AFC North: Robert Royal
Baltimore Ravens: WR Derrick Mason
Alternates: CB Chris Carr, C Matt Birk
Skinny: Mason is one of the most experienced and outspoken players on the Ravens. Therefore he fits great in this role. Carr and Birk are also two great alternatives from Baltimore.
Cincinnati Bengals: LT Andrew Whitworth
Alternates: G Bobbie Williams, TE Reggie Kelly
Skinny: This trio comprises Cincinnati's locker room leaders. Whitworth has taken an increased role and is usually the one who briefs the rest of the Bengals on player issues. Williams and Kelly are both elder statesmen and combine for 25 years of NFL experience.
Cleveland Browns: TE Robert Royal
Alternates: OT Tony Pashos, CB Sheldon Brown, TE Ben Watson
Skinny: Lately the Browns have been a strange team when it comes to union reps. With three regime changes the past few years, it's been a rotating door. Royal was recently released by the Browns, meaning Cleveland will have another player rep next season. All the alternatives spent their first year with the Browns in 2010.
Pittsburgh Steelers: S Ryan Clark
Alternates: WR Antwaan Randle El, LT Max Starks
Skinny: Like Mason, Clark is never afraid to speak his mind. He recently had a lot to say on the pending NFL lockout during Super Bowl week. Randle El and Starks are both intelligent alternatives, as well.
The Browns cut six veterans Wednesday: tight end Robert Royal, offensive tackle John St. Clair, defensive lineman Shaun Rogers and Kenyon Coleman and linebackers David Bowens and Eric Barton. Most were considered "Eric Mangini guys." Mangini was fired recently after back-to-back 5-11 seasons.
"We kind of had a feeling that with a new regime that Cleveland wanted to go with younger players," said Bowens' agent Harold Lewis. "David was Eric’s guy and [former defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan’s guy, so it’s not a surprise."
Cleveland is looking to start a new rebuilding phase under Shurmur. Cleveland will transition to a West Coast offense and a 4-3 defense next season.
All of these players are now unrestricted free agents.
BEREA, Ohio -- With three teams in the division coming off winning seasons, the Cleveland Browns have a long way to go to climb out of the AFC North basement
That’s why Cleveland's ownership put together the high-profile pairing of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. The new front office has reshaped the roster through the draft and free agency in hopes of starting to close the gap with its rivals and improving on last year's 5-11 record.
With so many new faces, Cleveland remains a team in transition. The Browns must come together quickly in training camp to be competitive in 2010.
THREE HOT ISSUES
But Mangini must keep that momentum going in what should be a very competitive year in the AFC North. He doesn't have the same level of talent to work with as other coaches in the division. But Mangini is optimistic about 2010.
"I feel really good about the progress we've made, the strides we've made," Mangini said. "The second year is different. Guys understand expectations. There are so many things that you don't have to cover because they get it and they become teachers to people who are new, and that helps a lot."
2. Is quarterback Jake Delhomme the answer? Despite his pedigree, the Delhomme signing has not instilled much confidence with Browns fans.
Delhomme is coming off the worst year of his career (eight TD passes, 18 interceptions) and was benched and eventually released by the Carolina Panthers.
But if Delhomme isn't the answer, the team will turn to backup Seneca Wallace, who is a longtime Holmgren protégé. Rookie third-round draft pick Colt McCoy is regarded as the quarterback of the future but isn't expected to start this season.
Players such as second-year receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi and rookies Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, a free safety, and Montario Hardesty, a running back, are expected to fill major roles. These players will learn on the job as Cleveland's coaching staff tries to minimize their mistakes.
Haden, a cornerback, will have the biggest spotlight because he was taken No. 7 overall this year and is the first draft pick of the Holmgren and Heckert era. Haden struggled some in minicamp but is starting to look more comfortable. He still must get to the point where he's thinking less and relying more on his football instincts. So far, Haden has been a step late on too many plays.
"It's getting better and better every day," Haden said. "[Tuesday's] practice was better than [Monday's] practice. … now I feel like I'm about at 90 percent of knowing of exactly what's going on, so when I get that next 10, it's going to be full go."
With so much attention put on Delhomme this season, I thought the best quarterback in camp this week was Wallace. He made some very nice throws, particularly on the run, while leading the second-team offense.
But unless Wallace lights it up in the preseason, do not expect another quarterback controversy in Cleveland. The Browns are paying Delhomme $7 million this season to be the starter.
Despite being a backup, Wallace will play in another capacity as the team's Wildcat quarterback, which we will get to later.
This was supposed to be a breakthrough camp for Hardesty. Instead, his first training camp never got off the ground because of a knee injury.
Hardesty was competing with incumbent Jerome Harrison for the starting tailback job, and after a solid spring, many considered him the early favorite. But the second-round pick has missed every full-squad practice of training camp thus far and has fallen behind.
According to Mangini, Hardesty may not return until sometime next week at the earliest.
- Something that jumps out right away is Cleveland's lack of team speed. The Browns look slow and not as athletic as the other two teams I watched in training camp (Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals). That could be a problem. Cleveland has plenty of thumpers, so size isn't an issue. But the Browns appear more built to win a 13-7 game in inclement weather in December than a 35-30 shootout in September.
- The "Flash and Cyclone" package has been successful in training camp. Josh Cribbs and Wallace are arguably the most versatile players on the team and appear to be developing solid chemistry in Cleveland's version of the Wildcat. Both players are elusive and dangerous with the football.
- I'm still not sold on Cleveland's receiving corps. Massaquoi has made some plays, but certainly not enough to be a dominant No. 1 receiver. The same goes for Robiskie, who is a projected starter. The Browns are throwing to the tight ends and running backs a lot in this camp, and a reason may be the lack of depth at receiver.
- Ward is having a solid training camp. He continues to show up around the football, which is what you want from a starting safety. The rookie second-round pick still makes mistakes in pass coverage, but Ward usually shows good effort and practices hard. He is known as a big hitter.
- Keep an eye on running back Peyton Hillis. He was the forgotten player in the Brady Quinn trade this offseason with the Denver Broncos. But Hillis is showing good toughness running between the tackles. He runs solid routes and has soft hands as a receiver out of the backfield. Hillis could be an underrated acquisition who works out well for Cleveland.
- Another sleeper on this team could be second-year tight end Evan Moore. Although his run blocking needs work, Moore is probably the best receiving tight end on the roster. With starting tight end Ben Watson and Robert Royal able to do the dirty work, Moore could be a nice change of pace to give the tight-end position some big-play ability.
- A weakness in Cleveland's defense could be its outside linebackers dropping in pass coverage. Matt Roth and Marcus Benard, in particular, do not look comfortable shadowing running backs. Hillis and Harrison beat Cleveland's outside linebackers repeatedly on passing routes in camp this week.
- It's been difficult to get a firm read on McCoy. He has played a majority of camp with the third-team offense, which consists of many players who will not make the team. Inconsistent in camp, McCoy looks like a typical rookie quarterback. Preseason games probably will be a better gauge of where the third-round pick stands.
So let's provide some answers.
Rory from Washington, DC, wants to know how Browns cornerback and No. 7 overall pick Joe Haden looked in minicamp.
James Walker: I was a little surprised that I didn't see more of Haden in minicamp, Rory. He had several opportunities to make plays but couldn't finish. You can see the athleticism. But Haden also looks like he's thinking too much right now and is a bit tentative. Haden needs to get more comfortable with the scheme and the defense in training camp.
Joseph from Columbus, OH, writes: Who do you see being the starting tight end for Cleveland?
Walker: Ben Watson is the best all-around tight end and I expect him to be Cleveland's starter, Joseph. The Browns acquired Watson from the New England Patriots in free agency this offseason. Robert Royal struggles as a receiver, and Evan Moore is a good receiver but needs to work on his blocking. But I think all three could see playing time.
JoshuaMontes via Twitter writes: What presence has Browns president Mike Holmgren had at these practices?
Walker: Holmgren is certainly around, Joshua. You see him attentively watching practices and, at times, joking with the media. But his job this year is mostly done. Holmgren and his front-office staff picked the players, and now it's up to the coaches to cook the meal with the ingredients. I think Holmgren is doing everything he can to stay out of the coaching side, even though it's still in his blood. That will only get tougher for him as the games begin.
JCarterfan via Twitter writes: You have a feel. So what is it? Good or bad?
Walker: I'm not ready to make any team-wide predictions before training camp, JCarter. But I will say the strengths and weaknesses are about what I expected. I'm looking forward to visiting the Cincinnati Bengals this week for their minicamp so I can compare the two teams.
John Darnell from Covington, KY, writes: What's the status on James Davis' injury?
Walker: Davis is back on the field and looks healthy, John. His shoulder isn't an issue and Davis ran the ball pretty well last week. Davis looked good in the preseason last year but got injured early. So it will be interesting to see where he is in his second season, because Cleveland has a lot of running backs in front of him such as Jerome Harrison, Montario Hardesty and Peyton Hillis.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
A look at the key loss and his replacement for each team in the division:
Who's in: Matt Birk, center
Outlook: Although losing linebacker Bart Scott also was important, the center position could be even more vital because the Ravens play in the AFC North against quality defensive tackles such as Shaun Rogers, Casey Hampton and Domata Peko.
Baltimore is a physical, run-oriented team, and Brown was the top center in the division last year. Brown was very important in the team's three-headed rushing attack. The Ravens will use the same system in 2009 behind Birk, who is a six-time Pro Bowler. But he also is 32 and has some injury concerns.
Who's in: Laveranues Coles, wide receiver
Outlook: The Bengals lost a veteran receiver and got a solid veteran replacement in Coles.
Similar to Houshmandzadeh, Coles should have a lot of opportunities to make plays with No. 1 receiver Chad Ochocinco garnering most of the attention. Although Coles probably won't catch 90 or 100 balls as "Housh" did with the Bengals, 60 or 70 receptions would be a good year for Coles.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has worked hard to develop chemistry with his newest receiver this offseason in hopes that it pays off down the road.
Who's in: Robert Royal, tight end
Outlook: Really, you could pick a number of replacements with the Browns because of the significant turnover of this year's roster. But their biggest trade this offseason involved shipping former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay.
Cleveland signed former Buffalo Bills tight end Robert Royal, whom coach Eric Mangini was familiar with as the former coach of the New York Jets in the AFC East. Royal is more of a 30-catch tight end than an 80-catch tight end. But Cleveland expects to be a run-heavy team in 2009 so high production from that position isn't a necessity.
Who's in: Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
Outlook: Despite his inexperience, Timmons' athleticism and versatility should give Pittsburgh's linebacking group an upgrade, which is a scary thought.
Foote was solid but is primarily a run stuffer. Timmons is just as physical, but also can blitz the passer and is fast enough to drop deep in coverage and cover tight ends.
Expect defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to come up with interesting ways to use Timmons this season. Pittsburgh's coaching staff has high hopes for Timmons as a full-time starter.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns wrapped up another two-a-day Friday during their mandatory minicamp.
|AP Photo/Tony Dejak|
|Rookie center Alex Mack (55) runs drills during minicamp on Friday.|
Here are several notes and observations:
- Browns quarterback Derek Anderson was seen limping during the afternoon practice and was held out of team drills. Anderson wore a sleeve over his right calf, which hints that he suffered a right leg injury at some point Friday. Quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Brett Ratliff took the majority of the snaps in the second session while Anderson watched from the sidelines.
- The competition on the offensive line is heating up. Rookie first-round pick Alex Mack played exclusively with the first team Friday morning. Incumbent starter Hank Fraley has played mostly with the starters in the practices open to the media and did so again in the evening. But the first session may be an early sign that the rookie is starting to close some ground on the veteran. Also, left guard Eric Steinbach practiced with the second team behind Rex Hadnot. Browns coach Eric Mangini says he doesn't have a timetable on determining his starting five up front.
"Once we determine which five we're going to go with, then we will settle," Mangini said. "But even at that point, we're going to have to have those guys be able to work other spots, because there's the possibility of injuries and the possibility of moving things around."
- Cleveland's projected starting tight end, Robert Royal, had a tough day at the office Friday. He had three drops in the morning practice.
- Backup tailback Jerome Harrison says he is working hard on his blitz pickups, because that is part of what kept him off the field the past three seasons. Listed at 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighing 205 pounds, Harrison struggled taking on hard-charging linebackers on third downs.
"It's a knock on smaller backs," Harrison said. "But it's something you got to get over. It's part of life. I always can get better. I wasn't asked to do it in college."
|Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images; Andy Lyons and Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|The AFC North has lost some star power, with Bart Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh departing through free agency and Kellen Winslow Jr. sent off in a trade.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
With the busiest portion of free agency coming to an end, it is officially time to evaluate the decisions made by all four AFC North teams.
The range of activity in free agency varied this year. For instance, the Baltimore Ravens were extremely active in signing and losing players, while the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers only visited with a couple of players without reaching deals.
Let's examine the moves.
Analysis: Going into free agency, I thought the Ravens were doomed for failure with the amount of big names set to hit the open market. Baltimore certainly lost some of those players, but a creative and cost-effective plan allowed general manager Ozzie Newsome to soften the blow. The Ravens lost three key starters in linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown and safety Jim Leonhard. They also released starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. But Baltimore quickly added talent in free-agent cornerback Domonique Foxworth, veteran center Matt Birk, tight end L.J. Smith and return specialist Chris Carr. Keeping Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were vital. And if the Ravens put together another solid draft class, which is Newsome's forte, Baltimore should be fine in 2009. This good grade is given to the Ravens for their resiliency in coming up with a plan to stay in contention despite losing a wealth of talented players.
Key pickups: WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier
Analysis: No one was surprised when former Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for the Seattle Seahawks. But it was surprising when the Bengals paid former New York Jet Laveranues Coles $28 million over four years-- including a whopping $9.75 million in his first year -- to replace Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh had 90-plus receptions the past two seasons, while Coles is more of a 60- to 70-catch receiver. Someone will have to make up that missing production whether it is a bounce-back year from Chad Ocho Cinco or a career year from one of the young receivers -- Chris Henry, Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson -- in the No. 3 role. Keeping tailback Cedric Benson was important, but the team still needs a big-play threat at that position. J.T. O'Sullivan was a decent pickup to back up quarterback Carson Palmer. With Palmer's return, a stellar draft could put Cincinnati in position to surprise next season.
Analysis: The Browns are cleaning house, and they probably are not done yet. New coach Eric Mangini and first-year general manager George Kokinis are turning over the roster quickly through every avenue possible. The Browns have not retained most of their in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and linebackers Andra Davis
and Willie McGinest. They also cut offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer and receiver Joe Jurevicius and traded former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay for a pair of draft picks. The replacements have not been overwhelming. Former Jets linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens are both stop-gap players who are 30-plus. Royal is not nearly as dynamic a tight end as Winslow, and Cleveland still has a lot of holes left to fill in the draft. The Browns are clearly starting from scratch, which is why they are attempting to stockpile draft picks. Coming off a 4-12 season, Cleveland appears to be headed for another transition year in 2009.
Key pickups: None
Analysis: Pittsburgh hasn't signed anyone outside of its building. Instead, the team placed its focus on keeping together last year's championship team. The Steelers retained three starters from their offensive line in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks and brought back a host of backups and special-teams players. They are staying true to their identity of not being major players in free agency. But it would have been beneficial to add at least one or two offensive linemen from the outside to compete and provide depth. That probably won't happen until next month's NFL draft. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden bolting to the Arizona Cardinals could be softened if William Gay continues to develop in 2009. The Steelers are banking on it. Pittsburgh also brought in a few intriguing free agents, such as receiver Joey Galloway and cornerback/return specialist Chris Carr, for visits. But its reluctance to pay much on the open market this offseason forced those two players to sign with other teams.
|Laveranues Coles, Domonique Foxworth and Matt Birk headline this year's free-agent additions in the AFC North.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
NFL free agency was created to improve the competitive balance and shake up rosters on an annual basis. This year is no different.
Therefore, meet the replacements -- AFC North style. There are no Shane Falcos in this group, although Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco developed that "The Replacements"-inspired nickname with his team last year.
Nonetheless, these players filling in will have a major impact on the success of their respective AFC North teams next season.
Replacing: Bryant McFadden
Reason for hope: Gay began to earn a decent amount of playing time during the second half of the Steelers' season, and there was no significant drop-off in production. He impressed the coaching staff so much that even when McFadden returned from a broken arm, the team still didn't want to keep Gay off the field. Now he gets to play full time.
Reason for concern: Sometimes the hardest adjustment for a cornerback is jumping from being a situational player to a full-time starter. Gay will no longer defend a team's No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. If he proves not to be ready for that jump, Pittsburgh will hope to get one more year out of aging veteran and longtime starter Deshea Townsend. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers replace McFadden, now with the Cardinals.
Domonique Foxworth, CB, Baltimore Ravens
Reason for hope: Combined with teammate Fabian Washington, Foxworth gives the Ravens one of the fastest cornerback tandems in the NFL. The Ravens run a lot of blitz packages from their 3-4 defense and need to make sure nothing gets behind them in case the call doesn't lead to a sack. Usually, safety Ed Reed will play deep centerfield to protect against the big play. But with two speedy corners, the coaching staff can move Reed around more next year and allow him even more flexibility, which is scary.
Reason for concern: Until last season in Atlanta, Foxworth had the label of "career backup." Sure, he was backing up two good corners in Champ Bailey and Dre Bly in Denver. But it is somewhat of a risk to pay a player $27 million after one season of starting with the Atlanta Falcons. Foxworth will have to answer those critics who will question his inexperience. Someone will have to step up since the Ravens waived McAlister and Rolle might see the same fate or be used as a nickelback.
Matt Birk, C, Baltimore Ravens
Replacing: Jason Brown
Reason for hope: The Ravens lost up-and-coming center Brown -- a free agent who signed with the Rams -- but signed a six-time Pro Bowler in Birk. He has been one of the best centers in the NFL for the past decade and will bring stability and more veteran leadership to the offensive line that already has tackle Willie Anderson. Birk also will help bring along a young signal-caller in second-year quarterback Flacco.
Reason for concern: In signing Birk, the team gained experience but also got six years older at the position. Birk will be 33 at the beginning of the 2009 season and has some wear and tear on his body after playing in the trenches for 12 seasons. He has started all 16 games the past three seasons. The Ravens are hoping that clean bill of heath continues for Birk in 2009.
Replacing: Bart Scott
Reason for hope: The Ravens have two potential replacements for Scott, now with the Jets. Therefore, they have twice as good a chance to find a suitable replacement in time for next season. Gooden was a third-round pick in 2008 from the University of Miami and a player who impressed fellow Hurricane Ray Lewis. The veteran Lewis has tutored many linebackers before, including Scott, and will have to teach another young player the position. McClain was an undrafted surprise from the University of Syracuse and registered 2.5 sacks in limited playing time. Sometimes he is compared to Scott in Baltimore because both players were undrafted.
Reason for concern: Scott is as physical a linebacker as there is in the NFL. He did a lot of the dirty work, such as blowing up fullbacks and offensive linemen at the point of attack to allow teammates like Lewis and Terrell Suggs to clean up and make plays. Both Gooden and McClain have ability. But it remains to be seen if either can bring that same type of physicality in what is essentially a "bodyguard” role for Lewis, Suggs, Reed and others.
Replacing: T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Reason for hope: Coles is a savvy veteran receiver who has meshed well with a lot of different quarterbacks. Last year, he developed good on-field chemistry with Brett Favre and should have no problems playing with Carson Palmer, who remains one of the league's best quarterbacks when healthy. Coles should fit in seamlessly.
Reason for concern: Coles is no longer a game-breaking receiver. He will be asked to replace current Seahawk Houshmandzadeh's tremendous production, but Coles is not the type of player who will record 90 to 100 receptions per season. Therefore, a combination of players will have to make up for those numbers, whether it is Chad Ocho Cinco having a monster year or Coles combining with one of the younger receivers to equal Houshmandzadeh's output.
Replacing: Kellen Winslow Jr.
Reason for hope: First-year Browns coach Eric Mangini is familiar with Royal after battling the former AFC East division rival Buffalo Bills during Mangini's days with the New York Jets. The signing is out of respect for Royal's ability and hopes that he can bring some stability to the position. There is also depth with teammates Steve Heiden and Martin Rucker.
Reason for concern: Current Buccaneer Winslow is a unique talent and a top-five player at his position when healthy. Browns fans have become accustomed to tremendous production from that position over the years with Ozzie Newsome in the 1980s and Winslow most recently, but Royal is simply not that caliber of player.
David Bowens, OLB/ILB, Cleveland Browns
Reason for hope: Bowens, who just signed Wednesday night, has the versatility to play inside or outside in a 3-4 defense. Mangini had Bowens for two seasons as coach of the New York Jets. Bowens will be able to start right away and help the younger players quickly adapt to the new scheme. With 32.5 career sacks, he should also bring a much-needed pass rush to Cleveland.
Reason for concern: Bowens was mostly a career backup who is now being asked to be a full-time starter in Cleveland. At 31, he is a stopgap player who will be able to teach the young players the position for a few seasons. Bowens never has had more than 41 tackles in a season. Bowens is talented enough to do his part, but he is not the difference-maker defensively that the Browns have long searched for. McGinest is not on the Browns' roster and Davis signed with the Broncos.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- Considering the team's moves in free agency, including Wednesday's deal with linebacker Ray Lewis, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome has proven he is "among the elite of team decision-makers in all of sports."
- The three-year, $22 million agreement between Lewis and the Ravens should ensure the linebacker finishes his career in Baltimore.
- The Ravens will replace free-agent departee Jason Brown with six-time Pro-Bowl center Matt Birk, who agreed to a three-year deal on Wednesday.
- A day after losing T.J. Houshmandzadeh to Seattle, the Bengals signed free agent receiver Laveranues Coles to a four-year contract Wednesday, worth a reported $28 million.
- The Bengals are reportedly close to an agreement with former 49ers signal-caller J.T. O'Sullivan.
- The team signed its first player in the free-agency period, agreeing to terms with former Bills tight end Robert Royal Wednesday night.
- The Browns are hosting two players from coach Eric Mangini's former team, the New York Jets. Free agents David Bowens and C.J. Mosley were scheduled to arrive in Cleveland Wednesday night.
- Things are quiet for the Steelers on the free-agency front: No free agents have visited the team this week and none are expected through the weekend.