AFC North: Eric Winston

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Baltimore Ravens are still interested in tight end Owen Daniels, according to coach John Harbaugh.

Daniels
Tight end is the thinnest position on the Ravens. No tight end on the roster other than Dennis Pitta has played in a regular-season game.

Daniels, 31, would fit with the Ravens because he has familiarity with Gary Kubiak's offensive system from his days in Houston. Durability is the biggest concern. Last season, Daniels played only five games because of a fractured fibula.

"We just have to see how it plays out," Harbaugh said. "It's got to be a fit for everybody. There's a lot to it financially and other things. He's in our conversation."

Harbaugh also mentioned that the Ravens are considering re-signing Ed Dickson to fill the No. 2 tight end role.

There has been speculation that the Ravens could bring in another former Texans player. But right tackle Eric Winston is currently not on the team's radar.

"That's not to say it couldn't change, but that's not a guy we're talking to right now," Harbaugh said.
Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Andre Smith was ranked No. 4 in the AFC North's top 20 free agents in the division. He was considered the top right tackle on the market as well.

Smith
Then why is Smith still unsigned 20 days into free agency? It's obvious teams are leery of giving big money to Smith, who struggled early in his career and played better as it got closer to his contract year. It's legitimate for teams to ask whether Smith would be just as motivated once he gets a new contract.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated believes Smith's agents think the Bengals' current offer "stinks" and opens the door for another team to steal him. But another team could have had Smith for nearly three weeks and it hasn't happened.

With the amount of salary cap room that the Bengals have, they shouldn't lose Smith to anyone. Cincinnati has other options in free agency (Eric Winston) and in the draft (Alabama's D.J. Fluker and Florida State's Menelik Watson), but all would be a step down from Smith. The Bengals won't be able to find someone with the same athleticism as Smith, which is why he was a top-10 pick in 2009.

Smith reportedly was seeking $9 million per season when free agency began. He's not getting that now unless he hits the Ohio Lottery. What should Smith reasonably expect? Here are the agreements signed by the top three free-agent right tackles:

Gosder Cherilus, Colts: He signed a five-year, $34.5 million contract, which includes $15.5 million guaranteed and a $10 million signing bonus.

Sebastian Vollmer, Patriots: He signed a four-year, $17 million contract, which includes $8.25 million guaranteed and a $7 million signing bonus.

Phil Loadholt, Vikings: He signed a four-year, $25 million contract, which includes a $7 million signing bonus.

Based on those signings, the most that Smith can expect to get is just under $7 million per season.
Maybe one reason the Cincinnati Bengals didn't place the franchise tag on Andre Smith is because of all the options available at right tackle this offseason. Even though Smith is considered the top right tackle available, the Bengals may see better value at that position in free agency and the draft. The Bengals have the most salary-cap room in the NFL, but they rightfully won't overpay Smith or anyone else.

A look at the top right tackles available in free agency, along with their ranking (among right tackles) by Pro Football Focus:

Gosder Cherilus, Lions (No. 2): Unlike many right tackles, Cherilus excels more in pass blocking than in opening holes for the running game. He was the best right tackle in the NFC North last season but is still among the most underappreciated blockers in the league.

Sebastian Vollmer, Patriots (No. 4): Vollmer is considered the most consistent blocker of this group and generally plays mistake-free football. It's an added bonus that he can play left tackle, as well.

Phil Loadholt, Vikings (No. 8): He's a powerful run-blocker with a mean streak who can be a liability in pass protection. The biggest drawback is penalties (11 last season).

Eric Winston, Chiefs (No. 9): He was cut by the Chiefs on Wednesday, a possible hint that Kansas City might use the No. 1 pick on that position. Winston didn't have his best season in 2012, but he has a proven track record.

If the Bengals decide not to go the veteran route at right tackle, there are a couple of prospects who could be taken at the No. 21 spot: Oklahoma's Lane Johnson and Alabama's D.J. Fluker.

The Bengals' plan at right tackle will become clearer once free agency begins Tuesday.
A look at what's happening around the AFC North:

BENGALS: The team reached an agreement with cornerback Jason Allen, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. The deal is reportedly $8.2 million over two years for Allen, 28, who was a 2006 first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins. Allen provides depth at cornerback as well as insurance if Leon Hall (Achilles injury) isn't ready for the start of the season. ... Earlier on Saturday, the Bengals made their first move in free agency when they signed Carolina guard Travelle Wharton. ... Bengals free-agent safety Reggie Nelson received an offer from the New York Jets and will make a decision by today, according to the New York Daily News. The Bengals, Jets and a third team (perhaps the Dolphins and former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle) have expressed interest in Nelson, the paper reported. ... Defensive lineman Kendall Langford, who visited Cincinnati on Thursday, agreed to a four-year, $24 million deal (which includes $12 million guaranteed) with the St. Louis Rams. Hensley's slant: The addition of Allen is an upgrade over Adam Jones, who filled in for Hall last season. Allen was the better playmaker last season, making a career-best four interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen gave up four touchdowns but he held quarterbacks to a 65.0 rating.

BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto has a hard time believing the Browns will go into this season with a Colt McCoy-Seneca Wallace quarterback battle. "My guess is McCoy starts, and they add someone such as Brandon Weeden or Ryan Tannehill (unless the draft price is too high) as a backup," Pluto wrote. "[Team president Mike] Holmgren mentioned taking a quarterback lower in the draft, which is possible. Heckert talked about how no one was excited when the Bengals took Andy Dalton in the second round -- until they saw him play." ... The Browns traded quarterback Brady Quinn to the Broncos two years ago for running back Peyton Hillis and a sixth-round pick. Now, Quinn and Hillis are teammates on the Chiefs. Hensley's slant: If I had to place a bet on the quarterback who will get drafted by the Browns, I would go with Weeden. The Browns seem genuinely impressed with him despite his age (28 years old).

RAVENS: As reported Saturday, free-agent guard Evan Mathis chose to stay with the Eagles over signing with the Ravens. “I am very honored to have found a home with an organization as great as the Eagles,” Mathis said in a statement, via the Carroll County (Md.) Times. “The choice was between two classy organizations and I have the utmost respect for everything Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh, and the Baltimore Ravens represent. They made it a tough decision but my heart was in Philly.” ... Ravens free-agent safety Tom Zbikowski officially signed his three-year, $5.5 million contract (included a signing bonus for just over $1 million) with the Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens expressed some interest in keeping him, according to Zbikowski's agent Ralph Cindrich. ... Right tackle Eric Winston, who reportedly had a visit scheduled with the Ravens, signed with the Chiefs last night. Not sure if it made any sense for the Ravens to meet with Winston after they picked up the $500,000 roster bonus on Bryant McKinnie. Hensley's slant: The Ravens are now on Plan C when it comes to addressing left guard, which is the biggest hole on the team.
STEELERS: To clear up the matter involving Casey Hampton, it appears that the five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle took a pay cut and didn't simply restructure his contract like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and others to help the team with more salary-cap room, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Hampton, who was originally scheduled to make $4.8 million, reportedly reduced his salary by $2 million. Hensley's slant: It's a win-win for both sides. Hampton essentially bought his starting job by agreeing to the pay cut, and the Steelers don't have a glaring hole to fill. Of course, that's assuming Hampton will be ready to play after ACL surgery in late January. The Steelers still need to address nose tackle in the draft.

Any uncertainty regarding the status of left tackle Bryant McKinnie was removed today when the Baltimore Ravens picked up his $500,000 roster bonus, according to the Baltimore Sun.

There had been speculation that the Ravens were thinking of releasing McKinnie because they have a visit scheduled with Eric Winston, the best right tackle in the free-agent market. Some thought the Ravens would sign Winston, move Michael Oher from right to left tackle and cut McKinnie.

In his first season in Baltimore, McKinnie had his share of ups and downs especially as a run blocker. He's also scheduled to make $3.2 million in 2012. So, it's understandable for the Ravens to consider other options. By picking up the option, it appears that the Ravens are committed to McKinnie for this season.

So, why would the Ravens schedule a meeting with Winston if they aren't parting ways with McKinnie?

I could only come up with two viable reasons:

1. Team officials wanted to send McKinnie a message. The reports of Winston's visit came out the day before McKinnie's meeting with team officials in Baltimore. McKinnie, whose weight has been an issue throughout his career, had a "very positive meeting" and agreed to participate in the team's conditioning program, according to the Carroll County (Md.) Times.

2. There was no scheduled visit with Winston.

I don't buy into an outside-the-box idea of moving either Oher or McKinnie to left guard. The Ravens are trying to sign free agent Evan Mathis for that spot. Winston, meanwhile, is visiting the Kansas City Chiefs and is next headed to the St. Louis Rams.

Usually you can connect the dots as to why teams plan visits with certain players. This one is not as clear cut. If anyone else has a better read on this situation, please let me know.
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."

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