AFC North: Mitchell Schwartz

Thomas: Alex Mack has great value

December, 27, 2013
Take a good look at the Cleveland Browns' offensive line on Sunday.

It’s debatable how many linemen will be back. If it weren’t so hard to completely retool, the case could be made that the Browns will have four new starters in 2014 to go with left tackle Joe Thomas.

That’s a stretch, of course, and a good deal of speculation.

But the Browns haven’t seemed enamored with their guards all season, there’s been a lot of rumblings about the inconsistencies of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack is slated to be a free agent.

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns have the salary-cap space to match likely any offer for standout center Alex Mack.
Nothing is known, of course, and there is a game yet to be played. But Mack’s potential departure seems the most significant. With Maurkice Pouncey injured, there is a lot of talk that Mack is one of the three or four best centers playing.

“Cleveland’s a very easy place to come back to,” Mack said. “I like the coach. I like the players. I have a house here. Without a doubt it would be easy to come back.”

But Mack, like safety T.J. Ward, also has the opportunity to decide where he wants to play, and since he was Eric Mangini’s first-round pick the team has gone 19-65. The Browns could place the franchise tag on Mack -- they have the salary-cap room -- but the new CBA calls for him to be paid the average of the top five offensive linemen, not centers. That number will approach $10 million, and Joe Banner’s history has not been to overpay.

Thomas feels it’s important to keep Mack with the Browns.

“Very few people really understand how many things the center is actually responsible for,” Thomas said. “Obviously the quarterback has the ball in his hands and he’s the guy who ultimately makes the decisions. But when it comes to setting the protections and setting the blocking in the run game, nobody has more on their plate than the center.

“[Mack is] probably the best that I’ve seen and has to be one of the best in the NFL at understanding the mental side of the game and getting everybody on the same page blocking wise.”

Guard Shawn Lauvao was drafted the same year as Mack, and the feeling is the team will let him get to free agency.

“You take it with a grain of salt,” Lauvao said. “If they want to bring me back, so be it. If they don’t, I feel like [free agency is] a great opportunity.”

The Browns do have John Greco signed for next season, and he could play center. Schwartz is still playing under his rookie contract. But the team discussed trading for Eugene Monroe of Jacksonville during the season.

The team’s wild card is Chris Faulk, a 6-foot-6 and 323-pound player recovering from a serious knee injury he hurt in his senior season at LSU. The Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent and want to take a long look at him for next season.

Locker Room Buzz: Cleveland Browns

October, 27, 2013
KANSAS CITY -- Observed in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 23-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Belief in Jason Campbell: The Browns lost, but something floated in the air that was unmistakeable: Belief. The Browns were not despairing the way they were a week earlier in Green Bay. They understand Jason Campbell has limitations. But they believe in him and were buoyed by the way he played. As defensive tackle Phil Taylor said: “We can win with Jason.”

Ticked off: What made the difference in the Browns' defense from the first half to the second? Attitude, said linebacker Paul Kruger. The defense was ticked off at the way it played in the first half and set out to give the team a chance to win in the second. It did just that.

Didn’t see it: Josh Gordon had a chance for a big early play, and Campbell admitted as much. But Gordon never saw the deep throw down the sideline that Campbell sent his way early in the first quarter. It was an aggressive call, and it could have been a touchdown because Gordon said the ball was thrown perfectly. He just didn’t see it.

The Schwartz family: Mitchell and Geoff Schwartz became the first pair of Jewish brothers to play in an NFL game since the 1920s. Mitchell is a Browns tackle, Geoff a Chiefs guard. Their parents were in the stands, and Mitchell said his mother even had a half Chiefs-half Browns jersey for the game.
Phil Taylor, Adrian PetersonGetty ImagesPhil Taylor and the thus-far stout Browns run defense gets a major test in Adrian Peterson.
A pair of teams desperate for their first victory square off in Minneapolis this weekend when the Minnesota Vikings host the Cleveland Browns.

The Vikings are coming off a last-second loss in Chicago, after which players were venting about the defensive call that led to the Bears’ touchdown with 10 seconds left. Minnesota goes from Minneapolis to London for a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Vikings are in dire need of some positive momentum.

The Browns, meanwhile, have scored just 16 points in a pair of losses, and already have made major changes. They will start Brian Hoyer at quarterback this weekend with starter Brandon Weeden out because of a thumb injury. Meanwhile, the Browns traded running back Trent Richardson on Wednesday, parting with their top playmaker in exchange for the Indianapolis Colts' 2014 first-round draft pick.

As the teams meet for the first time since 2009, Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson break down the game:

Goessling: Matt, the last time these two teams faced each other, it was on opening day in 2009, Brady Quinn was under center for the Browns and Brett Favre was playing his first regular-season game in a Vikings uniform. How things have changed since then. The Vikings have their own quarterback issues -- Christian Ponder probably keeps his job for now after a solid second half in Chicago last week, though he’s in serious need of some consistency. With Hoyer at quarterback, Richardson gone to Indianapolis and Josh Gordon coming back from a suspension, what can we expect from the Browns’ offense?

Williamson: I was feeling optimistic about Cleveland's offense going into Week 3 with Gordon returning and the disaster at the right guard position seemingly resolved. But now Weeden is out and Hoyer is in. That doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the loss of Richardson, who should be the foundation of this offense as a runner and underrated receiver. I truly think the Colts got themselves a great young back. But that leaves the Browns in a very precarious situation in the backfield. It is going to be a long year on this side of the ball.

The Vikings had an outstanding rookie class in 2012 and made three picks in the first round of this latest draft. Although there are obvious concerns at the quarterback position, Minnesota has quietly established a fine young nucleus. What roles do you see for its three first-round picks for this game, as well as going forward in 2013?

Goessling: It’s interesting you bring that up, because Cordarrelle Patterson's role -- or perhaps his absence -- has been a big topic of conversation this week. He got only five snaps in the Vikings’ first game, and had just six as a receiver last Sunday, even after he ran the opening kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown. He’s young, and raw, but he might also be one of the most dangerous players the Vikings can put on the field, aside from Adrian Peterson. Coach Leslie Frazier all but called for Patterson to be on the field more during his news conference Monday. The challenge for the Vikings is to either work him into their base offense or go to enough multiple-receiver sets that they can use him, but I don’t doubt we’ll see him more going forward.

That could be especially important considering how good the Browns have been against the run in their first two games. They’ve allowed just 59.5 yards per game -- how will they fare against Peterson this weekend?

Williamson: Well, facing Peterson is obviously the ultimate challenge, and his run blocking, including the tight ends and fullbacks, is quite good as well. But I am very impressed with the Browns’ run defense -- and it starts up front. I believe that Phil Taylor is on the verge of stardom; his battle with John Sullivan, an excellent center in his own right, in the middle of the formation, will be crucial for the success of Cleveland’s interior run defense. But the Browns also have very good size at outside linebacker and do a nice job containing the outside run; their second- and third-level defenders get to the ball carrier well.

I mentioned before that the right guard position has been a nightmare, but the Browns’ excellent set of offensive tackles, Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, also has struggled much more than would be expected against two formidable defenses. As you know, Jared Allen is still playing at a very high level. But as some might not know, Brian Robison is also excelling this year and Everson Griffen is a highly athletic and intriguing end, too. Could Minnesota’s defensive ends rule the day?

Goessling: They certainly could. They struggled in Week 1 in Detroit, as Matthew Stafford found Reggie Bush on a number of early screen passes before the rush could get home. But the Vikings put consistent pressure on Jay Cutler last week, and Allen caused a Cutler fumble that Robison returned 61 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings also have not played at home yet, which means they will have the advantage of the crowd disrupting the opposing offense’s snap count for the first time this year. Minnesota has enough issues on the back end of its defense that it needs a strong pass rush to cover up for some of those deficiencies, and if the defensive line can get to Hoyer, the Vikings should be able to slow the Browns down and win the game.

To close this up, what’s the biggest thing you think the Browns need to do to win the game? What kind of a shot will they have without Weeden and Richardson?

Williamson: I really don’t like Cleveland’s chances at all, but its defense could keep this game close and limit Peterson’s production. Of course, Ponder could have a very poor game, or the Browns could score on defense or special teams. But I can’t see their offense this week moving the football with any sort of consistency. As Cleveland's front office is doing, it is time to start looking toward next year.


Upon Further Review: Browns Week 1

September, 9, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins:

Right is wrong: I'm not sure if I've ever seen one side of a line play so poorly as right guard Oniel Cousins and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz did Sunday. Cousins has an excuse because he's a third-stringer making his second career start at guard. Schwartz, a second-round pick from a year ago, does not. Sure, Schwartz had a tough assignment in Pro Bowl end Cameron Wake, but he looked like an overmatched rookie in what was the worst effort of his 17-game career. Schwartz allowed three sacks and countless quarterback hits. Cousins was flagged four times, including a fourth-quarter holding penalty that brought back a touchdown. Shawn Lauvao needs to get healthy quickly.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Trent Richardson
AP Photo/David RichardTrent Richardson carried the ball just 13 times for 47 yards against the Dolphins.
Questionable play calling: Did offensive coordinator Norv Turner forget about Trent Richardson being a 300-carry running back? Richardson ran the ball on four of the game's first six plays. He then had nine carries in the last 66 plays. Instead of putting the ball in the hands of their best offensive player, the Browns chose to throw the ball 53 times in a game that the Browns were trailing by a field goal heading into the fourth quarter. In order for Richardson to be a 300-carry back, he needs to average 19 carries per game. He had a grand total of 13 in the season opener. Richardson had only four games with fewer carries last season.

Tale of third downs: Some will point to turnovers as the reason the Browns lost, but Miami got only one field goal out of Brandon Weeden's three interceptions. This game was decided on third downs. While the Browns' defense did a commendable job in stopping the run and getting pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland couldn't get the Dolphins off the field. Miami converted eight of 16 third downs, which is quite an improvement for a Dolphins offense that ranked 16th on third-down conversions last season (38 percent). Tannehill was 9-of-13 for 82 yards on third downs, an average of 9.1 yards per completion. The Browns, meanwhile, couldn't stay on the field. Cleveland was a woeful 1-for-14 on third downs.

Stumbling in season openers: The Browns are 1-14 in season openers since returning to the NFL in 1999. Eight of the losses, including Sunday, have been by double digits. The only season-opening victory was in 2004 against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Browns finished 4-12 that season. No coach in the expansion era Browns has won his first game. The six coaches -- Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski -- have lost their first game by an average of 16.1 points. Surprisingly, Davis, Crennel and Shurmur all won their second game as Browns coach. Chudzinski draws the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in Week 2.

My thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins:

What it means: New regime, same result. In the first game of the Joe Banner-Rob Chudzinski era, the Browns had a similar look of past teams: a solid defense and a struggling offense, albeit a short-handed one without its No. 1 receiver and a third-string right guard. Cleveland fell to 1-14 in home season openers since rejoining the NFL.

Stock watch: Rising -- Tight end Jordan Cameron. He was the Browns' best offensive weapon with nine catches for 108 yards and the team's only touchdown. He was the only Browns player with a catch longer than 20 yards.

Falling -- CB Buster Skrine. He got burned by Brian Hartline on a double move for the Dolphins' first touchdown, and he was penalized in the end zone, which led to Miami's second touchdown. Undisciplined play has always been a problem for Skrine, who committed nine penalties last year.

Don't blame Weeden: It's easy to point the finger at quarterback Brandon Weeden, who threw three interceptions in the first half and finished with 23-of-53 passing (49 percent) for 289 yards. But one interception came off a drop by Greg Little, and the Dolphins converted only three points off those turnovers. Weeden didn't get much help from his receivers, who dropped a handful of passes, and pass protection (five sacks allowed). Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz allowed three sacks, and right guard Oniel Cousins struggled mightily, too. Cousins' holding penalty negated a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Pass defense falters: The Browns got pressure on Ryan Tannehill in the first half, limiting him to 98 yards passing before halftime. But Cleveland gave him too much time in the second half and allowed 174 yards passing. The Browns didn't stop the Dolphins enough on third downs. Free-agent pickup Desmond Bryant was a bright spot, stopping two drives with sacks.

Where was Richardson? Running back Trent Richardson is the Browns' best playmaker, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner didn't get him involved enough, especially with No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon suspended for the first two games. The Browns abandoned the run too early, and Richardson finished with 47 yards on 13 carries. If Turner didn't think the running game was working, the Browns had to get the ball to Richardson more in the passing game. Richardson had one catch for 18 yards.

What's next: The Browns (0-1) look to end a 10-game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens (0-1) when they visit Baltimore next week.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck set the rookie record for passing yards with 4,375 last season. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson tied the rookie record for touchdown passes with 26.

The Cleveland Browns' Brandon Weeden led the NFL in a category as well, but it's not something he will brag about. Weeden topped the league with 23 batted passes, five more than any other quarterback in 2012.

As Tim Hasselbeck explained recently on ESPN's "NFL Live," you can't put all of the blame on Weeden.

"I believe batted passes are a shared responsibility," Hasselbeck said. "The quarterback has to find passing lanes. The offensive line and the guys in pass protection have to do a good job of getting defensive linemen and linebackers' hands down."

One-third of Weeden's batted passes came on wide receiver screens or off three-step drops. In the "NFL Live" segment, Hasselbeck highlighted one play where Weeden had a pass batted down by unblocked Washington Redskins Ryan Kerrigan on a wide receiver screen. In that instance, Weeden had to throw around Kerrigan. Then, in a game against the San Diego Chargers, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz took too deep of a pass-block set, giving too much room between him and the pass-rusher on a three-step drop. With his hands free, the defender just had to jump to swat the ball away.

The expectation is for Weeden's batted passes to decline this year because of the new offensive system under Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner, who will put Weeden in the shotgun more often. Chudzinski used the shotgun on 74 percent of the passes thrown last year by Carolina's Cam Newton, and Turner had Philip Rivers in the shotgun 77 percent of the time. Last season, Weeden only threw 42 percent of his passes out of the shotgun.

Plus, batted passes should decrease with experience. Many coaches want young quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly, and defenders anticipate them throwing on three-step drops. It's not a coincidence that three of the top four quarterbacks in batted passes last season were rookies.
For the past two weeks, the AFC North blog has ranked the positions in the division. Some positions were easy (running back was straightforward) and others were not (wide receiver and secondary were the toughest for me).

To review all of the positions, I asked ESPN's Matt Williamson to provide his rankings, which we can compare to mine. Surprisingly, they were very similar. We only disagreed on the top rankings at two positions: wide receiver and tight end.

At wide receiver, I had the Steelers at No. 1 followed by the Bengals and Williamson had them reversed, with Cincinnati as the best group. I can understand putting the Bengals first because they have the division's top receiver in A.J. Green. There's no one close. My decision was based on Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders being a better tandem than Green and Mohamed Sanu.

It was the same situation at tight end, where I had the Ravens at the top and the Bengals second. Williamson put the Bengals at No. 1 and the Ravens right behind them. I believe the Bengals have a chance to have the best tight ends, especially if Tyler Eifert surpasses the expectations for a rookie. But I went with Baltimore right now because Dennis Pitta could have the most catches by any tight end in the division (especially if Heath Miller is sidelined for a period of time) and Ed Dickson played his best football last season after Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator.

Williamson said the offensive line was the toughest position to rank on offense.

"I actually think Pittsburgh's front five will be noticeably improved from a year ago, but the other three teams in the division could feature top-10 type offensive lines," Williamson said. "In the end, I went with Cleveland slightly over the Bengals and Ravens, even though I have some minor concerns about the Browns' guards."

My thought process with the offensive line was similar. The Browns' weak spot is their guards, but the rest of the line (tackles Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz along with center Alex Mack) is so good that Cleveland deserves to be No. 1.

On defense, Williamson called ranking the cornerbacks "a tough chore."

"By putting Baltimore and Cleveland at the top in this group, I went with star power over depth, as I am a huge fan of Joe Haden and Lardarius Webb, who might just be the Ravens' best defensive player as he returns from injury," Williamson said. "The Bengals have a lot of capable bodies at corner and Leon Hall is a well-above-average starter, while Pittsburgh also features a very solid cornerback in Ike Taylor and some intriguing young talent."

In case you missed any of my rankings, simply click on the position to see how the AFC North teams stack up at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, secondary and special teams.
The AFC North blog is continuing its rankings of each position for the next week. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. For Friday, let's look at the offensive line.

1. Cleveland Browns: The Browns have the best lineman in the division, and perhaps the league, in left tackle Joe Thomas. The other star on the line is center Alex Mack. The biggest improvement should be at right tackle, where Mitchell Schwartz starts his second season. The guards are average, especially if John Greco has to replace Jason Pinkston, who is returning from a blood clot in the lung.

2. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have the No. 1 tackle combination with Andrew Whitworth on the left side and Andre Smith on the right. By the end of the season, Cincinnati's top lineman will be right guard Kevin Zeitler, who looks like a Pro Bowl player. The question mark -- and the soft spot of this line -- is at center, where Kyle Cook and Trevor Robinson will compete for the starting spot.

3. Baltimore Ravens: The top guard tandem of the division is Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele. Yanda is among the grittiest linemen in the league, and Osemele ranks among the most versatile. It was a smart move to re-sign left tackle Bryant McKinnie because it allows Michael Oher to stay on the right side. Still, there is uncertainty whether McKinnie can hold up for a 16-game schedule and whether Gino Gradkowski can adequately replace Matt Birk at center.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: This line has the potential to make more strides this season than any other in the division. But, until the unit proves itself, there is more optimism than confidence. Like the Steelers' quarterback position, the key is staying healthy. Pittsburgh has certainly made an investment, using two first-round picks (center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro) and two second-rounders (tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert) on the offense line. The biggest decision facing the Steelers is determining who will start at left tackle, which happens to be the most important spot on the line.

In case you missed the other AFC North position rankings this week, you can click here for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Who is one potential breakout player for each AFC North team in 2013?

Baltimore Ravens: Kelechi Osemele. It can be argued that Osemele did, in fact, break out at the end of his rookie season. And it could be argued that the Ravens’ shuffling of their offensive line -- moving Osemele to left guard from right tackle, Michael Oher from left tackle to right tackle and inserting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle -- was the single biggest reason for their spectacular Super Bowl run. But while the argument holds true that Osemele excelled at left guard, I believe he is just scratching the surface and will become a Pro Bowl-caliber player and one of the elite guards in the game. Still new to the position, Osemele is a massive human being with extremely long arms and huge, powerful hands. But unlike some offensive tackles who move inside, leverage and pad level is not a problem for this extremely talented young man.

Cincinnati Bengals: Mohamed Sanu. There wasn’t a Bengals player who jumped up as a breakout candidate, unlike with the other three teams. That isn’t to suggest that Cincinnati has drafted poorly. I view young players Kevin Zeitler and Vontaze Burfict as already having broken out. Last year’s first-round pick, Dre Kirkpatrick, certainly is a candidate, but we haven’t seen enough at the NFL level to judge him. The same is true for Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. That left receivers Sanu and Marvin Jones, who logged about double the snaps as Sanu in 2012. Either could develop into a quality second option opposite the great A.J. Green, but Sanu is the better prospect in my opinion. While he isn’t a perimeter burner like Green, he is a sure-handed, big-bodied wideout who fits well with Andy Dalton, who gets the ball out quickly and allows his receivers to perform after the catch. Like the defensive players mentioned above, there isn’t a lot of film of Sanu to go off. He caught just 16 passes before a Week 12 foot injury ended his rookie season, but he should be penciled in as a starter and see plenty of favorable matchups.

Cleveland Browns: Jordan Cameron. There were easier choices for the Browns than Cameron, namely on the offensive side of the ball, from their impressive rookie class from a year ago. Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon and even Mitchell Schwartz all have extremely promising young careers after impressing as rookies. I expect all three to drastically improve and for Richardson to be one of the top running backs in the league in 2013. But I went with Cameron, a relatively unknown tight end, because of his abilities, the coaching and a major increase of snaps. Cameron is the typical athletic former basketball player with the long frame to really excel against safety and linebacker coverage. But why do I really expect this breakout? Look no further than Cleveland’s new head coach, Rob Chudzinski. Going back to his days as the tight ends coach at the University of Miami, Chudzinski has a spectacular track record for developing great talent into great production at this position. Cameron is his latest project; expect it to go very well.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Cortez Allen. Recent first-round selections David DeCastro and Cameron Heyward crossed my mind for this honor, but I went with Allen over those linemen. Allen fits the mold of what Pittsburgh does at cornerback to a T. On a regular basis, the Steelers draft big, developmental cornerbacks in the middle rounds. Those players tend to have nondescript rookie seasons while making their bones on special teams and learning “The Steeler Way” in Dick LeBeau’s defense. In Year 2, these cornerbacks often take a step forward, playing in sub packages and filling in for injured starters. And if that development goes well, as it did for last year’s starting cornerbacks, Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, they take over a starting position. It’s Allen’s turn to do exactly that. The Steelers allowed Lewis to leave for New Orleans, showing they have all the faith in the world in Allen. They did sign William Gay -- another corner they once drafted and who fits this mold -- but Gay is a depth player who is obviously familiar with the system and franchise. Allen gets the opportunity to step up. Expect big things.

Mailbag: Doubts about Browns' brass

February, 24, 2013
I will provide my take on all things NFL combine Monday. For now, it's time to tackle some questions sent to the AFC North mailbag ...

Justin from Canton, Ohio: I have no confidence in (Browns vice president of player personnel) Mike Lombardi. I still do not have a clue why the Browns hired him. What will have to happen for him to get fired?

badbrown4life from Honolulu: I'm a true-blue Browns fan, born in Cleveland, living in Hawaii. Imagine all the jokes I suffer. Here are my questions: What has Mike Lombardi done to earn his current job with the Browns? I like the coaching staff, but can they overcome the bumbling of (chief executive officer Joe) Banner & Lombardi combined?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Justin and badbrown4life, you're not alone in your skepticism of Lombardi. But you're going to have to get used to him for a while. When Banner introduced Lombardi at the introductory press conference, Banner showed his commitment to this hire when he said, “There’s no question he’s near or at the top of quality talent evaluators.” So it would look bad on Banner if this marriage ended quickly.

My skepticism of Lombardi is based on a couple of instances. When he was with the NFL Network, Lombardi bashed Tom Heckert's last draft as well as the addition of wide receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. This is the same draft that produced seven promising prospects (and three immediate starters): running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, defensive linemen Billy Winn and John Hughes, linebacker James-Michael Johnson and wide receiver-returner Travis Benjamin. The other part that puzzles me is the fact Lombari has only received one interview over the past five years and that was the 49ers two years ago. It just doesn't add up for me.

Dave from Kensington, Md.: Which position do you think the Steelers feel most confident with their current (non-free-agent) personnel, and consequently are least likely to spend a early-to-mid-round draft pick on: inside linebacker, nose tackle, quarterback or safety?

Hensley: Dave, in order of least importance, this is how I see it: quarterback, nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. Yes, it would be beneficial to get a younger backup to develop behind Ben Roethlisberger, but it's nowhere close to being the same need as nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. At nose tackle, the Steelers lose Casey Hampton but still have Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta'amu (even though he screwed up majorly last season). Pittsburgh should improve its depth at safety considering the age of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu (and Polamalu's injury history). The biggest need is inside linebacker because, even if Larry Foote comes back, you're not sure if Stevenson Sylvester can start in this league and when Sean Spence can come back from that brutal knee injury.

Ryan from Salt Lake City, Utah: I was wondering about the Bengals' potential linebacker moves coming up to the draft. With Vontaze Burfict's fantastic rookie season and Thomas Howard coming back from knee surgery, I feel like there is potential to get a big, run-stopping middle linebacker that would have a great chance to thrive his rookie season between our leading tacklers for the last two seasons. Thoughts?

Hensley: Ryan, the plan is to move Burfict inside in 2013. There was a report last week that the Bengals would only consider bringing back Rey Maualuga as an outside linebacker because the preference is to go with Burfict in the middle. It's uncertain whether the Bengals will re-sign Howard, who is a free agent in March. He has to prove he is healthy enough to play this season after going down with a season-ending ACL injury in a Week 2 practice.

Dirk from Everett, Wash.: What are the chances the Browns use some of that salary-cap space to try to lure LaRon Landry in at free safety? I'd love to see an experienced playmaker next to T.J. Ward.

Hensley: Dirk, the Browns should be active in free agency. I just don't think Landry is a good fit. He's too similar to T.J. Ward in that he is a physical presence who can make an impact in run support. The Browns need someone who is a free safety and be a factor in coverage. Also, with the amount of money it will take to get Landry, it's a gamble considering his injury history.

Hans from Bel Air, Md.: With the likely departure of Bryant McKinnie (unless he comes back as a bargain basement free agent), does this mean a return of "The Human Turnstile" aka Michael Oher to the Blind(ed) Side?

Hensley: Hans, I know you're not going to like this answer, but I see Oher going back to left tackle. The Ravens won't have the money to go after a legitimate left tackle like Jake Long and they don't draft high enough to get a tackle who can start immediately on the left side. Sure, there is a chance that McKinnie could come back, but the Ravens can't depend on him after his weight issues in minicamp and his absence at the start of training camp. General manager Ozzie Newsome has repeatedly said how much he likes the young guys on the offensive line. I believe he's telling everyone that the guys on the roster now will be the guys who will will start on the offensive line.

Charles from Augusta, W.Va.: So when Mel Kiper's and Todd McShay's second mock drafts came out, I found their picks for the Browns to be interesting. I had no problem with Mel's selection, but in Todd's draft he had Jarvis Jones falling to the Jets. Now I ask you: if Jarvis Jones falls to the Browns at No. 6, why wouldn't they take him? With the Browns' well-documented switch in defensive philosophy, it would seem like Jones would be a perfect fit in our defense now as a pass-rushing outside linebacker opposite of Jabaal Sheard who can also stop the run and drop-back and cover someone. What are your thoughts on this?

Hensley: Charles, I'm in total agreement with you. If Jarvis Jones, the linebacker out of Georgia, is there at No. 6, the Browns would be crazy to pass him up. The big question is his medical history. Jones suffers from a condition called spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the vertebrae in his neck. The only way the Browns pass on him is if they're concerned that this condition will hinder his playing career.

Jody from Hastings, Pa.: Should the Steelers consider waiving LaMarr Woodley and keeping James Harrison? I know Woodley is younger but has been more injury-prone. Harrison had surgery late last season and played more games than Woodley. Your thoughts?

Hensley: Jody, there is a zero percent chance of this happening. The Steelers are disappointed in Woodley's season in 2012, but they're not giving up on him this quickly. Plus, the cap hit would be more than $8 million. The Pittsburgh coaching staff wants to keep Harrison. The front office, however, likely won't do it at his current $6.57 million salary. Harrison said he won't take a pay cut. The Steelers have to either be creative with some restructuring or part ways with the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Vince from Virginia Beach, Va.: If Ed Reed doesn't come back, what do you think of the idea of Jimmy Smith moving to safety? Lardarius Webb will be back and, with Corey Graham and Chykie Brown stepping up, wouldn't it be a cheaper option to just move Smith to safety?

Hensley: Moving a corner to safety is what you do to an aging player to get a few more years out of him, like a Rod Woodson or Charles Woodson (or anyone named Woodson, it seems). The Ravens still believe in Smith as a cornerback. If they didn't, he wouldn't have been on the field in the Super Bowl when they were backed up against their goal line. Shifting Smith to safety would be a desperation move. Even though Smith has been a disappointment so far, the Ravens are far from that point with him.

Karl from Rapid City, S.D.: Just a note to thank you for blogging the AFC North. I'm a Bengal fan and would prefer the division still be called the AFC Central.

Hensley: Thank for the note. Just hearing AFC Central, it makes me think of Three Rivers, Riverfront and Cleveland Municipal Stadiums. Those places housed good memories, but I don't think even the die-hard fans would like to go there.

AFC North's 2012 Iron Men

January, 8, 2013
It's time to salute the players who have taken the most snaps and never want to come off the field.

In 2012, there were seven AFC North players who were on the field for either all of his team's offensive or defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. Among the division's Iron Men this season, there were four Browns offensive linemen and just one defensive player.

Here are the players who played 100 percent of the snaps either on offense or defense: Browns center Alex Mack, Bengals guard Clint Boling, Browns guard Shaun Lauvao, Browns offensive tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Joe Thomas, Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks and Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

These are the players who led their teams in snaps:

BENGALS: Boling, 1,133 snaps

BROWNS: Mack, 1,093 snaps (including 62 on special teams)

RAVENS: Michael Oher, 1,134 snaps

STEELERS: Starks, 1086 snaps
It wasn't a stellar year for the 2012 draft class in the AFC North, but five newcomers from the division were still named to Mel Kiper Jr.'s All-Rookie teamInsider. You'll need a subscription to read the entire piece because it's part of Insider. Here are the players who made the team (along with my comment):

Wide receiver: Josh Gordon, Browns. He went from a project to becoming a future No. 1 receiver in Cleveland. Gordon will need to improve his consistency, but he has shown the ability to make big plays downfield.

Right tackle: Kelechi Osemele, Ravens. My pick here would've been another rookie in the division, the Browns' Mitchell Schwartz, who allowed two fewer sacks and six fewer quarterback hurries. Osemele, though, played better than anticipated at tackle after working at guard in training camp.

Right guard: Kevin Zeitler, Bengals. The first-round pick was the best rookie in the AFC North. He would've made the all-division team if not for the Ravens' Marshal Yanda playing in the same spot.

Center: Trevor Robinson, Bengals. The undrafted rookie did an admirable job in filling in for Kyle Cook and played better than veteran Jeff Faine at that spot. Still, Robinson got this by default since there wasn't much competition.

Outside linebacker: Vontaze Burfict, Bengals. Another undrafted rookie for the Bengals who made a surprising impact. He stepped in for last year's leading tackler, Thomas Howard, and became an explosive tackler.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 21, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Busting loose: Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has six runs of 20-plus yards in his past five games (106 total rushes), according to ESPN Stats & Information. This is quite a hot streak for Green-Ellis, who had six 20-plus yard runs in his first 62 career games total (667 rushes). The Steelers have been stingy when it comes to allowing big runs. Pittsburgh has given up four runs of 20-plus yards this season, but two have come in the past three games (Ray Rice ran for 34 yards and DeMarco Murray broke free for 28).

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsBenJarvus Green-Ellis has been hitting home runs lately; the Steelers defense allows few.
Tiger tamer: Ben Roethlisberger can become the winningest quarterback against the Bengals with a victory Sunday. He currently has a 13-4 record against Cincinnati in the regular season. Only Warren Moon, who was 13-7 against the Bengals, has as many wins against Cincinnati. The only team that Roethlisberger has beaten more is the Browns (14 wins). In his past three games against the Bengals, Roethlisberger has completed 67 percent of his passes and has averaged 233 yards passing with a passer rating of 95.2.

Flacco factor: Everyone knows the Ravens' success when Rice gets the ball at least 20 times. But there's another key factor to the Ravens' victories. Since Joe Flacco was drafted in 2008, Baltimore is 11-1 when he throws for more than 300 yards. The Ravens are 4-0 this season when he goes over that mark. But Flacco has slumped recently, posting a Total QBR of below 50 in four of his past five starts. Since Week 11, he ranks just 29th in the NFL in Total QBR (25.2). The Ravens need a strong game from Flacco against the Giants, who are vulnerable in the secondary. New York has the 28th-ranked pass defense.

Sound protection: The Browns have done a solid job in protecting rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who has been sacked a total of six times over the past three weeks despite throwing the ball at least 30 times each game. Cleveland has allowed 26 sacks this season, which is tied for the eighth-fewest in the league. Denver has been putting a lot of pressure on quarterbacks this season, ranking second in the NFL with 42 sacks. The Broncos' Von Miller has 10 sacks in his past seven games. Miller will line up across from rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who has given up 4.5 sacks this season.

Red hot in the red zone: The Bengals have risen to 10th in fewest points allowed on the strength of their red zone defense. In winning five of its past six games, Cincinnati has allowed just 13 trips inside its 20-yard line, giving up three touchdowns (23.1 percent). In their last game, the Bengals held the Eagles to one touchdown in three red zone possessions. Roethlisberger has the fourth-best QBR in the red zone this year (only Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are better) with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions.
There's a chance that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis will practice today, just a little over seven weeks removed from tearing his triceps. We'll find out if that happens this afternoon. That leads us into our wake-up call, which has some injury news:

RAVENS: Quarterback Joe Flacco and speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith have struggled to connect the past two games against the Steelers. He was held to one catch for seven yards in Pittsburgh and made three receptions for 33 yards last Sunday. "Yeah, it's definitely frustrating," Smith told The Baltimore Sun. "Regardless of how tough it may be, it's my job to make the play and more often than not I make it. But there were a couple of plays that I'm very upset about."

STEELERS: Ike Taylor, the team's top cornerback, will miss at least two weeks with a hairline fracture of his right ankle, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Cortez Allen will start for Taylor at right cornerback, and Curtis Brown takes over at nickel back. "I thought both guys did a really nice job," coach Mike Tomlin said. "They proved that it wasn't too big for them. Cortez Allen has played a lot of defensive football for us this year over the course of the season. I was not surprised by his performance but I was pleased with the defensive contributions of Brown."

BENGALS: Cincinnati placed rookie third-round pick Mohamed Sanu on injured reserve after he had surgery on his foot. The team signed running back Daniel Herron to take Sanu's roster spot. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Herron was also added because Cedric Peerman’s status is up in the air after he injured his ankle during the first half of last Sunday’s game.

BROWNS: The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto said the rumor of replacing general manager Tom Heckert with Mike Lombardi doesn't make sense. "A former executive with the Browns and Raiders, Lombardi's draft record doesn't come close to matching what Heckert did in Philadelphia and with the Browns," Pluto wrote. "In fact, Lombardi was very critical of the Browns picking Josh Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft. Nor was he thrilled with the 2012 Browns draft -- the one that produced starters Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Mitchell Schwartz, James-Michael Johnson and Billy Winn."