AFC North: Jason Smith

Bengals take another risk

April, 25, 2009
4/25/09
5:04
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The Cincinnati Bengals got protection for their $100-million quarterback.

But was Alabama left tackle Andre Smith the right pick?

With Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe still on the board for Cincinnati at No. 6 (he went to the Jaguars at No. 8), the Bengals chose Smith instead. The Bengals' history of drafting players with character concerns is well documented, and this pick will certainly be questioned once again in the Queen City.

Smith was suspended for Alabama's bowl game, had a shaky NFL combine, fired his agent and had a decent, but not great, pro day. But Cincinnati was enamored by Smith's game film, which is solid.

Quarterback Carson Palmer had two season-ending injuries in the past four seasons, so taking a tackle was a solid move. But whether Smith was the proper pick at this position is debatable. For more on Smith, click here.

In other Bengals news, Cincinnati now has to consider the future of current starting left tackle Levi Jones, who has been hit hard by injuries the past several seasons. Jones likely doesn't want to be a backup in Cincinnati, so the team could field trade offers soon or decide to release Jones.

Blogger draft recap

April, 22, 2009
4/22/09
2:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

ESPN.com held its first annual Blog Network NFL draft this week. The results were posted on Wednesday, and you can find all the results here.

But fear not, AFC North fans. Your division had the best general manager in the business.

We landed the top-rated offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, the top pass-rusher for the Cleveland Browns, one of the top receivers and a local product for the Baltimore Ravens and the best center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here is how it all broke down:

  Orakpo

Cleveland Browns

Pick No. 5: Brian Orakpo, DE/LB, Texas

Why: After sending smoke screens in every direction possible, this is the guy we really wanted in Cleveland. We are smart enough to know that the AFC North is about defense first and having players who can pressure the quarterback. Orakpo is the best at that in this draft. Plus, he will make fellow linebacker Kamerion Wimbley a better player, so we feel like we're getting two players in this deal. We're glad Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree was taken one spot higher, because we never wanted to take him this high and the fact that he was off the board will keep the media off our backs.

  Smith

Cincinnati Bengals

Pick No. 6: Jason Smith, OT, Baylor

Why: We are still a little shocked by this one. Going in we didn't feel drafting Smith was a possibility for Cincinnati, but it shows how unpredictable draft day can be. Smith was the top player on our board for the Bengals, both because of need and talent. To land this left tackle at No. 6 was a great achievement. We thought Virginia's Eugene Monroe had a chance to fall at this spot. But NFC West GM Mike Sando must be down on Smith, because he passed him over twice with the St. Louis Rams at No. 2 and the Seattle Seahawks at No. 4. Because of Sando, Smith just told our coaching staff he's arriving in Cincinnati with a chip on his shoulder, which is what we like to hear.

  Heyward-Bey

Baltimore Ravens

Pick No. 26: Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland

Why: Right around pick 20, we got a little nervous. We contacted all blogger GMs saying we wanted to trade up from No. 26, and I had $20 in my pocket to do it. NFC East GM Matt Mosley laughed out loud and took Ohio State tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells with the No. 21 pick for the Philadelphia Eagles. True story. But with USC linebacker Rey Maualuga off the board, the only player we really coveted at this point was Heyward-Bey. Luckily he got past teams like the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins. Their loss is Baltimore's gain.

  Mack

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick No. 32: Alex Mack, C, California

Why: Things panned out just as expected for Pittsburgh. Every top center was available with the final pick in the first round, so we took the highest one on our draft board in Mack. He will help improve our running game and should give us some options up front to move players around. Or we can simply let Mack learn the system before taking over permanently at center in 2010, when starter Justin Hartwig becomes a free agent.

Overall, we hope AFC North readers are happy with their picks. Let's see if the real NFL draft turns out just as well this weekend.

Draft risks and rewards

April, 22, 2009
4/22/09
12:30
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The NFL draft is where major decisions are made to either build a team into a contender or lead down a path of destruction.

The AFC North provides a mix of teams with good track records in the draft (Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers), poor draft histories (Cincinnati Bengals) and a new regime trying to make its mark for the first time (Cleveland Browns).

With the draft just a few days away, let's look at the riskiest moves each team will consider.

Cleveland Browns

Needs: WR, LB, C

Biggest risk: Drafting a receiver with the No. 5 pick

 
  Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images
  The Browns could consider Texas tech receiver Michael Crabtree with their pick at No. 5.

Why: Taking a receiver in the top 10 is one of the riskiest moves a franchise could make. Teams at the top of the draft usually have multiple needs, and receivers can only make a significant impact once everything else -- quarterback, offensive line, running game -- is in place. For example, look no further than the Detroit Lions, who bypassed a ton of talent at other positions to take receivers in the top 10 in 2003 (Charles Rogers), 2004 (Roy Williams), 2005 (Mike Williams) and 2007 (Calvin Johnson). The Lions got absolutely nowhere and eventually hit rock bottom in 2008 by becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history.

The reward: Cleveland would fill a big need by taking a receiver with the fifth pick. The Browns have backed themselves into a corner with a recent run of roster moves and bad luck this offseason. Since the start of free agency, the Browns released veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius, ran into legal trouble with starter Donte' Stallworth, and currently are involved in trade talks about former Pro Bowl receiver Braylon Edwards. If Edwards is moved by the end of the week, as many expect, the Browns would be down to David Patten and Josh Cribbs as their starting receivers. If the Browns overlook other needs such as linebacker and defensive linemen, the target could be Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, whom some feel is the best pure athlete in the draft.

Chances of risk: Decent

Cincinnati Bengals

Needs: OT, C, RB

Biggest risk: Not getting a left tackle

 
  G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
  Protecting Carson Palmer is something the Bengals need to consider heading into the draft.

Why: Bengals franchise quarterback Carson Palmer needs better protection if Cincinnati is to have any success in 2009. Palmer's 2008 campaign ended after only four games with a season-ending elbow injury. He was pretty much battered from the beginning, as evident by the broken nose he also suffered in the preseason. This isn't to put all the blame on current left tackle Levi Jones. But when your entire offensive line struggles and you're picking sixth overall, left tackle and protecting the quarterback's blindside is the biggest priority. Luckily for the Bengals there are plenty of good tackles in this draft, including Baylor's Jason Smith, Virginia's Eugene Monroe and Alabama's Andre Smith. So not only would it be risky, it would be surprising if Cincinnati bypasses all of them in the first round.

Reward: Although the risk far outweighs the reward, the Bengals also have a chance to land a very good defensive player at No. 6. Cincinnati drafted defense in the first round for four consecutive years, and that unit finally is playing solidly. The Bengals finished last season ranked 12th in total defense. But some holes remain in terms of rushing the passer and getting stronger in the middle of the defensive line. Cincinnati signed Tank Johnson, who could be a short-term solution. But Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji has the potential to dominate the middle for years to come. The Bengals' lack of pass rush also brings up the possibility of choosing Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo over the most pressing need of offensive tackle.

Chances: Below average

Baltimore Ravens

Needs: OL, CB, DL

Biggest risk: Not taking a receiver

Why: It is Baltimore's only glaring need entering the draft. The Ravens were a few plays away from participating in last season's Super Bowl. Even with the loss of several key free agents, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome plugged enough holes at center and cornerback where this team should be back in contention in 2009. What Newsome and the Ravens didn't address is the receiver position. Behind starters Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason, there isn't much depth or proven talent. And the team would like to utilize the deep-ball capability of second-year quarterback Joe Flacco more often in 2009. Not giving him another weapon in the first round could hold back the growth of the offense.

Reward: By passing over a receiver, the Ravens could simply go with the top player on their draft board. At No. 26, Baltimore should have a choice of good prospects at several positions. There could be some good cornerbacks, linebackers and possibly the top tight end prospect, Brandon Pettigrew. The Ravens aren't in a similar situation to last year when they had to draft a quarterback. There may be other good receivers for Baltimore to target in the second round or later if another position player happens to catch Newsome's eye early.

Chances of risk: Average

Pittsburgh Steelers

Needs: OL, CB, WR

Biggest risk: Ignoring offensive line

Why: It's no secret that the Steelers also have a track record of taking the best available players. But that practice has put them in a current bind where they need quality depth at offensive line. For years, the Steelers ignored taking offensive linemen high in the draft. The last player taken at that position in the first two rounds was former guard Kendall Simmons in 2002. By 2008, Pittsburgh was struggling to consistently run the football. Despite winning a Super Bowl, the need cannot be ignored any longer. Expect the Steelers to bring in help early this weekend in order to get back to the team's physical, smashmouth style of offense.

Reward: Similar to the Ravens, Pittsburgh is not a team with many needs, so it has the luxury of going elsewhere in the first round. For instance, cornerback depth also is important for the Steelers. Therefore if the right corner falls to Pittsburgh with the final pick of the first round, it would be understandable to go in that direction as long as the offensive line isn't completely ignored on the first day of the draft.

Chances of risk: Average

Morning take: No to Boldin?

April, 18, 2009
4/18/09
8:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Saturday in the AFC North:

Morning take: On Friday we listed the pros and cons of trading for Boldin and it came out about even. Decisions like these are why Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome gets paid the big bucks.

Morning take: I'm not sure why the Browns were so evasive about this. But it's good to finally get to the root and put the issue to bed.

  • Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has the official visit count for the Steelers. The breakdown is eight offensive linemen, eight cornerbacks, five defensive linemen and four receivers.

Morning take: That sounds right in line with their areas of need.

  • Geoff Hobson of the Cincinnati Bengals' team Web site does a final mock draft leading up to next week's NFL draft.

Morning take: Once again Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe were taken off the board before No. 6. Is this a sign of things to come?

On the Clock: Cincinnati Bengals

April, 12, 2009
4/12/09
9:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Team needs: Offensive tackle, center, pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker

 
  Paul Jasienski/Getty Images
  An offensive tackle such as Eugene Monroe would provide an upgrade for the Bengals at a critical position.

Dream scenario: Unless five teams in front of Cincinnati have brain cramps, Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith -- arguably the top player in the draft -- will not be available when the Bengals use their sixth overall pick. Smith would be perfect for Cincinnati as he would fill the team's biggest need at left tackle and provide tremendous value at No. 6. University of Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe would be another solid pick who may be off the board. Injuries have caught up to former Cincinnati first-round pick Levi Jones, so much so that he is no longer a dependable blindside protector for quarterback Carson Palmer, who's suffered two season-ending injuries (knee, elbow) the past four seasons.

Plan B: With Cincinnati possibly in a poor spot to secure one of the draft's two best tackles, the Bengals' focus could shift to taking the best defensive player along the front seven. Cincinnati has drafted a defensive player in the first round the past four years. The result is a sneaky good unit which steadily improved last season and finished No. 12 in total defense, despite little help from the offense. A player such as Texas defensive end/linebacker Brian Orakpo could be a good addition. The Bengals could still address the tackle position as a Plan B if they are desperate enough. They can take a risk on Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, whose stock has taken a hit this offseason, or reach for Mississippi tackle Michael Oher, who is widely considered a mid first-round prospect. The recent flirtations with running backs and receivers the past couple of weeks appear to be more smoke screens than substance. Those positions are likely targets in the second and middle rounds.

Scouts Inc.'s take: "The offensive line certainly needs work, and a major weakness of this team that sometimes goes unidentified is the center position. In their division, the Bengals play six games against Shaun Rogers, Casey Hampton and Haloti Ngata. They were trying to get by with Eric Ghiaciuc, who is 280 pounds and he just gets manhandled. They had no inside running attack against those three divisional teams because they couldn't handle the 3-4 nose tackles. That's a huge disadvantage. But in the first round I think they can go a lot of different ways. I like their defense. I don't think their defense is as bad off as it usually is. But, boy, do they need a pass-rusher. They need a difference-maker, and Orakpo makes a lot of sense for them to rotate in with the defensive ends they already have." -- Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

Who has final say: With a miniature scouting department, the Bengals' coaches are responsible for a significant chunk of talent evaluation. That gives head coach Marvin Lewis' staff a decent amount of input. But the final call on all major decisions usually must go through the ownership level with the Mike Brown family.

Now On the Clock: Cleveland Browns, April 13.

Previous On the Clock: Oakland Raiders. The team-by-team series.

Inside the AFC North

March, 31, 2009
3/31/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are some notes and observations within the AFC North division:

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  The loss of Bryant McFadden and others through free agency should mean more compensatory picks for the Steelers in 2010.
  • If things remain status quo, expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to get more than one compensatory pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Pittsburgh lost starting cornerback Bryant McFadden, receiver Nate Washington and left tackle Marvel Smith, who will all help add to the NFL's formula. The team hasn't signed anyone outside of its building to date. This year the Steelers received only an additional fifth-round pick for the departure of offensive guard Alan Faneca, who had more than 10 years of experience.

  • Credit Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn for taking the high road. It is no secret that Quinn and pretty much everyone on Cleveland's roster is available via trade. As Jay Cutler of the Denver Broncos can attest, that can rub a lot of players the wrong way -- particularly quarterbacks who are expected to be leaders of their respective teams. But Quinn continues to stay focused on what he can control and not complain despite persistent speculation. Now it appears he will get to compete for the job with Derek Anderson this summer.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals are expected to work out Mississippi offensive tackle Michael Oher soon. This is an indication that the Bengals will consider making a reach with the No. 6 overall pick. Oher is considered a mid first-round talent by most scouts and draft experts. But with offensive tackle such a huge priority and blue-chip prospects Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe likely off the board before Cincinnati picks, Oher is suddenly on the team's radar.
  • Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti had some interesting comments recently in the Baltimore Sun. One thing that stood out was the preordained understanding between the owner and linebacker Ray Lewis before free agency. Bisciotti and Lewis talked ahead of time about Lewis marketing himself to other teams as much as possible. So while the media circus ensued, there were no surprises or worries from the Ravens, who already had a solid offer on the table. There were various reports that the Ravens were unhappy with some of Lewis' flirtations with other teams. But Bisciotti debunked those reports and even described Lewis' flirtations as "funny."

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:

  • Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun catches up with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti at the owners' meeting in Dana Point, Calif.

Morning take: Bisciotti is confident Baltimore will have a long-term deal in place for defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs. That's a good sign when it comes from the person writing the checks.

Morning take: The top two tackles (Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe) could be off the board by the time the Bengals are on the clock with the No. 6 pick. Would they reach for Oher because of need?

Morning take: The Steelers basically won the Super Bowl without their top draft picks from last season. We will have more on this subject later in the week (hint, hint, wink, wink).

  • Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out the owners' meeting will provide another chance for the Browns to continue their roster overhaul.

Morning take: There will certainly be tons of trade talk when you have every team represented in one place. Whether that materializes into actual movement of players remains to be seen.

Posted by ESPN.com staff

Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals
  • After losing starting tackle Stacy Andrews to free agency, Baylor star Jason Smith would fill a big hole on the Bengals' O-line -- if he lasts until pick No. 6.
Cleveland Browns
  • A series of cash roster bonuses, most owed to players today, has led to the release of another veteran. Cleveland cut starting right tackle Kevin Shaffer Thursday.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Inside the AFC North

February, 24, 2009
2/24/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  James Harrison and the Steelers are still negotiating a new deal.

Here is an insider's look at what's going on within the division:

  • Our AFC North inbox is getting letters of early concern with contract situation involving Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison. Two weeks ago, we reported that both sides were in serious negotiations in an effort to get a deal done. Since then nothing has been finalized, which has caused readers to wonder if there is a problem. We recently checked back in and talks are still going well. James' reps would like to get a deal done sooner than later, but there is no real deadline involved because Harrison is not a free agent until 2010.
  • The Ray Lewis situation with the Baltimore Ravens is not similar to Albert Haynesworth of the Tennessee Titans. Lewis appears to be primed to test the market by week's end, but we're told he is open to signing with Baltimore early if he received the right deal before Feb. 27. Haynesworth has his mind made up that he wants to see what else is out there before negotiating with Tennessee. Lewis is keeping both options open.
  • Baylor prospect Jason Smith has no problem telling the Cincinnati Bengals or any other team that he's the best offensive tackle in the draft. "Put on my film from Baylor and you'll see that I'm the best," Smith said during an impressive combine interview session. Smith also appears to have a mean streak desperately needed in Cincinnati. But with Smith, the Bengals likely will have to trade up from the No. 6 pick to get quarterback Carson Palmer the best protection available.
  • There has been some conversation in Cleveland recently about the Browns and whether they should release tailback Jamal Lewis, but don't expect it to happen. The AFC North blog is being told Lewis has too much guaranteed money to consider the thought. He signed a three-year deal worth $17 million last year and much of it is owed in the first two seasons. But that may not stop the Browns from pursuing free-agent tailback Derrick Ward.

Seven-step drop: NFL combine

February, 23, 2009
2/23/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are seven NFL combine notes and observations as it pertains to the AFC North:

 
  AP Photo/Darron Cummings
  Why are the Browns interviewing USC quarterback Mark Sanchez?
  • An interesting name showed up on the list of players interviewed by the Cleveland Browns: USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Browns, with two young quarterbacks in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, are probably the last team interested in drafting a quarterback with the No. 5 overall pick. But this shows Cleveland could be willing to explore trade options for teams looking to move up. Sanchez is expected to be the second quarterback taken and there are a lot of teams in need of that position. Cleveland getting to know Sanchez in Indianapolis could give the Browns a gauge of the player other teams are coveting.
  • Everyone has major questions now about Alabama left tackle Andre Smith. When watching him play, he's a beast. But when it comes to the maturity of this draft process, he is making mistakes left and right. Smith didn't participate in the combine, basically admitting he wasn't in shape. He also left the combine early and was suspended for Alabama's bowl game. This brings up questions of his maturity, and with so much guaranteed money spent at the top of the draft, I no longer think Smith is a good fit for the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 6. His tape looks great, but the last thing the Bengals need is a player with question marks.
  • While we're on the subject of offensive tackles, Baylor's Jason Smith was impressive all week. He said the right things in his interview with the media and the workouts were solid, which included a 33-rep bench press of 225 pounds and a 5.22 run in the 40-yard dash. Obviously, his tape is off the charts, so this combination makes him an early candidate to be the top overall pick of the Detroit Lions.
  • Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew ran unofficial times of 4.85 and 4.97 in the 40-yard dash this weekend. He even was granted a third run and clocked a 4.87. None of Pettigrew's times landed in the top 10 of his position, which is disappointing for the projected best tight end in the draft. Pettigrew looked nervous and had false starts twice during his runs, He is a mid-to-late first-round pick and potentially a target of the Baltimore Ravens at No. 26.
  • But the Ravens have to be very happy with the speed they saw from the receiver position at this year's combine. A host of good prospects ran a 4.5 or lower in the 40-yard dash, including Florida's Percy Harvin and Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland. Baltimore will target a deep threat at some point in the draft, possibly in the first round.
  • Seeing energetic Arizona Cardinals strength coach John Lott run the bench press at the combine brought back great memories. Lott was a former strength coach of the Browns in 2005 and 2006 when I covered the team exclusively, and he was the most relentless assistant I've ever seen on the practice field. Banged up players for Cleveland would work out with Lott in practice. And it came to a point when it was better to practice hurt than get drilled by Lott for two-plus hours. I've heard Cleveland players describe Lott as "crazy" and "a maniac." But he's also a great strength coach. Said Lott at the combine, "I don't care what you did in your Wonderlic, and I don't care what your brain capacity is. All I care is what you bench press." You gotta love it!
  • Speaking of bench press, I was disappointed with the bench press results for Oregon center Max Unger, who recorded just 22 reps. USC place kicker David Buehler did 25 reps and is about 70 pounds lighter. The book on Unger is he is not very athletic, which is fine for a center. But the bench press was important in this process. If he is drafted in the AFC North, particularly for the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 32, he would have to push around big nose tackles such as Haloti Ngata in Baltimore and Cleveland's Shaun Rogers in 3-4 defenses. I just don't see it.

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