AFC North: L.J. Smith

Remember last year?

June, 21, 2010
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Austin from Charleston, SC, writes: Hey JW, can you run one of those pieces soon where you show the trash talk from last preseason that just makes the fans look silly?

Our community seems to enjoy these posts. It's our way of keeping everyone accountable for their statements in the AFC North blog.

Upon Austin's request, here's another batch of classics from a year ago:

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • "I will just say that I fully expect the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers to be the greatest Steelers team in their illustrious existence. This year the Steelers will be blowing teams out with defense, with offense, with special teams and with grit and determination and the will to win again. Brady and the Pats are going to be playing second fiddle to Roethlisberger and the Steelers."
  • "Steelers have a real good shot at 14-2 this year."
  • "The Steelers can't ask for an easier schedule."
  • "The best thing that Mike Tomlin does for the Steelers is make sure that the team understands there are no easy games in football."
  • "I CAN SMELL TITLE No. 7."
Cincinnati Bengals

  • "The Bungals may just be talented enough to make a play this year!"
  • "Not only will the Bengals not make the playoffs, but every team that drafts [Chad Ochocinco] for their fantasy team will not make the playoffs, either."
  • "The Bengals have a new motto for this season: Fight back! LOL, I’m sorry, that sounds lame."
  • "Yeah it is pretty lame, but it beats last year’s "Roll over and play dead!"
  • "It would be nice to think that the Bengals can turn it around this year. However, they remain a couple of players away from being a couple of players away."
Baltimore Ravens

  • "Peyton Manning will do no such thing. He doesn’t have Marvin Harrison anymore, and secondly we have the fastest--yes the fastest--secondary in the league. I don't see hardly any team throwing bombs on us like they used to."
  • "As I have been saying all along, what a blunder of a move Ozzie made by drafting Michael Oher. Had Ozzie passed on Oher, he could have had both an impact WR and a starting OL."
  • "Ravens will win AT LEAST 12 games. RAVENS WILL...WILL...win the division this year. Anyone remember how many close games the Stealers should've lost?"
  • "L.J. Smith is huge for the Ravens; especially against the Steelers."
Cleveland Browns

  • "The Browns needn't worry about their fan base sticking with the team. At some point the Browns will put together a rebuilding effort that works. It may already be happening before our eyes."
  • "The Browns are rebuilding the right way. They're laying down the foundation of the football team."
  • "A number of Cleveland fans are confused, nervous, or dispassionate about Mangini and Kokinis' first draft, but I totally understand it."
  • "A year of Brady Quinn as starter should be an improvement."
  • "I would take 1. Derek Anderson 2. Joe Flacco 3. Carson Palmer 4. Ben Roethlisberger."

AFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
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Baltimore Ravens

Potential unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Potential restricted free agents: OT Jared Gaither, K Billy Cundiff, S Dawan Landry, CB Fabian Washington, P Sam Koch, OG Chris Chester, QB John Beck, QB Troy Smith, OT Tony Moll, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Prescott Burgess, WR Mark Clayton, WR Demetrius Williams

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Ravens have a ton of quality free agents. It will be interesting because Baltimore is the only division team which has to abide by the "Final Eight Plan" for making the divisional playoffs. This will restrict Baltimore from making a lot of moves. Therefore, expect the team to keep most of its key restricted free agents while trying to explore the trade market. On the unrestricted side, the Ravens are negotiating with receiver Derrick Mason and are expected to keep him. But two players who could get some interest in the open market are defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. Baltimore likes both players but could lose at least one.

Cincinnati Bengals

Potential unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams, TE J.P. Foschi

Potential restricted free agents: LB Brandon Johnson, LB Rashad Jeanty, OL Evan Mathis, C Kyle Cook, DE Frostee Rucker, CB David Jones, LB Abdul Hodge, QB Jordan Palmer, TE Daniel Coats, DT Shaun Smith

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Bengals have yet to announce their tenders, so this list could change by Thursday evening. But traditionally they are not big spenders in free agency and will stay true to that even with an uncapped year. Cincinnati could make one or two decent outside signings that may help the team. Finding a receiver would be the most likely target. The most interesting in-house name is offensive guard Bobbie Williams, who likely will test the market. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also would like to keep veteran Roy Williams and Tank Johnson. But the team hasn't made a major push for either player before they're let loose Friday.

Cleveland Browns

Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Potential restricted free agents: RB Jerome Harrison, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers, S Brodney Pool, S Abram Elam, DE Matt Roth

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: Cleveland has the money to spend and the biggest talent deficit. So look for the Browns to attempt to make up ground in free agency. Major names like defensive end Julius Peppers and tailback Thomas Jones have been mentioned as possibilities for Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Internally, the Browns should be interested in keeping Harrison and Vickers in their backfield. Jackson also has value. None of their unrestricted players are priorities for the team and will be allowed to hit free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend , FB Carey Davis, OG Darnell Stapleton

Potential restricted free agents: OT Willie Colon, CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda, TE Matt Spaeth

Franchise tag: K Jeff Reed

What to expect: The Steelers are pretty predictable. Pittsburgh intends to keep all of its restricted free agents, get a long-term deal complete with Reed, who has the franchise tag, and let nearly all of their unrestricted free agents test the market. The exception is Clark, who the Steelers targeted as a priority but has yet to reach a long-term extension before Friday's deadline. Negotiations have been ongoing and should go to the final hour to decide whether both sides can come to an agreement or allow Clark to test the market.

Free agency: AFC North

February, 15, 2010
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AFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

An early look at the free-agent situation in the AFC North.

Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.

Baltimore Ravens

Mason
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThe Ravens' already-thin receiving corps will take a big hit if Derrick Mason retires.
Unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, K Billy Cundiff, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Key figures: Derrick Mason is contemplating retirement. But if he wants to play, the Ravens have every intention of keeping their leading receiver. Look for Baltimore also to make a push for another significant addition at receiver to assist the development of budding quarterback Joe Flacco. Sleeper players on this list include the two defensive linemen: Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards. The Ravens like both players and will probably make a push to keep at least one on the roster. Baltimore also lacks cornerback depth and might elect to bring back Frank Walker, despite his penchant for giving up big plays and committing penalties.

Cincinnati Bengals

Unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, DT Shaun Smith, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams

Key figures: Bobbie Williams is an interesting name. He’s one of Cincinnati’s most consistent offensive linemen over the last several years, but he turns 34 in September. Kicker Shayne Graham, who was franchised last season, had a solid career in Cincinnati. But he missed kicks in big spots, potentially ending his run with the Bengals. Running back Larry Johnson was third string in Cincinnati and should get more playing time elsewhere in 2010.

Cleveland Browns

Unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Key figures: This is not an impressive list as most of Cleveland's key free agents -- such as Jerome Harrison, Lawrence Vickers and D'Qwell Jackson -- are restricted. Mike Furrey is a high-character player that coach Eric Mangini likes on his football team, and he might be retained. The remaining players on this list likely will hit the open market. The Browns have an interesting decision to make with Harrison, who led the team in rushing after a tremendous second half of the 2009 season. Harrison could garner some interest as a restricted free agent if the Browns do not offer a high enough tender.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, NT Casey Hampton, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, K Jeff Reed, CB Deshea Townsend

Key figures: The Steelers are aiming to keep most of their key veterans, while infusing some youth through the draft. All indications are the team will offer extensions to safety Ryan Clark and kicker Jeff Reed. Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is the biggest name on this list. But he's a strong candidate for the franchise tag, because there is no full-time replacement on the roster. This offseason probably will mark the end of tailback Willie Parker's tenure in Pittsburgh. Parker, 29, helped lead the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins during his career. But various ailments since initially breaking his leg in 2007 hampered his production.

Morning take: Palmer's elbow is fine

December, 15, 2009
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Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North:
  • Amid questions brewing about his arm strength, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer says his elbow is "101 percent healthy."
Morning take: The Bengals are choosing not to go deep, which has worked most of this season. But if Cincinnati wants to reach its lofty goals, it will need to take shots deep at some point.
  • Is it time for the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) to panic after losing five straight?
Morning take: I agree with this article that panic doesn't help win games. The Steelers need better execution and effort.
Morning take: It's hard to envision Cribbs getting 25 carries a game and play all the special teams. The Wildcat fits Cribbs fine for now.
Morning take: The ankles are ailing starter Todd Heap and backup L.J. Smith. The potential absence of both could impact Baltimore's scheme to change somewhat against the Chicago Bears.

Morning take: Timmons re-tweaks ankle

September, 17, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:
  • Starting linebacker Lawrence Timmons re-tweaked his sprained left ankle, making his status unknown for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.
Morning take: Backup receiver Limas Sweed also sprained his foot Wednesday, and it will be interesting to see if those two will be healthy enough by kickoff.
  • Speaking of health, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Tavares Gooden and tight end L.J. Smith returned to practice and expect to play against the San Diego Chargers.
Morning take: This should be one of the best games of the week, and the Ravens can certainly use all of their good players in the lineup.
  • After catching just one pass last week, Cleveland Browns top receiver Braylon Edwards is struggling to fit in.
Morning take: Cleveland’s offense doesn’t seem to fit Edwards’ strengths. Either Edwards will have to tailor his game or the coaches will have to find better ways to get him the football.
  • Cincinnati Bengals rookie right tackle Andre Smith (foot) probably won’t practice for another week or two.
Morning take: I don’t expect Smith to be a factor until at least October. Smith never got the chance to get into football shape this summer, so that will be his next challenge once the foot heals.

Ravens preseason observations

August, 24, 2009
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  AP Photo/Gail Burton
  Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata picked off Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BALTIMORE, Md. -- The Ravens defeated the New York Jets, 24-23, in the second preseason game for both teams.

Here are some observations on Baltimore from Monday's game:

  • Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata looks poised for a Pro Bowl year, and he was a disruptive force all first half against New York. On the second play of the game, Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez threw an interception to Ngata, who dropped back in coverage and returned it for a 24-yard touchdown. He is one of the few 340-plus pound defensive linemen that can pull off that play. Ngata also bullied his way through New York's offensive line to pressure Kellen Clemens into another interception in the second quarter, this time picked off by Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain and returned 16 yards for another score. Baltimore's starters led New York's starters by 14 points at halftime thanks to those two plays.

    "Really, without our two big defensive plays, it was a very competitive first half-a 7-7 game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
  • Ravens starting quarterback Joe Flacco hit six different receivers for the second straight week, which is a good sign. Flacco wasn't as accurate as his preseason debut against the Washington Redskins, but spreading the ball around more is one of the things Baltimore's coaching staff is asking of Flacco in his second season. He also made several nice throws in the first half that led to one touchdown drive. Another potential scoring drive ended on a botched field-goal attempt. The best throw of the night was a double-pump to Derrick Mason for 43 yards. Flacco finished 8 of 18 for 120 yards.
  • Baltimore's run defense showed some rare holes. A unit that is usually air-tight against the run blew several gap assignments in the first half. Leon Washington gave the Ravens' starters the most trouble with 48 yards in the first half on eight carries, an average of six yards per attempt.

    "We gave up too much on the ground in the first half, especially against the draws," Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "We have to get off blocks better."
  • It looks like the kicking competition between rookie Graham Gano and Steve Hauschka continues to favor Hauschka. Gano got the first shot at kicking duties Monday and sailed a 46-yard attempt wide right in the first half. Hauschka responded by making a 42-yard attempt in the fourth quarter to widen the gap. Hauschka also made a pair of field goals last week against Washington.
  • Ravens backup quarterback Troy Smith had a lot of trouble reading New York's defense, which is somewhat surprising since he practiced against the same scheme under Ryan for two years. For instance, Smith threw two interceptions on the same drive with a pair of awful reads. The first was called back due to offsetting penalties. But two attempts later, he tried to squeeze a ball to receiver Demetrius Williams through double coverage and Marquice Cole was waiting to pick it off. Smith finished the night 4 for 9 for 84 yards and an interception.
  • Ravens tight end L.J. Smith suffered a hamstring pull in the third quarter that kept him out for the remainder of the game. Although the severity is unknown, Smith has a history of injuries in the league and it is once again showing up in Baltimore.
  • Second-year receiver Justin Harper continues to impress in the preseason. He caught a 51-yard yard reception from Smith streaking down the right sideline. Harper had two catches for 62 yards.
 
  US Presswire
  Heading into training camp, Carson Palmer, left, is healthy, Brady Quinn, center, is fighting for the starting job and Le'Ron McClain may see more time at fullback.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The AFC North blog made it to every minicamp this offseason for the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers and came away with a great feel for each team's strengths and weaknesses heading into training camp.

With that in mind, here are 10 things that I learned about the AFC North during my trip around the division:

10. Bengals are getting meaner

Analysis: Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis set the tone early with his team motto for 2009: "Fight back!" It's fitting because the Bengals have a lot to prove this year, especially with newfound expectations. The offense is trying to prove it can return to form with a healthy quarterback in Carson Palmer, and the defense is out to prove last year's solid performance wasn't a fluke. The result was multiple team fights and plenty of shoving and jawing during Cincinnati's three-day minicamp. When I joked with several players afterward that they're fighting too early and need to save it for cameras when "Hard Knocks" films training camp, one player hinted it was just the beginning. As long as no injuries occur, this could be good in the long run when the Bengals play tough rivals such as the Ravens and Steelers.

9. Fewer carries for Le'Ron

Analysis: On the surface, it appears the Ravens could play Le'Ron McClain more at fullback than last season. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron says too much is being made of this and the team isn't switching McClain's position. But from what I saw in mandatory minicamp, McClain and Ray Rice shared the first-team backfield with McClain often lining up in front of Rice. Take that for what it is. If Rice, who packed on some noticeable muscle, improves in his second year and Willis McGahee stays healthy, there's a good chance McClain will not lead the Ravens in rushing again this season.

 
  Michael Fabus/Getty Images
  After waiting his turn, Lawrence Timmons hopes to take advantage of his opportunity to be a starter.

8. Browns' offense could struggle

Analysis: Perhaps the most underwhelming unit on either side of the football that I watched this offseason was Cleveland's offense. My impression was this group won't be too exciting or dynamic this year. Instead, the Browns' offense appeared very safe with the goal of getting first downs, not touchdowns. Many players were shuffling in and out of various positions, particularly at receiver and on the offensive line. The new coaching staff, led by Eric Mangini, is still learning the players, and likewise the players had a lot thrown at them trying to learn a new system. So overall, not much looked in sync. There were various mistakes made throughout minicamp, both mentally and physically, which resulted in players running laps. The quarterbacks were decent but not overly impressive. But we will get back to that situation later.

7. Timmons is ready

Analysis: Lawrence Timmons is one of the best pure athletes in the division, but in Pittsburgh the former first-round pick was unable to make the starting lineup until his third season. Now Timmons is ready after developing and learning behind James Farrior and Larry Foote, who was released this offseason and signed by the Detroit Lions. Timmons fit right in with his veteran defensive teammates in minicamp. He wasn't guessing because he has been in the system for three years now, and he looked fluid getting to the football. The Steelers have high hopes for Timmons, who has a chance to be a breakout player in the division and yet another great linebacker under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the top stories Friday in the AFC North:

Morning take: There seems to be varying reports on Cincinnati's interest, or lack thereof, in Ellis. He has a connection with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, so we will see if anything develops.

Morning take: With injuries to tight ends Todd Heap, L.J. Smith and Quinn Sypniewski, Drew is getting a lot of reps right now with the starters. Signing early doesn't hurt the rookie, either.

Morning take: For most NFL players this isn't much of a news item. But when it happens to Roethlisberger, it is a big deal for two days.

  • Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini said he won't decide on starting quarterback Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson until the exhibition season, according to Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Morning take: If the team wants a full evaluation of its two quarterbacks, preseason games have to be a part of the equation. Expect a decision sometime around the third preseason game.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the top stories Tuesday in the AFC North:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Evander "Ziggy" Hood is starting to impress during offseason workouts.

Morning take: Hood is in a good spot in Pittsburgh. He will be in the rotation at defensive line but not as a starter, which will give him reps for experience and yet enough time to learn the NFL game.

  • Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Leon Hall pleaded guilty to reckless operation of a vehicle following an April 5 incident. He is required to perform 64 hours of community service and attend a three-day driving program.

Morning take: Now that the judicial system has run its course, it is up to the league to decide whether it wants to take further action for Hall's off-the-field misconduct.

Morning take: With starter Todd Heap (back) and backing L.J. Smith (groin) still recovering from injuries, rookie Davon Drew is getting a lot of reps this offseason. But if everyone gets healthy this summer, this could turn out to be an area of strength for Baltimore.

Morning take: I question if Williams, a natural 4-3 defender, will ever be fully comfortable playing in a 3-4. It will be up to the new coaching staff in Cleveland to get the best out of Williams in an unnatural role.

Inside the AFC North

May, 28, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

 
  Michael Fabus/Getty Images
  Ryan Mundy has been seeing action with the No. 1 defense.

Here are several notes and observations this week in the AFC North:

  • A player who is turning some heads in Pittsburgh this offseason is Steelers backup safety Ryan Mundy. The second-year player is getting a lot of first-team reps as starter Ryan Clark continues to rehab his shoulder. Mundy is a heady player who is taking advantage of his opportunities with a good minicamp and solid workouts. If he continues to improve, Mundy may be able to help Pittsburgh in sub packages this year.
  • Can Cleveland Browns receiver and return specialist Joshua Cribbs play defense? It appears we will find out this year. Although the Browns and Cribbs are being pretty quiet about the plans, the team is thinking of ways to use Cribbs' unique talents on defense in 2009, possibly at safety. Cribbs has been among the team leaders in special-teams tackles since he joined the Browns in 2006, and Cleveland is hoping to add some of that aggressiveness to the defense.
  • The Baltimore Ravens continue to catch bad breaks at tight end. Most recently, reserve Quinn Sypniewski needed additional knee surgery after missing all of last season. He could miss part of training camp. Starting tight end Todd Heap (back) and free-agent signee L.J. Smith (groin) also have been recovering from ailments. The Ravens are hoping to implement the tight ends more in the passing game this year.
  • It's still unknown if Cincinnati Bengals star receiver Chad Ochocinco will show up for the team's mandatory minicamp June 19-21. His absence would be somewhat of a buzz kill to what's been a good offseason in the Queen City. Despite Ochocinco's silence, there is reason to believe he will be there. Last year, Ochocinco showed up despite numerous trade demands. But if he decides to sit out minicamp this season to prove a point, the fine is relatively small. Per league rules, the maximum the Bengals can penalize Ochocinco is a little less than $9,000. He already bypassed a $250,000 workout bonus this offseason.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the top stories Wednesday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Because of his pedigree, the Moon Township native and former Penn State center has a chance to become a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. But Shipley must first prove he can play at the next level.

Morning take: Palmer is extremely confident in his team this season. It will be interesting to see if that optimism translates to on-the-field success.

Morning take: Sypniewski was a decent addition to Baltimore's offense when healthy. But in the past couple of months, the Ravens signed veteran tight end L.J. Smith and drafted Davon Drew, putting Sypniewski's roster spot at risk this summer.

Morning take: Last year, young corners Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright had no starting-caliber players behind them when they struggled. Now competition at the position should help the Browns.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Steelers

My ranking: No. 1

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

Baltimore Ravens

My ranking: No. 7

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

Cincinnati Bengals

My ranking: No. 19

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

Cleveland Browns

My ranking: No. 29

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

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

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the top stories Wednesday in the AFC North:

  • The Cincinnati Bengals are working Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and rookie first-rounder Andre Smith at right tackle this week.

Morning take: If Smith isn't good enough to play left tackle and protect Carson Palmer's blind side, then the Bengals should not have taken him with the sixth overall pick. Now they're on the hook to pay a potential right tackle left tackle money at approximately $50 million.

  • Could a fear of flying be the reason Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison isn't going to the White House Thursday?

Morning take: I'm not sure I buy this one. Harrison's fear of flying may be legit, but he manages during the football season. Plus a drive or train ride to Washington D.C. from Pittsburgh could be additional options.

  • Baltimore Ravens starting tight end Todd Heap is sitting out offseason workouts with back issues.

Morning take: Both Heap and fellow tight end L.J. Smith have missed practice time this offseason with injuries. The Ravens need at least one of these tight ends to stay healthy in 2009.

  • The representative for Cleveland Browns kick returner Joshua Cribbs will demand a trade if Cribbs doesn't receive a new contract.

Morning take: A trade would be very tough for Cleveland. Cribbs is excellent at what he does, but what could the Browns realistically get in return for a special-teams player?

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens receiver Derrick Mason has been the center of a lot of conversation this offseason.

  Mason

Mason is recovering from a shoulder injury. He also publicly stated he wants more security with a contract extension, and the depth behind him has been the subject of debate.

Yet, Mason was his usual lively self during the first day of Baltimore's mandatory minicamp. He admits he is still not 100 percent but was out participating in some, not all, of the drills with his teammates.

"It's a good thing I don't have to play; it's May," Mason said candidly. "If it was the Super Bowl, of course I would play. But it's May and I'm just trying to do what I need to do to get better.

"Am I where I want to be? No, I'm not because I'm not fully healthy."

Mason was the team's leading receiver last year with 80 catches for 1,037 yards. He didn't have much help in the passing game as the next leading receiver was Mark Clayton, who had just 41 receptions.

To help fill the gaps, the Ravens added tight end L.J. Smith to pair with starter Todd Heap. The speedy Demetrius Williams also is returning from injury, and the team is trying out three veteran receivers this weekend in Jerry Porter, Kelley Washington and Tab Perry with the goal of being a more complete offense.

"It's only going to help us," Mason said. "Now you have to pay attention a lot more to those guys than the guys who are outside."

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