AFC North: Evan Mathis

Ravens: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Are the Baltimore Ravens set on the offensive line?

That remains to be seen. The other teams in the division improved their offensive lines in the draft. The Steelers got the top-rated guard (David DeCastro) in the first round, the Bengals added the best run-blocking guard (Kevin Zeitler) and the Browns grabbed the best right tackle prospect (Mitchell Schwartz). The Ravens bring back four starters from a line that got better as the season progressed, but there's been a significant downgrade at one spot.

At left guard, the Ravens are going from a Pro Bowl player in Ben Grubbs to a lineman who played tackle in college (either Jah Reid or Kelechi Osemele). By looking at Baltimore's moves, it doesn't seem like the Ravens are sold on Reid, a third-round pick in 2011, starting there. After failing to keep Grubbs (who signed with New Orleans in free agency), Baltimore tried to lure free agent Evan Mathis away from the Eagles and then used a second-round pick on Osemele. The Ravens have had only one rookie start a full season on the offensive line in the previous four seasons (Michael Oher in 2009).

There are other issues on the line beyond left guard. The Ravens need left tackle Bryant McKinnie to lose weight and cut his sacks allowed (he led the team with 8.5). They need right tackle Oher to reduce his penalties (four for false starts and five for holding). And they need Matt Birk, 36, to continue his streak of 96 straight games played. While the offseason focus will remain on the contract status of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, the real storyline on offense entering the 2012 season is the state of Baltimore's line.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.
Matt Williamson, of Scouts Inc., handed out grades to the AFC teams after the first wave of free agency. It's an Insider piece, but I will share a small portion for each of the AFC North teams:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Williamson's grade: B-minus. While I am a proponent of not overspending on other teams' castoffs, and bearing in mind that the Bengals have a great opportunity to add quality talent in the draft with two first-round picks, I can't help but feel that the Bengals let a great opportunity slip through their hands this offseason. I would have attacked a high-end free agent or two such as Carl Nicks or Cortland Finnegan.

Hensley's grade: B. 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.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Williamson's grade: D. The biggest crime of the offseason was the Browns allowing the Redskins to outbid them for the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, but even after losing out on the right to draft Robert Griffin III, the Browns didn't add nearly enough to consider them as anything but a bottom feeder for yet another year.

Hensley's grade: C. 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. The Browns did improve their run defense by signing Frostee Rucker and their pass rush by adding Juqua Parker.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Williamson's grade: C. The Ravens lost several starters to other clubs over the past few weeks and will need younger players to step up in their place, but this remains a very strong roster.

Hensley's grade: 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. The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Evan Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Williamson's grade: C. Pittsburgh was greatly handcuffed by its salary-cap situation. But even though the Steelers released quite a few older brand name players, they sit in good shape for the 2012 season.

Hensley's grade: D. 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.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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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.
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.

The Ravens' inability to sign free-agent guard Evan Mathis is another blow to the AFC North champions in the first week of free agency. Mathis passed on an offer made by the Ravens Friday and re-signed with the Eagles for a maximum of $31 million over five years (including $7 million guaranteed).

[+] EnlargeEvan Mathis
Howard Smith/US PresswireEvan Mathis was offered a contract by the Ravens, but he opted to re-sign with the Eagles.
Baltimore's first and best option was retaining Ben Grubbs, the second-best guard in free agency. But he signed with the New Orleans Saints for a five-year, $36 million deal that included a $10 million signing bonus -- a deal that was just slightly better than the one given to the Ravens' Marshal Yanda (which was what many presumed the Ravens offered).

The Ravens' second choice was going after Mathis, the third-best guard on the free-agent market. Baltimore officials flew him in for a visit and even took him out for dinner. In the end, it looks like Mathis wanted to return to the Eagles all along and was using the Ravens as a bargaining chip.

Now, left guard is the biggest hole on the Ravens team. The Ravens have options, but all of them are a clear downgrade from Grubbs and Mathis.

In terms of free agency, the Ravens could sign either a veteran cast-off like Eric Steinbach or Robert Gallery, or pursue someone younger like Chilo Rachal, who lost his starting job in San Francisco after a solid 2010 season. Another potential fit would be Kyle Kosier, who is reportedly getting cut by the Cowboys. Kosier is 33 and has had some injury issues, but he's been described as the leader of the Cowboys' offensive line.

As far as the draft, Baltimore can take Wisconsin's Peter Konz in the first round. He's the top-rated center coming out of college but he can play guard, too. This might be an opportunity for Konz to learn beside Matt Birk for a season or two before moving over to center.

If the Ravens want to promote from within, the talked-about scenario is switching tackle Jah Reid, a third-round pick last year, to guard. But this would represent the fall-back for Baltimore.

AFC North morning roundup

March, 17, 2012
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A look at what's happening around the AFC North:

BENGALS: The team has yet to sign anyone after seven visits with players: Defensive linemen Kendall Langford (Dolphins), Andre Fluellen (Lions) and Jamaal Anderson (Colts); guard Jacob Bell (Rams); cornerbacks Aaron Ross (Giants), Tracy Porter (Saints) and Jason Allen (Texans). According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the visits with Ross and Langford "went well," but both left without contracts. Langford is visiting the Rams and Ross is meeting with the Redskins. ... The Bengals have lost four players in free agency including both starting guards from last season (Nate Livings went to Dallas and Mike McGlynn joined Indianapolis). ... Safety Reggie Nelson is visiting the New York Jets. Hensley's slant: The Bengals will inevitably sign a defensive lineman and a cornerback, but they should put equal importance in upgrading at least one of the two open guard spots.

BROWNS: The Browns aren't interested in a reunion with former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Raiders cut Wimbley to avoid guaranteeing him $17.5 million over the next three seasons. ... The Browns officially announced the re-signing of cornerback Dimitri Patterson.“Dimitri came in last year and was an important part of our defense,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said in a statement. “He helped solidify our defensive backfield and we are happy to have him back with the Browns.” Hensley's slant: With Mario Williams off the free-agent market, Wimbley is the most sought-after edge rusher and should draw heavy interest. Even if the Browns wanted to bring him back, the cost of doing so would be out of the team's current price range.

RAVENS: Free-agent guard Evan Mathis was offered a contract from the Ravens yesterday, but he decided to return to his Arizona home to think over the deal. He's been linked to the Colts and Redskins, but the Carroll County (Md.) Times indicates his choices are joining the Ravens or re-signing with the Eagles. “I think the Ravens are a good fit,” Mathis said. “I had a good visit.” ... There's some confusion over whether backup safety Tom Zbikowski has reached an agreement with the Colts. Zbikowski's agent disputed reports that the deal is done after Zbikowski announced that he's going to Indianapolis. ... Joe Flacco's agent and the Ravens met for a second time as the sides work toward an extension for the quarterback, who is heading into the final year of his contract. "It’s very clear that they want him there for a long time, and he wants him to be there for a long time," agent Joe Linta told the Baltimore Sun. "There’s just a lot of stuff to consider as you move forward.” Hensley's slant: The fact that Mathis left without signing a contract makes you think that he is giving the Eagles an opportunity to make a counteroffer. I wouldn't rule out Mathis signing with the Ravens, but Baltimore's chances looked better before he left town.

STEELERS: CBSSports.com's Clark Judge writes that the Steelers aren't in the clear yet even though no team has pursued restricted free agent Mike Wallace. The deadline to extend offer sheets to restricted free agents is April 20, so there's no rush for a team to go after the speedy wide receiver. Hensley's slant: I still feel the odds are very strong that the Steelers will keep Wallace this season. The Steelers don't have a history of re-signing wide receivers in free agency, but the team seems committed to Wallace based on what Steelers officials have said.
Here are some AFC North evening notes:

Eagles free-agent guard Evan Mathis left the Ravens facility without a contract but he did have dinner plans. He will sit down with general manager Ozzie Newsome tonight and remain in Baltimore tomorrow.

That looks like a positive sign for the Ravens, who are looking for an immediate replacement for Ben Grubbs (who signed today with the New Orleans Saints).


"I think it's a good fit," Mathis told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "We had a good meeting."

Asked if a deal is imminent, Mathis said: "We're not at that point yet."

BENGALS: Starting safety Reggie Nelson, the top Bengals' free agent, is scheduled to visit the New York Jets tomorrow. ... The Bengals have three players in for visits: New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, Miami defensive lineman Kendall Langford and New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross. Porter likely has the edge over Ross because he's only 25, four years younger than Ross. Langford is scheduled to leave for a visit with the Rams tomorrow if he doesn't have a contract.

BROWNS: Free-agent safety Mike Adams, 30, agreed on a two-year deal with the Denver Broncos. Usama Young and Eric Hagg could battle for the job, or the Browns could move cornerback Sheldon Brown to safety after the team re-signed Dimitri Patterson. ... Cleveland reached a one-year, $3 million deal with 12-year defensive lineman Juqua Parker, the NFL Network first reported. Parker will serve as the top backup, which likely will lead to the release of former starter Jayme Mitchell. ... The Browns announced they re-signed backup offensive lineman Oniel Cousins.

The Ravens lost free-agent guard Ben Grubbs, who signed a five-year, $36 million deal with the New Orleans Saints that included a $10 million signing bonus (according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter).

Mathis
Mathis
That means Baltimore can't allow Eagles guard Evan Mathis to leave its team facility without a signed contract today. There are other guards available like Steve Hutchinson and Robert Gallery, but Mathis is the best immediate answer to losing Grubbs.

If the Ravens can't sign Mathis, there would be a major drop-off on the interior of the offensive line. Baltimore has other options, such as drafting Wisconsin center Peter Konz in the first round and playing him at guard for a season, or moving offensive tackle Jah Reid to left guard. But Mathis represents the best choice in terms of experience and powerful run-blocking.

As far as Grubbs, it looks like his move to the Saints is a no-brainer. He signs a deal that is slightly better than the one signed last summer by the Ravens' Marshal Yanda (five years, $32.5 million with a $10 million signing bonus) and joins another Super Bowl contender. It does make you wonder whether the Ravens, who attempted to keep Grubbs from becoming a free agent, offered him the same deal as Yanda. And, if the Ravens did make that offer, why didn't Grubbs take it?

The free-agent market for guards could set up like dominoes this year. The Saints lose the best free-agent guard (Carl Nicks) and signed the second-best one (Grubbs). The Ravens lose the second-best one and now have the third-best inside their building.
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."
Is Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs going elsewhere? The Ravens aren't waiting around to find out.

While Grubbs continues his visit in New Orleans, Baltimore has moved on as well, bringing in Eagles free-agent guard Evan Mathis for a visit tonight. Grubbs is now considered the top guard in free agency after Carl Nicks signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Mathis is not too far behind.

The Ravens tried to keep Grubbs from hitting free agency, but he decided to test the market. He is currently meeting with the Saints, and there are several other teams in pursuit of Grubbs including the Washington Redskins, according to the Washington Post. Of course, that's assuming Grubbs makes it out of New Orleans.

You have to give the Ravens credit for not sitting around for Grubbs. This is a proactive move to help what has become an improving offensive line. Mathis was considered the Eagles' top run-blocking lineman last season. The only drawback is that Mathis is 30, which could scare teams away from giving him a long-term deal.

Besides the Ravens, the Colts and Redskins are also interested in Mathis.

Bengals' Evan Mathis signs tender

April, 20, 2010
4/20/10
12:08
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Cincinnati Bengals guard Evan Mathis signed his one-year tender, the team announced Tuesday.

Mathis, 28, split playing time last season as a starting offensive lineman for the reigning AFC North champions. He started seven games and played in 13 total for Cincinnati in 2009.

The Bengals have now signed all of their restricted free agents.

AFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
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Baltimore Ravens

Potential unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Potential restricted free agents: OT Jared Gaither, K Billy Cundiff, S Dawan Landry, CB Fabian Washington, P Sam Koch, OG Chris Chester, QB John Beck, QB Troy Smith, OT Tony Moll, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Prescott Burgess, WR Mark Clayton, WR Demetrius Williams

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Ravens have a ton of quality free agents. It will be interesting because Baltimore is the only division team which has to abide by the "Final Eight Plan" for making the divisional playoffs. This will restrict Baltimore from making a lot of moves. Therefore, expect the team to keep most of its key restricted free agents while trying to explore the trade market. On the unrestricted side, the Ravens are negotiating with receiver Derrick Mason and are expected to keep him. But two players who could get some interest in the open market are defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. Baltimore likes both players but could lose at least one.

Cincinnati Bengals

Potential unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams, TE J.P. Foschi

Potential restricted free agents: LB Brandon Johnson, LB Rashad Jeanty, OL Evan Mathis, C Kyle Cook, DE Frostee Rucker, CB David Jones, LB Abdul Hodge, QB Jordan Palmer, TE Daniel Coats, DT Shaun Smith

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Bengals have yet to announce their tenders, so this list could change by Thursday evening. But traditionally they are not big spenders in free agency and will stay true to that even with an uncapped year. Cincinnati could make one or two decent outside signings that may help the team. Finding a receiver would be the most likely target. The most interesting in-house name is offensive guard Bobbie Williams, who likely will test the market. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also would like to keep veteran Roy Williams and Tank Johnson. But the team hasn't made a major push for either player before they're let loose Friday.

Cleveland Browns

Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Potential restricted free agents: RB Jerome Harrison, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers, S Brodney Pool, S Abram Elam, DE Matt Roth

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: Cleveland has the money to spend and the biggest talent deficit. So look for the Browns to attempt to make up ground in free agency. Major names like defensive end Julius Peppers and tailback Thomas Jones have been mentioned as possibilities for Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Internally, the Browns should be interested in keeping Harrison and Vickers in their backfield. Jackson also has value. None of their unrestricted players are priorities for the team and will be allowed to hit free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend , FB Carey Davis, OG Darnell Stapleton

Potential restricted free agents: OT Willie Colon, CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda, TE Matt Spaeth

Franchise tag: K Jeff Reed

What to expect: The Steelers are pretty predictable. Pittsburgh intends to keep all of its restricted free agents, get a long-term deal complete with Reed, who has the franchise tag, and let nearly all of their unrestricted free agents test the market. The exception is Clark, who the Steelers targeted as a priority but has yet to reach a long-term extension before Friday's deadline. Negotiations have been ongoing and should go to the final hour to decide whether both sides can come to an agreement or allow Clark to test the market.

Tracking Bengals' penalties

December, 14, 2009
12/14/09
2:30
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The Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) committed 11 penalties that helped lead to Sunday's 30-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings (11-2). It’s an issue that Cincinnati’s coaching staff will have to fix as the team inches closer to the playoffs.

But before the Bengals fix their penalties, they first have to get to the root of the issue. The AFC North blog provides some assistance by determining if the team’s problems are mental or physical errors.

By our count, seven of Cincinnati's 11 penalties were mental errors. These types of infractions often drive coaches crazy.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis will have to preach to his team to play smarter and more discipline next week against the San Diego Chargers (10-3). Because another game with 11 penalties likely will lead to the same losing result.

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