AFC North: Logan Mankins

There's only a week remaining for a team to sign restricted free agent Mike Wallace to an offer sheet. It doesn't seem like Wallace is going anywhere, but there's still a question of when he plans to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wallace doesn't intend to sign his restricted free-agent tender, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. That's a strong indication that he won't show up for Pittsburgh's offseason workouts unless he gets a long-term deal. If he doesn't sign his tender, he can't be fined for missing any offseason training activities because he's technically not under contract.

The next date to circle for Wallace is June 15. That's the deadline for Wallace to sign his tender or risk losing a lot of money. If Wallace remains unsigned by June 15, the Steelers can reduce his tender to 110 percent of last year's salary and still retain his rights. No team can sign Wallace to an offer sheet at that point because that deadline would have passed. Wallace's tender of $2.742 million can get cut to $577,500 -- a loss of $2.1 million. So, if Wallace wants to make a stand, the Steelers can take a bigger one.

All the Steelers have to do is notify Wallace of this possibility in a letter leading up to that deadline. This is what happened in 2010 to guard Logan Mankins in New England and wide receiver Vincent Jackson in San Diego. They chose not to sign their tenders to protest the restricted free-agency rules in the uncapped season and reported to their teams two months into the regular season.

I don't see Wallace taking it this far. He wants to show his displeasure for not getting a long-term deal, and he can do so by skipping most of the offseason workouts. The Steelers would prefer to have their No. 1 wide receiver at these practices because it's their first season under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, but it's more important that Wallace is there in training camp.

Everyone will know whether Wallace plans on showing up for training camp by June 15. That will reveal whether the sides are in for a long standoff. Again, I don't see that happening. When the time comes in June, Wallace should sign his tender, play this season for $2.7 million and get ready for free agency in 2013 if he doesn't have a new deal from the Steelers.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North: Morning take: Coming up short in the final game will sting the organization for a while. But no one gave them a chance to make it to the Super Bowl, and Pittsburgh defied the odds all season.
Morning take: Cleveland had a solid 2010 draft class, which included three starters in the first three rounds. The Browns need similar success for the next couple of years to make up ground in the division.
  • New Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is ready to get to work.
Morning take: There are a lot of questions with Cincinnati's offense. Gruden has to figure out who his playmakers are and what plays fit the talent around him.
Morning take: Good players are out there, including a pair of New England Patriots starters in tackle Matt Light and guard Logan Mankins. But they wouldn't come cheap.

Walker's weekend mailbag

September, 18, 2010
9/18/10
9:00
AM ET
Let's see what's in the weekend mailbag.

Eddie from Charlotte, N.C., wants to know if there should be concern that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon stayed in the pocket too much last week.

James Walker: That's a great question, Eddie, and it's something that I have mixed feelings about. Dixon only rushed for four yards on two attempts against the Atlanta Falcons. But he's only doing what Pittsburgh's coaching staff wants. The Steelers want Dixon to spend more time in the pocket going through his second and sometimes third reads. His tendency is to make the first read, and if it's not there, Dixon takes off. Pittsburgh doesn't want to run its offense that way. But I think, to some degree, the team also is taking away Dixon's best asset, which helps the defense. Dixon is not a pocket passer. I think the Steelers should let "Dennis be Dennis" a little more, and allow him to scramble for first downs. It would help the offense.


Steve from Johnsonburg, Pa., writes: I know this is a long shot, but is there any way the Steelers could bring Logan Mankins to Pittsburgh?

Walker: Nope. Pittsburgh is finished negotiating contracts for the 2010 season. A trade and major signing would be way out of character of the Steelers. It's not happening.


Alex from Madison, Wis., wants to know how much cornerback Lardarius Webb's return will help the Baltimore Ravens.

Walker: Webb's expected return Sunday could not have come at a better time. Baltimore's secondary was fortunate to face Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets in Week 1. The Ravens were thin in the secondary and New York struggles to go vertical on offense. But the Bengals have a legitimate threat at quarterback in Carson Palmer and plenty of receivers to potentially give Baltimore headaches. The Ravens will need Webb, Fabian Washington, Chris Carr and Josh Wilson to all play well this week.


GPaych via Twitter writes: You think Ray Lewis was trying to send a message with that hit on Dustin Keller on that last drive?

Walker: Absolutely. Lewis, perhaps more than anyone, did not enjoy the Jets' bravado and constant talking leading up to the game. After the Ravens' D played lights out for four quarters, Lewis delivered a parting shot for the Jets to remember.


Tyler R. Smith from Palm Springs, Calif., writes: I have a fantasy football team and I have Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford and Aaron Rodgers. But I found Carson Palmer sitting as a free agent. Should I keep Flacco or trade him for Palmer?

Walker: I would pick up Palmer and release Sam Bradford. Rodgers, Flacco and Palmer are a very strong group of quarterbacks.


Joseph from Los Angeles wants to know if Eric Mangini put too much pressure on the passing game in the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Walker: Between Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, yes, too much pressure was put on the passing game. Jake Delhomme threw 37 times against the Bucs. The Browns led by 11 points in the second quarter and it was close the entire game, but Delhomme was playing on a gimpy ankle the entire second half. Cleveland's coaching staff failed to make the proper adjustments at halftime and it cost them. The offense went scoreless in the second half.


Eddie Kilroy from Brunswick, Ohio, wants to know how the right side of Cleveland's offensive line can improve.

Walker: This is a trouble spot for the Browns. Offensive tackle John St. Clair and guard Floyd Womack played poorly last week, and I'm not sure they are the answer on the right side for the next 15 games. Cleveland's coaching staff likes rookie guard Shawn Lauvao's potential, but he's been banged up with a bad ankle. When Lauvao gets healthy, look for him to at least get into the rotation on the right side and possibly earn a starting job later in the season.


Comment and complaint department

Chris Carpenter from Cincinnati writes: To whom it may concern on the Bengals, I would appreciate it if you would play football. The season started last Sunday. Your physical abilities are great; however, your mental execution was that of a Pee Wee team. You are able to play better. Your fans deserve a better product on the field. On a related note with the upcoming CBA issues: The owners may sign your checks, but the fans are really the ones who pay you. The owners will be rich with or without football. Just food for thought while you played like crap. A concerned fan.

Jason from Cocoa, Fla., writes: James, the biggest argument coming from "Bengaldom" is that they went 6-0 in the division last year. My question is, what does that have to do with 2010? Absolutely nothing. I know there are Ravens fans, and I as a Steelers fan, that feel Cincinnati had a lot of fortunate things occur in their wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh last year. That is why I have picked them to finish third in the division. I just don't see them getting lucky two years in a row. The Ravens and Steelers are just more talented. Pittsburgh put a whipping on the Bengals last year in both games, only to blow the lead late in the game. That's nothing special on Cincy's part.

Brad from Atlanta writes: JW, when did the Bengals start getting so much respect? They looked horrific in their season opener and now they are playing one of the Super Bowl favorites and still half of ESPN's experts picked them to win. I've been a Bengals fan for a long time and, typically, when the Bengals get stomped like they did last week, everyone starts referring to them as the Bungles of old.

Chris from Annapolis, Md., writes: Is Pittsburgh top 10? Maybe not right now, but defense does win championships. Pittsburgh just needs to win one of the next three to be in solid shape for Ben Roethlisberger's return.

Butch from San Antonio writes: What makes you think Dallas and Washington are better teams than Pittsburgh? I am assuming defense, because neither team has much of an offense. The Steelers won with a third-stringer that alone should speak volumes as to the will of this team to overcome the Big Ben controversy. What is the excuse for the ineptitude of Dallas and Washington on offense?

Champ from District Heights, Md. writes: Real simple: I know it's not your division but how about them REDSKINS?

Shaneeka from High Point, N.C., writes: James, I know you like to look at history and records to make your picks, as evidence of your constant reminder of Carson Palmer's record vs. the Ravens and the Ravens' recent record vs. the Steelers. So, I thought I'd point out this nugget for you, the last time the Ravens won the season opener and missed the playoffs was 1996, their first NFL season.

Josiah from Baltimore writes: I can't wait until the Pats put the Jets down this Sunday so I can stop hearing about Jets this, Rex Ryan that. Really, JW, can you like tell some of your colleagues to cool it on the Jets. It's getting old. It was OK before the season started when we needed some storylines during training camp, but now it's time for REAL football, and there is a lot more going on in the league then the Jets and Rex Ryan's mouth. I think all the AFC North bloggers and fans can agree with me when I say NOBODY CARES OUTSIDE NEW YORK.

Kovacs from Santa Monica, Calif., writes: Brian Daboll is infuriating. I know the guys need to execute, but did it seem like Daboll's game plan was awful in the second half? The Browns had a lot of success attacking the edges with the run and getting some quick hitters in the passing game. Second half was a lot of runs up the middle and deep drops. He's got to adjust better.

Andy from Canada writes: Since when does Cleveland run a pass-first offense? The ratio of pass to run this weekend boggled my mind. This is not Mangini/BD's offense. There is more Mike Holmgren influence here than they let on, and it's not good. Tampa Bay was awful against the run last year and the Browns made them look great. Last year the QB never would have had a shot at throwing that late first-half pick, because they would have ran the ball into field goal range. For the Browns to have a shot at home against Kansas City two ratios have to increase: run to pass and Jerome Harrison to Peyton Hillis.

AFC North Homer of the Week

(Editor's note: I knew our community wouldn't fail me this week.)

1977BROWNS writes: How about this Walker: Take your Ravens and Bengals and stay on that bandwagon. I don't want to hear or see you…backing the Browns after they go 5-3 or better halfway through the season. We have a tough schedule but we will make the best of it. I believe in the Browns making the playoffs and I know you think that they will finish dead last in the AFC North this season. Take the past and all the stats which don't amount to a hill of beans. Holmgren and Jake will get this ship righted and look out. You and a lot more people may be eating their words in just a few weeks. Go Browns. As a writer I know you have to be the bad guy in this division, but the underdog will upset your predictions this year. The Browns and Steelers will finish first and second in the AFC North this season. If I am wrong then I will…take it like a real loyal fan. If I'm right, then I expect the same from you as a writer.
The NFL is a highly-competitive league where any advantage might be the difference in winning and losing.

For the Cincinnati Bengals, they should keep an eye on the situation involving New England Patriots Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. He's currently involved in an ugly contract dispute with New England that probably won't end any time soon. Cincinnati will play the Patriots in Week 1.

Mankins is New England's best offensive lineman. His potential absence will only hurt the Patriots against Cincinnati's physical defense, which ranked fourth in the NFL last season.

Recently, we wrote how New York Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis' contract holdout could also help the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. The AFC East division will be a tough opponent throughout the year for the AFC North. But potentially missing a pair of Pro Bowlers early makes it a little easier.
 
  ESPN.com Illustration
  Who should be No. 1 heading into the season: the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers or perennial contenders the New England Patriots? Our bloggers debate.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker and Len Pasquarelli

When it comes to NFL dominance and consistency, few teams rival the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. With five Super Bowl titles between them since 2000, they're the two contenders for the mythical title of "Team of the Decade."

But which franchise deserves top billing heading into the 2009 season?

Does the return of superstar quarterback Tom Brady from a knee injury make New England the early favorite? Or should the defending champion Steelers, who return 20 of 22 starters, be considered the team to beat until proven otherwise?

To debate these topics and more, we bring in ESPN.com NFL writers Len Pasquarelli and James Walker.

In ESPN.com's May Power Rankings, the Steelers topped the poll of our experts -- despite a No. 9 overall ranking from Pasquarelli. He deems the Patriots the best team entering the season.

Who is the favorite heading into the 2009 season and why?

 
  Donald Miralle/Getty Images
  The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters from last year's Super Bowl team, including receiver Santonio Holmes.
James Walker: Not much has changed since Pittsburgh hoisted its sixth Lombardi Trophy in February. The Steelers were the NFL's best team just three months ago and still deserve top honors as the preseason favorites.

Pittsburgh lost just two starters from its championship team, and a strong case can be made that replacements Lawrence Timmons and William Gay will be more productive than their predecessors, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden. Key Steelers such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and tailback Willie Parker are healthy again. Second-year players Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed appear primed to make contributions in reserve roles, which didn't happen last season.

The few weaknesses from last season also have been addressed. Pittsburgh punter Daniel Sepulveda is returning from injury and will be a major upgrade in the kicking game. Rookie first-round pick Evander Hood should provide youthful depth for an aging defensive line, and the team now has a plethora of speedy kick returners competing to fill that role.

If Pittsburgh stays healthy and the offensive line jells in 2009, as the coaching staff suggests, you'd be hard pressed to find a glaring weakness with the defending champs.

Len Pasquarelli: As an old Chuck Noll disciple, I still believe that many games are won at the line of scrimmage. And the Patriots averaged the second most points per game in the league in a season when the NFL's best quarterback, Tom Brady, played less than one full game. Perhaps more importantly, the Pats also have an edge up front on both offense and defense. From 2005-2007 -- Brady's last three full seasons in the league -- he was sacked only 73 times. That's 66 fewer times than his counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, was sacked over the same span. Pass protection is a synergistic thing, as dependent on the quarterback unloading the ball as it is on the linemen blocking. Still, the New England offensive line, under the direction of Dante Scarnecchia, is one of the best in the league, with standouts like left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, and center Dan Koppen.

But the area where the Patriots own the biggest edge is on the defensive front. Both teams employ the 3-4 scheme, and the Pittsburgh line is both experienced and good. Still, their New England counterparts can be downright dominating at times. The Patriots almost always seem to choose a defensive lineman high in the draft, and that has paid off handsomely for them, with players like Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren. Remember the old adage from cigarette commercials: "It's what's up front that counts?" New England coach Bill Belichick is a proponent of building a team from the inside out, kind of in the Noll image, and he has assembled terrific up-front units on both sides of the ball. Players at the skill positions aren't bad, either, but the Pats generally own the line of scrimmage, and that's a big plus for them.

Both teams are proponents of the 3-4 defense. How can New England's defense be any better than Pittsburgh's unit, which led the NFL in 2008?

 
  AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
  Patriots coach Bill Belichick will figure out how to make New England's defense competitive.
Pasquarelli: Granted,
the Patriots' secondary was shaky in 2008, and allowed a ton of touchdown passes. Add to that the fact that New England has lost both starting cornerbacks (Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs) the last two offseasons, and that safety Rodney Harrison might not return for 2009. Yeah, the Pats have to "scheme up" a pass rush, since they don't really have an upfield force off the edge.

But with apologies to Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Pats have Belichick, and he is a master at switching his fronts and disguising coverages. There aren't many 3-4 linemen who can take over a game, but as noted above, the Patriots have three of them. Certainly the performance of the Steelers' unit, which defends every blade of grass like it's their fortune, is an admirable outfit. But their secondary problems aside, the Patriots are still plenty good enough, particularly if the offense removes some of the pressure by scoring big.

Walker: Len, Pittsburgh had the NFL's best defense in 2008 and the Patriots were No. 10. I don't see a comparison.

Sure, both teams run 3-4 defenses. But when you look at every component -- be it yards, points allowed, or sacking the quarterback -- it wasn't even close. For instance, New England had 31 sacks as a team last year. Pittsburgh outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks and the Steelers amassed 51 sacks total. The Steelers simply play defense on a much higher level.

In fact, New England's defense has been somewhat overrated in recent years. Brady's ability to put up points offensively, particularly in 2007, made a lot of opponents one-dimensional and easier to defend. If you noticed without Brady last year, the Patriots dropped six spots defensively in 2008 from No. 4 to No. 10.

Speaking of Brady, does his return shift the balance of power to New England?

Pasquarelli: Brady and Roethlisberger are both members of a small subset, the truly elite quarterbacks in the game. But as noted above, Brady is afforded better protection, and his playmakers are much more explosive. In his last three seasons before the knee injury, Brady threw 100 touchdown passes and only 34 interceptions. In his past three seasons, Roethlisberger has 67 touchdown passes and 48 interceptions, and has been sacked an incredible 139 times.

New England finished fifth in the league in total offense in 2008, second in scoring, and won 11 games, despite playing most of the year with an inexperienced backup quarterback in Matt Cassel. It would be naïve and foolhardy to think they won't do even better with their main trigger man back in the lineup. Of the Patriots' five defeats last season, two came by seven points or less, and Brady will take care of that small difference.

Walker: Anyone who automatically makes New England the Super Bowl favorite in May is making a bold assumption that Brady is 100 percent recovered from major reconstructive knee surgery. But many questions remain.

Will Brady be protective of his surgically-repaired knee? Will rust be an issue and cause Brady to get off to a slow start? How will he respond to getting hit? These questions will not be answered until months down the line. But you know exactly what you're getting from Roethlisberger and the Steelers, which is why you have to make them the favorites.

Keep in mind, Brady suffered his knee injury in the opening game last year against the Kansas City Chiefs. Therefore, he hasn't played in a full game since February of 2008, a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. With such an extended layoff, I doubt we're going to see the 4,800-yard, 50-touchdown version of Brady this year, and even that version wasn't good enough to win New England a Super Bowl.

Will Pittsburgh and New England meet in the AFC Championship game?

Pasquarelli: After a year out of the playoffs, New England will be poised to try to regain a title that almost seemed like its birthright. Pittsburgh faces a tough haul in its own division from Baltimore. One of the two teams won't make it to the conference championship game and -- hometown loyalties notwithstanding -- we're betting it's the Steelers who will be absent.

Inarguably, these are two of the finest organizations in the NFL, even if one is old-guard authorship and the other is new-age, and the two have terrific front office personnel. Both rely on preparing young players to step into roles as starters or contributors, as Pittsburgh will with linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay, and New England will with linebacker Shawn Crable and cornerback Terrence Wheatley.

But the Patriots' veteran free agents -- guys like tailback Fred Taylor, tight end Chris Baker, wide receiver Joey Galloway, and cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden -- will have more of an impact in 2009 than the Pittsburgh additions of spare parts like wide receiver Shaun McDonald and cornerback Keiwan Ratliff.

Walker: Although I easily could see other talented teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens or Tennessee Titans spoiling the party, Pittsburgh and New England are currently the beasts of the AFC. In fact, these have been the top two teams in the NFL this decade, and they have the five combined championships over that span to prove it.

It would be fitting for these two franchises to settle this debate on the field for the right to advance to Super Bowl XLIV, and perhaps, solidify the title of "Team of the Decade." Pittsburgh and New England will not meet in the regular season in 2009. But if the Steelers and Patriots avoid the injury bug and play up to their talent levels, I have a feeling they could cross paths at some point in the postseason with a lot at stake.

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