AFC North: Manny Lawson

Camp Confidential: Cincinnati Bengals

July, 31, 2013
7/31/13
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CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals got over one hump only to find a bigger one in front of them this season.

Last season, the Bengals proved they weren't a one-year wonder, reaching the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Reagan administration. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, the Bengals consider it a painful reminder of their shortcomings.

This franchise hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season. This 22-year drought is the longest current one in the NFL and the seventh-longest in league history.

All of the hard work the Bengals are putting in this summer, which is being chronicled on HBO's "Hard Knocks," is done with the hopes it pays off in January.

"We made it to the playoffs back-to-back when we were young," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "Now that we have two years of experience under our belt, we expect to make some noise rather than just making an appearance."

Unlike the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals kept most of their team intact. Cincinnati had to replace one player from the starting lineup in last season's playoff game against Houston. The additions of linebacker James Harrison and tight end Tyler Eifert have helped make the Bengals the trendy pick to win the AFC North. And, after the Ravens lost tight end Dennis Pitta for the season, some may consider the Bengals the favorites.

At a time when the expectations are heightened, coach Marvin Lewis continued his tradition of handing out T-shirts with his theme for that season. This year, the orange letters on the black shirt read: "Success, A lot of little things done well."

"If you go into the season and you’re picked first in the division and you work out in the offseason and approach training camp like you’re the best, I don’t think that will be beneficial," cornerback Leon Hall said. "If you approach it with the same mindset like you’re supposed to be last, you have that chip on your shoulder. We still have to work hard through the season. We open up in Chicago, and they’re not going to lie down for us just because of what people expect out of us."

You could argue that the Bengals are ahead of the curve. It was only two years ago when Cincinnati began the season at the bottom of ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings. Now, there's talk that the Bengals are better than the defending Super Bowl champions.

Has this turnaround happened more quickly than Lewis anticipated?

"I think the quarterback and the receiver accelerated things," Lewis said, referring to Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison, Mike Zimmer
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals coordinator Mike Zimmer, rear, said linebacker James Harrison has "exceeded my expectations" in his move to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4.
1. Determine whether Dalton is the team's franchise quarterback. A former second-round pick, Dalton has exceeded expectations in his first two seasons. He's thrown 47 touchdowns in 32 career games. The only quarterbacks who have passed for more in their first two seasons in the NFL are Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52). There's no question that Dalton is good enough in the regular season to get the Bengals to the playoffs. But there are doubts whether he can take them to that next level.

Dalton is 0-2 in the playoffs and is a major reason for those defeats. He threw three interceptions in his first playoff game in the 2011 postseason (including a crucial pick returned for a touchdown by J.J. Watt) and failed to complete half of his throws in his second postseason game in the 2012 playoffs. That's not going to cut it in a division where quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger are measured by the postseason.

Judging by his performance in the first week of training camp, Dalton remains a streaky passer. He went from having a rhythm in the first two days to forcing throws into coverage over the next couple of practices. The Bengals, though, remain supportive.

"The way he’s commanded the offense, he knows it’s his team now," Green said.

2. Harrison's transition to a 4-3 defense. Harrison insists it's not much of a change going from an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense to Cincinnati's 4-3 one. But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer disagrees.

"I don’t think it’s overblown because it’s a different position," Zimmer said. "He’s exceeded my expectations, to be honest with you. Typically, that transition is a little more difficult. Shoot, we’re finding a lot of things for him to do. The coverage part was what I was a little worried about. But he’s doing things really well. We’ll find a lot of ways to use him in all kinds of different packages."

The Steelers rarely asked Harrison to drop into coverage. He didn't have one interception or pass breakup in the past two seasons. What won't change is his ability to rush the passer. While some point out that last season was Harrison's least productive, his six sacks match the total of all of the Bengals' linebackers last year.

The Bengals aren't na´ve. They're not expecting the NFL Defensive Player of the Year from five years ago. The Bengals are certain that Harrison is more of an impact player than Manny Lawson, last year's starter. Harrison's biggest contribution won't be measured on the stat sheet. His toughness and leadership alone will elevate a defense that has a lot of talent but has always lacked an edge.

3. Game plan for the running backs. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden hinted before training camp began that there could be an equal distribution of carries between BenJarvus Green-Ellis, last year's starter, and Giovani Bernard, the first running back selected in this year's draft. But, barring injury, this is unlikely to happen. The Bengals have been impressed with Bernard. They're just not ready to reduce Green-Ellis' role. Remember, Green-Ellis averaged 92.8 yards rushing in his final six regular-season games last season.

The Bengals are hoping Bernard will produce big plays, especially in the passing game, and carry the ball enough to keep Green-Ellis fresh late in contests. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Green-Ellis ranked seventh in the NFL in fourth-quarter rushing yards last season. But his per-carry average was a less-than-stellar 3.9 yards. Bernard will eventually become the Bengals' starting running back. It just won't happen this year.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Bengals have one of the top playmakers and top defenses in the NFL. Green can score from anywhere on the field and makes everyone around him better because of the attention that he draws. His 162 catches are the second-most in NFL history for a player in his first two seasons. With an underrated defensive line headlined by Geno Atkins, the Bengals defense finished No. 6 last season and should be more dominant this season. This is why Cincinnati is among the dark-horse picks for the Super Bowl this season.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How far the Bengals go this season falls on Dalton's play. He's the biggest question mark on a team primed to climb to the level of the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens. In the regular season, he turned the ball over 20 times (16 interceptions, four fumbles) and was one of two starting quarterbacks to complete less than half of his throws on third down. In two postseason games, he has thrown for a paltry 384 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions. The Bengals have done everything to surround Dalton with playmakers, using their top two picks on Eifert and Bernard. It's up to him to deliver.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeShawn Williams
AP Photo/Al BehrmanShawn Williams, a rookie out of Georgia, could start at strong safety for the Bengals.

  • The front-runner for the strong safety job is rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams. After watching two training-camp practices, it was apparent to me that he has more of a feel for that position than Taylor Mays. On one play, a breakdown in coverage by Mays led to a long touchdown pass. On the very next play, Williams jumped a route and made an interception. "He’s got a chance [to start]," Zimmer said of Williams. "He could end up being the guy."

  • Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is running very well, and you wouldn't know he had a season-ending foot injury in late November. But the wide receiver who stood out the most was Marvin Jones. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has a knack for getting open and can take off after making the catch.

  • Here's the best stat a local reporter passed along to me: Nine of the 11 linebackers on the Bengals roster were undrafted. One of them is Vontaze Burfict, who is still carrying a large chip on his shoulder after every team passed on him in the 2012 draft. He takes out his frustration with each explosive tackle.

  • Eifert's position is listed as tight end, but the Bengals are moving him all over the field. To his credit, he's learning everything the team is throwing at him. The Bengals are trying to exploit mismatches with the 6-foot-6 first-round pick, as they did when he pulled down a jump ball in the end zone over Williams, who stands 6-0.

  • When you enter the locker room where all the defensive linemen stand, you feel like you're covering the NBA, not the NFL. There are three players 6-6 or taller: Dunlap (6-6), Michael Johnson (6-7) and rookie second-round pick Margus Hunt (6-8). "I know they always say they’re looking for the next big thing," Dunlap said. "Each year, they keep getting bigger and faster."
With full-team minicamps beginning in about two weeks, the AFC North blog is taking one final look at the division's top 20 free agents. Only one player, Josh Cribbs, remains unsigned. The division teams were able to keep nine players on the list. Remember to check ESPN.com's free-agent tracker to keep up-to-date with all the moves around the league.

Here is the rankings and where the players stand now (* -- unsigned):

1. Joe Flacco, Ravens QB: Signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract with the Ravens. The then-record deal includes $52 million guaranteed and a $29 million signing bonus.

2. Mike Wallace, ex-Steelers WR: Signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Dolphins. The deal includes $30 million guaranteed and an $11 million signing bonus.

3. Ed Reed, ex-Ravens FS: Signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Texans. The deal includes $6 million guaranteed and a $2 million signing bonus.

4. Andre Smith, Bengals OT: Signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Bengals. The deal includes $5 million guaranteed and a $3 million signing bonus.

5. Michael Johnson, Bengals DE: Signed a one-year, $11.2 million franchise tag with the Bengals.

6. Dannell Ellerbe, ex-Ravens ILB: Signed a five-year, $34.75 million contract with the Dolphins. The deal includes $14 million guaranteed and a $7 million signing bonus.

7. Paul Kruger, ex-Ravens OLB: Signed a five-year, $40.5 million contract with the Browns. The deal includes $20 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus.

8. Phil Dawson, ex-Browns K: Signed a one-year, $2.35 million contract with the 49ers. The deal includes a $1 million signing bonus.

9. Dennis Pitta, Ravens TE: Restricted free agent received second-round tender ($2.023 million).

10. James Harrison, ex-Steelers OLB: Signed a two-year, $4.45 million contract with the Bengals. The deal includes a $1.2 million signing bonus.

*11. Josh Cribbs, Browns WR-PR: Unsigned. He failed to reach an agreement with the Cardinals, so he's been visiting the Raiders, Jets, Giants and Lions this week. My guess is he signs with Detroit.

12. Bernard Pollard, ex-Ravens safety: Signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Titans. The deal includes a $500,000 signing bonus.

13. Keenan Lewis, ex-Steelers CB: Signed a five-year, $25.5 million contract with the Saints. The deal includes $10.5 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus.

14. Cary Williams, ex-Ravens CB: Signed a three-year, $17 million contract with the Eagles. The deal includes $10.5 million guaranteed and a $5 million signing bonus.

15. Manny Lawson, ex-Bengals OLB: Signed a four-year, $12 million contract with the Bills. The deal includes a $3 million signing bonus.

16. Terence Newman, Bengals CB: Signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Bengals. The deal includes a first-year roster bonus of $1.4 million.

17. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers WR: Restricted free agent received a one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet from the Patriots and the Steelers matched it.

18. Rey Maualuga, Bengals LB: Signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract with the Bengals. The deal includes a $2.5 million signing bonus.

19. Adam Jones, Bengals CB: Signed a three-year, $5.35 million contract with the Bengals. The deal includes $1.5 million guaranteed and a $750,000 signing bonus.

20. Benjamin Watson, ex-Browns TE: Signed a three-year, $4.95 million contract with the Saints. The deal includes a $1.2 million signing bonus.
One of the biggest questions facing James Harrison -- perhaps more than his age -- is whether he can play in the Cincinnati Bengals' 4-3 defense.

For nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harrison was an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Now, after signing a two-year deal with the Bengals, he is taking over Manny Lawson's spot as Cincinnati's strong-side linebacker.

"He can adjust; he was their adjustor in Pittsburgh," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told the team's official website. "I have no doubt he can do it. He's got that flexibility and he's a smart, hard-working guy. But it all starts with the fact he's physical against the run."

In early downs, though, Harrison might have to drop back into coverage more often than his days in the 3-4 defense. According to Pro Football Focus, Harrison was targeted 16 times in coverage last season and gave up 11 receptions (68.8 percent). He hasn't broken up a pass the past two seasons.

Where Harrison is going to make his impact is on passing downs. The Bengals can line up Harrison and Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks) as ends and team Carlos Dunlap (six sacks) with Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks) inside.

Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who had many battles with Harrison over the years, doesn't think there will be much of a transition for Harrison.

"The days of a two-gap, 3-4 are pretty much gone. Everybody is pretty much playing a hybrid between a 3-4 and a 4-3," Whitworth said. "Even Pittsburgh. Sometimes it looks like they're playing an under 3-4, which kind of looks like an under 4-3. The only difference is that he was standing up instead of with his hand on the ground."
James Harrison won't bring double-digit sacks to the Cincinnati Bengals. He won't bring a familiarity with a 4-3 defense like Karlos Dansby would.

So what can Who Dey Nation expect from the ex-Steelers outside linebacker? A whole lot of attitude.

It's easy to pick apart this addition and why the Bengals should have chosen Dansby as their strong-side linebacker, from Harrison's declining sack total (six last season) to an increasing number of injuries (seven games missed due to injuries the past two seasons) to his age (he turns 35 next month). But I would like to watch someone relay this criticism to Harrison's face.

What you can't argue with is the intangibles of this deal. As everyone who has ever watched him play one down knows, Harrison is mean, tough and plain nasty. He's more than just old. He's old school. I can tell you the person who hates this deal the most is Ben Roethlisberger. He's the last person who wants to see Harrison's steely-eyed stare from across the line of scrimmage.

The Bengals have one of the better defenses in the NFL, ranking No. 6 last season. The lineup is filled with young and talented players such as Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict. The Bengals didn't need a Pro Bowl linebacker. Remember, Harrison is replacing underachieving Manny Lawson, not Aldon Smith.

What the Bengals never had on defense was an edge, or at least I never sensed one. That won't be the case now with Harrison, who is carrying a chip on his shoulder as large as a Primanti Brothers sandwich (or whatever the Cincinnati equivalent would be). Harrison carries grudges. Just ask the Baltimore Ravens, who once cut Harrison and got some of his best efforts each season.

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAs anyone who has ever watched him play would tell you, James Harrison is mean, tough and plain nasty. He's more than just old. He's old school.
The same goes for the Steelers and Ravens this year. Harrison was cut by the Steelers after refusing to take a pay cut, and then watched the Ravens sign Elvis Dumervil while he was at the Ravens team facility. I'm quite sure Harrison will be motivated when playing those two prime-time games against Pittsburgh and those two matchups with the defending Super Bowl champions. Perhaps the Bengals will get flashes of the Harrison of old, the one who from 2007 to 2011 went to the Pro Bowl five times and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008.

"He hates the Steelers now, and that's somebody we need on our side," Dunlap told the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this week.

There is a risk involved in adding Harrison. He has never played in a 4-3 defense and he has been on the field for 77 percent of his team’s defensive snaps since the start of the 2011 season, which ranks 56th among linebackers over that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In 2012, Harrison finished outside the top five in sacks as an outside linebacker for the first time in the past five seasons (he was tied for 17th). There's a reason Harrison didn't draw much interest in free agency and only had serious talks with the Bengals and Ravens this offseason.

Because of those points, this may not be a popular choice among the Bengals fan base. In a recent SportsNation poll, 48 percent of voters thought the Bengals should have went with Dansby, while only 25 percent picked Harrison. Dansby is three years younger than Harrison and has experience in a 4-3 defense.

The difference with Harrison is he comes with a mean streak and swagger than Dansby doesn't have. I'm not saying Harrison is the missing piece in the Bengals' championship puzzle. But he will make them better for at least this year, when he is intent on proving to everyone that he can still make an impact. I like this move. Or maybe I just don't want to tick off Harrison and become Target No. 2 behind Roethlisberger.
It's 18 days into NFL free agency, and there's only five players on the AFC North top 20 list who remain unsigned. As always, click here for ESPN.com's free-agent tracker which will keep you up-to-date with all the moves from around the league.

Here is the rankings and where the players stand now (* -- unsigned):

1. Joe Flacco, Ravens QB: Signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract with the Ravens. The NFL-record deal includes $52 million guaranteed and a $29 million signing bonus.

2. Mike Wallace, ex-Steelers WR: Signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Dolphins. The deal includes $30 million guaranteed and an $11 million signing bonus.

3. Ed Reed, ex-Ravens FS: Signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Texans. The deal includes $6 million guaranteed and a $2 million signing bonus.

*4. Andre Smith, Bengals OT: Unsigned. Smith remains a priority for the Bengals. He has surprisingly drawn little interest in free agency.

5. Michael Johnson, Bengals DE: Signed a one-year, $11.2 million franchise tag with the Bengals.

6. Dannell Ellerbe, ex-Ravens ILB: Signed a five-year, $34.75 million contract with the Dolphins. The deal includes $14 million guaranteed and a $7 million signing bonus.

7. Paul Kruger, ex-Ravens OLB: Signed a five-year, $40.5 million contract with the Browns. The deal includes $20 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus.

8. Phil Dawson, ex-Browns K: Signed a one-year, $2.35 million contract with the 49ers. The deal includes a $1 million signing bonus.

9. Dennis Pitta, Ravens TE: Restricted free agent received second-round tender ($2.023 million).

*10. James Harrison, Steelers OLB: Unsigned. Harrison has to be rethinking his decision not to take a pay cut with the Steelers. He's only taken one visit, and the Ravens signed Elvis Dumervil during it. Could he end up in Arizona like so many other ex-Steelers?

*11. Josh Cribbs, Browns WR-PR: Unsigned. The Cardinals are waiting until Cribbs is fully recovered from meniscus surgery before signing him.

12. Bernard Pollard, ex-Ravens safety: Signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Titans. The deal includes a $500,000 signing bonus.

13. Keenan Lewis, ex-Steelers CB: Signed a five-year, $25.5 million contract with the Saints. The deal includes $10.5 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus.

14. Cary Williams, ex-Ravens CB: Signed a three-year, $17 million contract with the Eagles. The deal includes $10.5 million guaranteed and a $5 million signing bonus.

15. Manny Lawson, ex-Bengals OLB: Signed a four-year, $12 million contract with the Bills. The deal includes a $3 million signing bonus.

*16. Terence Newman, Bengals CB: Unsigned. Newman announced on Twitter on Friday night that he has re-signed with the Bengals. No official word from the Bengals yet.

*17. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers WR: Restricted free agent visited the Patriots but has yet to sign an offer sheet. The Steelers have first right of refusal and would receive a third-round pick as compensation if they didn't match the offer.

18. Rey Maualuga, Bengals LB: Signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract with the Bengals. The deal includes a $2.5 million signing bonus.

19. Adam Jones, Bengals CB: Signed a three-year contract with the Bengals that pays him $3.3 million in base salaries.

20. Benjamin Watson, ex-Browns TE: Signed a three-year, $4.95 million contract with the Saints. The deal includes a $1.2 million signing bonus.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each AFC North team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Baltimore Ravens: Losers. No debate here. The Super Bowl champions have been among the biggest losers in free agency. The Ravens have parted ways with seven starters (including five on defense), and free agency is only 11 days old. Baltimore also lost a chunk of its history when linebacker Ray Lewis retired and safety Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans in free agency. Both players were past their prime, but their departures create a major leadership void. The losses that will hurt the Ravens the most are wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (signed with Miami). The Ravens don't have the depth at either position to replace them. The only additions have been defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, both of whom will improve the run defense.

Cincinnati Bengals: Winners. You can't really call the Bengals "losers" because they've only lost one starter from last season's playoff team, and Cincinnati wasn't interested in bringing back outside linebacker Manny Lawson (signed with Buffalo). The biggest criticism is the Bengals haven't been aggressive in free agency. Cincinnati is one of three teams that haven't signed a free agent from another team this offseason. The Bengals have been active in keeping their team intact, re-signing nine of their own free agents. That list includes three starters (linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers), kicker Mike Nugent and punter Kevin Huber. The Bengals will feel more like winners if they can retain their top priority, offensive tackle Andre Smith. With about $30 million in salary-cap room remaining, Cincinnati is looking to bring back cornerback Terence Newman and extend the contract of defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The Bengals also need to address voids at strong safety and outside linebacker.

Cleveland Browns: Winners. This is a close call. The Browns improved their front seven by signing linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and added to the pass rush by bringing in linebacker Quentin Groves. Cleveland overpaid for Kruger ($20 million guaranteed for someone who has 15.5 career sacks), but the Browns get the sacks leader from the Super Bowl champions who is entering the prime of his career. The best signing was Bryant, an under-the-radar free agent who can become a game-changer up front in the Browns' new 3-4 defense. The excitement over these additions is tempered by the fact that the Browns said goodbye to two longtime franchise fixtures in kicker Phil Dawson (signed with San Francisco) and receiver-returner Josh Cribbs (expected to sign with Arizona). The Browns can come out of free agency looking much better if they can land Falcons free agent Brent Grimes, the top cornerback remaining on the market.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Losers. This is no surprise. The Steelers' salary-cap restraints have meant a significant amount of losses and few additions in free agency over recent years. This offseason, the Steelers cut their top pass-rusher (aging James Harrison) after he refused to take a pay cut, watched their best deep threat (Mike Wallace) get $30 million guaranteed from the Miami Dolphins, chose not to outbid the New Orleans Saints for their young rising cornerback (Keenan Lewis) and declined to re-sign a former first-round pick (running back Rashard Mendenhall). There will also be changes along the offensive and defensive lines. Pittsburgh released guard Willie Colon and aren't expected to re-sign offensive tackle Max Starks and nose tackle Casey Hampton. The Steelers added depth with quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, cornerback William Gay and wide receiver Plaxico Burress. But Pittsburgh has to cross its fingers that New England won't sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet.
I updated the top 20 free-agent list in the division that reflects the release of Steelers linebacker James Harrison and safety Bernard Pollard. There are eight unsigned free agents remaining on the list. As always, click here for ESPN.com's free-agent tracker which will keep you up-to-date with all the moves from around the league.

Here is the rankings and where the players stand now (* -- unsigned):

1. Joe Flacco, Ravens QB: Signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract with the Ravens. The NFL-record deal includes $52 million guaranteed and a $29 million signing bonus.

2. Mike Wallace, ex-Steelers WR: Signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Dolphins. The deal includes $30 million guaranteed and an $11 million signing bonus.

*3. Ed Reed, Ravens FS: Unsigned. Reed took a two-day visit to Houston but left without a deal. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome expects Reed to make a decision this week.

*4. Andre Smith, Bengals OT: Unsigned. Smith remains a priority for the Bengals. He has surprisingly drawn little interest in free agency.

5. Michael Johnson, Bengals DE: Signed a one-year, $11.2 million franchise tag with the Bengals.

6. Dannell Ellerbe, ex-Ravens ILB: Signed a five-year, $34.75 million contract with the Dolphins. The deal includes $14 million guaranteed and a $7 million signing bonus.

7. Paul Kruger, ex-Ravens OLB: Signed a five-year, $40.5 million contract with the Browns. The deal includes $20 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus.

*8. Phil Dawson, Browns K: Unsigned. Not expected to return to the Browns.

9. Dennis Pitta, Ravens TE: Restricted free agent received second-round tender ($2.023 million).

*10. James Harrison, Steelers OLB: Unsigned. Harrison refused a pay cut, but he's drawing very little interest. The Ravens reportedly have talked to him, but there have been no contract negotiations.

*11. Josh Cribbs, Browns WR-PR: Unsigned. Cribbs reportedly visited the Cardinals and took a physical Monday.

*12. Bernard Pollard, Ravens safety: Unsigned. Pollard has had one visit (the Titans) since being released by the Ravens last week.

13. Keenan Lewis, ex-Steelers CB: Signed a five-year, $25.5 million contract with the Saints. The deal includes $10.5 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus.

14. Cary Williams, ex-Ravens CB: Signed a three-year, $17 million contract with the Eagles. The deal includes $10.5 million guaranteed and a $5 million signing bonus.

15. Manny Lawson, ex-Bengals OLB: Signed a four-year, $12 million contract with the Bills. The deal includes a $3 million signing bonus.

*16. Terence Newman, Bengals CB: Unsigned. Newman is expected to choose between the Bengals and Raiders this week.

17. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers WR: Restricted free agent visited the Patriots last week but has yet to sign an offer sheet. The Steelers have first right of refusal and would receive a third-round pick as compensation if they didn't match the offer.

18. Rey Maualuga, Bengals LB: Signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract with the Bengals. The deal includes a $2.5 million signing bonus.

*19. Adam Jones, Bengals CB: Unsigned. The Bengals are reportedly close to re-signing Jones.

20. Benjamin Watson, ex-Browns TE: Signed a three-year deal with the Saints.
Here's a recap of the first two days of free agency in the AFC North: the Browns signed players, the Ravens lost starters, the Bengals focused on re-signing their own players and the Steelers created more salary-cap space. If you want more details about Day 2 in free agency, take a look at the wake-up call ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS
  • The Baltimore Sun's Kevin Cowherd believes fans shouldn't panic over the Ravens' loss of players. "There has to be a plan in place that's dictating these recent moves," Cowherd wrote.
  • The Ravens envision recently signed Chris Canty to play a role similar to the one defensive end Cory Redding had a couple of years ago. “I’m excited about that," Canty told Baltimore reporters, via the team's website. "I’m very confident that I’d be able to come in and do that job at a very high level and help provide this defense with an opportunity to be aggressive and to be a dominant defense.”
CINCINNATI BENGALS
  • Bengals coach Marvin Lewis thinks the recent signings of two right tackles (Phil Loadholt and Gosder Cherilus) will help the team wrap up a deal with Andre Smith. "We're working hard to get Andre and a couple of deals are done now, and that ought to make things easy," Lewis said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer.
  • According to the team's website, Lewis seemed unfazed that the Bengals lost three backup players who didn't fit into their long-term future: Defensive tackle Pat Sims (Oakland), outside linebacker Manny Lawson (Buffalo), and backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski (Pittsburgh). "Nothing has changed," Lewis said. "I'm happy for Manny and that's a great thing for him. Our plans are set the way they are set."
PITTSBURGH STEELERS
  • Gradkowski, who was signed by the Steelers on Wednesday, has been a backup throughout his career but this time it's a different situation for him. "There's a great franchise quarterback here," Gradkowski said, via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "To get to play with him and be a part of this is amazing. I haven't had that yet, to be somewhere where that guy is the guy. Ben (Roethlisberger) is the guy."
  • The Steelers re-signed long-snapper Greg Warren, who has spent his entire seven-year career with the Steelers. Also, Beanie Wells visited the Steelers and took a physical, according to The Post-Gazette.
CLEVELAND BROWNS
  • Outside linebacker Paul Kruger wants to be an every-down player and not a pass-rush specialist. "That's the biggest thing I want to change, is just being somebody you can rely on during the whole game," Kruger said at his introductory news conference, via The Plain Dealer. "I think that I was deemed as a pass-rusher only and it's something I think I'll be able to show people, I can be effective on every snap."
  • The deal that will land receiver-returner Josh Cribbs in Arizona should be finalized Thursday morning, according to The Plain Dealer.
Here are some news and notes from around the division:

RAVENS: The $1 million roster bonus for receiver-returner Jacoby Jones is expected to be picked up this week, according to The Baltimore Sun.

BENGALS: The Bengals need to find a new backup quarterback after Bruce Gradkowski signed a three-year deal with Pittsburgh. ... Outside linebacker Manny Lawson, a starter for the past two seasons for the Bengals, signed a four-year deal with the Bills. He had 91 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his Bengals career. The Bengals weren't expected to bring him back this season. ... Kicker Josh Brown signed with the Giants.

BROWNS: The Browns added tight end Gary Barnridge, according to the Charlotte Observer. He caught six passes for 78 yards and one touchdown last season, when he played for Rob Chudzinski and the Panthers. ... Some details for Paul Kruger's five-year, $10.5 million deal. It includes a $6.25 bonus this year and guaranteed base salaries in 2013 ($700,000) and 2014 ($7 million).

AFC North free-agency primer

March, 11, 2013
3/11/13
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Baltimore Ravens
GENERAL MANAGER: Ozzie Newsome
HEAD COACH: John Harbaugh

Cap Status: The Ravens are a projected $3 million to $4 million under the cap, which is why they're asking wide receiver Anquan Boldin to take a pay cut.

Strategy: The Ravens' focus early in free agency has always been retaining their key players. This year is no different. The priority is re-signing Dannell Ellerbe because inside linebacker is the team's biggest need. If the Ravens are able to do that, they'll turn their attention to safety Ed Reed. When it comes to signing other teams' free agents, the Ravens' strategy is patience. Baltimore has rarely been declared the winner in March, but it always finds a way to win in the playoffs. Last offseason, no one was applauding the Ravens for signing receiver-returner Jacoby Jones and cornerback Corey Graham. But they were both key members of the Super Bowl team. Outside of inside linebacker, look for the Ravens to bring in a young defensive tackle. The Ravens were disappointed with nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody.

Cincinnati Bengals
GENERAL MANAGER: Mike Brown
HEAD COACH: Marvin Lewis

Cap Status: The Bengals are among the top three teams in terms of cap space.

Strategy: The Bengals' reputation is not making a big splash in free agency, and that shouldn't change this year. Cincinnati has been active already, re-signing three special-teams players (kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris) and backup defensive end Wallace Gilberry. The Bengals' priority has to be finding a right tackle, outside linebackers and a strong safety. They will look to re-sign Andre Smith, but they have plenty of options at right tackle (Detroit's Gosder Cherilus and Minnesota's Phil Loadholt) if they fail to do so. The Bengals also need to address outside linebacker because starters Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson are free agents. With Vontaze Burfict expected to move to the middle, there's a possibility that Cincinnati could bring back Rey Maualuga and shift him to the outside. The Bengals could address the situation in free agency, but they may not be willing to overspend on someone like Dashon Goldson, even though he would be a great fit. It's a position they can fill in the draft as well.

Cleveland Browns
GENERAL MANAGER: Mike Lombardi
HEAD COACH: Rob Chudzinski

Cap Status: Like the Bengals, the Browns rank among the top three teams in cap room.

Strategy: Based on reports, the Browns have been very active during the three-day negotiating period, and they should be. Cleveland has a lot of holes on its team and has a lot of money to spend. Finding a pass-rusher ranks very high on the Browns' list. Cleveland has been linked to Detroit's Cliff Avril and could get in a bidding war with the Colts over Baltimore's Paul Kruger. It's also possible the Browns could pursue Steelers linebacker James Harrison. The Browns aren't expected to bring back Sheldon Brown and need to find another starting cornerback. Three potential targets are: Pittsburgh's Keenan Lewis, San Diego's Antoine Cason and Arizona's Greg Toler. On offense, the Browns are looking to replace Ben Watson, another free agent who isn't expected to return. Tennessee's Jared Cook is reportedly high on the Browns' list.

Pittsburgh Steelers
GENERAL MANAGER: Kevin Colbert
HEAD COACH: Mike Tomlin

Cap Status: The Steelers were approximately $3.4 million under before re-signing guard Ramon Foster.

Strategy: The Steelers are entering free agency with very little cap room, especially after re-signing Foster. So, don't expect the Steelers to be active in free agency. That isn't a newsflash because the Steelers have never been major players in March. Remember last year, when it took Pittsburgh 28 days to sign a free agent, and it was only backup tight end Leonard Pope? If the Steelers had more cap room, this would be the year when they would have been more of a factor in free agency. The Steelers have holes at running back and outside linebacker. Pittsburgh can't have confidence in Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to carry the ground game. The same goes for Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, who will be hard-pressed to fill the void left by the release of Harrison. The Steelers will have to wait for the draft to address these needs.

Free agency officially begins March 12, so the AFC North blog is counting down the 20 best free agents (unrestricted and restricted) from the teams in the division. Let's continue with No. 13 ...

MANNY LAWSON

Bengals outside linebacker

The good: Lawson is a solid run defender who can play in the 4-3 or 3-4 defense. He is a sure tackler, missing just three all of last season. Lawson played in every game in his two seasons in Cincinnati, although there were some games in which he played less than half the snaps.

The bad: There were expectations that Lawson would boost the pass rush, but he managed 3.5 sacks in his two years with the Bengals. He also looked rigid in pass coverage, which is why he only broke up one pass last season.

The bottom line: The Bengals have enough cap room to upgrade from Lawson. He is only 28 and a former first-round pick, so he should catch on with another team.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals couldn't have put together two more completely different performances in Thursday night's preseason games. Behind an impressive throwing display by Joe Flacco, the Ravens dominated the out-classed Jaguars in a 48-17 win. The Bengals, meanwhile, spent the night watching Aaron Rodgers run for touchdowns and their offense go nowhere in a 27-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

The Cleveland Browns are the only AFC North team playing Friday night. Cleveland is facing the Eagles, the same team that the Browns will open the season against on Sept. 9.

BENGALS: For the third straight game, a starter left with an injury. This time it was outside linebacker Manny Lawson, who injured his hamstring. "He had a muscle pull," coach Marvin Lewis said after the game. "I don’t know how severe it is.” The Bengals' official team website predicts tight end Jermaine Gresham and linebacker Rey Maualuga, both of whom have sprained knees, won't play in the preseason finale but will be available for the regular-season opener. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (foot) is expected to start in the opener and defensive end Carlos Dunlap (knee) to be questionable, according to the website.

BROWNS: Most starting quarterbacks go into the third quarter in the third preseason game, and rookie Brandon Weeden needs the reps to develop. How much time the backups receive will be an interesting story line because that's where the real competition is. Colt McCoy (quarterback rating of 105.1) and Seneca Wallace (102.6) have put up some good numbers in the preseason. "They're both guys here who are fighting," coach Pat Shurmur said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They're trying to develop themselves to be the starter and when it all settles out, we'll see where they line up ... they're similar in a lot of ways."

RAVENS: Lost in the Ravens' preseason rout of the Jaguars was the return of defensive end Pernell McPhee. Excused all week after the death of his father, McPhee came back to block Josh Scobee's 30-yard field goal. "That's one thing about this team is everybody loves everybody," McPhee told the Baltimore Sun. "As soon as I got back, everybody surrounded me like I was home and put a smile on my face and said they were happy to see me back. They're proud of me that I took it like a man."

STEELERS: When Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted that Indianapolis was involved in "serious" trade talks, some speculated it could involve disgruntled Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. But that apparently isn't the case. The Indianapolis Star is reporting the Colts are targeting a cornerback. Getting rid of Wallace makes no sense for the Steelers because he's an important piece to what should be a Super Bowl-contending team. And why would the Steelers want to help former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who is now with the Colts, anyway?

In other news, the Steelers fired special teams coach Al Everest and replaced him with assistant Amos Jones. The timing is peculiar because teams don't typically remove coaches midway through the preseason. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the decision was not based on the performance of the special teams.
Three AFC North teams are in great salary-cap position for the 2013 season, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

The Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns currently rank in the top three in terms of most cap room for next season. Clayton reports that the Bengals have $42 million and the Browns have $40 million. Only the Indianapolis Colts ($43 million) have more than those two AFC North teams.

The Bengals, though, will need that space to fill some holes on the team. Right tackle Andre Smith, kicker Mike Nugent and all three starting linebackers (Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson) will be unrestricted free agents in 2013.

The Baltimore Ravens rank eighth with $15 million of cap space. Of course, the Ravens could use more considering quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and safety Ed Reed will be free agents. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti expressed optimism last week that the team will sign Flacco and Rice to new deals.

The only division team that doesn't have space is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are a projected $10 million over the 2013 cap. Their focus next offseason will be their wide receivers. The Steelers will need room to put the franchise tag on Mike Wallace if they can't sign him to a long-term deal and a first-round tender on Antonio Brown, who will be a restricted free agent next year.
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.

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