AFC North: Robert Quinn

Nearly all the AFC North teams played it safe in Thursday night's preseason finales. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Brandon Weeden all sat out and watched the backup quarterbacks play.

The only starter who played, the Bengals' Andy Dalton, left in the first quarter with an injury but it's not considered serious. Dalton said his hand went "a little numb" after getting hit in the arm but it's "no problem at all." Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "Andy’s fine. He’ll be fine for Baltimore. He would have gone right back in this game if it had been the regular season.” So, crisis averted.

If you couldn't watch all four division teams play simultaneously, you're in luck. I had my eye on each one and here are some observations:

BENGALS AT COLTS

In the 20-16 loss at Indianapolis, Dalton was hurt on the opening drive after getting sandwiched. Offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland both got beaten for sacks on the play. It hasn't been a great preseason for Whitworth, who is the second-best left tackle in the division.

The Bengals didn't play their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, because both are recovering from injuries and are getting ready for the regular-season opener. For once, Cincinnati's run game didn't suffer. Brian Leonard ran hard and broke tackles for 27 yards on three carries. Cedric Peerman, who makes more of an impact on special teams, looked good on a 13-yard run up the middle.

No one wants to see Dalton hurt. The Bengals, though, have to feel comfortable with backup Bruce Gradkowski. He finished 12 of 19 for 95 yards and led his fourth touchdown drive of the preseason.

Rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones displayed some resiliency in the second quarter. On the same drive in which he dropped a touchdown pass, he came back to catch a back-shoulder throw from Gradkowski and ran into the end zone. Jones is making a push for some playing time this year.

BEARS AT BROWNS

In the 28-20 loss to Chicago, Colt McCoy watched his strong preseason take a nosedive. In his first start this summer, McCoy was 2 of 5 for 16 yards for a 9.1 quarterback rating. That's going to put a dent into McCoy's 119.1 rating from the first three games. McCoy was also intercepted on a high pass that was thrown with no pressure around him. The Browns will let everyone know what they plan to do with McCoy on Friday.

The Browns have a concern at linebacker after rookie James-Michael Johnson left with an oblique injury. With Chris Gocong out for the season with an Achilles injury and Scott Fujita facing a three-game suspension from the NFL, Cleveland planned to depend on Johnson and Kaluka Maiava. The Browns might need Fujita to win his appeal to avoid going deeper on the depth chart. Johnson was having a strong performance before getting injured on an open-field tackle.

Backup running back Montario Hardesty had trouble getting back to the line of scrimmage because he got little help from his blockers. He finished with 24 yards on six carries and he didn't fumble for the first time since the preseason opener. Brandon Jackson fared much better, gaining 48 yards on seven carries.

Cornerback James Dockery was flagged twice for pass interference in the second quarter. The second one eventually led to a touchdown. Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade was physical and had good coverage in allowing the first touchdown of the game.

As if the Browns needed something else to worry about, they have to iron some things out on special teams. Reggie Hodges got his second punt blocked this preseason.

RAVENS AT RAMS

In a 31-17 loss at St. Louis, Sergio Kindle hurt his chances of surviving Friday's cutdown. He hit quarterback Sam Bradford a full second late, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty to help the Rams convert third-and-22. Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick, was on the bubble entering this game.

Continuing Thursday night's trend of rookies getting hurt, second-round pick Courtney Upshaw will have an MRI for his strained shoulder, according to coach John Harbaugh. Upshaw has been backing up Albert McClellan at outside linebacker.

Veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had his worst game with the Ravens. Working with the first-team defense because most of the starters sat, Ayanbadejo struggled against the run and got lost in coverage. It was so bad that he apologized for his performance on Twitter.

What I like the most about Tyrod Taylor, who started in place of Flacco, is his ability to make plays with his legs. Even though he focused more on being a pocket passer, Taylor wasn't hesitant to take off for a 22-yard scramble. He did get stripped from behind earlier in the game, but it was the result of a third-string lineman (Cord Howard) getting beat by a former first-round pick (Robert Quinn).

Looking at Curtis Painter's up-and-down performance, I'm not sure he convinced the Ravens to keep three quarterbacks. He threw two touchdowns and was intercepted three times. One interception was returned 76 yards for a touchdown.

Justin Tucker missed his first kick of the preseason, but it's difficult to be critical of him. It was a 57-yard attempt. He later hit a 49-yarder in the third quarter.

PANTHERS AT STEELERS

If this was Charlie Batch's last game with the Steelers, he made it a memorable one, or at least as memorable as the preseason gets. In the 17-16 victory over Carolina, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards. Batch showed great touch in leading Emmauel Sanders out of double coverage for a 37-yard touchdown. The new rule regarding injured reserve helps Batch's chances of sticking around Pittsburgh for an 11th season, but there's no guarantee that he'll make the cut.

For the second consecutive week, a Steelers draft pick went down with a serious knee injury. With two minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Sean Spence hyperextended his knee while chasing quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Spence's knee bent awkwardly underneath him, and the third-round pick needed to be carted off the field. Spence was expected to make an impact on special teams this season and could have received playing time if there were injuries at inside linebacker. Unlike David DeCastro's knee injury, this one happened on the natural grass of Heinz Field.

This isn't a newsflash, but rookie running back-receiver-returner Chris Rainey is a game-changer. He twice scored on punt returns in one quarter, only to have both brought back because of penalties. This would've given him the touchdown trifecta. The fifth-round pick had scored on a 41-yard run and a 57-yard catch this summer.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton made his preseason debut after having ACL surgery in January. His presence was felt immediately as he got off a block from guard Mike Pollak and made a tackle. Hampton's return was good to see for the Steelers, even though Steve McLendon has played well enough to start.

Jonathan Dwyer solidfied himself as the primary backup to Isaac Redman, and the Steelers could need him based on Redman's durability. Dwyer was physical (even delivered a stiff-arm) and showed good feet to elude tacklers. He finished with 63 yards on 13 carries, a 4.8-yard average.

Blogger mock draft analysis

April, 25, 2011
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ESPN.com has completed its annual blogger mock draft, and the picks for the AFC North were made in part by our community.

We put together a draft board last week, and like a good general manager, I stayed true to our board with every pick. Here were the results for the AFC North:

Cincinnati Bengals (No. 4 overall)

Pick: LSU CB Patrick Peterson

Peterson
Peterson
Analysis: The Bengals can be unpredictable with personnel decisions, and I have my doubts they will follow our draft strategy. But "Bengaldom" agreed that Peterson is the safest pick and perhaps the best player in this draft, and Cincinnati cannot afford to take any huge risks at No. 4. Peterson was the highest-rated player on our board. Thanks to the early run on quarterbacks -- Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina and Blaine Gabbert No. 3 to Buffalo -- Peterson was there for the taking. The Bengals should have a feel by now if No. 1 corner Johnathan Joseph can be re-signed in free agency. An educated guess is several teams will be ready to offer Joseph more money on the open market. So Peterson could step right in and make an immediate impact on defense and special teams.

Cleveland Browns (No. 6)

Pick: Georgia WR A.J. Green

Green
Green
Analysis: This was the pick that made me cringe. I think Green is a tremendous talent, but I'm against taking receivers in the top 10. Yet Browns scouts in our community voted Green as their top choice, moving the receiver to No. 2 overall on our draft board. Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus went No. 2 to Denver. So I saw this coming as the draft was unfolding. I would have gone defense here, either with North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn or Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, but majority ruled. As GM, I have to answer to the media if this pick doesn't pan out. So Green better be a star in Cleveland, Browns scouts, or I'm handing out pink slips.

Baltimore Ravens (No. 26)

Pick: Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward

Heyward
Heyward
Analysis: Players were flying off the board for Baltimore more than any team in the division. Is this a preview of what's going to take place on Thursday? Out of our top-five choices, three were gone by the time the Ravens were up with the No. 26 pick. Heyward was our fourth choice, but it's still a solid selection. He adds youth to the defensive line and also has the ability to get to the quarterback. Florida center Mike Pouncey (No. 15 to Miami), Colorado corner Jimmy Smith (No. 23 Philadelphia) and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan (No. 16 to Jacksonville) were all taken several picks earlier.

Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 31)

Pick: Texas CB Aaron Williams

Williams
Williams
Analysis: The Steelers were probably the most fortunate AFC North team in this blogger mock draft. Four of their top-five players were still available at No. 31, which was unexpected. That included their two cornerbacks in Williams and Miami's Brandon Harris. Both corners can help Pittsburgh immediately. But Williams' versatility and physicality gave him an edge. If this scenario played out later this week, Pittsburgh would be more than happy to have to choose between these two corners.

Do you agree or disagree with this year's blogger mock draft picks? Voice your opinion in the comment section below.

Morning take: Ike Taylor's future

April, 25, 2011
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Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North: Morning take: Cornerbacks are making a ton of money on the open market, making it questionable if Taylor will return to the Steelers. Pittsburgh needs to take a cornerback high in this draft for insurance. The position is pretty thin with or without Taylor.
  • Is North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn the best fit for the Cleveland Browns?
Morning take: As a pass-rushing defensive end, he fills Cleveland's biggest need. Sitting out an entire year raises a few questions, but the Browns do not appear too concerned.
  • This weekend Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski improved to 4-0 with a first-round knockout of Blake Warner (1-3).
Morning take: Zbikowski looks ready for a step up in competition. The longer this lockout goes, the more work he can get in, try to pile up wins, and move up the cruiserweight rankings.
Morning take: There are no sure things in this year's quarterback class. That's why it's better for the Bengals to take a quarterback later in the draft and fill another need with the No. 4 overall pick.

Morning take: Quinn to Cleveland?

April, 21, 2011
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Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North: Morning take: Quinn would be a great fit if he proves he can shake the rust from missing an entire year of football. The Browns may have other targets at No. 6, but grabbing Quinn wouldn't be a bad choice to help a thin defensive line.
  • With Carson Palmer threatening to retire, younger brother Jordan Palmer says he's ready for the No. 1 quarterback position with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Morning take: Jordan Palmer may get a shot in training camp, but Cincinnati is searching very hard to find Carson Palmer's replacement. That tells me all I need to know about how secure the team is in Jordan Palmer as the starter.
  • Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk says he's willing to tutor a younger center next season if needed.
Morning take: Birk, 34, is playing on a year-to-year basis, and the Ravens may find an eventual replacement in this draft. How would Florida's Mike Pouncey look in Baltimore?
  • University of Texas cornerback Aaron Williams visited with the Pittsburgh Steelers Wednesday.
Morning take: Williams is my pick to land in Pittsburgh, although you never know how the draft board will play out next week. The Steelers need secondary help and they could also use Williams' versatility.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • Is Florida center/guard Mike Pouncey a target for the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 26 pick?
Morning take: The Ravens need a right tackle more, but Pouncey may be the best available player at No. 26. Having the Pouncey twins split between the Steelers and Ravens would add another wrinkle to this great rivalry.
Morning take: The Bengals are getting plenty of looks at Newton leading up to this draft. Although I think it's a bad pairing, Newton is a legitimate target for Cincinnati at No. 4.
  • The Cleveland Browns will host former North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn today.
Morning take: Cleveland needs pass-rushing defensive linemen, and Quinn could fill that void. The biggest issue is Quinn missed all of last year via suspension and has to shake the rust.
Morning take: I had a chance to see the show Monday for the first time since Chad Ochocinco was on last year. I was very impressed with how well Ward can cut a rug.
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:
  • Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians would like to throw more next season.
Morning take: Winning comes first and Pittsburgh had good balance during last year's Super Bowl run. Roethlisberger threw for 3,200 yards in 12 games and probably would've had back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons if not for a four-game suspension. Throwing for 5,000 yards won't happen in Pittsburgh.
  • The Baltimore Ravens met with former University of Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
Morning take: We recently talked with Baldwin and he believes he can help a team at the next level. The Ravens need more playmakers at receiver, and Baldwin has the size and physical tools.
  • Is Georgia receiver A.J. Green the choice at No. 4 for the Cincinnati Bengals?
Morning take: Chad Ochocinco could be on the trading block this offseason. So picking Green would fill the spot as Cincinnati's No. 1 receiver. We will have a breakdown of Green's strengths and weaknesses later today in the AFC North blog. Don't miss it.
Morning take: Davis, who now coaches at North Carolina, has several top prospects in this year's draft, such as defensive end Robert Quinn. Davis was 24-34 before resigning in Cleveland, but he's been very successful during his college stints.

AFC North mock drafts

April, 7, 2011
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ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both provided their latest NFL mock drafts this week.

Here is how they view things playing out in the AFC North:

Cincinnati Bengals (No. 4)

Kiper: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia

McShay: Green

Analysis: Cincinnati is the only AFC North team Kiper and McShay share the same thinking. Both believe the Bengals will take Green, the top-rated receiver in the draft. I like Green a lot, but I don't think he's the best pick for Cincinnati. It's unknown who will throw the ball to Green with franchise quarterback Carson Palmer threatening to retire. The Bengals also have plenty of young receivers, and for now Chad Ochocinco remains under contract. The Bengals would be better off addressing their front seven on defense for next season.

Cleveland Browns (No. 6)

Kiper: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama

McShay: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina

Analysis: I like the Quinn pick, but both of these selections come with questions. Quinn and Jones would address Cleveland's two biggest needs, which are defensive line and receiver. But Quinn missed all of 2010 with a suspension and would have to overcome rust next season. Jones is a dynamic talent but a bit of a reach unless Cleveland trades down. In both cases, the Browns may choose to go safer with the No. 6 overall pick.

Baltimore Ravens (No. 26)

Kiper: Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado

McShay: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami

Analysis: Smith and Harris are talented prospects. But I'm not convinced Baltimore is going cornerback in the first round. The Ravens have starter Domonique Foxworth returning from knee surgery. Josh Wilson was solid last year and will be pursued by Baltimore in free agency. The team also likes young corner Lardarius Webb. Cornerback is a possibility if the Ravens stick to the best player available. But in terms of need, a right tackle and pass-rusher would be more important.

Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 31)

Kiper: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas

McShay: Danny Watkins, G, Baylor

Analysis: Both players would fill needs for Pittsburgh in the secondary and offensive line. But with No. 1 corner Ike Taylor not under contract, Williams may be the better pick. The Steelers are very thin at corner and were exposed in that area at times last season. If Pittsburgh cannot re-sign Taylor, which is not a guarantee, it's a must that the team adds depth early in the draft. Williams is physical and his solid tackling would fit well with defensive coordinator's Dick LeBeau's aggressive style. I also like Harris in this spot if he makes it to No. 31.

Morning take: Maurkice Pouncey out?

January, 27, 2011
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Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:
  • According to Pittsburgh Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) is out for Super Bowl XLV.
Morning take: This is interesting because it's coming from a teammate. Did Kemoeatu spill the beans too early? There's no official word from the team, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will have to provide clarity later today.
  • ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. believes the Cleveland Browns should take a long look at Georgia receiver A.J. Green and North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn.
Morning take: Either player could fill a major need for the Browns, who have several holes. But I'm still leery of taking any receiver No. 6 overall.
  • Total Nonstop Action, a professional wrestling promotion, offered to set up a steel cage match between Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco/Johnson and head coach Marvin Lewis.
Morning take: In a nutshell, this signifies what's currently wrong with the Bengals. The funny thing is, Ochocinco/Johnson would probably consider it.
  • Baltimore Ravens defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs silenced his critics with a bounce-back season.
Morning take: It was another Pro Bowl year for "T. Sizzle." He came into training camp in great shape and was relentless down to the final game.

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