AFC North: Marcus Benard

The Browns placed Phil Taylor on the Reserve-Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which means the starting defensive tackle will miss the first six games of the regular season. Taylor, who tore a pectoral muscle this offseason, can begin practicing after the Week 6 games and can practice up to three weeks before being designated to the active roster, injured reserve or being waived.

Cleveland also injury-waived defensive lineman Marcus Benard just two seasons after he recorded 7.5 sacks. It is believed that Benard, a situational pass-rusher, suffered a major elbow injury in Friday's preseason loss to the Eagles.

In addition to Benard, the Browns injury-waived defensive lineman Auston English and defensive back Antwuan Reed. If those three players clear waivers, the Browns can put them on injured reserve or reach an injury settlement with them.

The team also placed linebackers Chris Gocong and Emmanuel Acho on injured reserve.

AFC North links: Hardesty healthy again

May, 31, 2012
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Baltimore Ravens

Second-year receiver LaQuan Williams made a great impression during organized team activities, writes Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun.

The Ravens' 2011 rookies, idle during last year's lockout, are getting their first dose of offseason coaching, writes Matt Vensel of the Sun.

The Ravens are confident they can maintain their defensive dominance without injured star Terrell Suggs, writes Don Banks of SI.com.

Cornerback Cary Williams, recovering from offseason hip surgery, is optimistic he'll get a new contract before training camp, writes Vensel.

Cincinnati Bengals

A reduction in season-ticket prices has translated into an increase in sales for the Bengals, writes Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The tickets, which were in rows 13 and higher in the Canopy levels of eight sections, were dropped from $60 to $40 per game.

New running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is already making an impression, writes Geoff Hobson of the team's website.

Cleveland Browns

Defensive end Marcus Benard is happy to be playing again after surviving a terrifying motorcycle accident in October, writes Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.

In an effort to improve his quickness, receiver Greg Little has dropped 11 pounds since January, from 230 to 219, writes Ulrich.

Safety Leroy Kelly Jr., son of former Browns Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly, will get a tryout with the team Monday, writes Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. If the Browns like Kelly Jr., 27, he could stick around for the minicamp June 5-7.

Running back Montario Hardesty is healthy and competing for carries, writes Matt Florjancic of the team's website.

Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden has made good use of the rookie minicamp and organized team activities, writes Florjancic.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Tight end Heath Miller, approaching his 30th birthday, can expect to be utilized as a receiver a lot more in new coordinator Todd Haley's offense, writes Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Former quarterback Kordell Stewart officially retired as a Steeler, nearly a decade after he last played for the team, writes Dan Gigler of the Post-Gazette. He also spent two seasons with the Ravens.
It's a busy time in the AFC North. The offseason workout programs began Monday, and the NFL schedule is being released Tuesday night. We'll have reaction and analysis to the schedules after the big announcement. Now that we have gotten that out of the way, here is your AFC North wake-up call:

BENGALS: Starting quarterback Andy Dalton began his first NFL offseason workout program after experiencing a crash course last season.

Dalton, who guided Cincinnati to the playoffs last season, didn't have the benefit of minicamps or offseason film study as a rookie. He didn't even meet the entire team until training camp in late July.

It's a much different feeling for Dalton this year.

"I walk into the locker room for the first time and I know everybody here rather than walking in and trying to meet everybody. I'm definitely a lot more comfortable now," Dalton told the team's official website. "The biggest thing is I know my schedule. I know when I have to be here and all that stuff. It's definitely easier coming in this year than last year."

In other news, kicker Mike Nugent hasn't signed his franchise tender of $1.7 million and could decide to skip the offseason workouts like other players who received the tag.

Hensley's slant: There's no doubt that a full offseason will help the growth of Dalton. But there's another reason Dalton will better, too. As the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy pointed out, the Bengals' top receiver was there for the first day of workouts for the first time since 2007. Life is less dramatic with A.J. Green than Chad Ochocinco.

BROWNS: Defensive end Marcus Benard participated in the start of the team's offseason program. He missed all but four games last year after breaking his hand in a motorcycle accident. "He looks actually good. I'm hoping to see the best of Marcus," Shurmur said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I've seen him a couple of times through the off-season and he was there [Monday]. I didn't get a chance to watch in the weight room. I'm not allowed to be in there yet, but from what I heard, he performed well." Shurmur indicated the team plans to keep Benard at defensive end and not move him to linebacker. Hensley's slant: Benard's recovery is key to the Browns' pass rush. They lack edge rushers and Bernard is a year removed from producing 7.5 sacks.

RAVENS: The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston isn't concerned that running back Ray Rice is missing workouts after not signing his franchise tender. Preston described Rice as "a muscle head" and wrote: "His skin is on too tight because he loves to work out. So while he may not be over at The Castle, he is working out five times a week with his personal trainer." Hensley's slant: Rice is showing some increasing frustration with the lack of a new deal. On Monday, while the Ravens began their offseason program, Rice posted on Twitter: "To all college athletes getting ready to enter the NFL just remember the business side of the league is rough #fact."

STEELERS: Running backs coach Kirby Wilson was back at work at the Steelers' facility Monday, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The 50-year-old Wilson sustained burns on 45 percent of his body and also suffered from smoke inhalation after his house caught fire while he was sleeping on Jan. 6. In other news, cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Ryan Mundy both signed their restricted free-agent tenders, which leaves wide receiver Mike Wallace as the team's only unsigned restricted free agent. Hensley's slant: For Wilson, this is another step in a remarkable recovery. It's only been three months since he was put in a medically induced coma. Wilson is a highly respected coach on the Steelers staff. In fact, he was reportedly in line to become the Steelers' next offensive coordinator before the accident.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Running back Peyton Hillis said it "definitely worries" him that he might not be able to fulfill his goal of retiring as a Brown.

Hillis, who is playing the final year of his contract, has been unable to strike a new deal with Cleveland.

"You feel unappreciated because you want to get something done and nothing has gotten done at this point," Hillis told reporters via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "As far as that goes, you don't know the ultimate feelings in the end of what's going on up top. You take it with a grain of salt and you keep moving on."

Hillis' contract situation has become a major issue with the Browns. After he missed the Week 3 game against Miami with strep throat, there was a report that Browns players questioned whether Hillis was protesting the lack of a new contract.

Hillis acknowledged that he probably would've suited up against the Dolphins if his agent hadn't advised against it.

"He was just looking out for me," Hillis said. "That's what he's there for, so I have to give him thanks, too. Because I'm stubborn and hardheaded and I like to go out there and play even though I was probably not up for it."

Meanwhile, defensive lineman Marcus Benard suffered a broken hand resulting from a motorcycle accident Monday. He is expected to make a full recovery.

Hensley's slant: Another day, another chapter in "Sick-gate." I can't remember ever hearing more about one player missing one game. This is obviously a distraction to Hillis if he is publicly voicing concern over his future in Cleveland. Like I've repeatedly said, the best way to make this a non-issue during the season is to table talks until the offseason. This has been the biggest negative in an otherwise solid start for the Browns.
  • BENGALS: According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, head coach Marvin Lewis isn't ready to celebrate the team's 3-2 start, saying consistency needs to improve in every phase. The biggest issue coming from the win at Jacksonville is the running game. Cedric Benson gained a season-low 53 yards on his second-most carries (24) this season. Hensley's slant: The Bengals rank 24th in the NFL in yards per carry (4.0), and they can't afford inconsistency there knowing the ups-and-downs that come with starting a rookie quarterback. There will be more concern over the running game if Cincinnati can't pound the ball Sunday against the Colts, who have the second-worst run defense in the league.
  • RAVENS: Cornerback Jimmy Smith, the team's first-round draft pick, acknowledged that he's unlikely to play Sunday because of a high ankle sprain, and left guard Ben Grubbs will probably return as long as he doesn't have a setback with his injured right toe. Wide receiver Lee Evans told The Baltimore Sun that he's still not fully recovered from an ankle injury, but he's practicing and making progress. Hensley's slant: Of these three players, the one the Ravens desperately need back is Evans. Quarterback Joe Flacco had more chemistry with Evans than any other receiver in the preseason. Evans' ability to stretch the field will also open up the underneath routes for Anquan Boldin.
  • STEELERS: Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley had his best game since signing a five-year, $61.5 million contract this summer. In the win over the Titans, he had 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits and one interception. "I knew that was going to be the talk from the day I signed my contract, from the day I got franchised," Woodley told Pittsburgh reporters, via The Post-Gazette. "People expect more out of you, people expect you to be Superman when you sign a big contract." Hensley's slant: Woodley is stepping up at the right time. With James Harrison expected to be out at least another couple of games, the Steelers need Woodley to spearhead the pass rush. Woodley's next target is Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who has been sacked eight times in three starts.
Browns backup defensive end Marcus Benard was hospitalized after a motorcycle crash, according to reports out of Cleveland. His condition is currently unknown.

Benard, 26, is a situational pass rusher for the Browns. It is believed he was driving home from practice when his motorcycle crashed into a wall, according to reports.

Last season, Benard fainted in the locker room and was sent to the hospital. He said it was the result of stress caused by the birth of his son.

Browns Week 1 preseason observations

August, 13, 2011
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CLEVELAND -- The Pat Shurmur era began for the Cleveland Browns Saturday night with a 27-17 preseason victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Here are some observations:

The Good
  • Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was sharp. He led two touchdown drives for the first-team offense in the first half. McCoy made several nice throws, including a rope over the middle to tight end Benjamin Watson and a 27-yard touchdown pass to receiver Josh Cribbs. This was a very good start for McCoy's 2011 season. He finished 9 of 10 for 135 yards and a touchdown. "I thought he was pretty sharp," Shurmur said of McCoy. "He executed well. He was pretty efficient with his throws."
  • Cleveland's pass rush looked improved. Defensive ends Jayme Mitchell and Marcus Benard were among the Browns who recorded sacks. Cleveland had five sacks total. Brian Smith's sack and forced fumble in the third quarter also led to a 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown by linebacker Titus Brown.
  • Overall, it was a solid coaching debut for Shurmur. The offensive play-calling made sense and gave that side of the ball confidence. The Browns also came out with energy and effort, which is what you look for this time of year. These are good things the Browns can build on in the preseason.
The Bad
  • Cleveland's first-team defense still needs work. The Browns drew a tough assignment with Green Bay's offense. They held the Packers to a three-and-out on the opening drive. But Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got hot and led a seven-play, 73-yard drive on his second try. Cleveland's second-team defense also gave up 10 points in the second quarter against Green Bay's second-team offense.
  • Browns backup quarterback Seneca Wallace was inconsistent. He threw for 99 yards, one interception and had a 55.8 passer rating. Wallace is a nine-year veteran and knows this West Coast offense well. He also went against Green Bay's backups Saturday night and didn't have his best game.

AFC North camp roundup

August, 9, 2011
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The AFC North blog is in Georgetown, Ky. with the Cincinnati Bengals. But let's take a look at the latest happenings with the other teams in the division:

Soon to be stars: Alex Mack

March, 23, 2011
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Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at AFC North players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

Mack
T.J. Ward and Joe Haden would fit for this series as well, but I already consider Haden a star. Ward, who still has some deficiencies in coverage, isn’t as far along in his development as Mack.

Mack is what you look for at the center position and should quickly establish himself as one of the best few players at the position before long. He moves very well and is excellent at getting to the second level and making key blocks away from the line of scrimmage in the run game.

He isn’t a massive player, but he still handles big power nose tackle-types well in the run game. He isn’t a liability at all as a pass-protector, and he should only improve with his protection.

Mack was exceptional as a rookie in 2009 and followed that up with a strong sophomore season, even though he often had to compensate for the player on his immediate right. But the best is yet to come from this 25-year-old franchise cornerstone.

One last player to keep an eye on for Cleveland is Marcus Benard. He would have been my choice for this piece if the Browns were still running a 3-4 scheme. Now, I am not sure where he fits, other than being a designated pass-rusher. Chris Gocong is the better option as a strongside linebacker in the new scheme.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

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