AFC North: Kevin Shaffer
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|After being traded to Tampa Bay and signing a new, hefty contract, Kellen Winslow will be one of the most prominent faces of the Buccaneers' new regime.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and James Walker
When head coach Eric Mangini and general manager George Kokinis took over in Cleveland and head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik were hired in Tampa Bay, the four men instantly began re-shaping their franchises.
No move was bigger for either team than the deal the Browns and Buccaneers made for tight end Kellen Winslow at the start of free agency. In exchange for a second-round pick this year and a fifth-round choice in 2010, the Bucs got Winslow and the Browns got rid of him.
There are two ways to look at this deal. Cleveland got rid of a potential headache because Winslow was looking for a new contract and might not have fit with the new regime. On the flip side, he might be a perfect fit in Tampa and the Bucs already have turned around and given Winslow a new six-year contract worth $36.1 million.
The trade comes with potential positives and negatives for both teams. James Walker and Pat Yasinskas take a look at who might be the winner in the Winslow trade.
Why didn't Winslow fit with Cleveland? How does he fit in Tampa?
James Walker: When the Browns changed regimes, the writing was pretty much on the wall for Winslow. Mangini and Kokinis wanted to start over -- completely. Cleveland quickly went on a purge where it traded or released veterans such as Winslow, receiver Joe Jurevicius and offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer. The Browns also didn't retain in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and veteran linebackers Andra Davis and Willie McGinest. To put it bluntly, there aren't many players on Cleveland's current roster that Mangini is enamored with, because he wants to win or lose with his players. Winslow had trade value so the Browns didn't pass up the opportunity. He was also in his sixth year and wanted a new contract, so that played a factor as well. Winslow's skill sets could have fit with the Browns on the field, so I doubt this particular move had much to do with talent. But in terms of personalities, Winslow is not shy about speaking his mind, while Mangini often likes his team shrouded in secrecy. This oil-and-water combination probably would not have worked anyway. So this was a good separation for both sides.
Pat Yasinskas: Tampa Bay is starting over, too, and one team's trash is another's treasure. The new contract should make Winslow happy and he's landing in an offense that's going to be built largely around his skills. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski will build a downfield passing game around Winslow and wide receiver Antonio Bryant. While Winslow's outspoken nature caused him some problems in Cleveland, that shouldn't be an issue with the Bucs. Morris is only 32 and excels at relating to players. Morris also isn't one of those coaches who tries to control his players' actions and words at all times. He lets them be individuals and Winslow will be allowed to be himself. The change of surroundings also give Winslow a fresh start and that could help more than anything. Although there will be lofty expectations because of the contract, he won't be under the microscope as much as he was in Cleveland. Tampa Bay fans are intense, but this isn't a situation like Cleveland, where Winslow's high draft position meant anything less than perfection was failure.
How will the Browns replace him and how will the Bucs use him?
|Jerome Davis/Icon SMI|
|The Browns will attempt to replace Winslow with a committee of tight ends, including free-agent signee Robert Royal.|
James Walker: The Browns no longer have a tight end with 80-catch potential on their roster. So they are hoping to replace Winslow's production by committee. Cleveland signed former Buffalo Bills tight end Robert Royal, who could be a serviceable starter but never had more than 33 catches in a season. The Browns also have veteran Steve Heiden returning from a serious knee injury and second-year player Martin Rucker, who is still learning but has some potential. If the three tight ends can contribute a combined total of 50-60 receptions next season, I think Cleveland's coaching staff would be happy with that type of production. The tricky thing is Winslow's ability to create mismatches in the middle of the field would have made life much easier for Cleveland's quarterbacks, particularly Brady Quinn, who often likes to check down to his short and intermediate options. If Quinn is the starter, I think he is going to miss Winslow's presence the most. Winslow has tremendous hands and was one of the few consistent weapons in Cleveland's offense the past few seasons who showed up ready to play every week. So how will Winslow be utilized in Tampa's offense, Pat?
Pat Yasinskas: James, while Cleveland is going away from having a pass-catching tight end as a big part of the offense, the Bucs are going in the exact opposite direction. Tight end wasn't a big part of the offense in former coach Jon Gruden's system, but it will be with Morris and Jagodzinski. They've scrapped Gruden's West Coast offense and will go with a system that is supposed to balance the run and the pass. The Bucs don't yet know if Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich will be their quarterback. But they do know they want the quarterback throwing often to Winslow and Bryant. The Bucs have plenty of depth at tight end with Alex Smith, John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens on the roster. Those other three tight ends will get some playing time and they'll be asked to take on some blocking duties in the running game. But Winslow wasn't brought in here to be a blocker. He'll line up at tight end, but he'll also get some snaps in the slot and out wide. It's a pretty safe guess that the Bucs will be looking to get somewhere around 80 catches out of Winslow.
Did the Bucs overpay with the $36.1 million contract extension?
Pat Yasinskas: There's no doubt Tampa Bay went overboard in giving Winslow a new six-year deal that makes him the highest-paid tight end in history. In theory, that kind of contract should go to the league's best tight end. Winslow hasn't qualified as that -- yet. But the Bucs based this deal on his enormous potential. Yes, it's true he hasn't ever fully reached his potential.
The Bucs are banking Winslow can stay healthy and be the best tight end in the league. They're going to make him a focal point of the offense and his acquisition was the first big move by Dominik and Morris. The contract is a further statement about how huge a role the Bucs want Winslow to play.
James Walker: After watching Winslow the past three seasons, I think he's going to do well in Tampa, and the change of divisions will help his production to the point where fans could forget the extension.
Nothing against your NFC South, Pat. But Winslow had to face the top-flight defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens four games a year and still put up very good numbers. He had tremendous battles with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Ravens safety Ed Reed, and those two players often said Winslow was one of their toughest matchups annually. I would guess Winslow is licking his chops looking at some of the safeties and linebackers in the NFC South, compared to the personnel he had to face earlier in his career. As you mentioned, Pat, health is the only question.
As far as your contract theory, contracts are relative to the current market. Two years ago Daniel Graham of the Denver Broncos was the highest-paid tight end. Last season it was Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts. And those are not the league's two best tight ends. A year from now someone else likely will become the highest paid at the position, because that's how the market works.
How will this trade work out?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2008 STATS REC YDS TD AVG LNG 43 428 3 10.0 30
Pat Yasinskas: After firing Gruden and releasing Derrick Brooks, the Bucs were lacking star power. The Glazer family, which owns the team, likes star power and they got some flash in Winslow. He instantly gives the team a big name and his personality should help liven up a locker room that didn't have a true spirit last season. Yes, the price tag was steep and there are plenty of other needs the Bucs could have filled if they kept their second-round pick. But they would not have gotten an instant star in the second round. They get that in Winslow and, for better or worse, he'll be one of the front men for this new regime.
James Walker: For the Browns, they will probably use the additional second-round pick (No. 50 overall) on either a receiver or a running back. Cleveland's offense was abysmal and ranked No. 31 out of 32 teams in the NFL in 2008. The Browns used four different quarterbacks and couldn't get anything established on the ground or through the air. So help at running back or receiver makes the most sense. This is particularly the case if the Browns trade No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards. There have been talks involving at least one team in the New York Giants. The Philadelphia Eagles also are a possibility. In addition, Donte Stallworth's legal situation makes the receiver position a priority. The Browns need all the help they can get. So there is some pressure on Cleveland to select the right player with this pick, particularly since the team gave up one of its best players.
Who got the most of this trade?
Pat Yasinskas: Things could change in the long term if the Browns hit big with their draft picks. But there's no question the Bucs are the winner in the short term. They got a very good player, who still has the potential to become great. If he does, the price tag won't be that big a deal. I've always thought NFL general managers treat draft picks too preciously and are too hesitant to part with them. I'm glad Dominik broke that tradition because I believe that any pick beyond the first round is just a guess anyway. There's no guessing with Winslow. We already know the guy is good. Yes, he had some injury problems and has been a little controversial at times. But there's no question he's one of the most tale
nted tight ends in the league. Now, he'll get his chance to produce.
James Walker: Although I have no problem with Cleveland starting from scratch, I do also believe Tampa got the most of this trade. It will pay immediate dividends for the Buccaneers, because they get a proven commodity. No tight end Tampa would have drafted this year comes with the game-breaking ability of Winslow, particularly if they chose to draft a tight end in the second round or lower. The Browns now have two second-rounders (No. 36 overall and No. 50) to plug an additional hole. But as I mentioned, they have to nail the pick first to get value in return for this trade. With a first-year general manager leading his first draft, there certainly are no guarantees. A fifth-rounder in 2010 is pretty much a non factor. It won't help Cleveland next season, and statistically there is a little probability a fifth-round pick could ever significantly help unless the Browns found a gem. This is a "win-now” league and Tampa helped itself the most to win in 2009. The Browns might be able to help themselves with this trade down the road. Maybe.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Bengals offensive tackle Levi Jones wanted out of Cincinnati before the start of last season.
One year later, he may get his wish.
|Frank Victores/US PRESSWIRE|
|Injuries have hurt Levi Jones' production the past few seasons.|
Jones, 29, faces an uncertain future with the Cincinnati Bengals for the first time in his career. A rash of injuries has caught up to Jones and hurt his production the past couple of seasons. It has reached the stage that the Bengals are reportedly shopping him.
Jones and friend Willie Anderson, when healthy, once were one of the league's best tackle tandems. Anderson was released last season and Jones could soon follow his former teammate.
Jones' trade value is not very high. Surprisingly, offensive tackles haven't been sought this offseason as experienced players such as Orlando Pace, Kevin Shaffer and Marvel Smith are still available late in free agency. Teams interested in tackles would likely prefer signing one of these options rather than giving up a draft pick for Jones.
This week, I checked in with Scouts Inc. to get their take.
"Levi Jones is hard to predict right now because he's been injury prone, but he's not that old," said Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson. "So what they know and I don't is: Do the doctors think he can hold up? Is he somebody who is on his way out? If they can't trust him, then the Bengals almost have to get the tackle [in the draft] and there will be one there, whether it's Eugene Monroe or Andre Smith. Whoever they choose, that would certainly make some sense."
Cincinnati holds the No. 6 overall pick next month. If the Bengals take an offensive tackle, it could mark the end of Jones' tenure in Cincinnati.
|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.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- Will the Ravens be better at the start of the 2009 season than at the end of the 2008 playoffs? Baltimore Sun writers Ken Murray and Bill Ordine provide the point-counterpoint.
- The Ravens released backup inside linebacker Nick Greisen, 29, after two seasons in Baltimore.
- After losing starting tackle Stacy Andrews to free agency, Baylor star Jason Smith would fill a big hole on the Bengals' O-line -- if he lasts until pick No. 6.
- A series of cash roster bonuses, most owed to players today, has led to the release of another veteran. Cleveland cut starting right tackle Kevin Shaffer Thursday.
- Andre Frazier, a backup outside linebacker and standout special-teams player, signed a two-year, $1.375 million contract Thursday to remain in Pittsburgh.
|AP Photo/Tony Dejak|
|Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage remain on the hot seat in Cleveland.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James WalkerThere is a large cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Cleveland Browns' organization.
That cloud involves the futures of Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, general manager Phil Savage and many of the team's top players. Last year at this time Cleveland (4-9) was considered a team on the rise. Now it is merely a sinking ship. Such is life in the NFL, where yesterday's darlings can quickly become today's disappointments.
As major changes loom, a national audience will get to see one of the final chapters of the 2008 Cleveland Browns on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:30 ET) when they travel to face the Philadelphia Eagles. Cleveland has lost three straight and mercifully ends its run of five prime-time games this season.
Following a 10-6 record in 2007, expectations were very high. As a result, Browns owner Randy Lerner recently said the entire organization is under review.
Here are some of the decisions facing Lerner and the Browns:
Keep or fire Crennel?
It's assumed that Crennel will not be back with the Browns next year, despite Lerner's assertion that he will wait until the end of the year to make a decision.
There have been reports of preliminary interest in former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and longtime head coach Marty Schottenheimer. Cleveland likely wants to go the route of searching for an experienced coach who is a proven winner, and Cowher and Schottenheimer are the biggest names available.
"Randy has said that he's going to wait until the end of the season to make any kind of determination," Crennel said of his situation last week. "I think that we're going to go through the season and then we're going to sit down and talk and see where that leads."
Although many of Cleveland's players are pulling for Crennel, his resume will not look good by the end of the season. He is 24-37 entering Monday's game against Philadelphia (7-5-1). Crennel also has struggled in areas such as game and clock management, and his defense, which is his specialty, has never been ranked higher than No. 16 in four seasons.
Keep or fire Savage?
Savage's circumstance is less predictable. Browns ownership has three choices: Keep Savage, fire him or ask him to take a lesser role with the organization.
The Browns were building from the ground up when Savage took over as GM in 2005. It took two years to gut the roster and bring in his own players, and last year's 10-win season was expected to be the beginning of a good run.
Savage has deemed 2008 an aberration. But in reality, Cleveland has only had one 10-win season since returning to the NFL in 1999. Savage shares the same record as his coach at 24-37, and a loss Monday would cement three double-digit losing seasons in four years. The draft record for Savage is decent.
Savage found a franchise left tackle (Joe Thomas) and potentially a franchise quarterback (Brady Quinn). But former first-round picks in receiver Braylon Edwards and linebacker Kamerion Wimbley have been inconsistent. Some high-priced free-agents, such as tackle Kevin Shaffer and receiver Donte Stallworth, haven't panned out, while the trade for defensive tackle Shaun Rogers did.
This is what makes Savage's situation a more thought-provoking decision for Lerner. Savage has added talent, but he's also proven he's still a young GM learning on the job. In addition to his misses, high-profile mistakes such as the handling of Kellen Winslow Jr.'s staph infection and his e-mail that included profanity to a fan doesn't help his case.
"I said on the radio ... that I am an open book," said Savage, who has four years left on his deal. "I can walk with my head held high. I think we have done a lot of positive things here."
What about player changes?
Whether it's Savage or someone else making the decisions, that person will have to hit the ground running this offseason.
Players such as Winslow and former starting quarterback Derek Anderson could be on the trading block. The Browns also have starters who are pending free agents in safety Sean Jones and linebackers Willie McGinest and Andra Davis. Edwards and kick returner Joshua Cribbs, both under contract, could seek new deals in the near future.
The past 365 days have provided a hard lesson for this franchise. Next time the nation sees the Browns, it could be a totally different team based on its shoddy performance this year.
"I think the lesson learned for a lot of our players is that every season is a new season," Savage said. "It doesn't matter what you did last year. It doesn't matter what you are planning on doing next year. It matters what you are doing today."
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
|Greg Fiume/Getty Images|
|Le'Ron McClain plows his way into the end zone for a touchdown Sunday against Cleveland.|
- Baltimore is making fourth quarters look unusually easy for the NFL. For the second game in a row, the Ravens ate up clock running the ball when 71,000-plus fans and the Cleveland Browns knew what was coming. Behind the hard running of Le'Ron McClain and fresh legs of rookie Ray Rice, Baltimore used more than nine minutes of the final period on one drive by running 13 of 14 plays. We doubt Baltimore can dominate every game that way, but it's still impressive.
"It's great when we can do that, keep the defense off the field and finish the game," McClain said. "We're just sending shout-outs to the league that we have a strong team and we're going to finish strong."
- We also are convinced that there is a new special teams leader in the clubhouse in the AFC North. For the past two or three years, that mantel was undoubtedly held by the Cleveland Browns. But the Baltimore Ravens' special teams out-dueled Cleveland on Sunday and has been more consistent this year. The Ravens also have depth. Top returner Yamon Figurs was injured Sunday and Jim Leonhard filled in admirably with 99 total return yards, which didn't include another long return that was called back.
"It's amazing on this team, and [GM] Ozzie [Newsome] has done a great job," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "But we've got a lot of guys who could return, kick returns and punt returns."
- Although Cleveland's entire offensive line is not playing up to par, right tackle Kevin Shaffer is having the hardest time of the bunch. For three straight games Shaffer has been pushed around and opposing teams are smelling the weakness. Left tackle Joe Thomas has been the only consistent lineman, so opponents are testing Shaffer instead. Sunday it was the Ravens' defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had a field day with two sacks and a forced fumble.
- Everyone saw the worst of Browns starting quarterback Derek Anderson Sunday. He is a "rhythm passer" in every sense of the phrase, and when Anderson is rattled things tend to quickly snowball. Anderson was sacked five times and hit several more. So by the second half, his reads were extremely poor. All three interceptions were on throws he shouldn't have made while trying to fit balls into very tight spots.
"I expect more out of myself," Anderson said. "I expect more out of everybody else on this team. It all starts with me. If I start playing better, and if we start offensively making plays, everything is going to start rolling a little bit more."
- Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ocho Cinco is going to have a tough time putting up numbers if the first three weeks are any indication. Opponents simply refuse to let Ocho Cinco (three catches, 29 yards) beat them. He gets most of the coverage and attention in the passing game, which allows others opportunities to make plays. T.J. Houshmandzadeh nearly beat the New York Giants with 12 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown, but it wasn't enough.
- The Bengals really missed top cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the lineup against New York. Giants quarterback Eli Manning completed 26 passes to eight different receivers, and he needed every one in a 26-23 overtime win. New York often picked on replacement David Jones, who had nine tackles but only one pass defense. The Bengals are probably wondering how many of those close plays a healthy Joseph could have made.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers were an abysmal 2-of-13 on third down against the Philadelphia Eagles. That won't win many games period, let alone against a very good Philadelphia Eagles team. Obviously the pass protection (nine total sacks allowed) had a lot to do with it, but Pittsburgh's overall struggles on offense also were surprising.
|Jason Bridge/US Presswire|
|The Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to remain healthy for the team to be successful in 2008.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Now that we've traveled to see every team in minicamp, training camp and the preseason, it's time to make our All-AFC North picks for 2008.
Let's start with the offense.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Skinny: Roethlisberger has the ability and big contract to match what should be a tremendous year in 2008. He has full command of this offense and rarely misses a throw he should make. The only question is can the offensive line keep Roethlisberger upright and healthy all season?
Honorable mention: Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals
Running back: Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers
Skinny: "Fast Willie" tells us his leg is fine. We tend to believe him. Parker led the NFL in rushing before his injury last December. Therefore, health questions aside, there's no reason to believe he won't have another productive season for Pittsburgh. Rookie Rashard Mendenhall will get some of Parker's carries, but it could turn out to help keep Parker fresh in games.
Honorable mention: Jamal Lewis, Cleveland Browns
Fullback: Lawrence Vickers, Cleveland Browns
Skinny: This pick is tricky and the one we are least sure about. Vickers had a tremendous year in 2007. But he hasn't looked all that impressive this offseason and word from the Browns is that he needs to pick it up. We want to pick Lorenzo Neal of the Baltimore Ravens, but he was signed by a new team late in preseason and he's coming off a broken leg. That would be too risky.
Honorable mention: Lorenzo Neal, Baltimore Ravens
Skinny: Cleveland's Edwards is a nightmare to cover one-on-one because he can blow by you or jump over you. If Edwards cures his occasional case for the dropsies, we will begin mentioning his name next to those of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. Sure, the Holmes pick might have caught you off guard. But the Steelers' top deep threat has been the most impressive receiver in the division this offseason and we feel he's due for a monster season. Also, both receivers in Cincinnati are battling injuries.
Honorable mention: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati Bengals.
Tight end: Kellen Winslow Jr., Cleveland Browns
Skinny: In a division stacked with quality tight ends, Winslow remains a cut above the competition. Coming off an 82-catch, 1,106-yard season, Winslow is the one tight end in the AFC North that's dynamic enough to completely change the course of a game.
Honorable mention: Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers
Center: Jason Brown, Baltimore Ravens
Skinny: Jason Brown is a name not many people know, but you will this season. The four-year veteran has been the stable force on Baltimore's offensive line and has versatility to play the center and both guard positions at a high level.
Honorable mention: Hank Fraley, Cleveland Browns
Skinny: Steinbach is coming of a Pro Bowl year for the Browns and, teamed with Joe Thomas, should have another stellar year on Cleveland's left side. Cincinnati's Williams has never been flashy, but he is consistent. He started all 16 games last year and played in 98.7 percent of the team's snaps in 2007.
Tackles: LT Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns; RT Kevin Shaffer, Cleveland Browns
Skinny: Thomas is an easy pick, as he might be the best left tackle in the NFL by season's end. But picking a right tackle is where it gets dicey. We're going with the proven commodity here in Shaffer. Some of the other right tackle candidates in the AFC North are too inexperienced and unproven.
Check back later today for our All-AFC North defensive and special teams for 2008.