AFC North: Nate Washington

Morning take: Oher nervous

September, 9, 2009
9/09/09
7:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Baltimore Ravens rookie right tackle Michael Oher expects to have some nerves before Sunday’s season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Morning take: Based on his play in the preseason, he will be fine. I’m more worried about Oher in Week 12 and 16 based on his prior comments.
  • Receiver Chad Ochocinco says the Cincinnati Bengals will go 12-4 this year.
Morning take: Ochocinco predicted months ago the Bengals were going to the playoffs. Now we know he anticipates (possibly) going as AFC North champ.
  • Tennessee Titans receiver Nate Washington (hamstring) may be fine to play in Thursday’s season opener against his former team in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Morning take: When I talked with Washington Sunday, I got the sense that he was optimistic about his chances. So it wouldn’t surprise me if he made it back for this game.
  • The “Williams Wall” for the Minnesota Vikings was cleared to play in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
Morning take: First, quarterback Brett Favre returns right before the regular season and now this happens. The Browns just can’t catch a break.

Washington on Steeler Nation and Sweed

September, 6, 2009
9/06/09
12:27
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- The AFC North blog is spending a couple days with the defending champion Steelers this week in preparation for Thursday’s big season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Washington

On Sunday, we had a chance to talk football with Nate Washington, who said he’s looking forward to returning to Heinz Field later this week. The former Steeler and current Titans receiver said he’s given “a lot of thought” to his return to Pittsburgh, and hopes he gets a good response in return from Steeler Nation.

“I don’t know how they’ll react,” Washington said. “Hopefully they’ll react kind of good. But I’m pretty sure they’re not going to like me being with these guys, anyway, [due to] that situation with the towel last year.

“But either way it goes, I’m excited. I’m very happy to be coming home and playing in Pittsburgh.”

The incident Washington is referring to dates to last season when members of the Titans stomped a mock Terrible Towel following a win over the Steelers. All indications are that Pittsburgh hasn't forgotten.

Washington said he plans to practice Sunday, but his status is up in the air for Thursday's game because of a right hamstring injury. He also offered advice for former teammate and second-year player Limas Sweed, who is filling Washington’s role as the No. 3 receiver in Pittsburgh's offense.

“I think the best advice that I can give him is just to focus,” Washington explained. “There’s going to be a lot of things, a lot of questions about things he can bring to the table now and about his opportunity coming up. The best thing to do is kind of block it all out and play football.

“When you get caught up in those types of things, sometimes your mind wonders when the ball is coming to you. I kind of learned my lesson from that.”

Who's on the AFC North hot seat?

July, 22, 2009
7/22/09
12:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

As players in the AFC North begin reporting to their teams as early as Friday, several will be feeling a great deal of pressure to perform. With that in mind, here are top seven players on the hot seat in the division during training camp:

 Sweed

7. Limas Sweed, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Why: The Steelers and Sweed are chalking up last year's mistakes and dropped balls to a rookie learning curve. But in his second year, Sweed, a former second-round pick, has no additional excuses to fall back on. With the departure of Nate Washington to the Titans as a free agent, the No. 3 receiver position is there for the taking. Sweed has the physical tools to succeed, but will he be mentally prepared this year for the NFL grind?

  Fraley

6. Hank Fraley, C, Cleveland Browns

Why: Nothing gets a seat warmer than management drafting a player in the first round as your replacement. That is the case for Fraley, who as the incumbent is working hard to fight off rookie Alex Mack from California. At some point Mack will step in and take over the position for the long term. But it will be up to the veteran Fraley to determine if that happens in the distant or immediate future, setting up an intriguing position battle in Cleveland between experience and youth.

  Gay

5. William Gay, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Why: The coaching staff has liked the gradual development of Gay for the past couple of seasons, and 2009 will be the grand unveiling of one of Pittsburgh's favorite projects. Gay has been solid as a reserve and a part-time starter in the past. But he's making a significant jump as an expected permanent fixture in the starting lineup. Opponents are going to be hard-pressed to find any weak links in Pittsburgh's defense, which finished No. 1 in the league last season. So expect teams to test Gay early and often this preseason to see where he stands among the wealth of talent behind the Steel Curtain.

  Williams

4. Roy Williams, S, Cincinnati Bengals

Why: It had to be a shot to the former Pro Bowler's ego when just about every team passed on Williams during the first month of free agency. Williams was once one of the league's most intimidating defenders, but teams had little interest in a safety who has as much of a reputation for giving up big pass plays as he does for making big hits. The Bengals gave Williams an opportunity because of his prior relationship with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer during their time with the Dallas Cowboys. But Williams will have to show he's still worthy of a starting job, and he's competing with a young up-and-comer in Chinedum Ndukwe, who expects to push Williams to the limit.

  Clayton

3. Mark Clayton, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Why: As a former first-round pick who never quite lived up to expectations, Clayton's seat was already warm entering the 2009 season. But the sudden retirement of top receiver Derrick Mason has raised the temperature for Clayton significantly. As of right now, Clayton is the team's top returning target for second-year quarterback Joe Flacco. But that could change. Baltimore plans to meet with Mason soon and/or probably will attempt to sign a veteran free agent to upgrade the position. The Ravens enter the season with high aspirations following an AFC title game appearance, and Clayton will play a major role in the team's success whether Baltimore adds a receiver or not.

  Smith

2. Andre Smith, RT, Cincinnati Bengals

Why: Most people would consider it a surprise if Smith, who is still unsigned, makes it to training camp on time. That remains to be seen. But what's most important is that Smith lives up to his lofty billing and contract that comes with being the sixth overall pick. Because the Bengals switched Smith to right tackle, the rookie probably will become one of -- if not the -- highest-paid players at his position. Last year, No. 6 pick Vernon Gholston of the New York Jets received a contract that maxed out at $50 million. Smith's contract will exceed that amount this summer. It proves how much Cincinnati values protecting franchise quarterback Carson Palmer, who has suffered two season-ending injuries (knee, elbow) in the past four seasons. Last year Palmer (broken nose) couldn't even make it through the preseason unscathed. Smith is there to ensure that won't be the case again this summer.

  Quinn

1. Brady Quinn, QB, Cleveland Browns

Why: A Columbus, Ohio, native, Quinn has waited for the chance to be the Browns' starting quarterback most of his life, and this is his best shot to do it in his third season. Can the Notre Dame alum develop into a franchise NFL quarterback? Two years in, no one knows for sure. Quinn has received little playing time and was up and down in his three starts in 2008. He finished with 518 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 50.6 completion percentage before breaking a finger on his throwing hand. Now Quinn is healthy and the pressure is on the 2007 first-round pick to beat out former Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Anderson, who also wants the starting job.

Steelers' drops

March, 26, 2009
3/26/09
2:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

In the process of researching Wednesday's story on Pittsburgh Steelers second-year receiver Limas Sweed, I was able to get a list of dropped passes for the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers. The graph wasn't used because, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Sweed did not drop a pass in the regular season.

But in an effort not to let good information go to waste, I figured Steeler Nation would be interested in the list anyway.

Keep in mind, this is for the regular season only and drops are not an official NFL stat. If you check three different sources on a player, you may get three different answers.

But Elias is the most reputable stat agency in the country, so we're going by their count.

Who had the dropsies in Pittsburgh?
Player Position Drops
Hines Ward WR 7
Nate Washington WR 7
Santonio Holmes WR 5
Heath Miller TE 3
Mewelde Moore RB 3
Matt Spaeth TE 3
Willie Parker RB 2
Carey Davis FB 1
Dallas Baker WR 1
Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Sweed ready to prove himself

March, 25, 2009
3/25/09
1:02
PM ET
 
  Michael Fabus/Getty Images
  Limas Sweed (14) is focused on stepping up his game for his teammates this season and putting his rookie mistakes behind him.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The 2009 season will be unlike any other year for Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Limas Sweed.

Not only is he expected to produce, but he is coming off a season in which he struggled for playing time and catching the football for the first time in his football career. That's inspiring Sweed, a Steelers 2008 second-round draft pick, to improve in his second season.

The Steelers won their record sixth Super Bowl title with a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Feb. 1. About three weeks later, Sweed was independently training, running through routes and doing cone drills.

Limas Sweed
#14 WR
Pittsburgh Steelers

2008 STATS
REC YDS TD AVG LNG
6 64 0 10.7 17

After what the organization deems a "redshirt year" in 2008 when Sweed caught six passes for 64 yards, the former University of Texas star knows the training wheels are being removed. He will be under the spotlight of playing for the reigning Super Bowl champions.

"I don't look at it as pressure -- I love pressure and I believe the Steelers love pressure," Sweed said in a telephone interview with ESPN.com. "This team is so close that guys are like brothers, and you don't want to let your family members down.

"I think that's how guys take it when they're out there playing -- they're not only playing for themselves but they're playing for the man next to them. And I definitely, definitely don't want to let any of those guys down."

The opportunity comes after former teammate Nate Washington signed a six-year, $27 million contract with the rival Tennessee Titans, whom the Steelers will face in the season opener on Sept. 10.

In addition to starting cornerback Bryant McFadden, Washington was one of the few productive free agents Pittsburgh lost this offseason.

"I figured something might happen," Sweed said of the opportunity. "I may have been more shocked that [Washington] ended up in Tennessee. But I believe I can step in and do the job."

Pittsburgh believes both Sweed and a fellow 2008 draft pick, first-round tailback Rashard Mendenhall, are due for more productive sophomore campaigns. In many ways, the Steelers view the pair as extra draft picks or this year's free-agent acquisitions.

Starting receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes also have been two of Sweed's biggest supporters, which Sweed says "is like an added bonus." From the first day he arrived, both starters worked with Sweed in an effort to bring him up to speed with the offense.

Looking beyond the surface, there are plenty of reasons to believe in Sweed's potential. He is big (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), fast and has shown the ability to get open. Sweed also didn't have problems with drops in college, which leads many to believe his issues last season were more mental (inexperience, nerves) than physical.

 
  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  Limas Sweed dropped a possible touchdown pass in the AFC Championship Game.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Sweed did not drop a pass during the regular season. But in the AFC Championship Game victory over the  Baltimore Ravens, the streaking Sweed dropped a possible touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The rookie atoned for the miscue with two receptions for 20 yards and a crushing block on Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy.

"Being around guys like Ward, Holmes, [tight end] Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger should have a real positive effect on the kid,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He can certainly play at this level. I think he can be a real capable No. 2 receiver, maybe as soon as a year from now. He proved he was able to get separation and that's harder to do than anything.”

Sweed also is a winner. He is one of the few second-year players who sport both BCS Championship and Super Bowl rings. Sweed estimates that he has more than 100 career victories and just
20 losses on his résumé playing football since high school.

"I wouldn't call it spoiled; I would call it getting used to winning," Sweed said. "To win a national championship in college in Year 2 and then come in here with the Steelers and win a world championship in Year 1, it's been unreal."

The Steelers are counting on Sweed to be prepared for his next reality check.

Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians likes to run a lot of three-receiver sets at the expense of the fullback. The third receiver is almost considered a starter for the Steelers, as Washington caught 40 passes from that position last season and had plenty of opportunities to affect the game with big plays.

Sweed knows exactly what is expected of him from the beginning of camps this year. Instead of waiting his turn as a rookie, he will see significant playing from the beginning of the season.

That is why Sweed already is eager for September. All the work he is putting in now is focused toward the goals of fitting in with the defending champs and quickly erasing the memories of his rookie mistakes with his coaches and teammates.

"We're in the offseason program working out, and I'm seeing guys like NFL Defensive MVP James Harrison working out right next to me," Sweed said. "That's added motivation that if a guy can be Defensive MVP and come back early and workout, that tells me what this team is about.

"I'm glad I'm a part of that, and I don't want to let these guys down. I'm doing everything in my power every day to be prepared, so when the time comes I'll be ready to deliver."

Inside the AFC North

March, 9, 2009
3/09/09
1:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

With so much going on in the AFC North, here are several notes and observations inside the division:

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  Derek Anderson is due a guaranteed $5 million roster bonus on March 13.
  • The Cleveland Browns have less than four days to trade quarterback Derek Anderson or he most likely will return next season. Anderson is due a guaranteed $5 million roster bonus on March 13. The Browns would be willing to entertain trade offers but the phone lines have been quiet because teams are unwilling to pay the huge bounty. Cleveland can still trade Anderson after March 13, but the Browns would take an accelerated cap hit of $9.666 million post-bonus. That wouldn't be good business.
  • In the midst of signing and losing high-profile free agents, most forget the Baltimore Ravens are still searching for a place kicker. The Ravens are shopping for someone other than longtime kicker Matt Stover, who is a free agent, but haven't made a move so far. It will be interesting to see if Baltimore drafts a kicker, finds one in free agency or comes back to the dependable Stover, who has lost distance over time but remains accurate.
  • Here is some food for thought: Receiver Nate Washington could play his first game as a member of the Tennessee Titans in Heinz Field. As the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the 2009 season at home with a primetime Thursday night game in Week 1, and the Titans are one of their marquee home opponents. The Steelers likely will have a pre-game celebration of their Super Bowl win at that time and Washington, who is popular in Pittsburgh, could be there for the celebration.
  • There is a very good chance that the $28 million the Cincinnati Bengals invested in receiver Laveranues Coles last week was at or around the same money the team offered new Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Derrick Ward. The Bengals are usually not major players in free agency but made a push to sign Ward before anyone else. When Ward declined, followed by the loss of receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati still had that money available to spend and offered Coles an average of $7 million per season.

Inside the AFC North

March, 6, 2009
3/06/09
1:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is this week's look inside the AFC North division:

     
      AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey
      Why didn't the Bengals franchise T.J. Houshmandzadeh to trade for draft picks?
  • The Cincinnati Bengals made yet another front office flub in letting receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh walk for nothing this week. The Bengals could have easily slapped the franchise tag on "Housh” in an effort to work out a trade for draft picks. Instead, Cincinnati used its tag on kicker Shayne Graham. (I'm still scratching my head on that one.) As a result, Houshmandzadeh signed with the Seattle Seahawks and left the Bengals empty-handed. Other teams like the New England Patriots (Matt Cassel) and likely the Carolina Panthers (Julius Peppers) are using franchise tags to work out trades. Why can't the Bengals?
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are taking a risk in letting No. 3 receiver Nate Washington flee to the Tennessee Titans. It's obvious that the Steelers were not going to pay their third receiver $27 million over six years. But in terms of on-field production, Pittsburgh runs a lot of three-receiver sets. So much so that you can almost count the third receiver as a starter in offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' scheme. Therefore it's a must that second-year receiver Limas Sweed is ready to step up for the defending Super Bowl champions. With few opportunities, Sweed didn't get to show much and had trouble catching the football. But the coaching staff is showing a lot of confidence in letting him take another big step forward in 2009.
  • Veteran cornerback Samari Rolle is looking more and more like the next salary-cap casualty for the Baltimore Ravens. There is a lot of writing being put on the wall by the Ravens, including the fact they went after cornerback Domonique Foxworth and signed him to a $27.2 million contract on the first day of free agency. With Foxworth and Fabian Washington likely the starters, Rolle would be an expensive nickelback to keep. Releasing Rolle, 32, would reportedly save a little more than $4 million off Baltimore's salary cap.
  • The Cleveland Browns' offseason program begins in less than two weeks (March 16), and it will be interesting to see who shows up. It's apparent that new head coach Eric Mangini means business. So although these workouts are "optional," it's in the players' best interest to show up to avoid being put in Mangini's doghouse right off the bat. Will star players like defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and receiver Braylon Edwards cooperate?

AFC North losing talent

March, 4, 2009
3/04/09
2:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Last year the AFC North proved to be one of the toughest divisions in football.

Of course the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, who both competed in the AFC title game, brought up the average. But is there really a difference between an 11- and 12-win team and four 8-8 teams?

But the AFC North has been weakened significantly through the first several days of free agency. The exits of linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. (via trade), safety Jim Leonhard, tackle Stacy Andrews and receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Nate Washington have dealt an immediate blow to the wealth of talent in the division. That group combined for three Pro Bowls.

It doesn't appear any AFC North team will be a major player in free agency. For anyone keeping score, the biggest addition to the division so far has been cornerback Domonique Foxworth in Baltimore.

The division lost a lot of depth and is opting to replace it in the NFL draft instead. The schedule should be easier next season, but whether that leads to another successful year for the AFC North in 2009 remains to be seen.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Seattle had money and logistics working in its favor as Houshmandzadeh, a California native, heads west to finish his career. The Bengals made a push but it's better to start over and play younger receivers.

  • Free agent receiver Nate Washington left the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign with the Tennessee Titans.

Morning take: I wonder if Washington will teach his new teammates to respect the Terrible Towel?

  • Free agent cornerback and return specialist Chris Carr is expected to visit the Cleveland Browns.

Morning take: A return specialist for the Browns? The team has Josh Cribbs. Perhaps a lighter load would let him do other things.

Morning take: With Foxworth, Fabian Washington and Ed Reed, Baltimore will have one of the fastest secondaries in the NFL. But how well this unit plays together remains to be seen.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

  Washington

Former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Nate Washington has agreed to sign with the Tennessee Titans, according to the Nashville City Paper. Terms of the deal have yet to be released.

Washington's first choice was to stay in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers didn't make a push for him in free agency. He visited the Detroit Lions and eventually settled with the Titans, where he will have a chance to play for an AFC contender.

For the Steelers, this means the No. 3 receiver is currently 2008 draft pick Limas Sweed, who struggled with his few opportunities last season. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians likes to run a lot of three-receiver sets and may want to bring in a veteran to push and compete with Sweed in training camp.

(Update: ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton reports Washington's deal is for six years, $27 million.)

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:

  • Free agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh will take a little more time before making a decision. His options include the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks or returning to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Morning take: The fact that Houshmandzadeh remains in Minneapolis could be a clue of where he's leaning. Of the three teams, that appears to be the most logical choice if "Housh" wants to join a playoff contender.

(Update: There have been some conflicting reports and it turns out Houshmandzadeh did leave Minnesota Sunday night.)

  • Following the signing of cornerback Domonique Foxworth, veteran Samari Rolle wants to be released from the Baltimore Ravens.

Morning take: Rolle, 32, sees the writing on the wall as Baltimore is getting younger in the secondary. The Ravens also would save more than $4 million off their cap, making his release likely.

Morning take: The Browns were rumored to be interested in talking with Goodman. Several days into free agency, Cleveland only traded one player (Kellen Winslow) for draft picks.

Morning take: This sounds like a good match for Washington, who would bring a needed deep threat to Nashville. Let's see if Tennessee will eventually close this deal.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is an interesting development with free agent receiver Nate Washington: The former Pittsburgh Steeler is in Nashville today and having discussions with the Tennessee Titans.

Washington told the AFC North blog during Super Bowl week that it would be hard for him to leave the Steelers. But, to my knowledge, Pittsburgh has not made a push to keep Washington during the first 48 hours of free agency.

It's possible the Steelers are letting Washington test the market before opening the door for him to return. On the flip side, Pittsburgh did invest a second-round pick in Limas Sweed last year and may feel he's ready to step into the No. 3 receiver role.

Washington and the Titans seem like a good fit. After covering Washington a lot this season, I think playing for a winner will play a factor for him. Tennessee, which can use receiver help, could provide a good scenario where Washington gets the type of money he's searching for while also playing for a playoff contender.

AFC North mailbag

February, 10, 2009
2/10/09
4:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Let's dig into some questions for AFC North readers:

Austin from Palm Springs, Calif., writes: I've been reading a lot about T.J. Alphabet (Bengals) lately and he seems to be very unhappy where he's at. He also seems to have been sweet-talking the Steelers organization lately. Knowing that Nate Washington is a free agent, could T.J. be campaigning for a black and gold uniform? And do you see any chance of the Steelers sign him? Assuming the Bengals allow that to happen, of course.

James Walker: Austin, the Steelers will not spend a lot of money on a receiver this year. They do not need a starter as Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes will man those positions next season. If they pay Houshmandzadeh big bucks, who does Pittsburgh put on the bench? If anything, the Steelers will try to retain Nate Washington for the No. 3 spot or hope Limas Sweed develops into that role in his second year.


Matt from Lima, Ohio, writes: James, I enjoy reading all your material and insight. Being a longtime Browns fan I'm just wondering if they're going to finally get it right this year with the draft and with free agency? Maybe new LB's and a new RB? I hear Detroit may have to release Bodden for cap reasons. Any chance on resigning him?

James Walker: Thanks, Matt. The Browns need linebackers in the worst way. Two starters, Willie McGinest and Andra Davis, are free agents and probably won't return. So that's two big holes with no suitable replacements currently on the roster. Leon Williams and Alex Hall would be starting linebackers if the season started today. As far as Leigh Bodden, he probably wouldn't mind coming back. But he flourished under the old coaching staff. It's unknown how the new coaching staff, led by Eric Mangini, feels about Bodden.


Tate from Wis. writes: What are your thoughts on Jim Leonhard for 2009?

James Walker: As you know, Tate, this is a tough decision for the Ravens. Leonhard's reps will fight for starter money, but it's questionable that he would start in Baltimore next year with the pending return of Dawan Landry. With so many free agents, the Ravens will make a pitch. But I think Leonhard will get a bigger offer somewhere else and bolt.


Jerry from Pa. writes: Larry Foote? Staying or going? If he does go, trade or release?

James Walker: Foote stays put, Jerry. He may have to compete for a starting job in training camp with the hard-charging Lawrence Timmons next season. But Pittsburgh runs a 3-4 and always needs depth at linebacker.


Nick from Baltimore writes: Do you really think that the Ravens won't be able to resign Ray Lewis? And how upset would he be with the franchise tag?

James Walker: It's a possibility, Nick. But I think the Ravens will do everything they can to re-sign Lewis to an extension. The franchise tag would be pretty upsetting for Lewis, 33, who feels he deserves better. Lewis is a career Raven, he never made his contract an issue, and he went out and played great football in leading the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game. He hopes that goodwill will be returned.

Ranking AFC North free agents

February, 10, 2009
2/10/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Coaches and general managers around the division have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason, and it starts in house with their own free agents.

Here is my ranking of the top 10 unrestricted free agents who could be available by the end of this month:

 Suggs

1. Terrell Suggs, OLB/DE, Baltimore Ravens

Why: Suggs is a must-have for the Ravens and one of the top free agents on the market overall. His versatility and dynamic pass-rushing ability allows Baltimore's defense to do a lot of things most teams couldn't. The Ravens tried to lock him up long term last year. They came very close but couldn't. Baltimore needs to close the deal with Suggs this year.

2. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Why: After catching 204 passes the last two seasons, Houshmandzadeh is the top free-agent available at his position. He is a Pro Bowl caliber talent that should cash in this season unless Cincinnati chooses to use the franchise tag. Houshmandzadeh is a crafty and tough receiver who is not afraid to go over the middle. He also has the quickness to get open and great hands to make tough catches in traffic.

  Lewis

3. Ray Lewis, MLB, Baltimore Ravens

Why: After playing in his 10th Pro Bowl, it's apparent that Lewis can still bring it. Even at the age of 33, Lewis' leadership and ability was key in bringing the Baltimore Ravens back to prominence and within one quarter of the Super Bowl during an AFC title game loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although a franchise tag is a possibility for Lewis, our guess is that it will only be used to provide an extension to negotiate a long-term deal.

4. Jason Brown, C, Baltimore Ravens

Why: Brown, 25, has quietly developed into one of the top, young centers in the NFL. He started all 16 games the past two years to become Baltimore's most consistent offensive lineman. Center is rarely a huge priority in free agency, but rest assured Baltimore knows how important Brown is to the offensive line. Expect him to be a target for the Ravens once they address players such as Suggs and Lewis.

 Scott

5. Bart Scott, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

Why: It's scary to think that three of the top five players on this list are Ravens linebackers, but this unit is that good. Scott was the most underrated of the group. He is a fearless, hard-nosed player that can bang heads with the best of them. Scott is strong at the point of attack and arguably the team's hardest hitter. He is perfect for Baltimore's system. But due to the aforementioned Ravens on this list, he could be the odd man out.

6. Bryant McFadden, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Why: McFadden is the only free-agent starter from the NFL's top-rated defense and the team's biggest priority in terms of players currently not under contract. At 27, he blossomed into a starter this year and is just entering the prime of his career. McFadden is athletic, a solid tackler, and a good No. 2 corner opposite Ike Taylor. McFadden has stated that he would love to be back, and the Steelers likely want him back.

  Jones

7. Sean Jones, S, Cleveland Browns

Why: Despite one of the worst years of his career, Jones should get some interest on the market because starting safeties are making a lot of money of late. Jones was inconsistent all year following in-season knee surgery but should be a better player once he is completely healed in the offseason. Jones' best years were in 2006 and 2007 when he combined for 207 tackles and 10 interceptions. If he can return to form, he could be a good free-agent signing for someone. It doesn't appear the Browns are interested.

8. Jim Leonhard, S, Baltimore Ravens

Why: Leonhard is an interesting case. Mostly a career backup, Leonhard filled in well for the injured Dawan Landry and could receive some interest on the open market. Now Baltimore has to decide if Leonhard or Landry, a restricted free agent, is the starter. Conceivably, the Ravens could bring back both but it will cost them. Leonhard's representation likely will ask for starter-type money or something close to it after his solid performance this season and in the playoffs.

  Benson

9. Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Why: There's still a lot of questions surrounding Benson, but he deserves to be on this list. The former first-round pick signed with the Bengals during the season and finished with 747 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the year with back-to-back 100-yard games, including a 171-yard performance against the Browns. Benson played hard, but was he playing hard just to earn a bigger contract? Could he stay focus once he gets a long-term extension? The Bengals will have to ponder these questions before they throw a lot of money his way.

10. Nate Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Why: Despite being the only non-starter on this list, Washington has developed into an important cog in Pittsburgh's offense. The No. 3 receiver has a penchant for making big plays and is a great compliment to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. If rookie Limas Sweed isn't ready, the Steelers should work to keep Washington.

Honorable mentions: Byron Leftwich, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, Stacy Andrews, OT, Cincinnati Bengals; Shayne Graham, K, Cincinnati Bengals, Sam Koch, P, Baltimore Ravens.

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