AFC North: franchise tag

Steelers' guide to cap relief

July, 20, 2011
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ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton recently wrote an insightful piece updating the projected salary-cap figures for NFL teams. One note that stood out in the AFC North is that the reigning division champion Pittsburgh Steelers are projected to be more than $10.51 million over the cap.

That means Pittsburgh has plenty of work to do this summer. But fear not, Steeler Nation. The AFC North blog has provided Pittsburgh an easy-to-follow guide for cap relief.

Step No. 1: Release OT Flozell Adams

[+] EnlargeFlozell Adams
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesReleasing Flozell Adams would get the Steelers almost halfway to being under the salary cap.
Analysis: Adams quickly acclimated himself in the Steelers’ locker room and filled in admirably last season. But he makes $5 million in 2011. Releasing Adams alone would get the Steelers halfway to being under the cap. Maybe the Steelers can re-sign him at a lesser number later, but Adams is not irreplaceable. The Steelers drafted offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round and also could look for a vet in free agency. But if the Steelers can convince Adams to return for, say, $2 million next season, that makes sense for both sides.

Step No. 2: Release WR Antwaan Randle El

Analysis: Randle El signed a three-year, $7 million contract last season but had a subpar 2010 campaign. He was eventually beat out by rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, who are both younger and more athletic. Now Randle El is fifth on the depth chart. He's a good locker-room presence and plays hard, but cutting Randle El makes business sense.

Step No. 3: Restructure DE Aaron Smith's contract

Skinny: Smith is a great leader and presence in Pittsburgh's locker room. He's also a good player when healthy, but season-ending injuries are taking a toll on the 35-year-old defensive end. Smith is on the books for $4.5 million in the final year of his contract. But you don't just cut a leader and career Steeler like Smith. So asking him to restructure and perhaps save $2 million makes sense. Smith has been an excellent mentor to Ziggy Hood and could be to rookie Cameron Heyward in what could be Smith's final season.

Step No. 4: Release WR Limas Sweed

Skinny: The Steelers have held onto the former second-round pick for three seasons, but both sides should probably go their separate ways. Sweed displayed several flashes but dropped balls in big spots and could never recover. Sweed is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and enters the final year of a four-year, $3.3 million deal. Similar to Randle El, Sweed would probably be the fifth receiver on Pittsburgh’s depth chart if he stayed. Sweed needs a fresh start and the Steelers need the cap room.

Step No. 5: Sign LaMarr Woodley to a long-term deal

Skinny: Woodley received the franchise tag for a one-year deal worth $10.2 million in February. Woodley, who made just $550,00 last season, is very happy with that amount. But players would prefer long-term security. Woodley, 26, is eating up a huge chunk of this year's cap, and that number could be lowered if the Steelers reach a long-term agreement before the start of the season. That way, both sides would benefit.

If the Steelers follow these five steps, they will be back under the salary cap and ready to make a push for a corner in free agency. None of these decisions are easy, but that's the harsh reality of the NFL.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 17, 2011
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.

Baltimore Ravens

Best choice: The Ravens were fortunate the Cleveland Browns were willing to do business with a division rival in 2006 when Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata became available. Cleveland considered Ngata but liked linebacker Kamerion Wimbley more and traded picks with Baltimore, allowing the Ravens to select Ngata with the 12th pick in the first round. Five years later, Ngata is arguably the best defensive lineman in the NFL and one reason future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, 35, continues to play at a high level.

Worst choice: The Ravens haven't had a lot of big misses, but 2009 second-round pick Paul Kruger is a candidate with two uneventful years in Baltimore. Too often Kruger failed to make the active roster because he doesn't contribute much on special teams. Last year Kruger gained weight to focus solely on playing defensive end but was a backup in 11 games and recorded one tackle and a sack. In two years he has only 12 tackles, a sack and an interception. This is a big third season for Kruger to find a role in Baltimore's defense.

On the bubble: There was a lot of optimism in Baltimore when former Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle fell to the second round last year. The Ravens drafted Kindle in hopes that he could be the pass-rushing threat they were looking for opposite Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs. But an unfortunate accident last summer resulted in a fractured skull and kept Kindle out of football last season. Baltimore is optimistic about his recovery but has to wait to see when Kindle will be cleared to play football again.

Cincinnati Bengals

Best choice: The Bengals took cornerbacks in the first round back-to-back years in 2006 and 2007, starting with Johnathan Joseph. He has developed into one of the better cover corners in the NFL and has nine interceptions the past two seasons. Joseph is now a free agent and appears ready to join a long list of solid Bengals draft picks who bolted in free agency. The market for corners is starting at $10 million per season and Cincinnati doesn't seem interested in going that high for Joseph.

Worst choice: Despite several red flags, the Bengals were enamored with Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith in the 2009 draft and took him No. 6 overall. There were questions about Smith's weight and worth ethic entering the draft, and many of those concerns still exist two years later. Smith also suffered two foot injuries that required surgery and has only five career starts. The Bengals have the option of extending Smith's contract from four to six years this offseason, but that seems unlikely after two disastrous seasons.

On the bubble: Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga had a good rookie year in 2009 but followed it up with an average campaign last season. Now, 2011 is considered a swing season for Maualuga, a second-round pick, to prove himself. Cincinnati's coaching staff is challenging Maualuga to become the physical, dominant force he was at USC. He showed flashes of it as a rookie. The Bengals could move Maualuga to his natural position of middle linebacker this season, which could help put Maualuga in his comfort zone.

Cleveland Browns

Best choice: The Browns went with the safest pick in 2007 by selecting left tackle Joe Thomas No. 3 overall, which was a slam dunk. Thomas is one of the NFL's best left tackles and has been to the Pro Bowl in all four seasons. Cleveland's biggest issue is finding a quality quarterback for Thomas to protect. Thomas also is entering a contract year in 2011, and it would be wise for Cleveland to provide an extension before he hits the open market in 2012.

Worst choice: The Browns have had a lot of misses the past five years, but former second-round pick David Veikune gets my vote. Veikune was a surprise pick by former coach Eric Mangini in 2009 and was a bust from the start. He quickly fell out of favor with Cleveland's coaching staff and didn't contribute on special teams. When president Mike Holmgren took over the following year, he cut Veikune. I'm sure a lot of Browns fans will make the case for former quarterback Brady Quinn, a first-rounder in 2007. But Quinn at least played a few decent games, and the Browns were able to trade him for tailback Peyton Hillis. So the Quinn experiment wasn't a total loss.

On the bubble: Mohamed Massaquoi, a second-round pick in 2009, has been an enigma in two seasons in Cleveland. Is he a No. 1 receiver? Probably not. But there's a chance he could be a decent No. 2 receiver. The problem is the Browns cannot find out until they're able to land a top-flight receiver to take the pressure off Massaquoi. In many ways, Massaquoi regressed last season. His yards and touchdowns were both down compared to his rookie year. Cleveland could help quarterback Colt McCoy and Massaquoi by finding a legit No. 1 receiver this offseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Best choice: Considering the player and value of the pick, LaMarr Woodley was Pittsburgh's best draft choice of the past five years. Woodley was taken in the second round in 2007 and joined the starting lineup one year later. He became only the second Steeler to record double-digit sacks in three consecutive seasons and is money in the playoffs. Last year Woodley was one of the NFL's best bargains, recording 50 tackles and 10 sacks while making only $550,000. Pittsburgh gave Woodley the franchise tag this offseason and will try to work out an extension.

Worst choice: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asked for bigger receivers, and the Steelers tried to accommodate him by drafting Limas Sweed in the second round in 2008. The pick didn't pan out as Sweed struggled to catch the football. Sweed's issues may be mental. He didn't have a reputation for drops in college and many in Pittsburgh were easy, wide-open opportunities. The Steelers grew tired of waiting for Sweed and drafted Mike Wallace in 2009 and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in 2010. They have taken firm roles in the offense, leaving Sweed's future with Pittsburgh in doubt.

On the bubble: Second-round pick Jason Worilds was a surprise choice in 2010. Pittsburgh has a wealth of talented linebackers, but it's a position it likes to stockpile for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme. Like most defenders in Pittsburgh, Worilds has to wait his turn and played mostly special teams last season. Worilds recorded two sacks in limited playing time, but it doesn’t appear he will have a chance to crack the starting lineup for a while.

AFC North free-agent primer

March, 2, 2011
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This is the final week that several big names will be under contract with their respective AFC North teams.

The new league year starts on Friday, March 4, with a lot of labor uncertainty. Free agency cannot begin until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. But at least we will know who the key players are this offseason by the end of the week.

Here is how things are shaping up in the AFC North:

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Le'Ron McClain
Mitch Stringer/US PRESSWIREThe Ravens will allow fullback Le'Ron McClain to test the free-agent market.
Baltimore Ravens: Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata received the franchise tag, and signing him long term is Baltimore's biggest priority this offseason. The Ravens also have several interesting free agents. Offensive lineman Marshal Yanda is one of the most underrated free agents in this division. He has the versatility to play guard and tackle, and the Ravens want him back to help patch up the right side of their offensive line. The secondary also could be taking a hit as safety Dawan Landry and cornerbacks Josh Wilson and Fabian Washington are all set to hit the open market. Of the three, I think Wilson was the most consistent for Baltimore this season. The Ravens will allow fullback Le'Ron McClain to test free agency. He wants the opportunity to carry the football more and won’t get that in Baltimore. With the team expected to release Willis McGahee, the Ravens could be thin at running back behind starter Ray Rice if both McClain and McGahee do not return in 2011.

Cincinnati Bengals: We have addressed the situation numerous times with Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph. He has quietly been one of the top defenders in the AFC North and will likely get a huge payday, considering the going rate for cornerbacks. Unless Cincinnati is willing to pay at least $10 million per year to keep Joseph, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t hit the open market this week. Starting tailback Cedric Benson is another interesting free agent. He’s led Cincinnati in rushing two years in a row after posting a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. But Benson was unhappy with the Bengals last year and his production also tailed. Will he work out a deal to stay in Cincinnati? Stay tuned. The Bengals also have aging free agents like receiver Terrell Owens and linebacker Dhani Jones who are not expected to return because the team is rebuilding and going younger. Cincinnati also has to figure out what to do at quarterback now that starter Carson Palmer wants to be traded and threatened to retire.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns were lacking talent to begin with. So they don't have many big-name free agents. But some players who were productive in 2010 are hitting the open market, including fullback Lawrence Vickers, linebacker Matt Roth and safety Abe Elam. Both Roth and Elam were unhappy about not getting long-term extensions in Cleveland and probably will look elsewhere, while it's unknown how well Vickers, a power fullback, fits in a West Coast offense. With a new coaching staff led by head coach Pat Shurmur, expect a lot of turnover on the roster as the Browns get players who fit their offensive and defensive schemes. The Browns recently used the franchise tag on veteran kicker Phil Dawson to keep him off the market.

Pittsburgh Steelers: No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor has been in preliminary discussions with Pittsburgh but is likely running into the same challenges as Joseph. Similar to Cincinnati, would the Steelers be willing to commit at least $10 million per year to a cornerback? That appears to be the going rate for solid, free-agent corners. The Steelers will probably let Taylor test the market and compete with other teams before they pay that amount. If Taylor can get that elsewhere, he probably will take it. If not, Taylor can return to a Super Bowl contender in Pittsburgh at a reduced rate. Other than Taylor, the team doesn't have many key players hitting the open market next week. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley was given the franchise tag. Role players like tailback Mewelde Moore, backup center Doug Legursky and kicker Shaun Suisham are among other notable free agents for Pittsburgh.

What is Ike Taylor's asking price?

February, 28, 2011
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Last week the Oakland Raiders paid cornerback Stanford Routt $31.5 million over three years, which is an average of more than $10 million per season.

Most AFC North fans are probably asking, "Who is Stanford Routt?" And that is the point.

It's a great year to be a free-agent cornerback in the NFL. Even low-profile ones like Routt are getting a ton of money this offseason, which does not bode well for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The reigning AFC champion and Super Bowl runners-up have begun preliminary negotiations with Ike Taylor, who is Pittsburgh's No. 1 cornerback. The Steelers are very thin at that position, and it is perhaps their biggest need entering next season.

But when players like Routt, who recorded two interceptions last season as Oakland's No. 2 cornerback, are getting more than $10 million per season, that drives up the market for all free-agent corners. Taylor is not a shutdown player, but he is solid at the position. He recorded 66 tackles and two interceptions last season.

The Cincinnati Bengals have the same issue with pending free agent Johnathan Joseph, who is 26 and in his prime. Cincinnati only has one player (quarterback Carson Palmer) making more than $10 million per season, and the Bengals probably won't go that high for Joseph.

Now that the franchise tag has gone to outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers will be negotiating with other teams for Taylor, who will soon become an unrestricted free agent.

Would Taylor ask for more than $10 million per season? If so, it becomes questionable that he would return to Pittsburgh. It's also possible Taylor, who spent his entire career in Pittsburgh, would accept a "home-team discount," despite the high going rate for corners.

We won't have any firm answers until the NFL and NFLPA reaches a new collective bargaining agreement. But keep an eye on this development in Pittsburgh.

LaMarr Woodley signs, gets huge raise

February, 23, 2011
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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley officially signed his franchise tender Wednesday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports. Although the future of the tag is uncertain, Woodley is due a huge pay raise of approximately $10.2 million in 2011 compared to the $550,000 he made last season.

The Steelers will continue to try and work out a long-term extension with Woodley. Because Woodley is a former second-round pick who didn't make a large salary, neither side could do much because of the 30-percent rule under the current collective bargaining agreement. A new CBA will provide an opportunity for both sides to resume negotiations.

Woodley is one of three AFC North players to receive the franchise tag this offseason. The others are Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson.

Champ Bailey helps Johnathan Joseph

February, 23, 2011
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On Tuesday the Denver Broncos signed veteran cornerback Champ Bailey to a four-year contract extension reportedly worth $43 million. The deal will serve as a measuring stick in the Cincinnati Bengals' negotiation with pending free-agent Johnathan Joseph.

Bailey
Bailey
Joseph
Joseph
Bailey's deal proves how expensive it is to keep good cornerbacks. At 33, Bailey is no longer considered an elite, shutdown corner. But he's still solid and commanded an average of just under $11 million per season from Denver.

The timing of Bailey's deal helps Joseph more than it helps the Bengals. Joseph, like Bailey, is not in the category of Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha but fits somewhere in that next tier.

If Bailey is worth $11 million per season, you have to believe Joseph's representation feels their client is worth $8-$10 million per season. Over the past two years Joseph, 26, has more interceptions (nine) than Bailey (five) and is seven years younger.

Would the Bengals be willing to pay that much to keep Joseph? Based on Cincinnati's history with free agents, it's questionable. Cincinnati also signed cornerback Adam Jones to a team-friendly, two-year contract in 2010 for insurance.

Cincinnati is not expected to use the franchise tag, because it's projected to cost $14 million for cornerbacks in 2011. Therefore, Bengals have less than two weeks to work out a deal with Joseph before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Thoughts on Browns tagging K Dawson

February, 22, 2011
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The Cleveland Browns used the franchise tag on kicker Phil Dawson Tuesday. Here are some thoughts on their decision:
  • This probably doesn't please Dawson, who had every intention of moving on after spending 12 mostly losing seasons in Cleveland. The Browns only made the playoffs once in that span and Dawson, 36, sounded as though he was ready to play for a winner in the latter stages of his career. He's also been unhappy about his contract for several years as new regimes kept passing him over for contract extensions. So it will be interesting to see how he reacts to this.
  • With uncertainty about the future of the tag, this likely means the Browns will try to negotiate an extension with Dawson. Tagging Dawson takes other teams out of the equation, which should increase his chances of staying in a Browns uniform in 2011. This would be good for Browns fans, because he is arguably the team's most popular player.
  • Cleveland extends the streak of tagging kickers in the AFC North to three consecutive years. The Cincinnati Bengals (Shayne Graham) and Pittsburgh Steelers (Jeff Reed) both used the franchise tags on kickers in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Both were disasters, so will see how this situation ends up for Cleveland.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have made their first major moves of the 2011 offseason by designating LaMarr Woodley and Haloti Ngata their respective franchise players.

Could the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals be next?

With the franchise deadline looming on Thursday, teams only have a few more days to decide on tagging players. Although the future of the franchise designation remains unclear with labor uncertainty, some teams are protecting themselves by still tagging top players.

Ngata and Woodley were no-brainers. But the choices are much more complex for Cleveland and Cincinnati.

For the Browns, they don't have any obvious free agents to tag. Kicker Phil Dawson and fullback Lawrence Vickers would be two sleepers, but both appear remote. The AFC North has tagged kickers two straight years (Shayne Graham, Jeff Reed) but neither worked, and tagging a fullback would be an even bigger shock.

For the Bengals, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and tailback Cedric Benson are two possibilities. Joseph is the team's biggest free agent. But the tag for cornerbacks could approach approximately $14 million thanks to big-money contracts signed by Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha in recent years. That would be a lot of money for the Bengals to invest for one year, especially since they hope to pay quarterback Carson Palmer $11.5 million in 2011. Benson is a good fit in Cincinnati but the Bengals probably don't anticipate paying him among the top five at his position.

Therefore, expect Ohio's NFL teams to pass on the franchise tag this year.
Here are the latest happenings Friday evening in the AFC North:
The AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers officially placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley Friday, a source tells ESPN.com's AFC North blog.

Woodley
Woodley
Woodley, 26, was one of the NFL's best bargains last season, making just $550,000 in the final year of his rookie contract. Including playoffs, Woodley recorded 60 tackles, 13 sacks and two interceptions. He also become just the second Steeler to record double-digit sacks in three consecutive years, joining teammate James Harrison.

Although the future of the franchise tag is unclear, it's projected to be worth approximately $10.2 million for linebackers in 2011.

This also buys the Steelers time to continue long-term negotiations with Woodley. The "30 percent rule" under the current collective bargaining agreement makes it virtually impossible to work out a big-money deal for the former second-round pick. But the CBA will expire next month, as the NFL and NFLPA continue negotiations to work out a new agreement.

AFC North's top 10 free agents

February, 17, 2011
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Haloti Ngata and LaMarr WoodleyGetty Images, US PresswirePending free agents Haloti Ngata and LaMarr Woodley will likely be staying with their teams.
Despite labor uncertainty, free agency will be frenzied this offseason whenever the NFL and NFLPA reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

Even though it appears free agency won't get started in its usual slot in early March, teams will eventually have to deal with the contracts of some high-profile players in the division.

Here are the AFC North blog's top 10 pending free agents:

10. Phil Dawson, place-kicker, Cleveland Browns

Analysis: Dawson has been the face of Cleveland's special teams since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. He had another consistent year in 2010, making 23 of 28 field goals. But Dawson hinted several times that he may have played his last season in Cleveland. For starters, Dawson spent most of his career kicking for awful teams and wants to play in a winning organization. Cleveland is rebuilding once again under first-year head coach Pat Shurmur. Second, Dawson has been unhappy about his contract for quite some time and is finally a free agent. So look for him to explore other options.

Chances of returning: 25 percent

9. Lawrence Vickers, fullback, Browns

[+] EnlargeLawrence Vickers
AP Photo/Rob CarrLawrence Vickers may have a limited role in Pat Shurmur's new offense.
Analysis: Vickers is another underrated free agent for the Browns. He is one of the top fullbacks in the NFL, paving the way for several running backs to have big seasons in Cleveland. Tailback Peyton Hillis (1,177 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns in 2010) most recently benefited from Vickers' play. But after talking to Vickers at the end of the season, he also seemed unsure if he was coming back to Cleveland. There is a lot of change going on with the new coaching staff and new schemes, and it's unclear how important a power fullback will be in Shurmur's new West Coast system. Vickers will get plenty of interest from run-heavy teams. Cleveland was one of those clubs last season under former head coach Eric Mangini, but its run-to-pass ratio is expected to change dramatically, putting Vickers' future with Cleveland in doubt.

Chances of returning: 50 percent

8. Le'Ron McClain, fullback, Ravens

Analysis: McClain wanted more carries in Baltimore last season and didn't get them. This could signal his exit from the Ravens as a free agent. The Ravens simply had too many other players on offense who also needed the football, and McClain was left with just 28 rushing attempts for 85 yards. If rushing attempts are more important, leaving Baltimore is probably the best option for McClain. He led Baltimore in rushing in 2008, but his numbers have gone down dramatically since the emergence of starting running back Ray Rice, who will continue to be the go-to guy in 2011.

Chances of returning: 30 percent

7. Jared Gaither, offensive tackle, Ravens

Analysis: There has been some speculation that Gaither could sign a long-term extension and return to Baltimore, but I just don't see it. Too much went wrong between Gaither and the Ravens last season, so I believe both sides will just move on. Gaither was not happy about his contract last year, then showed up in the summer well below his playing weight. Gaither later injured his back and didn't play in a single game during the 2010 season. The Ravens reportedly had brief talks with agent Drew Rosenhaus to discuss Gaither and some other clients. Baltimore certainly needs offensive tackles, which is why I give Gaither's return a small chance, but it's still unlikely that he will remain with the Ravens.

Chances of returning: 20 percent

6. Terrell Owens, receiver, Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: T.O. came to Cincinnati just before training camp with much fanfare after Antonio Bryant's knee injury never healed properly. But his presence and numbers didn't help an inconsistent Bengals offense. Owens, at 37, showed he still has something left in the tank. He had some big games and recorded 72 receptions for 983 yards and nine touchdowns for Cincinnati. But those numbers didn't result in victories, as the Bengals fell to 4-12 after making the playoffs the season before. Cincinnati took its shot with Owens but is now rebuilding with younger receivers like Jerome Simpson, Jordan Shipley and Andre Caldwell. Don't expect Owens to return.

Chances of returning: 0 percent

5. Cedric Benson, running back, Bengals

Analysis: Benson was unhappy with his opportunities most of last season but still rushed for 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year in Cincinnati and is a good fit in the physical AFC North. Benson said he wasn't returning if former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski remained in Cincinnati. Jay Gruden recently replaced Bratkowski, and the move heavily increases Benson's chances of being a Bengal next season.

Chances of returning: 75 percent

4. Ike Taylor, cornerback, Steelers

Analysis: The Steelers have a definite need at cornerback, and that need could get even bigger if Taylor, the team's No. 1 cornerback, is not re-signed. Taylor is consistent and had another solid season for Pittsburgh, recording 66 tackles and two interceptions. But the biggest issue is Taylor's age (31). How many years should Pittsburgh commit to an aging cornerback with a contract extension? Look for the Steelers to make a push for Taylor. But the team will also look for depth at that position via the draft and possibly free agency.

Chances of returning: 70 percent

3. Johnathan Joseph, cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Joseph
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeJohnathan Joseph will be an expensive investment if the Bengals choose to keep the young cornerback.
Analysis: Last summer the AFC North blog reported that the Bengals opened negotiations with Joseph. That shows the willingness by Cincinnati. But the fact that, months later, nothing has happened tells me the two sides can't agree on money and/or the length of the contract. Good cornerbacks are expensive. So I wouldn't be totally surprised if the Bengals let go of Joseph, who is 26 and entering his prime. A franchise tag for one year at cornerback would be extremely costly, as well. Also keep in mind that Adam Jones, who showed flashes last season before a neck injury ended his season, signed to a two-year deal and will be back in 2011. Jones is insurance in case Joseph leaves. Joseph will get plenty of interest if he hits the open market.

Chances of returning: 50 percent

2. LaMarr Woodley, linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Woodley was arguably the NFL's best bargain in 2010. Including playoffs, he recorded 60 tackles, 13 sacks and was paid just $550,000 last season. Woodley will get the franchise tag before next week's deadline. Because of the 30 percent rule (teams can't increase a player's salary by more than 30 percent from year to year), the Steelers can't do much with Woodley in terms of a long-term deal until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. I don't think it's a coincidence Pittsburgh stocked up on linebackers in last April's draft for insurance. But I still expect Woodley back in Pittsburgh next season.

Chances of returning: 80 percent

1. Haloti Ngata, defensive tackle, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: The Ravens have already placed the franchise tag on Ngata with every intention of signing him to a long-term contract. Ngata, 27, is quickly developing into the NFL's most dominant defensive tackle. He made the Pro Bowl after recording 63 tackles and 5.5 sacks, and there were some games last season in which he was virtually unblockable by just one player. The Ravens have a reputation for retaining their stud draft picks, especially those on defense. Although nothing is 100-percent certain in the NFL, I can't foresee any scenario where Ngata won't be a Raven for the long term.

Chances of returning: 98 percent
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North: Morning take: This comes with the territory. Harbaugh has done a great job in his first three years, making the playoffs each time. But Baltimore will be expected to take the next step and get past Pittsburgh, which has set the standard in the division.
  • The back surgery for Steelers linebacker James Harrison was postponed due to a fever.
Morning take: Considering the offseason has just started, Harrison will have plenty of time to recover whenever this surgery takes place.
Morning take: Cincinnati has two possibilities in tailback Cedric Benson and cornerback Johnathan Joseph. But the Bengals are expected to first make a run at both for long-term extensions.
Morning take: With head coach Pat Shurmur taking over the offense, Cleveland opted for another veteran coach to help Dick Jauron on defense. Rhodes has seen a lot and brings a ton of experience.
At least one AFC North player will likely get hit with the franchise tag this offseason. According to a source, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is expected to get "tagged" by the AFC champions before the Feb. 24 deadline.

Woodley
Woodley
Woodley, 26, was one of the NFL's best bargains playing out the final year of his rookie contract. Including playoffs, he recorded 60 tackles, 13 sacks, two interceptions and made just $550,000 last season for Pittsburgh. Woodley also became the second player in franchise history to record three consecutive seasons of double-digit sacks, joining teammate James Harrison.

The franchise tag for linebackers is projected to be worth approximately $10.2 million next season. That would be a significant raise for Woodley, although labor uncertainty makes it unclear how the tag will be used once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

"I wouldn't be against it at all," Woodley said during Super Bowl week. "Whatever happens, happens. Would you like to have a long-term contract? Yeah. But a franchise tag, it doesn't matter to me."

The Steelers and Woodley, a former second-round pick, are currently hamstrung with working out a long-term deal because of difficulties with the 30-percent rule under the old CBA, which expires in March. The franchise tag would keep Woodley off the open market and would buy both sides time to work out a long-term deal once a new CBA is reached.

Woodley not opposed to franchise tag

February, 3, 2011
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Following Super Bowl XLV, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will have completed his final game under his rookie contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That means the 26-year-old could become one of the NFL's hottest free agents if he hits the open market.

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLaMarr Woodley says he wouldn't be bothered if the Steelers use the franchise tag on him heading into next season.
But chances are the Steelers won't let it get to that point. The NFL recently ruled teams could use the franchise tag this offseason despite a potential lockout in March.

That gives Pittsburgh the flexibility to tag Woodley, its biggest free agent this offseason, if a long-term deal isn't reached. On Thursday, the linebacker discussed the possibility.

"Nah, I wouldn't be against it at all," Woodley said. "Whatever happens, happens. Would you like to have a long-term contract? Yeah. But a franchise tag, it doesn't matter to me."

Woodley was arguably the league's best bargain this season. Including playoffs, he recorded 57 tackles, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and made just $550,000.

A franchise tag would pay Woodley the median salary of the top five linebackers in the NFL. That would be a huge pay raise for the former second-round draft pick, despite not getting long-term security beyond 2011.

Woodley has done a good job of staying focused on the season and was a big cog in Pittsburgh's No. 2 defense. He said he hasn't heard anything from the Steelers in terms of negotiations. It's standard for Pittsburgh to not to discuss contracts with players during the season.

But after Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh will eventually have to address quality free agents like Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor.

"I honestly haven't been thinking about it," Woodley said. "I've just been focusing on where we're at right now. Eventually things will get taken care of. So I just want to focus on what's in front of me right now, and that's going out and winning this football game."

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