AFC North: Marquis Maze

Even though the draft is over, the search for college prospects is not. Teams started striking deals with undrafted players immediately after the 253rd and final player was drafted Saturday.

The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have a knack for finding these hidden gems. The Ravens pride themselves on their success with undrafted players, from Priest Holmes to Mike Flynn to Bart Scott to Jameel McClain. The Steelers have a solid track record as well, starting four former undrafted players in the playoffs last season (linebacker James Harrison, guards Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky and running back Isaac Redman).

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireThe Bengals are going to give talented but troubled linebacker Vontaze Burfict a chance.
The reason these teams do so well is their ability to identify the players who might not be drafted and establish a relationship early. Signing undrafted players is all about recruiting them. You have to sell prospects on opportunity. You have to convince a player that he has a better shot with your team than anywhere else.

Where the Ravens and Steelers have an advantage is their track record. They can prove to players that they will be given a shot. All they have to do is tell them they could be the next Willie Parker or Bart Scott.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns have had mild success with undrafted players. Bengals fullback Chris Pressley signed as an undrafted rookie in 2009, and center Kyle Cook went undrafted in 2007 (although he originally signed with the Minnesota Vikings). Browns pass-rusher Marcus Benard had 7.5 sacks in 2010, a year after he went undrafted.

Here are the undrafted players to keep your eye on:

BENGALS: ILB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State. Maturity issues and a terrible NFL scouting combine caused him to free fall from a highly rated prospect to an undrafted one. He's still an explosive hitter who plays with emotion. There's a chance he could be backing up middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Other to watch: RB Rodney Stewart (Colorado) is a small (5-foot-6) scatback who could catch on as a returner.

BROWNS: WR Josh Cooper, Oklahoma State. He already has a rapport with the starting quarterback after being Brandon Weeden's second-leading receiver last season. Cooper is a savvy route runner who lacks explosion. Still, he could catch on to a weak wide receiver group. Others to watch: CB Antwuan Reed (Pittsburgh) is an undersized but hard-working defender; C Garth Gerhart (Arizona State) is a smart three-year starter who has limited upside.

RAVENS: CB-PR Charles Brown, North Carolina. He's a tough three-year starer who plays aggressively despite being only 5-foot-9. Brown, who was projected to go in the fifth or sixth round, also has experience as a returner. Others to watch: FB Chad Diehl (Clemson) is a physical lead blocker who can become an impact special-teams player; NT Nicolas Jean-Baptiste (Baylor) is a stout space-eater with questionable endurance; G Antoine McClain (Clemson) is a physical mauler who was projected to go in the fifth or sixth round; TE Nick Provo (Syracuse) can stretch the field down the seam but is a below-average blocker; S Cyhl Quarles (Wake Forest) has good size but has been inconsistent as a playmaker.

STEELERS: P Drew Butler, Georgia. He has a very good chance at being the punter this year after the Steelers declined to re-sign Daniel Sepulveda. The only other punter on the roster is Jeremy Kapinos. Butler, who was projected to go as high as the fifth round, is a strong-legged and polished punter. He has good bloodlines as well. His father, Kevin, was the longtime kicker for the Chicago Bears (1985-95). The Steelers might have found their punter this year without wasting a third-round pick like the Jacksonville Jaguars. Others to watch: WR-RS Marquis Maze (Alabama) is a slippery slot receiver and returner who has to prove he can stay healthy; OLB Brandon Lindsey (Pittsburgh) is a speed rusher who fell down draft boards after a disappointing combine.
It wasn't Ravens coach John Harbaugh's preference to have starting cornerback Lardarius Webb returning punts entering this offseason. His mindset probably didn't change after Webb agreed to a five-year, $50 million extension with a $10 million signing bonus and a $5 million option bonus.

Webb
Having Webb field punts was a risk before. Now, it has become a pricey proposition. The Ravens will try hard to find a replacement for Webb on returns, and it probably will come in the draft.

"You can’t sit there and play scared, so I don’t have a problem with [Webb returning],” Harbaugh said Wednesday, a day before Webb's deal. “But I would rather have a backup doing it? Yes. If there is another option that is a better player or takes your starting corner and takes him off the punt return, that’s even better."

Webb ranked 16th in the NFL in punt returns (10-yard average), returning one for a touchdown. The other two punt returners listed on last year's Ravens depth chart -- Chris Carr (Vikings) and Tom Zbikowski (Colts) -- signed elsewhere in free agency.

Baltimore brought in Ted Ginn Jr. for a free-agent visit but he re-signed with the 49ers. The Ravens were also linked to Eddie Royal before he joined the San Diego Chargers.

“We tried to do something with a free agent or two, and it didn’t work out, but that’s OK,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll move on to the next opportunity.”

That "next opportunity" means the draft. One returner to keep an eye on is Fresno State's Devon Wylie. Other top returners coming out of college are: Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, Alabama's Marquis Maze and Stanford's Chris Owusu.

AFC North weekend mailbag

April, 1, 2012
4/01/12
8:00
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It's been a quiet weekend so far in the AFC North and that's not surprising. We're at that point in the offseason where the first wave of free agency is over and the draft is more than three weeks away.

But there are still some unanswered questions based on what's in the mailbag. Let's take a look ...

...

Charlie (Fort Campbell, Ky.): Bengals fan and daily blog reader here. Great job on keeping me updated on my favorite (and least favorite) teams. Anyway, my question is this: Where do you foresee Keith Rivers fitting in with the Bengals' linebacking corps once he returns?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Right now, Rivers doesn't have a spot in the starting lineup. His starting job at weak-side linebacker -- the one he held for 2 1/2 years -- was taken by Thomas Howard, who was the Bengals' most consistent linebacker last season. The Bengals have yet to address Rivers this offseason and might give him a chance to compete for that spot. I see his impact coming on special teams this season. It's certainly a luxury to have the ninth overall pick of the 2008 draft sitting on your bench. The strongside linebacker position is one that the Bengals will need to figure out next season because Howard and Rivers are free agents after this season.


Matt S. (Warren, Ohio): The Browns have talked about trading back a few spots to acquire more picks. I think it is very possible we might see them trade back the sixth pick with the Rams in return for an additional second-rounder and later round picks. This ensures that the Browns have a chance to at least get Morris Claiborne with the sixth pick (the fourth going to Justin Blackmon and the Rams, and fifth going to Trent Richardson and Tampa Bay). Claiborne is a freakish athlete and will solidify the secondary for years to come. This leaves us with the 22nd pick and two second round picks to help the offense with starting potential. Do you think this is a possibility?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: I can definitely see this as a possibility. If the Browns believe LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is the best player available at No. 4, they should try to trade down with the Rams. That way, the Browns can get their targeted player in Claiborne and gain additional picks. I agree that the Rams will take Oklahoma State receiver Blackmon and the Buccaneers will grab Alabama running back Richardson. But this isn't the move I would make. The Browns desperately need a playmaker on offense. It would be a mistake to pass on a talent like Richardson.


Rick (Baltimore): If the Steelers address a need on offensive line or defensive line with their first-round pick, could you see them spending a second-round pick on a quality running back? David Wilson and Doug Martin come to mind. I would love to see Wilson in the Black and Gold on Sundays. He is an underrated freak athlete.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: It's like you were reading my mind. I don't see the Steelers going for a running back in the first round, but there will be good value for that position at the bottom of the second. Expect at least one of the second-tier backs like Wilson (Virginia Tech), Martin (Boise State) and Lamar Miller (Miami) to be available at No. 56 for the Steelers. While I like Martin's toughness in between the tackles, it's hard to overlook the big-play ability of Wilson. The Steelers have a tough runner with Isaac Redman, and Wilson would be a great compliment in the backfield.


Heath (Shreveport, La.): There has been a lot of talk about the Ravens adding a kick returner, but is there any chance they will give Phillip Livas a chance? He was a late-season addition last year and tied an NCAA record at Louisiana Tech with eight returns for touchdowns.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Livas was signed to the Ravens' practice squad during the playoffs and will be kept around for offseason camps and training camp. The Ravens will give him a look, but he's not among the team's top options. Livas was cut by the Miami Dolphins in September even though the 5-foot-7 wide receiver returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the preseason. He didn't catch on with another NFL team until the Ravens picked him up in January.

The Ravens want an upgrade in the return game, which became obvious when they brought in Ted Ginn Jr. for a free-agent visit. Drafting a returner is a good possibility for Baltimore. The top returners are: Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, Alabama's Marquis Maze, Fresno State's Devon Wylie and Stanford's Chris Owusu.

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