unclear if Steinbach will make any visits before the NFL draft at the end of the month as he continues to recover from a back injury that forced the guard to miss the entire 2011 season.

Steinbach, 32, started 124 games for the Bengals and Browns over the span of eight years, before undergoing a procedure that removed a disc fragment from his spinal nerve in August of last summer. He was cut by the Browns on March 14 after refusing to take a pay reduction.

Hensley's slant: The Ravens hinted they won't make any more free-agent moves until after the draft. So if the Ravens don't use a first- or second-round pick on a guard, they should make a call to Steinbach. The alternative is starting a backup offensive tackle (Jah Reid) at left guard.

BENGALS: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sent a letter in support of Jerome Simpson to the judge before the free-agent wide receiver was sentenced to 15 days in jail for a drug-related charge, according to the Associated Press. Lewis said last month that the team is open to offering Simpson another contract despite his legal problems. The Bengals said in a statement after the hearing that they believe Simpson "has, and will continue to, deal accountably with the consequences of his actions." Hensley's slant: The chances of Simpson returning increased when the Bengals ignored the wide receiver position in free agency. Cincinnati had the cap room to upgrade over Simpson at the No. 2 spot, but the Bengals failed to add Robert Meachem or Mario Manningham.

BROWNS: LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne made a pre-draft visit to the Browns on Thursday, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Claiborne made headlines this week when it was reported that he scored 4 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test. "At the end of the day I will be a top 10 pick," Claiborne posted on his Twitter account, which has since been switched to private. "You guys don't no me #Top10." Hensley's slant: I still see the Browns taking running back Trent Richardson with the fourth overall pick and it has nothing to do with Claiborne's test score. The Browns, who averaged 13.6 points per game last season, need an offensive playmaker and not the best defensive player in the draft.

STEELERS: Restricted free-agent guard Ramon Foster has signed his tender, according to a report from ESPN Radio in St. Louis. Foster received the low tender ($1.26 million), which meant the Steelers wouldn't have received any compensation if they refused to match an offer sheet. Entering his fourth season with Pittsburgh, Foster is expected to remain the team's starting right guard. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013. Hensley's slant: Foster was surprisingly serviceable at right guard last season. If the Steelers draft an interior lineman, they should replace left guard Doug Legursky, whose best position is center.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
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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.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The second day of free agency was more active for the AFC North, although the division found itself on the losing side of the ledger.

Five key players -- Browns running back Peyton Hillis and four defensive players -- ended up signing with other teams Wednesday. That's in addition to the Browns releasing starting left guard Eric Steinbach. The only addition to the division wasn't really an addition, as defensive end Frostee Rucker went from the Bengals to the Browns in what will prove to be an important but underrated move.

Most of these losses were expected. The parting of the ways with Hillis was projected during his tumultuous 2011 season. The Ravens knew it was going to be a challenge to keep linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding, two dependable starters in Baltimore's front seven. The only mild surprise was seeing Rucker and defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (who signed with the Patriots) go elsewhere when both were considered among the Bengals' top priorities.

Let's see what Day 3 brings to the AFC North. There has to be some free-agent signings at some point, right?

BENGALS: The Bengals believe they lost Rucker to the Browns and Fanene to the Patriots because those teams could offer more playing time. According to the team's official website, Rucker played about 45 percent of the Bengals' defensive snaps, mainly on running downs, while Fanene participated in 45 percent of the snaps, primarily as a pass-rusher. Rucker played in every game for the first time in his six seasons with the Bengals and led team in tackles for loss (11). Fanene recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks and was third in quarterback pressures with 13. "Frostee and Jon have had productive careers here and have been great teammates, and their contributions in our line rotation have made them attractive to other clubs," coach Marvin Lewis said in a statement, via the team's official website. "They both seem to have the opportunity to play a larger role with their new clubs, and we understand that. We wish them well and we look forward to being able to replace their snaps with the depth we have and with players we may acquire through the draft or free agency."... Dolphins defensive lineman Kendall Langford, 26, a third-round pick in 2008, is visiting the Bengals this week, and it's believed they have visits set up with at least two other linemen, according to the team's official website ... Nate Livings, the Bengals' starting left guard for the past two seasons, is scheduled to visit the Cowboys today, according to ESPNDallas.com.

BROWNS: Even though Hillis said he would take a hometown discount to remain with the Browns, the running back signed with the Kansas City Chiefs without receiving an offer from Cleveland, a league source told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Browns spoke with Hillis' agent before he agreed with the Chiefs, but no proposal was made. Hillis posted on Twitter: "Appreciate all my fans in Cleveland for the support given to me in my time there. Can't wait to get back on the field and go to work in K.C." ... The Browns agreed to terms with Rucker, and the team is expected to make an official announcement when he signs today. ... The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto believes the Browns should use the $10 million in cap savings from cutting Steinbach and offensive tackle Tony Pashos to sign an impact right tackle like Eric Winston, Levi Brown or Demetrius Bell. ... The Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw says the patience of the Browns' front office leaves fans forever awaiting next year. "Let's put it this way. If things don't work out for the regime in Berea, we can probably scratch certain occupations from [Mike] Holmgren's and [Tom] Heckert's next job search," Shaw wrote.

RAVENS: While Redding followed former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis, Jarret Johnson joined Pagano's brother John, who is the defensive coordinator with the Chargers. “That’s part of what made it so easy,” Johnson said in a statement released by the Chargers. “Chuck and I have been tight ever since he got there. I met John before one of the games a couple years ago and he’s what made this decision so easy. I knew him, I knew about him, I know the kind of guy his brother is, so he’s definitely the type of coach you want to play for." ... The Ravens will meet with Eagles guard Evan Mathis today while left guard Ben Grubbs continues to test the free-agent market. Baltimore has also scheduled a visit with former Texans right tackle Eric Winston sometime this week. Winston, who was in Miami Wednesday, will come to Baltimore after traveling to Kansas City and St. Louis. "I want to win right now," Winston told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "That's what's important to me. That's the kind of team I'm looking for." If the Ravens signed Winston, they would likely release Bryant McKinnie and move Michael Oher from right to left tackle. ... Backup safety and special teams standout Haruki Nakamura is making his first free-agent visit, traveling to meet the Carolina Panthers, according to the Carroll County Times.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh still sits about $1.5 million under the cap, which means there won't be much activity until the NFL draft. That's 42 days away, if you're counting. ... Steelers free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said two teams have expressed interest in him, but he declined to name them other than to say the Steelers want him back. The Jets have shown interest, according to the New York Daily News. "Yeah, I'm open to it," Cotchery told ESPNNewYork.com on a possible return to New York, where he played for the Jets for seven seasons. "I'm open to all possibilities. I don't close doors. I'm not that type of dude."
The Browns are planning to release Eric Steinbach after the guard refused to take a pay cut, his agent Jack Bechta said in a statement.

This is a tough move for the Browns because they could use Steinbach on an offensive line that already needs a new right tackle. But Cleveland couldn't keep Steinbach at his $6 million salary for 2012 considering his injury status. This was an unwanted but necessary decision.

Steinbach, 31, was a four-year starter for the Browns but he missed all of last season after having a disk fragment removed from his spinal nerve in August. He is expected to be cleared to participate in football activities by April 15.

Steinbach
While Steinbach has left open the possibility of returning, he said he will explore free agency.

"It has been a good ride in Cleveland, and I hope it can continue," he said in a statement. "I'm proud to say that the offensive line has been a bright spot through the past few seasons. I will continue to work with the Browns through my agent in hopes of striking a deal that is practical and fair for both sides."

Steinbach then channeled his inner "Anchorman" when he added, "If my time here comes to an end, I want the people of this great city to remember one thing: 'You stay classy Cleveland!'"

The real issue is whether Steinbach will ever play like he did previously. Before the injury, he was one of the most durable linemen, missing three games in eight years. But a back injury can be tricky, especially for linemen.

“These types of decisions are the difficult part of this job, especially when it involves a player such as Eric Steinbach,” Browns general manager Tom Heckert said a statement. “Eric exhibited tremendous leadership and passion for the game during his time here. We want to thank him for his contributions.”

If Steinbach is healthy again, the Browns could certainly use him at left guard and move Jason Pinkston, who played left guard last year as a rookie, to right guard. But you could also see Steinbach going back to Cincinnati, where he played from 2003 to 2006. Adding a guard is one of the Bengals' top free-agent priorities.

Here are some other Browns notes from today:

AFC North news and notes

February, 25, 2012
2/25/12
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A quick look at what's happening around the AFC North as the NFL combine continues in Indianapolis. I will provide my take on many of these issues and topics in the days to come, but I wanted to pass along the information.

CINCINNATI BENGALS
  • Coach Marvin Lewis did seem troubled over the latest off-the-field incident involving middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge at a Cincinnati bar. Maualuga is the fourth Bengals player since July to have a legal issue, joining wide receiver Jerome Simpson, cornerback Adam Jones and running back Cedric Benson. “There’s a concern," Lewis told reporters at the NFL combine, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "What [Maualuga] does away from football is important. He has to make good choices and decisions.”
  • Benson is not expected to be re-signed by the Bengals, and Lewis' comments about the running back didn't change that perception. As the team website points out, it sounded like Lewis was giving Benson a lifetime achievement award instead of a new contract. “I think we want to improve our running game and if it includes Ced, it includes Ced," Lewis said. "We need to have more explosive running plays. Ced has had a fine career. He’s a physical player and been a big part of our success.”
  • Lewis provided encouraging news on two players who are coming off season-ending injuries. Cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) is ahead of schedule, and wide receiver Jordan Shipley (knee) continues to make “significant progress," Lewis said.
CLEVELAND BROWNS
  • Coach Pat Shurmur reiterated the Browns want to re-sign starting middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month. Shurmur said the team hasn't made a decision whether it will place a franchise tag on Jackson, although the Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported last week that the Browns plan to do so. "We're going to be willing to use [the franchise tag]," Shurmur said. "As you go through signing our free agents, then we'll see what's the best place to use that tag."
  • In injury updates, Shurmur said left guard Eric Steinbach is progressing from a season-ending back injury but he didn't commit to the left guard as a starter, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Jason Pinkston, who replaced Steinbach at left guard, will not move to tackle and will continue to develop at the guard position, according to Shurmur.
  • Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar attended the combine, but not in an official capacity, a team spokesman told the Akron Beacon Journal.
BALTIMORE RAVENS
  • Coach John Harbaugh once again expressed confidence about holding onto Ben Grubbs, saying he's "pretty optimistic" about re-signing the Pro Bowl left guard. “I hope that’s not misplaced," Harbaugh said, via the Baltimore Sun. "We’re in the process of negotiating. We’re committed, [owner Steve Bisciotti’s] committed to offering him a really great number. Hey, the market dictates [it], and Ben has to make those kinds of decisions, and you’re really happy for guys. He’s had a great career. He’s had a great number of years here. He’s earned the right to take a look for his family. One thing we’re not doing, we’re not giving him a low number. We’re doing everything we can to try to keep him in Baltimore.”
  • In injury news, wide receiver Torrey Smith had surgery to repair a double sports hernia, and cornerback Cary Williams had hip surgery. Both are expected to be ready for training camp.
  • Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the team isn't looking to add a free-agent running back to replace the retired Ricky Williams. He indicated that Anthony Allen, a seventh-round pick from a year ago, will be given the first shot at the backup running back job. The team would add a free agent during training camp if Allen struggles to secure that spot, Newsome said.
  • Newsome is happy the team was able to keep director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, who turned down the chance to interview for the general manager positions with the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts. "I think it was very important because of the continuity that allows the organization to maintain people and have the process remain the same," Newsome said, via ESPN Chicago. "It was kind of like Scott Pioli remaining in New England for all those years with Bill [Belichick]. All it does is make you stronger. I'm very thankful that Eric decided to stay."
PITTSBURGH STEELERS
  • Major changes are unlikely to occur to the Steelers' offense under new coordinator Todd Haley, according to general manager Kevin Colbert. The biggest reason is it's tough to do so when the team has been successful and is bringing most of the same personnel back. "So, it's hard to come in and drastically change your philosophy because of the group of players that you have," Colbert said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "You can't overhaul a whole roster. Nor are we looking to because this group of players has been very successful."
  • The hope is that the high-ankle sprains that have hampered Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey the past two years are in the past. "The reports we got and the last time we saw him, he was progressing just fine," Colbert said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "High-ankle sprains, they're a different injury and then when you re-injure it sometimes you've got to do some procedures to shore that joint up."
  • A Cleveland-based reporter asked Colbert if the team had reached a "breaking point" with linebacker James Harrison, who was suspended last season after he knocked out Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. "No. Absolutely not," Colbert said. "James Harrison is a great player. He tries to play within the rules. Sometimes, the penalty is unavoidable, and he ends up getting a suspension out of it. He served his time. We've all moved on. We know James Harrison plays the game very hard. He plays it within the rules the best he can. Sometimes, circumstances happen in the course of a game, and you have to live with the consequences. But in no way are we ever going to be disappointed with that player."
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk isn't worried about the addition of Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode.
Morning take: Birk says he's healthy, which puts him in line to start Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gurode needs to learn the scheme and get his feet under him. But Gurode is younger and could eventually be the starter.
  • The Steelers are jumping into the regular season the hard way with a tough road game against the Ravens.
Morning take: You can't find a more intense start for either team. Baltimore will be fired up after getting knocked out by Pittsburgh recently in the playoffs. Here is a poll on who AFC North fans think will win the game.
  • The Cleveland Browns' offensive line is in flux leading into their Week 1 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Morning take: Left guard is the biggest question. You forget how important Eric Steinbach (back) is to the team until he's out for the season.
  • Bengals running back Cedric Benson is happy to be back following a brief jail stint.
Morning take: Benson was wise to get his legal issues behind him before the start of the season. He will be a big part of the Bengals' offense this season and now has a clear head.
The NFL preseason will conclude Thursday night for the AFC North division.

Here are four things to watch in the final preseason games:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers' backup quarterbacks

Analysis: Pittsburgh's backup quarterback position is wide open because Byron Leftwich is out for the season with a broken arm. Veteran Charlie Batch and the younger Dennis Dixon will battle it out tonight against the Carolina Panthers. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin decided to sit starter Ben Roethlisberger so the team can better evaluate Batch and Dixon. The player who performs the best against the Panthers probably will go into the regular season one play away from seeing the field.

2. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton

Analysis: The early reviews haven't been pretty for Dalton. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton recently ranked the rookie second-round pick dead last among starting NFL quarterbacks. Dalton has been up and down this preseason. The good news is he's coming off a solid outing in Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers. He threw for 130 yards and a touchdown. Dalton needs to carry that momentum into tonight's game against Indianapolis. This is the final tuneup before the regular-season opener against Cleveland.

3. Baltimore Ravens' offensive line

Analysis: Baltimore's offensive line has struggled with a lot of moving parts this preseason. This final preseason game is a chance for the unit to jell one last time before the Ravens' regular-season opener against Pittsburgh. Although nothing is official, there's a chance starting center Matt Birk and new left tackle Bryant McKinnie could make their 2011 debuts against the Atlanta Falcons. Birk is coming off knee surgery and McKinnie is still working his way back into football shape. If at least one of these players gets reps Thursday, that would mark progress.

4. Cleveland Browns' left guard

Analysis: The left side of Cleveland's offensive line was once the biggest strength of the team before Eric Steinbach's season-ending back injury. Now, the Browns have a huge hole at left guard next to perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. Rookie fifth-round pick Jason Pinkston will get the first crack at replacing Steinbach. Oniel Cousins and John Greco are two more possibilities. Keep a close eye on this group Thursday against the Chicago Bears. The Browns hope to have their answer at left guard before Week 1.
The Cleveland Browns took a significant loss on the offensive line Tuesday. Starting guard Eric Steinbach will be out for the season with a disc injury in his back. He will be placed on injured reserve.

Steinbach
Here are some thoughts on the loss:
  • More than anything, this hurt Cleveland's running game. Steinbach was the team's best pulling offensive lineman. He also was agile enough to get in open space for screens and sweeps. Running back Peyton Hillis also had a lot of success running off the left guard in between tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
  • Finding Steinbach's replacement won't be easy. The Browns claimed Oniel Cousins off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. Despite struggling mightily in Baltimore, he is a candidate to start in Cleveland. The Browns also have free-agent John Greco and rookie Jason Pinkston on the roster. Either way, Cleveland is taking a significant downgrade with Steinbach out.
  • The Browns hope they can hide the left guard between Thomas and Mack. Cleveland will be strong at left tackle and center but pretty weak in between. Expect a lot of teams to attack the Browns with blitzes and stunts on that side early to see if Cleveland can handle it.
The Cleveland Browns claimed former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Oniel Cousins off waivers Tuesday. The move could be one of desperation. Cleveland starting left guard Eric Stienbach likely will miss the start of the season -- if not more -- with a serious back injury.

Could Cousins start in Cleveland?

The Browns have a big hole at guard if Steinbach cannot return. Rookie Jason Pinkston and free-agent signing John Greco are other possibilities. Cousins will get every opportunity these next two weeks to compete.

Ravens fans aren't too upset Cousins is going to a division rival. He struggled mightily this summer in Baltimore. He was the team's starting right tackle a few weeks ago. Then, Cousins was shifted to guard and eventually waived after Baltimore signed Bryant McKinnie.

Cousins will get a fresh opportunity in Cleveland. But he needs to play much better than he did in Baltimore to earn playing time in his new home.
Here are the most interesting stories Friday evening in the AFC North:
  • Browns guard Eric Steinbach’s season could be in doubt because of a back injury, Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports.
  • Steelers rookie Marcus Gilbert is making a push for left tackle, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes.
  • Here is John Thornton's take on the Cincinnati Bengals' preseason win over the Carolina Panthers.
  • Edward Lee of the Baltimore Sun writes that Ravens receiver Torrey Smith wants to focus on concentration following several drops.
BEREA, Ohio -- The injuries are adding up at Cleveland Browns training camp. This time, it was the punter who was hurt and eventually carted off the field.

Reggie Hodges, who had a great year for the Browns last season, suffered what Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur described as a left foot injury. It was a freak injury during a punt drill where there was no contact, and Hodges crumbled to the ground before he had a chance to kick the ball.

The injury looked pretty bad, as Hodges needed help off the field and couldn't put weight on his left leg.

"He just reached up and the punt was about head high," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "He did something he's done a million times. We will just have to see."

Hodges joins other injured Browns, which include guard Eric Steinbach (knee), tight end Ben Watson (head) and receivers Mohamed Massaquoi (ankle) and Josh Cribbs (knee). Cleveland is in the process of installing a new offense and defense and needs as many key players on the practice field as possible.

Here are some additional notes from Browns camp:
  • Browns quarterback Colt McCoy struggled. He threw two interceptions and overall didn't look crisp. Many of McCoy's top weapons are injured -- such as Massaquoi, Cribbs and Watson -- but he still needs to make better decisions than he did Tuesday.
  • One of McCoy's interceptions was thrown to rookie cornerback Buster Skrine, who took the play to the house for a defensive touchdown. Skrine, a fifth-round pick, is arguably Cleveland's fastest player and is getting a hard look as the team's nickel corner.
  • I thought the offense overall needs a lot of work. In addition to turnovers, there were a lot of drops Tuesday, and at least two times Shurmur had to call the unit back, because he saw something he didn't like coming out of the huddle. This was probably expected with no offseason, but the Browns have about a month to get it all straightened out before their Week 1 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.
  • Cleveland rookie running back Montario Hardesty was held out of practice for precautionary reasons. Hardesty suffered an ACL last season and is working his way back. He will compete for the No. 2 tailback role behind starter Peyton Hillis.

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