AFC North: Michael Crabtree

PHOENIX -- The Baltimore Ravens are known for signing free agents after the first wave is complete, and the team could follow a similar path this offseason.

At the NFL owners meetings Monday, coach John Harbaugh indicated the Ravens intend to be active in free agency. The biggest positions of need remain wide receiver, tight end, cornerback and backup quarterback.

"We're just staying on top of it every second," Harbaugh said. "It's not like we're sitting back and just relaxing. We're monitoring it and we're talking to guys and agents. We want to be proactive."

Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Ravens have re-signed six of their own free agents, but they've only added one free agent from another team: safety Kendrick Lewis. Their current salary-cap space is $8.3 million after restructuring cornerback Lardarius Webb's contract.

The Ravens have yet to replace wide receiver Torrey Smith (49ers), tight end Owen Daniels (Broncos) and backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor (Bills), all of whom left for bigger paydays elsewhere.

Here are the top available free agents at the Ravens' positions of need:

Wide receiver: Michael Crabtree, Greg Jennings, Denarius Moore and Hakeem Nicks.

Tight end: Jermaine Gresham (injured), Rob Housler, Zach Miller and James Casey.

Cornerback: Alan Ball, Tarell Brown, Kyle Wilson and Josh Wilson.

Quarterback: Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson, Michael Vick and Matt Schaub.

The Ravens' history is to sign free agents later into free agency because they get the best value that way. They did it last year when they brought in running back Justin Forsett and Daniels on April 3.

"The more that you can add before the draft, it takes pressure off the draft to chase a position," Harbaugh said. "The more we can do that, the better off we'll be."

Not only did Pro Football Focus rank the top 75 free agents in 2015, seven of their analysts offered predictions on where they all will sign. For our purposes, let's take a look at the predicted landing spots for the Baltimore Ravens' free agents:

LB Pernell McPhee (Ranked No. 19 overall): Indianapolis Colts. Other teams mentioned: Tennessee and Detroit. The Colts are the popular choice here because of Chuck Pagano's history with the Ravens. My pick is the Oakland Raiders, who have $56 million in cap space and tied for the second-fewest sacks in the NFL last season. New Raiders coach Jack Del Rio will want to upgrade his defense, and what better way than to pair McPhee with Khalil Mack.

WR Torrey Smith (No. 30): No consensus. Teams mentioned: Cleveland, Carolina, New England, Miami, New York Jets and Ravens. My pick is the Jets. New York will only have one starting-caliber receiver after it parts ways with Percy Harvin, and Eric Decker is a possession receiver. Smith can complement Decker and stretch the field for a Jets passing attack that managed just 15 completions on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season (tied for third worst in the NFL). I wouldn't rule out the Jaguars, who have a lot of money to spend.

RB Justin Forsett (No. 42): Ravens. Other team mentioned: Dallas. The prevailing feeling is that the Ravens will make Forsett a priority. The Ravens know he fits in their offense, and they're probably not impressed with the other options in Forsett's price range. Even though the Ravens are likely picking a running back early in the draft, Forsett will be the team's top running back until the rookie gets up to speed (look at how the Bengals brought along Jeremy Hill) and he can share snaps after that. The Ravens also value Forsett as a mentor.

TE Owen Daniels (No. 71): Ravens. Other teams mentioned: Denver, Miami and New York Giants. While many quickly earmarked Daniels to reunite with Gary Kubiak in Denver, my bet is Daniels remains with the Ravens. With Dennis Pitta's uncertain status, the only healthy and experienced tight end on the Ravens roster is Crockett Gillmore. Daniels quickly built a rapport with Joe Flacco, and he stayed fresh throughout because coach John Harbaugh gave him one day off a week.

A few of the Pro Football Focus analysts also predicted the Ravens would sign free agents from other teams, but general manager Ozzie Newsome prefers to sign salary-cap casualties over unrestricted free agents because they don't count against the team's compensatory picks. Here are the UFAs linked to the Ravens:

CB Tramon Williams (No. 25): Allowing the winning touchdown pass in the NFC Championship Game overshadowed Williams' productive season. He was a tough and durable member of the NFL's 10th-ranked pass defense last season. Williams also has 27 interceptions over the past seven seasons. The Ravens probably don't have the cap space for Williams. Even if they did, I'm not sure they could pry him out of Green Bay.

WR Michael Crabtree (No. 62): He never lived up to expectations with the 49ers, but he's a talented receiver who can flourish in the right system. It just won't be in Baltimore. Crabtree is another pipe dream for the Ravens. They don't have the cap space to splurge on a receiver like Crabtree, Randall Cobb or Jeremy Maclin.

CB Walter Thurmond (No. 72): He's a corner who'll have a reduced price after a season-ending torn pectoral muscle limited him to two games last season. Thurmond is considered a top-level nickelback, which makes him an intriguing option. But he would be a risk considering the Ravens' starting cornerbacks, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, both have extensive injury histories.
Regular-season games kick off 14 weeks from now. Mull over that as we begin the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Interviewed about Michael Crabtree's Achilles injury, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs detailed the challenges of his recovery from the same injury a year ago. "I was still effective against the run because you can play the run with your legs and your arms," Suggs told CBS Sports' Clark Judge, "but as far as pass rushing, you need a tremendous amount of explosion, and I didn't have that right off the bat for a large portion of the season." Suggs managed two sacks in eight regular-season games. He then recorded two sacks in the playoffs.

BENGALS: Tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes believes first-round pick Tyler Eifert is as good as advertised after watching him in three weeks of offseason workouts. “After working him out and spending time with him before the draft, he is on target and about where I thought he would be,” Hayes told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “He has been great mentally and keeps an even keel. It is hard to tell from him whether things are going good or bad. He would be a great poker player that way.”

STEELERS: According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers have had at least one five-year veteran starting on the offensive line every season since 1960. As it stands now, the most experienced starter is left guard Ramon Foster, who has four NFL seasons under his belt. The average age of the line is just over 24 years old. That would make it the Steelers' youngest since 1957, according to the Tribune-Review. “I think we're a young group with a lot of potential," said Mike Adams, who is currently lining up at right tackle. "And we're working very hard to turn that potential into reality.”

BROWNS: Offensive coordinator Norv Turner turned up the intensity Thursday, when he yelled at quarterbacks and wide receivers for making mistakes. After one play, Turner ripped into backup quarterback Jason Campbell for missing a receiver and wideout Mike Edwards for running the wrong route, according to The Plain Dealer. Starting quarterback Brandon Weeden also got an earful from Turner. “He coaches me every play, and I can't ask any more than that,” Weeden said. “He expects the highest level out of me, and that’s what I want. He's making me a better player. He apologized. He blew a gasket, but it’s going to happen. That's football. You've got to be on your toes. You can't mess up.”
Michael CrabtreeDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSan Francisco's Michael Crabtree is unable to make the catch on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
NEW ORLEANS -- The San Francisco 49ers needed five yards to break the Baltimore Ravens' hearts, and Dean Pees was having flashbacks.

"We were not going to let him run it in on us," the Ravens' defensive coordinator said a few moments later, referring to fleet-footed Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick. "We got beat in Washington because I let (Kirk Cousins) run it in on us. We got beat in Philadelphia because I let (Michael Vick) run it in on us. I wasn't going to let him run it in on us."

The 49ers needed five yards to steal Super Bowl XLVII with one of the greatest comebacks of all time, and Bernard Pollard was trying to keep it simple.

"In the huddle, before every one of those plays from the 5-yard line, all we kept saying was the same thing: 'Beat your man,'" the Ravens' safety said. "And if you look at that film, I promise you, every defensive back beat his man up. We understood the situation."

The 49ers needed five yards on fourth down, after failing to get them on second and third, and Kaepernick decided to change the play. When he saw the Ravens' safeties near the line of scrimmage, he audibled, calling for a fade route to Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone. This shifted the running back out wide and, unbeknownst to Kaepernick, played directly into the Ravens' hands. To account for the back, safety Ed Reed slid out to his left, allowing him to slide over and help in coverage on Crabtree once it became apparent Kaepernick would throw. This allowed cornerback Jimmy Smith to play the fade, which he did with, um, enthusiasm.

"There's no question in my mind that there was a hold on Crabtree on the last play," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "In my opinion, that series should have continued."

However, it did not. Smith's extremely physical coverage of Crabtree, which certainly could have resulted in a holding call without surprising anyone, was let slide by a permissive officiating crew that had called a loose game all night. Kaepernick's pass fell incomplete, the Ravens took over, and a short time later the Super Bowl champion Ravens were celebrating the same five yards the 49ers will spend this entire offseason lamenting.

"The game was a display of our entire year," Reed said. "It started great, got ugly and ended great -- with 53 tickets to paradise."

This Super Bowl had pretty much everything, from Joe Flacco's MVP performance to Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return to the 34-minute third-quarter power outage that appeared to swing the momentum in San Francisco's favor. But in the end it came down to those last five yards -- second-and-goal, third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line. The Ravens knew those five yards weren't going to be easy to hold, and they were not.

"The way Colin was playing, he's just so dangerous, obviously it's always in your mind that he's going to take off and run on one of those plays," Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger said. "I think we were surprised he didn't."

Instead, the 49ers called three straight pass plays, all to Crabtree, all incomplete. On the first one, Harbaugh said he believed the call should have been pass interference on cornerback Corey Graham, who was jostling physically with Crabtree in the end zone while Kaepernick's throw sailed high. On third down, Kaepernick tried to hit Crabtree in the flat, but Graham and Smith broke up the pass. And on fourth down … well, we've already talked about that one.

What each of the three plays had in common was that Pees called a run pressure on each. He sent his pass-rushers into the backfield with a mission to contain, first and foremost -- to keep Kaepernick from taking off and running the ball in for the winning touchdown. With the ball that close to the goal line, Pees knew any pass thrown would be coming out quickly, so he figured there wasn't much time to get someone free to pursue a sack. He wanted to use his up-front guys to control the quarterback, which meant increased pressure on the defensive backs to stay true in coverage if he did throw. Like his players, Pees was surprised the Niners threw on all three plays.

"I thought that one [on third down] was going to be a run before they called that timeout," Pees said.

It may have been, but with the play clock ticking down the Niners had to call the timeout and reset. When the third-down pass was broken up, the fourth-down chess games began. Pees called a blitz that gave him another flashback -- this time to Super Bowl XLII, when he was calling defensive plays for the Patriots and Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress beat him for a Super Bowl-winning touchdown. This blitz Sunday, he said, was not exactly the same, but it reminded him of that one. The key difference for Pees will forever be that, this time, it worked. The blitzing linebacker hurried Kaepernick, Smith and Reed did what they had to do in coverage, and the pass went incomplete to give the Ravens a Super Bowl title.

"We had to make those last three plays," Pollard said. "We just had to, and we knew it. Look, this game … we didn't play great. We really didn't. But we won."

They'd played great in the first half, not so much in the second, but these battle-tested Ravens know how to focus on what matters. Sunday night, what ended up mattering was five yards the 49ers needed and the Ravens would not let them get.

Grading the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII

February, 3, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- The Baltimore Ravens did just enough right Sunday night to hold off a furious comeback by the San Francisco 49ers and win their second Super Bowl title. They made just enough big plays, just enough stops on defense and their free-agent-to-be quarterback likely made himself a pile of money. This is how the 49ers graded out, while this is a look at how it broke down for the Super Bowl XLVII champions in the Superdome:


Joe Flacco dominated the first half with three touchdown passes and looked completely comfortable and in control for most of the night. The Ravens' offense in general looked sluggish in the third quarter, but that likely had at least something to do with the fact that a combination of the halftime show, Jacoby Jones' kick return touchdown and the 33-minute power outage kept them off the field for nearly 90 minutes. Once Baltimore was able to get back into a rhythm, Flacco picked up where he'd left off, completing a couple of key passes to Anquan Boldin on the field goal drive that stopped San Francisco's 17-0 run.


When your kicker has the longest run of the night, as Justin Tucker still did well into the fourth quarter, your run game isn't what it ought to be. San Francisco limited Ray Rice all night and forced a critical Rice fumble (off a screen pass) that set them up for a field-goal drive. Backup Bernard Pierce seemed to be more effective than Rice, and for a time it looked as though they could deploy the two in combination, especially when they were up 28-6. But they were unable to sustain anything with the run and had to lean on Flacco and the passing game once the score got close.


Really a tale of two games here. The Ravens had Colin Kaepernick flustered in the first half, making him move his feet and prompting him into bad decisions. Ed Reed had an interception, and the Ravens had some important pass breakups in one-on-one coverage. But the third quarter featured too many breakdowns in coverage and tackling as Kaepernick grew more comfortable and was able to find everyone from Vernon Davis to Michael Crabtree to Randy Moss open when he needed them. Ray Lewis was overmatched early in coverage against Davis, and it's possible the Ravens had to sacrifice some pass rush to compensate for that. But they did pick a couple of smart times to blitz, including the play that resulted in Paul Kruger's early sack and the play on which they stopped a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game in the fourth quarter.


You have to grade a run defense on a curve against the 49ers, because there's almost no way to contain Kaepernick for a whole game. Frank Gore delivered some tough, bruising runs during the Niners' comeback, and the long run that set up their chance at a go-ahead touchdown late. But what really hurt was Kaepernick's ability to pick up big chunks of yardage on the edge -- none bigger than his 15-yard touchdown run that cut the lead to two points in the fourth quarter. Haloti Ngata's third-quarter knee injury didn't help matters much either.


Jones' 108-yard kick return for a touchdown that began the second half tied an NFL record and appeared at the time as though it might put the Super Bowl away for good. Jones was good all night on kick and punt returns. Tucker didn't miss a kick, and Sam Koch averaged 47 yards on his three punts and saved a touchdown with a tackle on one of the returns. They almost outsmarted the 49ers into ending the game without having to give them the ball back when they decided not to punt from their own end zone in the final 12 seconds. The Ravens' coverage units struggled a bit, which is the only reason for the minus.


John Harbaugh spent the first half coaching circles around little brother Jim with sharp-looking game plans on both sides of the ball. The Ravens' six plays on their first offensive drive were run out of six different formations. Even the decision to fake the field goal that would have put the Ravens up 17-3 late in the second quarter, which seemed foolish at the time, worked out for Baltimore when they were able to force a punt and cash in with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Jones. You could come up with any number of reasons the Niners got back into it in the second half, but it's hard to figure a way to pin it on coaching.

Randy Moss, Ray LewisUSA TODAY SportsAll-time greats Randy Moss and Ray Lewis have added storylines to the Super Bowl.

NEW ORLEANS -- Ray Lewis and Randy Moss, two all-time greats at their positions, face each other in Super Bowl XLVII. The week hasn't been a smooth one for either.

Lewis finds himself denying a report that he took a banned substance to accelerate his recovery time from triceps surgery. Moss started a weeklong debate after declaring he was the greatest wide receiver of all time.

It's now time for NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley to do the talking in the final installment of this week's Super Bowl Double Coverage.

Sando: I'll have to admit, Jamison, that I was taken aback just a little by Lewis' emotional response to beating New England in the AFC Championship Game. Moss isn't going to match that even if he catches the winning touchdown pass Sunday. But there is a parallel between these two once-great players chasing championships late in their careers. Let's begin with Lewis. How does the pervasive narrative apply to the game itself? Can he be a big factor on the field at this stage of his career?

Hensley: It is remarkable that Lewis is still a factor in games, even at age 37 and after 17 NFL seasons. As everyone knows, Lewis isn't the same player he was in 2000 when he came to the Super Bowl as the most dominant defensive player in the game. At this point of his career, he's not Patrick Willis on the field. But I would take Lewis over Brian Urlacher and more than half of the other starting linebackers in the NFL.

Sando: And there’s no question Lewis means more to the Ravens than any other linebacker could mean to them.

Hensley: After missing 10 weeks following surgery to repair a torn triceps, Lewis leads the NFL with 44 tackles this postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the most by any player since Dan Morgan had 45 for the Carolina Panthers in the 2003 playoffs. Yes, Lewis has lost a step or two. Yes, he's playing with one healthy arm and one arm in a bulky brace. But he's more than just a figurehead for the Ravens.

Sando: Odd as it sounds, I think both teams are happy to have Lewis on the field. The 49ers have tremendous speed at quarterback (Colin Kaepernick), running back (LaMichael James) and tight end (Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker). They have to like their chances if Lewis winds up chasing any of those players.

I’m most interested in seeing how Kaepernick’s running threat affects the Ravens’ ability to defend against Frank Gore on inside runs. Lewis and Gore are two players who qualify for the sporting version of the warrior label. I have so much respect for how they approach the game.

Hensley: The area where Lewis can be the most exposed is in pass coverage. He is much better moving forward than going backward. The Ravens have to make sure Lewis isn't matched up one-on-one with Davis, which could be trouble.

What hasn't diminished with Lewis is his ability to lead. You can debate whether Lewis is the best linebacker to ever play the game. But there's no argument when it comes to the best leader in NFL history.

Lewis can always find the pulse of his team and elevate the players around him. He's the reason Baltimore's defense has ranked in the top 10 for 12 of the past 14 seasons. Players such as Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott weren't the same when Lewis wasn't beside them. Lewis has given so much to this franchise over the past 17 years. You can't think of the Ravens without him. Now, as he prepares to play his final game, his teammates want to give something back to him -- the Lombardi trophy.

Sando: That is going to be a prevailing narrative if the Ravens win this game. Lewis has earned that, too.

We began this conversation promising to discuss two all-time greats chasing championships late in their careers. Moss is more one-year rental than 49ers legend, of course. He has become a quiet leader and a resource for 49ers players. Moss probably deserves some credit for the strides Michael Crabtree has made in becoming a go-to receiver. Moss is also increasingly relevant as a player now that Mario Manningham is on injured reserve. I’m not sure the Ravens are all that worried about him, though.

Hensley: I wouldn't say the Ravens are worried about Moss. But they aren't going to ignore him. When watching film, Baltimore has seen Moss as a decoy.

If the 49ers are going to take a shot or two deep to Moss, that's going into the neighborhood of another NFL great we haven't talked about, Ravens safety Ed Reed. His primary job is to play center field and make sure that long passes turn into interceptions. The Ravens have given up nine passes of more than 20 yards in three playoff games and none more than 40 yards.

The Ravens have a history with Moss. Back in 2005, Baltimore tried to trade for him but was unsuccessful. Unlike Lewis, who is deemed the ultimate team player, Moss has a reputation for being selfish. Mike, has that side of Moss shown up in San Francisco?

Sando: Not at all. Moss deserves some credit for that, but there are other factors at work. One, the 49ers have been winning. They never had a losing streak all season. Two, the 49ers signed Moss to a non-guaranteed contract. Moss had to earn his roster spot. He was entitled to nothing. Moss needed the 49ers more than the 49ers needed him, particularly early in the season, when Manningham was healthy.

As the 49ers demonstrated in their handling of Brandon Jacobs, they weren’t going to let a player push them around. Moss has become increasingly valuable on the field since the 49ers lost Manningham. He has played at least half the offensive snaps in each of the 49ers’ past six games. He never played more than 43 percent in a game previously. He has three touchdown receptions and has 17 of his 33 receptions over the past seven games.

Hensley: Even though Lewis and Moss aren't the players they once were from a few years ago, both have been instrumental in getting their teams this far. It wasn't too long ago when many didn't expect Lewis or Moss to be playing football, much less the Super Bowl. Lewis surprisingly needed just 10 weeks to recover from surgery on his triceps, and Moss came out of retirement after sitting out the 2011 season. Both players returned because they wanted to get to this game. One will earn a ring, and the other will leave with disappointment.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

If Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw or inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower is still available at the No. 20 pick (which is currently held by the Titans), the Ravens will try to trade up to get one of them, according to the Sporting News' Mike Preston.

"Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is a former Alabama great and has all the inside skinny information on both players," Preston wrote.

According to Preston, Baltimore also likes Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill. The Ravens know he isn't a polished route-runner, but they think he has great potential.

Hensley's slant: Upshaw and Hightower have been popular picks for the Ravens recently. Upshaw can replace Jarret Johnson, and Hightower can learn from Ray Lewis. And trading isn't out of the question for the Ravens, who have made a move in the first round in three of the past four years.

BENGALS: Head coach Marvin Lewis hinted that the team will use its two first-round picks on defense, according to the team's official website. The Bengals have taken offensive players in the first round in the past three drafts. Asked at his pre-draft press conference if this draft is tilted to offense or defense, Lewis pointed at defense because, "Maybe we have more needs defensively." After taking defensive end Carlos Dunlap in the second round in 2010 he said, "We've kind of neglected defense over the last couple of years." Hensley's slant: I would be surprised if the Bengals used both first-round picks on defense because there should be quality offensive players available at the bottom half of the first round. It would make sense for Cincinnati to pick up a guard (David DeCastro and Cordy Glenn) or a wide receiver (Kendall Wright and Stephen Hill) with one of those top picks.

BROWNS: Will the Cleveland Browns pass on Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon one year after not selecting wide receiver Julio Jones? "Last year had nothing to do with the player," Browns general manager Tom Heckert told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "It had everything to do with the deal we were able to make. We loved Julio Jones." Blackmon had 232 catches for 3,304 yards and 38 touchdowns the past two seasons with Oklahoma State. He's only the second player to win the Biletnikoff award twice as the nation's best receiver (the other was Michael Crabtree). Hensley's slant: If the Browns take Blackmon fourth overall, it cause a lot of head-scratching. Blackmon isn't in the same class as last year's No. 4 pick, wide receiver A.J. Green, and he isn't graded as high as Jones. There will be better value for wide receivers later in the first round.

STEELERS: If Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe and Alabama's Hightower are still available at the Steelers' No. 24 spot, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette thinks the team will go with Poe. But Bouchette doesn't see Poe starting immediately unless Casey Hampton (knee) is sidelined. "It sounds as if he's one of those who can use a little grooming first," Bouchette wrote. Hensley's slant: I agree that the Steelers likely have Poe rated higher than Hightower. But Hightower is more likely to be there when the Steelers are drafting. It will take a handful of interested teams to pass on Poe for him to fall that far.

AFC North evening update: Ochocinco

August, 26, 2010
Here are the latest happenings Thursday in the AFC North:
AP Photo/Tony Tribble
Cincinnati's first-round draft pick Andre Smith has finally signed with the team.
Posted by's James Walker

As the second-to-last rookie to sign a contract, Cincinnati Bengals rookie tackle Andre Smith knows he has a lot of catching up to do. Smith ended the 30-day stalemate Sunday evening when he agreed to a contract worth a maximum of six years and $42 million.

In the spring, it was a given that Smith would be the starting right tackle in Week 1 when Cincinnati plays host to the Denver Broncos. He had taken all the first-team reps in minicamp and team workouts.

But months later Smith has suddenly become an unknown commodity -- at least for the time being. Smith has missed all of training camp and three preseason games to date. This week is the first time Bengals coaches are allowed to evaluate Smith to see where he currently stands physically and mentally.

"It was like, more or less, being a freshman out there getting back to football, running around and having fun with the guys," Smith said Sunday via telephone. "I'm talking about every single play to the coach, because I'm trying to catch up. So it's actually exciting."

Smith, the No. 6 overall pick, said all he wanted to do from Day 1 was play football. But the NFL is big business and usually that takes precedent before anything else can happen on the field.

Smith was one of just two draft picks who missed all of training camp and the first three preseason games. San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, the No. 10 overall pick, remains unsigned.

Ironically, the contract for No. 7 overall pick-Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey affected negotiations for Smith and Crabtree. Each felt he deserved more money than Heyward-Bey's $38.25-million deal. Oakland gave Heyward-Bey a great deal that provided a significant raise for the seventh pick, which altered the market.

Smith's agent Alvin Keels naturally felt his client deserved more as he was slotted one spot higher than Heyward-Bey. That led to a major snag in what was already a tough negotiation with Cincinnati, which was not willing to bend as easily as Oakland. A month later a compromise was reached in an incentive-laden deal that satisfied both parties.

With the dollars out of the way, now it's time to make sense of where Smith fits with the team.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is high on Smith's abilities and has left the door open for Smith to contribute right away. Anthony Collins has taken all the first-team reps this summer and is the team's starting right tackle. But really it's all up to Smith, who spent the summer working out independently in Alabama, to prove his readiness.

Ideally the Bengals would like Smith to see his first NFL action Thursday in the preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts. That will help the team evaluate where he stands before the regular season begins Sept. 13. Cincinnati won't make the determination this week until Wednesday at the earliest once the coaches had a chance to monitor Smith through several practices.

"He has a lot of work to do," Lewis said. "But he knows the challenge ahead of him to make an impact on our team as soon as possible."

History is not on Smith's side.

This is the third consecutive year a rookie has held out for 30 days or more, and the two previous examples didn't work out very well.

Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell (42 days) and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Derrick Harvey (33 days) both missed at least the first month with their teams and went on to have meager rookie campaigns.

Russell was the top pick in 2007 and didn't see playing time until late in the season. He threw for just 373 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions and is still struggling to find his way in his third NFL season. Harvey, the No. 8 overall pick in 2008, recorded just 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks his first year as Jacksonville finished a disappointing 5-11.

Even within Smith's own locker room, he can turn to horror stories from new teammates Keith Rivers and Cedric Benson.

Similar to Smith, Benson missed all of training camp when the Chicago Bears made him the fourth overall pick in 2005. His career never got off the ground as Benson rushed for just 272 his rookie year and was released two seasons later. Last season, Rivers missed a relatively modest 10 days of training camp and played well. But his rookie year was cut short via injury after seven games.

According to Smith, getting up to speed physically will be his biggest adjustment.

"I expect probably a little bit of the physical [challenges], because you have to be in football shape," Smith said. "I'm actually a great learner as far as football. I came from a great system coming out of college and I've been through OTAs and rookie minicamp. So I'm actually not that far behind the guys. I think it's more or less the physical aspect."

On the HBO series "Hard Knocks," the Bengals poked fun of Smith's absence. The contract dispute was a serious situation, but teammates made light of it through skits that aired on national television, which Smith said he's taking in stride.

"It was all fun and games," Smith shrugged. "Anyone could easily be [upset] about the situation, but not me. I was OK with it. It was funny. It was entertaining. So I had a great time watching it."

Now those teammates have to deal with the 335-pound Smith every day in practice, as well as the rest of the NFL on Sundays. If Smith is able to avoid the perils of past rookies with long contract disputes and catch up to speed quickly, he could end up having the last laugh.

"Our vision of him is simply as a physically dominating player on our offensive line," Lewis said. "And we know that this guy wants to be very, very good."
Thirty- day jinx?
Here is a recent list of rookies who missed 30 days or more in contract disputes.
Pos./Player Year Teams Holdout Rookie stats
QB/JaMarcus Russell 2007 Oakland 42 days 373 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INT
DE/Derrick Harvey 2008 Jacksonville 33 days 19 tackles, 3.5 sacks
OT/Andre Smith 2009 Cincinnati 30 days ???

Is Mack ready for the AFC North?

April, 29, 2009
  Dave Stephenson/Icon/SMI
  Cleveland spent its first-round draft pick on California center Alex Mack.

Posted by's James Walker

BEREA, Ohio -- There are two primary reasons center Alex Mack became the first pick of the Eric Mangini era with the Cleveland Browns.

Casey Hampton is one reason; Haloti Ngata is the other.

As the Browns try to play catch-up in the AFC North, they must first close the gap in the trenches with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and AFC rival Baltimore. Cleveland was 0-4 against those two teams last season, losing by a combined score of 106-43, primarily because they were physically manhandled on offense.

Realizing this, the new regime in Cleveland had no reservations making a center its signature pick of the 2009 NFL draft. Mack was widely regarded as the best interior lineman available. The Browns coveted him so much that they opted to trade out of the No. 5 overall pick, then trade two more times before taking the University of California product at No. 21 -- a little higher than most projected.

If Mack begins his pro career by pushing around huge 3-4 nose tackles such as Ngata and Hampton next season and instantly brings smashmouth football back to Cleveland, no one will care how early he was picked.

"I pride myself at being an aggressive run blocker," said Mack, who is listed as 6 feet 4, 311 pounds. "I think that's a fun thing to do when you get to run the ball and really get to impose your will on a defense."

(Read full post)

Morning take: NFL draft

April, 23, 2009

Posted by's James Walker

Forty-eight hours before the NFL draft, it's officially "smoke-screen day" in the media and AFC North.

Morning take: (Cough) Sorry, some smoke just entered the room.

Morning take: (Cough, cough).

  • According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Bengals are hoping to draft Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry (and not an offensive tackle).

Morning take: (Cough, cough, cough).

Morning take: (Cough, cough, cough, cough).

  • Also according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns "have fallen in love" with Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree.

Morning take: (Cough, cough, cough, cough, cough) OK, get me out of here! I'm suffocating.

Posted by's James Walker

Varying takes and angles are still coming in with just a few days left until the NFL draft.

The latest comes from a Cleveland Plain Dealer report Wednesday that states the Browns all but erased Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree off their draft list because of an awful recent visit. A source told the Plain Dealer Crabtree "brought a diva attitude" and was "not nice" to some people at the Browns' training complex in Berea, Ohio.

Wednesday evening on ESPN's SportsCenter, Crabtree refuted the report.

"I didn't hear [anything] about that," Crabtree said. "As far as I know, I had a good visit and everything went well. [Browns coach Eric] Mangini is a good coach, and I respect any coach that's in the NFL."

Did Crabtree have a good visit? Did Crabtree have a horrible visit? Is this an elaborate smoke screen?

No one knows for sure. But earlier in the day, the Plain Dealer also reported the Browns have "fallen in love with Crabtree" following last week's very same visit. The drastic differences in these two reports are puzzling.

But after an offseason full of speculation, it will be very interesting to see what the Browns finally have in store for this weekend's draft.

Blogger draft recap

April, 22, 2009

Posted by's James Walker held its first annual Blog Network NFL draft this week. The results were posted on Wednesday, and you can find all the results here.

But fear not, AFC North fans. Your division had the best general manager in the business.

We landed the top-rated offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, the top pass-rusher for the Cleveland Browns, one of the top receivers and a local product for the Baltimore Ravens and the best center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here is how it all broke down:


Cleveland Browns

Pick No. 5: Brian Orakpo, DE/LB, Texas

Why: After sending smoke screens in every direction possible, this is the guy we really wanted in Cleveland. We are smart enough to know that the AFC North is about defense first and having players who can pressure the quarterback. Orakpo is the best at that in this draft. Plus, he will make fellow linebacker Kamerion Wimbley a better player, so we feel like we're getting two players in this deal. We're glad Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree was taken one spot higher, because we never wanted to take him this high and the fact that he was off the board will keep the media off our backs.


Cincinnati Bengals

Pick No. 6: Jason Smith, OT, Baylor

Why: We are still a little shocked by this one. Going in we didn't feel drafting Smith was a possibility for Cincinnati, but it shows how unpredictable draft day can be. Smith was the top player on our board for the Bengals, both because of need and talent. To land this left tackle at No. 6 was a great achievement. We thought Virginia's Eugene Monroe had a chance to fall at this spot. But NFC West GM Mike Sando must be down on Smith, because he passed him over twice with the St. Louis Rams at No. 2 and the Seattle Seahawks at No. 4. Because of Sando, Smith just told our coaching staff he's arriving in Cincinnati with a chip on his shoulder, which is what we like to hear.


Baltimore Ravens

Pick No. 26: Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland

Why: Right around pick 20, we got a little nervous. We contacted all blogger GMs saying we wanted to trade up from No. 26, and I had $20 in my pocket to do it. NFC East GM Matt Mosley laughed out loud and took Ohio State tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells with the No. 21 pick for the Philadelphia Eagles. True story. But with USC linebacker Rey Maualuga off the board, the only player we really coveted at this point was Heyward-Bey. Luckily he got past teams like the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins. Their loss is Baltimore's gain.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick No. 32: Alex Mack, C, California

Why: Things panned out just as expected for Pittsburgh. Every top center was available with the final pick in the first round, so we took the highest one on our draft board in Mack. He will help improve our running game and should give us some options up front to move players around. Or we can simply let Mack learn the system before taking over permanently at center in 2010, when starter Justin Hartwig becomes a free agent.

Overall, we hope AFC North readers are happy with their picks. Let's see if the real NFL draft turns out just as well this weekend.

Draft risks and rewards

April, 22, 2009

Posted by's James Walker

The NFL draft is where major decisions are made to either build a team into a contender or lead down a path of destruction.

The AFC North provides a mix of teams with good track records in the draft (Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers), poor draft histories (Cincinnati Bengals) and a new regime trying to make its mark for the first time (Cleveland Browns).

With the draft just a few days away, let's look at the riskiest moves each team will consider.

Cleveland Browns

Needs: WR, LB, C

Biggest risk: Drafting a receiver with the No. 5 pick

  Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images
  The Browns could consider Texas tech receiver Michael Crabtree with their pick at No. 5.

Why: Taking a receiver in the top 10 is one of the riskiest moves a franchise could make. Teams at the top of the draft usually have multiple needs, and receivers can only make a significant impact once everything else -- quarterback, offensive line, running game -- is in place. For example, look no further than the Detroit Lions, who bypassed a ton of talent at other positions to take receivers in the top 10 in 2003 (Charles Rogers), 2004 (Roy Williams), 2005 (Mike Williams) and 2007 (Calvin Johnson). The Lions got absolutely nowhere and eventually hit rock bottom in 2008 by becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history.

The reward: Cleveland would fill a big need by taking a receiver with the fifth pick. The Browns have backed themselves into a corner with a recent run of roster moves and bad luck this offseason. Since the start of free agency, the Browns released veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius, ran into legal trouble with starter Donte' Stallworth, and currently are involved in trade talks about former Pro Bowl receiver Braylon Edwards. If Edwards is moved by the end of the week, as many expect, the Browns would be down to David Patten and Josh Cribbs as their starting receivers. If the Browns overlook other needs such as linebacker and defensive linemen, the target could be Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, whom some feel is the best pure athlete in the draft.

Chances of risk: Decent

Cincinnati Bengals

Needs: OT, C, RB

Biggest risk: Not getting a left tackle

  G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
  Protecting Carson Palmer is something the Bengals need to consider heading into the draft.

Why: Bengals franchise quarterback Carson Palmer needs better protection if Cincinnati is to have any success in 2009. Palmer's 2008 campaign ended after only four games with a season-ending elbow injury. He was pretty much battered from the beginning, as evident by the broken nose he also suffered in the preseason. This isn't to put all the blame on current left tackle Levi Jones. But when your entire offensive line struggles and you're picking sixth overall, left tackle and protecting the quarterback's blindside is the biggest priority. Luckily for the Bengals there are plenty of good tackles in this draft, including Baylor's Jason Smith, Virginia's Eugene Monroe and Alabama's Andre Smith. So not only would it be risky, it would be surprising if Cincinnati bypasses all of them in the first round.

Reward: Although the risk far outweighs the reward, the Bengals also have a chance to land a very good defensive player at No. 6. Cincinnati drafted defense in the first round for four consecutive years, and that unit finally is playing solidly. The Bengals finished last season ranked 12th in total defense. But some holes remain in terms of rushing the passer and getting stronger in the middle of the defensive line. Cincinnati signed Tank Johnson, who could be a short-term solution. But Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji has the potential to dominate the middle for years to come. The Bengals' lack of pass rush also brings up the possibility of choosing Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo over the most pressing need of offensive tackle.

Chances: Below average

Baltimore Ravens

Needs: OL, CB, DL

Biggest risk: Not taking a receiver

Why: It is Baltimore's only glaring need entering the draft. The Ravens were a few plays away from participating in last season's Super Bowl. Even with the loss of several key free agents, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome plugged enough holes at center and cornerback where this team should be back in contention in 2009. What Newsome and the Ravens didn't address is the receiver position. Behind starters Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason, there isn't much depth or proven talent. And the team would like to utilize the deep-ball capability of second-year quarterback Joe Flacco more often in 2009. Not giving him another weapon in the first round could hold back the growth of the offense.

Reward: By passing over a receiver, the Ravens could simply go with the top player on their draft board. At No. 26, Baltimore should have a choice of good prospects at several positions. There could be some good cornerbacks, linebackers and possibly the top tight end prospect, Brandon Pettigrew. The Ravens aren't in a similar situation to last year when they had to draft a quarterback. There may be other good receivers for Baltimore to target in the second round or later if another position player happens to catch Newsome's eye early.

Chances of risk: Average

Pittsburgh Steelers

Needs: OL, CB, WR

Biggest risk: Ignoring offensive line

Why: It's no secret that the Steelers also have a track record of taking the best available players. But that practice has put them in a current bind where they need quality depth at offensive line. For years, the Steelers ignored taking offensive linemen high in the draft. The last player taken at that position in the first two rounds was former guard Kendall Simmons in 2002. By 2008, Pittsburgh was struggling to consistently run the football. Despite winning a Super Bowl, the need cannot be ignored any longer. Expect the Steelers to bring in help early this weekend in order to get back to the team's physical, smashmouth style of offense.

Reward: Similar to the Ravens, Pittsburgh is not a team with many needs, so it has the luxury of going elsewhere in the first round. For instance, cornerback depth also is important for the Steelers. Therefore if the right corner falls to Pittsburgh with the final pick of the first round, it would be understandable to go in that direction as long as the offensive line isn't completely ignored on the first day of the draft.

Chances of risk: Average