AFC North: John St. Clair
The Browns cut six veterans Wednesday: tight end Robert Royal, offensive tackle John St. Clair, defensive lineman Shaun Rogers and Kenyon Coleman and linebackers David Bowens and Eric Barton. Most were considered "Eric Mangini guys." Mangini was fired recently after back-to-back 5-11 seasons.
"We kind of had a feeling that with a new regime that Cleveland wanted to go with younger players," said Bowens' agent Harold Lewis. "David was Eric’s guy and [former defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan’s guy, so it’s not a surprise."
Cleveland is looking to start a new rebuilding phase under Shurmur. Cleveland will transition to a West Coast offense and a 4-3 defense next season.
All of these players are now unrestricted free agents.
- Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice entered Week 15 with fewer than 20 carries in each of his previous five games. But it appears that helped Rice, as he showed he had fresh legs in late December. Rice looked energized and was ready for the heavy workload in a 30-24 win over the New Orleans Saints. He rushed for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. He also led the team in receiving with five catches for 80 yards. It was a throwback performance for Rice, who put up these kind of numbers more often last season when the Ravens didn't have as many weapons. But getting the ball back in Rice's hands should continue to be a focal point for Baltimore's offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
- If the season ended today, the Ravens (10-4) would travel to face the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) in the playoffs at Lucas Oil Stadium. Despite Indianapolis' record, we like Baltimore's chances better against any other playoff contender. The Colts have been an awful matchup for the Ravens. Quarterback Peyton Manning is 8-2 in his career against Baltimore, including Indianapolis' playoff win last season. The Kansas City Chiefs or Jacksonville Jaguars would be easier playoff opponents.
- We received a lot of emails regarding Carson Palmer's future since the AFC North blog reported the quarterback would not accept a pay cut to stay with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. Although there are no guarantees, it does increase the possibility that Palmer will wear another uniform next season. We came up with several logical destinations for Palmer. The Oakland Raiders, where former Bengals assistant Hue Jackson is the offensive coordinator, could be one option. The San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals are teams that could be searching for quarterback help. It's very early, however. The Bengals may choose to pay Palmer $11.5 million and make him one of the NFL's highest-paid players next season. But investing that much in a struggling quarterback is very risky.
- The Bengals did a smart thing by giving young, unproven players meaningful reps in their 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Tailback Bernard Scott (eight carries, 40 yards) and receivers Andre Caldwell (four catches, 89 yards) and Jerome Simpson (two catches, 30 yards) contributed, as Cincinnati tries to figure out who stays and who goes this offseason. Caldwell was particularly impressive. After Terrell Owens (knee) went down, Caldwell led Cincinnati in receiving and made big receptions, including a well-designed 53-yard screen pass.
- Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy reached a contract escalator Sunday. McCoy needed to play 35 percent of Cleveland's offensive snaps this year -- which is the equivalent of 5.6 games -- for his fourth-year salary to increase from approximately $500,000 to $1.15 million. That's a $650,000 raise. McCoy made his sixth start against the Bengals and will remain Cleveland's starter the rest of the season. Considering McCoy was not expected to play this season, it's an unexpected accomplishment for the third-round pick.
- Here are several additional things I learned about the Browns: McCoy has nice touch and a good play-action fake, Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs is more hurt than he's letting on, and John St. Clair is not the answer at right tackle.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to the New York Jets likely ensures Pittsburgh won't have the option to rest starters in Week 17. Baltimore and Pittsburgh (10-4) share the same record, but the Steelers own the tiebreaker. The Steelers host the Carolina Panthers (2-12) and the Ravens travel to face the Browns (5-9) in Week 16. Both 10-win teams are favored, which would set up a division race down to the final weekend.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
I wanted to pass on a few tidbits to AFC North readers from this week's NFL owners' meetings in Dana Point, Calif.
Tomlin on the Steelers-Ravens rivalry:
"You appreciate it. To be a part of it is something that's special and I think that's something we share on both sides of the rivalry. I think the personalities, the leadership, the passion that's displayed on both sides makes the rivalry what it is. And all you've got to do is look at guys like Ray Lewis and James Farrior and Derrick Mason and Hines Ward and it's what the game of football is about. And every time we come together it displays the best of the game of football.”
Tomlin on his fast learning curve:
"This is not a job that has a manual. It's a very lonely job at times. I think you accept all of those responsibilities and challenges going in and then do the best you can. You trust your instructs, at least I do.”
Tomlin on negotiations with LB James Harrison:
"I think we're all confident that it's something that's going to take place. I know it's something both parties want and the process is just running its course at this point.”
"I don't have a projected starter at this point. What we're going to do is we'll have an open competition where they'll both get a chance to establish that they'll be the starter. I've been through this before in New York. I think that competition was fair. I think it was thorough. And at the time it was very clear to me who the starter should be. I anticipate it being the same way.”
Mangini on receiver Donte Stallworth's situation:
"It's obviously a tragedy. My thoughts and prayers go out to the victim and his family. It's a legal matter as well. I made a statement. That's all I'm really going to say about it.”
"I think that they both played multiple positions along the line, which I really like. I like their versatility. We're going to play the best players. They'll have a great opportunity and we'll see how that goes.”
|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 ESPN.com'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.
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.
Key pickups: WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier
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.
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.
Key pickups: None
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 ESPN.com's James Walker
Former Chicago Bears offensive tackle John St. Clair agreed to a three-year, $9 million deal with the Browns Wednesday evening. He will replace former Browns tackle Kevin Shaffer, who was released earlier this week.
"We are excited to add John to the team," Browns general manager George Kokinis said in a statement. "He has played multiple positions along the line and will be a valuable addition to the Browns."
As NFC North counterpart Kevin Seifert points out, the Browns offered twice the amount to convince St. Clair to leave the Bears.
Did the Browns overpay?
That case can be made. But if St. Clair fills the right tackle spot admirably next season and allows Cleveland to fill other needs with their three quality draft picks in the first two rounds, it will turn out to be a good investment.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:
- The Cleveland Browns continue to try to retool the offensive line, setting up a visit with free-agent tackle John St. Clair.
Morning take: After releasing former starter Kevin Shaffer over the weekend, the right tackle spot is up for competition. Drafting a right tackle in the top five is risky, making St. Clair an option.
- The Baltimore Ravens will officially release cornerback Samari Rolle on Monday.
Morning take: This move has been widely expected for weeks here and in other media circles. The $4.1 million Baltimore saves provides room for draft picks and likely a big extension for Terrell Suggs.
- Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones' new show, "Dhani Tackles the Globe," premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel.
Morning take: Jones always had a lot of personality, and football fans should get to see it in this show. England, Thailand and Singapore are some of the places Jones is expected to visit.
- From last weekend, former Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Khalif Barnes signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders.
Morning take: Things have been quiet on the Steelers' front since losing Barnes, receiver Joey Galloway and cornerback/returner Chris Carr to other teams. Barnes was one of the last quality offensive line prospects in free agency. It looks like the Steelers won't add depth there until next month's draft.