AFC North: Usama Young

AFC North links: McClain to be a Raven?

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
10:10
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Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens and linebacker Rolando McClain are working toward a contract, sources told NFL.com's Albert Breer on Wednesday. McClain was the No. 8 overall pick in 2010, but was recently cut by the Oakland Raiders. He had 99 tackles and five sacks in 2011. McClain's strength always has been stopping the run, but off-the-field issues played a role in his release. He is still just 23, and the Ravens don't have a replacement for Ray Lewis. McClain would join fellow Alabama products Courtney Upshaw and Terrence Cody on the Ravens' roster.

The next investment for the Ravens should be on the offensive line, writes Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun.

Matt Vensel of the Sun unveils his latest mock draft.

Third-year defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, who battled through several injuries last year, has high expectations of himself for the coming season, writes Garrett Downing of the team's website.

Cincinnati Bengals

With offseason conditioning to begin on Monday, the Bengals are exploring signing another veteran or two. The team hosted linebacker Akeem Jordan on Tuesday, and according to reports, will have tight end/fullback Alex Smith in for a visit later this week, writes Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Cleveland Browns

Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, LSU outside linebacker/defensive end Barkevious Mingo and Arizona quarterback Matt Scott have pre-draft visits scheduled with the Browns on Wednesday, league sources confirmed for Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and USC quarterback Matt Barkley had visits with the Browns on Tuesday, sources said.

Former Browns safety Usama Young signed with Oakland. Young, 27, spent the past two seasons with the Browns before being cut April 2. The Browns signed Young as an unrestricted free agent in 2011, but he never secured the starting free safety job on a full-time basis like the organization had hoped.

Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson says he's excited about the new coaching staff. "They’re definitely creating a different vibe around here, and it’s a winning vibe that I haven’t been a part of since I’ve been here," said the eight-year veteran.

Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday named coach Mike Tomlin to the powerful NFL competition committee, a group of coaches and administrators who recommend playing rules and policy changes to the NFL owners for a vote. Tomlin replaces former Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Some had projected that Chris Gocong would start at inside linebacker next to D'Qwell Jackson, and Usama Young would remain at free safety. Those projections were wrong.

The Cleveland Browns released Gocong and Young on Tuesday, wiping out $6.6 million in salary and creating more needs in the process. Neither move is a major surprise, because Gocong and Young were brought in by the previous regime.

The Browns now have two holes on defense, and they can't fill all of them in this month's draft. Cleveland has one pick in the first 67 selections in the draft.

Gocong, who started every game for the Browns in 2010 and 2011, didn't play last season because of an Achilles injury and was due $4.55 million in salary this season. The top candidates for left inside linebacker now are Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort. Robertson, who went undrafted in 2011, finished second on the Browns last season in tackles.

Young struggled last season in 10 starts at free safety and one at strong safety. He was scheduled to earn $2.1 million in the final year of his contract. Tashaun Gipson and Eric Hagg would compete for the spot if the Browns don't address it in the draft.

The Browns also announced the signing of free-agent kicker Brandon Bogotay, who went undrafted out of Georgia last year. In college, he was the kickoff specialist behind Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, who went to the Pro Bowl last season as a rookie.
Usama Young will start at free safety for the Browns in place of Eric Hagg, who is a healthy scratch. Hagg is inactive a week after he gave up a 44-yard touchdown to Bengals wide receiver Brandon Tate and was one of six players who missed tackles on Adam Jones' 81-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Hagg, the Browns' seventh-round pick last year out of Nebraska, won the starting job over Young during the offseason and started the first two games of the season. Young started eight of 16 games for the Browns last year and finished with 66 total tackles.

"We'd like to get a little more production from that position," defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said last week. "We've told [Hagg] this. He's a wonderful young man. He'll do anything he can for this football team."

Here's the full list of inactives:

Browns: FS Eric Hagg, QB Thaddeus Lewis, WR Jordan Norwood, RB Brandon Jackson, LB James-Michael Johnson, OL Ryan Miller and TE Alex Smith.

Bills: RB Fred Jackson, QB Tarvaris Jackson, DE Kyle Moore, LB Kirk Morrison, OT Sam Young, OL Colin Brown and WR Ruvell Martin.
AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

No. 2 wide receiver: Brandon Tate versus Mohamed Sanu

Actually, there's a battle at every spot in this wide receiver group except for the top one (A.J. Green). Experienced veterans Jerome Simpson (Vikings) and Andre Caldwell (Broncos) both left in free agency, and the Bengals didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency or draft one in the first two rounds.

The Bengals believe Sanu can be their No. 2 wide receiver as a rookie third-round pick. He is a competitive receiver with size who isn't afraid to go across the middle. Perhaps the biggest plus is his route running, which was a weak spot among the Bengals' wide receivers last season.

Tate, however, has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the spring workouts. He didn't catch a pass last season, when he signed a week before the season opener, but he has picked up the Bengals' offense in his first full offseason with the team. Tate has been running as the No. 2 wide receiver in most team drills after being the No. 5 receiver and returner in 2011. Armon Binns and Ryan Whalen also could figure into this competition.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Free safety: Eric Hagg versus Usama Young

There was speculation that the Browns would move veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown to safety when they let Mike Adams sign with the Broncos in free agency. Others thought the team would give the job to Young, who started eight games for the injured T.J. Ward last season. Instead, Cleveland decided to have an open competition for that spot on a pass defense that ranked second in the NFL last season.

The leading candidate for the job coming out of minicamps is Hagg, a seventh-round pick from a year ago. He's running with the first team, and isn't close to losing that spot by the way he's playing. Hagg has been the most improved player on the Browns' defense, and is constantly around the ball.

Young might not have the same upside as Hagg, but he has more experience. He was fourth on the team last season with 66 tackles, which led all Cleveland defensive backs. Still, it looks like Young will have to play some catch-up to come out of training camp as the starter.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Cornerback: Jimmy Smith versus Cary Williams

The expectation last season was Smith would become a starter at some point as a rookie. That is, until Smith hurt his ankle on the opening kickoff of the 2011. That allowed Williams to establish himself at a spot he never relinquished.

Now, the roles are reversed. Williams couldn't participate in team drills this spring after having hip surgery, which provided the opening for Smith to work with the starting defense all offseason. Williams is hoping to be at full strength when training camp opens this month.

It looks as if this is Smith's job to lose in training camp. The 2011 first-round pick has prototypical size and speed to be a shutdown cornerback. Williams, though, has surprised before. He finished last season as the Ravens' third-leading tackler (77), and ranked second in passes broken up (18).

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Cornerback: Keenan Lewis versus Cortez Allen versus Curtis Brown

The Steelers didn't sound devastated when they lost starting cornerback William Gay to the Cardinals in free agency, because they have confidence they can replace him. Who exactly will replace him is up in the air right now. Filling that spot will be a three-player race in training camp, although Lewis is expected to get the first snaps with the starting defense.

Lewis, a third-round pick in 2009, has shown flashes of being a playmaker, but he has a history of being undisciplined. He doesn't lack confidence. Lewis predicted a Pro Bowl season for himself in May. But he doesn't have a great deal of experience with one career start.

Allen, a fourth-round pick, played on the Steelers' nickel defense like Lewis did last season. Brown, a third-round pick, is considered a favorite of the coaching staff and the dark horse candidate to win this battle. He's a tenacious defender who led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season.
Here are some AFC North evening notes:

Eagles free-agent guard Evan Mathis left the Ravens facility without a contract but he did have dinner plans. He will sit down with general manager Ozzie Newsome tonight and remain in Baltimore tomorrow.

That looks like a positive sign for the Ravens, who are looking for an immediate replacement for Ben Grubbs (who signed today with the New Orleans Saints).


"I think it's a good fit," Mathis told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "We had a good meeting."

Asked if a deal is imminent, Mathis said: "We're not at that point yet."

BENGALS: Starting safety Reggie Nelson, the top Bengals' free agent, is scheduled to visit the New York Jets tomorrow. ... The Bengals have three players in for visits: New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, Miami defensive lineman Kendall Langford and New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross. Porter likely has the edge over Ross because he's only 25, four years younger than Ross. Langford is scheduled to leave for a visit with the Rams tomorrow if he doesn't have a contract.

BROWNS: Free-agent safety Mike Adams, 30, agreed on a two-year deal with the Denver Broncos. Usama Young and Eric Hagg could battle for the job, or the Browns could move cornerback Sheldon Brown to safety after the team re-signed Dimitri Patterson. ... Cleveland reached a one-year, $3 million deal with 12-year defensive lineman Juqua Parker, the NFL Network first reported. Parker will serve as the top backup, which likely will lead to the release of former starter Jayme Mitchell. ... The Browns announced they re-signed backup offensive lineman Oniel Cousins.

The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. STEELERS: Pittsburgh had the top-ranked pass defense, and it wasn't all about the pass rush this time. Actually, the pass rush was extremely inconsistent this season, so that No. 1 ranking is more of a reflection of the Steelers' secondary. Cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark had career years. Taylor's season, though, was marred by a late-season decline that ended with him getting stiffed-armed by the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas on the touchdown that ended the Steelers' season. Clark had the best season of any safety in the division, which is saying a lot when Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are in the AFC North. He finished second in the division with 100 tackles. Polamalu was solid, but didn't play up to his usual spectacular level. William Gay was a pleasant surprise, taking back the starting cornerback job that he lost in 2010. What could change: Gay is an unrestricted free agent, but it shouldn't take much to retain him. Look for rookie cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to make more of an impact in their second seasons.

2. RAVENS: This group exceeded expectations, and did so in a surprising manner. Instead of starting Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr at cornerback, the Ravens finished fourth in pass defense with Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. Webb was the division's top cornerback, recording five interceptions and breaking up 20 passes (and that doesn't include three interceptions in the playoffs). Williams was a physical presence at corner. The biggest disappointment was Reed, who intercepted three passes -- his fewest in a season where he played more than 12 games. The Ravens' other safety, hard-hitting Bernard Pollard, provided more of an impact than Reed. First-round pick Jimmy Smith endured an up-and-down rookie season. What could change: Smith should take over for Williams as a starting cornerback this season. Foxworth is expected to get cut, and the same could happen to Carr. Both backup safeties, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, are free agents, but I suspect Nakamura will get re-signed.

3. BROWNS: Joe Haden showed signs of being a shutdown corner, even though he failed to make an interception. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His worst games came against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. While Haden is among the division's best cornerbacks, Sheldon Brown was the worst starting corner in the AFC North. Brown's biggest asset is the experience he provides to a young secondary. The defensive backfield was hurt by the loss of strong safety T.J. Ward, who missed the final 10 games with a foot injury. Teams took advantage of Ward's replacement, Usama Young. Free safety Mike Adams beat out Young for a starting job in training camp. Dimitri Patterson was a reliable nickelback, breaking up a dozen passes. What could change: The Browns might replace Adams, who is a free agent, and they could give rookie seventh-round pick Eric Hagg a shot at doing so. Cleveland is very interested in bringing Patterson back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Patterson starts in place of Brown.
4. BENGALS: Leon Hall is perhaps the most valuable cornerback in the division. In the first nine games with Hall, the Bengals gave up eight touchdown passes. In the last seven regular-season games without him (he had a season-ending Achilles injury), they allowed 12 touchdown passes. The Bengals replaced Hall with Adam Jones, who was extremely erratic in coverage. The Bengals value the veteran leadership of Nate Clements, but the cornerback is looking past his prime. Only nickelback Kelly Jennings struggled on a more consistent basis. Safety Reggie Nelson allowed some big plays early, but he was stingy in pass defense late in the season. The other safety, Chris Crocker, had trouble covering the more athletic tight ends in the league. What could change: The Bengals need to draft a cornerback in the first round to press Clements for a starting role and become his eventual replacement. Nelson is a free agent, but he is considered a priority to get re-signed. The Bengals are expected to part ways with Jones, who is a free agent.

Feb. 20: Special teams

Feb. 21: Defensive line

Feb. 23: Linebackers

For Monday: Offensive line

AFC North matchups to watch

November, 26, 2011
11/26/11
1:00
PM ET
BROWNS AT BENGALS

Bengals DT Geno Atkins vs. Browns LG Jason Pinkston: Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles that most people outside this division don't know about. He is tied for the AFC lead in sacks by a defensive tackle with 5.5. Pinkston, a rookie fifth-round pick, has yet to give up a sack this season (and no holding penalties) and is regarded as one of the Browns more consistent pass protectors.

Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham vs. Browns SS Usama Young: Gresham is one of the emerging young tight ends in the league. He is averaging four catches per game. Young should expect plenty of passes thrown his way after he got picked on by Jacksonville. Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis caught seven passes for 64 yards against the Browns last Sunday.

STEELERS AT CHIEFS

Steelers coverage team vs. Chiefs punt returner Javier Arenas: Arenas ranks fourth in the NFL with a 14.4-yard average. Of the NFL's top five punt returners, Arenas is the only one who hasn't scored a touchdown this season. The Steelers have the sixth-best punt coverage team, allowing an average of 6.8 yards. Pittsburgh hasn't allowed a punt return more than 20 yards this season.

AFC North Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
10/04/11
1:00
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Bengals attendance: The team followed up the smallest crowd for a home opener at Paul Brown Stadium with the smallest crowd (41,142) in the 12-year history of the place. That's over 20,000 empty seats in each of the first two home games of the season. Sure, this is the fans' way of protesting owner Mike Brown and the constant losing. But all this young team can see is a lack of support.

2. Steelers run defense: The NFL's top run defense from a year ago has plummeted to No. 22. In the Steelers' two losses, the defense has given up 170 yards rushing to the Ravens and 180 yards on the ground to the Texans. After allowing just one 100-yard rusher in a 50-game stretch, Pittsburgh has allowed two in the past four games. Has anyone seen inside linebackers James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons lately?

3. Browns secondary: This vastly improved group flopped in its first test against a proven quarterback. Cleveland gave up 194 yards passing and three touchdown passes to Matt Hasselbeck -- and that was in the first half alone. Safety T.J. Ward didn't cover Titans tight end Craig Stevens on a 12-yard touchdown, and safety Usama Young took a bad angle at tight end Jared Cook on an 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run. To make matters worse, cornerback Joe Haden has a sprained knee.

RISING

[+] EnlargeCincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green
AP Photo/Tony TribbleCincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green already has 312 yards receiving this season.
1. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green: The fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft is already making an impact, recording two 100-yard performances in the past three games. Watching him leap up for catches -- like the 58-yard one on Sunday -- is like seeing flashes of a younger Calvin Johnson (even though Johnson is still young). He has six catches over 20 yards, which is tied for ninth in the NFL. And Green is doing all of this while learning on the job with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.

2. Ravens pass rush: Baltimore has recorded 21 quarterback hits over the past two games because of its creative and risky blitzes. This pressure on quarterbacks has led to four defensive touchdowns the past two weeks, including a team-record three Sunday night against the Jets. This is a drastic turnaround from last season, when the Ravens had a franchise-low 27 sacks.


3.Bengals defense: For the first time since 1983, the Bengals' defense sits atop the NFL rankings. Cincinnati has six new starters from a defense that finished 15th in 2010. The Bengals held the NFL's highest-scoring offense to 13 points (one touchdown was scored off an interception return) on Sunday and kept the Bills 158 yards below their season average.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • The Baltimore Ravens reportedly have interest in San Diego Chargers receiver Malcom Floyd.
Morning take: Baltimore needs a No. 2 receiver following the release of Derrick Mason. Floyd would be a younger, more athletic target who can stretch the field for quarterback Joe Flacco.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward (thumb) may begin practicing by the end of the week.
Morning take: Pittsburgh is hurting at receiver with Emmanuel Sanders (foot) out for the rest of training camp. Ward's return will be a welcome sight to the offense.
Morning take: Young has been a backup most of his career but came to Cleveland for an opportunity to start. It will be a good battle in camp between Young and versatile veteran Mike Adams.
Morning take: Deuce Lutui failed his physical. So the Bengals had to move fast to find another guard. Cincinnati needs bodies up front.

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