AFC North: T.J. Ward

Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.

The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.

So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.

Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:

1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.

2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.

3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.

4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.

6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.

8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.

9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.

11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.

12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.

13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.

14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.

15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.

Free-agency primer: Browns

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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: C Alex Mack (transition), S T.J. Ward, G Shawn Lauvao

Where they stand: The Cleveland Browns have a ton of salary-cap space and a ton of needs. The team hopes the transition tag keeps suitors from signing Mack, but they could have ensured he’d stay in Cleveland by simply paying another $1.6 million and making him the franchise player. If he leaves, that means the Browns have added another need to others that include safety, guard, inside linebacker, running back and receiver. They could go in any direction they choose in free agency, but given the strength of the draft at receiver, that is probably one area they will bypass.

What to expect: The Browns should be active on the free agent market. They have cap room, they have needs and they have an owner in Jimmy Haslam who has made no secret he feels this offseason is critical to the team’s future. Guessing what positions the Browns focus on might be foolish, but clearly they need help at safety, and they could go after Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd. They also need help at linebacker after the release of D'Qwell Jackson, and they need help at guard. The biggest splash might just come at running back, though, where a guy like Houston’s Ben Tate might appeal to Mike Pettine’s physical approach. As for the much-needed and discussed quarterback spot, look for the Browns to bypass free agency and look to the draft.
Safety T.J. Ward could become a free agent on March 11, but the Browns have tried to keep him in Cleveland.

Ward
The team, though, chose to apply the transition tag to center Alex Mack and not make Ward the franchise or transition player. That means Ward could be able to test the open market when free agency begins.

Ward can negotiate with the Browns up to and after the start of free agency.

Ward's agent Josh Arnold released a statement this week addressing Ward's status.

It read:

“After receiving numerous requests from local and national media outlets, fans, and several others connected to the Cleveland community, we felt it necessary to provide a statement with respect to T.J.'s current contract situation.

“Detailed contract discussions with multiple front office executives of the Browns began last month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Since then, several conversations have occurred in an attempt to secure a new deal for T.J., but we've yet to agree on terms that work for both sides.

“T.J. has proven himself to be not only an elite NFL safety, but an elite and top NFL player league wide, which is evidenced by him earning both All Pro and Pro Bowl recognition this past season. With the passing of the franchise/transition tag deadline, we remain open to further discussions with the Browns in working towards a long-term deal and look forward to that possibility.

“However, if things don't work out in Cleveland, we likewise look forward to the opportunity that can coincide with becoming an unrestricted free agent. Several factors will be considered before making a final decision that will provide best for T.J. and his family.”


There you have it.
Would you trade T.J. Ward for Jairus Byrd?

One Pro Bowl safety for another?

In essence, that may happen as the confluence of several forces may have Ward leaving the Cleveland Browns as a free agent and Byrd becoming a free agent and joining the Browns.

[+] EnlargeByrd
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesWith his ties to Browns coaches, Jairus Byrd could be a target if he leaves Buffalo.
Two of those three events are well on track to happening. The Browns have not re-signed Ward, nor have the Bills re-signed Byrd. Both could be free agents. There appeared to be a time when the Browns would place the franchise tag on Ward, but that was before Mike Pettine was hired as coach, which makes any of his ex-players in Buffalo an option.

“I had a great time with him in Buffalo,” Pettine said of Byrd. “He’s an outstanding player.”

In the same interview, Pettine also talked of D'Qwell Jackson as if he were Dick Butkus, then the Browns released Jackson. So what a coach says in the offseason can’t be taken as gospel. But there is a relationship between Pettine and Byrd.

Pettine coached Byrd last season, and though the two had a rocky beginning they came to like each other. Logic says that Byrd would want to join Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Brien in Cleveland -- but logic discounts the fact there are 30 other teams in the league, many of whom also might want a Pro Bowl safety.

Would Byrd prefer a losing environment and a new coach he’s familiar with in Cleveland to, say, Philadelphia, which went to the playoffs with Chip Kelly in his first season as coach? Money usually talks in those cases, and the Browns have in excess of $50 million in salary-cap room.

Byrd and the Bills have talked, but no long-term deal has been completed. Reports from Buffalo indicate the team is not going to use the franchise tag on Byrd for the second year in a row.

It’s unclear how serious the talks have been between the Browns and Ward. Pettine said both Ward and center Alex Mack helped the Browns win, though the Browns didn’t win very often.

A new coach usually likes one or two or four or five of his guys. Byrd is a very good safety with 22 career interceptions, a guy who turns the ball over to the offense. Ward is more of a physical safety; his coverage has improved, but it’s not his strength. The pairing of Byrd and Tashaun Gipson seem to fit Pettine’s side-of-the-field approach with his safeties.

"I think that’s key to our success,” Pettine said, speaking of his defensive approach and not specifically of any player. “Having guys who have the interchangeable skill set to do both. Teams can force safeties to change jobs anyway because of some of the things they can do pre-snap. So we want guys who can do both.''

At 28, Byrd has good years ahead, and he’s already been to three Pro Bowls. Adding him would make sense, but many teams are left waiting in free agency.

It’s all part of the never-ending cycle of change with the Cleveland Browns. They commit four years to Ward, who grows into a Pro Bowl player. Then because of a new coach, they let their own Pro Bowl player go in hopes of signing another.

It hasn’t happened yet.

But it could, and it would fit the pattern.
If the Cleveland Browns are not active in free agency, it won’t be because they lack the ability.

The NFL’s salary cap for 2014 is $133 million.

Heading into Monday, the Browns are $52.2 million under the cap, a figure that will be fluid depending on who is signed or released.

That’s a ton of room to add, sign or give extensions to deserving players.

The first order of business will be to decide if the Browns want to use the franchise tag, with the deadline set for 4 p.m. ET Monday.

The Browns' two candidates to be tagged are center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. Mack would cost $11.6 million, and Ward $8.4 million.

The team could work out a new contract with both prior to placing the tag on them, but must declare their franchise tag intentions by 4.

The Browns have the cap space to cover the cost of either player; they then could continue negotiations to sign them while effectively keeping him off the free-agent market, but a new deal would have to be agreed to by July 15.

Players the Browns may look to give contract extensions to include cornerback Joe Haden, receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. Linebacker Jabaal Sheard also could be considered.

According to ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert, the teams with the most salary-cap room will be the Raiders, Jaguars, Browns, Colts, Dolphins, Packers, Vikings, Bengals, Redskins and Jets.

Franchise/transition tags: Browns

February, 17, 2014
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Franchise-tag possibilities: center Alex Mack, safety T.J. Ward

Transition-tag possibilities: none

Player most likely to be franchised: Ward

Likelihood: 75 percent

Ward
Mack
Mack and Ward have both been productive starters for the Browns since they joined the team, Mack as a first-round pick in 2009, Ward as a second-rounder in 2010.

Neither, though, would be a possibility for the exclusive franchise tag. That would simply be too expensive. (For an explanation of the franchise and transition tags, click here.)

Ward would be a likely candidate for the non-exclusive tag.

That’s because, according to the new collective bargaining agreement, Mack would receive the average salary of the top 10 offensive linemen if he was tagged, not just the top centers. That includes left tackles, which makes tagging Mack a $10 million proposition. A year ago, the franchise-tag cost for an offensive lineman was $9.828 million. That figure will go up this year.

Safety, though, was a relative $6.916 million, a number that will go up this year.

Eight safeties average more than that figure per year, led by Troy Polamalu at $9.867 million and Eric Berry at $8.33 million. The same number (eight) have a higher salary-cap cost than $6.9 million.

Ward is probably among or close to the top 10 safeties in the league. His franchise cost would be in line with what others make. No team would give up two first-round draft picks for Ward, so if the Browns decide the salary cost is palatable, they could apply the tag and keep Ward with the Browns.

As for centers, only five offensive linemen average $10 million or more per season -- including the Browns' Joe Thomas. Only eight have a salary-cap cost of more than $10 million per season.

Mack is a very good player, but he’s not among the league’s top 10 linemen.

Finances would seem to dictate that if any Browns player receives the franchise tag, it will be Ward, and the chances are probably fairly good it happens.

What might change under Ray Farmer

February, 14, 2014
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Ray Farmer has never been a general manager before, so forecasting what he may or may not do with the Cleveland Browns is guesswork. That being said, he did give some hints when he talked on Tuesday.

Here’s an educated rundown on some possible approaches that may change with the move from Joe Banner/Mike Lombardi to Ray Farmer/Mike Pettine:

[+] EnlargeRay Farmer
AP Photo/Tony DejakWill Ray Farmer covet Johnny Manziel? Will he be honest with Browns fans? Will he pay and retain veteran players? These are just a few questions surrounding Cleveland's new general manager.
Johnny Football doesn’t become a Great Laker. Or a great Laker, though he’s not even playing basketball. ... Yes, I’ll be here all night. Tip your waitress. ... Johnny Manziel was said to be the sincere object of interest for Lombardi. In fact, many around the league were assuming Lombardi and the Browns would trade up to get him. That may still happen, but it’s sure not a guarantee. Farmer may like Manziel, he may not. Nobody really knows. “I’m definitely going to be aware of how the coaches feel,” Farmer said. “I’m going to be aware of how the scouts feel and I’m going to be aware of how I feel. I’ll mesh those opinions, as well as the other ones that we have, to make the right decision on who the quarterback should be going forward, assuming that’s the position that we actually take at that point.” If nothing else, speculation has gone from wondering about Manziel to wide open with Farmer in charge. There is no history or precedent for predicting.

It might not necessarily a quarterback first. Farmer is a former football player who seems to understand the importance of every position. He admits the draft board will be stacked his way, the way it was done in Kansas City and not necessarily the way it was done last year in Cleveland. That might open up the possibility that Farmer builds around the quarterback and fortifies other positions. “There will be a different tenor to how we kind of stack the (draft) room and what that looks like,” he said.

More football, less analytics. The analytics craze may yet hit football. It may make an impact. It hasn’t yet, though. With baseball, the numbers are more easily defined. A guy either does or doesn’t hit left-handers. He does or doesn’t prompt a lot of ground balls. He does or doesn’t hit well to the opposite field. There is a lengthy list of numbers that break down and prove what a guy is. Football analytics, from the outside at least, seem like defensive numbers in baseball. There’s too much subjectivity. There are also variables that can’t be measured like a cornerback’s closing quickness or a defensive lineman’s ability to get off blocks. Or heart. Or want. Or willingness to work during the week. Farmer seems more of a football guy who will rely on more tried-and-true football principles and measurements than statistical analysis.

The environment may truly be more open. Farmer does not seem averse to answering a question, nor does Pettine. While some may shrug that it doesn’t matter, this is a team that needs its connections with the city and fan base re-strengthened. There’s nothing wrong with being honest. Yes, some strategic items should be kept in-house, but the NFL has taken this belief to absurd lengths. Trust is important in any profession; it starts with honesty. Allowing fans a window of reasonable understanding is never a bad thing.

Age may not preclude a player getting paid. Banner said he got a bad rep for it, but his rep was he did not favor paying a lot of money for certain positions, and he did not favor paying guys as they aged. Sheldon Brown once went through a lengthy list of players allowed to depart the Eagles when Banner was there. There was clear belief that Banner didn’t want to pay guys past 30. This may help a guy such as D'Qwell Jackson, a guy the analytics may say not to pay, but a player a football guy such as Farmer might appreciate.

The approach with free agents may really be aggressive. Farmer will have a lot of salary cap space to bring in new players. A year ago, there was a similar situation and the big signees were Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant. This offseason it may change. And it may open the door for Alex Mack and T.J. Ward to return as well. Farmer wasn't tipping his hand, though, saying only: "We'll do everything in our power to make sure we have the right players for this football team moving forward," he said.

The bottom line. Farmer boiled it down when asked what changes he would try to bring to the Browns. His answer hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head. "I think we need the most improvement in wins," he said. "We have to find a way to win football games."
When pondering center Alex Mack's and safety T.J. Ward's futures, it's probably important to remember Mike Adams' foray into free agency.

Adams is a former Cleveland Browns safety now starting for the Denver Broncos and will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.

[+] EnlargeMike Adams
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesVeteran safety Mike Adams is finally playing for a winning team.
Tony Grossi caught up with Adams in New Jersey and did a fine story about his life and his career -- and his positive impact with the Browns.

Adams always played well for Cleveland, and was a positive presence in the locker room. For whatever reason, the Browns let him go as a free agent and he is now in Denver doing the things he did in Cleveland.

But as Grossi points out, it took Adams five years to win 28 games in Cleveland. He's now won 28 games in just two seasons with the Broncos.

There were a lot of reasons Denver won all those games, and most start and end with a guy named Peyton Manning. When Adams went into free agency, quarterback Tim Tebow was coming off a playoff win over Pittsburgh. It's to Adams' good fortune that John Elway recognized acquiring Manning was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he did not settle for Tebow.

That being said, Adams' experience shows what can happen with a free agent. When a player experiences losing for so long the way Mack and Ward have, the temptation to go somewhere to win has to be a factor.

Adams said he didn't want to leave Cleveland, that it was the Browns' choice to let him go. So it is not automatic by any means that a player will leave.

Mack and Ward both spoke of liking the team, the organization and the city. It's not inconceivable both could stay.

But CEO Joe Banner's history has not been to pay a ton of money at certain positions, and center and safety are among them. The former coaching staff was high on safety Josh Aubrey, who missed the season with an ankle injury. The Browns may feel he can step in for Ward. And they may feel that John Greco can slide from guard to center. The Browns haven't won many games with Ward and Mack; the team may feel it can't do worse without them. The Browns made no effort to sign them this past season, which also should be some indicator.

The Browns would lose something if both leave. They're both good players -- both were in the Pro Bowl this season -- and they're both smart. They are at the age where they should be hitting their peak.

So if they leave it would hurt, and it would create two more needs on a team that already has plenty.

The one unknown is whether the recent negativity that has surrounded the Browns affects a player's thinking on his future. A player might not like the idea of leaving his team -- until he sees how another team operates and he sees the money being offered.

In free agency, it only takes one team to make a player rich.

Ward and Mack have certainly earned the right to be free agents and test the market.

If the pair want an example of the potential positives of free agency, they only need look at Adams, who has promised to walk home to Paterson, N.J., if Denver wins.

That's quite a walk for a guy who walked away from losing two years ago.
It’s a safe bet that if new Browns coach Mike Pettine or anyone else in the organization was watching the Pro Bowl, their hearts skipped a beat early in the second quarter.

That was when Josh Gordon ran a reverse and safety T.J. Ward torpedoed Gordon for the tackle. The result sent Gordon flipping head over heels.

Great drama, especially for a practice game.

Except the hit from Ward looked pretty close to the hit that demolished the knee of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. Had Gordon been planted or extended, the result easily could have been a serious injury to the Browns premier player.

Ward went low, knee level. Just like he did to Gronkowski. Luckily for Gordon and the Browns, Gordon was able to see Ward coming and he jumped just before the hit, which resulted in the flip (the play is at the 50 second mark here).

Which shows the folly of the game, and the folly of the league’s publicity ploy that wound up having teammates play teammates (or teammates playing soon-to-be-free-agent-teammates) in a game that is supposed to approximate preseason play.

All the Browns would have needed would have been for the Gordon to be lost for the season with a knee injury in the Pro Bowl.

That it could have happened shows how silly the game has become, prime time draft or no prime time draft. It’s essentially is a Hawaiian vacation to the league’s best players with a sort-of-game at the end of the week, a game where nobody is supposed to get hurt.

Imagine the feelings in Cleveland had Gordon been injured.

The NFL’s newest format received positive reviews -- Tropical Thriller was the way that NFL.com labeled the game, an alliterative form of hyperbole if ever there was one -- but it’s still a practice game.

Gordon’s numbers and the touchdown passes caught by Gordon and Jordan Cameron were impressive. It was a great experience for the Browns six Pro Bowlers -- Gordon, Cameron, Alex Mack, Joe Haden, Joe Thomas and Ward.

But it sure wouldn’t have been worth an injury, especially from a teammate.
Mike Tomlin's worst nightmare could accompany the Steelers to the serene setting of St. Vincent College in late July.

The Steelers are one of just eight teams that are, ahem, eligible for HBO's “Hard Knocks” this year, and imagine the ratings bonanza that the only team to win six Super Bowls would provide with an inside look at its training camp.

Tomlin surely does not want to find out just how many viewers the Steelers would attract by appearing on "Hard Knocks."

He is as closely guarded about his team's inner workings as any coach, and Tomlin loves training camp because it minimizes distractions with players living in dorm rooms and abiding by curfews at the small college that has hosted the Steelers every summer for almost 50 years.

TV cameras with the kind of access that “Hard Knocks” enjoys are the last thing Tomlin wants as he molds a team that has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time on his watch.

The best-case scenario for Tomlin and the Steelers is that one of the other teams eligible for “Hard Knocks” is so desperate for the publicity that it lobbies the NFL to be the subject of the long-running series.

The Jaguars are among the eight teams eligible for “Hard Knocks,” and no team has more trouble filling its stadium than Jacksonville. The Steelers, meanwhile, need “Hard Knocks” as much as they need another season of offensive linemen dropping like bowling pins.

The show would offer a compelling look at Tomlin and one of the NFL's flagship franchises behind closed doors. But you can bet the Steelers will do everything they can to keep HBO from documenting their training camp anytime soon.

In other Steelers/NFL news:
  • The Steelers are down to one representative in the Pro Bowl after strong safety Troy Polamalu opted out of the annual all-star game with an injury. Funny, that Polamalu played every snap this season. But it's hard to blame him for withdrawing from a game that should have been put out of its misery by now and replaced with some sort of showcase anchored by a skills competition. Browns safety T.J. Ward replaced Polamalu on the Pro Bowl roster, giving four-win Cleveland six Pro Bowlers.
  • The extra-point could be getting the boot, and I would have no problem if the NFL did away with it. Forget ways to make the play after a touchdown more meaningful. How about getting rid of a kick that has become automatic to shave a little time off games that are getting longer and longer?

Here are a few other links:
  • Steelers.com's Mike Prisuta looks at playing running back from the eyes of Le'Veon Bell. Speaking of Bell, I talked to former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis about a number of subjects and he is a big fan of Bell and plans on reaching out to him. I will have more on that, the Hall of Fame and Bettis' take on the Steelers in later posts.
  • ESPN.com Browns reporters Pat McManamon takes a look at the history Cleveland's next head coach will have to overcome.
  • CBS NFL draft analyst Dane Brugler provides an update from the Senior Bowl, and among the players who jumped out at him during the North team's first practice were Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

A look at the AFC North

January, 7, 2014
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The lone AFC North team in the playoffs made another early exit Sunday when the No. 3 Bengals lost to the No. 6 Chargers, 27-10, at Paul Brown Stadium. With all four division teams now in offseason mode, here is a quick look at them by order of finish in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 record: 11-5, 3-3 in division

Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins

Biggest question: Have coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton taken the Bengals as far as they can?

Biggest reason for hope: Despite losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Bengals have a very good nucleus. Rookie Giovani Bernard showed enough to think his time splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is over.

Why they might disappoint: Dalton has faltered too many times in big games to think he can take the next step, and just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Cincinnati.

Overall state of the franchise: The Bengals find themselves at a crossroads, but they have little choice but to stick with Dalton -- for now -- unless they want to draft a quarterback in the first round and hand over a veteran team to him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 record: 8-8, 4-2

Key free agents: OLB Jason Worilds, WR Emmanuel Sanders

Biggest question: Will the Steelers re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders while re-tooling their defense?

Biggest reason for hope: The offense will be able to mask some of the issues the Steelers have on defense if it builds on its strong second half of the 2013 season.

Why they might disappoint: The defense could get worse before it gets better if younger players don’t emerge in the secondary and Worilds signs elsewhere.

Overall state of the franchise: The Steelers are facing a lot of uncertainty, but a 6-2 finish and the way the offense has come together point to them returning to postseason play in 2014 after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 record: 8-8, 3-3

Key free agents: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith

Biggest question: Did the Ravens suffer through the dreaded Super Bowl hangover or are they in decline?

Biggest reason for hope: Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback, and there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

Why they might disappoint: The Ravens, like the Steelers, are clearly in transition on defense. Two cornerstones of that defense -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- no longer dominate on a consistent basis.

Overall state of the franchise: Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are as good as any general manager-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have to be given the benefit of the doubt even though the Ravens slipped this season.

Cleveland Browns

2013 record: 4-12, 2-4

Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward

Biggest question: Will a new coach and a quarterback finally stabilize an organization that has floundered, often spectacularly, since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999?

Biggest reason for hope: There are some pieces in place, most notably wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas, and the Browns have a pair of first-round picks, including the fourth overall selection.

Why they may disappoint: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden are the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since 1999. Why should Browns fans think they will get it right in this draft?

Overall state of the franchise: The Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, and unless they find the right replacement and, oh yeah, a quarterback in the draft, the Browns will continue to bottom feed in the AFC North.
PITTSBURGH -- Cleveland Browns players reacted angrily to the mere notion that coach Rob Chudzinski could be fired following the team’s 4-12 season.

And when they spoke in the locker room after the season-ending loss to the Steelers, they weren’t even sure it would happen. As they spoke, there were only rumors about the possibility. By early evening, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen cited his sources in saying the decision was made and would be announced early this week.

The feelings of the players were evident, though.

“That’s ridiculous,” linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said.

“I’d be very surprised if they make a change,” tackle Joe Thomas said. “And disappointed.”

“I like coach Chud a lot,” said tight end Jordan Cameron. “He’s a great coach and he did a great job, and it’s his first year. I like the way he is. He’s a competitor and he’s a grinder.”

Cameron later added: “Guys deserve a chance to turn a program around and get things going, so (the possibility) is kind of shocking. I’m all for Chud and what he does, and support him 100 percent.”

Safety T.J. Ward, who could be a free agent, said the team believed in Chudzinski through the entire season.

“If we didn’t believe in him we wouldn’t have played for him,” Ward said. “You’d see a lot of rebelling and a lot of guys doing their own thing, and I don’t think that happened at all this year. It just didn’t happen the way we wanted it. When you have guys playing until the end of the season when there’s nothing to play for, you know you’ve got a good coach.”

Maybe not good enough, evidently.

Chudzinski showed little emotion about the possibility he could be replaced. Asked if he expected to be back, he said: "As far as I know."

He said he had no inkling that there was any front office dissatisfaction with his performance, and said over and over he would start this week making evaluations for next season.

“To start over again, it would be devastating, I think,” Thomas said.

“There’s reports saying that he won’t be back?” Jackson said. “Chud’s gonna be here for as long as he wants to. He’s a great head coach. That’s all I’ve got to say about that. I’m not answering any questions like that. That’s foolish, in my opinion. That’s not going to happen.”

Pro Bowl selections: Cleveland Browns

December, 27, 2013
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Alex Mack's bargaining position just improved, in free agency and with the Browns.
Mack was selected to his second Pro Bowl as results of voting were announced Friday by the NFL.

He will be joined in Hawaii by left tackle Joe Thomas, who is going for the seventh time in seven years, wide receiver Josh Gordon (first), tight end Jordan Cameron (first) and cornerback Joe Haden (first).

In a quirk of NFL nature, the Browns have more Pro Bowl selections than wins.

Thomas’ selection continues a streak of excellence that started when he was drafted. He and Jim Brown are the only two players in team history to reach the Pro Bowl in each of their first seven seasons. He also is the tenth in NFL history to do that, with the previous nine all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mack will be a free agent after the season, and since he joined the Browns the team has gone 23-56. He said he’d be open to staying, but Pro Bowl centers don’t often get a chance to maximize their earnings, and pick where they want to play.

Haden, too, improved his bargaining position with the selection. His contract is up after 2014, and if the Browns want to keep him they’ll probably have to give him an extension prior to next season.

With Haden and Gordon both possible candidates for new deals prior to 2014, the Browns may be happy they saved so much salary-cap space for the future.

Regarding the Browns' selections:
  • The selection of Mack and Thomas for the second time together (2010) marks the first time a pair of offensive linemen made multiple Pro Bowls since Gene Hickerson and Dick Schafrath did it from 1966-69.
  • Cameron joins Milt Morin, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow as the only tight ends to make the team.
  • Gordon, Braylon Edwards and Webster Slaughter are the only receivers to make the team. Gordon has a very good chance to lead the NFL in receiving yards and yards per catch.
  • Haden is the first cornerback to go since Frank Minnifield in 1990.

The Browns really have no major snubs in the game, as everyone who had a solid season made the team. About the only player who could have made it but didn’t was safety T.J. Ward. He was selected as an alternate. Ward also could be a free agent after the season.

The five selected are the most for the Browns since they had seven in 2007.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
It’s come to this with the Cleveland Browns as they stagger to the finish line of another dreary season: Kellen Winslow made news in Cleveland with something he said.

As if that’s never happened before.

“Winslow, he plays for the Jets, don’t he?” said Willis McGahee, a former teammate of Winslow’s at the University of Miami.

He does, and he told ESPNNewYork.com that he doesn’t believe anyone in the league can cover him. Then he added: “Who’s going to guard me over there? Nobody.”

“It’s funny,” cornerback Joe Haden said with a smile. “What would you expect him to say? Is he gonna say, ‘Yeah those dudes are gonna cover me.’ I don’t know him that well, but hearing about his personality, that sounds like the kind of thing he’s going to say.”

Cleveland folks are used to Winslow, who is apt to say almost anything about his abilities.

“He’s thought that for years,” said coach Rob Chudzinski, who coached Winslow in Cleveland and Miami. “That’s the confidence that you want football players to have.”

The two guys who will see the most of Winslow also treated it with a grain of (Cargill) salt.

“I saw it,” safety T.J. Ward said. “It’s irrelevant. Your play speaks.”

Calvin Johnson said that, it’s different,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “No, in all respect .... we’re already going in there [wanting to] showcase our dominance. He can say what he wants to say. He’s still got to go out there and perform. What he does Sunday, I guess, will tell it all.”

Gipson said some players joked about the remarks during practice, but it was never a focal point of discussion. Ward made reference to Winslow’s status as an aging veteran.

“He’s a decent tight end,” Ward said. “He was good in his heyday. He’s a little past his prime, but he’s still a good tight end.”

Ward called it an interesting league with a lot of characters, but both Ward and Gipson said they feel the same way that Winslow does, except in reverse. They both feel they can cover anybody.

“Absolutely, and I respect that he feels that way,” Gipson said. “You have to feel that way.”

“You should have that confidence that your’e unstoppable,” Ward said. “Just like I have that confidence that I can stop anybody. If you didn’t have that confidence, you wouldn’t be a player in this league. You wouldn’t be here. I don’t think there was any shots fired. It was just how he felt. You have to respect it, but at the same time you got to go out there and play football.”

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