AFC North: Yamon Figurs

Consider it one of the biggest draft mysteries in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens deservedly have a reputation as one of the NFL's top drafting teams. But they also may be the league's worst at drafting wide receivers.

How bad is Baltimore's track record at the position?

Consider this: Since the beginning of the franchise in 1996, the Ravens have selected 16 wide receivers and none have had a 1,000-yard season in Baltimore. Only Brandon Stokley, a former fourth-round pick of the Ravens in 1999, had a 1,000-yard season in his career with the Indianapolis Colts in 2004.

For every draft success like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, the Ravens also have busts at receiver like Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton. Receivers Yamon Figurs, Demetrius Williams, Devard Darling and Pat Johnson were all drafted by Baltimore with high hopes but flamed out. The most successful receivers in Baltimore have been veteran free agents such as Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin.

It's baffling how mightily Baltimore struggles drafting receivers, especially since the team is so good at finding talent at other positions. Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, one of the best in the business, has drafted Pro Bowlers at running back, tight end, linebacker, safety, cornerback and the offensive and defensive lines. Yet, somehow, Baltimore continues to strike out at receiver.

With the Ravens searching for a speedy deep threat to complement Mason and Boldin, can they finally hit a home run in this year's draft?

Browns add WR Demetrius Williams

October, 26, 2010
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Williams
The Cleveland Browns added a receiver who should be very familiar to AFC North fans.

Cleveland announced Tuesday that it signed former Baltimore Ravens receiver Demetrius Williams. The team also claimed running back Thomas Clayton off the New England Patriots' practice squad and released James Davis and Yamon Figurs.

Williams played for the Ravens from 2006-09 and was cut earlier this year. He showed flashes of talent in Baltimore but had problems staying healthy. But Williams may have a shot to stick in Cleveland, because receiver is one of the team's biggest needs.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

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

  • After suffering a season-ending shoulder injury as a rookie, former first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall should get his share of opportunities in the Pittsburgh Steelers' preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals.

Morning take: Mendenhall's role will be as large or as small as he makes it this year. He can begin earning playing time by impressing Pittsburgh's coaching staff with a good preseason debut.

  • Tempers flared in Baltimore Ravens camp between cornerback Frank Walker and receiver Yamon Figurs.

Morning take: Training camp fights happen all around the league, especially this time of year when teammates are tired of pounding each other and it's time to play some other teams.

  • With a lot of hype surrounding the team, the Cincinnati Bengals are just one day away from their preseason debut against the New Orleans Saints.

Morning take: This will be quarterback Carson Palmer's first game in nearly a year. It will be interesting to see how he responds after taking his first hit.

  • Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson says he's staying relaxed despite his competition with Brady Quinn.

Morning take: If Anderson wants to win Cleveland's starting quarterback job, it's a must that he stays loose. When Anderson played nervous and uptight two years ago, he couldn't beat out Charlie Frye in training camp.

AFC North update: Figurs hurt

June, 2, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the latest developments Tuesday afternoon in the AFC North:

Seven-step drop

September, 22, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

 
 Greg Fiume/Getty Images
 Le'Ron McClain plows his way into the end zone for a touchdown Sunday against Cleveland.
  • Baltimore is making fourth quarters look unusually easy for the NFL. For the second game in a row, the Ravens ate up clock running the ball when 71,000-plus fans and the Cleveland Browns knew what was coming. Behind the hard running of Le'Ron McClain and fresh legs of rookie Ray Rice, Baltimore used more than nine minutes of the final period on one drive by running 13 of 14 plays. We doubt Baltimore can dominate every game that way, but it's still impressive.

"It's great when we can do that, keep the defense off the field and finish the game," McClain said. "We're just sending shout-outs to the league that we have a strong team and we're going to finish strong."

  • We also are convinced that there is a new special teams leader in the clubhouse in the AFC North. For the past two or three years, that mantel was undoubtedly held by the Cleveland Browns. But the Baltimore Ravens' special teams out-dueled Cleveland on Sunday and has been more consistent this year. The Ravens also have depth. Top returner Yamon Figurs was injured Sunday and Jim Leonhard filled in admirably with 99 total return yards, which didn't include another long return that was called back.

"It's amazing on this team, and [GM] Ozzie [Newsome] has done a great job," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "But we've got a lot of guys who could return, kick returns and punt returns."

  • Although Cleveland's entire offensive line is not playing up to par, right tackle Kevin Shaffer is having the hardest time of the bunch. For three straight games Shaffer has been pushed around and opposing teams are smelling the weakness. Left tackle Joe Thomas has been the only consistent lineman, so opponents are testing Shaffer instead. Sunday it was the Ravens' defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had a field day with two sacks and a forced fumble.
  • Everyone saw the worst of Browns starting quarterback Derek Anderson Sunday. He is a "rhythm passer" in every sense of the phrase, and when Anderson is rattled things tend to quickly snowball. Anderson was sacked five times and hit several more. So by the second half, his reads were extremely poor. All three interceptions were on throws he shouldn't have made while trying to fit balls into very tight spots.

"I expect more out of myself," Anderson said. "I expect more out of everybody else on this team. It all starts with me. If I start playing better, and if we start offensively making plays, everything is going to start rolling a little bit more."

  • Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ocho Cinco is going to have a tough time putting up numbers if the first three weeks are any indication. Opponents simply refuse to let Ocho Cinco (three catches, 29 yards) beat them. He gets most of the coverage and attention in the passing game, which allows others opportunities to make plays. T.J. Houshmandzadeh nearly beat the New York Giants with 12 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown, but it wasn't enough.
  • The Bengals really missed top cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the lineup against New York. Giants quarterback Eli Manning completed 26 passes to eight different receivers, and he needed every one in a 26-23 overtime win. New York often picked on replacement David Jones, who had nine tackles but only one pass defense. The Bengals are probably wondering how many of those close plays a healthy Joseph could have made.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers were an abysmal 2-of-13 on third down against the Philadelphia Eagles. That won't win many games period, let alone against a very good Philadelphia Eagles team. Obviously the pass protection (nine total sacks allowed) had a lot to do with it, but Pittsburgh's overall struggles on offense also were surprising.

Ravens-Vikings primer

August, 15, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

This weekend the Baltimore Ravens will host the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium in what should be a solid tune up for both teams. We will be there to take in the action.

Here are some things to look for in Saturday's game:

  • This is another important game for the quarterbacks, which has been the biggest story line in Baltimore throughout training camp and the preseason. After Kyle Boller got the start and committed two turnovers in the preseason opener, it will be Troy Smith's chance to state his case for the starting job. Smith entered camp as the favorite and can create distance this weekend with a solid performance. So far, Boller, Smith and rookie Joe Flacco haven't done anything significant in camp to win the job outright.
  • Flacco should see the field more often against Minnesota. If Smith doesn't stand out and Flacco plays well, there is a chance that the rookie may get the start next week, or at least significant playing time, in an effort to give all three quarterbacks an equal opportunity. There is a sense in Baltimore that the coaching staff ideally wouldn't want to throw Flacco out there early this season, which is why it is important for Smith to have a good game this weekend.
  • Newly-signed fullback Lorenzo Neal is expected to make his Ravens debut Saturday. Neal is a former Pro Bowler that was signed this week to bring stability to a struggling unit. He played under Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron while the pair were in San Diego, which has helped Neal's learning curve.
  • Rookie running back Ray Rice will get his second start of the preseason in place of the injured Willis McGahee (knee). His debut was not impressive, gaining just 12 yards on six carries. But Rice will get more opportunities to see how he fits in Baltimore's offense, especially now that McGahee will miss the entire preseason.
  • Don't turn away from the television on special teams. Baltimore is expected to have one of the deepest and most exciting units in the NFL this year. Head coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams assistant, is putting a lot of focus on the third phase of the game and last week returner Yamon Figurs showed that it's already paying dividends.

Seven-step drop

August, 11, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers concluded a busy opening week of preseason football on Monday night.

Now, it's a time to reflect.

In our first installment of The Seven-Step Drop, here are seven things that caught my eye during week one of the preseason in the AFC North.

  • Browns starting quarterback Derek Anderson got a small monkey off his back with a solid performance last week against the New York Jets. Although it was unspoken leading into the game, it was important for Anderson to put his struggles at the end of the season behind him. He went 4 for 5 for 20 yards and a touchdown in his only series of the game. Anderson's connection with receiver Braylon Edwards was as pretty a touchdown pass as you're going to see in the preseason.
  • The depth of the Cleveland Browns' secondary looks as bad as advertised early on. Sure, it was just one game, but giving up two passing touchdowns of 70 yards or more against the Jets were inexcusable. Both big plays involved poor coverage and bad angles taken to the football. Starting corners Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright did fine in limited action with the first team. But as soon as they left the field, the floodgates opened in the passing game.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Rashard Mendenhall had a solid debut at tailback. He had a slow first week of training camp, then gradually improved during the second week. Mendenhall carried that momentum into his first NFL game with 34 yards on seven carries. He also returned a kickoff and will get a look there. Mendenhall still runs a little too upright for our liking. But with additional coaching and several more hits like the one he took on his first carry Friday, Mendenhall will learn to keep his pads lower.
  • Charlie Batch's broken collarbone will be a significant loss for Pittsburgh. More than anything, Batch was the calming influence behind the scenes for starter Ben Roethlisberger and rookie Dennis Dixon. The Steelers signed Byron Leftwich on Sunday, but he will not be able to provide the type of leadership, or know the offense as well as Batch, who tutored the other two quarterbacks behind the scenes.
  • Baltimore Ravens return specialist Yamon Figurs already looks in mid-season form. He had a punt return of 52 yards and a kickoff return of 48 yards against the New England Patriots last week. With the additions of head coach John Harbaugh, who was once a long-time special teams coach, and assistant Jerry Rosburg, Baltimore expects to be extremely good in the third phase of the game this season.
  • After a two-turnover performance by Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller against New England, this is a golden opportunity for Troy Smith to take the lead. Smith will get the start Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. If Smith proves he can move the offense and, most importantly, take care of the football, it should give Smith some separation in this three-way race with two preseason games remaining.
  • The Bengals were a mixed bag. I liked what I saw from tight end Ben Utecht (four catches, 34 yards, one touchdown) and active rookie linebacker Keith Rivers (seven tackles) in their first game as Bengals. But I didn't like what I saw from the first-team defense, which really needs to work on its tackling. Cincinnati's starters had very poor technique, particularly safety Marvin White, and paid the price often by getting trucked several times by the Green Bay Packers in the first quarter. The good news is the Bengals have time to re-teach the fundamentals.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Sepulveda

The Pittsburgh Steelers are favorites to once again win the AFC North. But the team suffered a significant blow Tuesday with loss of punter Daniel Sepulveda to a torn ACL in his right knee.

Sepulveda will be out for the season and the Steelers are scrambling to find a viable replacement. They signed four-year journeyman Paul Ernster, who's had an inconsistent career with the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos.

Most teams are not prepared for season-ending injuries with punters because it rarely happens, yet that is the new reality in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' only glaring weakness coming into training camp was a makeshift offensive line, but they now have a second flaw.

The AFC North will be competitive on special teams this year. The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens have two of the top special teams units in the AFC, particularly with exciting returners Joshua Cribbs and Yamon Figurs, respectively.

The Steelers, even with Sepulveda, were average on special teams in 2007.

There will be a lot of close games played between division rivals this season, and several will be won and lost by field position and special teams. If the Steelers struggle to find an answer at punter this year, it could hurt Pittsburgh in the long run.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Just scanning through my notebook after spending the past few days in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens...

 
 Frank Victores/US Presswire
 Ray Rice, a rookie running back out of Rutgers, has been returning punts in Ravens camp.
  • Ravens second-round pick Ray Rice spent all week fielding punts and looked pretty good for a novice. Rice didn't return punts while at Rutgers. Baltimore already has a solid return specialist in Yamon Figurs and is probably looking for secondary options in case of injury.
  • Terrell Suggs' delayed arrival to training camp could provide an opportunity for Dan Cody to make an impact with the first team. The oft-injured outside linebacker played just two career games in three seasons, so Cody is eager to prove himself in the NFL. Suggs is unhappy that he was given the franchise tag this year and is expected to miss a large chunk of training camp.
  • Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is embracing his team's three-way quarterback battle between Troy Smith, Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco. Baltimore's situation is viewed by most outsiders as daunting, but Harbaugh described it this week as "fun."
  • And on the subject of quarterbacks, they all improved as the first week of training camp went on. The first practice was below average. There were a lot of bad throws and interceptions (three by Troy Smith), some fumbled snaps and a couple of miscommunications at the line of scrimmage. But by the third and fourth practices this week, many of the minor details were ironed out.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

This is the final installment of a three-day series examining drafts for each AFC North team over the past three years. Grades are based on performance, where players were picked (too high, too low) and whether they remain with their original team.

Thursday we move onto the 2007 draft and start with the Baltimore Ravens. Here were their selections:

Baltimore Ravens: 2007 Draft
Rd.PickPlayerPos.School
1.29Ben GrubbsGAuburn
3.74Yamon FigursWRKansas State
3.86Marshal Yanda TIowa
4.134Antwan Barnes LBFlorida International
4.137Le'Ron McClainFBAlabama
5.174Troy Smith QBOhio State
6.207Prescott BurgessLBMichigan
Sup.-Jared GaitherTMaryland

Analysis: The Ravens addressed their offensive line by taking three linemen who contributed right away. Ben Grubbs, Marshal Yanda and Jared Gaither are all good, young linemen whom the Ravens will rely upon. Fifth-round pick Troy Smith saw action in four games as a rookie and has a chance to win the starting quarterback job in his second season. Yamon Figurs is exciting in the return game and Antwan Barnes has shown some flashes of ability as a rookie.

Grade: B

Next we look at the Cincinnati Bengals.

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