AFC North: Willie McGinest

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

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

Morning take: There's a significant difference being a sub/part-time starter to playing just about every down on defense. So the conditioning aspect will be important for Gay this season.

Morning take: It hasn't happened since 2003-04. But the biggest difference this year is Baltimore finally has stability at quarterback with Joe Flacco.

Morning take: McGinest is still strong against the run, which is a quality many teams need. Perhaps that's enough to land him a one-year deal.

Morning take: I agree with this assessment to a point. Although I'm not sure they're the worst in all of sports, the Bengals' uniforms are certainly one of the worst in the NFL.

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  After being traded to Tampa Bay and signing a new, hefty contract, Kellen Winslow will be one of the most prominent faces of the Buccaneers' new regime.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and James Walker

When head coach Eric Mangini and general manager George Kokinis took over in Cleveland and head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik were hired in Tampa Bay, the four men instantly began re-shaping their franchises.

No move was bigger for either team than the deal the Browns and Buccaneers made for tight end Kellen Winslow at the start of free agency. In exchange for a second-round pick this year and a fifth-round choice in 2010, the Bucs got Winslow and the Browns got rid of him.

There are two ways to look at this deal. Cleveland got rid of a potential headache because Winslow was looking for a new contract and might not have fit with the new regime. On the flip side, he might be a perfect fit in Tampa and the Bucs already have turned around and given Winslow a new six-year contract worth $36.1 million.

The trade comes with potential positives and negatives for both teams. James Walker and Pat Yasinskas take a look at who might be the winner in the Winslow trade.

Why didn't Winslow fit with Cleveland? How does he fit in Tampa?

James Walker:
When the Browns changed regimes, the writing was pretty much on the wall for Winslow. Mangini and Kokinis wanted to start over -- completely. Cleveland quickly went on a purge where it traded or released veterans such as Winslow, receiver Joe Jurevicius and offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer. The Browns also didn't retain in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and veteran linebackers Andra Davis and Willie McGinest. To put it bluntly, there aren't many players on Cleveland's current roster that Mangini is enamored with, because he wants to win or lose with his players. Winslow had trade value so the Browns didn't pass up the opportunity. He was also in his sixth year and wanted a new contract, so that played a factor as well. Winslow's skill sets could have fit with the Browns on the field, so I doubt this particular move had much to do with talent. But in terms of personalities, Winslow is not shy about speaking his mind, while Mangini often likes his team shrouded in secrecy. This oil-and-water combination probably would not have worked anyway. So this was a good separation for both sides.

Pat Yasinskas: Tampa Bay is starting over, too, and one team's trash is another's treasure. The new contract should make Winslow happy and he's landing in an offense that's going to be built largely around his skills. Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski will build a downfield passing game around Winslow and wide receiver Antonio Bryant. While Winslow's outspoken nature caused him some problems in Cleveland, that shouldn't be an issue with the Bucs. Morris is only 32 and excels at relating to players. Morris also isn't one of those coaches who tries to control his players' actions and words at all times. He lets them be individuals and Winslow will be allowed to be himself. The change of surroundings also give Winslow a fresh start and that could help more than anything. Although there will be lofty expectations because of the contract, he won't be under the microscope as much as he was in Cleveland. Tampa Bay fans are intense, but this isn't a situation like Cleveland, where Winslow's high draft position meant anything less than perfection was failure.

How will the Browns replace him and how will the Bucs use him?

 
  Jerome Davis/Icon SMI
  The Browns will attempt to replace Winslow with a committee of tight ends, including free-agent signee Robert Royal.

James Walker: The Browns no longer have a tight end with 80-catch potential on their roster. So they are hoping to replace Winslow's production by committee. Cleveland signed former Buffalo Bills tight end Robert Royal, who could be a serviceable starter but never had more than 33 catches in a season. The Browns also have veteran Steve Heiden returning from a serious knee injury and second-year player Martin Rucker, who is still learning but has some potential. If the three tight ends can contribute a combined total of 50-60 receptions next season, I think Cleveland's coaching staff would be happy with that type of production. The tricky thing is Winslow's ability to create mismatches in the middle of the field would have made life much easier for Cleveland's quarterbacks, particularly Brady Quinn, who often likes to check down to his short and intermediate options. If Quinn is the starter, I think he is going to miss Winslow's presence the most. Winslow has tremendous hands and was one of the few consistent weapons in Cleveland's offense the past few seasons who showed up ready to play every week. So how will Winslow be utilized in Tampa's offense, Pat?

Pat Yasinskas: James, while Cleveland is going away from having a pass-catching tight end as a big part of the offense, the Bucs are going in the exact opposite direction. Tight end wasn't a big part of the offense in former coach Jon Gruden's system, but it will be with Morris and Jagodzinski. They've scrapped Gruden's West Coast offense and will go with a system that is supposed to balance the run and the pass. The Bucs don't yet know if Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich will be their quarterback. But they do know they want the quarterback throwing often to Winslow and Bryant. The Bucs have plenty of depth at tight end with Alex Smith, John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens on the roster. Those other three tight ends will get some playing time and they'll be asked to take on some blocking duties in the running game. But Winslow wasn't brought in here to be a blocker. He'll line up at tight end, but he'll also get some snaps in the slot and out wide. It's a pretty safe guess that the Bucs will be looking to get somewhere around 80 catches out of Winslow.

Did the Bucs overpay with the $36.1 million contract extension?

Pat Yasinskas: There's no doubt Tampa Bay went overboard in giving Winslow a new six-year deal that makes him the highest-paid tight end in history. In theory, that kind of contract should go to the league's best tight end. Winslow hasn't qualified as that -- yet. But the Bucs based this deal on his enormous potential. Yes, it's true he hasn't ever fully reached his potential.

The Bucs are banking Winslow can stay healthy and be the best tight end in the league. They're going to make him a focal point of the offense and his acquisition was the first big move by Dominik and Morris. The contract is a further statement about how huge a role the Bucs want Winslow to play.

James Walker: After watching Winslow the past three seasons, I think he's going to do well in Tampa, and the change of divisions will help his production to the point where fans could forget the extension.

Nothing against your NFC South, Pat. But Winslow had to face the top-flight defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens four games a year and still put up very good numbers. He had tremendous battles with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Ravens safety Ed Reed, and those two players often said Winslow was one of their toughest matchups annually. I would guess Winslow is licking his chops looking at some of the safeties and linebackers in the NFC South, compared to the personnel he had to face earlier in his career. As you mentioned, Pat, health is the only question.

As far as your contract theory, contracts are relative to the current market. Two years ago Daniel Graham of the Denver Broncos was the highest-paid tight end. Last season it was Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts. And those are not the league's two best tight ends. A year from now someone else likely will become the highest paid at the position, because that's how the market works.

How will this trade work out?

Kellen Winslow
TE
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2008 STATS
REC YDS TD AVG LNG
43 428 3 10.0 30

Pat Yasinskas: After firing Gruden and releasing Derrick Brooks, the Bucs were lacking star power. The Glazer family, which owns the team, likes star power and they got some flash in Winslow. He instantly gives the team a big name and his personality should help liven up a locker room that didn't have a true spirit last season. Yes, the price tag was steep and there are plenty of other needs the Bucs could have filled if they kept their second-round pick. But they would not have gotten an instant star in the second round. They get that in Winslow and, for better or worse, he'll be one of the front men for this new regime.

James Walker: For the Browns, they will probably use the additional second-round pick (No. 50 overall) on either a receiver or a running back. Cleveland's offense was abysmal and ranked No. 31 out of 32 teams in the NFL in 2008. The Browns used four different quarterbacks and couldn't get anything established on the ground or through the air. So help at running back or receiver makes the most sense. This is particularly the case if the Browns trade No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards. There have been talks involving at least one team in the New York Giants. The Philadelphia Eagles also are a possibility. In addition, Donte Stallworth's legal situation makes the receiver position a priority. The Browns need all the help they can get. So there is some pressure on Cleveland to select the right player with this pick, particularly since the team gave up one of its best players.

Who got the most of this trade?

Pat Yasinskas:
Things could change in the long term if the Browns hit big with their draft picks. But there's no question the Bucs are the winner in the short term. They got a very good player, who still has the potential to become great. If he does, the price tag won't be that big a deal. I've always thought NFL general managers treat draft picks too preciously and are too hesitant to part with them. I'm glad Dominik broke that tradition because I believe that any pick beyond the first round is just a guess anyway. There's no guessing with Winslow. We already know the guy is good. Yes, he had some injury problems and has been a little controversial at times. But there's no question he's one of the most tale
nted tight ends in the league. Now, he'll get his chance to produce.

James Walker:
Although I have no problem with Cleveland starting from scratch, I do also believe Tampa got the most of this trade. It will pay immediate dividends for the Buccaneers, because they get a proven commodity. No tight end Tampa would have drafted this year comes with the game-breaking ability of Winslow, particularly if they chose to draft a tight end in the second round or lower. The Browns now have two second-rounders (No. 36 overall and No. 50) to plug an additional hole. But as I mentioned, they have to nail the pick first to get value in return for this trade. With a first-year general manager leading his first draft, there certainly are no guarantees. A fifth-rounder in 2010 is pretty much a non factor. It won't help Cleveland next season, and statistically there is a little probability a fifth-round pick could ever significantly help unless the Browns found a gem. This is a "win-now” league and Tampa helped itself the most to win in 2009. The Browns might be able to help themselves with this trade down the road. Maybe.

AFC North offseason report card

March, 18, 2009
3/18/09
12:30
PM ET
 
  Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images; Andy Lyons and Tom Hauck/Getty Images
  The AFC North has lost some star power, with Bart Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh departing through free agency and Kellen Winslow Jr. sent off in a trade.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

With the busiest portion of free agency coming to an end, it is officially time to evaluate the decisions made by all four AFC North teams.

The range of activity in free agency varied this year. For instance, the Baltimore Ravens were extremely active in signing and losing players, while the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers only visited with a couple of players without reaching deals.

Let's examine the moves.

Baltimore Ravens

Grade: B

Key pickups: CB Domonique Foxworth, C Matt Birk, TE L.J. Smith, CB/KR Chris Carr

Key losses: LB Bart Scott, C Jason Brown, S Jim Leonhard, CB Chris McAlister (released), Samari Rolle (released)

Analysis: Going into free agency, I thought the Ravens were doomed for failure with the amount of big names set to hit the open market. Baltimore certainly lost some of those players, but a creative and cost-effective plan allowed general manager Ozzie Newsome to soften the blow. The Ravens lost three key starters in linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown and safety Jim Leonhard. They also released starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. But Baltimore quickly added talent in free-agent cornerback Domonique Foxworth, veteran center Matt Birk, tight end L.J. Smith and return specialist Chris Carr. Keeping Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were vital. And if the Ravens put together another solid draft class, which is Newsome's forte, Baltimore should be fine in 2009. This good grade is given to the Ravens for their resiliency in coming up with a plan to stay in contention despite losing a wealth of talented players.

Cincinnati Bengals

Grade: C+

Key pickups: WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier

Key losses: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, DL John Thornton (still unsigned), OT Stacy Andrews, C Eric Ghiaciuc (still unsigned)

Analysis: No one was surprised when former Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for the Seattle Seahawks. But it was surprising when the Bengals paid former New York Jet Laveranues Coles $28 million over four years-- including a whopping $9.75 million in his first year -- to replace Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh had 90-plus receptions the past two seasons, while Coles is more of a 60- to 70-catch receiver. Someone will have to make up that missing production whether it is a bounce-back year from Chad Ocho Cinco or a career year from one of the young receivers -- Chris Henry, Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson -- in the No. 3 role. Keeping tailback Cedric Benson was important, but the team still needs a big-play threat at that position. J.T. O'Sullivan was a decent pickup to back up quarterback Carson Palmer. With Palmer's return, a stellar draft could put Cincinnati in position to surprise next season.

Cleveland Browns

Grade: D+

Key pickups: LB Eric Barton, LB David Bowens, TE Robert Royal, DL C.J. Mosley, OL John St. Clair

Key losses: S Sean Jones, TE Kellen Winslow Jr. (trade), WR Joe Jurevicius (released), OT Kevin Shaffer (released), LB Andra Davis, LB Willie McGinest, RB Jason Wright

Analysis: The Browns are cleaning house, and they probably are not done yet. New coach Eric Mangini and first-year general manager George Kokinis are turning over the roster quickly through every avenue possible. The Browns have not retained most of their in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and linebackers Andra Davis
and Willie McGinest. They also cut offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer and receiver Joe Jurevicius and traded former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay for a pair of draft picks. The replacements have not been overwhelming. Former Jets linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens are both stop-gap players who are 30-plus. Royal is not nearly as dynamic a tight end as Winslow, and Cleveland still has a lot of holes left to fill in the draft. The Browns are clearly starting from scratch, which is why they are attempting to stockpile draft picks. Coming off a 4-12 season, Cleveland appears to be headed for another transition year in 2009.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Grade: C-

Key pickups: None

Key losses: CB Bryant McFadden, OT Marvel Smith, QB Byron Leftwich (still unsigned), WR Nate Washington

Analysis: Pittsburgh hasn't signed anyone outside of its building. Instead, the team placed its focus on keeping together last year's championship team. The Steelers retained three starters from their offensive line in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks and brought back a host of backups and special-teams players. They are staying true to their identity of not being major players in free agency. But it would have been beneficial to add at least one or two offensive linemen from the outside to compete and provide depth. That probably won't happen until next month's NFL draft. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden bolting to the Arizona Cardinals could be softened if William Gay continues to develop in 2009. The Steelers are banking on it. Pittsburgh also brought in a few intriguing free agents, such as receiver Joey Galloway and cornerback/return specialist Chris Carr, for visits. But its reluctance to pay much on the open market this offseason forced those two players to sign with other teams.

Meet the replacements

March, 11, 2009
3/11/09
2:00
PM ET
 
  Getty Images
  Laveranues Coles, Domonique Foxworth and Matt Birk headline this year's free-agent additions in the AFC North.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

NFL free agency was created to improve the competitive balance and shake up rosters on an annual basis. This year is no different.

The AFC North lost a wealth of talent over the past two weeks, as teams outbid and traded for players such as Bart Scott, Jason Brown, Kellen Winslow Jr., T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Bryant McFadden.

Therefore, meet the replacements -- AFC North style. There are no Shane Falcos in this group, although Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco developed that "The Replacements"-inspired nickname with his team last year.

Nonetheless, these players filling in will have a major impact on the success of their respective AFC North teams next season.

  Gay

William Gay, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Replacing: Bryant McFadden

Reason for hope: Gay began to earn a decent amount of playing time during the second half of the Steelers' season, and there was no significant drop-off in production. He impressed the coaching staff so much that even when McFadden returned from a broken arm, the team still didn't want to keep Gay off the field. Now he gets to play full time.

Reason for concern: Sometimes the hardest adjustment for a cornerback is jumping from being a situational player to a full-time starter. Gay will no longer defend a team's No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. If he proves not to be ready for that jump, Pittsburgh will hope to get one more year out of aging veteran and longtime starter Deshea Townsend. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers replace McFadden, now with the Cardinals.

  Foxworth

Domonique Foxworth, CB, Baltimore Ravens

Replacing: Chris McAlister/Samari Rolle

Reason for hope: Combined with teammate Fabian Washington, Foxworth gives the Ravens one of the fastest cornerback tandems in the NFL. The Ravens run a lot of blitz packages from their 3-4 defense and need to make sure nothing gets behind them in case the call doesn't lead to a sack. Usually, safety Ed Reed will play deep centerfield to protect against the big play. But with two speedy corners, the coaching staff can move Reed around more next year and allow him even more flexibility, which is scary.

Reason for concern: Until last season in Atlanta, Foxworth had the label of "career backup." Sure, he was backing up two good corners in Champ Bailey and Dre Bly in Denver. But it is somewhat of a risk to pay a player $27 million after one season of starting with the Atlanta Falcons. Foxworth will have to answer those critics who will question his inexperience. Someone will have to step up since the Ravens waived McAlister and Rolle might see the same fate or be used as a nickelback.

  Birk

Matt Birk, C, Baltimore Ravens

Replacing: Jason Brown

Reason for hope: The Ravens lost up-and-coming center Brown -- a free agent who signed with the Rams -- but signed a six-time Pro Bowler in Birk. He has been one of the best centers in the NFL for the past decade and will bring stability and more veteran leadership to the offensive line that already has tackle Willie Anderson. Birk also will help bring along a young signal-caller in second-year quarterback Flacco.

Reason for concern: In signing Birk, the team gained experience but also got six years older at the position. Birk will be 33 at the beginning of the 2009 season and has some wear and tear on his body after playing in the trenches for 12 seasons. He has started all 16 games the past three seasons. The Ravens are hoping that clean bill of heath continues for Birk in 2009.

 Gooden
 McClain

Tavares Gooden or Jameel McClain, ILBs, Baltimore Ravens

Replacing: Bart Scott

Reason for hope: The Ravens have two potential replacements for Scott, now with the Jets. Therefore, they have twice as good a chance to find a suitable replacement in time for next season. Gooden was a third-round pick in 2008 from the University of Miami and a player who impressed fellow Hurricane Ray Lewis. The veteran Lewis has tutored many linebackers before, including Scott, and will have to teach another young player the position. McClain was an undrafted surprise from the University of Syracuse and registered 2.5 sacks in limited playing time. Sometimes he is compared to Scott in Baltimore because both players were undrafted.

Reason for concern: Scott is as physical a linebacker as there is in the NFL. He did a lot of the dirty work, such as blowing up fullbacks and offensive linemen at the point of attack to allow teammates like Lewis and Terrell Suggs to clean up and make plays. Both Gooden and McClain have ability. But it remains to be seen if either can bring that same type of physicality in what is essentially a "bodyguard” role for Lewis, Suggs, Reed and others.

  Coles

Laveranues Coles, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Replacing: T.J. Houshmandzadeh

Reason for hope: Coles is a savvy veteran receiver who has meshed well with a lot of different quarterbacks. Last year, he developed good on-field chemistry with Brett Favre and should have no problems playing with Carson Palmer, who remains one of the league's best quarterbacks when healthy. Coles should fit in seamlessly.

Reason for concern: Coles is no longer a game-breaking receiver. He will be asked to replace current Seahawk Houshmandzadeh's tremendous production, but Coles is not the type of player who will record 90 to 100 receptions per season. Therefore, a combination of players will have to make up for those numbers, whether it is Chad Ocho Cinco having a monster year or Coles combining with one of the younger receivers to equal Houshmandzadeh's output.

  Royal

Robert Royal, TE, Cleveland Browns

Replacing: Kellen Winslow Jr.

Reason for hope: First-year Browns coach Eric Mangini is familiar with Royal after battling the former AFC East division rival Buffalo Bills during Mangini's days with the New York Jets. The signing is out of respect for Royal's ability and hopes that he can bring some stability to the position. There is also depth with teammates Steve Heiden and Martin Rucker.

Reason for concern: Current Buccaneer Winslow is a unique talent and a top-five player at his position when healthy. Browns fans have become accustomed to tremendous production from that position over the years with Ozzie Newsome in the 1980s and Winslow most recently, but Royal is simply not that caliber of player.

  Bowens

David Bowens, OLB/ILB, Cleveland Browns

Replacing: Andra Davis or Willie McGinest

Reason for hope: Bowens, who just signed Wednesday night, has the versatility to play inside or outside in a 3-4 defense. Mangini had Bowens for two seasons as coach of the New York Jets. Bowens will be able to start right away and help the younger players quickly adapt to the new scheme. With 32.5 career sacks, he should also bring a much-needed pass rush to Cleveland.

Reason for concern: Bowens was mostly a career backup who is now being asked to be a full-time starter in Cleveland. At 31, he is a stopgap player who will be able to teach the young players the position for a few seasons. Bowens never has had more than 41 tackles in a season. Bowens is talented enough to do his part, but he is not the difference-maker defensively that the Browns have long searched for. McGinest is not on the Browns' roster and Davis signed with the Broncos.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Perhaps more than any other position, the Cleveland Browns needed linebackers heading into the 2009 season.

  Bowens

That need became somewhat less vital Tuesday as the Browns signed former New York Jets linebacker David Bowens to a four-year contract. According to ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton, the deal is worth $7.2 million.

Bowens is versatile and can play inside or outside for Cleveland coach Eric Mangini, who spent time with Bowens in New York. Bowens, 31, was primarily a backup in New York but is expected to start for the linebacker-deprived Browns, who lost two starters (Willie McGinest and Andra Davis) this offseason.

The acquisition of Bowens doesn't mean Cleveland will stop looking for linebackers in the NFL draft, where the team hopes Aaron Curry of Wake Forest will be available at No. 5. But the Browns have at least three penciled-in starters for next season in Bowens, Kamerion Wimbley and D'Qwell Jackson.

In other AFC North news, the Browns also signed restricted free-agent safety Abram Elam to a one-year deal. The Jets have seven days to match Cleveland's $1.5 million offer. Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon also signed his one-year tender of $2.189 million Tuesday to officially return to the defending Super Bowl champions. Here is the full story.

AFC North mailbag

February, 10, 2009
2/10/09
4:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Let's dig into some questions for AFC North readers:

Austin from Palm Springs, Calif., writes: I've been reading a lot about T.J. Alphabet (Bengals) lately and he seems to be very unhappy where he's at. He also seems to have been sweet-talking the Steelers organization lately. Knowing that Nate Washington is a free agent, could T.J. be campaigning for a black and gold uniform? And do you see any chance of the Steelers sign him? Assuming the Bengals allow that to happen, of course.

James Walker: Austin, the Steelers will not spend a lot of money on a receiver this year. They do not need a starter as Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes will man those positions next season. If they pay Houshmandzadeh big bucks, who does Pittsburgh put on the bench? If anything, the Steelers will try to retain Nate Washington for the No. 3 spot or hope Limas Sweed develops into that role in his second year.


Matt from Lima, Ohio, writes: James, I enjoy reading all your material and insight. Being a longtime Browns fan I'm just wondering if they're going to finally get it right this year with the draft and with free agency? Maybe new LB's and a new RB? I hear Detroit may have to release Bodden for cap reasons. Any chance on resigning him?

James Walker: Thanks, Matt. The Browns need linebackers in the worst way. Two starters, Willie McGinest and Andra Davis, are free agents and probably won't return. So that's two big holes with no suitable replacements currently on the roster. Leon Williams and Alex Hall would be starting linebackers if the season started today. As far as Leigh Bodden, he probably wouldn't mind coming back. But he flourished under the old coaching staff. It's unknown how the new coaching staff, led by Eric Mangini, feels about Bodden.


Tate from Wis. writes: What are your thoughts on Jim Leonhard for 2009?

James Walker: As you know, Tate, this is a tough decision for the Ravens. Leonhard's reps will fight for starter money, but it's questionable that he would start in Baltimore next year with the pending return of Dawan Landry. With so many free agents, the Ravens will make a pitch. But I think Leonhard will get a bigger offer somewhere else and bolt.


Jerry from Pa. writes: Larry Foote? Staying or going? If he does go, trade or release?

James Walker: Foote stays put, Jerry. He may have to compete for a starting job in training camp with the hard-charging Lawrence Timmons next season. But Pittsburgh runs a 3-4 and always needs depth at linebacker.


Nick from Baltimore writes: Do you really think that the Ravens won't be able to resign Ray Lewis? And how upset would he be with the franchise tag?

James Walker: It's a possibility, Nick. But I think the Ravens will do everything they can to re-sign Lewis to an extension. The franchise tag would be pretty upsetting for Lewis, 33, who feels he deserves better. Lewis is a career Raven, he never made his contract an issue, and he went out and played great football in leading the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game. He hopes that goodwill will be returned.

Rapid Reaction: Steelers 31, Browns 0

December, 28, 2008
12/28/08
4:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The Pittsburgh Steelers crushed the Cleveland Browns, 31-0, to finish 12-4. But the win didn't do anything to ease concerns of Steelers fans who are wondering who their quarterback will be for the playoffs.

Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the field moments before halftime after taking a hit from Browns linebackers Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson. Roethlisberger suffered a concussion and is being tested for neck injuries.

The win was the 11th in a row for Pittsburgh over the Browns. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin improved to 4-0 against Cleveland. But without a doubt, his risky decision to play his starters in a meaningless season finale will be a huge topic of discussion.

Pittsburgh has two weeks off before hosting a playoff game and hopes Roethlisberger and other key players will be healthy at that time.

The Browns (4-12), meanwhile, completed their third double-digit losing season in four years and will begin looking into changes for next season. Cleveland owner Randy Lerner is expected to meet with the coaching staff and the front office as early as Monday to discuss the future direction of the organization.

Questionable decision?

December, 28, 2008
12/28/08
3:27
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

It will be a decision that is questioned for a long time in Pittsburgh.

 
 Karl Walter/Getty Images
 Ben Roethlisberger is taken off the field on a stretcher after being hit in the second quarter.

Against a division rival, should the Steelers still play their starters in a meaningless regular-season finale?

Pittsburgh decided to go full-speed ahead and suffered an injury to its starting quarterback in the process as Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the field against the Cleveland Browns. Roethlisberger has a concussion and is being tested for neck injuries as Steeler Nation holds its collective breath.

Browns linebackers Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson crunched Roethlisberger on a pass attempt late in the second quarter. Roethlisberger was lost for the game but provided a thumbs up while leaving the field immobilized.

The Steelers won the game but have the potential to lose something greater. With a bye, Pittsburgh has two weeks to get healthy and see if Roethlisberger's status improves before the divisional round of the playoffs.

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