AFC North: Levi Jones
"It's all about winning in December," Crocker said. "Let's win out and see where the chips lay. Why can't we win out? I don't see why we can't."
If you ask some Bengals fans and most NFL analysts, they'll give you one big reason why they don't believe Cincinnati will be able to go 5-0 to close out the regular season: No. 14.
That's right. To some, the primary obstacle in the way of end-of-season perfection for the Bengals is Andy Dalton, the player who has quarterbacked the franchise into the playoffs each of the past two seasons, and who constantly is trying to prove himself to those who consider him just another member of a mostly failed 2011 quarterback draft class.
For that reason, as the Bengals gear up for a stretch run that could give them a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs, an important question has to be asked.
Can December Andy mimic October Andy?
As we've written countless times in the past month, October Andy was indeed a dandy. Through the first four games of that month, Dalton threw for 1,243 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also completed 67.9 percent of his passes, won four games, had a passer rating higher than 116.0 and a QBR above 83.0. He was, quite simply, brilliant. His play was so sharp back then that on the final day of the month, hours before the Bengals were set to take on the Dolphins in a road Thursday night game, he was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month.
And, yes, even though, comparatively speaking, he didn't look as good overall against the Dolphins and ended up taking the game-winning sack for a safety in overtime, Dalton still had a rather special performance in the 22-20 loss. Aside from not completing a touchdown pass and getting intercepted three times, he threw for 338 yards, marking the fourth straight game he had gone over the 300-yard passing mark.
Overall, October Andy was Good Andy.
But now here comes December with all of its postseason potency. If Cincinnati hopes to set itself up for the type of playoff seeding Crocker believes it deserves, then it will have to play its best ball across the next five weeks. That's especially the case for Dalton and a Bengals offense that has looked rather anemic in the past three games.
One look at Dalton's previous December stats and it doesn't appear the third-year star should have any problem showcasing even a sliver of the success that made him and his team so good about two months ago.
After a rocky December as a rookie in 2011, Dalton was among the difference-makers last season when the desperate Bengals were in need of a strong final month just to secure a playoff berth. One year after going 2-2 in the month, Dalton went 4-1 during December 2012. The lone loss came after the Dallas Cowboys made a field goal in the final seconds to win 20-19.
While the level of desperation may be different this December, the Bengals are looking for Dalton to thrive under similar pressure-packed moments during this one. This time around, the pressure on Dalton mainly stems from the fact that so many are fed up with his play from the past three games. In them, he's thrown eight interceptions and been sacked 10 times. Across the latter two of those games, he's completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and hasn't posted a QBR higher than 18.0.
Weather factored heavily in Dalton's inability to move the ball in those two games. Windy conditions at Baltimore and windy and rainy conditions against the Browns sent some of his passes sailing and forced others into the hands of defensive backs.
Although weather shouldn't be a concern this weekend in San Diego (the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a delightful high of 71 degrees Sunday), it could be the rest of the season. Farmer's Almanac projects cold, damp conditions for all of December in the Ohio Valley. It should be noted that after Sunday's game, the Bengals are home three of the next four weeks. Their only remaining road game is at Pittsburgh.
Throughout his career, Dalton has performed better in warmer games. In games with temperatures 50 degrees or higher, he has a 20-14 record, an 85.1 passer rating and a 52.5 QBR. In games with temperatures at 49 and lower, he has a 5-5 record, a 75.4 passer rating and a 32.9 QBR. Dalton's last three sub-49-degree wins came last December, though; a sign that perhaps he's turning a corner in cold-weather contests.
Whatever the conditions and whomever their opponents are, when it comes to the next five weeks, the Bengals can only hope that Dalton turns into the same man who torched through this October.
If Colon misses the entire 2010 season, here are several options for Pittsburgh:
- One choice could be for Pittsburgh to shift offensive linemen. First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey has been playing on the second team this offseason and it would make sense to move him into the starting lineup as the right guard. That could allow Trai Essex to move to right tackle.
- Former 2008 fourth-round pick Tony Hills is another player who could get a look. He's been a project for Pittsburgh the past two years. But with zero experience, Hills may not be ready for that kind of jump.
- Signing a player in free agency also is an option. Levi Jones and Flozell Adams are among the bigger names that remain available and have plenty of starting experience.
Either way, Colon's potentially serious injury puts another dent into Pittsburgh's offense. After trading receiver Santonio Holmes and having quarterback Ben Roethlisberger serve a conditional six-game suspension, it's the last thing Pittsburgh needs right now.
We asked which division team is the Cincinnati Bengals' biggest rival? It turns out it was a two-team race between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.
Here's a sample of responses and an AFC North final say:
It's the Steelers!
Jamie from West Chester, Ohio, writes: Bengals' biggest rival right now? The Steelers without a doubt. There's a lot of bad blood, epic games, plus plenty of players and coaches with both teams on their resumes. The Ravens are getting close, though. The Browns ceased to be a legit rival the day Art Modell moved them to Baltimore.
Dante from Cincinnati writes: Steelers, no doubt about it. It's been that way since the infamous Kimogate, and Peezy punching Levi Jones in Vegas. We smack talk the Ravens but we respect them. And the Browns are like our half brother from our father's first marriage. You have love for them but you never want them to outdo you.
Nate from Bellevue, KY, writes: Without a doubt, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers for me. We can lose a game to Cleveland or Baltimore and I hate it. However, if we lose to Pittsburgh, I am beside myself for a few days or more. It affects my mood, my actions towards people, and I am very irritable. The hatred that I have for the Steelers is only magnified by the large following they have in Cincy and everywhere for that matter (props to their fans for their loyalty, though).
Paul from Batesville, IN, writes: Steelers are far and away our biggest rival. If you talk to anyone in Cincinnati and give them two options: 1. Get swept by the Ravens, or 2. Get swept by the Steelers, I don't know anyone who would rather get swept by the Steelers. We ALWAYS want to beat them and the recent resurgence of the rivalry has only intensified things. We're not far away from each other, which means the Steelers fans are always prevalent at Paul Brown Stadium. I'd much rather be friends with a Browns fan or a Ravens fan than associate myself with a Steelers fan.
Cupp from Hebron, Ohio, writes: Hands down Pittsburgh is the Bengals' biggest rival. Finally, after last season we handed Big Ben his first loss in the state of Ohio. I don't care about any other division game but the Bengals and Pittsburgh.
It's the Browns!
Brad Miller from Deltona, Fla., writes: The Bengals biggest rival has to be the Browns. Even though recent history would suggest the Steelers, if you look at the series matchup its nearly even. The shared history with Paul Brown, the shared history of losing, and if you're from Cincy, it's etiquette to hate EVERYTHING from Cleveland. Just ask Sam Wyche.
Shilp from Columbus, Ohio, writes: As a Cincy native, it's real simple. The Bengals and the great city of Cincinnati hate Cleveland and the Browns. We hate them in every sport. We even jeer for them in sports where we aren't even directly involved (see hatred for the Cavs). Even though the "Browns" may have the namesake of Ohio's greatest football coach, Paul Brown, his heart and legacy is in Cincinnati, not Cleveland. We're home to Paul Brown stadium and it's offensive that a terrible franchise such as Cleveland even has the Brown namesake. It's great that we play them twice a year, because we know we have at least two wins that season and that'll be two more than Cleveland will have.
Ryan from Cincinnati writes: You have to go with the Browns. The overall series is close and being that the founder of both franchises is one of the greatest coaches/owner the league has ever seen, it has to be the Browns. Not to mention Paul's son, Mike Brown, is the owner of the Bengals. Of course there will always be tension with the Steelers and the way they play football. You can't pick the Ravens, because it is not a rivalry if it is a one-sided affair. Go Bengals!
Erik Z from Washington D.C., writes: I don't see how there's much of an argument for the Bengals' biggest rival: it has to be the Browns. For the past decade these two franchises have vied for higher and higher draft picks and they've had some great games to show for it. Recently though, the Browns have gotten the edge with a two-game sweep last season. In 2008 it was the Bengals' dreaded tie that cost them the fifth overall pick, but the Browns must be applauded for their efforts in getting it. No question in my mind.
Scott Wick from Cleveland writes: The Browns are the Bengals' biggest rival overall. Forty years, Paul Brown, in state, and close to an even series. Granted, the Steelers and Bengals are more heated rivals over the last few years, but overall it is the Browns.
AFC North final say
James Walker: This is a classic choice between old school and new school. Based on our responses, more Bengals fans chose the Steelers, and we have to agree. Rivalries change. For example, 10 years ago there was no rivalry between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. But now it's one of the best rivalries in football because of the big games and success of both teams. The same logic applies here. The Browns used to be Cincinnati's biggest rival. But the lack of winning and lack of competing in important games over a long period have made this matchup meek in comparison to Bengals-Steelers. Natural dislike, crucial games and success for both teams are what make a strong rivalry. Right now, the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry has those ingredients.
If you have any future "Take your pick" ideas, feel free to send them to our division inbox or AFC North Twitter.
Here is our AFC North all-decade team.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Analysis: You can really start and stop this argument with Roethlisberger's two Super Bowls wins in the decade. In terms of starting quarterbacks, Roethlisberger trails only the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, who won three titles in the decade. Outside of Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals, no one was even remotely close for consideration, unless you wanted to reach for quarterbacks who had one or two good seasons in the decade, such as Kordell Stewart, Joe Flacco or Derek Anderson.
Other considerations: Palmer (Bengals)
Running backs: Jamal Lewis (Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens) and Jerome Bettis (Steelers)
Analysis: Typical of the AFC North, our all-decade backfield is as physical and heavy duty as it gets. Lewis, who retired after the 2009 season, registered 10,607 total rushing yards as a member of the Browns and Ravens. He had a 2,000-yard season with Baltimore in 2003. Bettis played six seasons (2000-05) in the decade with the Steelers and rushed for 5,199 yards in that span. Both players won Super Bowls and will be considered for the Hall of Fame. Although we don't have a traditional fullback, Bettis is versatile and big enough for the position.
Other considerations: Willie Parker (Steelers), Rudi Johnson (Bengals)
Analysis: We have a good mix at receiver. Ochocinco came to Cincinnati as a raw second-round pick who worked his way to become a six-time Pro Bowler and one of the biggest personalities in the NFL. Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler in the decade, was a former college quarterback who now is one of the toughest and smartest players in the league.
Other considerations: T.J. Houshmandzadeh (Bengals), Derrick Mason (Ravens)
Tight End: Todd Heap (Ravens)
Analysis: When you look at the total numbers over the past decade, Heap was the clear choice as the top tight end in the division. Heap caught 427 passes over that span and made two Pro Bowls. Pittsburgh's Heath Miller, who has 244 receptions, is two years younger and may eventually match Heap's production. But Heap has the better numbers to date. Former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. also put up impressive numbers in just three full seasons with Cleveland.
Other considerations: Miller (Steelers), Winslow Jr. (Browns)
Offensive line: OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), OT Willie Anderson (Bengals/Ravens), G Eric Steinbach (Browns/Bengals), G Alan Faneca (Steelers), C Jeff Hartings (Steelers)
Analysis: Besides leaving off three-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, putting the offensive line together was easier than I thought. Anderson of the Bengals got the edge over Thomas for two reasons: He's a natural right tackle and played nine years last decade at a high level. Thomas, with just three years, doesn't have the same longevity.
Other considerations: OT Thomas (Browns), OT Levi Jones (Bengals), C Rich Braham (Bengals)
Specialists: K Matt Stover (Ravens), P Chris Gardocki (Steelers/Browns), KR Josh Cribbs (Browns), LS Ryan Pontbriand (Browns)
Analysis: Stover made the Pro Bowl in 2000, and his 93.3 field goal percentage in 2006 led the NFL. He's been consistent for a very long time, which is all you ask from kickers. Gardocki and Dave Zastudil is a toss up. But Gardocki led the NFL in punts two years in a row (2000 and 2001) as well as punting yards in 2000. Zastudil cannot boast those claims. Cribbs was a no-brainer, and teammate Pontbriand made two Pro Bowls as Cleveland's long-snapper.
Other considerations: K Phil Dawson (Browns), K Jeff Reed (Steelers), P Zastudil (Ravens/Browns), B.J. Sams (Ravens)
Defense line: Casey Hampton (Steelers), Aaron Smith (Steelers), Justin Smith (Bengals)
Analysis: It's only fair that the AFC North all-decade defense runs a 3-4 scheme. Since 2001, Hampton has embodied what a 3-4 nose tackle looks like and plays like. He has five Pro Bowls in the decade, including this past season. Aaron Smith also is a prototype for 3-4 defensive ends. He's always put personal numbers aside so other defenders in Pittsburgh could flourish. Justin Smith of Cincinnati never quite lived up to his lofty draft status. But he was a consistent player for the Bengals.
Other considerations: DT Kelly Gregg (Ravens), DE Kimo von Oelhoffen (Steelers), DE Trevor Pryce (Ravens)
Analysis: You can win a lot of games with this group. You have intelligence and physicality in the middle, and plenty of pass-rush ability on the outside. Lewis, a future Hall of Famer, is the captain and emotional leader of the all-decade defense. Farrior also has the smarts to keep everyone in line, while Suggs and Porter can fly around and wreak havoc on the quarterback. There were several very good candidates at outside linebacker. But Porter and Suggs were dominant forces in the AFC North for a longer period.
Other considerations: OLB James Harrison (Steelers), OLB Adalius Thomas (Ravens)
Defensive backs: CB Chris McAlister (Ravens), CB Ike Taylor (Steelers), S Troy Polamalu (Steelers), S Ed Reed (Ravens)
Analysis: Polamalu and Reed are two of the all-time great safeties, so there is no debate there. Also, fans may recently remember the aging and injured McAlister who was cut by the Ravens last year. But at one point "C-Mac" was the most physically dominant cornerback in the division. Taylor won two Super Bowls with the Steelers and is the best of what's left at cornerback. I also considered Anthony Henry, who played in Cleveland for four years during the decade and had one stellar season when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2001.
Other considerations: CB Henry (Browns), S Rod Woodson (Ravens)
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Let's see what is on the minds of ESPN.com readers this weekend.
Robert from Latrobe, Pa., wants to know if Deshea Townsend or someone else will be the third cornerback this year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
James Walker: I've learned a long time ago not to write off "Big Play" Deshea, Robert. Every year he seems to be on his last legs yet finds a way to contribute to the team when it counts. I think ideally the Steelers are hoping Keiwan Ratliff or one of the rookies with young legs will step up for the nickel role, while the team could use Townsend's smarts and experience in the dime. But Townsend's knowledge of the system always means you cannot rule him out.
Tim from Toledo, Ohio, spends his lunch time reading the AFC North blog and wonders if the Cleveland Browns will make any more pickups on defense.
James Walker: Thanks for checking in during lunch, Tim. What about breakfast and dinner, too? Browns coach Eric Mangini says he's always looking at the transaction list to see if he can improve the team. I think we will see a couple of moves, but nothing too drastic involving big names. The Roderick Hood signing was solid and could be one of the last significant names to join Cleveland's defense before the 2009 season.
James Walker: Larson is in a tough spot, because there are only 32 punting jobs in the league and a majority of teams have that position settled. Jones, on the other hand, should get an opportunity at some point this summer, especially if a key preseason injury takes place, which usually happens. But staying away from practices this offseason may actually help Jones, because it gives him a chance to rest his knee.
Eric from Baltimore wants to know if this is the year the Ravens "take over the AFC North."
James Walker: The Ravens certainly have a chance, Eric. They were only a few plays away in nearly every game against Pittsburgh last season. Two big keys will be how the new starters fit in, such as cornerback Domonique Foxworth and center Matt Birk, and the progress of quarterback Joe Flacco in his second year. Flacco had his struggles with Pittsburgh's complicated defense last year. But if he figures it out and plays well this year against the Steelers, it could help signal a shift of power in the division.
Ethan from Versailles, Ky., wants to know if a motivated Chad Ochocinco and an "unbelievable defense" makes the Bengals Super Bowl contenders.
James Walker: Slow down, Ethan. What's the deal with all the predictions this week? It's only June. "Bengaldom" should be excited and optimistic about this season. This is a talented team on paper, and I believe I was one of the first in the national media to label Cincinnati a sleeper candidate for 2009. But fans should worry about succeeding in the AFC North first, because the Steelers and Ravens are going to be brutally tough to overcome as long as they stay healthy this year.
Aaron from Bloomington, Ill., wants to know what the chances are for Steelers receiver Hines Ward to make the Hall of Fame.
James Walker: I don't have a vote, Aaron, so my opinion doesn't matter. But if I did have a vote, I would put Hines Ward into the Hall of Fame. He has longevity, two championships and better stats than people think. Despite playing on a run-oriented team his entire career, he has 800 catches, nearly 10,000 yards, 72 touchdowns and four Pro Bowls. He's also the most devastating blocker ever at the receiver position, which makes him unique. My guess is he gets in. By the way, here is a story I wrote recently on Ward and his chances for the Hall of Fame before Super Bowl XLIII.
Joseph is a Browns fan and wants an update on quarterback Brett Ratliff.
James Walker: It is clearly a two-horse race in Cleveland between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, Joseph. Ratliff was acquired in a trade because Mangini likes his work ethic and knowledge of the offense. But he hasn't stood out much in the practices open to the media. I think people read too much into the acquisition by automatically assuming Ratliff would be part of the quarterback competition. That is not the case. Ratliff is more of a long-term project that Mangini began in New York and wants to continue working on in Cleveland.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
It started with the suspension for Alabama's bowl game. It continued when Smith unexpectedly left February's NFL combine. Then his private workout was considered average at best by scouts and onlookers. Smith also fired his agent once and reportedly is in the middle of more agent drama.
But through all the recent turmoil and bad choices, Smith's talent on the field made him the sixth overall pick by Cincinnati. Drafting that high, the Bengals will invest approximately $50 million in Smith, whose main job is to protect franchise quarterback Carson Palmer from another season-ending injury.
Is Smith worth the risk? The Bengals think so. They recently cut starting left tackle Levi Jones, which all but assures Smith will start right away.
If Smith plays well this year, people will quickly forget the recent missteps. But if Smith struggles or doesn't pan out, many will wonder why the Bengals ignored some of the early red flags during the draft process.
Honorable mention: The Cleveland Browns held the fifth overall pick, and instead of making a big splash, they traded down three times to take University of California center Alex Mack. By most accounts, Mack was the best center in the draft. But the fact that Cleveland could've taken more highly-touted players at the top of the draft board certainly puts pressure on Mack to perform. The New York Jets traded places with the Browns and took USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. If Sanchez proves to be a quality franchise quarterback, something Cleveland hasn't had since Bernie Kosar, the Browns could hear about this deal down the road.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are several notes and observations from within the division:
- We are hearing that it will be extremely tough for the Pittsburgh Steelers to make any more moves with their heralded free-agent class of 2010 without first striking a deal with left tackle Max Starks. The franchise tag used on Starks is eating up a whopping $8.451 million of this year's salary cap. Players such as tight end Heath Miller, safety Ryan Clark, nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive end Brett Keisel and tailback Willie Parker are all playing in the final year of their deals. Even with linebacker Larry Foote's recent release, we're told things probably will remain status quo unless Starks and the team can agree to a long-term extension.
- The Baltimore Ravens could have a tough decision to make in the battle for backup quarterback. Newly signed John Beck should provide stiff competition for last year's No. 2 quarterback Troy Smith. But here is an important wrinkle the Ravens have to consider: If Beck wins the backup job does that eliminate Baltimore's "Wildcat" offense? Baltimore used it with a lot of success last season. But if Smith is the No. 3/emergency quarterback, by rule he can dress but cannot play unless starting quarterback Joe Flacco remains on the sidelines for the remainder of the game. This small rule could be a major reason Smith remains the No. 2 quarterback. Chances are Beck cannot run the gimmick formation as well as Smith.
- The recent release offensive tackle Levi Jones was the final link to another example of poor management by the Cincinnati Bengals. Before the 2006 season, Cincinnati was coming off a playoff appearance the year prior and had to decide which offensive linemen deserved new contracts. The team chose to give Jones and aging tackle Willie Anderson huge deals at the expense of up-and-coming guard Eric Steinbach. Jones and Anderson were never the same players after those contracts and both tackles have been released. Steinbach went to the Browns as a free agent in 2007 and became a Pro Bowl guard. To this day, Cincinnati's offensive line has yet to recover from those poor decisions.
- There is a rumor floating around Cleveland that the Browns might be interested in a deal involving receiver Braylon Edwards for New York Jets tailback Thomas Jones. We're not sure how much validity there is to this one. But knowing the Browns, this likely wouldn't go down unless future draft picks were involved. Cleveland also would have to give Jones, 30, a big contract extension following a trade, which doesn't seem like something the new regime in Cleveland is interested in at the moment.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
|Mark Lyons/Getty Images|
|The release of Levi Jones (not pictured) opens the door for rookie Andre Smith, right.|
As expected for weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals terminated the contract of oft-injured left tackle Levi Jones Wednesday. This erases any competition at the position and all but assures rookie first-round pick Andre Smith will start in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos.
There have been some questions of whether Smith is better suited for right tackle than left. But when a team is willing to pay a contract worth $50 million, which is the approximate asking price these days for a No. 6 overall pick, that player needs to be the team's top lineman and field the most demanding position.
Cutting Jones, who played left tackle for Cincinnati the past seven years, clears the way for Smith. The rookie likely will have the tall task of protecting the blindside of quarterback Carson Palmer, who has suffered season-ending injuries in two of the past four seasons.
By not keeping Jones around to compete with Smith or provide depth, it's a sign the Bengals are confident that Smith can get the job done in his first NFL season.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
- Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun writes the Ravens drafted for toughness.
Morning take: Maybe that explains why no receiver was taken. That's not usually considered a tough position, but it is a need.
Morning take: Seems extreme, but I will file this one away for a couple years to see if Brown's prediction is correct.
- Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal wonders how the Cleveland Browns' 2009 draft will turn out?
Morning take: The first draft of a new regime always sets the tone. But when looking back on this class, don't forget to add the three "Cleveland Jets" following Saturday's trade.
- Following the pickup of Alabama rookie Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Levi Jones expects to be traded or released.
Morning take: Jones had a productive several years in Cincinnati before injuries took a toll. It's probably time now for both sides to go their separate ways.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The Cincinnati Bengals got protection for their $100-million quarterback.
But was Alabama left tackle Andre Smith the right pick?
With Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe still on the board for Cincinnati at No. 6 (he went to the Jaguars at No. 8), the Bengals chose Smith instead. The Bengals' history of drafting players with character concerns is well documented, and this pick will certainly be questioned once again in the Queen City.
Smith was suspended for Alabama's bowl game, had a shaky NFL combine, fired his agent and had a decent, but not great, pro day. But Cincinnati was enamored by Smith's game film, which is solid.
Quarterback Carson Palmer had two season-ending injuries in the past four seasons, so taking a tackle was a solid move. But whether Smith was the proper pick at this position is debatable. For more on Smith, click here.
In other Bengals news, Cincinnati now has to consider the future of current starting left tackle Levi Jones, who has been hit hard by injuries the past several seasons. Jones likely doesn't want to be a backup in Cincinnati, so the team could field trade offers soon or decide to release Jones.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The NFL draft is where major decisions are made to either build a team into a contender or lead down a path of destruction.
The AFC North provides a mix of teams with good track records in the draft (Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers), poor draft histories (Cincinnati Bengals) and a new regime trying to make its mark for the first time (Cleveland Browns).
With the draft just a few days away, let's look at the riskiest moves each team will consider.
Needs: WR, LB, C
Biggest risk: Drafting a receiver with the No. 5 pick
|Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images|
|The Browns could consider Texas tech receiver Michael Crabtree with their pick at No. 5.|
Why: Taking a receiver in the top 10 is one of the riskiest moves a franchise could make. Teams at the top of the draft usually have multiple needs, and receivers can only make a significant impact once everything else -- quarterback, offensive line, running game -- is in place. For example, look no further than the Detroit Lions, who bypassed a ton of talent at other positions to take receivers in the top 10 in 2003 (Charles Rogers), 2004 (Roy Williams), 2005 (Mike Williams) and 2007 (Calvin Johnson). The Lions got absolutely nowhere and eventually hit rock bottom in 2008 by becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history.
The reward: Cleveland would fill a big need by taking a receiver with the fifth pick. The Browns have backed themselves into a corner with a recent run of roster moves and bad luck this offseason. Since the start of free agency, the Browns released veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius, ran into legal trouble with starter Donte' Stallworth, and currently are involved in trade talks about former Pro Bowl receiver Braylon Edwards. If Edwards is moved by the end of the week, as many expect, the Browns would be down to David Patten and Josh Cribbs as their starting receivers. If the Browns overlook other needs such as linebacker and defensive linemen, the target could be Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, whom some feel is the best pure athlete in the draft.
Chances of risk: Decent
Needs: OT, C, RB
Biggest risk: Not getting a left tackle
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|Protecting Carson Palmer is something the Bengals need to consider heading into the draft.|
Why: Bengals franchise quarterback Carson Palmer needs better protection if Cincinnati is to have any success in 2009. Palmer's 2008 campaign ended after only four games with a season-ending elbow injury. He was pretty much battered from the beginning, as evident by the broken nose he also suffered in the preseason. This isn't to put all the blame on current left tackle Levi Jones. But when your entire offensive line struggles and you're picking sixth overall, left tackle and protecting the quarterback's blindside is the biggest priority. Luckily for the Bengals there are plenty of good tackles in this draft, including Baylor's Jason Smith, Virginia's Eugene Monroe and Alabama's Andre Smith. So not only would it be risky, it would be surprising if Cincinnati bypasses all of them in the first round.
Reward: Although the risk far outweighs the reward, the Bengals also have a chance to land a very good defensive player at No. 6. Cincinnati drafted defense in the first round for four consecutive years, and that unit finally is playing solidly. The Bengals finished last season ranked 12th in total defense. But some holes remain in terms of rushing the passer and getting stronger in the middle of the defensive line. Cincinnati signed Tank Johnson, who could be a short-term solution. But Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji has the potential to dominate the middle for years to come. The Bengals' lack of pass rush also brings up the possibility of choosing Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo over the most pressing need of offensive tackle.
Chances: Below average
Needs: OL, CB, DL
Biggest risk: Not taking a receiver
Why: It is Baltimore's only glaring need entering the draft. The Ravens were a few plays away from participating in last season's Super Bowl. Even with the loss of several key free agents, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome plugged enough holes at center and cornerback where this team should be back in contention in 2009. What Newsome and the Ravens didn't address is the receiver position. Behind starters Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason, there isn't much depth or proven talent. And the team would like to utilize the deep-ball capability of second-year quarterback Joe Flacco more often in 2009. Not giving him another weapon in the first round could hold back the growth of the offense.
Reward: By passing over a receiver, the Ravens could simply go with the top player on their draft board. At No. 26, Baltimore should have a choice of good prospects at several positions. There could be some good cornerbacks, linebackers and possibly the top tight end prospect, Brandon Pettigrew. The Ravens aren't in a similar situation to last year when they had to draft a quarterback. There may be other good receivers for Baltimore to target in the second round or later if another position player happens to catch Newsome's eye early.
Chances of risk: Average
Needs: OL, CB, WR
Biggest risk: Ignoring offensive line
Why: It's no secret that the Steelers also have a track record of taking the best available players. But that practice has put them in a current bind where they need quality depth at offensive line. For years, the Steelers ignored taking offensive linemen high in the draft. The last player taken at that position in the first two rounds was former guard Kendall Simmons in 2002. By 2008, Pittsburgh was struggling to consistently run the football. Despite winning a Super Bowl, the need cannot be ignored any longer. Expect the Steelers to bring in help early this weekend in order to get back to the team's physical, smashmouth style of offense.
Reward: Similar to the Ravens, Pittsburgh is not a team with many needs, so it has the luxury of going elsewhere in the first round. For instance, cornerback depth also is important for the Steelers. Therefore if the right corner falls to Pittsburgh with the final pick of the first round, it would be understandable to go in that direction as long as the offensive line isn't completely ignored on the first day of the draft.
Chances of risk: Average
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Team needs: Offensive tackle, center, pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker
|Paul Jasienski/Getty Images|
|An offensive tackle such as Eugene Monroe would provide an upgrade for the Bengals at a critical position.|
Dream scenario: Unless five teams in front of Cincinnati have brain cramps, Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith -- arguably the top player in the draft -- will not be available when the Bengals use their sixth overall pick. Smith would be perfect for Cincinnati as he would fill the team's biggest need at left tackle and provide tremendous value at No. 6. University of Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe would be another solid pick who may be off the board. Injuries have caught up to former Cincinnati first-round pick Levi Jones, so much so that he is no longer a dependable blindside protector for quarterback Carson Palmer, who's suffered two season-ending injuries (knee, elbow) the past four seasons.
Plan B: With Cincinnati possibly in a poor spot to secure one of the draft's two best tackles, the Bengals' focus could shift to taking the best defensive player along the front seven. Cincinnati has drafted a defensive player in the first round the past four years. The result is a sneaky good unit which steadily improved last season and finished No. 12 in total defense, despite little help from the offense. A player such as Texas defensive end/linebacker Brian Orakpo could be a good addition. The Bengals could still address the tackle position as a Plan B if they are desperate enough. They can take a risk on Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, whose stock has taken a hit this offseason, or reach for Mississippi tackle Michael Oher, who is widely considered a mid first-round prospect. The recent flirtations with running backs and receivers the past couple of weeks appear to be more smoke screens than substance. Those positions are likely targets in the second and middle rounds.
Scouts Inc.'s take: "The offensive line certainly needs work, and a major weakness of this team that sometimes goes unidentified is the center position. In their division, the Bengals play six games against Shaun Rogers, Casey Hampton and Haloti Ngata. They were trying to get by with Eric Ghiaciuc, who is 280 pounds and he just gets manhandled. They had no inside running attack against those three divisional teams because they couldn't handle the 3-4 nose tackles. That's a huge disadvantage. But in the first round I think they can go a lot of different ways. I like their defense. I don't think their defense is as bad off as it usually is. But, boy, do they need a pass-rusher. They need a difference-maker, and Orakpo makes a lot of sense for them to rotate in with the defensive ends they already have." -- Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: With a miniature scouting department, the Bengals' coaches are responsible for a significant chunk of talent evaluation. That gives head coach Marvin Lewis' staff a decent amount of input. But the final call on all major decisions usually must go through the ownership level with the Mike Brown family.
Now On the Clock: Cleveland Browns, April 13.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
As the NFL draft nears, AFC North teams are narrowing their list of prospects to take with the first-round pick. This week we look at those players and how each would fit with their respective division teams in 2009.
Tuesday we continue our series with potential prospects for the Cincinnati Bengals, who own the No. 6 overall pick:
1. Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia
The Bengals would be very happy if Monroe is available with the No. 6. He is widely-considered the second best offensive tackle in the draft and not too far behind potential No. 1 overall candidate Jason Smith of Baylor. Quarterback Carson Palmer is coming off a season-ending elbow injury and needs the protection in the worst way. A healthy blue-chip prospect like Monroe would be a significant upgrade over an oft-injured Levi Jones at this point of his career.
2. Michael Oher, OT, Mississippi
Many criticized the Bengals when they took Jones with the No. 10 pick in 2002, because many felt it was a reach. Cincinnati instead went for need and could find itself in a similar position this year with Mississippi tackle Oher, who is projected to be a top 15-20 pick. But if tackles Eugene Monroe and Jason Smith are both off the board, as many expect, Cincinnati has to consider taking the third-rated tackle in the draft with the No. 6 pick. Oher has the physical tools but is still considered somewhat of a work in progress compared to Monroe and Smith.
3. B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College
Every AFC North team has a huge plug in the middle, whether it's Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh, Shaun Rogers in Cleveland, or Haloti Ngata in Baltimore. Raji could be Cincinnati's version. He would be a more natural fit for Cincinnati under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense. Raji could be placed into his natural position of defensive tackle to combine with Domata Peko and make for a nice up-and-coming duo. There was a report last week of Raji failing a drug test and, if true, that could put him out of the running in Cincinnati.
Next up Wednesday: The Baltimore Ravens
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage had a great nickname for this time of year: He often called it "silly season."
It was one of the most hilarious and accurate statements Savage made in his four seasons in Cleveland. Currently, there are lots of reports, rumors, innuendo and speculation in the AFC North.
In an attempt to work through the mess, here are 10 things that I do and do not believe:
- I do not believe the Cleveland Browns will complete a three-team trade that will result in the acquisition of Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler.
- I do believe the Browns are open to trading either quarterback Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson for quality draft picks.
- I do not believe the Baltimore Ravens will sign veteran free-agent receivers Marvin Harrison or Torry Holt.
- I do believe Baltimore will take a receiver in the first round of April's NFL draft.
- I do not believe the NFL will retain its rule allowing blindside blocks to the head next season.
- I do believe Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who the rule is unofficially named after, will play the same way and simply pay the fines.
- I do not believe the Cincinnati Bengals will trade starting left tackle Levi Jones.
- I do believe the Bengals are shopping Jones and will eventually release him.
- I do not believe the Browns will take Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree with the No. 5 overall pick.
- I do believe Cleveland will retain No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards, despite persistent trade rumors.
What do you believe during this "silly season?"
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:
- In his first meeting since re-signing with the Baltimore Ravens, linebacker Ray Lewis says it was always his first choice to keep his legacy in Baltimore.
Morning take: The business side of football can be harsh, and for a small time it was for Lewis and the Ravens. But in the end, both sides made the right move to make sure Lewis plays his entire career in Baltimore.
- After a high-profile spat with new Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers has been a no-show thus far for offseason workouts.
Morning take: A Pro Bowl defensive lineman is a no-show in Cleveland, and likewise a Pro Bowl quarterback (Jay Cutler) is a no-show in Denver. Hmmm.
- Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says Levi Jones is the team's starting left tackle.
Morning take: For now, that may be the case. But a lot can -- and probably will -- change between now and September.
- The NFL rules committee will meet next week to vote for or against head blows to defenders from the blindside, which has been unofficially called the "Hines Ward Rule."
Morning take: How many contact rules can a contact league change? The athletes are getting bigger and faster, but the rule changes are trying to make the game less physical.