AFC North: University of Alabama
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
As always, feel free to send your thoughts to our AFC North mailbag. Let's answer some questions.
Jared from Anchorage, Alaska writes: Hey James, I was wondering why Carson Palmer puts up with the distraction of Chad JOHNSON? I know, I know, he's good and all, but he can be replaced more easily than the other 52 players on the roster that don't need a distraction. Palmer obviously is tired of the distraction, so why not just say, "Hey, it's me or him?"
James Walker: Palmer is one of the nicest athletes in the NFL and not the type to put that kind of pressure on Cincinnati Bengals' management, Jared. Some would say as a quarterback that is to his detriment. But I do think there is still a chance to mend fences. Let's be honest about the situation: Ochocinco hasn't missed anything mandatory. If this was someone else, it wouldn't be as big a deal. Former teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh skipped voluntary workouts in Cincinnati all the time when he was unhappy with his contract. But Houshmandzadeh showed up in great shape every year, put up 90- and 100-catch seasons and no harm was done. If Ochocinco shows up in good shape and has a great season, this all could blow over quickly.
Matt from Cincinnati writes: Did James Harrison make the trip to DC even though he didn't want to?
James Walker: Harrison did not make the trip to the White House, Matt. He also didn't go in 2006 after the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl. I'm still not sure of the exact reason, whether it was his reported fear of flying or something else. But it's probably time to let it go and move on.
Randy from Ft. Thomas, KY writes: James, As a Browns fan who has suffered a tough past 10 years since the return of the franchise, I was wondering if at any time over the past 10 years and four (I believe that is the right number) GM's ownership has gone why has there not been a bigger push to bring Ozzie Newsome back to Cleveland. Cleveland is where he was a HOF caliber TE and where he was groomed to be a GM. I would think that he has some loyalty to the city and team. He would make a huge difference to the heritage of this team and city.
James Walker: The Browns made one push for the Baltimore Ravens' general manager that I know of. It was in 2005 following the Butch Davis era in Cleveland. The Browns were looking for a traditional GM-coach setup for the organization and Newsome was at the top of their list. The Ravens smartly rejected, and Cleveland was forced to go down Baltimore's chain of command and grabbed Phil Savage. Newsome is very happy where he is, and I believe it will be his final NFL stop. Several league insiders I've talked to believe Newsome will eventually return to his alma mater, the University of Alabama, in a less stressful role whenever he decides to leave the NFL.
Jason from Painesville, Ohio writes: Is the holdout by Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson a reflection of Eric Mangini's over-reaching power or is it just contract disputes from last season boiling over to the new regime?
James Walker: You cannot pin either of these situations on the new regime, Jason. Dawson and Cribbs were unhappy with their contracts a year ago. The Browns were coming off a 10-6 season and nearly everyone was getting paid. Derek Anderson got his money. Jamal Lewis got his money. Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel got huge extensions. Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams were acquired in trades and paid handsomely. Cribbs and Dawson felt left out, because they had a big part in the success as well. These were old issues carrying over. But, nonetheless, I'm interested in seeing how the new group handles it. Cribbs, by the way, returned to voluntary workouts this week.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
It started with the suspension for Alabama's bowl game. It continued when Smith unexpectedly left February's NFL combine. Then his private workout was considered average at best by scouts and onlookers. Smith also fired his agent once and reportedly is in the middle of more agent drama.
But through all the recent turmoil and bad choices, Smith's talent on the field made him the sixth overall pick by Cincinnati. Drafting that high, the Bengals will invest approximately $50 million in Smith, whose main job is to protect franchise quarterback Carson Palmer from another season-ending injury.
Is Smith worth the risk? The Bengals think so. They recently cut starting left tackle Levi Jones, which all but assures Smith will start right away.
If Smith plays well this year, people will quickly forget the recent missteps. But if Smith struggles or doesn't pan out, many will wonder why the Bengals ignored some of the early red flags during the draft process.
Honorable mention: The Cleveland Browns held the fifth overall pick, and instead of making a big splash, they traded down three times to take University of California center Alex Mack. By most accounts, Mack was the best center in the draft. But the fact that Cleveland could've taken more highly-touted players at the top of the draft board certainly puts pressure on Mack to perform. The New York Jets traded places with the Browns and took USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. If Sanchez proves to be a quality franchise quarterback, something Cleveland hasn't had since Bernie Kosar, the Browns could hear about this deal down the road.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Team needs: Offensive tackle, center, pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker
|Paul Jasienski/Getty Images|
|An offensive tackle such as Eugene Monroe would provide an upgrade for the Bengals at a critical position.|
Dream scenario: Unless five teams in front of Cincinnati have brain cramps, Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith -- arguably the top player in the draft -- will not be available when the Bengals use their sixth overall pick. Smith would be perfect for Cincinnati as he would fill the team's biggest need at left tackle and provide tremendous value at No. 6. University of Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe would be another solid pick who may be off the board. Injuries have caught up to former Cincinnati first-round pick Levi Jones, so much so that he is no longer a dependable blindside protector for quarterback Carson Palmer, who's suffered two season-ending injuries (knee, elbow) the past four seasons.
Plan B: With Cincinnati possibly in a poor spot to secure one of the draft's two best tackles, the Bengals' focus could shift to taking the best defensive player along the front seven. Cincinnati has drafted a defensive player in the first round the past four years. The result is a sneaky good unit which steadily improved last season and finished No. 12 in total defense, despite little help from the offense. A player such as Texas defensive end/linebacker Brian Orakpo could be a good addition. The Bengals could still address the tackle position as a Plan B if they are desperate enough. They can take a risk on Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, whose stock has taken a hit this offseason, or reach for Mississippi tackle Michael Oher, who is widely considered a mid first-round prospect. The recent flirtations with running backs and receivers the past couple of weeks appear to be more smoke screens than substance. Those positions are likely targets in the second and middle rounds.
Scouts Inc.'s take: "The offensive line certainly needs work, and a major weakness of this team that sometimes goes unidentified is the center position. In their division, the Bengals play six games against Shaun Rogers, Casey Hampton and Haloti Ngata. They were trying to get by with Eric Ghiaciuc, who is 280 pounds and he just gets manhandled. They had no inside running attack against those three divisional teams because they couldn't handle the 3-4 nose tackles. That's a huge disadvantage. But in the first round I think they can go a lot of different ways. I like their defense. I don't think their defense is as bad off as it usually is. But, boy, do they need a pass-rusher. They need a difference-maker, and Orakpo makes a lot of sense for them to rotate in with the defensive ends they already have." -- Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: With a miniature scouting department, the Bengals' coaches are responsible for a significant chunk of talent evaluation. That gives head coach Marvin Lewis' staff a decent amount of input. But the final call on all major decisions usually must go through the ownership level with the Mike Brown family.
Now On the Clock: Cleveland Browns, April 13.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are seven NFL combine notes and observations as it pertains to the AFC North:
|AP Photo/Darron Cummings|
|Why are the Browns interviewing USC quarterback Mark Sanchez?|
- An interesting name showed up on the list of players interviewed by the Cleveland Browns: USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Browns, with two young quarterbacks in Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, are probably the last team interested in drafting a quarterback with the No. 5 overall pick. But this shows Cleveland could be willing to explore trade options for teams looking to move up. Sanchez is expected to be the second quarterback taken and there are a lot of teams in need of that position. Cleveland getting to know Sanchez in Indianapolis could give the Browns a gauge of the player other teams are coveting.
- Everyone has major questions now about Alabama left tackle Andre Smith. When watching him play, he's a beast. But when it comes to the maturity of this draft process, he is making mistakes left and right. Smith didn't participate in the combine, basically admitting he wasn't in shape. He also left the combine early and was suspended for Alabama's bowl game. This brings up questions of his maturity, and with so much guaranteed money spent at the top of the draft, I no longer think Smith is a good fit for the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 6. His tape looks great, but the last thing the Bengals need is a player with question marks.
- While we're on the subject of offensive tackles, Baylor's Jason Smith was impressive all week. He said the right things in his interview with the media and the workouts were solid, which included a 33-rep bench press of 225 pounds and a 5.22 run in the 40-yard dash. Obviously, his tape is off the charts, so this combination makes him an early candidate to be the top overall pick of the Detroit Lions.
- Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew ran unofficial times of 4.85 and 4.97 in the 40-yard dash this weekend. He even was granted a third run and clocked a 4.87. None of Pettigrew's times landed in the top 10 of his position, which is disappointing for the projected best tight end in the draft. Pettigrew looked nervous and had false starts twice during his runs, He is a mid-to-late first-round pick and potentially a target of the Baltimore Ravens at No. 26.
- But the Ravens have to be very happy with the speed they saw from the receiver position at this year's combine. A host of good prospects ran a 4.5 or lower in the 40-yard dash, including Florida's Percy Harvin and Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland. Baltimore will target a deep threat at some point in the draft, possibly in the first round.
- Seeing energetic Arizona Cardinals strength coach John Lott run the bench press at the combine brought back great memories. Lott was a former strength coach of the Browns in 2005 and 2006 when I covered the team exclusively, and he was the most relentless assistant I've ever seen on the practice field. Banged up players for Cleveland would work out with Lott in practice. And it came to a point when it was better to practice hurt than get drilled by Lott for two-plus hours. I've heard Cleveland players describe Lott as "crazy" and "a maniac." But he's also a great strength coach. Said Lott at the combine, "I don't care what you did in your Wonderlic, and I don't care what your brain capacity is. All I care is what you bench press." You gotta love it!
- Speaking of bench press, I was disappointed with the bench press results for Oregon center Max Unger, who recorded just 22 reps. USC place kicker David Buehler did 25 reps and is about 70 pounds lighter. The book on Unger is he is not very athletic, which is fine for a center. But the bench press was important in this process. If he is drafted in the AFC North, particularly for the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 32, he would have to push around big nose tackles such as Haloti Ngata in Baltimore and Cleveland's Shaun Rogers in 3-4 defenses. I just don't see it.