AFC North: Steve Smith
This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.
The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.
How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.
Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.
The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.
Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.
Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.
Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.
Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.
Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.
Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.
The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.
Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.
McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow..
"The first thing I told the defensive backs in the room was, ‘Look, don’t get him mad. He plays a lot harder when he’s mad. Just leave him alone. Let a sleeping dog lay,'" Pees said.
He runs every drill at full speed, which rubs off on his fellow wide receivers and tests the Ravens' cornerbacks. The Ravens have had intense players in the past like Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin, but neither practiced at this level during their last few years with the team.
"He’s just so competitive. He brings an edge to practice all the time," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "He challenges people, as far as how you play and how you go about doing [your work]. He’s challenged coaches, too. Every good offense that I’ve been around, I’ve had a few of those guys saying, ‘Get me the ball, Coach!’ and that’s a good thing, and that’s what you want. He works to get the ball, so that’s what’s impressive to me.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera expressed concern that Smith would wear himself down by the way he practices. At 35 years old, Smith is the oldest player on the Ravens' roster.
But the Ravens haven't asked Smith to tone it down. In fact, it's one of the reasons the Ravens signed him to a three-year, $11.5 million contract in free agency.
“You definitely see the fire," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "I’ve known Steve for a couple of years now, but to actually play with him and see the way he works, he takes everything serious, he’s very passionate and there are some people … I guess if you’re not used to a guy who’s passionate about his job, it comes off as raunchy, but it fits here. There are plenty of guys like that here. He’s perfect for us."
Smith is getting better every week with the Ravens because he's becoming more comfortable with Kubiak's offense.
On Wednesday, he continually beat defenders on slants and out-muscled corners for contested passes. Kubiak said it was Smith's best practice as a Raven so far.
“Steve Smith, I could use some adjectives,” Pees said. “He’s a pain in a good way. The guy is a heck of a player. He’s everything advertised."
"Obviously [the media] always seems to have something to say, have a comment," Smith said after an offseason practice. "So, I love to read those and like to serve a little humble pie to you once I do a little bit compared to what you think.”
To be honest, it's difficult to find many Smith haters these days. Try Googling "Steve Smith and criticism" or "bad signing" and nothing really pops up about him being past his prime.
Smith's bigger battle is with history. Not many NFL wide receivers have been productive once they hit the age of 35. Before Smith starts cutting me a slice of humble pie, this isn't to suggest that Smith will be a failure in Baltimore.
Here are some facts provided by ESPN Stats & Info:
- Since 2001, only five wide receivers have caught at least 70 passes after turning 35: Oakland's Jerry Rice, Denver's Rod Smith, the Ravens' Derrick Mason, Cincinnati's Terrell Owens and San Diego's Keenan McCardell.
- Over that same span, only four have produced a 1,000-yard receiving season after turning 35: Rice, Rod Smith, Mason and Tampa Bay's Joey Galloway.
- Only one wide receiver 35 or older caught a pass last season: the Ravens' Brandon Stokley, who finished with 13.
Smith was a model of consistency with the Carolina Panthers. Over the past nine seasons, he has caught more than 70 passes in six seasons and put together six 1,000-yard seasons.
There could be concern that Smith is on the decline after last season, when he managed 64 catches for 745 yards receiving. Both were his lowest totals since 2010.
Smith's season wouldn't be considered a disaster if he failed to reach 70 catches and 1,000 yards receiving. The Ravens won't have to rely heavily on Smith because they have emerging young receivers who can stretch the field (Torrey Smith) and score in the red zone (Marlon Brown).
The Ravens signed Smith to a three-year, $11.5 million deal as much for his intangibles as his stats.
"I think he fits in," coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s our kind of guy in a lot of ways. I like the competitor. I like the fire in him –- the toughness. But I also think he’s a really good player. And I'll say this: Watching him out at practice, he’s still a really good player. There’s no doubt. He’s going to help us a lot."
The Ravens have a history of getting productive seasons out of players they signed who were older than 30: Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Steve McNair, Trevor Pryce, Daryl Smith and Mason.
Smith is like those players in terms of their professionalism and competitiveness. He is known for hating to take any reps off in practice. He hasn't even had time to get dinner with quarterback Joe Flacco because he's too busy with the playbook.
"Like last night, I know guys were watching the basketball game; the basketball game was watching me," Smith said. "I fell asleep studying, woke up studying, and got here [to the Ravens' facility]."
There will never be any concern about Smith's work ethic or finding a source of motivation for him.
"The [defensive back] that’s going to be sitting in front of me, he’s going to find out how much I have left in the tank," Smith said, "and he’ll find out real quick.”
With free agency and the draft in the books and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Baltimore Ravens' offseason moves.
Riskiest move: Not addressing right tackle in free agency or the draft. At this point, the Ravens are going with Rick Wagner as their starting right tackle. How big of a risk is this? Wagner is a fifth-round pick who has a career total of 131 snaps on offense. The Ravens made the right decision in not re-signing Michael Oher. He wasn't worth the four-year, $20 million contract given to him by the Tennessee Titans. Many thought the Ravens would find his replacement in the draft. But it would've been a reach to take a right tackle where the Ravens were sitting in the first three rounds. If Wagner struggles, the Ravens can either sign veteran free agent Eric Winston or move left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle.
Most surprising move: Taking defensive players with their top three draft picks. The Ravens stuck with their best player available strategy and came away with three players ranked in their top 40. The problem is, none will help the fourth-worst offense in the NFL. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley is the future foundation of the defense, Timmy Jernigan is expected to eventually replace Haloti Ngata as a force in the middle of the line, and Terrence Brooks is penciled in to start right away at free safety. Count the Ravens among those surprised. General manager Ozzie Newsome said their board was stacked with more offensive players, but the highest-rated player in the first three rounds ended up being a defensive player. It was bad luck for quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Biggest loss: Cornerback Corey Graham. The Ravens lost five starters in free agency: Oher, defensive tackle Art Jones, linebacker Jameel McClain, safety James Ihedigbo and tight end Ed Dickson. But the hardest player to replace is going to be Graham, the third cornerback who signed a four-year, $16.3 million contract with the Buffalo Bills in free agency. Graham was a starter on the Ravens' Super Bowl team and led the team with four interceptions last season as the nickelback. His toughness and experience leaves a void in the secondary. The Ravens haven't seen enough of Chykie Brown or Asa Jackson to have any confidence that either one can fill that hole. There's a major drop-off from starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.
To do that the Steelers will have to spend their first-round pick on Brandin Cooks even though he would do anything but add size to their receiving corps.
Take that eye-popping time, Cooks' production in college -- he caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns last season -- and his swagger and there is a lot to like about this guy.
Speed, after all, wasn't the only thing that Cooks displayed at the combine. He called himself the best wide receiver in the draft and explained from where such confidence emanates.
"Numbers don't lie and I feel like no one is out there working harder than me," Cooks said. "I have a lot to prove. They say I'm not the tallest but I feel like there's so many guys in this game today that are potential Hall of Famers like Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson. I can go down the list and there's under 5-10 [players] that are great receivers in this game. For me, I'm a playmaker.”
Cooks has a believer in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
Kiper ranks Cooks as the No. 3 wide receiver in the draft behind only Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans -- the two players Cooks beat out for the Biletnikoff Award in 2013 -- and the 15th-best player overall.
Kiper has compared Cooks to Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin, the eighth overall pick of the 2013 draft, but said Cooks is quicker, stronger and a little bigger than Austin.
Kiper has the Ravens taking Cooks at No. 17 overall in his latest mock draft. But the Steelers could give him serious consideration at No. 15 depending on how the draft shakes out before they make their first pick.
I'm all for the Steelers adding a tall receiver to the offense but it doesn't look like the 6-foot-5 Evans will last until the 15th pick of the draft. And the Steelers are setting themselves up to make a mistake if they place too much of a premium on height when assigning draft grades to wide receivers.
As Cooks said, "Speed kills and I feel like that's what I'm going to bring to the game."
This is a good problem to have if you're the Ravens. The average age of their receivers is 25, so it's an added plus that Smith has this type of nonstop work ethic.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh runs a tough training camp, but he's smart with older players. Veterans get an extra day off during the summer because Harbaugh doesn't want to wear them down.
Smith, who turns 35 in May, is the oldest player on the Ravens' roster. Including Smith, there are only seven Ravens players who are in their 30s.
But Harbaugh doesn't force his older players to take a day off. Rivera wonders whether Smith can keep up such a pace in the later stages of his career.
"He's going to wear himself down," Rivera said. "Steve wants to take every rep. I give you an example. We tell Steve today's your day off. OK, we go out there and he's in pads. He says I just want to wear them out when I go through drills. The next thing you know he's in team drills. That's just the way he is. He wants to do everything all the time."
Rivera, though, made it clear that Smith can still help the Ravens.
"Steve still has it," Rivera said. "There are some things Steve will do very well for [the Ravens]. Steve is an explosive, dynamic player."
That also, according to Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, may be Smith's downfall.
At least at 35, which he'll be in May.
Before I go any further, that wasn't why the Panthers released their all-time leading receiver a few weeks ago. Rivera was just answering a question about whether Smith still has what it takes to be a top receiver for his new team, the Baltimore Ravens.
"Steve still has it,'' Rivera said. "There are some things Steve will do very well for [Baltimore]. Steve is an explosive, dynamic player. He's a veteran guy. One of the things, in my opinion, Steve needs to do is learn to tone things down. He practices very hard. He's going to give 100 percent. He's going to challenge.
"At his age, his seniority, he has to handle himself. But he still has it. He made the big catch for us in the playoffs.''
Rivera was referring to a 31-yard touchdown pass Smith caught down the left sideline to give Carolina a 7-6 lead over San Francisco in the second quarter of the NFC divisional playoff loss.
It should be noted that Smith beat the San Francisco secondary after being questionable all week with a knee injury that forced him to miss the regular-season finale.
It also should be noted that Smith's work ethic is one of the things Baltimore coach John Harbaugh wants to rub off on his young receivers.
But Rivera still believes Smith needs to tone his practice habits.
"He's going to wear himself down,'' he said. "Steve wants to take every rep. I'll give you an example. We tell Steve today's your day off. We go out there and he's in pads. He says, 'I just want to wear them out when I go through drills.' The next thing you know he's in team drills.
"That's just the way he is. He wants to do everything all the time.''
Whether Smith will tone down remains to be seen. The chip on his shoulder after being cut by Carolina has gotten bigger. He's said repeatedly he wants to be in the best shape a 35-year-old receiver can be.
And as Rivera said, "Steve will find ways to make plays.''
But sometimes you have to do less to do more.
It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown and ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.
Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?
David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.
Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?
Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.
I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.
Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?
Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.
Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?
Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.
The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.
David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?
Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.
How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?
Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.
I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.
Most significant loss: CB Corey Graham. The more popular answer is defensive tackle Arthur Jones, but I can see the Ravens filling his role with increased snaps from Brandon Williams and DeAngelo Tyson. The loss of Graham, who signed with the Buffalo Bills, creates more of a hole. Graham was a starter on the Ravens' Super Bowl team and led the team with four interceptions last season as the nickelback. His toughness and experience is going to be hard to replace. The Ravens haven't seen enough of Chykie Brown or Asa Jackson to have any confidence that either one can fill that void. There's a major drop-off from starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.
What's next: The Ravens still have a long list of needs, even after being active in the first week of free agency. The priority has to be finding a free safety. The Ravens want someone whose strength is coverage, which would complement strong safety Matt Elam. But the Ravens were spectators as many of the best safeties were signed early in free agency. Their remaining options are Miami's Chris Clemons, Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud and Denver's Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback who is open to switching to safety. The Ravens could wait to address free safety in the draft, but that would be risky. Teams usually don't want two young safeties because a mistake at that position can easily result in a touchdown.
"I don't see myself in Coach Kubiak's system like [Texans WR] Andre Johnson] -- I see the complementary dude of [former Texans receiver] Kevin Walter," Smith said. "I see how he contributed and how he was instrumental in getting Andre the ball but also getting his own opportunities."
There are no inflated expectations of Smith being a top-10 wide receiver in the NFL this season. This is extremely important for the chemistry of the offense. Wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta are hitting the prime of their careers, and they shouldn't have to sacrifice opportunities just to make Smith happy.
All indications point to Smith coming to terms as to what he can bring as a soon-to-be 35-year-old receiver. He only had 64 catches for 745 yards last season, among the worst numbers of his career when healthy. Last week, even before signing with the Ravens, Smith acknowledged that he is no longer a No. 1 wide receiver in this league.
He basically delivered the same message Friday, saying he wants to be a part of the offense and not the star of it. Smith had to carry the passing game in Carolina for years, and it sounds like he is happy to get that burden removed.
"I wanted to go into a system that I could be utilized but I could also benefit from other great players," Smith said. "I think Torrey Smith is going to be a fantastic player. They've got some [players] -- Jacoby Jones, Ray Rice -- they've got some guys that are already established. It takes a lot of pressure off of me, and I look forward to that.”
Smith brings impressive receiving numbers as well as a colorful past from Carolina to Baltimore. ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Panthers reporter David Newton weigh in on the signing.
Hensley: Smith turns 35 in May. He had only 64 catches for 745 yards last season, among the worst numbers of his career when healthy. He acknowledged he's no longer a No. 1 wide receiver. What kind of production do you think Smith will have in 2014?
Newton: Probably slightly more than he would have had at Carolina now that the chip on his shoulder has gotten a little bit bigger. I can easily see him with 60 to 70 catches for 700 to 800 yards. But what Smith brings to the Ravens will go beyond catches. He'll make the running game better because he's a tenacious blocker. He'll draw coverage to free up the other wide receivers and tight ends. And he'll bring an attitude that will demand that everybody on offense plays better. I see this as a win-win-win for the Ravens and a loss for the Panthers.
My question to you is since Smith says he's no longer the No. 1 receiver, how do you see him fitting into the Baltimore lineup?
Hensley: I see him as an excellent fit with the Ravens. This reminds me of the times when the Ravens added experienced receivers Derrick Mason in 2005 and Anquan Boldin in 2010. Actually, Smith shares similarities with both receivers. Just like Mason, he can move the chains with comeback routes. Just like Boldin, he brings that fiery attitude that was sorely lacking in the Ravens' offense last season. Smith just has to be a complementary piece in the passing attack. Last season, defenses only had to worry about wide receiver Torrey Smith because tight end Dennis Pitta was hurt for most of the season. Now, teams have to defend Torrey Smith going deep, Pitta running over the middle and Steve Smith making a big play after breaking a tackle.
Steve Smith is known for his extreme personality. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman reportedly felt it was a distraction. Should the Ravens be concerned about Smith's influence in the locker room?
Newton: As I've said repeatedly through this process, the Steve Smith of five years ago might have been an issue in the locker room. The Steve Smith of today -- not so much. He's grown up a lot since his last incident with a teammate in 2008. I won't say he's mellowed, but football no longer is his entire life as it once was. He's enjoying life on and off the field more than ever. Does that mean he won't get in the face of a teammate if he feels that player isn't pulling his weight? No. But don't you want that to a certain level? Smith is a fiery player, and sometimes he gets fiery with his teammates. He's also a player teammates and opponents have to respect.
On that note, the statement from Baltimore management said Smith will add leadership to the team. Is this something that has been missing and something an outsider can correct?
Hensley: The Ravens have leaders on offense, but they're all low key. Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith and Pitta aren't going to bring that emotional spark. They're nice guys, perhaps too nice at times. What I think Ravens officials really meant by leadership is Steve Smith's desire to make clutch plays. You hear it all the time: Big-time players step up in big games. That's where the Ravens really missed Boldin last season. Boldin didn't put up spectacular numbers, but he wanted the ball on third downs and in the fourth quarter. Based on Smith's history in Carolina, the Ravens feel he can fill that void.
Smith signed a three-year deal. How many years do you think he has left?
Newton: It all depends on avoiding injuries. His goal is to finish his career ranked in the top 10 all time in receptions and receiving yards. It'll probably take three years for him to get there. He may have lost a step or two over the years, but he's still solid at creating separation and getting open -- maybe better at that now than he was earlier in his career from what he calls a few "tricks" Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl taught him. He's also in incredible shape, aside from a recent stop at In-N-Out Burger on a trip out West. Carolina coach Ron Rivera said during training camp this past year that nobody works harder than Smith. He'll work harder to prove he's not washed up.
Having said that, do you think Baltimore signed him in hopes that he'll play three years or as a one- or two-year stopgap?
Hensley: The Ravens would be happy if he was able to play a couple of years, but they realize this could be a one-year rental. The way his contract is set up, they would have only $2.3 million in dead money if they cut him after one season and they would have to pay him only $3 million each season (a relative bargain) if he plays in 2015 and 2016. So, the Ravens can let Smith's play dictate how long he'll be with them. That said, the signing of Smith won't stop the Ravens from drafting a wide receiver in May. It's a deep draft at that position, and the Ravens want to add as many targets for Flacco as possible. The Ravens are hoping an experienced leader like Smith will mentor a young group of wide receivers. They're paying Smith for what he can do for this team on and off the field.
The Baltimore Ravens improved their offense Friday when they signed wide receiver Steve Smith to a three-year, $11.5 million contract, although that's really beside the point. Any wide receiver signed by the Ravens this offseason -- Julian Edelman, Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks -- would have significantly helped Joe Flacco and the NFL's 29th-ranked offense.
What Smith brings that no one else out there could is attitude. The Ravens are meaner. They're tougher. They now have a fiery edge that was missing from an offense that was caught sleepwalking through most of last season. Smith brings a much-needed punch, and he has been known to throw one in his career.
The Ravens made the mistake of trading Anquan Boldin after their Super Bowl season. They paid the price for it on every failed third-down try and each frustrating trip in the red zone. At the end of the season, coach John Harbaugh lamented the fact that the Ravens never replaced Boldin.
This is the Ravens' answer to Boldin. Smith is just as fearless when it comes to taking a hit and fighting for extra yards. He's just as tenacious when fighting for the ball when it's tight coverage. He's just as clutch when it comes to wanting the ball in the most critical situations.
How does Smith feel about replacing Boldin?
"I'm not Anquan Boldin," Smith said. "I respect the heck out of ‘Q,’ and what ‘Q’ brings to the table is what ‘Q’ brings to the table. I'm Steve Smith, and what I bring to the table as a Baltimore Raven, I have to earn that, and my time on the field will display what I bring to the table."
Smith is right. Boldin is bigger, but Smith is badder. He's 5-foot-9, 185 pounds of heart, muscle and pure intensity. During his 13 years with the Carolina Panthers, he built a reputation for intimidating everyone on the field when he's often the smallest one on it.
His goal isn't to just beat a defender. Smith wants it to hurt. After winning his matchup with Aqib Talib last season, Smith didn't take it easy on him even after the New England cornerback left the game early because of a hip injury, telling Talib to "ice up, son."
"We've added one of the top competitors in the NFL to the Ravens," general manager Ozzie Newsome said.
Smith is also one of the most complicated figures in the NFL. He's so beloved in Carolina that fans protested outside the stadium after his release Thursday. He's also the same player who punched his own teammate during a training camp practice in 2008 and got suspended two games.
As one Charlotte columnist put it, "He could be a jerk. But hey, he was our jerk."
Even though the Ravens were considered the favorite to land Smith, it was legitimate to question whether Harbaugh wanted someone with Smith's extreme personality. After the Super Bowl, the Ravens let most of their outspoken players go elsewhere. Boldin was traded, safety Ed Reed wasn't re-signed and safety Bernard Pollard was cut.
Smith says he doesn't believe the Ravens want him to change after talking to team officials for two days. In fact, what won Smith over was their message of "be yourself."
"Steve is a Ravens-style football player," Harbaugh said. "He always has been in our eyes, it's just that he's been playing for another team. We've respected and admired the way he plays, and we've always been challenged playing against him. I've known him ever since he came into the league, and we've always had a great relationship. The last two days, however, have given all of us with the Ravens an opportunity to get to know him on another level, and now, we're even more impressed."
Smith isn't the same wide receiver who went to five Pro Bowls, and he's the first to acknowledge that. A few months away from turning 35, Smith said he's no longer a No. 1 wide receiver.
The Ravens don't need him to be Smith from 2005 when he caught 103 passes or the Smith from 2011 when he produced 1,394 yards receiving. They want Smith to become that third complementary piece to the passing attack. The Ravens' offense can resemble the one that exploded during the Super Bowl run if Smith, wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta are all catching passes.
Torrey Smith can stretch the field, Pitta can run intermediate routes over the middle and Steve Smith can be that dependable target who delivers when the Ravens need him the most. Steve Smith remains a third-down monster. His signature move is spinning the ball after he picks up a first down.
Making the pivotal play in the fourth quarter is also still part of Smith's game. The biggest moment in Carolina's 2013 season was when Smith caught a 19-yard pass on fourth-and-10 to continue a game-winning drive against the Miami Dolphins, even though everyone knew where the ball was going.
"Steve is a proven player who has performed his best in big games and on the biggest stages like the playoffs and Super Bowl," Newsome said. "He adds toughness to our offense, big-play ability and leadership to our team."
The Ravens could've signed a bigger receiver. But Smith, who hasn't missed more than two games in a regular season since 2005, is more dependable than Nicks.
The Ravens could've added a younger receiver. But Smith has a more proven track record than Edelman and Decker, who had All-Pro quarterbacks throwing the ball to them.
In the end, the Ravens chose Smith over everyone else for one reason: He doesn't just help them win; he has the mental toughness to will them to win.
"I believe and the Baltimore Ravens believe that I can help increase the chances of us being successful, and so that's what we're going to do," Smith said. "We're going to swing for the fence, and there’s nothing wrong with that."
Smith decided to cancel his trip to the New England Patriots and reached a three-year, $11 million contract with the Ravens on Friday.
How interested were the Patriots? Smith spoke to New England coach Bill Belichick on the way to the airport before his flight to Baltimore on Thursday night.
"We had a conversation that indicated that they were very interested in me," Smith said in a conference call Friday. "I was very open to go there as well. I really felt like after sitting here [in Baltimore] that this was the place that I felt best fit me, and they convinced me that I would fit in here very well."
Smith learned how many teams wanted him when the Carolina Panthers released him Thursday.
According to Smith, the San Diego Chargers had an offer on the table. Chargers head coach Mike McCoy had coached Smith for eight years in Carolina.
The Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins also expressed interest, Smith said.
"It's not really a value of how many other teams were in the mix," Smith said. "The thing that's the most important that I found a home that seems to want me."
On Thursday, Smith said he intended to take visits next week because he wanted to enjoy the recruitment part of free agency. But the Ravens did a tremendous job of selling themselves in two days with Smith.
"One thing that they said that was consistent was we want you to be yourself," Smith said. "That was good. That was very encouraging."
According to the Charlotte Observer, Smith is planning to take other visits next week. By the way Smith is talking, he is looking forward to being wooed by other teams.
"I'm going to get a few free dinners out of it at nice, expensive restaurants and see what it's [recruiting process] like," Smith said on Sirius XM's Bleacher Report Radio. "I want to enjoy and absorb this experience that, quite frankly, I will never experience again."
The Ravens don't want Smith to leave their lavish 200,000-square foot team facility without an agreement. So, how can the Ravens seal the deal with Smith on Friday?
Let's take a look at what the Ravens will be selling to the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver ...
Chance for a championship: When Smith walks into the Ravens' lobby, he'll see the Lombardi Trophy the Ravens won 14 months ago. The Ravens have been one of the surest bets to make the playoffs, winning a postseason game in five of coach John Harbaugh's six seasons. He has guided Baltimore to the AFC Championship Game three times during that span. This should catch the attention of an aging veteran who hasn't won a playoff game since 2005.
Opportunity for prime role: Smith made the surprising statement Thursday that he's no longer a No. 1 wide receiver. That being said, it's hard to believe a receiver of Smith's stature doesn't want a major role in the offense. The Ravens don't have a clear-cut No. 1 target. Neither wide receiver Torrey Smith nor tight end Dennis Pitta has caught more than 65 passes in a season. Smith won't have to carry the passing game, but the Ravens can virtually guarantee he'll get as many passes thrown his way as anyone else.
Gary Kubiak's track record: The biggest change to the Ravens' offense so far this offseason has been hiring Gary Kubiak as the offensive coordinator, and the Ravens will likely promote his success of throwing the ball in Houston. Kubiak's Texans ranked in the top half of the NFL in passing offense six times over the past seven seasons, including three top-five finishes. This would be a refreshing change for Smith, who played on the NFL's fourth-worst passing attack last season.
Stability at quarterback: Joe Flacco isn't an elite NFL quarterback, and he's coming off his worst season. But Flacco was the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player a year ago. He has one of the strongest arms in the league. He also has won 71 games (including playoffs) since 2008, which is three more than any other quarterback during the span. His 14,961 yards passing are the ninth-most in the league over the past four seasons. Smith would have more stability at the quarterback position in Baltimore than he would in Tampa Bay, and he would have a quarterback with a less volatile demeanor than he would in San Diego.
Proximity: After being released by the Panthers, Smith made it clear how strong his ties are to North Carolina. "I plan to grow old with my wife in the Charlotte community, and I plan on being buried in the Charlotte community," Smith said. Of his prospective teams, Baltimore is the closest to his adopted hometown. If Smith doesn't want to be that far from Charlotte, this could be a big advantage for the Ravens over New England and San Diego.