AFC North: University of Tennessee

It turns out the Cincinnati Bengals are not the only Ohio team interested in Earl Thomas. The Cleveland Browns want to take an extended look at the University of Texas safety, as well.

Cleveland will host Thomas for a two-day visit on April 5-6, according to a source. Thomas is widely regarded as the second-best safety in this year's NFL draft behind Tennessee's Eric Berry.

The Browns hold the No. 7 overall pick and are showing significant interest in defensive backs such as Thomas, Berry and Florida cornerback Joe Haden. That could be a strong indication of the front office's thinking and direction in the first round.

Thomas is an intriguing prospect who most scouts grade very close to Berry, a projected top-10 pick. If Berry goes early, as expected, this could help Thomas' draft stock with other teams looking for a playmaking safety.

Earlier this week the AFC North blog reported the Bengals, who hold the No. 21 overall pick, also will host Thomas on April 1-2.

RFAs and the AFC North

March, 6, 2010
Sure, this is an AFC North blog. But to get a full scope of NFL free agency, you have to look in-depth at the other seven divisions to see who's available.

So after scanning through players with help from my colleagues at's blog network, here are five restricted free agents that could garner interest in the AFC North:



LB Kirk Morrison

Team/tender: Oakland Raiders, third round

2009 stats: 133 tackles, two sacks

Analysis: The past several years I've watched Oakland in person against the AFC North about a half-dozen times, and Morrison usually stands out. He led the Raiders in tackles the past five seasons. So I'm baffled why he has just a third-round tender. Morrison would be a good pickup for a team like the Cleveland Browns, who needs help at linebacker. Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan also coached in Oakland and knows Morrison well.



OG Rob Sims

Team/tender: Seattle Seahawks, fourth round

2009 stats: 14 starts

Analysis: Seattle's offensive line wasn't very good, but Sims is a starting NFL guard who is available for just a fourth-round pick. Keep in mind, Sims is a Macedonia, Ohio native who once played under Mike Holmgren in Seattle. The Browns' president has 11 draft picks at his disposal. So losing a fourth rounder for a starting guard may be worth the risk. Keep an eye on this one.



CB Richard Marshall

Teams/tender: Carolina Panthers, second round

2009 stats: 88 tackles, four interceptions

Analysis: At least three teams -- Cleveland, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers -- need help in the secondary. Marshall could be a solid No. 2 cornerback and an upgrade for either of those teams. According to NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, Carolina is being frugal and could let Marshall walk if he receives a decent offer. But second-round picks are valuable, so teams will have to weigh that, as well.



TE Tony Scheffler

Team/tender: Denver Broncos, second round

2009 stats: 31 receptions, 416 yards, two TDs

Analysis: Three AFC North teams are looking for help at tight end. The Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are looking for starters, while the Ravens need depth to pair with veteran Todd Heap. Scheffler has the skills and athleticism to help, but as I mentioned with Marshall, teams covet second-round picks. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson believes the Broncos may be willing to deal Scheffler for less, which could increase interest.



S Atari Bigby

Team/tender: Green Bay Packers, second round

2009 stats: 49 tackles, four interceptions

Analysis: Bigby is prone to injuries, but most hard-hitting safeties get banged up from time to time. The Bengals are reportedly interested in bringing veteran safety Roy Williams back. Williams' style is fairly similar to Bigby's, so that could rule out the Bengals. The Browns also are interested in safeties but remain a strong target for Tennessee prospect Eric Berry with the No. 7 overall pick.

Berry wants to leave 'no doubt'

February, 28, 2010
File PhotoTennessee's Eric Berry is aiming to prove that he is the top pick in this year's draft.
INDIANAPOLIS -- University of Tennessee safety Eric Berry is generally regarded as one of the top five prospects in this year's NFL draft.

But according to Berry, his goal by the end of the scouting combine is to prove he's the top player available.

"I really just want to come here and leave no doubt," Berry said. "That's pretty much my whole goal for coming to the combine. For everyone who has that little percentage in their mind that I'm not good enough to be No. 1 or up with there with the other guys, I'm trying to clear that up right now."

Berry likely will be the first defensive back taken in the April draft. In the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns are a potential target for him with the No. 7 overall pick.

The Tennessee safety's ball-hawking skills are often compared to Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens. Berry finished his college career with a Reed-like 14 interceptions for 494 interception return yards and three touchdowns.

Berry also said he studies a lot of Reed's game film, in addition to Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bob Sanders of the Indianapolis Colts and former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor. Berry also was fortunate to play one season at Tennessee under longtime NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who believes Berry is ready for the next level.

"Monte said I would be a fool to come back," Berry said laughing. "He made me so much of a better player, just from the mental part of the game. He told us exactly why he was calling the play. He didn't just call the play and make us run it...You kind of got in the mind of a defensive coordinator."

Draft Watch: AFC North

February, 17, 2010
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: biggest team needs.

Baltimore Ravens

For years, adding an elite No. 1 receiver has been a major topic of discussion in Baltimore. This should be the year the Ravens finally make it happen. Baltimore will likely see what's available in free agency or the trade market at receiver. But look for Baltimore also to acquire fresh legs at receiver or tight end in the draft. This offseason should be mostly about helping budding quarterback Joe Flacco reach his full potential. The recent signing of Jim Zorn as quarterbacks coach also is a good step in that direction.

Although the defense is still one of the NFL's best, cornerback depth is needed.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals were a good team in 2009. But their inconsistent passing game prevented the reigning AFC North champs from being a great team, as Cincinnati was one-and-done in the playoffs. Outside of Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals had no reliable receivers or tight ends. So look for the Bengals to address both needs in the draft. The recent addition of free-agent receiver Matt Jones might fill a need if he stays out of trouble. There are also rumors of Terrell Owens being interested in Cincinnati, which would be a solid upgrade over Laveranues Coles. Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham also has been linked to the Bengals as a possible first-round option with the No. 21 overall pick.

Cleveland Browns

When your offense was ranked dead last and the defense finished 31st in the NFL last season, there are a lot of holes. New Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have a big project ahead of them. But 11 draft picks give the team a lot of flexibility to fill those needs.

The biggest question for Cleveland is at quarterback. Can the Browns find their long-term solution at the position or is Brady Quinn the answer? With a thin crop of quality rookie quarterbacks, Cleveland likely will explore trades or free agency. Other key positions like linebacker, safety and cornerback are also huge needs. Reportedly, the team is intrigued by University of Florida cornerback Joe Haden. Tennessee safety Eric Berry is another potential option in the secondary.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Just one year removed from winning a Super Bowl, the Steelers do not have a lot of major needs. But a 9-7 season exposed some weaknesses with Pittsburgh, and cornerback is probably the biggest. William Gay was not ready to make the jump to a full-time starter in 2009. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, there are not a lot of corners with first-round grades thus far, although that may change after the combine and individual workouts.

The status of Pro Bowl nose tackle and pending free agent Casey Hampton is another issue. The Steelers could use the franchise tag to keep Hampton for at least another year while they try to find a replacement. Defensive tackle Dan Williams from the University of Tennessee would be an enticing draft option in the first round. Depth on the offensive line is also needed.