AFC North: Peyton Hillis

It's your usual Friday of goodies, with my predictions getting posted at noon and the Final Word going on the site at 1:30 p.m. For now, here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Linebacker Terrell Suggs returned to practice Thursday after sitting out the day before. He remains a game-time decision, and doesn't plan to wear a brace for his torn biceps if he does play, according to the team's official website. In other news, Suggs had to surrender several firearms stemming from a domestic case involving his girlfriend, Suggs' attorney told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday. Court records indicate Suggs filed a custody complaint against Candace Williams on Nov. 19, and that Williams filed a complaint against him after that. Two 911 calls were received from Suggs' address on Nov. 21, but did not yield any reports, police told The Sun.

STEELERS: Troy Polamalu hasn't practiced Wednesday or Thursday. The Pro Bowl safety plans to practice Friday and start Sunday against the Chargers. If Polamalu had gone with this take-it-slow regimen earlier this season, he might not have aggravated the calf injury. "I think it was a better game plan going into the last game than it was going into the Philadelphia game where I injured myself," Polamalu told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Polamalu, who missed seven straight games before returning last week, said that being away from the game "just kind of reinforces the perspective that maybe I didn't appreciate as much as I used to."
BENGALS: The Bengals lost their No. 2 wide receiver for the season when they placed Mohamed Sanu on injured reserve this week. Cincinnati now might have to play without its second-leading pass catcher. After being listed as limited on Wednesday, tight end Jermaine Gresham did not practice on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. Last season, a hamstring injury sidelined him for two games. Rookie fourth-round pick Orson Charles would likely get the start if Gresham is inactive, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer.

BROWNS: Peyton Hillis lashed out at former teammate Joe Thomas, comparing the Browns offensive tackle to a "crazy ex-girlfriend" after he made disparaging comments about the Chiefs running back. "It's been over a year. Get over it," Hillis said. "But I don't know. I guess when you get paid over $100 million by one team, it's kind of easy to point the finger at another guy and hate on him for trying to get another contract." Thomas and Hillis have certainly found a way to spice up a matchup between the 4-8 Browns and the 2-10 Chiefs.
My guess is Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas isn't going to seek out former teammate Peyton Hillis when Kansas City plays at Cleveland on Sunday.

On Wednesday, Thomas blasted the running back for being selfish about his new contract and described the situation with Hillis as "toxic."

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Hillis
"He didn't want to be here and players didn't want him here," Thomas told reporters, via The Plain Dealer. "It was better for a fresh start at that point."

Hillis became a fan favorite in Cleveland in 2010, when he gained 1,177 yards rushing and scored 11 touchdowns. But he quickly fell out of favor the next season, struggling to produce 587 yards and three touchdowns. Hillis went from being an inspiration with his physical running style to being the biggest distraction on an unraveling team.

In addition to the contract mess, he missed a game early in the season with strep throat on the advice of his agent (which caused a controversy over whether or not he was really sick or protesting the lack of a new deal), failed to show up at a local Halloween party for children (which he blamed on a miscommunication) and went home to Arkansas on a Tuesday to get married during the season when he should have been rehabbing an injury.

"(Hillis) went about trying to get a contract a certain way, and it ended up hurting the other 52 guys in the locker room. That was his decision," Thomas said. "He wasn't real popular around here the way he went about his business. Not that they didn't like him as a person, but just the way he hurt the team from not coming to play."

Thomas is one of the most likable players on the team. For him to call out a former teammate, the situation had to be toxic. In the end, the Browns were certainly the winners in this debacle. Cleveland went on to draft Trent Richardson, who should be a top-five back by next season. Hillis went on to sign a one-year, $2.8 million contract with the Chiefs, which isn't the long-term deal that he was so focused on getting.
Trent RichardsonAP Photo/David KohlTrent Richardson's bruising running style might help finally turn the Browns around.

Teams shouldn't spend a top-five pick on a running back in this pass-happy age of football. Two knee surgeries in less than a year reveal that Trent Richardson is damaged goods. Even Jim Brown, the greatest runner in Browns -- and perhaps NFL -- history, took a shot at Richardson, labeling the first-round pick as "ordinary."

Two weeks into the regular season, all of this criticism seems laughable. While it's correct not to make any sweeping conclusions after a couple of games, no one can consider the Browns' drafting of Richardson a mistake at this point. His power, speed and jaw-dropping moves in the open field prove he's the key piece in turning around the NFL's worst offense over the past decade.

Richardson's attitude is the perfect jolt to a Browns franchise that has accepted last place as a way of life since returning to the league in 1999. He runs angry. Knocking off the helmet of would-be tackler Kurt Coleman in the season opener -- it flew five yards after the crushing collision -- is a great example of that. He gets ticked off. Delivering a breakout game following Rey Maualuga's lukewarm assessment of him is another warning that you don't want to challenge him.

Richardson is a violent right hook for the usually punchless Browns, who have ranked 28th or worse in offense nine times in the previous 13 years. Relying on a running back like Peyton Hillis, who missed a game because of strep throat, wasn't going to cut it. Drafting a hard-nosed playmaker like Richardson is Cleveland's best hope to change its culture of losing, even if it has yet to provide immediate results for the winless Browns (0-2).

For entertainment purposes alone, Richardson made a Browns game worth watching Sunday. Richardson totaled 109 yards rushing and 36 yards receiving against the Bengals on Sunday. Those numbers don't illustrate how impressive Richardson looked. On his 32-yard touchdown run, he took a delayed handoff and raced to the end zone without being touched. On what will go down as a 23-yard touchdown reception, Richardson caught a short pass before running through two tackles and spinning out of another to reach the end zone.

"He’s a special player," Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "He’s a difference-maker."

Richardson became first NFL rookie to record 100 yards rushing, a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game since Samkon Gado seven years ago. He also scored two 20-yard-plus touchdowns for a team that had seven of them all of last season.

"I think I was just more comfortable with myself that, ‘Hey, I'm still able to run like I used to' and do it much better," Richardson said of his improvement from Week 1. "In my head, [I was thinking] ‘I've got to run much stronger because these guys are much stronger than the guys in college.' Hopefully I'll come out stronger next week."

Five months ago, everyone christened Andrew Luck as the next great franchise quarterback and applauded the Redskins for moving up to take Robert Griffin III. The Browns received mixed reviews when they jumped one spot up to make sure they landed Richardson.

Teams have gotten burned in the past by taking a running back that high. Before Richardson, there were five running backs selected in the top five over the previous 10 drafts: Cadillac Williams (2005), Cedric Benson (2005), Ronnie Brown (2005), Reggie Bush (2006) and Darren McFadden (2008). Only Brown has reached the Pro Bowl and only McFadden is still with the team that drafted him.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Frank Victores/US PresswireTrent Richardson celebrates his 23-yard catch-and-run TD in the third quarter against the Bengals.
Richardson's stock didn't rise when a second procedure on his left knee in less than a year sidelined him for the entire preseason. In his NFL debut, he managed 39 yards, which prompted Bengals linebacker Maualuga to say "he didn’t do nothing spectacular." Maualuga was wrong. Exactly one month after knee surgery, no matter if it's minor or not, Richardson carried the ball 19 times. In terms of toughness, that is spectacular.

Richardson can be a top-five running back in the NFL as early as next season. That isn't to say he's the next Adrian Peterson right now.

"I still think he can do some things better when he doesn’t have the football, which means we probably ought to give him the ball every time he’s in there," coach Pat Shurmur said.

Richardson still has a ways to go before he convinces everyone about his talent. Jim Brown, who was critical of Richardson after the Browns drafted him, told The Plain Dealer that he was impressed with Richardson's performance against the Bengals. But he stopped short of fully endorsing the former Alabama star.

"Richardson has to show he can consistently carry a team," Brown told the paper. "The Browns have had some players that looked like they could, and it didn't work out. (Peyton) Hillis had a lot of talent."

Brown is right in that respect. It doesn't matter how many 1,000-yard seasons Richardson records. He was drafted to turn around a franchise that regularly loses more than 10 games a season and hasn't won a playoff game since 1994. Losing hasn't been easy on Richardson, who went 36-4 in three seasons at Alabama and won two national championships.

“At some point we have to put up more points than the other team is putting up,” Richardson said. “If they score on special teams, we have to come back and score. We did a good job (offensively), but I think we can do an even better job. When we start winning, it’s going to be much better."

Based on the first couple weeks of the season, Richardson is at his best when faced with a challenge.
Two AFC North offenses are projected to make the biggest improvement in the NFL Insider, according to ESPN Insider KC Joyner. One will surprise you, but the other will not.

The Cleveland Browns, who ranked 29th in the NFL on offense, top Joyner's list of most-improved offenses. The key addition was running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the draft.

You'll need a subscription to read the entire Insider piece, but here's a portion of what Joyner had to say about the Browns' offense:
In the ground game, Cleveland's run blockers finished 14th in the good blocking percentage stat (good blocking being roughly defined as when the offense doesn't allow the defense to do anything to disrupt a rushing play), but former starting running back Peyton Hillis didn't take full advantage of the solid blocking, ranking dead last in the league with a 5.7-yard mark in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric. Richardson posted a 9.7 GBYPA against Alabama's toughest opponents last year, and with Cleveland's solid blocking should be able to rack up a 7.8 GBYPA in the pros (which is league average in this metric). That would add 2.1 yards per rush on approximately 125 good blocking plays, or 263 additional ground yards.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were tied for second with the Indianapolis Colts in Joyner's rankings, even though the Steelers' offense finished 12th in the NFL last season. What elevates the Steelers is the drafting of guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams with their first two picks.

This is Joyner's explanation on why Pittsburgh should improve:
Pittsburgh passers threw a total of just 65 stretch vertical passes (those thrown 20-plus yards downfield), a total that ranked 18th in the NFL. If the additions of DeCastro and Adams can shore up the pass blocking, Ben Roethlisberger should be able to improve his stretch vertical attempts (passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield) total to the 80-90 range. If the Steelers gain 15 yards per attempt on those aerials, it would equal between 1,200-1,350 stretch vertical passing yards, a big leap from last year's 787 yards on deeper throws.

The offense definitely has to play catch-up with the defense in this division. Last season, all four defenses in the AFC North ranked in the top 10. Only one offense in the division -- the Steelers -- ranked higher than 15th in the league.


BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns couldn't hide their enthusiasm for Trent Richardson.

The Browns wanted him so badly that they gave up three picks to move one spot to make sure they got the only elite running back in this draft. Then, even before the Washington Redskins made their pick at No. 2, Cleveland turned in its card with Richardson's name on it.

Richardson brings new life and enthusiasm to one of the worst offenses in the NFL. He also brings something equally important -- a physical identity.

Cleveland's long-plodding offense is now tougher, rougher and meaner. With all due respect to Jim Brown, Richardson is far from "ordinary." Richardson is the type of no-nonsense running back a team needs when colliding with the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.

In the SEC, one of the best college conferences in the country, Richardson set Alabama season records for rushing yards (1,679) and touchdowns (21) by showing no hesitation when running between the tackles. He was fearless in bulling past defenders and stiff-arming them. What makes him a playmaker is his ability to also make players miss in the open field. His power and elusiveness are a special combination.

This is a draft where the Browns must rebuild their offense. They started by finding the centerpiece for it.

"We’re thrilled. He’s one of the guys who’s passionate, productive and durable," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "He’s the kind of runner that we feel is going to help us to put an offense together to score the points that we need to win the games that we’re going to win.

"If you don’t sense the excitement in my voice, then you’re missing it."

What the Browns were missing last season was a spark on offense. Cleveland ranked 29th in yards and 30th in scoring. That's why trading up to secure Richardson wasn't just the right move. It was the only one.

It was an aggressive move for an aggressive player. Outside of quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, Richardson was the only other player in this draft who could immediately affect an offense.

Problem: The Browns scored four rushing touchdowns last season, which was tied for the the second-fewest in the past 15 NFL seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Solution: Richardson is one of three players in SEC history to score 20 or more rushing touchdowns in a season.

Problem: The Browns' running backs averaged the fewest yards after contact (1.77) last season.

Solution: Richardson thrives on contact and talked openly Thursday night about crashing into Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu.

There's a risk in taking a running back so high in the draft, which is why few teams do it. There have been five running backs taken in the top five in the previous 10 drafts: Cedric Benson (2005), Ronnie Brown (2005), Cadillac Williams (2005), Reggie Bush (2006) and Darren McFadden (2008). They've combined for one Pro Bowl.

Shurmur indicated that if the Browns didn't take Richardson in the top five, another team would have. This prompted the Browns to give up picks in the fourth (118th overall), fifth (139th) and seventh (211th) rounds to move up one spot to get Richardson. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams reportedly were thinking about trading up for him.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe Browns couldn't contain their excitement over getting Alabama's Trent Richardson.
Why were so many teams interested in Richardson? As Shurmur describes him, Richardson is virtually flawless.

"He can run with power. He can make you miss when he gets in the open. He can score," Shurmur said. "I like the fact that when he’s asked to pass-protect, he will do it aggressively. And, when you throw him the football, he catches it. Unless I’m missing something there, that’s what runners got to do."

The Browns needed a playmaker at running back. Perhaps just as important, they needed a running back who will show up every week. That was a major problem last season, when Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson missed a chunk of the season with injuries.

"The other guys on this team, the coaches and our fans need to know that our players are going to show up," Shurmur said. "I’ve seen this in this player. We feel like that’s what we’re getting."

Richardson has his skeptics, namely the best running back in Browns history. When asked Thursday afternoon about the possibility of Cleveland taking Richardson, Jim Brown said, "I'm not overwhelmed with it. The problem is that he's ordinary. I think he's ordinary." Asked what about him is ordinary, Brown said, "the size, the speed, his moves."

You have to admire how Richardson responded to the criticism. Like his style of play, he attacked it head on.

"I got a lot to prove," he said on a conference call with reporters. "I'm going to make sure they all mention my name and compare people to me."

Shurmur couldn't say at what point during the draft process that the Browns knew Richardson was going to be their pick.

It could have been during his pro day in late March, when he knocked down Cleveland running backs coach Gary Brown in a blocking drill.

It could have been when he took 17-year-old cancer survivor Courtney Alvis to the senior prom 10 days before the draft.

Richardson acknowledged he didn't know he was going to be taken this high. But he's as excited as the Browns that it happened.

"It's bigger than winning the national championship game," Richardson said.

In a perfect scenario, the Browns would've been able to trade up last month to get RG3. They didn't get their quarterback, but they were determined not to lose out on their running back.

But Richardson is more than a running back to the Browns. He's their cornerstone and their new identity.

"He’s going to be what we think is going to be a really, really fine addition to the Cleveland Browns team," Shurmur said. "He’s going to be one of those players that our fans and our community will be able to watch run the ball for a lot of years. That’s what we’re excited about."
Lost in a busy day for the AFC North -- the Steelers retained Jerricho Cotchery and the Bengals signed Terence Newman -- was the news that Ravens running back Ray Rice was knocked out of the Madden 13 cover vote.

Rice put up a good fight against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, earning 45 percent of the vote. He was the last player from the division remaining in the tournament-style contest.

So there goes the dream of the AFC North repeating on the Madden cover. Cleveland's Peyton Hillis was the face of Madden last year. Wait, considering what happened to Hillis, maybe it's good news for Rice that he didn't advance. Like Hillis, he could've ended up with strep throat or getting married in Arkansas. For all of my Razorback readers, you know I was joking about the last part.

The Final Four for the cover this year are: Rodgers, Cam Newton, Patrick Willis and Calvin Johnson. I'm still thinking Rodgers is going to take this one.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Cincinnati Bengals

Key additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Reggie Nelson, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Adam Jones, DE Jamaal Anderson, DE Derrick Harvey

Key losses: DE Frostee Rucker (Browns), G Nate Livings (Cowboys), G Mike McGlynn (Colts), DE Jonathan Fanene (Patriots), WR Andre Caldwell (Broncos)

Grade after first wave of free agency: B. The Bengals were the most active team in the division and they should have been. Cincinnati entered free agency with more than $50 million in salary-cap space, which was more than the rest of the AFC North combined. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.

The prize of the Bengals' signings is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is an improvement over Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis isn't known for breaking long gains, but he is a force in the red zone and has never fumbled in the NFL. Wharton is a step up from Nate Livings at left guard because he is a strong run-blocker who will open holes inside. The biggest losses came on the defensive line, where Cincinnati will miss Frostee Rucker on run defense and Jonathan Fanene in the pass rush.

What’s next: The Bengals can still close the gap between the Ravens and Steelers because they have two first-round picks in the draft (No. 17 overall, which came from Oakland in the Carson Palmer trade, and No. 21). Even with the signing of Wharton, Cincinnati needs a right guard and could have a shot at the top interior offensive lineman coming out of college. Stanford's David DeCastro is one of the safest picks in the draft and would start immediately for the Bengals.

The second first-round pick could be used on a wide receiver or a cornerback. The Bengals surprisingly didn't add a free-agent wide receiver to pair with A.J. Green. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill or Baylor's Kendall Wright should be available in the bottom third of the draft. Another need is cornerback because Cincinnati could use an eventual replacement for Nate Clements, who is entering his 12th season. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, the second best corner in the draft, has a chance of sliding to the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns

Key additions: DE Frostee Rucker, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson, DE Juqua Parker

Key losses: RB Peyton Hillis (Chiefs), S Mike Adams (Broncos), G Eric Steinbach, OT Tony Pashos

Grade after first wave of free agency: C. Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert said they were building this team through the draft and they weren't joking. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right tackle. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. Blame the Washington Redskins. The Browns attempted to move up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III, and the Rams instead traded the second overall pick to the Redskins. Cleveland reportedly pursued wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and both took high-priced deals from Washington.

The Browns provided more help to the defense in free agency. Frostee Rucker will make an impact in stopping the run, which was the biggest weakness on the NFL's 10th-ranked defense. Juqua Parker, who has 31.5 sacks over the past six seasons, will team with Jabaal Sheard to give Cleveland a strong rush coming off both edges. The Browns didn't try to keep Peyton Hillis and Mike Adams from going elsewhere.

What’s next: Offense, offense and offense. Did I mention offense? The Browns need a quarterback but there's no one worthy of the fourth overall pick. Cleveland could trade down to select Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill or wait until the second round for Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. The big decision comes if the Browns stay put at No. 4. Cleveland's choices are Alabama running back Trent Richardson or Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The Browns could use either one because they don't have a starting running back or a No. 1 wide receiver.

Cleveland has a second first-round pick as a result of last year's trade with the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns need to target a wide receiver (if they don't take one earlier in the first round), right tackle or outside linebacker with the 22nd overall pick. Baylor receiver Wright, Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie and Nebraska outside linebacker Lavonte David have been linked to Cleveland.

Baltimore Ravens

Key additions: C Matt Birk, ILB Jameel McClain, OLB Brendon Ayanbadejo, CB Corey Graham, S Sean Considine

Key losses: G Ben Grubbs (Saints), OLB Jarret Johnson (Chargers), DE Cory Redding (Colts) and CB Domonique Foxworth

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. It was a rough start to free agency for Baltimore, which didn't sign any of its first three visits (guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Mark Anderson and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr.). The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

Baltimore was able to keep two free-agent starters, Matt Birk and Jameel McClain, and boost a struggling special-teams group that allowed three touchdowns last season. The Ravens signed Cory Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player from the Bears; Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special-teams standout; and Sean Considine, who played special teams for three seasons under John Harbaugh in Philadelphia.

What’s next: The Ravens' biggest need is at left guard, but there might not be one that warrants being taken at No. 29. Wisconsin center-guard Peter Konz's stock has slipped recently even though he can play guard right away before switching to center in future seasons. It's hard to pin down a player for Baltimore, which can go in a lot of different directions in the first round.

The Ravens could take the best wide receiver available (especially if he's a returner) because they need a third target who can eventually take Anquan Boldin's starting spot. They could take a safety because Ed Reed turns 34 at the start of the season and Bernard Pollard is a free agent next year. And they could take an offensive tackle because they don't have a reliable backup and Bryant McKinnie is a free agent in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key additions: None

Key losses: CB William Gay (Cardinals), LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE Aaron Smith, WR Hines Ward

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. It's been a quiet free-agency period so far for the Steelers. Then again, it's usually quiet for the Steelers at this point in the offseason. The only team that consistently does less than the Steelers in free agency is the Green Bay Packers.

The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've lost only two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership. Injuries would force young players to step up into starting roles.

What’s next: There are question marks at running back, guard, inside linebacker, nose tackle and cornerback. Despite all of those needs, the consensus has been Pittsburgh will draft Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower if he's available at No. 24. He has a great combination of size and speed and excelled in a 3-4 defense in college. It seems like Hightower would be the perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

There's no chance that Memphis' Dontari Poe falls to the Steelers, but there some quality nose tackles in the draft. Those who should be available after the first round are: BYU's Loni Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) and Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round). The Steelers likely will become active later in free agency, especially in retaining their own players. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, running back Mewelde Moore and quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch could potentially return to the team.
The free-agent market for running backs has heated up, but the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have been content to chill.

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Both teams need to replace their leading rushers. The Steelers can't depend on Rashard Mendenhall (ACL surgery in January) this year, and the Browns didn't attempt to re-sign Peyton Hillis. If the season kicked off today, the Steelers would start Isaac Redman, and the Browns would go with either Montario Hardesty or Brandon Jackson.

Still, there's been no sense of urgency by either team, as a running back signed nearly every day this week. Mike Tolbert joined the Panthers on Monday. BenJarvus Green-Ellis went to the Bengals on Wednesday. And Michael Bush landed with the Bears on Thursday.

I could see where the Steelers might be content with Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and Baron Batch, although it's still risky considering they have a combined 197 carries in the NFL. General manager Kevin Colbert insisted the Steelers weren't in the market for a running back more than any other position at the NFL combine last month, but that doesn't mean he has ruled it out completely.

The Browns' running back group of Hardesty, Jackson and Ogbonnaya totaled 600 rushing yards and one touchdown, and it's assumed they would add someone in free agency or the draft.

The remaining free-agent running backs aren't game-changers, but they can be productive. The top ones available are: Brandon Jacobs, Cedric Benson, Joseph Addai, Ryan Grant and Kevin Smith. There are possibilities for trades, but the Panthers aren't shopping Jonathan Stewart yet, and the Bears don't appear ready to move Matt Forte.

When it comes to the draft, the Browns have a big decision at running back. They could take Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the fourth overall pick or wait to find one in the second, third or fourth rounds.

Looking at what the Steelers and Browns have now, they would strengthen their teams if they added a running back. But their approach so far tells me these teams are either waiting for a good value in free agency, or they will look for another running back in the draft.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The second day of free agency was more active for the AFC North, although the division found itself on the losing side of the ledger.

Five key players -- Browns running back Peyton Hillis and four defensive players -- ended up signing with other teams Wednesday. That's in addition to the Browns releasing starting left guard Eric Steinbach. The only addition to the division wasn't really an addition, as defensive end Frostee Rucker went from the Bengals to the Browns in what will prove to be an important but underrated move.

Most of these losses were expected. The parting of the ways with Hillis was projected during his tumultuous 2011 season. The Ravens knew it was going to be a challenge to keep linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding, two dependable starters in Baltimore's front seven. The only mild surprise was seeing Rucker and defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (who signed with the Patriots) go elsewhere when both were considered among the Bengals' top priorities.

Let's see what Day 3 brings to the AFC North. There has to be some free-agent signings at some point, right?

BENGALS: The Bengals believe they lost Rucker to the Browns and Fanene to the Patriots because those teams could offer more playing time. According to the team's official website, Rucker played about 45 percent of the Bengals' defensive snaps, mainly on running downs, while Fanene participated in 45 percent of the snaps, primarily as a pass-rusher. Rucker played in every game for the first time in his six seasons with the Bengals and led team in tackles for loss (11). Fanene recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks and was third in quarterback pressures with 13. "Frostee and Jon have had productive careers here and have been great teammates, and their contributions in our line rotation have made them attractive to other clubs," coach Marvin Lewis said in a statement, via the team's official website. "They both seem to have the opportunity to play a larger role with their new clubs, and we understand that. We wish them well and we look forward to being able to replace their snaps with the depth we have and with players we may acquire through the draft or free agency."... Dolphins defensive lineman Kendall Langford, 26, a third-round pick in 2008, is visiting the Bengals this week, and it's believed they have visits set up with at least two other linemen, according to the team's official website ... Nate Livings, the Bengals' starting left guard for the past two seasons, is scheduled to visit the Cowboys today, according to ESPNDallas.com.

BROWNS: Even though Hillis said he would take a hometown discount to remain with the Browns, the running back signed with the Kansas City Chiefs without receiving an offer from Cleveland, a league source told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Browns spoke with Hillis' agent before he agreed with the Chiefs, but no proposal was made. Hillis posted on Twitter: "Appreciate all my fans in Cleveland for the support given to me in my time there. Can't wait to get back on the field and go to work in K.C." ... The Browns agreed to terms with Rucker, and the team is expected to make an official announcement when he signs today. ... The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto believes the Browns should use the $10 million in cap savings from cutting Steinbach and offensive tackle Tony Pashos to sign an impact right tackle like Eric Winston, Levi Brown or Demetrius Bell. ... The Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw says the patience of the Browns' front office leaves fans forever awaiting next year. "Let's put it this way. If things don't work out for the regime in Berea, we can probably scratch certain occupations from [Mike] Holmgren's and [Tom] Heckert's next job search," Shaw wrote.

RAVENS: While Redding followed former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis, Jarret Johnson joined Pagano's brother John, who is the defensive coordinator with the Chargers. “That’s part of what made it so easy,” Johnson said in a statement released by the Chargers. “Chuck and I have been tight ever since he got there. I met John before one of the games a couple years ago and he’s what made this decision so easy. I knew him, I knew about him, I know the kind of guy his brother is, so he’s definitely the type of coach you want to play for." ... The Ravens will meet with Eagles guard Evan Mathis today while left guard Ben Grubbs continues to test the free-agent market. Baltimore has also scheduled a visit with former Texans right tackle Eric Winston sometime this week. Winston, who was in Miami Wednesday, will come to Baltimore after traveling to Kansas City and St. Louis. "I want to win right now," Winston told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "That's what's important to me. That's the kind of team I'm looking for." If the Ravens signed Winston, they would likely release Bryant McKinnie and move Michael Oher from right to left tackle. ... Backup safety and special teams standout Haruki Nakamura is making his first free-agent visit, traveling to meet the Carolina Panthers, according to the Carroll County Times.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh still sits about $1.5 million under the cap, which means there won't be much activity until the NFL draft. That's 42 days away, if you're counting. ... Steelers free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said two teams have expressed interest in him, but he declined to name them other than to say the Steelers want him back. The Jets have shown interest, according to the New York Daily News. "Yeah, I'm open to it," Cotchery told ESPNNewYork.com on a possible return to New York, where he played for the Jets for seven seasons. "I'm open to all possibilities. I don't close doors. I'm not that type of dude."

No one should have been surprised when they heard the report from ESPN's Adam Schefter that Cleveland Browns free-agent running back Peyton Hillis had agreed to terms with the Kansas City Chiefs.

This was inevitable. This was necessary. Hillis received a one-year, $3 million contract from the Chiefs. I can give you three million reasons why Hillis and the Browns needed a fresh start, and you don't need to be a member of the CIA to uncover those reasons.

Hillis has a great shot to bounce back and have another 1,000-yard rushing season in Kansas City, where he will reunite with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. The odds of that happening with the Browns were slim. Yes, Hillis showed flashes late in the season when he gained 99 and 112 yards in back-to-back weeks. And, yes, the Browns left the door open for Hillis' return, although nothing short of a bargain deal was going to make that happen. But you have to take into account everything that went down last season and realize that it was never going to be like a couple of seasons ago.

All the optimism that was built from Hillis' blue-collar 2010 season (1,177 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns) was ruined by a disastrous 2011 campaign (587 yards rushing and three touchdowns) filled with injuries and innuendos. The perception of Hillis went from a hard-working everyman to locker room diva in a matter of months.

[+] EnlargePeyton Hillis
Jason Bridge/US PresswirePeyton Hillis will get a fresh start in Kansas City after a disastrous 2011 season in Cleveland.
It got to the point where Hillis didn't feel appreciated by the Browns because he didn't receive a contract extension like Evan Moore and Chris Gocong. And the relationship broke down to where the Browns couldn't depend on Hillis.

You can't put all the blame on Hillis for the Browns' disappointing 4-12 season. He was, however, the picture of how the year unraveled.

In addition to the contract mess, he missed a game early in the season with strep throat on the advice of his agent (which caused a controversy over whether he was really sick or protesting the lack of a new deal), failed to show up at a local Halloween party for children (which he blamed on a miscommunication) and went home to Arkansas on a Tuesday to get married during the season when he should have been rehabbing an injury. His relationship with his teammates became so strained by early November that the running back reportedly was "summoned [by eight veteran players] into a meeting room for an intervention-style, air-clearing session designed to restore his focus."

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” one Browns veteran told Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver in November. “Last year, Peyton was such a positive, inspirational force on our team -- but now he’s like a different guy. It’s like he’s in a funk that he can’t get out of, and it’s killing us, because we really need him. And we’ve told him that. But we’re at the point where we just don’t know what to do.”

This was too much drama for an NFL locker room. This was too much drama for "Jersey Shore."

How bad did this situation get for Hillis? He eventually believed in the "Madden curse," a theory that trouble falls upon everyone who graces the cover of the popular football video game.

“Yeah, I heard about it,” Hillis said toward the end of the 2011 season, via The Akron Beacon Journal. “I really didn’t think it would affect me. But I can tell you it’s nagged at me a little bit this year. I can’t argue that.”

Hillis added, “Things haven’t worked in my favor this year. There’s a few things that happened this year that make me believe in curses.”

To top off the most bizarre season of any player last year, Hillis contemplated retirement over the past season and even considered joining the CIA, a team source told Schefter earlier this month. Hillis later denied that he considered either one.

Whatever was true or overblown can now be put in the past. Hillis can focus on running over linebackers in the AFC West, and the Browns can determine who will be the next workhorse of the running game (I suggest using the No. 4 overall pick on Alabama running back Trent Richardson).

Sometimes divorce isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it can be a welcome change for everyone.
Browns free-agent running back Peyton Hillis is set to visit the Kansas City Chiefs, a source told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Plain Dealer didn't specify the date of the trip, but the paper indicated that Hillis could sign quickly if the meeting goes well. This would be a good move for the Browns and Hillis, both of whom need fresh starts after a season that included a questionable strep throat, a reported intervention and a possible career move to the CIA.

The Browns would've kept Hillis if the deal was cheap and short term. The only way Hillis would've agreed to that is if he didn't receive any interest in the free-agent market.

Hillis was the biggest disappointment on the Browns last season. His rushing yards dropped from 1,177 in 2010 to 587 last season. He was sidelined for five games with a hamstring injury and one with strep throat.

If the Chiefs want to see if they can get a motivated Hillis, there should be no hard feelings from the Browns. Cleveland has some pieces in the backfield with Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya, but the Browns need a dependable playmaker as their featured back. And, as everyone saw last year, Hillis was far from dependable.
A look at some major questions facing the AFC North teams as free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET:

Will the Bengals make a splash with all of that salary-cap space?

I think it will be more like a ripple than a splash. A team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have about the same amount of cap room, will be far more active than the Bengals because they are undergoing a makeover with a new coach. The Bengals will concentrate on their own free agents (like safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Frostee Rucker) and fill some holes at running back, guard and cornerback. Like I've said for a month, I see Oakland's Michael Bush, Baltimore's Ben Grubbs and New Orleans' Robert Meachem as good fits for Cincinnati. This isn't like signing Mario Williams or Carl Nicks, but these are moves that will improve a young, developing team.

What are the chances that the Browns keep running back Peyton Hillis?

I say less than 50 percent that Cleveland keeps Hillis. The Browns sent a strong message to Hillis when they told him to test the free-agent market. This means that Cleveland would be interested in retaining the running back at a bargain price. The only way that can occur is if Hillis finds there's little interest in him in free agency. The Browns have some pieces at running back with Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya, but they need a featured back they can depend on. I think the Browns will find one in the draft.

Will free agents Ben Grubbs and Jarret Johnson be gone from the Ravens by this time tomorrow?

It wouldn't surprise me if Grubbs signed quickly elsewhere and Johnson weighed his decision. Grubbs is one of the top three guards available in free agency, and there will be a couple of teams that will come after him aggressively. The Ravens won't be able to match it with their cap space, which is why they were trying to keep him from becoming a free agent. Johnson will get calls early in free agency, too (perhaps from the Colts or the Jets). But I get the sense that Johnson would stay with the Ravens if the money was close. Baltimore can try to replace Johnson with Paul Kruger, but that weakens the defense. It's in the Ravens' best interest to keep a tough and durable linebacker like Johnson for a couple more years.

Does another team make a run at restricted free agent Mike Wallace?

I think the Steelers are going to be able to keep Wallace without a fight. The one team that I would be concerned about is the New England Patriots. They really do need a deep threat and could be willing to give up the 31st overall pick for him. The Bengals have the cap room and multiple first-round picks to make this move, but this isn't really their style. If a team does pursue Wallace, Pittsburgh will do everything it can to keep him. The Steelers are tight against the cap right now, but I think there are still a few moves (restructuring James Harrison and Troy Polamalu) they can make to free up room to match an offer. One potential suitor to scratch off the list is the San Francisco 49ers, who signed Randy Moss on Monday night.

AFC North links: The reality of pro sports

March, 5, 2012
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Baltimore Ravens

Bounties in Baltimore? John Eisenberg of CSNWashington.com puts a few anecdotes under the microscope.

Cincinnati Bengals

Will running back be a priority for the Bengals in free agency and/or next month's draft?

University of Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead is a player the Bengals are intrigued by and could see selecting in the middle rounds.

Cleveland Browns

Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer shares more than a few thoughts on the latest with running back Peyton Hillis.

Joshua Cribbs has a unique take on how the Hills-CIA story came to light.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Larry Foote tells Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette it was "devastating" to see the departures of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior. "We're all grown men, but we've been lucky enough to make a good living playing a kids' game. Most of us have been playing since we were 8 years old. When they tell you it's time to hang up your cleats, it's tough."

Think James Harrison is paying attention to how the NFL handles the bounty sanctions against the New Orleans Saints?

AFC North weekend mailbag

March, 4, 2012
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Let's try to open some mail before another AFC North player gets the franchise tag or gets cut ...

Lance from Akron, Ohio, writes: Do the Browns get draft pick compensation if Peyton Hillis leaves?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: What it boils down to is this: Teams receive compensatory picks if the number of their unrestricted free agents who sign elsewhere (players whose contract expires and not the ones who are released) is more than the number of unrestricted free agents they sign from other teams. For example, if Hillis and five other Browns free agents sign with other teams and the Browns only sign four free agents, they will receive compensatory picks. The level of the picks assigned -- a third-rounder or a seventh-round one -- are based on the contracts signed by their former players sign and how they play in the 2012 season.


Cameron from Allen, Texas, writes: Would the Browns be at all interested in wide receiver Lee Evans? I know that he was a huge disappointment in Baltimore, but wasn't he supposed to be quite good when they signed him? Did he just have a bad (and injury-riddled) year that he can get over, or is he really just not that great?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: I believe Evans is done. His body is starting to break down, and his confidence is shot. Evans was one of the most durable wide receivers in the game, playing in the first 109 games of his career. But he has now missed 10 of his past 19 regular-season games because of injuries. His numbers have declined for the past four seasons, dropping from 63 catches in 2008 to four in 2011. The Browns definitely need a deep threat, but they need a deep threat who will get out on the field. Evans is a huge question mark.


Ryan from Elkton, Md., writes: With all the cuts the Steelers have done this week, who do you think the Ravens may try to sign to add depth or upgrade if anyone? I was thinking guard Chris Kemoeatu if we are not able to re-sign Ben Grubbs.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: Kemoeatu wouldn't be a bad addition as long as you're not counting on him to be a starter. The Ravens can't bank on Kemoeatu replacing Grubbs when the Steelers benched him in favor for Doug Legursky. Some team is going to sign Kemoeatu for depth initially and possibly give him another shot to start down the line. He was the Steelers' highest-paid offensive lineman, so he has talent. His biggest problem was being a penalty magnet, which continually held back the offense. Kemoeatu has to became a more disciplined player before he could be considered a candidate to start again.


Megslin from Albany, N.Y., writes: I normally love your writing, and was all ready to agree with everything you said about the Steelers linebacker James Farrior cut being the last. But then you commented that "his play had declined so much he was sharing playing time with Larry Foote." Not exactly. He still ranked as the fourth highest tackler on the team, even while playing less downs. True, with his age, he did have to get spelled with another player on some downs (like Casey Hampton typically does). However, that doesn't mean his play is so awful he needed to come off the field. I realize that's not how you intended to mean it, but as a big Farrior fan who is sad to see the defensive leader, heart of the team, and yes, Steeler starter go, I had to disagree with how you worded it.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: You can never question Farrior's leadership but you can question his play. It was really noticeable in passing situations. He couldn't cover anyone downfield. That's why he had to be taken off the field. But it was his age (37) that proved to be the biggest factor in why the Steelers chose to cut him over backup Larry Foote (31).


Kory from Hillsborough, Calif., writes: It seems like for the most part historically, kickers who have gotten the franchise tag have gone on to stink it up the following season. I attest that to the fact that kickers need 100 percent of their head into kicking but that they're thinking about their contract situation or about how unpleased they are without a long term commitment by the team. Every year, the kicker's success seems to always come down to the mindset they have out on the field. Should Bengals fans be concerned about Mike Nugent getting tagged? We're all thinking about the Shayne Graham situation that went downhill quickly.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: It's only natural for Bengals fans to think of how the franchise tag failed to work with Shayne Graham after Cincinnati placed it on Nugent on Friday. I agree with your assessment that the year-to-year nature of the tag can affect the mindset of a kicker, whose play relies heavily on their focus. But I think Nugent will handle the tag just as well as the Browns' Phil Dawson did last year. Dawson converted 24-of-29 field goal attempts, and two of those misses were the result of bad snaps. He also hit seven field goals of 50 yards or longer, and no one in the NFL had more from that distance in 2011. The tag didn't affect Dawson's play.

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