AFC North: Jim Leonhard

How the AFC North built the Jets

January, 21, 2010
Braylon Edwards/Rex Ryan/Alan FanecaGetty Images/US PresswireSeveral key components of the Jets team that will play for the AFC championship on Sunday -- such as Braylon Edwards, Rex Ryan and Alan Faneca -- were recently on AFC North teams.
There are no AFC North teams remaining in the playoffs.

But in many ways, the New York Jets are the next best thing.

The Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and even the Cincinnati Bengals all had their hands in getting the Jets within one game of the Super Bowl. Their fingerprints start at the top with head coach Rex Ryan and trickles down to the players and into the postseason.

With help from Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson, we take an in-depth look at how the AFC North helped build this year's biggest surprise team.

Acquisition: Rex Ryan, head coach

Former team: Ravens

How the Jets got him: After firing Eric Mangini, who now coaches the Browns, New York held an open search last year for its next head coach. Ryan, Baltimore’s former defensive coordinator, was a hot commodity after helping lead the Ravens to the AFC title game. His brash nature and reputation as a players’ coach was a stark contrast from the Mangini era in New York.

Williamson's analysis: He's brought both scheme and swagger, and you need both to succeed in this league. Ryan brought confidence, he comes from a winning organization, and he’s taken this team to the final four just like the Ravens were last year. The Jets are flawed, much like the Ravens were last year. They’re similar football teams. But Ryan is a schematic genius, and he's brought his players along with him to make it work. It’s really hard to find any faults with anything he’s done as of late with the Jets.

AFC North impact scale (1-10): 10

Acquisition: Bart Scott, linebacker

Former team: Ravens

How the Jets got him: Ryan needed to bring a stud linebacker with him from Baltimore to help implement his system in New York. The Ravens tried to keep Scott in free agency, but New York's $48 million offer was just too much for Baltimore. Scott is now a key cog in the Jets' top-rated defense.

Williamson's analysis: He also brings a lot of swagger with him and confidence. But he's a very versatile player, too. That's one thing about all those Ravens through this great defensive run that they've had. They want guys who can do a lot of different things well. They aren't just specialists, and Scott fits that mold really, really well. He plays the pass well, he blitzes well, he stops the run well and has good range. He also is a leader. That all goes a really long way. My guess is he's probably the biggest voice for Rex Ryan on the field.

AFC North impact scale (1-10): 8

Acquisition: Braylon Edwards, receiver

Former team: Browns

How the Jets got him: Cleveland traded Edwards to New York in October for receiver Chansi Stuckey, linebacker Jason Trusnik, and third- and fifth-round picks in the 2010 NFL draft. Edwards was underachieving and in a contract year with the Browns, and it was pretty clear he needed a change of scenery.

Williamson's analysis: He has more value than his stats would imply. Because with New York's style of offense, you have to have some big-play options that people will honor. You have to be able to take a shot downfield off play-action. Edwards is obviously extremely inconsistent, but he will kill you if you take him lightly, too. You still have to account for him. Going forward, is he a true No. 1 receiver? No, because he's too inconsistent. But because of the style of offense the Jets run, Edwards really is a good fit.

AFC North impact scale (1-10): 6

Acquisition: Alan Faneca, offensive guard

Former team: Steelers

How the Jets got him: In March of 2008, the Jets made a big splash in free agency by signing Faneca to anchor their offensive line. Faneca had been a leader for the Steelers for 10 seasons, which included one Super Bowl following the 2005 season. He is now part of one of the NFL's top offensive lines in New York.

Williamson's analysis: When he was leaving Pittsburgh, I thought his play was declining. Even in that first year with the Jets, I thought maybe they overspent on the guy. But that's not true. I think Faneca deserves that Pro Bowl bid this year. He still moves well and is very experienced. If you look at the two players on either side of him, tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold, both of those guys have really elevated their play of late. I think Faneca helps show them how to be a winner in this league both on the field and in the meeting room.

AFC North impact scale (1-10): 7

Acquisition: Mark Sanchez, quarterback

Former team: USC (NFL draft)

How the Jets got him: This was the first of two important trades the Jets made with the Browns. Cleveland traded its fifth overall pick to New York for the Jets' first-round pick, a second-round pick and three players. Sanchez won the starting job out of training camp. Despite his ups and downs, he became the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two road playoff games, joining Baltimore's Joe Flacco.

Williamson's analysis: I still think the Jets are winning despite their quarterback. I thought Sanchez played really well in their first playoff win, but so little was asked of him. He excelled on third downs last week against the San Diego Chargers, but I don't think he played a very good game. But what they have in Sanchez is hope for the future. A lot of teams just don't have anything at quarterback. You look at the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders, the Browns. I can name teams that you look at their quarterback situation, and they don't have anyone to build around. At least the Jets have somebody.

AFC North impact scale (1-10): 6

Acquisition: Jim Leonhard, safety

Former team: Ravens

How the Jets got him: Leonhard had a career year for the Ravens in 2008. Ryan, who coached Leonhard as defensive coordinator in Baltimore, was more than happy to pick up the safety in free agency. Leonhard has been steady in the secondary, recording 76 tackles and an interception in the regular season.

Williamson's analysis: When Ryan left the Ravens, he sort of lucked out. The Ravens had a lot of free agents that year. Jason Brown left, Ray Lewis' contract was up, Bart Scott was up, Jim Leonhard was up. We knew they weren't going to be able to sign them all. So Ryan got someone from his old club at each level. He gots defensive end Marques Douglas, he got Scott and he got Leonhard. That goes a long way in each of those meeting rooms. If you're a player, sometimes it's easier to talk to another player. Another thing about Leonhard is he's really cerebral, intelligent, a good special-teamer and playmaker.

AFC North impact scale (1-10): 5

Acquisition: Playoff berth

Team involved: Bengals

How the Jets got in: With a division title and home playoff game wrapped up, the Bengals had a half-hearted effort and pulled their starters in the second half of New York's 37-0 victory in Week 17. It's highly debatable whether the Bengals had a chance to beat New York on that day even with their starters. But the easy win qualified the Jets for the playoffs, and they beat Cincinnati a week later to prove it wasn't a fluke.

Williamson's analysis: I think it added to the Jets' confidence that they were going to play the Bengals again. This goes back to Rex Ryan, too -- that the team is fearless. I don't think they will be intimidated by the Indianapolis Colts this upcoming week. They weren't intimidated at all last week going into San Diego, and they certainly weren't intimidated going into Cincinnati after beating the Bengals the week before. But we also have the gift of hindsight and can look at it and say the Jets are better than the Bengals. Even if the Bengals hadn't laid down in Week 17, I still think Jets beat them 7 out of 10 times.

AFC North impact scale (1-10): 4

Although these additions and circumstance all have varying degrees of impact, there is no chance the Jets would be Super Bowl contenders this season without help from the AFC North.

Posted by's James Walker

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

Morning take: With Reggie Kelly already out for the season, it may be up to rookie tight end Chase Coffman to start for Cincinnati in the preseason. Coffman also is coming back from foot surgery.

  • Things are still quiet on the status of Pittsburgh Steelers starting offensive guard Darnell Stapleton (knee).

Morning take: Stapleton already had an MRI, which leads me to believe the team knows the deal by now. I'm not exactly sure why an update hasn't been provided.

  • Baltimore Ravens safety Dawan Landry is on the mend after suffering a spinal injury last season.

Morning take: With Jim Leonhard's exit in free agency, the Ravens could use a good year from Landry back in the starting lineup.

  • Cleveland Browns running backs Jamal Lewis and James Davis are forging a good bond in training camp.

Morning take: The veteran and the rookie both went to Douglass High School in Atlanta about a decade apart. Now they join in Cleveland with hopes of bringing the Browns a running game this season.

Posted by's James Walker

I'm going to let the AFC North community in on a little secret: The NFL writers at turned in our first power rankings for the 2009 season.

Sure, it's May, and a lot can change between now and training camp. But with 90 percent of the rosters pretty much finalized, thought it would be great to give football fans an idea of where your teams stand heading into the summer.

The full results are still being tabulated in Bristol, Conn. and won't be finalized until early next week. But here is how I ranked the four AFC North teams:

Pittsburgh Steelers

My ranking: No. 1

Why: I'm not the type of voter who always believes the defending Super Bowl champion automatically deserves the top spot the following season. But in my mind, the Steelers earned this No. 1 vote. They kept last season's title team together and return 20-of-22 starters. Players who were banged up last season are once again healthy, and the team will have a much easier strength of schedule this year (from No. 1 to No. 29). I think the Steelers are in a great position to defend their title, much better than they were in 2006.

Baltimore Ravens

My ranking: No. 7

Why: The Ravens were a hard team to gauge in these power rankings. They lost a lot of talent this offseason (Bart Scott, Jason Brown, Chris McAlister, Jim Leonhard, Willie Anderson), but also gained a lot of talent in return (Domonique Foxworth, Matt Birk, Michael Oher, Chris Carr, L.J. Smith). Trying to gauge how well all these new pieces fit before playing their first game in Baltimore is a difficult task. But from what I saw from second-year quarterback Joe Flacco this offseason and assuming the defense remains elite, the Ravens are once again looking good and worthy of a No. 7 ranking. I won't get into the six teams I ranked ahead of Baltimore and why. I will leave some suspense for next week.

Cincinnati Bengals

My ranking: No. 19

Why: There is no secret that I like the Bengals as a potential NFL sleeper, which is why I'm guessing that I have Cincinnati ranked higher than most on our panel. Of the few power rankings I've seen, the Bengals were somewhere in the mid-to-high 20s, which is about where they finished in our rankings last season. It is well-documented that Cincinnati added a lot of talented players via the draft and free agency. But I still question if this team is good enough and tough enough to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore four times a year, which ultimately will determine how far the 2009 Bengals go. Right now, my ranking at No. 19 is good enough to where it recognizes the Bengals' improvements but doesn't go overboard without them first earning respect on the football field.

Cleveland Browns

My ranking: No. 29

Why: The Browns have too many lingering questions for my liking, which is why I ranked them fourth from the bottom in the NFL. Who's the quarterback? Who's the No. 2 receiver? Will Braylon Edwards bounce back? What's the deal with Joshua Cribbs? Can coach Eric Mangini build a solid defense? Can the Browns beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore? I do think the Browns have a chance to be in a lot of close games, especially if they play smart and mistake free like Mangini wants. I'm just not sure they can win a majority of them. Talent counts for a lot in the NFL, and when I compare Cleveland's roster next to other teams, the Browns are going to be outmanned more often than not.

Do you agree or disagree with the early rankings? Sound off in the comment section or in the AFC North inbox.

AFC North offseason report card

March, 18, 2009
  Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images; Andy Lyons and Tom Hauck/Getty Images
  The AFC North has lost some star power, with Bart Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh departing through free agency and Kellen Winslow Jr. sent off in a trade.

Posted by's James Walker

With the busiest portion of free agency coming to an end, it is officially time to evaluate the decisions made by all four AFC North teams.

The range of activity in free agency varied this year. For instance, the Baltimore Ravens were extremely active in signing and losing players, while the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers only visited with a couple of players without reaching deals.

Let's examine the moves.

Baltimore Ravens

Grade: B

Key pickups: CB Domonique Foxworth, C Matt Birk, TE L.J. Smith, CB/KR Chris Carr

Key losses: LB Bart Scott, C Jason Brown, S Jim Leonhard, CB Chris McAlister (released), Samari Rolle (released)

Analysis: Going into free agency, I thought the Ravens were doomed for failure with the amount of big names set to hit the open market. Baltimore certainly lost some of those players, but a creative and cost-effective plan allowed general manager Ozzie Newsome to soften the blow. The Ravens lost three key starters in linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown and safety Jim Leonhard. They also released starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. But Baltimore quickly added talent in free-agent cornerback Domonique Foxworth, veteran center Matt Birk, tight end L.J. Smith and return specialist Chris Carr. Keeping Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were vital. And if the Ravens put together another solid draft class, which is Newsome's forte, Baltimore should be fine in 2009. This good grade is given to the Ravens for their resiliency in coming up with a plan to stay in contention despite losing a wealth of talented players.

Cincinnati Bengals

Grade: C+

Key pickups: WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier

Key losses: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, DL John Thornton (still unsigned), OT Stacy Andrews, C Eric Ghiaciuc (still unsigned)

Analysis: No one was surprised when former Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for the Seattle Seahawks. But it was surprising when the Bengals paid former New York Jet Laveranues Coles $28 million over four years-- including a whopping $9.75 million in his first year -- to replace Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh had 90-plus receptions the past two seasons, while Coles is more of a 60- to 70-catch receiver. Someone will have to make up that missing production whether it is a bounce-back year from Chad Ocho Cinco or a career year from one of the young receivers -- Chris Henry, Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson -- in the No. 3 role. Keeping tailback Cedric Benson was important, but the team still needs a big-play threat at that position. J.T. O'Sullivan was a decent pickup to back up quarterback Carson Palmer. With Palmer's return, a stellar draft could put Cincinnati in position to surprise next season.

Cleveland Browns

Grade: D+

Key pickups: LB Eric Barton, LB David Bowens, TE Robert Royal, DL C.J. Mosley, OL John St. Clair

Key losses: S Sean Jones, TE Kellen Winslow Jr. (trade), WR Joe Jurevicius (released), OT Kevin Shaffer (released), LB Andra Davis, LB Willie McGinest, RB Jason Wright

Analysis: The Browns are cleaning house, and they probably are not done yet. New coach Eric Mangini and first-year general manager George Kokinis are turning over the roster quickly through every avenue possible. The Browns have not retained most of their in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and linebackers Andra Davis
and Willie McGinest. They also cut offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer and receiver Joe Jurevicius and traded former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay for a pair of draft picks. The replacements have not been overwhelming. Former Jets linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens are both stop-gap players who are 30-plus. Royal is not nearly as dynamic a tight end as Winslow, and Cleveland still has a lot of holes left to fill in the draft. The Browns are clearly starting from scratch, which is why they are attempting to stockpile draft picks. Coming off a 4-12 season, Cleveland appears to be headed for another transition year in 2009.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Grade: C-

Key pickups: None

Key losses: CB Bryant McFadden, OT Marvel Smith, QB Byron Leftwich (still unsigned), WR Nate Washington

Analysis: Pittsburgh hasn't signed anyone outside of its building. Instead, the team placed its focus on keeping together last year's championship team. The Steelers retained three starters from their offensive line in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks and brought back a host of backups and special-teams players. They are staying true to their identity of not being major players in free agency. But it would have been beneficial to add at least one or two offensive linemen from the outside to compete and provide depth. That probably won't happen until next month's NFL draft. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden bolting to the Arizona Cardinals could be softened if William Gay continues to develop in 2009. The Steelers are banking on it. Pittsburgh also brought in a few intriguing free agents, such as receiver Joey Galloway and cornerback/return specialist Chris Carr, for visits. But its reluctance to pay much on the open market this offseason forced those two players to sign with other teams.

Posted by's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North:

Morning take: Most people fully expected McFadden to leave the Super Bowl champions. But I was surprised with the amount and length of this deal when it appears other cornerbacks are getting a lot more security.

Morning take: Bowens is another former player of Cleveland coach Eric Mangini's. This would be a solid addition because Bowens knows the scheme and fills a major need.

Morning take: I saw Cook run at the combine and he can fly. He's probably going to be off the board in the first two rounds, so if the Bengals or Browns want him, they will have to ignore some other needs and take Cook early.

  • Will former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, safety Jim Leonhard and new coach Rex Ryan bring the New York Jets a division crown?

Morning take: Of all the non-AFC North teams, I'm most interested in seeing how the Jets perform next season. Ryan's defensive scheme is both complex and aggressive, and it will be interesting to see if it translates for another team with mostly different players.

Lewis keeps Ravens in contention

March, 4, 2009

Posted by's James Walker

The re-signing of middle linebacker Ray Lewis provided a much-needed sigh of relief for Baltimore Ravens fans. For the most part, the past week has been gut wrenching as Baltimore lost much of its talent to other teams.

  Tom Szczerbowski/US Presswire
  Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' re-signing makes Baltimore a favorite in the AFC.
In many ways, the Ravens saved face Wednesday in free agency by retaining Lewis. The signing also puts Baltimore, which was one game away from the Super Bowl, back in the title hunt.

Allowing their emotional leader and 10-time Pro Bowler to leave for another team would have capped a disastrous first-week of free agency that included the loss of starting linebacker Bart Scott, safety Jim Leonhard and center Jason Brown. The Ravens also released former Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, and former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan took a head coaching job with the New York Jets.

By keeping Lewis, along with the solid, but not sexy, signings of veteran center Matt Birk and speedy cornerback Domonique Foxworth, suddenly Baltimore's run in free agency doesn't look so bad.

Baltimore's defense will continue to be tenacious under Lewis and stalwarts Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. If Baltimore continues its trend of drafting well and quarterback Joe Flacco continues to improve, the Ravens will once again have high expectations in 2009. They will join teams such as the New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts and reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers as early favorites in the AFC.

A few questions still remain for the Ravens.

Can Baltimore find a speedy receiver to complement Flacco's strong arm? Who will be the linebacker to replace Scott? What about depth at tight end?

Yet none of these issues are nearly as detrimental as trying to find another player to take the spot of Lewis. He would have been hard to replace on the field and in the locker room, making the three-year deal with Baltimore a smart move.

For the first time in a long time, people in Baltimore were doubting general manager Ozzie Newsome. With his recent moves Newsome is proving why he is well respected around the league as one of the best GMs in the NFL.

Leonhard joins Jets, too

March, 3, 2009

Posted by's James Walker


New York Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan already is having success before his very first game. His ability to recruit former Baltimore Ravens is making New York one of the early winners in free agency.

Ryan and the Jets landed another defensive player from Baltimore Tuesday, agreeing to terms with safety Jim Leonhard.'s John Clayton reports it's a three-year deal.

Leonhard began last season as a backup but filled in well with the Ravens following a season-ending injury to Dawan Landry. Baltimore knew Leonhard was going to command starter-type money and opted not to pursue him.

This all but assures Landry will be the starter next season. He will join cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who signed last weekend, as the two new starters in the secondary who were not part of Baltimore's playoff run last season.

Morning take: Byron back in Pittsburgh?

February, 22, 2009

Posted by's James Walker

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

Morning take: Leftwich is saying all the right things at this point, but I'm not buying it. He wants to start and he will seek that chance, starting on Friday.

  • The Baltimore Ravens and pending free agent safety Jim Leonhard could be parting ways this offseason, according to general manager Ozzie Newsome.

Morning take: The Ravens do not want to overpay Leonhard, who earned the right to get starter money, but would have to compete with Dawan Landry if he stayed. Newsome correctly expects another team to offer Leonhard the kind of money he's seeking.

  • Has Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, who has a fracture in his left foot, improved his likelihood of becoming a Cincinnati Bengal?

Morning take: My first reaction to this story was "no way." Then I realized the Bengals just franchised their kicker, so I guess anything is possible.

Morning take: Yes, but I thought a transition tag should have been under consideration. Cleveland likely has a better replacement in mind because Nick Sorensen as your starter will not cut it in the AFC North.

Hot Button: AFC North

February, 12, 2009

Posted by's James Walker

The top issues facing each team in the division:

Baltimore Ravens

  Ray Lewis is one of many high-end free agents the Ravens could have testing the market this month.
Primary issue: Baltimore has arguably the most high-profile list of in-house free agents in the NFL this offseason. Therefore, the biggest issue for the Ravens is keeping their own players.

Center Jason Brown and linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs lead an impressive group set to hit the open market at the end of the month. Other key players include safety Jim Leonhard, punter Sam Koch and restricted free-agent safety Dawan Landry.

It will cost the Ravens too much money to keep all of these players, so expect some to get paid elsewhere.

Solution: The Ravens are expected to offer significant contracts to Lewis and Suggs. That's a good place to start. From there the team could allow everyone else to test the market to determine their value.

Secondary concern: After retaining their own free agents, the Ravens' next concern is getting better at receiver and cornerback. The team lacks depth at both positions.

Baltimore is expected to release former Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister to save $8 million off its salary cap for next season, hurting its depth. There also isn't much talent behind Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason at receiver.

Solution: The Ravens can use their first-round pick to improve one of these two positions, while addressing the other later in the draft or via free agency.

Cincinnati Bengals

  Nelson Chenault/US Presswire
  Carson Palmer's recovery from elbow problems is a primary concern for the Bengals.
Primary issue: The Bengals are stuck in between the past and future and need to focus on rebuilding before making another playoff run.

For instance, players such as receivers Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh represent a core that made the playoffs three years ago. Both are over 30 and probably will be better fits on other teams at this point. Houshmandzadeh is an unrestricted free agent and Ocho Cinco could be trade bait for a contending team. From there, the team can start the rebuilding process.

Quarterback Carson Palmer also needs to come back healthy next season from elbow trouble. He will remain the cornerstone of the franchise, but Cincinnati needs to begin putting younger and better pieces around him before it's too late.

Solution: Make changes and get Palmer healthy. The Bengals can win four games next year without Ocho Cinco and Houshmandzadeh. It's time to build a new core while Palmer still has good years left in him.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East

Secondary concern: Although this also could be listed as a primary concern, it is very important that the Bengals nail the draft this year.

Cincinnati's scouting staff is one of the smallest in the NFL and it has been reflected in its draft record over the years. Head coach Marvin Lewis has never had an A-list draft in his six seasons in the Queen City. It's hard to compete in the AFC North when teams like the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are consistently hitting on their picks.

Solution: There is no easy answer to drafting well other than to improve the scouting. Perhaps helping the Bengals this year is the fact their coaching staff ran the Senior Bowl, giving the team more insight into this year's class.

Cleveland Browns

  AP Photo/Mark Duncan
  Eric Mangini has to evaluate the Browns roster quickly to prepare for next season.
Primary issue: With a new coach in Eric Mangini and new general manager in George Kokinis taking over last month, the Browns are in full evaluation mode of their roster. Mangini and Kokinis have to decide which players are worth keeping and can fit into their system. Among the many questions is whether the unproven Brady Quinn should remain the team's starting quarterback? Or should there be an open competition between Quinn and former Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Anderson? The Browns could also look to trade Anderson.

There also are other talented players such as receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and running back Jamal Lewis that the new regime needs to make decisions on.

Solution: If the Browns decide to rebuild, trading many of these veterans for draft picks might be the most attractive option for Mangini and Kokinis. New regimes rarely keep all the same players who got the previous regime fired.

Secondary concern: Cleveland's inability to bring in Kokinis much earlier puts the team behind in terms of draft plans.

Much of the college scouting knowledge for the Browns rested with former general manager Phil Savage and his staff. But most of those people are gone.

Kokinis' background is with pro personnel, so even the GM will have to be a quick study over the next two-plus months. Mangini also will have a lot of say in getting the type of player he wants.

Solution: Cleveland can do nothing else besides work extra hard during the combine and interview process to make up for lost time. As a result, the Browns might have to accept the hits and misses in their first year.

Pittsburgh Steelers

  Ben Roethlisberger has taken many hard hits over the past few seasons, forcing Pittsburgh to re-examine their offensive line.
Primary issue: Coming off a 12-4 regular season and its sixth Super Bowl, Pittsburgh doesn't have many holes. But its biggest glaring weakness remains the offensive line.

This is a great time to address the much-maligned unit because the Steelers will have four key pending free agents on the line. Among them are starting guard Chris Kemoeatu, starting tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon, and former starting tackle Marvel Smith, who played in only five games because of a back injury. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has taken a pounding the past several seasons, as evidenced by his recent admission of playing the Super Bowl with fractured ribs. The Steelers have put off acquiring linemen for too long and now is the time to address that need.

Solution: Pittsburgh will not allow all of its in-house free-agent linemen to leave. But it will say goodbye to some and upgrade the rest of the positions via the draft and free agency.

Secondary concern: The free-agent class of 2010 could be brutal for the Steelers. So expect them to take a hard look at several key players a year early.

Veterans like tight end Heath Miller, receiver Hines Ward, safety Ryan Clark and defensive player of the year James Harrison all have expiring deals at the end of next season. The Steelers usually allow their players to fulfill their contracts before re-negotiating, but they will probably make a few exceptions this offseason.

Solution: Of the bunch, Harrison is the only surefire player to get a raise and early extension. He is grossly underpaid for his level of production. Everyone else might have to wait until next year.

Posted by's James Walker

At the Pro Bowl last week, Baltimore Ravens linebacker and pending free agent Ray Lewis described the New York Jets as an attractive option. The reason being that former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is now the head coach of the Jets and will run the same scheme.

Ryan now makes New York a major player in the Ravens' free-agent sweepstakes. He was beloved in Baltimore and arguably no team in the NFL has a bigger collection of talent set to hit the open market than the Ravens.

Expect Baltimore to do everything possible to keep players such as Lewis and Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs. There is a chance that neither player will make it to free agency.

But the Jets could make it extremely hard for the team to keep other unrestricted free agents such as Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard, who know Ryan's complicated scheme well and could get higher offers to help ease the transition. It is unknown at this point which Ravens free agents New York has interest in, but rest assured some are certainly on Ryan's radar.

AFC North mailbag

February, 10, 2009

Posted by's James Walker

Let's dig into some questions for AFC North readers:

Austin from Palm Springs, Calif., writes: I've been reading a lot about T.J. Alphabet (Bengals) lately and he seems to be very unhappy where he's at. He also seems to have been sweet-talking the Steelers organization lately. Knowing that Nate Washington is a free agent, could T.J. be campaigning for a black and gold uniform? And do you see any chance of the Steelers sign him? Assuming the Bengals allow that to happen, of course.

James Walker: Austin, the Steelers will not spend a lot of money on a receiver this year. They do not need a starter as Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes will man those positions next season. If they pay Houshmandzadeh big bucks, who does Pittsburgh put on the bench? If anything, the Steelers will try to retain Nate Washington for the No. 3 spot or hope Limas Sweed develops into that role in his second year.

Matt from Lima, Ohio, writes: James, I enjoy reading all your material and insight. Being a longtime Browns fan I'm just wondering if they're going to finally get it right this year with the draft and with free agency? Maybe new LB's and a new RB? I hear Detroit may have to release Bodden for cap reasons. Any chance on resigning him?

James Walker: Thanks, Matt. The Browns need linebackers in the worst way. Two starters, Willie McGinest and Andra Davis, are free agents and probably won't return. So that's two big holes with no suitable replacements currently on the roster. Leon Williams and Alex Hall would be starting linebackers if the season started today. As far as Leigh Bodden, he probably wouldn't mind coming back. But he flourished under the old coaching staff. It's unknown how the new coaching staff, led by Eric Mangini, feels about Bodden.

Tate from Wis. writes: What are your thoughts on Jim Leonhard for 2009?

James Walker: As you know, Tate, this is a tough decision for the Ravens. Leonhard's reps will fight for starter money, but it's questionable that he would start in Baltimore next year with the pending return of Dawan Landry. With so many free agents, the Ravens will make a pitch. But I think Leonhard will get a bigger offer somewhere else and bolt.

Jerry from Pa. writes: Larry Foote? Staying or going? If he does go, trade or release?

James Walker: Foote stays put, Jerry. He may have to compete for a starting job in training camp with the hard-charging Lawrence Timmons next season. But Pittsburgh runs a 3-4 and always needs depth at linebacker.

Nick from Baltimore writes: Do you really think that the Ravens won't be able to resign Ray Lewis? And how upset would he be with the franchise tag?

James Walker: It's a possibility, Nick. But I think the Ravens will do everything they can to re-sign Lewis to an extension. The franchise tag would be pretty upsetting for Lewis, 33, who feels he deserves better. Lewis is a career Raven, he never made his contract an issue, and he went out and played great football in leading the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game. He hopes that goodwill will be returned.

Ranking AFC North free agents

February, 10, 2009

Posted by's James Walker

Coaches and general managers around the division have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason, and it starts in house with their own free agents.

Here is my ranking of the top 10 unrestricted free agents who could be available by the end of this month:


1. Terrell Suggs, OLB/DE, Baltimore Ravens

Why: Suggs is a must-have for the Ravens and one of the top free agents on the market overall. His versatility and dynamic pass-rushing ability allows Baltimore's defense to do a lot of things most teams couldn't. The Ravens tried to lock him up long term last year. They came very close but couldn't. Baltimore needs to close the deal with Suggs this year.

2. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Why: After catching 204 passes the last two seasons, Houshmandzadeh is the top free-agent available at his position. He is a Pro Bowl caliber talent that should cash in this season unless Cincinnati chooses to use the franchise tag. Houshmandzadeh is a crafty and tough receiver who is not afraid to go over the middle. He also has the quickness to get open and great hands to make tough catches in traffic.


3. Ray Lewis, MLB, Baltimore Ravens

Why: After playing in his 10th Pro Bowl, it's apparent that Lewis can still bring it. Even at the age of 33, Lewis' leadership and ability was key in bringing the Baltimore Ravens back to prominence and within one quarter of the Super Bowl during an AFC title game loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although a franchise tag is a possibility for Lewis, our guess is that it will only be used to provide an extension to negotiate a long-term deal.

4. Jason Brown, C, Baltimore Ravens

Why: Brown, 25, has quietly developed into one of the top, young centers in the NFL. He started all 16 games the past two years to become Baltimore's most consistent offensive lineman. Center is rarely a huge priority in free agency, but rest assured Baltimore knows how important Brown is to the offensive line. Expect him to be a target for the Ravens once they address players such as Suggs and Lewis.


5. Bart Scott, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

Why: It's scary to think that three of the top five players on this list are Ravens linebackers, but this unit is that good. Scott was the most underrated of the group. He is a fearless, hard-nosed player that can bang heads with the best of them. Scott is strong at the point of attack and arguably the team's hardest hitter. He is perfect for Baltimore's system. But due to the aforementioned Ravens on this list, he could be the odd man out.

6. Bryant McFadden, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Why: McFadden is the only free-agent starter from the NFL's top-rated defense and the team's biggest priority in terms of players currently not under contract. At 27, he blossomed into a starter this year and is just entering the prime of his career. McFadden is athletic, a solid tackler, and a good No. 2 corner opposite Ike Taylor. McFadden has stated that he would love to be back, and the Steelers likely want him back.


7. Sean Jones, S, Cleveland Browns

Why: Despite one of the worst years of his career, Jones should get some interest on the market because starting safeties are making a lot of money of late. Jones was inconsistent all year following in-season knee surgery but should be a better player once he is completely healed in the offseason. Jones' best years were in 2006 and 2007 when he combined for 207 tackles and 10 interceptions. If he can return to form, he could be a good free-agent signing for someone. It doesn't appear the Browns are interested.

8. Jim Leonhard, S, Baltimore Ravens

Why: Leonhard is an interesting case. Mostly a career backup, Leonhard filled in well for the injured Dawan Landry and could receive some interest on the open market. Now Baltimore has to decide if Leonhard or Landry, a restricted free agent, is the starter. Conceivably, the Ravens could bring back both but it will cost them. Leonhard's representation likely will ask for starter-type money or something close to it after his solid performance this season and in the playoffs.


9. Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Why: There's still a lot of questions surrounding Benson, but he deserves to be on this list. The former first-round pick signed with the Bengals during the season and finished with 747 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the year with back-to-back 100-yard games, including a 171-yard performance against the Browns. Benson played hard, but was he playing hard just to earn a bigger contract? Could he stay focus once he gets a long-term extension? The Bengals will have to ponder these questions before they throw a lot of money his way.

10. Nate Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Why: Despite being the only non-starter on this list, Washington has developed into an important cog in Pittsburgh's offense. The No. 3 receiver has a penchant for making big plays and is a great compliment to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. If rookie Limas Sweed isn't ready, the Steelers should work to keep Washington.

Honorable mentions: Byron Leftwich, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, Stacy Andrews, OT, Cincinnati Bengals; Shayne Graham, K, Cincinnati Bengals, Sam Koch, P, Baltimore Ravens.

  Don Wright/US Presswire
  The Ravens' AFC Championship Game loss to the Steelers might be the last time that key members of the defensive unit play together, including linebacker Ray Lewis, who is an unrestricted free agent.

Posted by's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Rex Ryan's eyes were red and glassy. He smiled at the question, and although he uttered only three words, a melancholy tone was evident.

The Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator probably won't be back next year. As the team's airplane rolled on the tarmac after Sunday's night's 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game, rumors were circling that Ryan might already have agreed to become the New York Jets head coach.

For Ryan, the defeat was an emotional one.

"It always is," Ryan said in the locker room, his voice trailing off at the thought of leaving some great players behind.

Asked to elaborate, he smiled again.

"I'd rather not think about it, to be honest with you," Ryan said.

Not only did Sunday conclude a fabulous season, leaving the Ravens just short of the Super Bowl, but Ryan almost certainly will be saying goodbye.

So, too, will some players from an elite defense that was ranked No. 2 in the NFL.

Linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott are all unrestricted free agents. So are defensive backs Jim Leonhard and Corey Ivy. Defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and defensive backs Dawan Landry and Evan Oglesby are restricted free agents.

The team's longest-tenured player, kicker Matt Stover, is also unrestricted. His career could be over. The Ravens brought in rookie Steven Hauschka for kickoffs and long field goals.

Ravens pro personnel director George Kokinis has been linked to the Cleveland Browns' general-manager vacancy. Ryan could lure some assistants to the Jets.

"We don't know our future," Scott said. "It's just the way the business goes. If it's the last time, it's the last time. You just hold onto the memories that you have."

Sports seasons turn rosters into mini families, but they never stay the same. Free agency, the salary cap, injuries and retirements cause teams and players to part ways. Sunday may have marked the end of the road for this gang. Their chance to win it together might be over.

"These are all your brothers and your cousins no matter who they are," said Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, "because when you spend as much time as a professional football team spends together, you get know each other as much more than just teammates. We become friends, family."

Familiar faces will be missing from next year's team photo. They will be replaced by rookies, free agents and practice squad graduates.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome will have several difficult decisions to make over the offseason.

"That's the business of the NFL," Pryce said. "If you know that, then you're mentally prepared for it. If you don't know that, then it becomes a problem. My first few years, I didn't understand that. I want the same guys on the team, and every year there were five or 10 new ones."

These are the processes that prevent us from accurately projecting next year's winners and losers. The variables begin to accumulate, the question marks mount.

Without Ryan, the defensive patriarch, the Ravens will lose a significant part of their soul. He has been with the Ravens for a decade.

"Ten years," Ryan said. "That's an eternity. It's special people."

In that time, he has helped the Ravens become the standard by which all defenses are measured. From the time Ryan joined the Ravens in 1999 as defensive line coach, through this season, they rank second in total defense, first in run defense, first in points per game allowed, first in takeaways, first in third-down conversions and fourth in sacks.

  Ravens-Steelers highlights Video
  The Steelers defeat the Ravens 23-14 in the AFC Championship Game.

This year's defense was one of Baltimore's best despite losing a slew of contributors.

"This group of guys overcame so much this year," Ryan said. "I know we had more injuries on defense than any team in the NFL. Yet we kept competing. We used everybody we had.

"It's the unit. It's the strength of the unit that keeps us going, not the individual. That's how this team played."

Much of the credit, of course, goes to Lewis, the perennial Pro Bowler and first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"He's a once-in-a-lifetimer," Ryan said, "not just as a player, but as a person, as a leader. He's just tremendous."

Lewis brushed off reporters in Baltimore's locker room. He didn't want to talk.

The face of the franchise indicated Friday he wants to come back for a 14th season, but he hasn't said much more than that, stating it would be selfish to talk about his contract rather than focus on the Super Bowl.

Lewis performed Sunday like a man with plenty left to give. He finished with a game-high nine tackles (unofficially) and forced a Willie Parker fumble.

Scott said Sunday night the loss was too fresh to even consider next season.

"Nothing you can say," Scott said. "We lost. Just go on vacation. Forget about it."

Stone's penalty hurts Ravens

January, 18, 2009

Posted by's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- The Baltimore Ravens had momentum. They had scored a touchdown on their previous drive to cut the Pittsburgh Steelers' lead to 16-14 in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens' defense then held the Steelers to a three-and-out.

Ravens returner Jim Leonhard took Mitch Berger's punt to the Baltimore 39-yard line, a nice starting point with seven minutes left.

But Ravens safety Daren Stone was flagged 15 yards for mugging Steelers gunner Anthony Madison out of bounds when the ball was in the air. The penalty was assessed from the spot Leonhard fielded the punt, pushing the Ravens back to their own 14.

The Terrible Towels responded accordingly.

Instead of having comfy field position and plenty of time to remain conservative, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu eventually intercepted a desperation third-down pass by Joe Flacco and returned it for a touchdown.