AFC North: Jonathan Stewart

Chargers free-agent running back Mike Tolbert signed a four-year contract with the Carolina Panthers, a source told AFC West blogger Bill Williamson.

That ends the speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers were in the mix for Tolbert. In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that the Steelers were never interested and never contacted Tolbert or his agent.

But the addition of Tolbert could lead to the Panthers shopping Jonathan Stewart as part of a trade, according to NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas. Stewart is entering the final year of his rookie contract and will earn $1.3 million.

Could Stewart interest anyone in the AFC North? Every team in the division needs a running back in some capacity, and every team should look hard at Stewart. The Bengals, Browns and Steelers all will have different starting running backs than last year, and the Ravens could use a backup for Ray Rice (although it looks like they will go with Anthony Allen at first).

No one knows whether Stewart will come available, but someone in the AFC North should show interest in him. Stewart is young (24), productive (averaged 4.8 yards per carry in his four-year NFL career) and versatile (two seasons of 1,000 total yards). He'll give you more than Michael Bush, BenJarvus Green-Ellis or other free-agent running backs, but Stewart is going to cost a draft pick (perhaps a third-rounder).

The biggest concern when looking at veteran running backs is their wear-and-tear, but Stewart has very little because he's been teamed with DeAngelo Williams. Stewart has never carried the ball more than 221 times in a season and has ran it less than 200 times in each of the past two years.

Let's see if speculation turns into something more substantial this time.

AFC North weekend mailbag

February, 26, 2012
2/26/12
10:00
AM ET
It's never a good Sunday when it's Sunday without football games. But it does give us time to open some mail ...

Todd from Vallejo, Calif., writes: My question relates to the Bengals draft picks. By all accounts, the players they want to select (guard David DeCastro, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, running back Trent Richardson, etc.) will all be gone by picks 17 and 21. I have a hard time seeing them reach for a running back with those picks or even a lesser guard (like Cordy Glenn) or risky corner (Janoris Jenkins). What do you think they will do? Trade up or down?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: The Bengals are more likely to trade down, especially at No. 21. It seems like every draft there is some team wanting to jump back into the bottom part of the first round to get a quarterback. Since the Bengals have Andy Dalton, they would be happy to drop back and acquire more picks. The only player that I could envision the Bengals trading up for is Alabama running back Trent Richardson. Cincinnati wouldn't mortgage the entire draft for Richardson, but it would be willing to move up a few spots if he surprisingly falls out of the top 10. Of course, I would be extremely surprised to see Richardson slip that far.


Abe from Baltimore writes: Don't you think the Ravens will be better suited going for Pierre Garcon, Mario Manningham, or Robert Meachem rather than breaking the bank for any of these big-name wide receivers?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: The Ravens don't have the salary-cap room to go after a wide receiver like Vincent Jackson. As I wrote last week, the best fit is the Colts' Reggie Wayne, whose value will be lowered by the number of young deep threats available in free agency. If Wayne proves to be too expensive, the Ravens still need to add a free-agent wide receiver because Lee Evans was a flop and Tandon Doss apparently isn't ready to get on the field. Baltimore only had two wide receivers with more than four catches, so the Ravens have to upgrade here.


Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: Even if Robert Griffin III is every bit as good as Cam Newton, there's no way he'd have that kind of success in Cleveland. Newton was throwing to a pair of good tight ends and Steve Smith, with a nice running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. RG3 comes into an offense with no running game and, frankly, a terrible group of receivers and tight ends. I understand Colt McCoy probably isn't getting the most out of the players around him, but even Tom Brady would have a hard time scoring points for the Browns. The Browns need a lot more than a new quarterback to be even solid on offense.

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: I understand your argument for a lack of playmakers, but you can't downplay the fact that a franchise quarterback elevates the talent around him. That's why Cam Newton had more success with this supporting cast than Jake Delhomme, Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore. There's no doubt that the Browns have to significantly improve the players at the skill positions. But McCoy isn't a quarterback who gets the most out of his teammates. I'm not saying RG3 will do this. I'm just saying the Browns have to look elsewhere because McCoy isn't the answer.


Jared from Orlando, Fla., writes: Do you think that Heath Miller will ever get to the Pro Bowl again? Granted the one time he made it, it was because one of the tight ends chosen was in the Super Bowl that year. I'm extremely biased as a Steeler fan who grew up in the same town as Heath. However, it seems like the only tight ends to make the pro bowl are pass catchers. Heath has great hands, but he's at least top three in the league as a blocking tight end. Thoughts?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Miller has been underused the past two seasons, especially in the red zone. But he won't get to another Pro Bowl because he's on the decline. Over the next couple of drafts, the Steelers have to take a look at adding an athletic pass-catching tight end like Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham and Baltimore's Ed Dickson. That's the direction the NFL is headed, and Pittsburgh is going to be forced to fill the void there sooner than later. Miller is entering the final year of his contract.


Cameron from Cincinnati writes: If the Bengals are going to get a guard and a cornerback with their first two picks, which looks likely, what position do they address next? Running back, or wide receiver?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Running back comes next in the draft, and wide receiver is among the priorities in free agency. The Bengals need to get younger and faster at running back. That means the draft is the best way to address the position. As far as wide receiver, Cincinnati needs a dependable route-runner as the second option to A.J. Green. The Bengals can find one in free agency.


Gene from San Diego writes: What's more important in the draft for the Ravens: an outside linebacker opposite [Terrell] Suggs, an inside linebacker for the future or a center?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: In order of priority, I would go inside linebacker, center and outside linebacker. It wouldn't be a surprise to see others rank these differently because it's a tough call. I put inside linebacker first because this is the time to find that heir apparent to Ray Lewis, so the rookie can learn under the future Hall of Fame linebacker. The Ravens can get by this year with Matt Birk at center and Paul Kruger at outside linebacker.


Sean from Van Wert, Ohio, writes: I know that Cleveland needs help at receiver. With all the big names out there, we should worry about overspending. Which is why, I keep bringing up Pierre Garcon. He would be a great fit for Cleveland's West Coast offense, and we could get him for less than DeSean Jackson or any of the other big names wide receivers. I believe we could land Garcon around the $13-15 million range over three to five years. What are your thoughts on Garcon landing in Cleveland?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: I put Garcon on the top of my list in terms of the best fit for Cleveland. The reason? Garcon provides what the Browns desperately need at wide receiver -- speed. He showed he can stretch the field, and he proved that he doesn't need an elite quarterback to do so after Peyton Manning was sidelined all season.


DJ from Brockport, N.Y., writes: Have the Browns actually shown interest in Robert Griffin III or is it all rumors and assumptions at this point?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Browns officials met with RG3 for a 15-minute interview on Friday night. But it doesn't take a top analyst like Trent Dilfer to answer this question. The Browns need to upgrade at quarterback, and RG3 will be top quarterback available after Andrew Luck gets drafted by the Colts. Cleveland officials don't have to draft RG3, but they do have to consider it.


John from Medon, Tenn., writes: With Rashard Mendenhall's injury, could you see the Steelers potentially having an interest in Peyton Hillis? I know they don't spend much in free agency, but Hillis could possibly be had at a decent price after a bad year. Hillis' hit-the-hole-hard style would actually be a better fit than Mendenhall's constant hesitation at the line of scrimmage. Hillis in a Steeler uniform would be very intriguing.

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: The Steelers aren't going to make many free-agent signings because of their limited cap space. So it would surprise me if they chose to use that precious cap room on a player who struggled on the field for most of the season, got hurt and became a malcontent in the locker room. I believe the Steelers need to address running back in free agency, but it would be out of character for Pittsburgh to pursue Hillis.


Michael from Cleveland writes: How crazy is it to think the Colts will draft Robert Griffin III and the Browns move up to draft Andrew Luck?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: This is beyond crazy. Actually, this is the very definition of fantasy football for Browns fans.

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