AFC North: Josh Wilson

Here are the latest happenings Monday evening in the AFC North:

Ravens back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Ravens don't have any major issues. The personnel and offensive and defensive schemes are pretty much the same, with the exception of new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's adding some wrinkles. Baltimore's roster is already stacked, and the team will focus primarily on taking care of its own (Haloti Ngata, Marshal Yanda) in free agency before signing a few outside players. If the Ravens had to line up next week and play a game, they could.

Biggest challenge: The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is usually reserved for later in the season, but Baltimore will host a rare Week 1 showdown against its biggest rival -- and it comes after a lengthy lockout. Pittsburgh has won most of the key games in this series the past few years, including the past two playoff meetings. Pressure is mounting on the Ravens to start winning again in this rivalry, and they have to do it with little time to prepare for the Steelers this summer.

Competition at right tackle: Despite a veteran roster, Baltimore's right tackle spot is wide open. It was a revolving door last season and one of the major reasons the Ravens struggled with pass protection. This year Baltimore has a rookie draft pick (Jah Reid) and several holdovers (Oniel Cousins, Ramon Harewood) competing for a key spot. You also can't rule out adding another tackle to the mix in free agency.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Yanda, Baltimore's starting guard, is the biggest name without a contract. Yanda will test the market, but the Ravens also will make a strong push to re-sign the versatile lineman. Cornerbacks Chris Carr and Josh Wilson, who both started last season, also will garner interest. Look for the Ravens to bring back the cheaper of the two players, with rookie Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Domonique Foxworth listed as possible starters. Former starting left tackle Jared Gaither also is a free agent, and Baltimore is expected to part ways with him after a tumultuous and injury-filled 2010 season.
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North: Morning take: Eventually, all the facts will come out and prove if Jones is correct. But Jones continues to put himself in bad spots, while the Bengals are counting on him in 2011.
  • Did the image of Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward take a major hit after being charged recently for driving under the influence?
Morning take: Similar to Jones' situation, it's safer to wait until all the facts are presented. Ward's rep also claims Ward is innocent of the charges. So time will tell who is right.
  • It will be up to the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff to earn the trust of the players once the lockout ends.
Morning take: This will be a major challenge for the Browns and rookie head coach Pat Shurmur. Not only is time very limited to learn a new offense and defense. But on the flipside, the Browns have to be very careful not to push players too hard early, which could result in injuries.
Morning take: I think Wilson is a slightly better player than Carr, but Carr could come cheaper. Carr also provides solid leadership in the locker room for the Ravens.

Assessing free-agent cornerbacks

June, 7, 2011
CB'sGetty ImagesBrent Grimes, Nnamdi Asomugha and Johnathan Joseph would be the cream of this year's free-agent crop of corners.
To some degree, every team in the AFC North could be looking at free-agent cornerbacks. The glamour position has several solid players who could hit the open market this summer.

Although a new collective bargaining agreement could change who's restricted and unrestricted, here is the AFC North blog's ranking of top available corners:

1. Nnamdi Asomugha

Skinny: Asomugha is far and away the top cornerback on the market. Quarterbacks stopped throwing his way years ago. Therefore, Asomugha will immediately cut off half the field for whichever teams signs him. But it will come at a very steep cost.

2. Brent Grimes

Skinny: Grimes worked very hard as an undrafted free agent to become a Pro Bowler in 2010. He's recorded 11 picks in the past two years. Expect the Falcons to do all they can to make sure Grimes remains in Atlanta.

3. Johnathan Joseph

Skinny: Joseph is 27 and entering his prime. He is one of the best young coverage corners in the league and has good hands to create turnovers. It's doubtful the Bengals would be willing to pay $8-$10 million per year to keep Joseph.

4. Ike Taylor

Skinny: Taylor has been consistent in Pittsburgh and now wants market value. He may price himself out of Pittsburgh this summer by chasing a big-money deal. At 31, this is probably Taylor's last chance to get a big contract. So you can't blame him if he doesn’t accept a hometown discount.

5. Antonio Cromartie

Skinny: Cromartie is long, good in coverage and very athletic. He could thrive in the right system but may struggle in others. Poor tackling prevents Cromartie from being one of the NFL's best at his position.

6. Richard Marshall

Skinny: Marshall has playmaking ability, and I think in the right system he could be a great under-the-radar signing. He's a solid tackler (88 in 2009 and 2010) and good with the ball in his hands. I think Marshall could be a potential fit in Pittsburgh if Taylor leaves the Steelers.

7. Carlos Rogers

Skinny: Rogers is a solid player who has never been able to put it all together and become a great corner. Rogers, 29, is comparable to Taylor in that both corners have poor hands. Rogers has just six interceptions the past five seasons.

8. Josh Wilson

Skinny: Wilson was solid for the Ravens last year after taking over for Fabian Washington. Baltimore drafted Jimmy Smith in the first round, increasing the chances that Wilson will be allowed to test the open market. He could be a decent No. 2 corner.
Ike Taylor, Chad Ochocinco and Lawrence VickersAP PhotoDraft-day moves by their teams could mean Ike Taylor (Steelers), left, Chad Ochocinco (Bengals), middle, and Lawrence Vickers (Browns) will be wearing different uniforms next season.
While one dream was being made last week, another was coming to an end.

Saturday in California, former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic happily took a call from the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round. Marecic was excited to be entering the NFL and knowing his destination in 2011.

Soon after, current Browns fullback and pending free agent Lawrence Vickers' phone began buzzing constantly to let the veteran know Cleveland likely drafted his replacement.

"Honestly, my first reaction was 'Wow,'" Vickers told the AFC North blog this week. "I'm amazed. I was amazed I was still a free agent and wasn't signed [by the Browns] before the deadline. I didn't understand it. But at the same time I do understand, because nothing has ever come easy to me. So I was prepared for it.

"If they want me, they want me. If they don't, they don't. As a man, you have to be prepared for anything. But in the back of my mind I thought I would be in Cleveland."

Welcome to the harsh world of the NFL.

As teams were making draft picks last week, each move to replace players and plug holes could impact what AFC North teams do in free agency. Let's take a look at where each division team stands.

Cleveland Browns

Top draft picks: DT Phil Taylor, DE Jabaal Sheard, WR Greg Little, FB Owen Marecic

Potential impact: The Browns were in need of talented players and could have as many as four Week 1 starters in this year's draft class. Health permitting, Taylor and Sheard are heavy, heavy favorites to start at defensive tackle and defensive end, respectively. Cleveland doesn't have many bodies at those positions. Little will be thrown into a receiving corps that includes Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Both have struggled and Little, who missed last season at North Carolina because of a suspension, will have every chance to compete for a starting role. But Marecic was the pick that turned some heads. The Browns were eerily quiet about Vickers' pending free agency this offseason, and speculation began to grow that the new coaching staff didn't feel he was a good fit for the West Coast offense. Those thoughts were confirmed Saturday, when Cleveland made a surprise pick for a fullback in the fourth round. Vickers, one of the top blocking fullbacks in the NFL, is expected to test the market, where he will surely get interest. The Browns did a good job of filling holes but still need to address certain areas. Safety and the right side of the offensive line remain glaring needs.

Cincinnati Bengals

Top draft picks: WR A.J. Green, QB Andy Dalton, OLB Dontay Moch, G Clint Boling

Potential impact: Cincinnati's first two picks were not a surprise, but both were telling. It likely signaled the end of the Chad Ochocinco-Carson Palmer era with the Bengals. Both veterans, who have been the faces of the franchise for years, are under contract. But Ochocinco is in the final year of his deal and is expected to be traded or released following the acquisition of Green. Palmer wants to be traded or he plans to retire, which is why the Bengals drafted Dalton. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is already projecting Dalton to be the Week 1 starter. Cincinnati should get all the value it can for Ochocinco and Palmer. It's questionable whether any team is willing to trade and pay the approximate $6 million for one year with Ochocinco. But it takes only one team. With Palmer, there will be several teams lined up and ready to pounce if the Bengals put him on the market. Cincinnati's coaching staff appears ready to move on without Palmer, so it will come down to ownership. Bengals owner Mike Brown said recently that the team has no intention of trading Palmer. The Bengals did not draft a cornerback until the seventh round (Korey Lindsey), but that probably has no bearing on pending free agent Johnathan Joseph. Cincinnati isn't expected to retain Joseph, who will be one of the league's top free agents. But the team has Adam Jones for insurance to pair with starter Leon Hall. The Bengals also want starting tailback and pending free agent Cedric Benson back, as evidenced by the team not drafting a replacement.

Baltimore Ravens

Top draft picks: CB Jimmy Smith, WR Torrey Smith, OT Jah Reid, WR Tandon Doss

Potential impact: The Ravens took one of the biggest risks in the draft by selecting Smith of Colorado. He has a long list of off-the-field issues at Colorado, but the Ravens feel confident Smith will stay out of trouble. In terms of talent, Baltimore landed a player with the potential to be the team's first shutdown corner since Chris McAlister. Smith is expected to start right away, and this impacts two pending free agents in Josh Wilson and Chris Carr. Wilson played well for Baltimore once he earned the starting job in the second half of the 2010 season. With the pickup of Smith, Wilson and Carr are no longer huge priorities in free agency. The Ravens are getting Domonique Foxworth back from a knee injury and Lardarius Webb is still on the roster. The pick of Torrey Smith in the second round fills a need for a speedy receiver to pair with Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin. He is expected to fill the No. 3 receiver role T.J. Houshmandzadeh will leave behind. Ravens coach John Harbaugh also spoke highly of Reid, the team's third-rounder. Former starting offensive tackle Jared Gaither was injured last season and has been in the doghouse for quite some time and isn't expected to return. In terms of holes, the Ravens still need an impact pass-rushing threat to pair with Pro Bowl defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Top draft picks: DE Cameron Heyward, OT Marcus Gilbert, CB Curtis Brown, CB Cortez Allen

Potential impact: The Steelers stayed true to form by drafting for depth in the first two rounds with Heyward and Gilbert. Barring injury, both players will be put in the rotation but are not expected to start. But the third and fourth rounds are where things got interesting for Pittsburgh. The Steelers went with cornerbacks in back-to-back rounds with Brown and Allen. They hope one or both rookies can make an immediate impact. That might be asking a lot for the reigning AFC champions. Brown was the second-best corner on his team at the University Texas to Aaron Williams, on whom the Steelers passed in the first round. Allen played at a small school (Citadel) and will make a significant jump to the NFL. All of these factors increase the value of Ike Taylor, who is Pittsburgh's biggest free agent. The Steelers' No. 1 corner would fill an important starting role and take a lot of pressure off the team's young corners. That way Brown, Allen, Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler can all compete for reserve roles and develop at a more gradual pace. The price tag will be the biggest question. The going rate for solid cornerbacks this offseason has been about $10 million per season. It's doubtful the Steelers are willing to pay that much to retain Taylor. Also look for the Steelers to fill their kicker positions in free agency and perhaps add another backup tailback to replace Mewelde Moore.
There are plenty of NFL draft questions in our AFC North inbox this week.

Will from Nashville, Tenn., writes: Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said that he thinks Auburn quarterback Cam Newton has "it." Do you believe this statement or do you see it as Lewis not wanting to burn bridges?

James Walker: This is not a smokescreen, Will. That the Bengals have visited with Newton and traveled to Auburn last week to hold a private workout shows they are interested. Cincinnati is taking starting quarterback Carson Palmer's retirement threats seriously, and I'm convinced the team will take one of the top quarterback prospects this year within the first three rounds. Whether it's Newton at No. 4 remains to be seen. But I believe it would be an awful pairing between a boom-or-bust player and an unstable organization that doesn't have the proper support system in place. I said the same thing two years ago about another boom-or-bust prospect, Andre Smith, although it was for different reasons.

Blake from Dayton, Ohio, writes: Being that the Bengals play in the AFC North, wouldn't it be smarter to take Alabama receiver Julio Jones No. 4 instead of Georgia receiver A.J. Green? Or is the injury too big of a concern?

Walker: The foot injury isn't that big of a deal, Blake. Jones aced the combine with the injury and will only get better once healthy. Both are great prospects, but Green remains the safer pick because he's more consistent. Jones had issues with drops in college, and that's probably the biggest difference between the two.

Thomas Jackson writes: How can you not view cornerback as the No. 1 priority for the Baltimore Ravens?

Walker: ESPN's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay both believe Baltimore will take a cornerback in the first round, Thomas. That's a possibility if the Ravens only look for the best available player at No. 26 and ignore need. With Domonique Foxworth healthy and returning next season, Lardarius Webb a year more experienced and the team likely making a push to re-sign pending free agent Josh Wilson, I don't view corner as the biggest need. Right tackle and another pass-rusher are bigger holes the Ravens should fill. I might even consider a speed burner at receiver for Baltimore ahead of a cornerback.

John Scherzo from Bel Air, Md., writes: Is there anyway the Ravens could be interested in linebacker Vernon Gholston?

Walker: John, It's hard to gauge teams' interest during this lockout, because no one is talking about players. It's not allowed, which leaves only speculation. Sometimes a change in scenery could help. But chances are if Rex Ryan couldn't get anything out of Gholston in two years with the New York Jets, he's probably a bust.

Chris from Washington, D.C., wants to know whether the Pittsburgh Steelers could trade up to land LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Walker: Virtually no chance, Chris. The Steelers are sitting at No. 31 and Peterson is a top-10 pick. Pittsburgh would have to give up most of its draft to make such a dramatic move. Recently we provided a value chart to give fans an idea of what it takes to move up and down the draft board.

Duane from Boardman, Ohio, writes: Wouldn't it be smarter for the Steelers to let cornerback Ike Taylor go if he wants $10 million per season and try to sign a younger corner?

Walker: Duane, it's too early to have a firm grasp on Taylor's value with free agency on ice because of the lockout. But I don't see the Steelers' paying Taylor or most players that type of money. With the draft before free agency, the Steelers should take a cornerback high this year for insurance. There is no guarantee Taylor will return, especially if he gets a big-money offer from another team.

Wilson from Byram, Miss., writes: What will the Cleveland Browns have to do to compete with the Steelers and Ravens year after year?

Walker: It starts with talent, Wilson. The front offices in Cleveland haven't been able to put a roster together to consistently keep up with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. There was a point in 2007 when it appeared the Browns were on the right track, but that fell apart. President Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert are the strongest tandem Cleveland's had since returning to the NFL, and they need to keep closing the gap by adding good players. After that, the coaching has to be up to par.

Eddie Kilroy from Brunswick, Ohio, writes: What are the chances that the Browns go after a linebacker in the second or third round?

Walker: The Browns are fairly comfortable with their linebackers, Eddie. Drafting for that position is more of a possibility in the middle rounds. You're probably going to see Cleveland address the defensive line and receiver positions early. The team might add a cornerback in the mix, as well. The middle and late rounds are probably when you're going to see the Browns look at positions like linebacker, running back and quarterback.
From top to bottom, the AFC North is full of talented players.

Everyone knows household names such as Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed and Chad Ochocinco. But the division also has solid, under-the-radar players who have important roles without the spotlight.

In no particular order, here are five underrated players in the division from last season.

1. Sam Koch, P, Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 81 punts, 43.6 average, 39 inside 20

Analysis: Koch's stellar year was overshadowed by Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff's record-setting season. But Koch joined Cundiff to become the 12th and 13th men on defense with Cundiff's 40 touchbacks, which tied an NFL record, and Koch's 39 punts downed inside the 20. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who is a former special-teams coach, takes the third phase of the game very seriously, and Koch is a big part of that.

2. Scott Fujita, LB, Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 51 tackles, 3.5 sacks

Analysis: Fujita was a solid free-agent signing for the Browns and played nine games last season. But as soon as he got injured in Week 10, the defense lost its toughness and went downhill. The Browns are going through a lot of transition under first-year head coach Pat Shurmur, which includes a switch to a 4-3 defense. But Fujita played much of his career in a 4-3 and should be comfortable going back to that scheme. He's expected to start, along with fellow linebackers Chris Gocong and D'Qwell Jackson.

3. Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 52 carries, 247 yards, two total touchdowns

Analysis: Two years ago, Redman was a player who would do well in practice and training camp but never got the opportunity in games. Last season the Steelers finally used their best-kept secret, and the undrafted running back was productive in a limited role. Redman averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season while spelling workhorse Rashard Mendenhall. Redman is a very tough runner who moves the chains. He likely will have an increased role in 2011, as Pittsburgh tries to do a better job of keeping Mendenhall (324 carries) fresh.

4. Josh Wilson, CB, Ravens

2010 stats: 40 tackles, three interceptions

Analysis: Last summer's trade to acquire Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks didn't garner many headlines. But the move turned out to be solid for Baltimore. Wilson got better as the season progressed and eventually replaced Fabian Washington to start nine games. There were some highs, such as Wilson's interception for a touchdown in overtime to beat the Houston Texans, and some lows, such as getting beat on the late touchdown to Roddy White in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. But overall Wilson was Baltimore's steadiest corner in the second half of last season. The Ravens will attempt to re-sign Wilson, who is a free agent.

5. Jordan Shipley, WR, Cincinnati Bengals,

2010 stats: 52 receptions, 600 yards, three touchdowns

Analysis: Shipley was taken one spot ahead of friend and former Texas teammate Colt McCoy last year, and both had productive rookie seasons. Shipley is a smart player who, despite his size, is fearless going across the middle. He quickly became a favorite of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and caught 52 passes. The Bengals may have a new quarterback next season, but Shipley should remain productive in the slot.

AFC North mock drafts

April, 7, 2011
ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both provided their latest NFL mock drafts this week.

Here is how they view things playing out in the AFC North:

Cincinnati Bengals (No. 4)

Kiper: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia

McShay: Green

Analysis: Cincinnati is the only AFC North team Kiper and McShay share the same thinking. Both believe the Bengals will take Green, the top-rated receiver in the draft. I like Green a lot, but I don't think he's the best pick for Cincinnati. It's unknown who will throw the ball to Green with franchise quarterback Carson Palmer threatening to retire. The Bengals also have plenty of young receivers, and for now Chad Ochocinco remains under contract. The Bengals would be better off addressing their front seven on defense for next season.

Cleveland Browns (No. 6)

Kiper: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama

McShay: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina

Analysis: I like the Quinn pick, but both of these selections come with questions. Quinn and Jones would address Cleveland's two biggest needs, which are defensive line and receiver. But Quinn missed all of 2010 with a suspension and would have to overcome rust next season. Jones is a dynamic talent but a bit of a reach unless Cleveland trades down. In both cases, the Browns may choose to go safer with the No. 6 overall pick.

Baltimore Ravens (No. 26)

Kiper: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado

McShay: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami

Analysis: Smith and Harris are talented prospects. But I'm not convinced Baltimore is going cornerback in the first round. The Ravens have starter Domonique Foxworth returning from knee surgery. Josh Wilson was solid last year and will be pursued by Baltimore in free agency. The team also likes young corner Lardarius Webb. Cornerback is a possibility if the Ravens stick to the best player available. But in terms of need, a right tackle and pass-rusher would be more important.

Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 31)

Kiper: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

McShay: Danny Watkins, G, Baylor

Analysis: Both players would fill needs for Pittsburgh in the secondary and offensive line. But with No. 1 corner Ike Taylor not under contract, Williams may be the better pick. The Steelers are very thin at corner and were exposed in that area at times last season. If Pittsburgh cannot re-sign Taylor, which is not a guarantee, it's a must that the team adds depth early in the draft. Williams is physical and his solid tackling would fit well with defensive coordinator's Dick LeBeau's aggressive style. I also like Harris in this spot if he makes it to No. 31.

Ravens are having contract issues

April, 4, 2011
The Baltimore Ravens were built to win now, which is why it's no surprise the team is running into contract issues. Beginning this offseason, the Ravens will have several core players seeking big-money deals within the next year.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireJoe Flacco has expressed his displeasure with not having a contract extension from the Ravens.
Starting quarterback Joe Flacco brought the issue to the forefront this past weekend when he expressed disappointment with playing out the fourth year of his rookie contract in 2011. Flacco, who is signed for two more years, has led Baltimore to three consecutive playoff appearances and set career highs in yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (93.6) last season. It's understandable that Flacco has his sights set on a new deal. But looking at Baltimore's big picture, it's also easy to see why the team wants to wait until 2012.

This year alone, the Ravens have to re-sign one of the biggest free agents available in Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. He was given the franchise tag, but it's unknown if the tag will stick when the new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Either way, the Ravens plan to make Ngata one of the highest-paid players at his position. That will not leave much for the team to hand out big-money deals to outside free agents, let alone Flacco.

Baltimore also has decisions to make on the rest of its 2011 free-agent class, which includes cornerback Josh Wilson, safety Dawan Landry, fullback Le'Ron McClain, cornerback Chris Carr and offensive tackle Jared Gaither. Backup running back Willis McGahee also is expected to be released, and the Ravens will attempt to bring him back at a lower rate. In addition to Ngata, the Ravens will spend money to keep some of these veterans.

Things will get even more tricky in 2012 when players like Flacco and starting tailback Ray Rice will be looking to cash in. Flacco is not expected to play out the fifth year of his rookie deal and Rice, a 2008 second-round draft pick, is wrapping up his four-year contract. Those two deals alone will take up much of Baltimore's resources next offseason. Key veterans such as guard Ben Grubbs and linebacker Jarret Johnson also will be part of the 2012 free-agent class.

The Ravens should once again be a contender next season. But with such a talented roster, it will be difficult to financially keep this entire group together for multiple years. Aging leaders such as linebacker Ray Lewis (35) and safety Ed Reed (32) also will not be around forever, which is why Baltimore needs to take advantage of this window and try to make another Super Bowl run.
Let's answer some questions this week on the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.

Ben Doverman writes: What do you think of TCU's Andy Dalton as a second- or third-round pick for the Bengals?

James Walker: Ben, Dalton is a decent option but I like several quarterbacks better, especially in the first two rounds. I'm not sure Dalton is NFL-ready this year, and that's what the Bengals need. They need a player who can potentially step in right away and start at quarterback in case Carson Palmer is not bluffing about retirement.

Harold Mintz from Las Vegas wants to know if Palmer is using the Bengals as a scapegoat for his decline in production.

Walker: That's a good question, Harold. But I don't think it's something that's crossed Palmer's mind when he made his trade demands. Palmer knows he's not playing as well as 2005 or putting up the same numbers. But he's also confident he can help a contender with the right pieces around him, and I agree. At 31, I'm not sure Palmer can carry a team by himself anymore. But he's still better than a lot of starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

David from Fontainebleau, France, doesn't want Cincinnati to draft another quarterback considering its poor history.

Walker: I understand your concerns, David. But I'm not sure they have a choice. Perhaps the Bengals can go the route of trades or free agency. But with the lockout, there is no telling how long that will take. The NFL draft is a certainty in April, and I think the Bengals would be wise to select a possible replacement when they can.

Stevie J. from Charm City wants to know if it's possible the Ravens trade up to draft LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Alabama receiver Julio Jones.

Walker: Peterson is out unless the Ravens want to trade their entire draft, Stevie J. Peterson is probably going in the top seven. Baltimore is at No. 26. I like Jones but don't think he's on the Ravens' radar, either. He's probably a top-15 pick. In my opinion, receiver is not a big enough need for the Ravens to trade multiple picks.

Dave from Newark, Del., writes: I am curious as to what is going on with Fabian Washington in the offseason?

Walker: Washington is a free agent and probably won't return to Baltimore. He lost his confidence last season and was eventually benched. The emergence of players like Josh Wilson and Lardarius Webb also makes him expendable. Washington is a good athlete, and if he gets his confidence back he may be able to help another team.

Bob K. from Portsmouth, Ohio, writes: Now that the NFL is locked out, how is it that teams can still work out and scout players?

Walker: College players who are yet to be drafted technically are not part of the NFLPA. They soon will be. But for now it's safe for NFL teams to communicate with college players and work them out.

If you have any additional questions on the AFC North, please send them to our division inbox.

Walker's weekend mailbag

March, 12, 2011
Let's see what is in the weekend mailbag.

Michael H from San Antonio, Texas, wants to know how likely is it for the Cleveland Browns to trade the No. 6 overall pick.

James Walker: There's always a possibility, Michael, and this is a great year to do it, because there are a lot of good prospects in the top 20. The Browns wanted to trade down last year but could not generate enough interest in their seventh pick. This year, there will be several teams looking to move up depending on how the draft board shakes out. But I think the Browns, who need more star players, would be wise to take the best player at No. 6.

Eddie Kilroy from Brunswick, Ohio, writes: With the Browns switching to a 4-3 defense, what will this mean for Ahtyba Rubin? Do you see him having success in this system?

Walker: Eddie, Rubin had a breakout season in 2010, recording 82 tackles and two sacks. But I think he wore down in the final month of the season. Playing a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is not easy, because you face constant double-teams. But having four defensive linemen on the field should help Rubin. The technique and responsibilities are different, but it's more conventional and easier to learn.

Aaron B. Huntington, W.Va., wants to know why I think the Cincinnati Bengals will need at least two years to rebuild.

Walker: Aaron, I usually view the NFL on a year-to-year basis, because things can change quickly. Based on the inner turmoil and what's on their roster, I don't project the Bengals to make the playoffs in 2011. Therefore, they are at least two years away from contending. It might be longer if starting quarterback Carson Palmer is traded or retires. Obviously, Palmer doesn't view the Bengals as contenders next season or he would not threaten to retire. Listen to your quarterback.

Will from Nashville, Tenn., writes: How much of a disaster would it be for the Bengals to draft a quarterback with the No. 4 pick?

Walker: Will, the situation is fluid and has many variables. First, the Bengals have to decide what to do with Palmer. If they let him sit on the roster and hope he returns in September, it might not be wise to invest the No. 4 pick in a quarterback. Cincinnati should probably get "Palmer insurance" in the second or third round. But if the team softens its stance and decides it's best to trade Palmer, it's not a bad idea to try to get the best quarterback available, because that player will definitely be your starter in 2011. From there, the Bengals would have to decide whether Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert is best for their team.

John from Maryland writes: Is it more likely the Baltimore Ravens use a first-round draft pick on a corner or snag one in free agency?

Walker: Baltimore's intention is to re-sign its own free-agent corners: Josh Wilson and Chris Carr. If they keep both, I don't think the Ravens will add another cornerback until after the first round. Baltimore needs help in other areas, such as right tackle.

Cooper from Baltimore writes: If the Ravens are expected to part ways with tailback Willis McGahee because of his contract, do you possibly see a trade?

Walker: Cooper, McGahee is to make $6 million next season. So his contract is probably too large for a trade. Just as the Ravens don't want to pay McGahee that kind of money, neither do other teams. Baltimore will cut the running back and interested teams can simply wait for that day, then offer McGahee a price they are comfortable with.

Ken from Washington, D.C., wants to know if the Pittsburgh Steelers could trade up to get LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson or Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara.

Walker: Not likely, Ken. Peterson is a lock for the top 10, and Amukamara is probably not far behind. With Pittsburgh holding the No. 31 overall pick, it would have to give up too much to move that high in the draft.

Gary Thomas from Swansea, UK, writes: Leading up to the draft, how far will an organization go to hide its hand over a potential pick?

Walker: This is the time of year when you can least believe what you hear, see and read, Gary. There will be reports all over the place with various information, misinformation and smoke screens. It's just part of the competitive business where everyone is secretive and wants to get an edge on other teams. There are certain things you can get a solid read on, such as visits and private workouts. Teams only have a certain number of players they can meet with leading up to the draft. Plus, valuable time is being invested. So I think that's an accurate gauge.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 10, 2011
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore's offensive line gradually fell apart as the 2010 season progressed, and it affected both the running and passing game. That is why the Ravens' biggest need entering next month's draft is offensive tackle. The Ravens tried Marshal Yanda, Tony Moll and Oniel Cousins at right tackle and never found the right combination to pair with Michael Oher. Even Oher struggled at times on the left side. If the Ravens are fortunate enough to find a true left tackle in the draft with the No. 26 pick, they could put Oher back at right tackle, where he thrived as a rookie.

Pass rush is a concern but not nearly as pressing. Some mock drafts also have the Ravens taking a cornerback. Josh Wilson and Chris Carr are both free agents. But if one or both were re-signed, I think the Ravens would feel more comfortable with their secondary than people think. Starter Domonique Foxworth is returning from a knee injury, and Lardarius Webb still has room for growth.

Cincinnati Bengals

When you're picking so high in the draft, you have a variety of needs. The Bengals own the No. 4 overall pick -- the highest in the AFC North -- and could go several ways.

Currently, most of the attention has been put on Cincinnati's quarterback position after Carson Palmer's threat to retire. The Bengals say they're taking this situation seriously, and speculation has increased that they might be interested in Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who reportedly will hold a private workout for Cincinnati.

But unless the Bengals are 100 percent certain they will trade Palmer or he will retire, they may want to address other needs in the first round, like the defensive line. Cincinnati needs more help with its pass rush up front. The Bengals can always come back and draft "Palmer insurance" in the second round. Prospects include Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, Florida State's Christian Ponder or TCU's Andy Dalton.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns' two biggest needs are wide receiver and defensive line, and they could really be 1A and 1B. Cleveland could have a chance to improve both positions with the No. 6 overall pick.

Cleveland's passing game needs help. Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy had no one to throw the ball to last season. That really showed in the final two games, when the stiff defenses of the Ravens and Steelers put a hurting on McCoy. A legitimate No. 1 threat like A.J. Green could be just what they need in rookie head coach Pat Shurmur's new West Coast offense.

Defensively, Cleveland is very thin on the defensive line. There are very good prospects this year at defensive end and defensive tackle in the top 10, and the Browns could have their choice of several. Cleveland is switching to a 4-3 defense, where the linemen in the trenches are very important. If the Browns don't patch up their defensive line, they could get run over this season in this physical division.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh has very few holes to fill, and its needs are clear-cut. The team could use an upgrade and depth at cornerback and the offensive line.

Although not by much, the need at cornerback is probably more pressing, especially if the Steelers can't re-sign No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor. The lack of depth in Pittsburgh's secondary was exposed in Super Bowl XLV, as the Green Bay Packers used three- and four-receiver sets to pick apart Dick LeBeau's defense. Opponents will continue to follow that blueprint until Pittsburgh finds a counter, and it starts with getting better cornerbacks.

The offensive line has been an issue for years. Pittsburgh could use help at either guard or tackle. The Steelers hit big last year in the first round with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. Another blue-chip lineman could go a long way toward helping get the Steelers back in title contention.
Here are the latest happenings Wednesday evening in the AFC North:
  • Clark Judge of CBS Sports reports Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer remains serious about retirement.
  • Pro Football Focus writes Baltimore Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson is better than both Johnathan Joseph of the Cincinnati Bengals and Ike Taylor of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  • Ravens safety and professional boxer Tom Zbikowski says teammate Haloti Ngata could be a heavyweight champion with just a year of training.
  • Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer takes a look at the possibility of Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers falling to the Browns at No. 6.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:

  • Is running back Tiki Barber a good fit for the Cleveland Browns?
Morning take: Peyton Hillis is the starter in Cleveland, and the team is hoping for a healthy return of Montario Hardesty (knee). With the Browns trying to get younger, I don't see a 36-year-old Barber fitting in the equation.

  • Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Browns coach Pat Shurmur were among those at Auburn's pro day.
Morning take: The Bengals are getting another look at quarterback Cam Newton, while both Ohio teams were checking out defensive lineman Nick Fairley.
Morning take: Taylor, a pending free agent, is still doing features on the Steelers' team website. Good sign?
Morning take: Cornerback Josh Wilson and guard Marshal Yanda are the two biggest free agents the Ravens want to retain. Baltimore has a chance to keep both.