AFC North: Larry Fitzgerald

Santonio Holmes, Aaron FranciscoKirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
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This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.

Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium

Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes played pitch and catch so effortlessly that it seemed as if they were in a backyard.

The two were, in fact, on one of sports’ biggest stages, and the Arizona Cardinals were powerless to stop them at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.

A Larry Fitzgerald 64-yard touchdown reception had given the upstart Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game. After a holding penalty moved the Steelers back to their own 12-yard line, Roethlisberger and Holmes went to work.

They connected three times in moving the Steelers to the Cardinals’ 6-yard line with less than a minute to play.

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A first-down pass from Roethlisberger to Holmes in the back left corner of the end zone looked like it would give the Steelers the go-ahead touchdown. But a leaping Holmes could not hang on to the ball.

“When I threw it and it looked like he had it, I was celebrating and I just remember, ‘Oh man,’ but coming back to the huddle I was encouraging. He wasn’t down at all,” Roethlisberger said recently. “He was disappointed he didn’t catch it, but there was no worry about going to him on the next play.”

Roethlisberger did just that.

After eluding the Cardinals’ pass rush and going through his progression of reads, Roethlisberger spied Holmes in the opposite corner of the end zone where he had almost made the game-winning catch a play earlier.

Three Cardinals defensive backs were also in the area, but Roethlisberger threw the pass anyway.

“When it came off my hand, I thought the defender (cornerback Ralph Brown) in front was going to turn around,” Roethlisberger said. “I really thought it was intercepted when I let go of it, but it ended up just over his hand and where [Holmes] could make a play.”

Roethlisberger had thrown the ball where only Holmes could make a play on it. And Holmes turned in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history when he leaped for the ball and then got both feet inbounds by inches after pulling it in.

The toe-tapping reception stood up after an official review, and it put the exclamation point on Holmes' nine-catch, 131-yard performance.

The defense stifled a last-gasp drive by the Cardinals, giving the Steelers their sixth Super Bowl victory, and Holmes earned game MVP honors.

 
James HarrisonMark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT
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This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Please vote for your choice as the Steelers' most memorable play.

Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium

There is some delicious irony to one of the most defining plays in Super Bowl history.

Had Troy Polamalu improvised after correctly diagnosing what the Arizona Cardinals were going to do at the end of the first half in Super Bowl XLIII, there is a good chance he would have collided with outside linebacker James Harrison.

And there is an even better chance that the Steelers would not have won a sixth Super Bowl title.

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Polamalu stayed put even after recognizing the Cardinals’ formation and Harrison improvised, dropping into coverage. Harrison intercepted the Kurt Warner pass that would have given the upstart Cardinals a halftime lead, and rumbled from one end zone to the other. When the Cardinals finally tackled the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year with no time left in the second quarter, he had completed one of the most astounding plays in NFL history. Harrison scored the touchdown that allowed the Steelers to take a 17-7 lead into halftime.

The Steelers ultimately beat the Cardinals 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII, and given the 10- or 14-point swing at the end of the first half, simple math is all that is needed to determine the significance of Harrison’s 100-yard interception return.

“We don’t win the Super Bowl if he doesn’t catch that and score,” Polamalu said. “If he catches it [but doesn’t score], we lose the Super Bowl.”

That is anything but hyperbole, and Harrison's play came after the Cardinals had driven to the Steelers’ 1-yard line near the end of the second quarter.

Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald lined up in the slot with Anquan Boldin to the outside on the left side of the field. Polamalu correctly deduced that Fitzgerald would clear out the coverage, with Boldin slipping in behind him.

But there was a problem: Polamalu was on the right side of the field.

"In my mind I’m like, 'If I leave my guy and I go over there and they don’t throw it, Coach [Dick] LeBeau is going to be really mad at me,'" Polamalu said. "So in my mind I’m like, 'Do I go, do I not go? Do I go, do I not go?'"

That indecision forced Polamalu to stay put and Harrison ended up dropping into coverage, even though he was supposed to blitz. He intercepted the pass that was intended for Boldin, who had single coverage and probably would have scored had Harrison rushed the passer.

Harrison’s pick was only the start of what Polamalu called “the greatest play in Super Bowl history.”

He started trucking down the field, ignoring calls from some of his faster teammates to give them the ball. A convoy of blockers helped Harrison weave his way through the Cardinals players who were desperately trying to get him on the ground. He collapsed in the opposite end zone with Fitzgerald and Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston draped all over him, completely drained following the 100-yard return.

“I was behind him telling him to pitch me the ball,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “After about 20 yards I’m like, ‘All right, he ain’t going to give me the ball,’ so I just happened to block Fitzgerald off of default. He tripped over me and fell, but I call that a block.”

 
PITTSBURGH -- The player who dressed next to Joey Porter in the Steelers’ locker room and is still good friends with him doesn’t just predict success for Porter in coaching.

Porter
Larry Foote sees Porter going all the way to the top if he chooses to make a career out of coaching.

“I think he’s going to be a head coach in this league one day,” Foote told ESPN.com earlier this week. “I think he has that ‘it’ factor to be a head coach if he stays the course. He has an enthusiasm and excitement that you can’t teach, you can’t develop, you’ve just got to be born with it and I’m excited. Hopefully he grows from the coaching side, X's and O's, organization and stuff like that. But shoot, he’s on the fast track because he can lead men, he can get men to run through a wall.”

Porter has returned to Pittsburgh to do that and learn his new trade as a Steelers defensive assistant. Porter, who joined coach Mike Tomlin’s staff in February, has already shown the same kind of enthusiasm for coaching as he did for playing.

“He brings it every day like he’s a player and guys respect that," said Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who has become one of Porter's proteges. "When the linebackers hit the field you can see the energy and positivity and that’s what we need and that’s how we’re going to continue to get better.”

That comes as no surprise to Foote, who was teammates with Porter from 2002-06.

Foote signed with Arizona in March, and he has already heard plenty about Porter there. He said Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told him that Porter is the best leader he has ever seen.

Porter spent two seasons with the Cardinals before retiring in 2012.

Fitzgerald’s praise only reaffirmed to Foote that Porter’s contributions in Pittsburgh transcend his 60 sacks in seven seasons, which rank fifth on the organization’s all-time list.

“Through my time in Pittsburgh there was no better leader,” said Foote, who played for the Steelers from 2002-08 and 2010-13. “He wasn’t on that second Super Bowl team [in 2008] but his imprint was still on that team and it still lives in that locker room a little bit.

“He is selfless, putting his team first and that just sets the tone for the team and the way he played week in and week out. He was an established Pro Bowl guy and he was hungry every week. He loved the game.”

Porter has transferred that love to coaching, and his enthusiasm as well as his expertise at playing outside linebacker and rushing the passer should only help players like Jones and Jason Worilds.

“That’s the thing about Joey, he has one speed,” Foote said. “The game is changing. You need coaches coming in with that energy. A lot of players can feed off the coaches’ energy and what a perfect guy to do it.”
PITTSBURGH -- There is a reason, beyond the headaches that accompanied his production and flashes of greatness, the Pittsburgh Steelers have no interest in bringing back Santonio Holmes.

They simply don’t need the 30-year-old wide receiver, who won the MVP Award in their last Super Bowl victory but has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons.

[+] EnlargeLance Moore
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoWide receiver Lance Moore, an eight-year veteran who signed with the Steelers this offseason, brings his 4,281 yards and 38 TDs to Pittsburgh.
Consider what offensive coordinator Todd Haley said last week about the Steelers’ receivers.

“It’s as deep a group as I’ve been around from top to bottom,” Haley said near the end of offseason practices. “I think some guys that are pretty good football players probably won’t make the team.”

Haley tempered his assessment of the Steelers' wide receivers with the acknowledgement that the current group has yet to show what it can collectively do in pads.

And, of course, everything looks better in June when every team is still undefeated and pass-rushers are wearing shorts and are prohibited from hitting quarterbacks.

But Haley’s comment about the overall quality of the Steelers' wide receivers resonates even at this time of year because of his resume.

He coached the wide receivers in Dallas and Chicago while climbing the coaching ladder, and the Arizona Cardinals had arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in 2008 when Haley was their offensive coordinator. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin helped the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl appearance and nearly led them to an upset of the Steelers in Tampa.

Whether the potential Haley sees in the Steelers' wideouts translates into production, one season after the loss of Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders, who combined for 1,342 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, remains to be seen.

Here are a few things to like about the Steelers’ wide receivers following organized team activities and minicamp:

  • Lance Moore, who signed a two-year, $3 million contract in March, stood out as much as any player during offseason practices. The former Saints wide receiver proved to be a quick study while learning a new offense, and he could put up big numbers if opposing teams pay too much attention to Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. Moore reminds me of Cotchery in the sense that he is a pro’s pro.
  • Markus Wheaton still has a ways to go to win the starting job held down by Sanders last season, and that is a good thing. Wheaton had a solid offseason, but he will have a lot of competition during training camp. Justin Brown, who stood out during offseason practices, will be among those who push Wheaton. The 6-3, 209-pound Brown spent all of last season on the practice squad, but wide receivers coach Richard Mann said, "He’s just a different guy. He understands the concepts. He’s smoother. His body language is different.”
  • The Steelers have so much depth at wide receiver that Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft, will have trouble making the team. Heyward-Bey has to be consistent catching the call during training camp. But if he does that and makes the team, he would become a nice player to have as a No. 4 or No. 5 wide receiver. "He has the speed. He has the talent,” Mann said. Hopefully we will put him in a position to succeed with his speed and smartness, and we will take advantage of what he does best.”

Plenty is still unknown about the wide receiving corps. What exactly will the Steelers get out of Martavis Bryant this season? Is Wheaton ready to emerge as a significant contributor after catching six passes for 64 yards as a rookie? Will Brown build on his strong offseason and make a serious push for a roster spot?

These are among the questions that won’t be answered until after the Steelers report to training camp on July 25.

As Mann said, “When we start playing tackle, we will figure out what we have.”
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green has gone to the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons. Calvin Johnson didn't go to his first until his fourth season.

Green
Green has made 162 catches in his first two seasons. That's one more than Larry Fitzgerald had in his first two years.

So given what he's accomplished already in his short NFL career, does Green consider himself to be among the great receivers in the NFL?

"Not yet," Green said. "I still got a long way to go to be mentioned with all of the greats. The biggest thing is me staying consistent."

For a team whose previous No. 1 receiver wasn't as humble, such a response from Green is a refreshing change. But anyone who has watched Green knows he doesn't have "a long way to go." There are few receivers who can match his size, speed and playmaking ability.

Last season, Green finished seventh in the NFL in catches (97), 10th in receiving yards (1,350) and fourth in touchdown catches (11). His seven receptions over 40 yards led the league. The one criticism, and perhaps the only one, is the increased number of drops. He led the AFC North with seven drops.

Green said reaching that elite level is important to him.

"That's the main goal of playing this game," Green said.

The challenge for the Bengals is to continue to get the ball to Green when defenses are putting all of their effort into stopping him. A couple of practices ago, the Bengals had three defenders around Green and he was able to run past all of them for the big play.

"A.J is a special talent," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "He’s a great guy and works really hard and he’s only going to get better throughout his career.”

Cornerback Leon Hall said Green should be considered among the top three wide receivers in the league.

"He's one of those guys who has the confidence that he knows he can be one of the best, if he's not already," Hall said. "At the same time, he works hard like he's at the bottom of the barrel."
GreenAP Photo/John RaouxIf A.J. Green remains on his torrid pace, he'll finish the season with 108 catches for 1,712 yards.

It's going to be easy to convince you in this piece that A.J. Green is the NFL's next superstar. For one moment Sunday, the Bengals' wide receiver nearly made everyone believe he was a superhero.

Going after a pass thrown ahead of him, Green left his feet to make a fully extended, 14-yard catch against the Jaguars. It was much more than a leap. Green took flight. He was in the air so long that he had time to pull the ball back to his body with his right hand and extend his left arm to brace his fall.

“You think you’ve seen about everything A.J. can do,” quarterback Andy Dalton said, “and you’ve seen so much you don’t think twice about his ability, and then he’ll show you something new like that one.”

Through the first four games of the season, Green has soared above all the other receivers in the league. He has been more dominant than Calvin Johnson. He has been more explosive than Larry Fitzgerald. He has been more productive than Andre Johnson.

In only his second NFL season, Green is second in the league in receiving yards (428) and is one behind the league leaders with three touchdown catches. He is on pace to catch 108 passes for 1,712 yards and 12 touchdowns. The numbers are more impressive when you consider the defense's focus every game is to stop him.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green, Andy Dalton
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackBengals receiver A.J. Green, left, and QB Andy Dalton have formed a strong mutual admiration society.
The Bengals are 3-1 and rank eighth in scoring because of Green, who is ranked seventh in ESPN.com's MVP Watch this week. He accounted for 41 percent of the team's total offense in a win at Washington two weeks ago and he represented 48 percent of the receiving yards in last Sunday's win at Jacksonville.

Green has been the constant on an offense that has been beaten up (two starters on the offensive line are injured) and has proved to be unreliable. Dalton has had two interceptions returned for touchdowns and the usually dependable BenJarvus Green-Ellis has fumbled three times in two games. Meanwhile, Green has gone over 100 yards receiving in back-to-back games and has scored a touchdown each week in a three-game win streak.

"He’s clearly the player that they believe in the most on that offense," Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox said. "I think they realize that in order for them to be successful, they need to get the ball in his hands. I’m sure that’s in their game plan every week.”

The greatest challenge for the Bengals offensively is trying to find ways to get Green open. On the first play in Washington, the Bengals put Green in the slot in the Wildcat formation to get him matched up against a safety. The result: a 73-yard touchdown pass.

In most instances, Dalton just has to trust Green will come down with the ball when double-covered. There really is no errant pass when throwing to Green because of his great hands and willingness to lay out for throws. He has the size to get off press coverage, the moves in route running to shake off cornerbacks and the acceleration to get behind safeties. His 16 receptions of 30 yards or more since he entered the league in 2011 ranks first over that span, one more than Fitzgerald and Johnson, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

What separates Green from other great receivers is how he carries himself. He's Randy Moss without the baggage. Green has yet to demand the ball or belittle his quarterback. In fact, Green has been one of Dalton's biggest supporters.

"The thing about Andy is he doesn't care where the defenders are, he's going to put that ball where I can go make a play," Green said. "He's one of the best at that. The guy can be great, I'm telling you."

In reality, Green is one of the few receivers who doesn't rely on his quarterback. It's the other way around. Green has been the centerpiece of the Bengals' offense since he was drafted fourth overall in 2011 (quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Von Miller and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus were selected before him).

Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003, catching 65 passes for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns, and he has used his first full offseason in the NFL to get better. He attended all of the offseason workouts and spent time with Fitzgerald to pick up some tips before training camp began.

This is why Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Green "maybe the best receiver in football" only days before the regular season began.

Green's production has been as jaw-dropping as some of his catches. His average yards receiving per game (78.2) is the fourth most by any player in his first two seasons since 1970. It's slightly better than Jerry Rice's average in his first two seasons (78.0 yards), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It's crazy to compare Green to Rice after he has played 19 games. But Green has proved in the first four weeks that he's the best receiver in the game right now. And no one on the Bengals believes Green is going to fall from that spot anytime soon.

“He was a cut above most players in the league from the start,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “He really was the most impressive rookie I’ve ever been around. Nothing A.J. does surprises the people who watch him every day, and we fully expected he would be even better this year. This is not a guy you worry about having a sophomore slump.”
Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace isn't going anywhere this year. That's the word out of Steelers training camp, where general manager Kevin Colbert told ESPN's Ed Werder on Saturday, "Mike Wallace is not available for trade."

Wallace
This ends speculation that the Steelers were going to move Wallace after signing wide receiver Antonio Brown to a five-year, $42.5 million extension on Friday.

Here are three reasons why the Steelers' best move is not to make a move with Wallace:
  • There's no value in it. The only way shipping Wallace to another team this season makes sense is if an interested team (Miami, Dallas and Indianapolis have been mentioned) gives a first-round pick (don't hold your breath) or a second-round one to the Steelers. There's no reason to take a third-round pick for Wallace now because the Steelers can get some production out of Wallace in 2012 in addition to a potential third-round compensatory pick in 2014. Plus, trading Wallace lets him get a big deal right away from another team, and the Steelers don't want to set a precedent that holding out gets you want you want.
  • There's still a chance that Pittsburgh can keep Wallace. Don't laugh. The prospects of the Steelers signing Wallace now appear grim if you read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But Wallace is seeking a Vincent Jackson-type contract, not a Larry Fitzgerald one. That means Wallace wants a deal along the lines of $26 million guaranteed in the first two years, which is a far more reasonable demand. Sure, the Steelers would likely have to do more creative bookkeeping to make this work. But the Steelers' history has been that they sign the players they want to keep. What's the worse that can happen by keeping Wallace? He sits out training camp and the first 10 games of the regular season, which gives him time to accrue a full season and become an unrestricted free agent next season. The Steelers would still get six regular-season games out of Wallace as well as the playoffs.
  • There would be a void by trading Wallace. It's reasonable to think Brown could step up and take Wallace's spot as the No. 1 wide receiver. But who takes Brown's place at No. 2? Emmanuel Sanders gets hurt every year, and Jerricho Cotchery's catches have decreased the past four seasons. When the Steelers traded Santonio Holmes before the 2010 season, they had Hines Ward coming off a 95-catch season and Wallace coming off a promising rookie season (19.4-yard per catch average and six touchdowns). It would be a challenge to absorb the loss of Wallace this year.
A.J. GreenFrank Victores/US PresswireCincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is hoping to build on a strong rookie season.
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green is the next Calvin Johnson. Just as important to the Bengals, he's not the next Chad Ochocinco.

With few words and many hours of hard work, Green is primed to take that next step and join the elite wide receivers in this league. He just doesn't need a reality show to announce it. Or his own news network.

Green out-leaped and outran defenders to put up better rookie numbers than Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, and he did so without a full offseason. Now, as the Bengals conclude their spring workouts this week, he's watching film to improve his game. He's talking (well, it's more like listening) to coaches about refining his route running. He's even going to work out with Fitzgerald next month to pick up some pointers.

There's no diva qualities with Green. It's all about desire and dedication. That's a scary combination considering he has everything you want in a playmaking wide receiver. Speed, check. Size, check. Athleticism and aggressiveness, check and check. Work ethic, a big check.

"He has tremendous ability and he never says a word," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "Every time he watches film, he envisions himself getting better. He envisions himself doing it better than he did it the last time. That’s the key element of him. There’s not a bit of satisfaction in what he’s doing."

Green's debut was extremely impressive. The fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft led all NFL rookies with 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. His 11 catches of 35 yards or more were the most in the league and the most by an NFL rookie since Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14 in 1998. As a result, Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003.

His encore would be scintillating if he follows the path of Johnson and Fitzgerald. In their second seasons, Fitzgerald caught 103 passes for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns while Johnson produced 79 receptions for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those are realistic numbers for Green in 2012.

When talking about where he ranks in the NFL, Green simply says he'll let his play do the talking. Fortunately, his teammates and coaches are more than happy to talk about Green, too.

"He’s by far the best receiver I’ve guarded," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said.

Does he expect Green's name to be mentioned with the likes of the elite receivers this year? "His name should be up there already," Jones said. "All you have to do is watch him."

Lewis even referred to Green as the best receiver in the NFL on Tuesday, before he quickly qualified it by saying "one of the best."

The moment that defined Green last season was a leaping catch for a 51-yard gain in the final minute that set up the winning field goal over the Cleveland Browns. His clutch play as a rookie shows his importance in the offense. It's not about the number of catches. It's about the significance of them.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 44 of Green's 65 catches (68 percent) came when the score was within seven points. That ranked 10th among all wide receivers last season.

"When the game is on the line, I want to be the go-to guy," Green said. "I feel like that separates the good from the great receivers."

Part of what separates the good from the great players is their influence on teammates. With veterans Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell gone, Green has become the clear leader of a wide receiver group that averages 2.2 years of experience.

As you would expect from his low-key personality, Green is a leader by example by being the first one in every drill and running it at full speed. According to the Bengals' official website, the receivers say: Whatever A.J. does is exactly what you want to do.

This represents the most drastic difference between Green, the team's current No. 1 receiver, and Ochocinco, the team's all-time leading receiver.

Ochocinco has been described by his former Bengals teammates as a performer who never "shepherded" teammates.

"A.J. is the opposite," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "Not only is he super talented, but it means a lot to him to be an example [to teammates]. I think he takes that to heart."

While Green is now a leader, that doesn't mean he has stopped learning. The emphasis of this offseason has been to grow as a player.

He is becoming more patient in his route running (he acknowledged he ran most routes at 100 miles per hour last season), which should generate more big plays. He is also learning all three wide receiver spots (split end, flanker and slot), which will allow him to move all over the field and make it more difficult for defenses to double him all the time.

“A.J. is one of those guys who is so gifted athletically, and you find ways to get him the ball," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Whether it’s early on in the game or the end or in crunch time, you just try and find ways to get him the ball. Once he’s got it, he can do a lot with it. He’s just that kind of receiver."
Gary Horton from Scouts Inc. put together a list of 10 AFC players who will take their game to the next level this season. Only one player from the AFC North made the "breakout" blogInsider: Browns cornerback Joe Haden.

Haden
You'll need an Insider subscription to read the entire piece and see where Haden ranks on the list, but this is a portion of what Horton had to say about the Browns' 2010 first-round pick:
He is a shutdown corner already, and his coaches have so much confidence in him that a lot of the time they let him follow the best receiver all over the field. His upside is huge, but he is going to have to be more consistent and make more big plays if he is going to face the best wide receiver the opposition has to offer on a weekly basis.

Everyone knows my respect for Haden. He is the most talented cornerback in the division and has broken up 37 passes in his first two seasons. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His worst games came against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green.

Haden would really boost his stock by picking off the quarterback more often. He didn't have an interception last season after having six as a rookie.

Giving receivers

May, 30, 2012
5/30/12
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Gary Belsky of ESPN The Magazine has a story on Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald's recent trip to Africa:
Visiting with villagers in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald have a problem: They can't give away their money fast enough.

Actually, they can't give it away at all.

The wide receivers are under strict orders to avoid handouts. Andrew Blejwas, an official with the nonprofit international relief and development organization Oxfam America, is coordinating this late-March trip for the two NFL players and their significant others, and he insists they focus on the task at hand. At the moment, the wideouts are in the region of Tigray, helping about 50 locals move rocks in a ravine, part of the agency's effort to create small plots of farmable land. A day of hauling rocks earns each worker about 90 cents, paid out by an Oxfam America-supported organization. It's strenuous, monotonous labor, but it's pretty much the only job to be found. "I know what it's like to do without," Boldin says after working and talking to villagers, "but nothing like this."

For the rest of the story, click here.
It's only days removed from the draft, and no AFC North team has taken the field for a practice yet, but that won't stop us from looking ahead. Each day this week, we'll project the starting lineup for a team in the division. Let's start with the Cincinnati Bengals:

OFFENSE

QB Andy Dalton: The Who Dey Nation asks, Carson who?

RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis: He's the prize of the Bengals' free-agent period.

FB Chris Pressley: Agreed to a two-year extension in March.

WR A.J. Green: He's been working out with Larry Fitzgerald this offseason.

WR Jordan Shipley: The No. 2 wide receiver job is wide open, but I'm giving the nod to Shipley if he's fully recovered from his knee injury.

TE Jermaine Gresham: First Bengals tight end since Dan Ross from the early 1980s to post two seasons of 50 receptions or more.

LT Andrew Whitworth: He often goes overlooked in a division with Joe Thomas in it.

LG Travelle Wharton: A free-agent signing from the Carolina Panthers, where he started 99 games in eight years.

C Kyle Cook: Enters fourth season as the Bengals' starting center.

RG Kevin Zeitler: First-round pick was possibly best run-blocking guard in the draft.

RT Andre Smith: The big question is whether he can continue the progress he made last season.

DEFENSE

LDE Robert Geathers: Recorded 29 tackles last season, his lowest since his 2004 rookie season.

NT Domata Peko: Led defensive line in tackles for second straight year.

RDT Geno Atkins: Topped all NFL interior linemen with eight sacks last season.

RDE Michael Johnson: Regains his starting job after Frostee Rucker signed with the Browns in free agency.

SLB Manny Lawson: Returned to Cincinnati for a one-year, $2.1 million deal.

MLB Rey Maualuga: He could be facing a suspension from the NFL for his latest off-the-field incident.

WLB Thomas Howard: Led team in tackles in first season with the Bengals.

LCB Nate Clements: He has to fight off first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick to keep his starting job.

SS Taylor Mays: His job looks safe after the Bengals didn't take a safety in the first four rounds of the draft.

FS Reggie Nelson: Re-signed with the Bengals this offseason for $18 million over four years.

RCB Leon Hall: If Hall (Achilles injury) isn't ready to start the season, Bengals can turn to Kirkpatrick, Terence Newman or Adam Jones.
Restricted free agent Mike Wallace either wants to stay in Pittsburgh or has a really high opinion of himself.

Wallace
Wallace
According to the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco 49ers inquired about Wallace during the first week of free agency but never pursued him because he is seeking a contract that surpasses the eight-year, $120 million deal that Larry Fitzgerald signed last year with the Cardinals.

If this report is accurate, this steep -- and unrealistic -- asking price will scare off any interested team and guarantees Wallace will be staying with the Steelers this season. No team (and there were other interested ones, according to the Sacramento Bee) is going to give that type of contract to Wallace and ship a first-round pick to the Steelers even if he is the best restricted free agent this year.

It seems crazy that Wallace would make such a demand. He's had two 1,000-yard seasons and went to one Pro Bowl. Fitzgerald has produced six 1,000-yard seasons and has gone to six Pro Bowls.

As I proposed last week, Wallace's worth should be between the contracts given to Vincent Jackson (five-year, $55.5 million deal that includes $26 million guaranteed) and DeSean Jackson (five years, maximum value of $51 million, including $15 million guaranteed).

No one is going to put Wallace in the same category as Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson.

At this point, there's really only one team that might be interested in pursuing Wallace and that's the Denver Broncos, who might want to upgrade their wide receiver group for recently signed quarterback Peyton Manning. But the Broncos won't be interested unless Wallace's price goes down.

The deadline to extend offer sheets to restricted free agents is April 20.

Wallace's reported high demands work in the Steelers' favor this year, but there is still some concern. Just ask quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Asked whether he's nervous about losing his leading receiver, Roethlisberger told WDVE radio in Pittsburgh on Wednesday: "Nervous isn't the word -- scared to death. I communicate with Mike. I wake up every day and I'm like, 'Mike, please don't go anywhere. I'm begging you.' I'm going to beg right now over the radio. Don't go anywhere, Mike."

Roethlisberger is the latest to urge Wallace to stay with the Steelers. Hines Ward did the same at his retirement news conference on Tuesday.

"He's someone we need to have here," Roethlisberger said. "I'll be disappointed if he goes somewhere [this year]. I've got a good feeling he's not. But I'm still begging every day and praying that he doesn't go anywhere."

(Special thanks to Neil Coolong, a friend of the AFC North blog, for passing this report along).
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. STEELERS: Pittsburgh had the top-ranked pass defense, and it wasn't all about the pass rush this time. Actually, the pass rush was extremely inconsistent this season, so that No. 1 ranking is more of a reflection of the Steelers' secondary. Cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark had career years. Taylor's season, though, was marred by a late-season decline that ended with him getting stiffed-armed by the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas on the touchdown that ended the Steelers' season. Clark had the best season of any safety in the division, which is saying a lot when Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are in the AFC North. He finished second in the division with 100 tackles. Polamalu was solid, but didn't play up to his usual spectacular level. William Gay was a pleasant surprise, taking back the starting cornerback job that he lost in 2010. What could change: Gay is an unrestricted free agent, but it shouldn't take much to retain him. Look for rookie cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to make more of an impact in their second seasons.

2. RAVENS: This group exceeded expectations, and did so in a surprising manner. Instead of starting Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr at cornerback, the Ravens finished fourth in pass defense with Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. Webb was the division's top cornerback, recording five interceptions and breaking up 20 passes (and that doesn't include three interceptions in the playoffs). Williams was a physical presence at corner. The biggest disappointment was Reed, who intercepted three passes -- his fewest in a season where he played more than 12 games. The Ravens' other safety, hard-hitting Bernard Pollard, provided more of an impact than Reed. First-round pick Jimmy Smith endured an up-and-down rookie season. What could change: Smith should take over for Williams as a starting cornerback this season. Foxworth is expected to get cut, and the same could happen to Carr. Both backup safeties, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, are free agents, but I suspect Nakamura will get re-signed.

3. BROWNS: Joe Haden showed signs of being a shutdown corner, even though he failed to make an interception. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His worst games came against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. While Haden is among the division's best cornerbacks, Sheldon Brown was the worst starting corner in the AFC North. Brown's biggest asset is the experience he provides to a young secondary. The defensive backfield was hurt by the loss of strong safety T.J. Ward, who missed the final 10 games with a foot injury. Teams took advantage of Ward's replacement, Usama Young. Free safety Mike Adams beat out Young for a starting job in training camp. Dimitri Patterson was a reliable nickelback, breaking up a dozen passes. What could change: The Browns might replace Adams, who is a free agent, and they could give rookie seventh-round pick Eric Hagg a shot at doing so. Cleveland is very interested in bringing Patterson back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Patterson starts in place of Brown.
4. BENGALS: Leon Hall is perhaps the most valuable cornerback in the division. In the first nine games with Hall, the Bengals gave up eight touchdown passes. In the last seven regular-season games without him (he had a season-ending Achilles injury), they allowed 12 touchdown passes. The Bengals replaced Hall with Adam Jones, who was extremely erratic in coverage. The Bengals value the veteran leadership of Nate Clements, but the cornerback is looking past his prime. Only nickelback Kelly Jennings struggled on a more consistent basis. Safety Reggie Nelson allowed some big plays early, but he was stingy in pass defense late in the season. The other safety, Chris Crocker, had trouble covering the more athletic tight ends in the league. What could change: The Bengals need to draft a cornerback in the first round to press Clements for a starting role and become his eventual replacement. Nelson is a free agent, but he is considered a priority to get re-signed. The Bengals are expected to part ways with Jones, who is a free agent.

Feb. 20: Special teams

Feb. 21: Defensive line

Feb. 23: Linebackers

For Monday: Offensive line

Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Browns have made no commitment to Colt McCoy to be their starting quarterback beyond this season, team president Mike Holmgren said at Thursday's news conference.

"I know it's not healthy to change quarterbacks," Holmgren said via The Plain Dealer. "But you have to find that person. ... Colt is just a pup. He's getting banged around out there. He will play this season and ... we'll evaluate how he does at the end of the season. That's an important part of the equation."

McCoy has averaged 21.6 incompletions over his past three games. His 28.5 QBR is 23rd in the NFL, just above recently benched quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman.

"[McCoy] is a rookie [actually, a second-year player] with a new coach, new signal-caller, new system," Holmgren said. "Are we committed to him? Absolutely. Does it guarantee him the starting position? I want him to do well. Everyone's rooting for him."

Hensley's slant: This is a major shift from April 2010, when McCoy said Holmgren compared him to Steve Young and Joe Montana because of his intangibles. This vote of no confidence comes after 13 up-and-down NFL starts for McCoy. One of the reasons why the Browns have failed to challenge for the AFC North title consistently is the lack of a franchise quarterback. Until they get one, Cleveland will always be chasing the Steelers and the Ravens.
  • BENGALS: Right guard Bobbie Williams didn't hold back when he compared Andy Dalton to Carson Palmer, who was traded to the Raiders on Tuesday. “Just to be politically correct, Andy brings something that Carson doesn’t -- and I’m not knocking Carson -- a little bit more passion," Williams told the team's website. "I’m not saying Carson isn’t passionate, but Andy brings a little bit more.” Hensley's slant: There have always been questions about Palmer's leadership ability. In his defense, it can be hard to take control of a locker room that has the likes of Chad Ochocinco in it. Still, even as a rookie, Dalton is getting teammates to follow him.
  • RAVENS: The Ravens' secondary got an unexpected surprise when first-round pick Jimmy Smith (high ankle sprain) and Chris Carr (hamstring) both returned to practice, according to MASNSports.com. Smith has been sidelined since the season opener , and Carr has missed the past two games. Three Ravens didn't practice Thursday: wide receiver Lee Evans (ankle), guard Ben Grubbs (toe) and linebacker Jarret Johnson (back). Hensley's slant: There really is no need to rush Smith and Carr back for Monday's game against Jacksonville rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who threw for 109 yards last Sunday in a loss to the Steelers. Baltimore needs both cornerbacks to be at full strength when the Ravens play at Pittsburgh on Nov. 6.
  • STEELERS: Pittsburgh defensive tackle Ziggy Hood told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that if you get to Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb, you stop wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Kolb has been sacked an average of 3.2 times per game, which is even more than Ben Roethlisberger (3.0). Hensley's slant: It also helps to have a guy who can cover Fitzgerald. Ike Taylor likely draws that assignment after just allowing his first touchdown. The Steelers can't afford to have flashbacks of Fitzgerald from that Super Bowl victory.

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