AFC North: LeSean McCoy

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson analyzes Sunday's games involving AFC North teams:

Steelers at Broncos: Going into a difficult road game under the national spotlight is never easy, but I still like Pittsburgh to win this rematch of a 2011 wild card game. It’s difficult to predict how Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will look in terms of arm strength, but his mind will certainly be as sharp as ever, and Denver’s offense will find a way to score points. It’s the Broncos’ defense that concerns me.

There’s no question Von Miller -- my pick for 2012 Defensive Player of the Year -- and Elvis Dumervil will create havoc as pass-rushers, but there are major problems up the middle, and linebacker D.J. Williams is suspended for this game. Expect the Steelers to attempt to control the game early with their massive interior offensive linemen and physical running backs, which should lead to some deep shots down the field to Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown off play-action later on.

Philadelphia at Cleveland: This might be the most lopsided game of the week. Philadelphia is simply far more talented overall, and we have no idea what to expect from nicked-up Cleveland rookie running back Trent Richardson. The Browns will need some big plays on special teams from Josh Cribbs, a big game from Richardson, and some bad plays from Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in order to have any chance.

I just don’t see all that happening, though. Cleveland rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden doesn’t deal with pressure well or move well in the pocket, and he will be under constant duress from Philadelphia’s talented and deep defensive line as the Eagles play a lot of man coverage against unproven receivers. On the other side of the ball, Philadelphia could be primed for many big plays through the air, and on the ground with both Vick and running back LeSean McCoy. There really isn’t one area in this matchup that favors the Browns.
The Eagles signed running back LeSean McCoy to a five-year, $45 million extension Thursday evening, $20.76 million of which is guaranteed. This continues to provide a framework of the market value for running backs, but this deal might not accelerate the signing of Ravens running back Ray Rice.

Rice
McCoy
The problem is the disparity between the tiers for running backs. McCoy's deal is in line with the second tier like the Texans' Arian Foster (five years, $43.5 million, with $20.75 million guaranteed). But Rice could be shooting for the top tier that includes the Vikings' Adrian Peterson (seven years with $36 million guaranteed) and the Titans' Chris Johnson (six years with $30 million guaranteed).

What will likely get a deal done is finding a middle ground. Rice doesn't belong at the top of the pay scale because he hasn't averaged 13 rushing touchdowns over five seasons like Peterson and he doesn't have a 2,000-yard rushing season on his resume like Johnson.

But, based on the statistics, Rice deserves to get paid more than Foster and McCoy. In his three seasons as the featured back, Rice has produced 5,885 total yards, an average of 1,962 yards per season. That tops the three-year total yards by Foster (4,411) and McCoy (4,241).

That's why a five-year extension with $25 million guaranteed would be a fair deal for Rice.

Rice is currently scheduled to make $7.7 million this season as the Ravens' franchise player. If the sides can't reach a new deal by July 16, Rice will have to play this season under the tag.

He has yet to sign his tender and could skip training camp. Keeping in shape while working out on his own is not a concern for Rice.

"Training is something that I never worried about," Rice told the Carroll County (Md.) Times last weekend. "It's something that you got to want. I actually have the burning to desire to come back, not only for myself, but to come back ready to play. My training has always been part of my routine."

Rice has been training with former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook.

"Nobody ever had to beat me in the head to get up and work out," Rice said. "Anybody who knows about my workout regimen, I've probably been through two before noon. Training has never been my issues but obviously, the team camaraderie, the lockout and all that stuff, that's the stuff that you kind of miss with the guys. But as far as being ready, I know I'll be ready."
Tom HeckertAP Photo/Amy SancettaBrowns GM Tom Heckert has built his reputation on doing solid work in the draft.
BEREA, Ohio -- When you think of the face of the 2011 Cleveland Browns, high-profile president Mike Holmgren is the first person who comes to mind.

After Holmgren, quarterback Colt McCoy, receiver/kick returner Josh Cribbs and tailback Peyton Hillis might be next. They're among the few Browns players known on a national level. McCoy made his name at the University of Texas, Cribbs is a former Pro Bowler, and Hillis has a chance to become the "Madden NFL 12" cover boy next week following a breakout 2010 season in which he rushed for 1,177 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.

But as you continue down the list, eventually you will come across arguably the most important person in the organization: general manager Tom Heckert.

Holmgren has final say in Cleveland. But he is not the person laying the groundwork for the team behind the scenes.

Quietly, Heckert and his staff have worked hard to add talent to what was once a very thin roster. Last year, the Browns signed key veteran free agents such as tight end Benjamin Watson and linebacker Scott Fujita, in addition to completing a cunning trade with the Denver Broncos for Hillis in exchange for former Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.

But the draft is where Heckert has built his reputation.

Heckert joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2001 as director of player personnel and worked his way up to general manager five years later. During his stint, Philadelphia went to four consecutive NFC championship games and made the playoffs in seven of Heckert's nine seasons in the front office. He had a major hand in the Eagles' acquisition of recent draft picks such as tailback LeSean McCoy, tight end Brent Celek, quarterback Kevin Kolb and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

Heckert continued his draft success in Cleveland last season. The Browns acquired three starters in the first three rounds -- first-round corner Joe Haden, second-round safety T.J. Ward and McCoy in the third round.

Now the Browns have a young nucleus to build around as Heckert tries to work his magic in Year 2.

"I think last year we did a pretty good job," Heckert said in his pre-draft news conference Thursday. "Media-wise there were questions whether T.J. was worth the pick, and we said 'this guy is a good football player. He is going to come in here and start for us and he is worth that pick.' You can try to get cute and say maybe he'll be there later in the second round, so you try to trade down and you lose him. How stupid is that? If you like the guy, take him. Don't try to get too cute."

Getting cute is not what Heckert is about, and he definitely hasn't put himself out there to receive all the credit.

This week the Browns notified the local media that Heckert would hold a solo news conference, and people noticed that the charismatic Holmgren wasn't on the schedule. It was one of the few times since joining the Browns that Heckert addressed the media without the shadow of Holmgren looming over him, presumably to help raise Heckert's low profile.

Working in the shadows is nothing new for Heckert. Eagles head coach Andy Reid commanded the spotlight in Philadelphia while Heckert worked diligently behind the scenes to help find great players year after year.

Heckert's current boss has made it a point to express his appreciation.

[+] EnlargeTom Heckert and Joe Haden and Mike Holmgren
AP Photo/Mark DuncanTom Heckert, left, and Mike Holmgren, right, spent their first-round pick last year on corner Joe Haden, center, who had six picks as a rookie.
"Tom Heckert is the real deal," Holmgren said recently. "The people that work with him, our personnel department, they do their jobs and they do them very well. If I put on my coach hat for a moment, that's a real encouragement to Pat [Shurmur] and the coaches."

This year's draft may go down as one of the most important of the Holmgren-Heckert regime. Cleveland holds eight draft selections, including the No. 6 overall pick in the first round.

The Browns are coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons, but there is optimism that Cleveland is finally heading in the right direction. If things go as planned for the Browns, this may be the highest draft pick for Heckert and Holmgren in the next several years. In what's considered a deep and talented draft, the Browns cannot afford to miss with their top pick.

"If we end up staying at where we're picking, we are going to get a good football player," Heckert said confidently. "There are six guys, and we are going to get a good football player. Obviously you don't want to be picking up there all the time, but that's the nice thing about it."

The mountain the Browns are trying to climb is steep.

The rival Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are unrelenting within the division. They are well-run organizations, perennial contenders in the AFC, and they don't make many mistakes in personnel. That raises the bar for Cleveland to do the same when finding players.

After several front-office failures over the past dozen years, Heckert's track record and experience as general manager give the Browns their best chance. But to make up ground in the AFC North, Cleveland must have another solid draft for the second year in a row, which is not an easy task.

Any big mistakes next week could keep the Browns at the bottom of the pack. So the pressure is on.

"Just try to not force anything," Heckert said of his draft philosophy. "It's easier said than done. ... Once the board is set, I don't think anyone is going to sit there and start jumping guys off their draft board. It happens in the whole process where you may say 'whatever the position is we need this,' so you maybe make the guy better than he is. You just have to be careful of doing that. It happens. I've been guilty of it, just like everyone else. It's a tough thing to do, but you have to be smart about it."
The Cleveland Browns could certainly use DeSean Jackson on their team.

Heckert
Heckert
What about tight end Brent Celek, or running back LeSean McCoy, or receiver Jason Avant?

These are all young players general manager Tom Heckert helped draft during his four-year tenure as general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles. Heckert jumped at the opportunity to work in a similar capacity with Browns president Mike Holmgren this year.

Heckert's history of finding good offensive players will be needed in Cleveland. The Browns were ranked last in the NFL offensively with 260.2 yards per game and have a lot of questions at quarterback, receiver, tight end, right guard and right tackle.

Perhaps the biggest credit to Heckert is that none of these aforementioned players were first-round picks. Jackson (2008) and McCoy (2009) were taken in the second round, while Avant (2006) was a fourth-round pick and Celek (2007) a fifth-rounder.

With Cleveland leaning towards a West Coast system that both Holmgren and Heckert strongly believe in, look for a major retooling of the offense. The Browns are hoping Heckert can work his draft magic once again in his first year with the team.

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