AFC North: James Davis

All this week, the AFC North blog will take a look back at the 2009 draft for each team in the division. For Tuesday, we'll review the draft for the Cleveland Browns:

First round: Alex Mack, C

Second round: Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, WRs, and David Veikune, LB

Fourth round: Kaluka Maiava, LB

Sixth round: Don Carey and Coye Francies, CBs

Seventh round: James Davis, RB

Thumbs up: The Browns traded down twice and came away with a Pro Bowl center in Mack, although it's debatable whether the team would be better shape now with Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman (both quarterbacks were selected in the slots that the Browns traded out from). Maiava showed promise in starting six games last year, his best season with the Browns. Other than that, there's not much to smile about.

Thumbs down: You have to question the Browns' strategy when it comes to addressing the wide receiver position. Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt were available in the first round when the Browns selected Mack. Mike Wallace was sitting there in the third round. Instead, Cleveland went with Robiskie, who is no longer with the team, and Massaquoi, who is the No. 2 receiver by default. The other second-round pick, Veikune, is the defensive end for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Hensley's grade: D. All that's left from this draft is a quality center, a marginal starting receiver and an average backup linebacker. This draft, the first under the Eric Mangini regime, is among the reasons why the Browns are digging out of a talent hole.
Here are some notes and observations from Week 8 in the AFC North:
[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyWhile they had bright moments, Troy Polamalu and the Pittsburgh defense struggled against Drew Brees and the Saints on Sunday.

  • Even Troy Polamalu occasionally has bad games. The Pittsburgh Steelers' do-it-all safety had his worst game in years during Sunday's 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Polamalu and Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees were involved in a chess match, and Brees won most of those matchups by catching Polamalu out of position several times for big gains. Polamalu struggled to get a read on Brees and was a step or two late on big plays. Polamalu also missed tackles he usually makes in what was a rare, subpar performance by his standards.
  • The Superdome was the loudest stadium I've heard all season. The raucous atmosphere definitely bothered Pittsburgh (5-2), which had won its first three road games this season. The communication on offense was shaky because of the crowd noise, and the defense eventually succumbed to the pressure of trying to carry the team for four quarters.
"We better get used to these kind of environments; it comes with the territory when you're trying to be world champs," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We've got to play good people in their place and play better than that moving forward."

  • I'm baffled as to why the Steelers failed to successfully attack New Orleans' blitzes. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks at beating pressure packages. The play calling was one step behind. The Steelers didn't run many screens, couldn't execute hot routes and didn't take many shots deep against single coverage. That would have made New Orleans think twice about bringing extra defenders. But Pittsburgh's offense never figured it out. So credit the Saints for continuing to bring the heat.
  • Expect the spotlight to be on the future of coach Marvin Lewis with the Cincinnati Bengals playing their first national game on "Monday Night Football." This topic has been somewhat quiet in Cincinnati since the start of the regular season. But with the Bengals' postseason hopes in dire straits, the chatter will certainly pick up. How will this impact the locker room? Will the Bengals play hard, knowing Lewis could be coaching out his final nine games under contract? Or will they pack it in? We will find out how Cincinnati responds, starting on Monday against Pittsburgh.
  • That brings us to our next point: what team is more capable of playing spoiler, Cincinnati (2-5) or the Cleveland Browns (2-5)? Both teams are heading in opposite directions. The Bengals have the talent to be dangerous, but their execution has been awful during their four-game losing streak. Cleveland plays more efficiently with less talent and also could be a tough out. Keep an eye on both division teams.
  • Here is an odd stat: Punter Reggie Hodges (one carry, 68 yards) is Cleveland's second-leading rusher behind tailback Peyton Hillis. Hodges' fake punt last week against the Saints was Cleveland's longest running play this season. But it's also another indicator of the Browns' lack of depth at running back. Last month, Cleveland traded Jerome Harrison and released James Davis. Cleveland hopes it gets help from new acquisition Mike Bell, who didn't show much in his Browns debut but hopes to improve after the bye.
  • Receiver Donte' Stallworth (foot) is expected to return this week. He should add needed speed to the Baltimore Ravens' offense. When healthy, Stallworth is one of the fastest players in the division. Outside of receiver Anquan Boldin, Baltimore hasn't had enough long passing plays this season. Boldin has seven receptions of 20 yards or more, which is solid. But receivers Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh have combined for just six 20-plus-yard receptions in seven games.

Browns add WR Demetrius Williams

October, 26, 2010
The Cleveland Browns added a receiver who should be very familiar to AFC North fans.

Cleveland announced Tuesday that it signed former Baltimore Ravens receiver Demetrius Williams. The team also claimed running back Thomas Clayton off the New England Patriots' practice squad and released James Davis and Yamon Figurs.

Williams played for the Ravens from 2006-09 and was cut earlier this year. He showed flashes of talent in Baltimore but had problems staying healthy. But Williams may have a shot to stick in Cleveland, because receiver is one of the team's biggest needs.

Morning take: Ravens' starting CB?

October, 26, 2010
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:

  • Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh wouldn't say whether benched cornerback Fabian Washington will keep his starting job after the bye week.
Morning take: Washington has played decent this season but is coming off his worst performance as a Raven Sunday. The best thing for now is to evaluate both Washington and Josh Wilson in practice the next two weeks.

  • The Cincinnati Bengals don't have much to say after their 2-4 start.
Morning take: The time for talking is over. Cincinnati has to win Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, or you can write the Bengals off for 2010.
Morning take: Pittsburgh hasn't done well without Smith in the past, which is why this is a major concern. First-round pick Ziggy Hood's growth and maturity will be huge.
Morning take: Davis has shown flashes but didn't get much opportunity in Cleveland. The Browns have now sent Jerome Harrison and Davis packing in the past few weeks.

Walker's weekend mailbag

September, 11, 2010
Let's see what's in the weekend mailbag.

Becky from Galloway, Ohio, writes: Do you think Marvin Lewis not getting a new contract will impact the Cincinnati Bengals this season?

Walker: Not right away, Becky. Lately this topic has been low key in Cincinnati but could grow as the season wears on. I hear that not much is currently going on between the two sides. Perhaps Lewis and the Bengals decided to focus on the regular season now that it's here. But things can change if Cincinnati gets off to a hot start.

Jeff Chernauskas from Westerville, Ohio, writes: Do you really think Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would not start Ben Roethlisberger against the Cleveland Browns?

Walker: There is very little chance Roethlisberger isn’t the starter when he returns, Jeff. I'm not big on "what if" questions, but the only way I see this as even a remote possibility is "if" Dennis Dixon started 4-0 and lit up the scoreboard. The chances of that happening are not great. Tomlin said he didn't want to back himself into a corner, and I take that at face value. He doesn't want to be boxed in for comments he made a month ago in the event something completely unforeseen happens in the next four games.

William Banik from Houston writes: Why didn't the Steelers put Byron Leftwich on IR?

Walker: I'm not sure why you believe that's a good idea, Williams. Putting Leftwich on injured reserve would sideline him for the season. When I talked with Leftwich this week, he seemed very optimistic about his progress. The timeline is two to four weeks for his knee injury, and that’s a huge difference between sitting Leftwich for the season.

Rob Spencer from Las Vegas, Nev., writes: What happened to the Browns' Chris Jennings?

Walker: Jennings is now a former running back of the Browns, Rob. He was released last week during the team’s final roster cuts. The Browns pretty much had to choose between Jennings and 2009 draft pick James Davis, and Davis showed more potential in the preseason.

Stephen from El Dorado, Ariz., writes: Why did Baltimore sign T.J. Houshmandzadeh when they already have a bevy of possession-type receivers on the roster?

Walker: This wasn't in the plans until two things happened, Stephen. First, Donte' Stallworth broke his foot, and second, T.J. Houshmandzadeh was released by the Seattle Seahawks. Baltimore's open receiver spot and Houshmandzadeh’s willingness to play for cheap because Seattle is paying him made for a good match. The Ravens also traded Mark Clayton to the St. Louis Rams, and Stallworth is expected to return about midway through the season.

Comment and complaint department

Here are comments and complaints this week from our AFC North community.

RC from Baltimore writes: I saw a story in USA Today about the issues some teams are having with ticket sales. They listed the Cincinnati Bengals as a team that may have TV blackouts of their home games this year. The Bengals haven't had consecutive winning seasons in forever. They wake up last year and sweep the division, bringing all of their fans out of the woodwork and on to every blog and chat boasting of their conquests both past and future. Now we hear that these same die hard amazing fans don't actually show up for the games. Come on, Bengal fans, you have a good team to cheer for this year. That doesn't happen much in your town. Get off your butts and buy a ticket like big boys. I say we ban these knuckleheads from posting on the blog until they sell out their home games.

Rob from Bowling Green, Ohio, writes: What's with all of these Bengal fans saying that it doesn't matter who our backup QBs are because Carson Palmer is the only one who will bring the team success? Not all injuries are season ending, and if No. 9 goes down for a game or two, we're going to need someone who can keep the Bengals in playoff contention.

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: The Browns finish ahead of the Steelers? That's pretty hilarious. I hope the same people that believe that are around to admit how wrong they were when the Steelers win the AFC North.

Amr from Hazleton, Pa., writes: For the most part the Steelers are ranked low because Big Ben will miss a quarter of the season. If the Steelers come out 2-2 or 3-1 how could they not be the favorites? Ben should be playing this season with more to prove then ever before. No matter the outcome beforehand they should be able to pull off 10-2 with Ben. Twelve wins should lock up a wildcard spot and maybe the division.

Kovacs from Santa Monica, Calif., writes: Fearless Prediction: Browns will be in first place in the division after Week 2 and still in the bottom five of ESPN's Power Rankings. A 0-2 Steelers team will still be in the top 15.

(Editor's note: With zero wins and losses, the Steelers were rated No. 18 this week by our panel.)

Nflreaction via Twitter writes: I agree with everything, save for the Browns. I think they edge out the Bucs and show signs of life to start the season.

Charlie D from Baltimore writes: I had to comment on how disappointed I am with the Ravens' decision making. While it doesn't hurt to have T.J, Houshmandzadeh, I wish we hadn't signed him. We didn't really need him, and Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh keep on neglecting the secondary to the point that it is just ridiculous. Baltimore is about smash-mouth, physical defense. That is the Ravens' identity. All this offensive stacking is nice, but we can't forget what the Ravens do best. Re-sign Chris McAlister!

William Wang from Germantown, Md., writes: I don't understand why everyone is so down on the Ravens' secondary. I know Ed Reed is an absolute beast, and his loss will hurt, but Tom Zbikowski is a capable replacement. Josh Wilson, Fabian Washington and Chris Carr are all solid starters. Also, Lardarius Webb will be returning soon. Besides, how often do teams throw to their fourth or fifth wide receivers?

There are no glaring "Homer of the Week" comments this time. Good job, everyone.

Walker's weekend mailbag

September, 4, 2010
Let's see what's in the weekend mailbag.

Brian from Conshohocken, Pa., writes: How much more will RB James Davis be a factor in the Browns' offense with Montario Hardesty's knee injury?

James Walker: Hardesty's season-ending injury took Davis off the bubble. But Hardesty's role in the offense would have been bigger. They are two different running backs. Hardesty had the talent to be an every-down back who eventually could have pushed for a starting job. Davis is more of a change-of-pace back who will get significantly less playing time. The Browns will still run the ball well this year, but Jerome Harrison and Peyton Hillis will get the majority of the carries.

Eric from Princeton, N.J., wants to know if the Cleveland Browns will be interested in former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Antonio Bryant.

Walker: I don't foresee any interest in Bryant from the Browns or anyone else until he gets healthy. The fact the Bengals completely gave up on him indicates it could be a while before Bryant sees the field again.

Eric from Chicago writes: With the recent release of Bryant, will the Bengals sign another wide receiver or are they set with the group they have?

Walker: The Bengals are set. Even after Bryant's release, they still have tough decisions at the position. The team has to choose between Matt Jones, Jerome Simpson, Maurice Purify and Dezmon Briscoe. Cincinnati can only keep one (maybe two) from this group. But the team doesn't need to look outside for additional help.

Richard from Beijing writes: Is there some particular reason the Ravens are grabbing up former University of Maryland cornerbacks?

Walker: Some of it is coincidence. Domonique Foxworth was a free agent and Josh Wilson were available via trade at the right time for Baltimore. But the Ravens naturally have a good relationship with the University of Maryland, because of the location. It's nearby, easy to scout, and many of their players grew up in Ravens' territory and know about the team.

Lenny from Hollywood, Md., writes: Random question but do you think Jamal Lewis is a Hall of Famer?

Walker: I don't have a vote, so I usually avoid these questions. But an educated guess is Lewis doesn't get in. It still shouldn’t take away from a great career.

Comment and complaint department

We have plenty of comments and complaints from our community this week.

Jay from Dublin, Ohio, writes: James, no way the Steelers go 1-3 without Big Ben. The Steelers defense is loaded and will help grind out a close game with Atlanta. Remember without Troy Polamalu and Big Ben we had the Ravens beat in Baltimore. Worst-case scenario is 2-2, and I wouldn't count us out against Tennessee. I am not convinced Vince Young is the real deal, and we know Chris Johnson isn't going to run on the Steelers’ D.

Will from Nashville, Tenn., writes: I feel like the Steelers as an organization should uphold the six-game suspension. It would be a good message to send players and fans that their standards are higher than what the league imposes. It also says that appropriate punishment for personal mistakes is more important than playing time and a winning season. Current good behavior should not be able to make up for previous appalling actions.

Rhonda Pierce from Illinois writes: I am Pittsburgh born and bred. I love my Steelers, but Ben's suspension should not have been reduced. His success and our franchise's history and image mandated that Ben demonstrate more responsibility and appreciation for the team and city. His behavior has forever tarnished the gold in the Black and Gold dynasty. I believe Leftwich's injury played a role in the Roger Goodell's decision, because not enough time has elapsed for the commissioner to know if Ben has really changed. How will he conduct himself in the offseason is the question? More than one "sexual" incident is more than one too many.

Zack from Middletown, Conn., writes: You know what I like about other fans in the AFC North? The way Ravens fans think Tom Zbikowski will step in for a Hall of Famer and there will be no drop off; the way Steeler fans think that Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon are actually quality QBs; and the way Browns fans think that Jake Delhomme is actually good. Bengals may have their issues. But they aren't replacing Pro Bowl [level] talent with guys who are washed up and were never that good in the first place. All they've done is add young talent and veterans for depth without losing key pieces.

Luke from Cincinnati writes: Why can't my Bengals get any love? I understand the Ravens and Steelers are great, but c'mon! We bring back basically everyone on a top five defense that's only going to get better and have appeared to strike gold with Adam Jones at the nickel. And on offense we add Jordan Shipley and T.O. to surround Carson Palmer with a great receiving core AND a great running game. This is the same team that swept the division last year, and were going to be even better this year!

Jason Myers from Baltimore writes: Hey, JW! How come you never point out the obvious to Bengals fans? They're always commenting about how they swept the division last year and that they're the defending AFC North champs. But it seems that they forget how they got bounced in the first round of the playoffs last year. Will you please tell them to win a playoff game first and then they can talk a little trash. I mean, seriously, as a Ravens fan I don't care if the Bengals sweep us every year as long as we continue to win in the playoffs and they continue to be...well...the Bengals.

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: What is it about the Ravens' offense that is so stacked? Joe Flacco hasn't been anything better than solid and has been flat-out terrible in the clutch (especially in the playoffs). Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are a good possession duo, but neither screams downfield threat. Mark Clayton and Donte' Stallworth have never done anything worth noting on the field and, frankly. aren't good players. Todd Heap is still a nice TE but the rest of the group are rookies. There's a very good stable of RBs but you can't give them all the ball or even have them all on the field at one time. Two strong possession WRs and a TE to go with a good running game isn't a stacked offense. Talk about overhyped.

Shaneeka from High Point, N.C., writes: Hey James, you want to know why Ravens fans are not allowing the teams recent record vs. division rivals to rain on the teams Super Bowl hopes? It’s because the Ravens have been to the playoffs 3 of the last 4 years, including back to back trips. So the Ravens poor showing vs. division rivals have not cost them playoff berths and once the playoffs start, as the Cards showed in 2008 and the Jets last season, it’s anyways game. So, no we don’t care about Carson Palmer's winning record vs. the Ravens, nor do we care that the team has only beaten Pittsburgh once in two years. Neither of them kept the team out of the postseason. To think that it would now is pushing it considering the Bengals history and all the drama Pittsburgh has gone through this offseason.

Kovacs from Santa Monica writes: We knew the Browns would have a tandem backfield, it just looks like a different tandem. I do think Peyton Hillis should start. He's endeared himself to the team and is great out of the backfield. He also seems like a guy that you'd love to get going early with his physicality to wear a defense down. Then bring in Jerome Harrison to gash a defense with his speed late in the game.

AFC North Homer of the Week

Darryl from Oakland, Calif., writes: I'd rather have Dennis Dixon than Matt Ryan. I know you disagree, but I'll check back after Week 4.

AFC North preseason recap

September, 3, 2010
The preseason is finally over. All four AFC North teams were in action Thursday night for their exhibition finales.

Here are some notes from each game:

Pittsburgh Steelers 19, Carolina Panthers 3

The Good
  • Rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Jonathan Dwyer both made strong cases in their final chance to impress before Saturday's cuts. Dwyer, a sixth-round pick, led the Steelers in rushing for the second straight week with 86 yards on 20 carries. Sanders, a third-round pick, led Pittsburgh in receiving with 66 yards and a touchdown. Both players were up and down in training camp but came on strong late in the preseason to likely earn roster spots.
The Bad
  • The huge negative was the left knee sprain to quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was expected to be Pittsburgh's Week 1 starter. Leftwich was hit low in the first half and didn’t return. Now his status is in question for the regular-season opener, where quarterbacks Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch may have to step in against the Atlanta Falcons.
Cleveland Browns 13, Chicago Bears 10

The Good
  • We mentioned quarterback Colt McCoy's perfect 13-for-13 passing earlier in the AFC North blog. So let's shift the focus to Cleveland running back James Davis, who likely claimed a roster spot. The backup was on the bubble but led the Browns in rushing with 66 yards against Chicago. Davis also caught five passes for 53 yards and showed good elusiveness to break tackles. Davis was the talk of the preseason last year when he led the Browns in rushing. But he's been quiet this exhibition season until Thursday.
The Bad
  • Browns rookie running back Montario Hardesty's much-anticipated debut ended poorly as he suffered another knee injury. Hardesty missed all of training camp and three preseason games with a right knee injury. After seven carries, he hurt his left knee and was on crutches after the game. Hardesty came to Cleveland with a reputation of being injury-prone in college.
Baltimore Ravens 21, St. Louis Rams 27

The Good
  • Baltimore rookie WR David Reed showed flashes. Reed recorded 138 yards on four kickoff returns. The fifth-round pick also caught three receptions for 65 yards. Reed is on the bubble but helped his case to be one of the final receivers to make the team.
The Bad
  • We also mentioned Ravens quarterback Troy Smith earlier. But let's discuss the most unnecessary move we've seen in the AFC North this preseason, which was Dannell Ellerbe stopping at the goal line to taunt the Rams before scoring a defensive touchdown. Where to start with this one? First, the Ravens were losing. Second, it was the preseason. Third, Ellerbe is fighting for playing time and made a good defensive play look unprofessional. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh cleary wasn't happy with Ellerbe's antics.
Cincinnati Bengals 30, Indianapolis Colts 28

The Good
  • The Bengals finally got great quarterback play from backups Jordan Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan. Both players have been inconsistent this preseason but had their best efforts against Indianapolis. O'Sullivan was 9-for-12 for 102 yards, and Palmer was 10-for-14 for 114 and two touchdowns. This should bring a little bit of calm in relation to Carson Palmer's replacements heading into the regular season.
The Bad
  • Cincinnati had another double-digit penalty game with 11 infractions. Sure, a lot of backups played Thursday, but there were some on the field who will contribute in the regular season. Cincinnati doesn't seem concerned about its penchant for penalties. But we will see if it disappears or carries over when the games count.

AFC North roster bubbles

August, 31, 2010
Jones, Williams & VeikunAP PhotosMatt Jones, Demetrius Williams and David Veikune are among the AFC North players in danger of not making their teams' final 53-man rosters.
With teams required to cut down to 53 players by Saturday, it's time to focus on the final rosters in the AFC North.

Expect plenty of chatter internally this week among general managers, scouts and coaches throughout the division on who should make the team. This is always one of the most intriguing weeks of the NFL season.

With that said, here are several noteworthy players on the bubble in the AFC North:

1. Matt Jones, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: The Jones experiment probably will end this week. The Bengals took a chance on Jones, who was out of football in 2009 for off-field issues, to see if he had anything left. Except for a few flashes, such as the Hall of Fame Game, the former first-round pick has been injured and not nearly the same explosive player he was several years ago. Jones also signed a team-friendly, one-year contract, which makes him easy to release. The Bengals have a lot of depth at receiver, and Jones doesn't appear to be in their plans.

Cut-O-Meter: 80 percent

2. David Veikune, LB, Cleveland Browns

Analysis: Despite entering only his second season, this was a very important training camp for Veikune. The former second-round pick was a major disappointment in his rookie season. Veikune hasn't stepped up so far and is having another nondescript preseason. His best chance to make the Browns is his high draft status. But first-year president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert added their own linebackers and have no personal investment in Veikune.

Cut-O-Meter: 80 percent

3. Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: Placing Williams on the roster bubble has become an annual tradition in Baltimore -- and every year he survives. This year could be the same for Williams, who has a lot of ability but has yet to live up to his potential. Williams received a lucky "break," both literally and figuratively, when veteran receiver Donte' Stallworth suffered a broken foot in the third preseason game. Stallworth will be out approximately two months, increasing Williams' chances of making Baltimore's 53-man roster.

Cut-O-Meter: 35 percent

4. Justin Hartwig, C, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Hartwig struggled at center last year and lost his job this preseason to first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers believe Pouncey is a star-in-the-making, which leaves Hartwig's future in limbo. Despite the benching, there is no question Hartwig is one of Pittsburgh's best 53 players. That should be enough. But Hartwig also is scheduled to make a little more than $2 million this season. He's being paid as a starting center and that's no longer his role. There's a chance Hartwig could compete at right guard or simply be the first center/guard off the bench in the event of injury. Hartwig's experience and versatility help his case.

Cut-O-Meter: 30 percent

5. Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals

Analysis: Simpson is another second-round pick who is running out of chances. Despite coming from small-school Coastal Carolina, the Bengals were enamored with his physical abilities and reached for Simpson in the second round of the 2008 draft. But the Bengals tired of waiting for Simpson to develop and made several offseason additions at receiver, which included signing Terrell Owens and drafting Jordan Shipley in the third round. But Antonio Bryant's surprising release helps Simpson's chances.

Cut-O-Meter: 50 percent

6. James Davis, RB, Browns

Analysis: It's funny how quickly things can change in the NFL. Last summer, Davis was the talk of Cleveland after he led the Browns in rushing during the preseason as a rookie. This year, Davis is on the bubble after a lot of offseason additions at running back. The top three tailbacks for Cleveland are locks: Jerome Harrison, Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty. The question now is how many running backs Cleveland will keep. If the answer is four, Davis and Chris Jennings are battling for the final spot. I give Davis the edge.

Cut-O-Meter: 40 percent

7. David Reed, WR, Ravens

Analysis: Reed, a fifth-round pick, burst on the scene in Baltimore with a stellar spring. But since then he's been inconsistent and is back on the bubble. Like Williams, Reed also benefits from Stallworth's injury and the extra roster spot available at receiver. That increases Reed's chances to make it. Otherwise, the Ravens would love to develop him on the practice squad.

Cut-O-Meter: 50 percent

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJonathan Dwyer led the Steelers in rushing against the Broncos, but will it be enough to earn him a roster spot?
8. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Steelers

Analysis: Dwyer made a strong push late for a roster spot in Pittsburgh. After a disappointing training camp, Dwyer led the Steelers in rushing with 89 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's preseason loss to the Denver Broncos. Running back Isaac Redman has been stellar and secured the third running back job that was intended for Dwyer. Thursday's preseason finale will be vital for the sixth-round pick.

Cut-O-Meter: 55 percent

9. Brett Ratliff, QB, Browns

Analysis: Do not believe the hype in Cleveland involving third-round pick Colt McCoy being on the bubble. From everything we're told, there is no truth to the speculation. This means Ratliff, barring injury, is probably spending his final week with the Browns. Ratliff will play a half Thursday in Cleveland's final preseason game against the Chicago Bears. That could be a nice showcase for Ratliff to try to latch on with another team. Browns coach Eric Mangini traded for Ratliff as part of the draft-day deal with the Jets to be a developmental project last year. But Holmgren is calling the shots now and drafted his own developmental project: McCoy.

Cut-O-Meter: 95 percent

10. Maurice Purify, WR, Bengals

Analysis: Purify is one of Cincinnati's top special-teams players. But the Bengals' immense depth at receiver and Purify's one-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy make it very unlikely he makes the cut. There is no reason for Cincinnati to take a roster spot away from a player who will be available for the start of the regular season to keep Purify.

Cut-O-Meter: 95 percent

Here are five additional names to watch:

Walker's weekend mailbag

August, 14, 2010
Let's see what's in the weekend mailbag:

Becky from Galloway, Ohio, writes: Any chance the Cincinnati Bengals will cut J.T. O'Sullivan or Jordan Palmer?

James Walker: This has been a hot topic in Cincinnati, Becky. I suggested before the preseason started that the Bengals should at least consider keeping two quarterbacks to save a roster spot at receiver, defensive back or linebacker. The coaching staff could not be encouraged with what they saw last week against the Dallas Cowboys, but the good news is the Bengals have five preseason games this year. Let's see if the quarterback play improves this weekend.

Nick Kenner from Florence, Ky., writes: With the recent injury to Brian Leonard of the Cincinnati Bengals, what are the chances the Bengals will try to go after Brian Westbrook?

Walker: This isn't going to happen, Nick. Leonard's prognosis was better than expected and Cincinnati already signed running back James Johnson to fill in for the time being. Keep in mind, Leonard was only the third running back. The Bengals don't need to sign a potential starter like Westbrook to replace him. Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott will get the bulk of the carries.

Ben from Grocton, Conn., writes: Is there a chance rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders gets playing time as the No. 3 receiver?

Walker: The Steelers are comfortable with Antwaan Randle El as their No. 3 receiver, Ben. Sanders has good potential, but the team needs some proven veterans on the field offensively while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger serves his conditional six-game suspension.

Patrick from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Is it possible that the Steelers could re-sign Willie Parker?

Walker: Patrick, last I checked Parker signed with the Washington Redskins.

Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: How much will the Cleveland Browns' offensive line help quarterback Jake Delhomme?

Walker: This is probably the best thing going for Delhomme, Joe, because from what I saw in camp this week, the receivers and offense in general are not very dynamic. The line should help give Delhomme some time in the pocket and boost the running game.

CJ from North Carolina writes: What's the word from camp regarding James Davis?

Walker: Davis looks decent, CJ. But he's not lighting up training camp the way he was a year ago. The preseason will be big for him, because the Browns have a lot of running backs.

Broderick Ramsey from Los Angeles, writes: What will the Baltimore Ravens do about their secondary?

Walker: There's been a lot of trade speculation lately, Broderick, but the Ravens will have to give away a good player to get a good player. Would they be willing to trade running back Willis McGahee, for example? I’m not sure. Baltimore could also just wait it out and see if its two cornerbacks -- Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington -- get healthy enough for the regular season.

Jonah from Minot, N.D., writes: Are you much of a "Madden" gamer, JW? Also, what's your favorite team to use?

Walker: I am officially retired this year, Jonah. I don't have much time anymore during football season. But I used a variety of teams when I played just to keep things interesting.

Complaint department

Here are this week's comments and complaints from our AFC North community:

Silas Fontain from Denmark writes: Steelers fans are entertaining. Last year around this time they were the kings of everything coming off their Super Bowl win, and nobody would beat them. This year the Bengals fans are high on their division title, and the Steelers fans are the one's trying to talk about reality. Oh boy, memory is short.

RJ from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: With mistakes in Super Bowl XL, I guess we're supposed to assume that a different team would have won if not for the mistakes, right? But anyone who saw that game knows that the Steelers had the better running game and defense. Besides, several times the officials have admitted to making mistakes that hurt the Steelers -- most notably in that playoff game against Jacksonville. So, it balances out.

Kizzie from Iraq writes: Being from Baltimore, I hate the Steelers and love the Ravens. But with that said the Ravens' and Bengals' opening schedules are brutal. The Steelers will still be in the division race after Ben Roethlisberger's suspension.

Kenny from Cleveland writes: Could you be any more in love with the Bungles right now?

Nick Langseth from Minneapolis, Minn., writes: I am a huge Bengals fan from North Dakota and have had to endure terrible Bengals teams in my youth. So now I am savoring every good moment I can. I love the Bengals.

Brian from Erie, Pa., writes: Why does every athlete hate on Cleveland so much? Let me put it this way. You can constantly play on the "rookie" level in Madden and always win the Super Bowl. But its gets boring. Winning on "All-Madden" is something you have to work for and is so much more rewarding when you finally get there. Players want fans to worship them, but hate when we come down on them for not performing their jobs. Sure, you can play in Jacksonville and never get booed, but that's because people don't care. If a team ever wins in Cleveland, they will be loved forever unlike anyone has seen.

AFC North blog hater of the week

Unconvinced from Indiana writes: You've spent the early part of your career covering Ohio teams. You LIVE in Cleveland. How do you expect anyone to believe you'll write objectively about other teams in the AFC North?

If you have any additional comments or complaints, send them to our division inbox.

AFC North roster bubbles

July, 13, 2010
Every year teams have tough decisions to make to trim their rosters to 53 players. Sometimes the coaching staff and front office can't agree on who stays and who goes, and the debates get pretty heated.

With training camp approximately two weeks away, here are eight AFC North players who could be heavily debated and on the roster bubble this summer:

1. Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

[+] EnlargeJones
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals cornerback Adam Jones looked good in training camp.
Case for: There is no denying Jones' talent. The former first-round pick looked quick and athletic playing cornerback and returning kicks during last month's mandatory minicamp. What's interesting is Jones is still working himself back into football shape after sitting out the 2009 season. The Bengals lacked a reliable third cornerback to go with starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. So there is a role available.

Case against: Jones sat out last season for off-field reasons. He has said and done the right things so far in Cincinnati, but he's on a very short leash with the league office. One mishap and Jones could be off the team and out of the league for the rest of the year. But if he stays clear of trouble, he has enough ability to make the team and contribute.

Chances of making team: 80 percent

2. Matt Jones, WR, Bengals

Case for: Jones has good size and experience. The former first-round pick had 166 career receptions and 15 touchdowns during his stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Outside of starters Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, Cincinnati has a pretty young group of receivers. That could give Jones a chance to earn roster spot if he's polished enough to contribute now for the defending AFC North champs.

Case against: After sitting out all of 2009 because of off-field issues, Jones appears to have lost a step. This spring he hasn't looked nearly as explosive as the freakish athlete who impressed at the NFL combine in 2005. Similar to Adam Jones, it's possible that Matt Jones can regain some of his form in the process of a grueling training camp. Jones also has an inexpensive, team-friendly contract, which the Bengals can easily terminate if they don't like what they see.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

3. Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals

Case for: Despite a lack of production, Simpson has stuck around for two reasons: draft status and lack of receiver depth. It's hard for teams to give up on second-round picks. The Bengals invested a lot in Simpson and still want to get a return on their high pick, even if it means an extended wait. In the past, the Bengals haven't had a lot of receiver depth, which has allowed Simpson to make the 53-man roster. But that has changed this year, as Cincinnati's receiving corps has a lot of competition.

Case against: The Bengals appear tired of waiting on Simpson, who has one reception in two seasons. They drafted two rookie receivers to compete for roster spots, Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe. This is a make-or-break training camp for Simpson. He showed occasional flashes in practice but not nearly enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff when it matters in the regular season. Entering his third NFL season, there are no more excuses for Simpson not to produce.

Chances of making team: 50 percent

4. Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore Ravens

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Williams
AP Photo/Rob CarrRavens receiver Demetrius Williams could be the team's deep-threat option.
Case for: With his speed and athleticism, a case can be made that Williams potentially is Baltimore's most dangerous deep threat. Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are more savvy, consistent receivers, while Donte' Stallworth is trying to get his legs under him after sitting out a year. Williams has averaged an impressive 16 yards per catch in his career, including two touchdown receptions of 70 yards or more. There is an open role for someone to get deep in Baltimore's high-powered offense, and Williams has a chance to be that player.

Case against: Health has always been an issue for Williams. He has played in 16 games once in his four-year career. Baltimore has kept Williams because of his potential, but at some point the Ravens would like to see consistency. To do that, Williams must stay healthy to find a role on a Ravens team with very high expectations.

Chances of making team: 70 percent

5. John Beck, QB, Ravens

Case for: Beck knows offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system well from their days together with the Miami Dolphins. Beck's future in Baltimore could come down to Troy Smith's situation. There have been rumors of interest in Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback injuries in training camp and preseason could also increase Smith's trade value this summer, which would gift wrap the No. 3 quarterback job for Beck.

Case against: If nothing happens on the trade front, the Ravens have an interesting decision to make between Smith and Beck. With Joe Flacco, Marc Bulger and Smith, Beck is probably the team's fourth quarterback right now, which naturally makes him the odd man out. If Smith is still on the roster, Beck will have to make up ground the old-fashioned way and outperform Smith in the preseason to win a roster spot.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

6. Bobby Engram, WR, Cleveland Browns

Case for: The Browns have little depth and little experience at receiver. Engram potentially could provide both. The 14-year veteran played for Cleveland president Mike Holmgren when both were with the Seattle Seahawks and knows what to expect. Engram recently had a big year in 2007, when he had 94 receptions for 1,147 yards and six touchdowns. He also can serve as a mentor to young receivers such as Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.

Case against: It's questionable what Engram, 37, has left. Last season he had only five receptions in five games for the Kansas City Chiefs. Holmgren is hoping Engram has one more decent year left in him to help Cleveland's struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009. But if there's any team Engram can make this year, it's the Browns.

Chances of making team: 60 percent

7. James Davis, RB, Browns

Case for: Davis was arguably Cleveland's biggest rookie surprise last summer when he led the team in rushing during the preseason. But high expectations were crushed when a season-ending shoulder injury limited Davis to only two games. Now he's back for his second season and looks healthy.

Case against: Cleveland's situation at running back is very crowded. One of the best things Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert did this offseason was put together a solid group of rushers. The Browns traded up to draft tailback Montario Hardesty in the second round and got Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos in the Brady Quinn trade. Last year's leading rusher, Jerome Harrison, also returns to make for a versatile group of ball carriers. All three running backs are ahead of Davis on the depth chart. So barring injury, Davis looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.

Chances of making team: 35 percent

8. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesPittsburgh sixth-round pick Jonathan Dwyer might be headed to the practice squad.
Case for: Despite being a sixth-round pick, Dwyer has a chance to contribute early for the Steelers. He displayed strong legs and good power in college, and that could translate into a short-yardage option for Pittsburgh. The Steelers struggled in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. If Dwyer proves he can move the chains, that would be more than enough to earn a roster spot.

Case against: Although the Steelers may end up with a bargain, no team is afraid to put a sixth-round pick on the practice squad. Dwyer played in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, which means he may need some time to learn a pro-style offense. But Dwyer could pan out in a limited role.

Chances of making team: 75 percent

AFC North mailbag: Browns

June, 14, 2010
The AFC North inbox and Twitter page are filling up with Cleveland Browns questions following their three-day minicamp.

So let's provide some answers.

Rory from Washington, DC, wants to know how Browns cornerback and No. 7 overall pick Joe Haden looked in minicamp.

James Walker: I was a little surprised that I didn't see more of Haden in minicamp, Rory. He had several opportunities to make plays but couldn't finish. You can see the athleticism. But Haden also looks like he's thinking too much right now and is a bit tentative. Haden needs to get more comfortable with the scheme and the defense in training camp.

Joseph from Columbus, OH, writes: Who do you see being the starting tight end for Cleveland?

Walker: Ben Watson is the best all-around tight end and I expect him to be Cleveland's starter, Joseph. The Browns acquired Watson from the New England Patriots in free agency this offseason. Robert Royal struggles as a receiver, and Evan Moore is a good receiver but needs to work on his blocking. But I think all three could see playing time.

JoshuaMontes via Twitter writes: What presence has Browns president Mike Holmgren had at these practices?

Walker: Holmgren is certainly around, Joshua. You see him attentively watching practices and, at times, joking with the media. But his job this year is mostly done. Holmgren and his front-office staff picked the players, and now it's up to the coaches to cook the meal with the ingredients. I think Holmgren is doing everything he can to stay out of the coaching side, even though it's still in his blood. That will only get tougher for him as the games begin.

JCarterfan via Twitter writes: You have a feel. So what is it? Good or bad?

Walker: I'm not ready to make any team-wide predictions before training camp, JCarter. But I will say the strengths and weaknesses are about what I expected. I'm looking forward to visiting the Cincinnati Bengals this week for their minicamp so I can compare the two teams.

John Darnell from Covington, KY, writes: What's the status on James Davis' injury?

Walker: Davis is back on the field and looks healthy, John. His shoulder isn't an issue and Davis ran the ball pretty well last week. Davis looked good in the preseason last year but got injured early. So it will be interesting to see where he is in his second season, because Cleveland has a lot of running backs in front of him such as Jerome Harrison, Montario Hardesty and Peyton Hillis.
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Every pro athlete should feel this way. But it will be interesting to see how productive Pittsburgh's offense is without Ben Roethlisberger for an extended period.

  • Is the 2010 season Antwan Barnes' time with the Baltimore Ravens?
Morning take: Barnes is athletic and has shown flashes in the past. But he also has the potential to get lost in the mix this year with Baltimore's numerous linebackers.

  • Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis took up skydiving before this week's mandatory minicamp.
Morning take: It looks like Lewis is having a good time in the photo. We will have much more on Bengals' minicamp Monday and throughout the week in the AFC North blog (hint, hint).

Morning take: I've been impressed with rookie Montario Hardesty so far. If Jerome Harrison stays hot and Peyton Hillis and James Davis also chips in, Cleveland should be solid at this position.
D'Qwell Jackson,  Jerome Harrison, Abram ElamIcon, Getty, APSix Cleveland starters did not report for OTAs, including D'Qwell Jackson (left), Jerome Harrison and Abram Elam.
BEREA, Ohio -- Here is a bad sign for the Cleveland Browns: The team has more contract disputes (six) than wins (five) accumulated last season.

While Cleveland attempts to climb out of the basement in a highly competitive AFC North division, a half dozen starters (including the kicker) are skipping offseason workouts in hopes of getting a larger contract.

Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, safety Abram Elam, kicker Phil Dawson, pass-rush specialist Matt Roth and running backs Jerome Harrison and Lawrence Vickers were missing from the start of the Browns' organized team activities last week. (Editor's note: The Plain Dealer reported Thursday that Harrison "has been participating in organized team activities this week despite not signing his one-year tender.") Roth reportedly went as far as to request a trade from Cleveland, while Jackson and Elam have publicly made statements about their unhappiness. Everyone except Dawson is a restricted free agent and has yet to sign their one-year tender.

These are problems that Cleveland's new braintrust of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert must resolve before the start of the 2010 season. Although the players in question are solid, this power pair didn't draft any of them, and thus have no personal attachments to this group.

That makes the chances of Cleveland giving out various contract extensions to unhappy players even dicier, leading to this current standstill.

"You want them all to be here," Browns head coach Eric Mangini said at OTAs. "It's voluntary right now, and they have to make the decisions that they have to make. The thing that it does do for the guys that are here is it creates extra reps for them, which is positive because we do have quite a few guys [competing] at positions."

(Read full post)

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 26, 2010
NFC Under-The-Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Under-the-radar needs.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens posted a tremendous No. 3 ranking in total defense in 2009. But often lost in that ranking was the fact Baltimore had just 32 sacks in 16 games, which was 18th in the NFL. The Ravens need to generate a better pass rush, either by acquiring help via the draft or getting more production from their current players. For example, three-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs suffered through injuries and had a career-low 4.5 sacks. He needs to have a bounce-back season. The lack of pass rush also hurt Baltimore's pass coverage.

Cincinnati Bengals

Can someone who didn't kick in 2009 and who has bounced around with eight teams -- including a brief stint in Cincinnati -- really be the answer? Maybe Dave Rayner comes in this upcoming season and kicks lights out for the Bengals. But he wasn't the answer in Washington, Detroit, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City, Green Bay or Indianapolis. So it's fair to wonder if Rayner can solidify the kicking position during his second stay with the Bengals. Cincinnati hasn't re-signed veteran free agent Shayne Graham, which means a kicker could be a target in the NFL draft. The Bengals have nine picks next month and, at the very least, Rayner should have someone to push him and compete with in training camp.

Cleveland Browns

Coming off a 5-11 season, the Browns have a lot of needs and it's debatable whether any are "under the radar." But while most of the conversation focuses on quarterback, receiver and the secondary, not many in Cleveland talk about the running backs. Last year Jerome Harrison led the Browns with 862 yards thanks to a great stretch toward the end of the season. But can the smallish Harrison handle 30 carries a week over the course of a 16-game season? Cleveland's new regime has its doubts. The Browns need another quality running back to complement Harrison. There is very little tailback depth on the roster after the team released veteran Jamal Lewis. James Davis is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and the team acquired Peyton Hillis in a trade with the Denver Broncos. Hillis can play both fullback and tailback positions.

Pittsburgh Steelers

With everyone healthy, the Steelers do not have a lot of holes beyond the obvious like offensive line and cornerback. So let's dig deep with a covert need: Pittsburgh could use a good fullback next season. The Steelers struggled in short yardage and in the red zone, in part, because they lacked a devastating lead blocker to bust open holes in the defense. Carey Davis couldn't cut it. Converted tight end David Johnson was average but played out of position. Frank "The Tank" Summers was too green as a rookie last season. Adding to the quandary is offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' reluctance to utilize the position. Pittsburgh often uses three-receiver and single-back sets at the expense of fullbacks, and perhaps the Steelers' lack of talent at the position contributes to that. But if Pittsburgh finds a punishing run-blocker at fullback, third-and-short won't be such a daunting task next season.