AFC North: Gino Gradkowski

The Baltimore Ravens weren't going to get back to the playoffs without fixing their offensive line, and the Ravens weren't going to get better on the line without upgrading at center.

Zuttah
This is why the Ravens' trade for Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Jeremy Zuttah on Sunday is so significant.

Zuttah, who turns 28 in June, isn't a Pro Bowl center and is coming off a below-average season. But what's important to the Ravens is that he's an upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, who struggled mightily in his first season as a starter.

At 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, Zuttah adds more size on the interior, which was a priority for the Ravens. Gradkowski got pushed around too often.

He brings more experience and stability than Gradkowski. In his six-year career, he has 76 starts including 32 the past two seasons.

Zuttah is also athletic and quick, which makes him a great fit for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme.

This was a creative way for the Ravens to fix their dilemma on the offensive line.

General manager Ozzie Newsome wanted to get bigger on the interior of the line, but the free-agent class for centers was underwhelming. So, instead of overpaying for someone, the Ravens traded a mid-round pick for Zuttah.

The Ravens truly made the best of a bad situation. They could've paid more than they wanted for journeyman Brian de la Puente or gambled with a stopgap like banged-up David Baas. And it was unlikely that they were going to pry Alex Mack away from the Browns because of the transition tag.

Zuttah was the best possible option, which is why it cost the Ravens a draft pick.

The Ravens still need to make another move on the offensive line. They have to add either a left guard (which moves Kelechi Osemele to right tackle) or a right tackle (which allows Osemele to stay at left guard).

Still, the Ravens solidified themselves at left tackle by re-signing Eugene Monroe and improved themselves at center by trading for Zuttah. They're moving in the right direction.
A look at the players who should feel good about their status and those who should worry following the hour-long "State of the Ravens" press conference this week:

THE WINNERS

Tight end Dennis Pitta: Pitta didn't have an outstanding four games after returning from a dislocated hip, making 20 catches for 169 yards (8.5-yard average) and one touchdown. The Ravens, though, didn't hide the fact that Pitta remains a priority free agent for them. General manager Ozzie Newsome complimented Pitta, saying he's a mismatch for defense and plays "winning football." A new contract or the franchise tag appears to be in Pitta's future.

Running back Ray Rice: The Ravens could have put the pressure on Rice by saying he has to prove himself once again. He is coming off his worst season in the NFL. Instead, Newsome and coach John Harbaugh continue to express confidence in Rice and his determination to rebound. Newsome believes Rice can be a Pro Bowl running back in the NFL again.

Assistant coach Juan Castillo: Life would have been easier for Harbaugh if he fired Castillo and made him the scapegoat for the worst running game in Ravens history. But Harbaugh reaffirmed his commitment to Castillo by giving him a new title (offensive line coach) and taking blame for Castillo being the team's lightening rod. In Harbaugh's eyes, Castillo wouldn't have taken so much criticism if Harbaugh gave him a different title than "run game coordinator" last season, especially in a season when the Ravens averaged a franchise-worst 83 yards per game.

THE LOSERS

Linebacker Terrell Suggs: Suggs was essentially put on notice by Newsome, just a couple of seasons removed from being the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Asked if Suggs was definitely going to be on the team in 2014, Newsome said he was "not a virgin" when it comes to letting players walk. It was the Ravens' not-so-subtle way of publicly telling Suggs that he needs to reduce his $12.4 million salary-cap number in order to stay. Suggs is usually the one delivering the hits, not taking them.

Center Gino Gradkowski: When asked about the Ravens' priorities this offseason, Newsome pointed out first that the team needs to get bigger in the interior of the offensive line. I'm sure that Newsome wasn't talking about former Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda or the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Kelechi Osemele. That's right, Newsome is pointing directly at Gradkowski. If I was Gradkowski, I would've shown up in the Ravens' weight room that next morning.

Safety James Ihedigbo: Also on the Ravens' list of improvements is finding a "more athletic safety," according to Newsome. Starting two strong safeties proved to be a problem with the Ravens' secondary. The Ravens can't afford to play Matt Elam, a first-round pick, out of position again. That means Ihedigbo, who had a strong season (second on the team in tackles with 101), is the odd man out. The Ravens basically replaced Bernard Pollard with two players and never filled Ed Reed's role.
T.J. Ward and Joe FlaccoUSA Today SportsThe Browns and T.J. Ward will try to snap an 11-game series slide against the Ravens and Joe Flacco.
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The Baltimore Ravens have won 11 games in a row over the Cleveland Browns. That number is a measure not only of how good the Ravens have been since 2007 — the last time the Browns won in this series — but also how badly the Browns have struggled.

That 11-game win streak also is the longest current streak of regular-season wins by one team against another, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

By ending that streak, the Browns would make a statement about themselves and their status in the AFC North. But the Ravens realize they will need to start righting themselves if they wish to have a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. Let’s look ahead to the game with ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Browns reporter Pat McManamon.

Pat McManamon: The Ravens won the first game between these teams this season, in Week 2, and since then the Browns have started three different quarterbacks. What about the Ravens has changed since the first time these teams met?

Jamison Hensley: Pat, the problem for the Ravens is what hasn't changed. A big reason Baltimore is sitting at 3-4 is its inability to run the ball. The Ravens averaged 2.8 yards per rush against the Browns in Week 2, and they have averaged a league-worst 2.8 yards per rush for the season.

Ray Rice injured his hip in the fourth quarter against the Browns, and he really hasn't looked healthy since. But Rice has a great track record when playing in Cleveland. It's like his home turf, based on the results. In five games there, Rice has averaged 127.4 yards rushing. His worst game was 89 yards.

Is there any shot of Rice getting back on track against the Browns?

McManamon: The Browns are pretty good against the run. They give up 103.6 yards per game, good for 12th in the league. Three opponents have rushed for fewer than 100 yards, and last week they held the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles, second in the NFL in rushing yards this season, to 74 yards. That being said, if anyone is going to bust loose against the Browns, it would be Rice. He seems to salivate when he plays the Browns, especially in Cleveland -- where he's had games of 154, 89, 92, 204 and 98 yards in the last five seasons.

Let's flip to the passing game, Jamison. In his first start, Jason Campbell was surprisingly effective against the Chiefs' pass rush. He was able to make his reads and get rid of the ball in a hurry. Do you anticipate the Ravens coming up with anything to take advantage of Campbell, who is on his fourth team in eight seasons?

Hensley: The Ravens were impressed by Campbell, but they were more impressed by the Browns' offensive line, which allowed just one sack against the Chiefs. Baltimore will find out if Cleveland's pass protection will hold up for a second week. The Ravens will likely use the same aggressive game plan that resulted in five sacks of Brandon Weeden in the earlier meeting with the Browns.

In addition to Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off the edges, the Ravens generated pressure by blitzing up the middle. Where the Ravens will really test Campbell is on third down. Baltimore has recorded 10 sacks on third down this season, fifth-most in the NFL. The last time the Ravens faced Campbell as a starter was 2008, but only two Ravens defensive starters from that game (Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata) remain on the team.

The bigger concern for the Ravens has been their inability to protect Joe Flacco. Has the Browns' pass rush lived up to expectations so far?

McManamon: In general, no, but last Sunday, yes. The Browns got six sacks against a pretty mobile quarterback in Alex Smith. The catch is that whereas defensive coordinator Ray Horton went after Smith, he dialed back the blitzes the previous two weeks when he faced Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. The Browns have guys who can bring pressure in Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, Paul Kruger (even with his low sack total) and rookie Barkevious Mingo. But against Green Bay and Detroit, Horton played coverage. Flacco isn't mobile, but he is smart and he's won a Super Bowl. It will be intriguing to see whether the Browns go after him or sit back.

Kruger is one of the departed Ravens from last season's Super Bowl champs. Which of those guys who left -- including the retired Ray Lewis -- do they miss the most?

Hensley: The Ravens haven't really missed Lewis on the field. Daryl Smith, who replaced the longtime face of the franchise, has been the defense's top playmaker. The top four players that the Ravens miss the most (in no particular order) are wide receiver Anquan Boldin, safety Ed Reed, safety Bernard Pollard and center Matt Birk.

Boldin was a difference-maker on third down and in the red zone, two areas where the offense has struggled this season. Teams would likely take fewer deep shots if Reed were playing center field, and there's less of an intimidation factor on defense without Pollard. The biggest surprise is how much the Ravens have struggled without Birk. In his first season as the starting center, Gino Gradkowski is getting pushed back too often.

Speaking of changes, the Ravens didn't have to face wide receiver Josh Gordon last month because he was serving his two-game suspension. Can his impact change the Browns' fortunes against the Ravens?

McManamon: Of course. Gordon is a talent. A big-time talent. At just 22, he’s second in the league in yards per catch, and every touchdown pass in his career has been for at least 20 yards. It’s no secret that the offense opened up for Brian Hoyer, in part because Hoyer played but also because he had Gordon back. That said, not even Gordon can overcome bad quarterbacking. He struggled when Weeden had his second chance because Weeden struggled. Campbell got him back in the offense. Baltimore must respect him.

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Did anyone think the Baltimore Ravens would trail the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North standings in October? I mean, anyone who doesn't have a dog bone in their mouth. The Browns took over sole possession of first place in the division by beating the Buffalo Bills, 37-24, on Thursday night.

Cleveland, which is 3-2 for the first time since 2001, holds a half-game lead over the Ravens (2-2) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-2). Will the Browns still be in first place by themselves at day's end Sunday? We'll find out. The Ravens play at Miami (3-1), and the Bengals play host to unbeaten New England (4-0).

Here's your Friday edition of the wake-up caw ...
  • Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace isn't with the Steelers anymore, but that doesn't mean his feelings toward the Ravens have changed. "I haven’t played anybody in our division yet, so I think they’re still my least favorite team," Wallace told ESPN.com's James Walker. "Most definitely, I know they’re my least favorite team." Wallace has one 100-yard receiving game and one touchdown in nine games against the Ravens.
  • The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston was asked if there should be concern about Joe Flacco's recent play. "We should be concerned because Flacco feels the need to squeeze the ball into such tight spaces," Preston wrote.
  • Center Gino Gradkowski is determined to improve. "Obviously, I feel like there are a lot of things I could have done better on Sunday," Gradkowski told The Baltimore Sun. "I'm sure a few other guys feel that way, too. We'll just keep working hard at it and things will start going our way." Gradkowski is the lowest-ranked center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. It makes you wonder whether Ryan Jensen, who broke his foot at the beginning of training camp, will get a chance to start when he's healthy.
  • Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe faces his former team on Sunday for the first time since signing a five-year, $35 million deal with Miami. But Ellerbe said it was more than money that lured him to South Florida. "This is a better position for me to come down here and make a name for myself, to be able to be one of the top leaders on this defense, a new defense that’s up and coming and a young defense, one that I would be valued more on down here," Ellerbe said, via the team's official website.
  • The Press Box points out that the Ravens are down to two tight ends, Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson, after Billy Bajema was cut to make room for offensive tackle Eugene Monroe.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh made two things clear in the aftermath of the 23-20 loss at the Buffalo Bills:

It was his decision to abandon the run, and he would do it again in the same situation. The Ravens' plodding running game was the hot topic at Harbaugh's news conference Monday -- eight of the 17 questions asked had something to do with the ground attack -- and he did not back down from the decision to run the ball a franchise-low nine times, including twice in the second half.

"That's my call all the way," Harbaugh said. "I just felt like we weren't running the ball well enough to win the game running the ball. Looking back on it, I feel the same way. After watching the tape, I feel we did exactly the right thing to try to win that game. No second-guessing myself on that. That was my decision. That's the way we went with it. If you feel like we should have run the ball more in the second half, I definitely respect that opinion. But it didn't look that way to me. So, that's what we did."

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
AP Photo/Bill WippertRay Rice has just 89 rushing yards so far this season.
I do not fault Harbaugh's decision because the run game was going nowhere (the team was averaging 2.6 yards per carry). The Ravens also were 15 yards away from kicking the potential game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter, so the pass-heavy attack put Baltimore in position to pull off the comeback.

Where I differ with Harbaugh is the Ravens' ability to turn this ground game around. The Ravens are averaging 64 yards rushing per game, which ranks 28th in the NFL. There have been no signs of life from the Ravens' running game and that includes Sunday's game against the second-worst run defense in the NFL.

It's a strange turn of events for the Ravens because this is essentially the same offensive line that helped the Ravens average 134.8 yards rushing in the playoffs. The Ravens have not cracked 100 yards rushing as a team this season.

The only change on the offensive line has been second-year center Gino Gradkowski replacing 15-year veteran Matt Birk.

"He's done a good job physically," Harbaugh said of Gradkowski. "It hasn't been too often where Gino has been pushed around. He's done a good of job of holding the point. I talk to him all the time, I think he can come off the ball better. I think sometimes he's a little tentative with his footwork and wants to stay in front of people. Go ahead and come off the ball and move people a little bit. He's capable of doing that."

Harbaugh added, "It's a difference between Gino and Matt with the calls. I think we're feeling that in there right now. Gino is a really smart guy but Matt had been at it a lot of years. So, that's something that we're working through."

The other big change was adding Juan Castillo, the former offensive line coach and defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, to be the Ravens' run game coordinator. Harbaugh, though, said the Ravens aren't doing much different blocking-wise with Castillo.

"It's the same offense," Harbaugh said. "We still run the same plays. We still have the same philosophy. There's always a few wrinkles and that's why I brought Juan in because I was excited about things I knew he was going to bring to the table and bring into our program. And those things are part of what we're doing. We're not the same team we were two months ago, and we're going to be a different team two months from now. I'm most interested in what kind of team we are six days from now when we go down to Miami."

Harbaugh dismissed the notion that the health of running back Ray Rice, who returned after missing one game with a hip injury, was a factor in the Ravens struggling to run the ball against the Bills.

"The issue is what it always is. We just got to get better," he said. "We have to go to work and improve the things we can improve and make good decisions on what we choose to do and how we choose to scheme it. So, yes, we can game plan better and we can set formations up better to put our guys in position. I think our running backs can do a better job of running to the right sopt and trusting the offensive line."

Harbaugh added, "But the bottom line is it has nothing to do with style or technique. It's finding what our guys can do well with this group and doing it well. I'm very confident in every one of our coaches. We'll find a way to work it out. It's a process. It's going to be a year-long process."
Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Matt Elam is athletic and physical. He's been picking up the defense fast in offseason workouts and training camp, according to the coaches.

Ihedigbo
So why isn't Elam starting immediately at safety for the Ravens? Because coach John Harbaugh is smart. You don't start a rookie in his first game if he's going against Peyton Manning, especially if he's in the secondary. It's like an unwritten rule in the NFL.

James Ihedigbo will start the season, but I expect Elam to be starting by the end of it. Right now, Ihedigbo has more experience (15 starts the past two seasons), which is vital when you're going against a quarterback who is constantly trying to find the weak link when he stands at the line. Ihedigbo also held up well when he started against Denver in December, making six tackles.

"James [Ihedigbo] has been running with the ‘Number Ones' (in the preseason), and he’ll continue to do that," Harbaugh said Friday. "Matt [rotates] in and plays a lot. He’ll continue to do that whether it’s in the regular package or the other packages that we have. Both of those guys are going to play a lot of football -- just like our corners."

Harbaugh also announced that Gino Gradkowski will replace Matt Birk as the team's starting center. He beat out A.Q. Shipley.

Observation deck: Ravens-Rams

August, 29, 2013
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Running back Bobby Rainey made the strongest case for one of the final roster spots in the Baltimore Ravens' 24-21 loss at St. Louis in Thursday's preseason finale.

Rainey showed great determination in two first-half touchdowns, which could give him the edge over Anthony Allen and Delone Carter for the third tailback spot. In a busy night for the undrafted player out of Western Kentucky, he finished with 13 carries for 39 yards, one punt return for 16 yards, two kickoff returns for 25 yards and one special-teams tackle.

Those numbers didn't accurately reflect Rainey's toughness or the countless tackles he broke. On the first touchdown, he was stopped by the pile at the goal line but got the ball across on a second effort. On his second score, Rainey was bottled up at the 5-yard line and bounced to his left to reach the end zone.

Last season, Rainey spent the first six weeks on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster. He was inactive for three games before going on injured reserve with a knee injury.

His scores were magnified when Allen and Carter failed to punch the ball in the end zone with carries inside the 10-yard line; Allen made it worse by fumbling at the 1. Allen and Carter combined for 3 yards on 13 carries. This will be a tough roster decision because Allen does so much on special teams, especially as the lead blocker on kickoffs.

Here are my other thoughts on the final preseason game for the Ravens, who finished 2-2:
  • The Ravens' top two draft picks were impressive. Safety Matt Elam, the first-round pick, made four first-quarter tackles and punched the ball out of Tavon Austin's grasp for a forced fumble. Linebacker Arthur Brown, the second-round pick, hit Kellen Clemens so hard that he made the Rams' backup quarterback's nose bleed and made a nice open-field tackle. The rookies both won't start right away, but these performances provide glimpses of the future.
  • There was a Tandon Doss sighting. For the first time this preseason, Doss did what the Ravens had envisioned, catching passes over the middle and beating defenders straight down the field out of the slot. He had five catches for 75 yards. But Marlon Brown didn't give up any ground in the wide receiver battle. The undrafted rookie scored on a 50-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. I will provide more thoughts on the wide receiver situation on Friday.
  • Omar Brown made the roster last year because he made big plays in the preseason. He came up big Thursday night as he looks to become the team's fourth safety. Brown forced a fumble over the middle of the field in the first quarter and nearly picked off a pass in the third quarter. The Ravens' top three safety spots are set with Elam, Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo.
  • The center battle appears to be over. Gino Gradkowski didn't play in the finale, which suggests that the Ravens didn't need to see any more from him. A.Q. Shipley started, but he hasn't done enough in the preseason to push Gradkowski for the job.
  • Joe Flacco didn't play, and Tyrod Taylor received the night off after suffering a head injury in the last preseason game. Third-stringer Caleb Hanie got to play the entire game, and it wasn't pretty. He was 20-of-39 for 272 yards, and he didn't receive much support. Hanie was pressured repeatedly and was charged with a fumble after Reggie Stephens (who also had a critical false start late in the fourth quarter) delivered a shotgun snap wide right. Hanie's final pass was intercepted in the final minute of the game.
SOMEWHERE IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA -- I'm making my way to Pittsburgh Steelers training camp for the last stop on my AFC North tour. For Steelers fans, you know I saved the best for last. Or did I just go in my predicted order of the division? As you ponder that, I have the GPS set for St. Vincent College. If I can get players before practice, I will have a Steelers post on the blog by early afternoon. If not, I will put up a post after the team's afternoon workout. Here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: The battle for the starting center position took an interesting turn when the Ravens revealed A.Q. Shipley will start Thursday's preseason game. Gino Gradkowski, who has long been considered the favorite to win the job, started the preseason opener. "The nice thing right now is everybody says, 'Who's the guy?'" Ravens run-game coordinator Juan Castillo said, via The Baltimore Sun. "We're talking to them and we say, 'We need to have some separation, somebody has to come to the top.' The problem is they're both playing real well right now. They're both doing a good job. They're both in the pass protection, both using their hands real well."

BENGALS: Outside linebacker James Harrison still insists there isn't much of a difference going from Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense to Cincinnati's 4-3 scheme. "I’m basically doing the same things, I’m just doing it from a different alignment," Harrison said, via the team's official website. "The hardest part is getting used to lining up stacked off of the line and having to read centers, tackles, guards, all of that, where normally I’m just reading the tackles and tight ends. I don’t rush as much, especially on tackles now, but I’m doing the same things as some point in time that I did in Pittsburgh. Even when we were in our nickel coverages in Pittsburgh, sometimes I lined up stacked. Now I’m just doing it down after down."

STEELERS: Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu hopes to repay the Steelers for sticking with him after his late-night, drunken-driving rampage 10 months ago. "I just want to keep working and, hopefully, that the next time people start talking it will be about football," Ta'amu told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I just want to keep quiet and let my work do the noise." Ta'amu added, "All the mistakes were because of me. It's up to me to fix them and try to do better this year."

BROWNS: Running back Trent Richardson will play in his first preseason game for the Browns, according to an Associated Press report. Coach Rob Chudzinski said Richardson, who has been slowed by a shin injury, will be used for "a couple of series. Richardson told reporters after practice: "I kind of had a feeling he was going to say, 'Yeah' today because he had me going in there with starters today. It felt good when I was out there and I'm happy coach told y'all I can play."
If it seems like it was just a short while ago that the Baltimore Ravens were celebrating in New Orleans, you're not the only one. It's hard for me to believe that the preseason officially kicks off in the AFC North tonight. But that's what the schedule tells me. I will provide my observations on the preseason openers for the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns after the games have ended. Let's kick off the day like we usually do on the blog -- with the wake-up call.

RAVENS: Jeff Saturday, a longtime NFL center and current ESPN analyst, weighed in on the Ravens' competition at center between Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley. "I like the kid out of Delaware, Gradkowski," Saturday told The Baltimore Sun. "I liked him a lot coming out of there. I know that (Matt) Birk has spoken very highly of him, respects the way he takes care of business. He's capable and ready to get that job. Coming from a guy like Birk to think that highly of you, that's very impressive. He would know what Gino can do. Talking to people around the NFL, I've heard nothing but good things about him."

BENGALS: How much the starters play in the preseason opener will be dictated by how well they play. "That's the carrot you have," coach Marvin Lewis told the team's official website. "We'll get the first guys crisp snaps and we'll see how many snaps they earn based on how they go out there and do things. Coming here (to practice against the Falcons) is a great opportunity for them to get more exposure than they'll get Thursday night."

STEELERS: The Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round because his speed, agility and football aptitude outweighed his lack of height (he's 5-foot-9). “We have had some pretty good short players around here,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “If a guy plays good football, we don't overexcite ourselves with his height. A good safety can bring guys down to his level.”

BROWNS: Running back Trent Richardson (shin) and safety T.J. Ward (hamstring) have been ruled out for the preseason opener by coach Rob Chudzinski. "Those guys would be available to play normally,” Chudzinski said, via the Akron Beacon Journal. “But since it’s the preseason we’re going to be smart with them and hold them for the game.” With Richardson and backup Montario Hardesty (hamstring) out, Dion Lewis will get the start at running back.
Many believe the Cincinnati Bengals will be among the breakout teams in 2013. Our friends at Football Outsiders believe the Bengals are tied with the New England Patriots for the most breakout prospects this year.

It's an Insider article, so you'll need a subscription to view the entire top 25Insider. Here are the players who made the list from the AFC North:

4. Cortez Allen, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Allen steps into the starting role left by Keenan Lewis, who signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency. Football Outsiders: Last year as Pittsburgh's nickelback, Allen allowed 6.3 adjusted yards per pass (12th among cornerbacks) and had a 55 percent adjusted success rate (26th).

7. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Sanu caught four touchdown passes in three games before suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 13. Football Outsiders: He isn't going to explode off the line, and he's not going to streak down the field -- but Sanu is built to beat coverage with his body, not his speed. If scouts are correct, he'll develop into a high-volume, very reliable possession receiver, which fits what the Bengals need to complement A.J. Green.

15. Gino Gradkowski, C, Baltimore Ravens: Gradkowski is favored to beat out A.Q. Shipley for Matt Birk's old starting job. Football Outsiders: At 300 pounds, Gradkowski is a little bit light for an NFL center, but that also means he's very agile and light on his feet, adept at pulls, traps and blocking for screen passes.

18. Brandon Thompson, DT, Bengals: After essentially redshirting his rookie season, Thompson will take the snaps left by backup Pat Sims, who signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency. Football Outsiders: Thompson is an excellent interior gap stuffer, but he's also adept at an array of pass-rush moves including bull rush, swim and rip. He could eventually develop into the replacement for Domata Peko when Peko's contract ends after the 2014 season.

22. Emmanuel Lamur, OLB, Bengals: He isn't a household name, but he replaced Rey Maualuga in passing situations during minicamp. Football Outsiders: This could be the first step toward taking Maualuga out of the starting lineup entirely, in which case Burfict would move to the middle and Lamur would take the starting job at weakside linebacker.
If you want to read the entire chat, you can click right here. These are some highlights:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Todd (Minneapolis): In most articles on my beloved Bengals, Andy Dalton's arm strength and third-down efficiency is always the main reason why the Bengals will struggle to make the playoffs (for a third year in a row might, I add). Will the additions of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard really spread teams out enough where Andy will be able to see the field better and make those deep throws and third-down conversions? Do you see either player (Eifert or Bernard) getting 50-plus catches this season?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I don't see Bernard or Eifert making 50-plus catches this year. That's a lot to ask of a player who won't be starting. Where these guys will help is in the short and intermediate passing games. Bernard can take a short pass, break tackles and make a big play. Eifert can stretch the field more than [Jermaine] Greshamand will contribute more 12 to 15-yard plays. Both will make impacts this year.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Andrew (Cleveland): Is the Browns' Tashaun Gipson enough of a ballhawk to lock down the starting free-safety job in Cleveland? Or do you see Johnson Bademosi or Jamoris Slaughter as legit competition?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Gipson is an average starter in this league. But he's the best one they have right now. Slaughter could develop down the road. Bademosi is more of a special-teams player, and a very good one. When the season starts, I expect Gipson to be back there with T.J. Ward.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Ravenous128 (Columbia, MD): What are you hearing about Gino Gradkowski's transition to starting center? Is he the answer, or will the Ravens look to free agency as a fallback?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I believe this is going to be Gradkowski's job to lose. But remember, the Ravens traded for A.Q. Shipley in early May. He started down the stretch for the Colts last season. If Gradkowski doesn't show he can start this year, Shipley is the fallback option.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Luke (Carlisle, PA): Do you have any inclination this may be Dick LeBeau's last season at the helm of the Steelers defense? With a lot of expected age turnover (Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Larry Foote) at the end of the coming season, do you feel it would be the right time for him to walk away, with Keith Butler in the wings?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I'll put it this way: I wouldn't be surprised if this was LeBeau's final season. It's going to happen over the next year or two. When the Steelers retained Keith Butler, it showed he was the defensive coordinator in waiting. That, I feel, started the clock on LeBeau.

Links: Browns bolster scouting department

June, 20, 2013
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Baltimore Ravens

Matt Vensel of The Baltimore Sun previews the Ravens' Week 1 matchup with the Broncos in Denver.

With Matt Birk's retirement, the Ravens are looking to Gino Gradkowski to take over at center, writes Aaron Wilson of The Sun. So far this offseason, reviews of Gradkowski's performance have been positive. Quarterback Joe Flacco: "Matt was a great center, and I think Gino has done a great job last year of picking the offense up and being able to kind of get in there right away and do pretty good."

Switching teams has not mellowed former Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, writes Clifton Brown of CSNBaltimore.com.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, who is to speak at the NFL Rookie Symposium, said he'll talk with the rookies about his inability to escape his past, writes Mike Garafolo of USA TODAY Sports. Jones: "No matter how much I've done to improve or give back to the community or just growing as a person, the first time something pops up, it's all, 'Well, he's done this in the past.'"

While cornerback Nate Clements would like to reunite with the Bengals, the interest doesn't appear to be mutual at this point, writes Josh Kirkendall of Cincy Jungle.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns added five new scouts Wednesday, reports Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer. Frank Edgerly, who spent the past four seasons with the Patriots, was named a senior pro scout. Brent Blaylock, Brendan Donovan, Matthew Manocherian and Patrick Moore were added as college scouts.

Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature looks at the bottom half of the Browns' running back depth chart in an ongoing training camp preview series.

What can veteran receiver Davone Bess offer the Browns? Jared Luginbill of Browns 101 explores.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Jarrett Bell of USA TODAY Sports has a preview of the team heading into training camp.

A judge denied the Steelers' plans to have taxpayers help pay to add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field, ruling that the team failed to show that an addition or modification was installed in at least half of the 30 other NFL stadiums with at least 25 percent of the cost borne by federal, state or local governments, reports Adam Brandolph of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

 
The AFC North blog is continuing its rankings of each position for the next week. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. For Friday, let's look at the offensive line.

1. Cleveland Browns: The Browns have the best lineman in the division, and perhaps the league, in left tackle Joe Thomas. The other star on the line is center Alex Mack. The biggest improvement should be at right tackle, where Mitchell Schwartz starts his second season. The guards are average, especially if John Greco has to replace Jason Pinkston, who is returning from a blood clot in the lung.

2. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have the No. 1 tackle combination with Andrew Whitworth on the left side and Andre Smith on the right. By the end of the season, Cincinnati's top lineman will be right guard Kevin Zeitler, who looks like a Pro Bowl player. The question mark -- and the soft spot of this line -- is at center, where Kyle Cook and Trevor Robinson will compete for the starting spot.

3. Baltimore Ravens: The top guard tandem of the division is Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele. Yanda is among the grittiest linemen in the league, and Osemele ranks among the most versatile. It was a smart move to re-sign left tackle Bryant McKinnie because it allows Michael Oher to stay on the right side. Still, there is uncertainty whether McKinnie can hold up for a 16-game schedule and whether Gino Gradkowski can adequately replace Matt Birk at center.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: This line has the potential to make more strides this season than any other in the division. But, until the unit proves itself, there is more optimism than confidence. Like the Steelers' quarterback position, the key is staying healthy. Pittsburgh has certainly made an investment, using two first-round picks (center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro) and two second-rounders (tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert) on the offense line. The biggest decision facing the Steelers is determining who will start at left tackle, which happens to be the most important spot on the line.

In case you missed the other AFC North position rankings this week, you can click here for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.
There's three items about offensive linemen and one about someone who used to make life terrible for offensive linemen. Time to go into the trenches in today's edition of the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Gino Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, remains the frontrunner to replace Matt Birk as the team's starting center. Baltimore didn't sign a center in free agency and drafted Colorado State-Pueblo center Ryan Jensen in the sixth round. "He's definitely going to have every opportunity to be a starting center for us this year," assistant general manager Eric DeCosta told The Baltimore Sun. "He's going to have some competition. He's got the right mentality, the right makeup, the drive to be a good player. He comes from a football family. He's an important piece of the puzzle."

BENGALS: South Carolina center T.J. Johnson agreed to a four-year, $2.2 million contract, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Johnson, a seventh-round pick and the Bengals' final one of the 2013 draft, was the the first of the team's 10 draft picks to reach an agreement. With Kyle Cook and Trevor Robinson competing for the starting center job, Johnson is projected to land on the practice squad after the final major cutdown. He started a school-record 53 games at South Carolina.

STEELERS: Former Steelers great Joe Greene, who recently retired from a personnel position within the organization, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he doesn't like the attitude of the current players on the Steelers, from players taking contract disputes into the season to letting information inside the locker room become public. “The Steelers over the years have been able to keep everyone happy under the structure," Greene said. "There’s a different attitude with the players, maybe players we brought in, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s good." File this under another criticism toward the Steelers' self-described "fractured" locker room. It should be noted that Greene lives in the Dallas area when he wasn't on the road scouting for the Steelers, so he acknowledges that he doesn't have first-hand knowledge of the situation.

BROWNS: The Browns signed often injured offensive lineman Rashad Butler to a one-year contract. The former backup for the Texans spent all of last season on injured reserve with a triceps injury and played just two games in 2011 because of an elbow injury. Butler was drafted in the third round by the Panthers in 2006 but he lasted only one year with the team. The Browns needed to add depth at the tackle position. Cleveland's top backups are Oniel Cousins and Ryan Miller.

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