AFC North: Tavares Gooden
RAVENS: Early last month, ESPN's Todd McShay had Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o falling to the Ravens at the bottom of the first round. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. doesn't see that happening. In a conference call, Kiper said there's "no way" Te'o will last until the last pick of the first round. Kiper doesn't see Te'o getting past the Giants, Bears or Vikings. He thinks LSU linebacker Kevin Minter would be a "nice pick" for the Ravens.
BENGALS: Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro and North Carolina running back back Giovani Bernard have pre-draft visits with the Bengals this week, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. Both players have been linked to the Bengals, who have three picks in the first two rounds of the draft. Cincinnati is looking for a starting strong safety and a speedy change-of-pace running back. Bernard reportedly drew the attention of head coach Marvin Lewis at his pro day and had dinner with team officials in Cincinnati on Wednesday night.
STEELERS: Running back-returner LaRod Stephens-Howling was among three unrestricted free agents to visit the cap-strapped Steelers on Wednesday, according to The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Before the start of free agency, I linked Stephens-Howling to the Steelers because he can fill the role of Chris Rainey. A free agent out of Arizona, Stephens-Howling is an elusive back who can provide a big-play spark, whether it's as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. Two backups, 49ers linebacker Tavares Gooden and Texans center-guard Antoine Caldwell, also met with the Steelers.
BROWNS: Brigham Young defensive end-linebacker Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, who has been linked to the Browns with the No. 6 pick, is scheduled to go to Cleveland for a pre-draft visit. He is also visiting the Eagles and Cardinals. Ansah is a raw pass-rushing prospect who played football for only three years. Last season, he had 62 tackles, including 13 for loss and 4.5 sacks. “Ziggy Ansah is going to be a top-five guy,” Kiper said, via The Akron Beacon Journal. “At the worst, top-10.”
We conclude with the 2008 draft class of the Baltimore Ravens.
Picks: QB Joe Flacco (first round), RB Ray Rice (second), LB Tavares Gooden (third), Tom Zbikowski (third), Oniel Cousins (third), WR Marcus Smith (fourth), G David Hale (fourth), Haruki Nakamura (sixth), WR Justin Harper (seventh), RB Allen Patrick (seventh)
Analysis: Without a doubt, this turned out to be the best draft of 2008 in the division. The Ravens found their franchise quarterback and starting running back in the first two rounds with Flacco and Rice. Both players are now the young centerpieces Baltimore is building its offense around. Rice, who recorded back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons, has already been to one Pro Bowl. Baltimore also picked up Zbikowski in the third round. He's a part-time starter at safety and may be a full-time option this upcoming season. Later picks such as Cousins and Nakamura have found their way on the field and contributed the past three seasons. The only disappointment from this draft is Gooden. The former third-rounder has been plagued by injuries and never developed into a reliable starting linebacker next to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Other than that, this was a stellar draft by general manager Ozzie Newsome and Co. from top to bottom.
AFC North blog draft grade: A-
In case you missed it, here are the 2008 draft grades for the Browns, Bengals and Steelers.
Coming off the bye week, the Steelers are as healthy as they've been in months. They only have one player who sat out of practice entirely Wednesday and that's Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles). Recently Pittsburgh has been resting Polamalu during the week before bringing him back before the final practice. Polamalu said Wednesday that he will practice Thursday. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden (hamstring) and defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) had limited practices. Smith, who has been out for two months, said Tuesday he doesn't expect a final decision on his playing status until late in the week.
Baltimore was fortunate to come out of last week's wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs healthy. The Ravens have five players listed on their injury report, with receiver Donte' Stallworth (illness) and starting center Matt Birk (knee) being the only two who didn't practice Wednesday. Cornerback Chris Carr (thigh) was limited but he's expected to play. Linebacker Tavares Gooden (shoulder) and safety Tom Zbikowski (back) are both improving and fully participated in practice. All things considered, the Ravens are a healthy group coming into the divisional playoff game.
- Cleveland Browns starting receivers -- Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi -- have combined for only five receptions in two games.
- Despite health concerns at the position, the Pittsburgh Steelers will not sign another quarterback.
- Baltimore Ravens linebacker Tavares Gooden will be out at least a month with a shoulder injury.
- Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis doesn't like the amount of team penalties.
The NFL, perhaps more than any professional sport, is a league filled with replaceable players. By sheer numbers, fielding 22 players on offense and defense makes it difficult for a single cog to be above the team, especially for non-quarterbacks.
But there are several players vital to AFC North teams. Here are four difference-makers in the division:
To define Polamalu's importance, look no further than last season. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 2009, mostly because its defense was unable to hold leads in the fourth quarter without its star safety in the lineup.
Polamalu missed 11 games with a left knee injury, and it appeared the other 10 defenders were overcompensating for Polamalu's absence by blowing routine assignments. Polamalu provides a calming influence, and his greatness can be measured by his teammates playing at a higher level when he's in the game.
Steelers defensive coordinator and 2010 Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau recently said he cannot find a weakness with Polamalu. He's athletic, smart, instinctive and excels against the pass and the run.
Pittsburgh's defense without Polamalu is good (No. 5 in 2009), but with Polamalu, it might be the best in the NFL.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: JOSH CRIBBS
Where would the Browns be without Cribbs?
For starters, you probably can erase two or three wins from last year's 5-11 record. Cribbs also might have saved Browns head coach Eric Mangini's job.
Cribbs was one of the few bright spots for Cleveland last season. He made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, but his ability to run the Wildcat also added a new wrinkle to the Browns' struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009.
The Browns plan to expand Cribbs' role, both in the Wildcat and as a receiver. The more the team is able to get the ball in his hands, the better.
Despite Cleveland adding pieces in the draft and free agency, Cribbs remains the Browns' most-feared player. He's also a locker-room leader and, perhaps, the new face of Cleveland sports now that LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: RAY LEWIS
Lewis, 35, is no longer the Ravens' best player. That distinction could be shared by Ray Rice, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata. But Lewis' leadership still makes him Baltimore's most indispensable player.
Lewis remains the heart and soul of a team many feel is a Super Bowl contender this year. Physically, the Ravens are stacked with talent at nearly every position. But there's no one in the locker room who can replace Lewis' role as the motivational leader.
On the field, Lewis made his 11th Pro Bowl last season, recording 134 tackles and three sacks. Backups Dannell Ellerbe or Tavares Gooden would be significant drop-offs if Lewis were injured. On the other hand, the Ravens have plenty of quality replacements ready for Rice, Reed and Ngata. Even Joe Flacco has a capable backup in veteran quarterback Marc Bulger.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: CEDRIC BENSON
Cincinnati is a team better defined by the sum of its parts. But if I had to pick the most important non-quarterback, it would be Benson.
The Bengals have two very good cornerbacks: Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. They have plenty of receivers, including two who have put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers in Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. But Benson is the workhorse who makes it all work. Benson opens things up for the passing game, which was inconsistent last season, and he moves the chains to help keep the defense off the field.
Second-year tailback Bernard Scott will help Benson carry the load this year. He showed positive flashes as a rookie, but the former sixth-round pick remains unproven. With Cincinnati expected to pass more, Benson might not match his career-best 1,251 rushing yards from last season. But that doesn't make him any less important.
- Is it a foregone conclusion that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's conditional six-game suspension will be reduced to four games?
- Cleveland Browns rookie safety T.J. Ward is seeking a starting job.
- Former player and current NFL analyst Chris Collinsworth believes the Cincinnati Bengals are a legit contender.
- Jameel McClain has the lead at inside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.
- Safety Troy Polamalu has high praise for Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator and 2010 Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau. Polamalu calls LeBeau the "greatest coach of all time."
- Which Baltimore Ravens linebacker will play next to Ray Lewis this season?
- The Cleveland Browns are excited about their running game with Jerome Harrison, rookie Montario Hardesty and Peyton Hillis.
- The Browns, Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals were among 20 confirmed teams attending the recent workout of BYU running back Harvey Unga, who is eligible for the supplemental draft.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:
- Starting linebacker Lawrence Timmons re-tweaked his sprained left ankle, making his status unknown for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.
- Speaking of health, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Tavares Gooden and tight end L.J. Smith returned to practice and expect to play against the San Diego Chargers.
- After catching just one pass last week, Cleveland Browns top receiver Braylon Edwards is struggling to fit in.
- Cincinnati Bengals rookie right tackle Andre Smith (foot) probably won’t practice for another week or two.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
- Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com writes Cincinnati is still fuming from its surprising loss to the Denver Broncos.
- Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes Steelers safety Troy Polamalu’s timeline for his sprained MCL remains three-to-six weeks.
- According to Edward Lee of the Baltimore Sun, the knee sprain for linebacker Tavares Gooden is not serious.
- Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes it will be hard for the Browns to beat great teams without great talent.
|James Lang/US Presswire|
|Coach John Harbaugh, who took the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game in his first season, is looking to take the next step.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- If the Baltimore Ravens want to take the next step and build off a stellar 2008 season, there is only one place left for this team to go: Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
The Ravens are coming off a competitive AFC Championship Game loss to the reigning champion Pittsburgh Steelers, so optimism abounds in Baltimore.
The Ravens feel they finally found their franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco. They have an energetic coach in John Harbaugh who quickly brought the team back to prominence, and the defense was rated second in the NFL last season behind Pittsburgh.
Based on the record-setting turnout in Westminster this summer for training camp, Ravens fans are clearly buying into Baltimore's rosy outlook as a title contender. But for the Ravens to position themselves to make a run, they must first address several key issues.
1. Can Baltimore overtake Pittsburgh?
If Baltimore were able to topple Pittsburgh last season, who knows where the Ravens would be right now? Perhaps the Ravens, and not the Steelers, would be entering the season as the defending champs.
But Baltimore was unable to climb "Mount Pittsburgh" in 2008, losing close games in all three attempts. The end result was falling one game shy of the AFC North division title and one touchdown drive short of Baltimore advancing to play the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Although the Ravens probably wouldn't admit this publicly, much of what they're doing this season is geared toward closing the gap with the Steelers. Baltimore drafted rookie tackle Michael Oher to help nullify Pittsburgh's edge rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Ravens improved the depth in their secondary, which broke down with injuries during the playoffs, by adding cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr in free agency.
The difference between Baltimore and Pittsburgh wasn't sizable to start. But the Ravens are hoping this is the year the balance of power shifts in their favor.
|James Lang/US Presswire|
|Coaches have been working with QB Joe Flacco to attack more areas of the field.|
2. Will Joe Flacco avoid the sophomore slump?
Much of Baltimore's success will hinge on Flacco proving to be the real deal. So far there is no reason to believe that won't be the case.
The Ravens by no means will become a pass-happy offense this season, but Flacco is being given more responsibility in his second year working with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. In addition to a strong running game, overall balance will make Baltimore harder to defend if Flacco is up to the task.
Flacco had a good preseason debut, completing 9 of 15 passes for 103 yards in a 23-0 victory last week over the Washington Redskins. What stood out most is Flacco connected with six different receivers in limited playing time, which is an important next step in his maturation process.
As a rookie Flacco had the tendency to lock in on his two receivers -- Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton -- on the outside. The pair accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of Flacco's completions. All spring and summer the coaches have been working with Flacco to attack more areas of the field, particularly over the middle, to make the passing game less predictable.
3. Can the defense stay elite?
Since their inception the Ravens have been built on defense. It is also where they allot most of their salary-cap space.
Baltimore has dealt with defections before but rarely has the unit been hit this much in one offseason. Four of the 11 starters will be new this year and the team is replacing longtime defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Free-agent pickup Foxworth and linebacker Tavares Gooden will join defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and safety Dawan Landry as starters who weren't contributors for Baltimore's No. 2-rated defense last season. Gregg (knee) and Landry (neck) were starters for the Ravens in the past but are returning from season-ending injuries.
The primary challenge for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is to add his own wrinkles without changing
too much of Baltimore's identity. When you have players like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, the transition certainly becomes a lot easier.
Many in Baltimore are asking: How much is left in the tank of Willis McGahee?
Once one of the top running backs in the AFC, McGahee has been slowed by injuries the past two years in Baltimore. Now in his seventh season, he is at a crossroads to prove he can get back to his previous form.
McGahee, 27, has opened the door for second-year running back Ray Rice to become the starter this season. But the two have been pushing each other recently in training camp in a scenario that is working out for both players.
Rice appears solid in his quest to keep the starting job, while McGahee also is running harder. McGahee is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the preseason, after averaging less than four yards per carry in three of the past four seasons.
With last year's leading rusher Le'Ron McClain playing more fullback this season, expect McGahee and Rice to have more opportunities to prove themselves in the running game this year.
|AP Photo/Rob Carr|
|Tavares Gooden will take over for Bart Scott, who followed former coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets.|
Newcomer to watch
The Ravens have had a penchant for finding talented young linebackers and they hope Gooden is next in line.
Gooden, a 2008 third-round pick, missed 12 games last season with a hip injury. But with the departure of linebacker Bart Scott to free agency, Gooden is expected to start next to Lewis in Baltimore's linebacking corps.
Lewis is taking Gooden under his wing the same way he's tutored others such as Scott and Adalius Thomas before him. Teammates jokingly have nicknamed Gooden "Baby Ray."
The Ravens traded up to get first-round pick Michael Oher, and the rookie right tackle is immediately fitting in. With the retirement of veteran Willie Anderson, Oher took all the first-team reps during the spring and summer, which is helping his learning curve. With Oher and left tackle Jared Gaither, the Ravens have two quality young tackles who could be building blocks for a long time. ... The receiver position remains a concern as Baltimore made no significant additions in free agency or the NFL draft. The Ravens caught a break with the return of Mason from a brief retirement, but questions of depth remain. Clayton has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury and Marcus Smith is out for the season with a torn ACL. That leaves Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper and Kelley Washington to assist Flacco. ... This season marks the first time in franchise history that Baltimore will not have longtime Raven Matt Stover as its kicker. Stover eventually lost his leg strength for kickoffs so the Ravens are having a two-way battle between Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano for the job. Both kickers had their ups and downs early, but Hauschka seems to have the early advantage with three games remaining in the preseason.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- The history of replacing linebackers in the heralded Baltimore Ravens' defense is well-documented.
First, Ed Hartwell was in the spotlight. Then Hartwell was replaced by Adalius Thomas. Once Thomas left, Bart Scott stepped in and kept Baltimore's tradition of tough linebackers going. Now the Ravens are looking for somebody to replace Scott, who signed with the New York Jets this offseason.
Enter Tavares Gooden.
Nicknamed "Baby Ray," the 2008 third-round pick is expected to start at inside linebacker next to mentor and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Lewis helped bring along Hartwell, Thomas and Scott, and the Ravens hope Gooden can uphold that same high standard for Baltimore.
"I can't wait for the season to start," an excited Gooden said. "I'm just looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to being out there with last season ending so quickly."
Gooden suffered a season-ending hip injury as a rookie and played in just four games. He contributed just five tackles in his short span, while the Ravens went on to advance to the AFC title game with Gooden watching from the sidelines.
"Taking a full year off hurts you mentally, because you want to be out there with your team," Gooden said. "You see your teammates out there sweating and you know that you put in work, too. It was just tough, because you see your teammates out there making their run and you just want to be a part of it."
Gooden is expected to be a large part of Baltimore's plans in 2009. Gooden said that he watched Scott's tapes in the offseason and talked to him several times about filling that inside linebacker role.
In addition to being a full-time starter for the first time, Gooden also will be playing under his second defensive coordinator in two years. The Ravens are transitioning from former longtime defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who became head coach of the Jets, to new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. According to Gooden, the styles of defense are not drastically different.
The Ravens finished second in total defense last year, and a big part of continuing that success will be how well Gooden handles his new starting role in his second season.
"Like I tell people, I was never coming out here to try to replace [Scott]," Gooden explains. "It was just to fulfill my own legacy to have my name talked about in Baltimore also, just like Bart and Ray."
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
|Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco make their preseason debuts Thursday night.|
Here are some things to look for:
- Thursday will be the debut of Baltimore's defense under the leadership of new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Former coordinator Rex Ryan is now the head coach of the New York Jets, leaving many to wonder how similar or different Mattison's scheme will be in terms of schematics and aggressiveness.
- With starting receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton both out, it will be difficult to get a true gage on quarterback Joe Flacco entering his second season. But it will be interesting to see Flacco on the field again for the first time this year and where he's progressed.
- How will tailback Ray Rice look in his second season? A possible starter, Rice needs to have a good preseason to solidify his position as the lead threat in Baltimore's three-headed monster. Rice packed on some muscle and worked with the first team most of this offseason.
- Linebacker Tavares Gooden will start his first game in place of the departed Bart Scott. Gooden has been getting good reviews in summer and spring workouts and is expected to play a major role in the defense next to Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.
- With Mason and Clayton out, this is a golden opportunity for young receivers such as Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper and Marcus Smith to step forward. A receiver or two from this bunch is expected to provide depth in a reserve role this season. It's no better time than the present for one of these young receivers to start making plays in a game situation.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
It's a popular saying in Baltimore, particularly on defense, that you must "play like a Raven" to make the team. There is no set definition for that term, yet everyone on the Ravens' roster seems to understand it.
|AP Photo/Rob Carr|
|Tavares Gooden is hoping to fill the linebacker spot Bart Scott occupied last season.|
Second-year linebacker Tavares Gooden is the latest player looking to uphold Baltimore's legacy of being physical and punishing. He is competing for a starting inside linebacker job vacated by another physical player in Bart Scott.
Also adding to the pressure is the nickname Gooden has received in "Baby Ray." Defensive leader and fellow Miami Hurricane Ray Lewis is taking Gooden under his wing to teach him the nuances of the game, and the pair is expected to play side-by-side this season in Baltimore's 3-4 scheme.
"Being the youngest in my family, I've always had to exceed whatever somebody else did," Gooden said at Ravens camp this week. "My brother -- he was a great football player -- and I was the baby. So, I was always called 'Little Byron,' or 'Little Stump.' So, I had to go through that.
"Now, it's the same thing with Ray -- they're like, 'Baby Ray.' Eventually, I just want to come out here and make my coaches proud, make my team proud and earn my own name."
Gooden said making the transition a lot easier is playing behind a stout defensive line featuring players like Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg. Much of his job in Baltimore is to read and react to the defensive line and fill the holes accordingly.
If Gooden wins the job, as projected, he will be the least experienced starter on Baltimore's defense, which ranked No. 2 in the NFL last season. He could see a lot of teams test him early, but Gooden says he doesn't plan on letting his teammates down.
"You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to know that Bart, Ray and 'Sizzle' [Terrell Suggs] were all up on their deals [last year]," Gooden said of the situation this season. "They brought in another linebacker. You never knew how it was going to unfold, but this is how it is. Now it's time for us to start playing together, start building communication."
|Getty Images/US Presswire|
|Baltimore's Ray Rice and Pittsburgh's Limas Sweed could be poised for big seasons.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
When it comes to spotting this year's breakout players, most are aware of the usual targets such as Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, or linebackers Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Keith Rivers of the Cincinnati Bengals. As former first-round picks, each has received plenty of attention from the AFC North blog and other national outlets despite their lack of playing time or starting experience.
But being a true NFL sleeper is a little different. Consider it a step or two below the label of breakout player.
Expectations aren't nearly as high for a sleeper. Unlike Quinn, Timmons and Rivers, a sleeper can avoid the hype and enter the season without much fanfare.
Although fans may not be talking about these players at the moment, here are the top 10 AFC North sleeper players you might be discussing by season's end:
10. Daniel Sepulveda, P, Steelers
Why: Most casual fans outside of Pittsburgh are not aware of how poor the Steelers' punting was last season. On a bad week, it was horrendous. On a good week, it was average. Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense last year overshadowed this issue. But help is on the way in Sepulveda, who averaged 42.4 yards a punt in 2007 (38.4-yard net). He missed all of 2008 with major knee surgery and has become a free-agent pickup of sorts for the Steelers.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 16 games, 43.4-yard average, 21 inside the 20-yard line.
Why: One of just two rookies to make this list, Kruger is a second-round pick who appears to have an NFL motor and size. Also keep in mind that Kruger got extensive work with the first team this offseason as starting defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs missed minicamp and organized team activities. Now, Kruger gets to find his niche as a situational player while learning from some of the best defenders in the league.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 34 tackles, four sacks.
8. Dawan Landry, S, Ravens
Why: A little-known fact in Baltimore is that Landry was having an impressive offseason for the Ravens before the 2008 season. The coaching staff really liked the progress he was making, but it was cut short by an early season neck injury that sidelined him for the season. The Ravens are hoping Landry can gradually get back his confidence this season. The team was confident enough in Landry not to overpay for veteran safety Jim Leonhard, who followed coach Rex Ryan to the New York Jets. That should tell you something.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 55 tackles, two interceptions.
7. Brian Robiskie, WR, Browns
Why: The Browns aren't expected to air it out much this season, but Robiskie should be ready to make plays when the opportunity presents itself. Robiskie remains unsigned as of Wednesday, so it's important that he gets into training camp on time when the full team takes the practice field Saturday. Cleveland's No. 2 receiver job is wide open this season, and with Braylon Edwards currently sidelined with an unspecified leg injury, Robiskie will get plenty of early reps with the first team. If he is as polished as scouts and the Browns believe he is, Robiskie could earn a starting job with Cleveland at some point in his rookie season.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 35 receptions, 484 yards, two touchdowns.
6. Tavares Gooden, LB, Ravens
Why: Entering his second year, Gooden has become the latest linebacker to fill the role next to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Can he do it? The Ravens believe he can. Gooden is speedy, athletic and very high energy. But injuries during his rookie season prevented people from seeing his potential. Gooden enters training camp as the favorite to replace Bart Scott and could have a solid second season on a veteran unit stocked with playmakers.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 64 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles.
5. Limas Sweed, WR, Steelers
Why: There is not as much pressure on Sweed as some may think. He is expected to fill a role as Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver, so that doesn't require him to start. But the Steelers and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians love to use the trips package, which helped Nate Washington earn a big contract with the Tennessee Titans this offseason. It is much more difficult to get open in the NFL than it is to catch the football. So Sweed already has the difficult part figured out.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 39 receptions, 528 yards, four touchdowns.
4. Brodney Pool, S, Browns
Why: For four years, the Browns have been waiting for the light to come for Pool. He has above-average ability, but so far has been just an average NFL safety. Pool is arguably the best athlete Cleveland has on its roster. But to date no one has been able to get the best out of his abilities. Now that new coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have their hands on Pool, this sleeper could be primed for his best sea
son to date.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 85 tackles, three interceptions.
3. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers
Why: Can a former first-round pick be a sleeper? Yes, when you are a backup tailback coming off a major injury with the defending Super Bowl champions. Mendenhall is actually in a good spot. The pressure is on him to contribute, not to take over games. He didn't show much in his first season. But combined with Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore, Mendenhall should help Pittsburgh restart its ground attack.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 107 carries, 440 yards, four touchdowns.
2. Chris Henry, WR, Bengals
Why: Quarterback Carson Palmer is already calling Henry a mini version of Randy Moss. That is probably stretching it. But considering Palmer has played with his share of Pro Bowl receivers, his words carry some merit. Henry has always been a talent-in-waiting. He has size, speed and athleticism, but immaturity on and off the field have held him back. According to the Bengals, Henry has matured knowing he is down to his final shot in the NFL. A contract year also helps Henry's focus, as he is expected to produce for a full season in a pass-happy offense.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 44 receptions, 681 yards, five touchdowns.
1. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
Why: How confident is Rice? He recently switched agents in anticipation of putting up good numbers in just the second year of a four-year contract. Part of the deep running back class of 2008, Rice often got lost in the mix of strong rookie seasons by contemporaries Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Steve Slaton. Rice showed flashes last season with 454 yards as part of Baltimore's three-headed monster. This year he is the favorite to start in Baltimore behind a solid and physical offensive line. With Willis McGahee returning from injuries and Le'Ron McClain playing more at fullback this year, look for Rice to get plenty of opportunities in his sophomore season.
Walker's projected 2009 numbers: 170 carries, 710 yards, four touchdowns.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson will compete for the starting quarterback job during Cleveland's training camp.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
As the weather heats up, it's time to start looking ahead to this summer's NFL training camps.
The AFC North should be very interesting as several key position battles could make or break a team's 2009 season. Here is a look at the seven most intriguing competitions from around the division:
7. Cornerback: William Gay vs. field
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Why it's important: With a veteran-laden team that returns 20 of 22 starters, Gay is the only projected starter in any real danger of losing his job in training camp. All indications are that the job is his to lose. The Steelers signed veteran cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and drafted rookies Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett to provide depth and possibly be there in case Gay falters. But the organization has shown a lot of confidence in Gay since last season when he filled in for former Steeler Bryant McFadden, who signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Gay worked exclusively with the first team in Pittsburgh's full-squad minicamp.
Early favorite: Gay
6. Kicker: Steve Hauschka vs. Graham Gano
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Why it's important: According to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, this kicking competition in Baltimore is going to be "very interesting." Perhaps Harbaugh, a former special-teams coach, is overhyping this battle. But what is interesting is Baltimore is looking for just its second full-time kicker in franchise history. The position was held since the Ravens' inception in 1996 by veteran kicker Matt Stover. But Stover's age (41) finally started to show last season and opened the door for Hauschka and Gano to compete this year. Both young kickers have strong legs, but so far this offseason Hauschka and Gano haven't displayed Stover-type accuracy. If neither kicker comes into his own this summer, things might get "very interesting," as Harbaugh promised.
Early favorite: Even
Team: Cleveland Browns
Why it's important: This is a classic battle between a first-round pick and an experienced veteran who's started for winning teams and played in the postseason. Mack comes to Cleveland with lofty credentials and expectations. He's strong, smart and expected to be a starter from Day 1. The only person standing in his way is Fraley, 31, who's done a solid job in his two stops with the Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. That Cleveland's new regime, led by coach Eric Mangini, took a center in the first round is a sign that Mack is the favorite to win the job. But if Fraley finds a way to hold the rookie off in training camp, Mack has the versatility to play guard, most likely on the right side.
Early favorite: Mack
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Why it's important: Cincinnati's defense, which was ranked No. 12 in 2008, is trying to take another step forward. In order to do this, dynamic linebacker play will be crucial. Maualuga fell to the Bengals in the second round because of several off-the-field questions surrounding the former USC linebacker. But no one questions that Maualuga is a first-round talent on the field. The issue with the Bengals is that Maualuga, a natural middle linebacker, cannot supplant leading tackler and defensive leader Dhani Jones this year. So Maualuga needs to supplant Johnson, the outside linebacker, if he wants to play right away as a rookie. Johnson is no slouch, either. He recorded 83 tackles, two interceptions and came on late last season. Rashad Jeanty, who started 15 games last year, also is a possibility at the other outside linebacker spot. Regardless, the trio of Jones, Keith Rivers and Maualuga/Johnson/Jeanty should make for a solid group of linebackers in Cincinnati.
Early favorite: Even
3. No. 2 receiver
Why it's important: Someone needs to help No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards. The long list of candidates includes veterans David Patten, Mike Furrey, and rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Donte' Stallworth also remains on the roster. But based on Cleveland's roster moves, it appears the Browns expect Stallworth's legal situation to keep him out this season. With the loss of former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., Edwards is Cleveland's only real receiving threat and he likely will see a lot of double teams. That will provide plenty of opportunities for Patten, Furrey, Robiskie or Massaquoi to make plays. But it remains to be seen if these players have the ability to step up.
Early favorites: Patten and Robiskie
Why it's important: The "bodyguard" role in Baltimore's defense is underrated but very important. There is a reason safety Ed Reed and linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are able to fly around the field and make plays. It's because the inside linebacker opposite Lewis, formerly the ultra-physical Bart Scott, takes on fullbacks and pulling offensive linemen at every chance. Now the Ravens are looking at Gooden or McClain as Scott's replacement. Both young players have good athleticism. But ultimately, the player who is the most physical will win this job. Gooden opened veteran minicamp as the starter, so you have to give him the edge heading into this summer.
Early favorite: Gooden
Why it's important: The Mangini era in Cleveland, in large part, will depend on his decision at quarterback. An antsy fan base in Cleveland is tired of waiting for a winner and will not give Mangini four years to turn it around. Therefore, the best thing Mangini can do is figure out quickly which player is the better quarterback. It's been three seasons and the Browns still haven't settled this debate. Anderson showed flashes with his Pro Bowl campaign in 2007, but his struggles last year left many questions. Quinn, a former first-round pick, looked up and down in limited playing time. Ironically, the two never directly competed against each other -- until now. According to the coaching staff, both players will be given a fair opportunity. But Cleveland's offensive system under Mangini is being built around a power running game and an efficient and conservative passing game, which seems to favor Quinn.
Early favorite: Quinn