AFC North: USC

Troy Polamalu's time well spent

May, 14, 2011
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Similar to his great instincts on the field, Pittsburgh Steelers safety and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu is staying two steps ahead during the lockout off the field.

While many players are scrambling and trying to figure out what to do with their free time, Polamalu returned to USC this semester and earned a history degree at his alma mater. Polamalu, 30, didn't complete all of his credits before being drafted by the Steelers in 2003 but utilized the lockout to do so eight years and two Super Bowl titles later.

"I decided to finish what I started and walked that stage today not only because it was very important to me personally, but because I want to emphasize the importance of education, and that nothing should supersede it," Polamalu said.

In addition to Polamalu, other AFC North players have found interesting ways to pass the time during this extended lockout, which started in March.

Steelers teammate Hines Ward is doing well on "Dancing With The Stars." Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski registered two knockouts as a professional boxer, and Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco tried pro soccer and will ride a bull this weekend.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North: Morning take: I definitely see the similarities. But I'm not sure the Jets can finish the job like the Steelers did four years ago.
Morning take: Although it's unknown what position Jackson is interviewing for, it's hard to imagine him interested in anything less than offensive coordinator. Jackson has done a great job with quarterback Joe Flacco and should be a hot commodity this offseason.
Morning take: Maiava was the least-heralded of the Trojan linebackers in last year's draft. But for the Browns, he was one of their most productive rookies.
Morning take: That's a hypothetical question. But like the Jets, the Bengals would have traveled to play the San Diego Chargers. That's a good matchup for Cincinnati, but it's no guarantee the Bengals would've won that game.

Kiper's Big Board and Baltimore

January, 19, 2010
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Since we didn't get to the Baltimore Ravens last week, let's see how Mel Kiper's latest draft board matches up with Baltimore's No. 25 overall pick.

Keep in mind, Kiper only ranks his top 25 players.

Ravens

Pick: No. 25

Kiper's ranking: No. 21 USC S Taylor Mays, No. 22 Oklahoma OL Trent Williams, No. 23 Michigan DE Brandon Graham, No. 24 Texas LB Sergio Kindle, No. 25 Oklahoma TE Jermaine Gresham

Early thoughts: None of these players really catch my eye for Baltimore, mostly because there is no receiver in this group. Safety depth could be an issue depending on what the team does with pending free agent Dawan Landry and Ed Reed thinking about retirement. With that said, Mays could be a good value late in the first round. But I don't see anyone else from this group filling a major need for Baltimore. Although this year is not considered a top-heavy draft for receivers, two to watch are Golden Tate of Notre Dame and Illinois' Arrelious Benn. But I don't have a firm grasp on where either junior would rate at this point.

Mack on Maualuga

April, 26, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BEREA, Ohio -- If there is any player in the AFC North who knows Cincinnati Bengals second-round pick Rey Maualuga well, it is Cal center and Cleveland Browns first-round pick Alex Mack.

Following his introductory press conference with the Browns, Mack checked in with the AFC North blog to provide his personal scouting report on his former Pac 10 rival from USC.

"He's got a great nose for the ball," Mack said of Maualuga. "He's big player, physical, but he's also not afraid to go through you or around you. He's obviously one of the bigger inside guys, but he also has some speed and some moves.

"He will hit you if he needs to, but he will also just go right around you if he doesn't have to. That's what I mean by a good nose for the ball. He knows exactly where he needs to go to get to the ball."

Mack said in his five years at Cal, he's never beaten USC. Mack will have a chance to beat Maualuga twice a year in the AFC North.

Bengals stop Maualuga's slide

April, 25, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

For the second consecutive year, the Cincinnati Bengals grabbed a linebacker from USC on the first day of the NFL draft.

With the 38th overall pick in the second round, Cincinnati selected inside linebacker Rey Maualuga. He dropped from an expected mid-to-late first-round pick to early in the second round. Cincinnati went for value with Maualuga.

Maualuga joins former college teammate Keith Rivers in Cincinnati, which could turn out to be a dynamic pair of up-and-coming linebackers. Earlier Saturday, Cincinnati selected Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith in the first round with the sixth overall pick.

No surprise: Browns trade down

April, 25, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BEREA, Ohio -- Talk about irony.

The Cleveland Browns and new coach Eric Mangini have worked out the first trade of the NFL draft with Mangini's former team in the New York Jets. With the No. 5 overall pick, the Jets selected former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez.

The Browns coveted draft picks much more than they did any particular player in this draft. Behind the scenes, Cleveland did its best to drum up interest in Sanchez the past couple of weeks and it turned out to be a good plan.

In return Cleveland gets New York's first-rounder at No. 17, the Jets' second-round pick (No. 52 overall) and three additional players who played for Mangini last season in defensive lineman Kenyon Coleman, safety Abram Elam and quarterback Brett Ratliff.

The Browns now have four picks on the first day, including three second-rounders.

Updated AFC North mock draft

April, 20, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay provides his latest mock draft as the NFL will hold its draft this weekend.

With several free-agent acquisitions and trade rumors circulating, McShay has made several last-minute changes on his draft board in the AFC North.

So let's take a look at his latest picks.

Cleveland Browns

Pick: No. 5

McShay's previous pick: Brian Orakpo, DE/LB, Texas

McShay's current pick: Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech

Analysis: The strong Braylon Edwards trade winds definitely influenced McShay's big board to change from Orakpo to Crabtree. Although I am against taking receivers in the top five, I can see the Browns making this pick. Cleveland has been hit hard at the position after cutting Joe Jurevicius and facing legal troubles with Donte Stallworth. If the team also moves Edwards, you are looking at David Patten and Joshua Cribbs as Cleveland's two starting receivers.

Cincinnati Bengals

Pick: No. 6

McShay's previous pick: Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia

McShay's current pick: Monroe

Analysis: McShay has stayed the course with this pick and it's a good one. If Monroe is still on the board at No. 6, Cincinnati should have no problem taking him. Offensive tackle remains the team's biggest need. Jason Smith of Baylor likely will be gone in the first five picks. The Bengals will have their fingers crossed that two teams ahead of them don't select left tackles.

Baltimore Ravens

Pick: No. 26

McShay's previous pick: Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois

McShay's current pick: Rey Maualuga, LB, USC

Analysis: When McShay picked Davis in his previous mock draft a few weeks ago, I was scratching my head a little, because Baltimore paid a lot of money for Domonique Foxworth in free agency, in addition to signing Chris Carr. I just didn't see the Ravens also investing a first-round pick into the position following those two pickups. But the recent re-signing of veteran corner Samari Rolle, who was once released by Baltimore, probably took McShay over the edge to switch positions. Maualuga would be a tremendous value pick here if he's still available. But wide receiver remains the team's biggest need.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick: No. 32

McShay's previous pick: Alphonso Smith, CB, Wake Forest

McShay's current pick: Max Unger, C, Oregon

Analysis: We're not sure why McShay switched positions from cornerback to center. But there is a good chance the Steelers address one of these two positions with their first-round pick. McShay has Unger rated slightly higher than Alex Mack of Cal on his big board, so Unger is the pick. I tend to think Mack or Louisville's Eric Wood would be better fits, but this may be splitting hairs. McShay and I both agree Pittsburgh should go center with this pick.

Also, ESPN.com did an ultimate mock draft Monday involving every player in college football history. It's very well done. 

Here is the link. 

Inside the AFC North

April, 16, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are some more notes and observations this week in the AFC North:

     
      Joe Robbins/Getty Images
      James Harrison's new contract with the Steelers sets the market for other top-flight linebackers.
  • This week's signing of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison could be just the start for the team's 2010 free-agent class. Pittsburgh could now shift its focus to extending starting tight end Heath Miller, who also is in the final year of his deal. The Steelers have a star-studded free-agent class next year that includes Miller, receiver Hines Ward, nose tackle Casey Hampton and safety Ryan Clark. Harrison was also on that list, but the Steelers made it a priority to get a deal complete. Expect the team to attempt to scratch at least one or two more players from this list before the start of next season.
  • Harrison's contract also could impact two other big-name linebackers: Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens and DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys. Both players are looking for huge contracts, and because they are younger than Harrison, Suggs and Ware probably will surpass the $51.175 million over six years Pittsburgh coughed up for Harrison -- last year's NFL defensive MVP.
  • We are hearing that the Cleveland Browns are intrigued by USC's linebacker trio of Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews Jr. and Brian Cushing. Of the three, Matthews may be the player who's caught their eye the most. Matthews has the type of versatility needed in a 3-4 defense and was in Cleveland for a visit earlier this week. The irony is none of the USC linebackers is in consideration for Cleveland's No. 5 overall pick, which means the Browns could attempt to trade down in the first round or trade up with their two second-round picks. Cleveland could also stay put and hope one of these three players falls to the top of the second round, where the Browns own the No. 36 overall pick.
  • New Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Tank Johnson seems ecstatic to once again play in a 4-3 defense, which is where he thrived the most as a member of the Chicago Bears. Johnson described to ESPN.com's John Clayton in a recent radio interview how difficult it was to transition to a 3-4 nose with the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson feels he will be much more productive in Cincinnati's traditional 4-3 scheme, and the Bengals could certainly use an impact player at that position.

Ravens draft prospectus

April, 8, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

As the NFL draft nears, AFC North teams are narrowing their list of prospects to take with their first-round picks. This week we look at those players and how each would fit with their teams.

Let's look at potential prospects for the Baltimore Ravens, who own the No. 26 overall pick:

1. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland

As the weeks go by, it looks more and more like Heyward-Bey to Baltimore won't happen. Somewhat of a sleeper after the college football season, Heyward-Bey's stock improved significantly since lighting up the combine and looking solid in his individual workouts. He could go as high as the middle of the first round. But Heyward-Bey would be a great fit in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's offense. He would be the missing deep threat the team needs and could contribute right away as the starter, opposite Derrick Mason, or the No. 3 receiver behind Mason and Mark Clayton.

2. Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina

Another ACC product, Nicks also would be a solid fit in purple and black to complement Clayton and Mason. The Ravens need bigger receivers and Nicks -- at 6-foot-1, 212 pounds -- would fit the bill. Nicks has good speed but not the blazing speed Heyward-Bey possesses. But Nicks' strength and ball skills gives him the ability to compete for deep balls and make plays over the middle. There is some concern of Nicks reportedly gaining up to 14 pounds after a hamstring injury. But this could work in Baltimore's favor if his stock drops toward the end of the first round.

3. Rey Maualuga, ILB, USC

The Ravens were active, but spent their money very wisely in free agency. Tight end and cornerback were areas of need, but the recent signings of tight end L.J. Smith and cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr plugged those holes. This leaves the chance of Baltimore taking the best available player, such as USC's Maualuga if he's available. He is a big hitter, which fits right in with Baltimore's style. The departure of Bart Scott also leaves a void for someone to step in.

Next up Thursday: The Pittsburgh Steelers

Morning take: Bart or Brown?

February, 24, 2009
2/24/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Take your pick Ravens fans: Scott or Brown?

  • Could USC linebacker Clay Matthews III play for the Cleveland Browns as his dad once did?

Morning take: Every great 3-4 defense has hybrids, and Matthews has the potential to develop into a solid one.

Morning take: If the phone didn't ring by now, chances are it won't by Friday's start of free agency.

Morning take: The draft within the division should get interesting as all four teams make a run this year on either corners (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland) or safeties (Cleveland, Cincinnati).

Seven-step drop: NFL combine

February, 23, 2009
2/23/09
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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.

Keep an eye on Maualuga

February, 22, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Could USC linebacker Rey Maualuga be a good fit in the AFC North?
 
Maualuga thinks so, mainly because he believes he could play well in a 3-4 defense.
 

 
  Jeff Golden/Getty Images
  Rey Maualuga isn't concerned whether the team which drafts him runs a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense.
"It really don't matter to me," Maualuga said at the NFL combine when asked about the 3-4 scheme. "I played the whole season with a hybrid, Clay Matthews, being a standup outside linebacker and a hand-down defensive end. So I'm familiar with both schemes. So whichever team I get picked to go to, whether it's a 4-3 or 3-4, I think I will fit in really well."

This could be music to the ears of three teams in the AFC North. The Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers all run a 3-4 defense.

Maualuga recorded 79 tackles and two interceptions in 2008. The hard-hitting linebacker also said he wouldn't mind being reunited with former teammate Keith Rivers, now a linebacker with the Cincinnati Bengals.

"He's a great guy, a guy I do see myself playing alongside," Maualuga said.

The Rivers-Maualuga duo played three years together in college and dominated the Pac-10.

The Bengals, who play a 4-3, have other needs to address with the No. 6 pick. But adding another linebacker at some point to an improving defense wouldn't be a bad idea.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is your one-stop shopping around the AFC North:

Morning take: Palmer thought he was looking forward to the USC-Ohio State game on Sept. 13 before. Now he probably cannot wait until it's over.

  • Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton failed his running test Sunday and was placed on the training camp physically unable to perform list.

Morning take: This is not a good sign. There already is growing concern for Pittsburgh's aging defensive line, and now its longtime anchor comes into camp out of shape. Hampton becomes yet another Steelers lineman to watch closely this summer.

  • Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times provides Sunday's recap of the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback derby.

Morning take: Kyle Boller is showing his experience by playing it safe the first week of training camp. He doesn't take many chances, but Troy Smith and Joe Flacco have. It will be interesting to see if that strategy lands Boller the job.

  • According to Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository, Browns head coach Romeo Crennel believes defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is a rising star.

Morning take: That's high praise coming from Crennel, who has seen many coaches come and go. Tucker has a unique way of displaying high energy without being overbearing, and most importantly, players want to give Tucker their maximum effort.

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