AFC North: Cleveland Browns
And something has to give in the game in which Johnny Manziel is expected to make his NFL debut. The Browns have lost 10 consecutive games at Heinz Field, while the Steelers haven't won a season opener since 2010.
ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN NFL Nation Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.
Brown: Pat, how many times have you written the surname Manziel since the Browns drafted Johnny Football in early May? Well, let's get the obligatory Manziel chatter out of the way. How do you see the Browns using Manziel on Sunday and how much do you expect him to play?
McManamon: As for the first part, Scott, let's say more than five and less than 10,000, but just barely less. I would be surprised if Manziel does not see the field for a play or a series in each half. The Browns and coach Mike Pettine have been coy about how he'll be used, but he does bring a different element than Brian Hoyer, and the Browns could put him on the field the same way the Steelers first used Kordell Stewart. Certain down-and-distance situations might be good for the read-option, or certain spots on the field might be good for a quarterback who can move. I don't think Manziel will play a lot, but I do think he'll play in the right spot, as judged by the coaching staff.
Scott, a slow start doomed the Steelers last season. How determined are they to avoid that slow start again, and how much bad luck is it for the Browns to draw the Steelers in the opener?
Brown: For the record, I am not going to start calling you Pat McFootball no matter how many times you privately lobby me to do so. Take a picture with the Biebs in it and we will talk. With that order of business out of the way, I will say the schedule-makers did not do the Browns any favors by having them open in Pittsburgh. I suspect the Steelers will publicly downplay the notion that this is a must-win game, but in reality it is. The Steelers cannot start slow again this season, and with road games against the Ravens and the Panthers looming, they have to beat the Browns. As hard as it is to win in the NFL, nothing is more served on a platter than an opponent that hasn't won in Pittsburgh in more than a decade and has an offense riddled with question marks. Did I mention Ben Roethlisberger, who has never forgiven the Browns for passing on him in the 2004 NFL draft, has lost just one time to Cleveland?
Getting back to the Browns' offense, who do the Steelers have to worry about beating them with wide receiver Josh Gordon out for the season?
McManamon: Nobody, really. The Browns will try to run the ball and use tight end Jordan Cameron creatively, but there is no real outside threat even close to the threat Gordon provided. And Cameron better get used to consistent double coverage. It's almost unfair to throw a quarterback into a game with these circumstances. Running back Ben Tate probably will be the offensive bell cow. He'll be featured prominently in the game plan. But the Steelers stop the run in their sleep. This game will be a serious challenge for the Browns' offense and offensive coaches.
Speaking of offense, how has and how will the marijuana possession charges against Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount affect the team, if at all, this weekend?
Brown: It is a footnote to this game. Not to minimize the stupidity that the Steelers' top two running backs showed -- and they are worthy of all of the unflattering nicknames that have surfaced on social media, among other places -- but the issue has presumably been dealt with from the Steelers' end. If Bell and Blount had been suspended for the season opener, we would have seen Roethlisberger throwing a ton of passes and a one-dimensional offense. But with both Bell and Blount slated to play against the Browns, the Steelers' offense will be at full strength.
I am real interested in seeing whether the Steelers try to set up the pass through the run or vice versa. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin predictably gushed about Cleveland's defense at his news conference earlier this week, and certainly that unit is the strength of the Browns. Will that defense be as good as advertised?
McManamon: Let's tap the brakes on this "good defense." Nobody knows yet. The defense has new names -- and they are good names to have -- but they might not be improved. Also, a defense that was supposed to be good a season ago made a habit of blowing late leads. The weak spot this season is the same as last -- cornerback opposite Joe Haden. First-round pick Justin Gilbert is going through significant growing pains, and Buster Skrine is coming off a thumb injury. The Browns wanted Isaiah Trufant to be the nickelback, but he's on injured reserve. Smart teams pick at weaknesses; it would be surprising if the Steelers don't pick on the second corner. The other concern, which has been an ongoing issue: Will the defense wear down because it's on the field too much due to the offense struggling?
Staying with defense, Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is an Ohio State guy, and there's been a lot of positive press on him throughout preseason. Has he been that good?
Brown: He has, but the caveat, of course, is that Shazier has yet to play in an NFL game that counts. That changes Sunday, and most telling about the progress Shazier has made is the fact he will become the first Steelers defensive rookie to start a season opener since Kendrell Bell in 2001. There will be the inevitable growing pains as the first-round pick adjusts to the speed of the game at this level. Probably the biggest concern with Shazier is whether he will consistently be able to shed blocks since the 6-1, 237-pounder is not the biggest linebacker. The Browns' offensive line is one of their biggest strengths, so it will be a good opening test for Shazier. I think the kid is going to be a star, and I predict he will win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
And whether the Cleveland Browns quarterback gets it.
Whether Manziel is simply enjoying the benefits of fame and youth or simply can’t stay out of his own way is debatable.
There is nothing troubling or offensive about the photos beyond Manziel posing in them with Bieber, a walking instruction guide for how not to handle fame. And the pictures were taken at a time when players are off until the start of start of training camp.
They actually offer a perfect snapshot of what Johnny Football said last week at an NFL Play 60 youth clinic at the Browns’ facility.
“I want to wake up with a week and not have my name going through something,” Manziel said. “And I’m working on getting better at that, but if I want to go back home and spend time with my friends or go out and enjoy my weekends, I absolutely have the right to do that.”
Manziel is absolutely correct on that point, but he also seems to be missing the bigger point every time he sends social media into a frenzy. He has yet to throw a pass in the NFL, yet his fame eclipses that of all the players in the Browns' locker room combined.
That was going to be the reality anyway when the Browns drafted the former Heisman Trophy winner in May. But the perception, fair or not, is that Manziel has done everything but try to lower his profile since joining the Browns.
That can’t play well with his new teammates, particularly the veterans whose trust Manziel must win by showing he is committed to football and acting like a rookie whenever possible. And it only sets up Manziel for a bigger fall if becomes the latest in a line of Cleveland quarterback who can’t cut it in the NFL.
This year’s NFL draft brought drama and defense to the AFC North.
Most of the buzz centered on Cleveland, where the Browns selected Johnny Manziel with No. 22 overall pick. There is no debate that Johnny Football will bring excitement to the long-struggling Browns. Whether he’s their answer at quarterback is another question.
The Cincinnati Bengals created a stir at quarterback as well when they drafted AJ McCarron in the fifth round. McCarron quarterbacked Alabama to two national titles, and it’s widely known that Andy Dalton has yet to win a playoff game for the Bengals. Can McCarron be ready to compete for the starting job in 2015?
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers continued their old-school ways by going heavy on defense in this draft. By doing so, did the Ravens give enough help to quarterback Joe Flacco? And will speedy first-round pick Ryan Shazier end up being the top rookie defensive player in this division?
These issues are addressed by ESPN’s quartet of AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will end the Browns' quarterback drought and become a franchise quarterback.
Scott Brown: Fact. I think it is all or nothing for Johnny Football, as it is hard to imagine him just having an average to above-average NFL career. You worry about his size, the distractions that follow him to Cleveland and the reality that he will have a Texas-sized bull's-eye on his jersey from the moment he steps onto the field. As many questions that come with Manziel, he dominated in the SEC and twice carved up an Alabama defense that was loaded with future NFL players. Cleveland, your long quarterback nightmare is over.
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. Let's stop with the comparisons to Russell Wilson. Manziel doesn't have the same maturity, which is ultimately going to be his downfall. He is more like Brett Favre -- without the cannon for an arm. Where Manziel is at his best is running around, which has become a recipe for disaster in the NFL. Michael Vick has played only one full season, and Robert Griffin III couldn't make it one season without getting hurt. It's a given that Manziel brings much-needed electricity to Cleveland. He just won't be bringing stability to the quarterback position.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The question, though, is when this happens. Manziel's learning curve is large, and he will do it amidst hoopla worthy of the Palace of Versailles. Manziel seems to be up to the challenge of the hype, but the Browns took a good first step with him by telling him Cleveland isn't Hollywood. A couple of his teammates said they were glad to have him, but it was "time to go to work." How soon Manziel simply concentrates on work and professionalism will tell how soon he turns the corner with the Browns.
AJ McCarron will be the Bengals' starting quarterback in 2015.
Brown: Fiction. He fell to the fifth round of the draft for a reason, and McCarron's drop reinforced the notion that his success at Alabama had a lot to do with the elite talent that surrounded him in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't diminish what he accomplished at Alabama, as McCarron ranks as one of the best quarterbacks in college football history. But plenty of quarterbacks who excelled in college did not translate into successful NFL quarterbacks, and I don't see McCarron as more than a backup at the next level. If Andy Dalton falls out of favor in Cincinnati, the Bengals will look elsewhere for his replacement.
Hensley: Fiction. This is a tough one. The Bengals need to put more pressure on Andy Dalton, but McCarron isn't the one to do it. The best move would've been for the Bengals to take Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. If that had been the case, the answer would've been fact. Instead, the Bengals are left with the anti-Flacco. Dalton plays well in the regular season and chokes in the postseason. He hasn't just struggled. It's been meltdowns. McCarron has the championship pedigree, but his ceiling is backup quarterback. Dalton is going to be the starter in 2015, by default.
McManamon: Fiction. The Bengals were wise to draft McCarron. Andy Dalton needs competition and needs to be pressed. But the anti-Dalton hysteria is overblown and overdone. Dalton has taken the Bengals to the playoffs every year he's been in the league. He has 80 touchdowns compared to 49 interceptions. In his first three seasons. Only in this day and age of impatience and instant expectations is that not considered a very good start to a career. He needs to win a playoff game, yes, but so do the Bengals as a team. He is one of 53. Guys arrive at different times. Dalton will take care of things in his time, and the Bengals have handled him well. McCarron will push Dalton, which is good, but the job will be Dalton's.
@ColeyHarvey fact. Dalton will want more $$ than mike brown is willing to pay, and McCarron will prove to b adequate replacement- Brett Stanko (@brettstanko23) May 12, 2014
The Ravens didn't do enough to help Joe Flacco after drafting defensive players with their first three picks.
Brown: Fiction: The Ravens did enough before the draft to help their franchise quarterback by re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and signing free-agent wide receiver Steve Smith, as well as tight end Owen Daniels. The Ravens essentially add a huge piece to their offense with the return of tight end Dennis Pitta, who missed most of last season with a hip injury, and Daniels will provide a nice complement to him. Smith is no longer an elite wide receiver but he can still play. He should help Torrey Smith and restore some of the swagger to the Ravens' offense. I also expect a bounce-back season from Ray Rice, who will be plenty motivated to prove he is still a featured back.
Hensley: Fact. The Ravens finished with the NFL's fourth-worst offense last season, and they came out of the draft with a blocking tight end, a small-school running back, a developmental guard and a seventh-round slot receiver. Ideally, the Ravens would've drafted a starting right tackle, a highly rated running back and a big target from the deepest wide receiver class in years. It's just difficult to bash the Ravens' front office. If they had gone offense with any of their first three picks, they would've been reaching. That's never a formula for success. In one way, you can say the Ravens did help out Flacco. By upgrading a defense that allowed the most fourth-quarter points in history, Flacco won't have to play catch-up as much late in games.
McManamon: Fact. The curious thing is the Ravens are relying on aged veteran Steve Smith and Ray Rice, whose off-field troubles are well documented. Ozzie Newsome is a very wise and sage team-builder, so it's borderline silly to question him. But Flacco is not Tom Brady. He needs talent around him to win. Because while he's paid like he's a superstar, he's not at the level of a Peyton Manning, a Drew Brees and a Brady. In a year or two, he won't even be on the level of an Andrew Luck. He's a very, very good quarterback, but he can't carry a team on his own. He needs a few more weapons around him.
@jamisonhensley Ravens addressed O in free agency period. I'd rather they do that, since Ozzie can draft D players better than O players.- Bmore (@GoinRaven) May 12, 2014
Ryan Shazier will be the top defensive rookie in the AFC North.
Brown: Fact: Shazier has an opportunity to start right away, and he should at least play extensively in the Steelers' sub packages if he is able to learn Dick LeBeau's complex defense. LeBeau himself said the Steelers don't have the luxury of bringing along highly touted rookies such as Shazier slowly, so he should log plenty of snaps and crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later. Shazier has excellent speed, and he was highly productive at Ohio State, where he became just the 10th player in school history to lead the team in tackles in consecutive seasons. He provides the Steelers with a much-needed defensive playmaker and his skill set translates well to an NFL game that is becoming more wide open. This kid has future Pro Bowler written all over him.
Hensley: Fiction. It was only a year ago when Jarvis Jones arrived with all of the hype. He ended up getting benched. This isn't unusual. Over the past nine years, only one Steelers rookie has started a full season -- center Maurkice Pouncey. So, this isn't a knock on Shazier. He has a lot of speed and a lot of potential. He should be a Pro Bowl player down the road. It just takes time to learn the nuances of a Dick LeBeau defense. History says Shazier won't make an immediate impact. The pick here for best rookie in the division is Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.
McManamon: Fiction. Ah, that Steelers optimism. There's nothing not to like about Shazier, or the Steelers, who draft well and play hard. But to automatically assume Shazier is the best defensive rookie in the AFC North ignores the fact that the other division teams took immediate defensive starters: Cleveland with cornerback Justin Gilbert, Cincinnati with cornerback Darqueze Denard and Baltimore with linebacker C.J. Mosely. All are expected to be immediate starters. All are extremely good players. What in the world makes it more likely that Shazier will be the best rookie other than he wears black and gold?
@ScottBrown_ESPN Kid can fly. Best A-B gap blitzer in draft. Also has some edge rush ability in sub. If they use him as a chess piece, YES- Ed Coutu (@Ed_Coutu) May 12, 2014
Total picks: 33. Picks still on roster: 23 (70 percent). Picks who are currently projected starters: 8. Pro Bowl players drafted: 0.
Best player: Wide receiver Torrey Smith (second round, 2011). This was a tough call over cornerback Jimmy Smith. While Jimmy Smith made a significant impact last season, Torrey Smith has a much better body of work. Torrey Smith became the first Ravens receiver to produce 1,000 yards since Derrick Mason in 2009. His 17.4 yards per catch ranked fifth in the NFL last season.
Best value: Tight end Dennis Pitta (fourth round, 2010). Not only was Pitta the seventh tight end drafted that year, he was the second one taken by the Ravens in that draft. Pitta has developed into a go-to target for Joe Flacco in the red zone and on third downs. In the Ravens' Super Bowl season, Pitta's seven touchdowns tied Todd Heap's 2005 team record for tight ends.
Biggest disappointment: Pass-rusher Sergio Kindle (second round, 2010). Kindle created more headlines off the field, from fracturing his skull after falling down two flights of stairs to his drunken driving arrest. He played a total of three games and is the only player from that draft not currently on an NFL roster right now.
Total picks: 37. Picks still on roster: 24 (65 percent). Picks who are currently projected starters: 8. Pro Bowl players drafted: 4.
Best player: Wide receiver A.J. Green (first round, 2011). This was an easy decision because Green's 3,833 yards receiving is the second-most of any player in his first three seasons (trailing only Randy Moss). He was one of three receivers in the league to rank in the top 10 in both yards and touchdowns last season.
Best value: Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (fourth round, 2010). He was the best interior pass-rusher in the game before tearing his ACL last season. Atkins recorded 18.5 sack in his last 25 games before the injury.
Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (first round, 2012). You can't label him a bust, but he hasn't lived up to expectations. Injuries have hurt his development. Still, he has yet to beat out aging corners like Terence Newman and Adam Jones.
Total picks: 33. Picks still on roster: 17 (51 percent). Picks who are currently projected starters: 7. Pro Bowl players drafted: 3.
Best player: Wide receiver Josh Gordon (second round, 2012 supplemental draft). His eye-opening season puts him among the elite of NFL receivers. Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur were widely questioned for using a second-round pick on Gordon, but now it looks like a steal.
Best value pick: Tight end Jordan Cameron (fourth round, 2011): Developing into a standout tight end when the Browns took him in the fourth round after he had barely played at USC.
Biggest disappointment: Running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden (first round, 2012): The Browns moved up a spot to take Richardson with the third overall pick and he was didn't even last three games into his second season before being traded. Weeden was Mike Holmgren's hand-picked quarterback, and he is the second of two first-round picks in 2012 no longer with the team.
Totals picks: 35. Picks still on the roster: 20 (57 percent). Picks who are currently projected as starters: 12. Pro Bowl players drafted: 2.
Best player: Wide receiver Antonio Brown (sixth round, 2010). Brown set a Steelers single-season record with 1,499 receiving yards in 2013 and his teammates voted him Steelers MVP for the second time in three seasons. Brown gives the Steelers added value as a punt returner and he is one of the best picks they have made in recent years as they got him with the second of their two six-round picks in 2010.
Best value: Offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum (seventh round, 2012). Beachum had been a valuable reserve because of his versatility. Then the Steelers turned to him when Mike Adams flopped at left tackle last season and Beachum played well in 11 starts while protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side, and his emergence is why let tackle isn't a glaring need for the Steelers in the draft. And to think Beachum was the Steelers' final pick in 2012 and No. 248 overall.
Worst pick: Cornerback Curtis Brown (third round, 2011). The Steelers released Brown after he didn't contribute much beyond special teams in three seasons. The selection of cornerback Cortez Allen in the fourth round helps ease this miss as Allen projects as a long-term starter. But the Brown pick in one reason why cornerback may be the Steeler's biggest need in this draft.
TE Dallas Clark: He looked like a tight end playing in his final season, catching 31 passes for the Ravens (his fewest in a season since 2006). It wouldn't be a surprise if Clark retired. He turns 35 in June.
TE Ed Dickson: The signing of Owen Daniels rules out a return for Dickson. He'll be playing in the NFL in 2014, and it will likely be for about the league minimum. Dickson needs a fresh start elsewhere, and he's visiting the Carolina Panthers.
RB Bernard Scott: The Ravens opted to sign Justin Forsett instead of Scott to be their third running back. Scott could have trouble catching on with another team. This offseason, Scott turned 30, which is not a kind number for running backs.
WR Brandon Stokley: He said after the season that he plans to retire after suffering another concussion. Stokley was the last active player from the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl championship team.
LB Michael Boley: Signed to a one-year deal early last season, Boley has been seen as little more than a stop-gap for last season's team. His return is unlikely.
DB Chris Crocker: Danieal Manning's signing last week might have been enough to prevent the Bengals from re-signing Crocker. The two play similar positions and serve similar purposes as older players. Crocker still hasn’t announced -- for a third time -- if he’s retiring.
P Zoltan Mesko: Much like Boley, Mesko was a stop-gap solution while punter Kevin Huber was out injured. When OTAs and minicamps resume, Huber is expected to be near full health from a broken jaw.
OT Dennis Roland: Though the Bengals signed former Packers tackle Marshall Newhouse this offseason, they still could re-sign Roland for depth, and to give them a tackle who can be a good short-yardage edge blocker.
TE Alex Smith: There is still a chance the Bengals could bring Smith back, considering H-back Orson Charles was arrested and charged with wanton endangerment March 31 in Richmond, Ky., the result of what police believe was a road rage incident involving a handgun.
C Alex Mack: His only visit has been to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are expected to sign him to an offer sheet. The Browns then will have five days to decide if they want to match the offer.
RB Willis McGahee: Not surprising there has been so little interest. His age and the poor running back market make him a tough sign.
OT Levi Brown: Suffered a season-ending triceps injury before playing a down for the Steelers last season; would have to accept a non-guaranteed contract to return and try to make the team in 2014.
WR Plaxico Burress: Wants to play in 2014, but is 36 and coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him all of last season; does not appear to be in Steelers' plans.
RB Felix Jones: Didn't show enough last season as a change-of-pace back or a kickoff returner to warrant serious consideration for the Steelers to bring him back.
DE Brett Keisel: Re-signing the 12th-year veteran is still an option for the Steelers, who are thin along the defensive line, though nothing will happen until after the draft.
P Mat McBriar: McBriar did OK after the Steelers signed him in October, but it looks like they will go with a younger leg at the position in 2014.
C/G David Snow: Didn't dress in final four games after signing with Pittsburgh last December, and the Steelers have added depth to their offensive line.
RB LaRod Stephens-Howling: Another player coming off an injury (torn ACL) the Steelers might consider re-signing once he is healthy or close to full strength.
LB Stevenson Sylvester: Is a core special teams player and a depth guy the Steelers would probably have interest in bringing back at the right price.
C Fernando Velasco: The Steelers are likely to re-sign one of their most unsung players in 2013 once he has fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in November.
LB Jamaal Westerman: Played in the regular-season finale after signing with the Steelers last December, but is not not in the team's plans.
What's the difference between Bortles and Carr? Bortles is worthy of the No. 4 overall pick, and Carr is not.
Bortles has the size, arm strength and athleticism to become a franchise quarterback. The risk in taking him this high is the fact that it's all based on perceived potential.
Any team that takes Bortles will probably have to wait one or two years for him to develop. Patience hasn't been a strong suit of the Browns, who change quarterbacks quicker than most fantasy football league owners do.
Still, no one knows whether Bortles will be there when the Browns are on the clock or whether the Browns will take him if he's still available. ESPN.com Browns reporter Pat McManamon selected Bortles in the NFL Nation mock draft of the top five picks.
Something tells me Brian Hoyer would like that selection.
The AFC North has seen some changes this offseason with a new coaching staff and GM in Cleveland, where free agency and multiple first-round draft picks are conspiring to inspire some hope in Browns fans. Is it warranted?
And will there be change in Pittsburgh if the Steelers go three straight years without a playoff berth?
What about in Baltimore, where running back Ray Rice followed up a disastrous 2013 season with a highly publicized offseason arrest? Will his slide continue next season?
And the one and only question in Cincinnati remains: Can the Bengals win a playoff game with Andy Dalton at the helm?
These issues are addressed by ESPN’s quartet of AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
This will be Mike Tomlin's last season if the Steelers don't make the playoffs.
Scott Brown: Fiction. The Steelers have had just three head coaches since 1969, and patience with their field bosses has been one of the organization's hallmarks. The Steelers missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 1998 to 2000, and Bill Cowher rewarded the Steelers' patience with him by going 55-24-1 over the next five seasons and winning a Super Bowl. The Steelers have yet to experience a losing season under Tomlin, and he still commands his players' respect and attention. It is way too early to start speculating about his future in Pittsburgh.
Jamison Hensley: Fact. History is obviously against me on this one. The Steelers have been the picture of stability when it comes to head coaches, and they stuck with Bill Cowher when he went three seasons without making it to the playoffs. But the landscape of the division has changed. The Cincinnati Bengals are going to be the favorite to win a second straight AFC North title. The Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers' biggest rivals, won a Super Bowl 13 months ago. Tomlin hasn't guided the Steelers to the playoffs since 2011, and he hasn't won a postseason game since beating the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC Championship Game. If Tomlin can't get the Steelers back in the playoffs, the Rooneys need to find someone who can make this team relevant again.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. Tomlin's consecutive 8-8 seasons are disappointing in Pittsburgh, but the Rooneys will not knee-jerk a guy who has yet to have a losing season. Tomlin is wading through a major roster transition, but he's never lost his team the way some coaches do. That matters to the Rooneys, who value continuity more than anyone. Bill Cowher went 7-9 and 6-10 in 1998 and '99 and stayed seven more seasons. Belief in a system is what makes Pittsburgh successful.
The Browns will be much improved with their front-office moves, free-agent acquisitions and position in the draft.
Brown: Fiction. The Browns will be better in 2014, but there is too much uncertainty at quarterback to say improvement will come in leaps and bounds rather than in increments. Brian Hoyer is an upgrade over what the Browns have had at quarterback, but is he the long-term answer there? The top-rated quarterbacks in the draft, meanwhile, all come with different question marks and risks. There is not an Andrew Luck among the group, and until the Browns find the answer at quarterback, they will not challenge for the AFC North title.
Hensley: Fiction. I agree the Browns are going to be improved, but not much improved. The moves made on defense were lateral ones. The addition of running back Ben Tate will help, if he can stay healthy. Let's be honest, it always comes down to quarterback for the Browns. Cleveland is either going with Brian Hoyer, a journeyman who generated unrealistic expectations after two good games last season, or a promising yet inexperienced rookie. This is too bad, because the Browns have the other pieces in place to be an exciting passing attack. At this point, because of the annual question mark at quarterback, the Browns are a six- or seven-win team at best.
McManamon: Fiction: It has to happen on the field, and until it does, the Browns have everyone in Missouri, where it's a matter of showing me. With six double-digit-loss seasons in a row and some uncertainty at quarterback, the Browns have to prove to their fans they can do it. However, it must be said that a lot of logical moves have been made, and the Browns are better now than they were when free agency began. With so many high draft picks, the Browns have the chance to bring in more good players. The potential for improvement is real, but labeling it a sure thing is premature with this team.
The Bengals will never get further than the first round of the playoffs with Andy Dalton at quarterback.
Brown: Fact. You could give Dalton the benefit of the doubt after he and the Bengals fell short in his first two playoffs games. But there can be no excuses after Dalton's subpar play in January doomed the Bengals to a home loss against a Chargers team that sneaked into the playoffs. Credit Dalton for making the Bengals a perennial playoff team, but nothing in his postseason play suggests that he is the quarterback who can turn Cincinnati into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Hensley: Fiction, although I'm not going to go as far as to say Dalton will be the reason why the Bengals win a playoff game. Marvin Lewis' young team is just too talented to be one-and-done every season. There will be a time when the Bengals win because either the defense dominates a playoff game or running back Giovani Bernard breaks loose. If you're asking me whether the Bengals will make a Super Bowl with Dalton, I would bet against it. He has been awful in his three playoff games. Dalton is the anti-Flacco. He produces great numbers in the regular season but falls apart in the playoffs.
McManamon: Fiction. Many teams would like to have Dalton. Many. Last season's first-round loss to San Diego was a large disappointment, but Dalton is going through the traditional growing pains of a quarterback. For a quarterback to be asked to throw 51 times in a playoff game is ludicrous. That was asking way too much. The switch in offensive coordinator to Hue Jackson will help because he will run the ball more, and run the ball more consistently. Dalton has averaged almost 3,800 yards and just short of 27 touchdowns his first three seasons, and people want to question his future? Absurd.
Ray Rice's decline in production will continue next season while his reputation also slides after his arrest.
Brown: Fiction. This guy has too good of a résumé to think he just fell off a cliff during his sixth NFL season (and took many a fantasy football team with him). Yes, NFL running backs have a short shelf life, and Rice has a lot of wear on his tread. But the Ravens should be better up front next season, and if anything, Rice's arrest should make him as motivated as ever to show that last season was an aberration.
Hensley: Fiction, but let me explain. I honestly don't know how Rice's play could be worse than it was last season. He averaged 3.1 yards per carry, and he was held below 60 yards rushing in 12 of 15 games. Injuries were a factor, but you have to wonder whether the wear and tear has caught up to him. In what is likely a make-or-break year for him, Rice has reportedly lost weight this offseason to regain some explosion. That would be a good sign if he were the sole problem. The Ravens haven't done anything yet to improve their offensive line from last season. If the line can't open any running lanes, it doesn't matter what kind of condition Rice is in.
Pat McManamon: Fact. When a running back loses it, it goes fast. Rice showed all the signs of losing it last season, when his per-carry average dropped to a woeful 3.1. Rice is 27, the age at which a running back's production is at its peak. ESPN Stats and Information shows a steady and severe decline starting after a back is 27, a decline that continues every season. Add in Rice's troubling offseason behavior with his fiancée and that disturbing security video and it seems his career -- and perhaps personal -- path is headed in the wrong direction..
Not only does Hawkins replace Davone Bess, he brings an entirely different skill set to the slot receiver position. Bess was a possession receiver. Hawkins is a sparkplug. Bess averaged 8.6 yards per catch last season. Hawkins averaged 9.5 yards after the catch.
In three seasons with the Bengals, Hawkins proved he was a big play waiting to happen. He could take a pass on a screen or a shallow crossing pattern and turn it into a 20-yard play. Hawkins' size makes him elusive. His speed makes him dangerous.
In 2012, 57.2 percent of his yards gained came after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only four receivers in the league that year had more yards after the catch while playing in the slot.
Why would the Bengals let him go? The Bengals have so much depth at wide receiver that Hawkins' opportunities were going to be limited. This is why it's a good move for Hawkins as well as the Browns.
Joining the Browns means Hawkins has come full circle in his career. A three-year starter at the University of Toledo, Hawkins wasn't drafted but he received a tryout for the Browns rookie minicamp. He did well enough that he was told he would be signed. But the Browns later told him they were going in a different direction.
Hawkins' journey took him to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes for two seasons before he got another shot at the NFL in 2011. But he was cut by the St. Louis Rams at the start of training camp. The Bengals picked him up, and Hawkins went on to catch 86 passes for 995 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons.
He'll be a good fit to a Browns passing game that already has talent with two Pro Bowl targets in wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. But Hawkins represents just a small piece of the Browns' puzzle, which still has major question marks at quarterback and running back.
It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.
The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.
So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.
Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:
1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.
2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.
3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.
4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.
5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.
6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.
7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.
8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.
9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.
10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.
11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.
12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.
13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.
14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.
15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.
While no one will deny that quarterback is a need for Cleveland, I am high on Brian Hoyer and a player like Sammy Watkins could be an amazing complement to Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. Watkins would be very tempting and this offense could use one more receiving option as well as a huge upgrade at running back and a starting guard.
At No. 26 and with their early second-round pick, Cleveland could go in many different directions as their roster could have several major additions in free agency. The defensive backfield could use another strong prospect as well.
Whom does McShay have the Browns drafting at No. 4 and No. 26? Let's take a look:
No, this isn't the sexiest game on the Week 16 schedule. In fact, the two teams are a combined 1-9 since Week 10, both crashing back to reality after promising starts. They've struggled for different reasons. The Browns, losers of five straight, can throw the ball but can't run. The Jets can run but can't throw. A half-empty stadium should see quite a matchup.
ESPN.com Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break it all down.
Cimini: The Browns are a lot like the Jets in that they've bottomed out after the bye week. What has gone wrong?
McManamon: Short answer: different quarterbacks, no run game, one true playmaker and a defense that is adept at blowing late leads. Add in that the Browns were grossly overrated at 4-5 and it probably shouldn't be surprising this has happened.
The Browns have started three different quarterbacks. They traded Trent Richardson, and their leading rusher has less than 400 yards. The defense might be the most disappointing part of the equation, because in the offseason, the Browns made a lot of noise and spent a lot of money improving it. The numbers show things are working, but the crunch-time performance shows there is a long way to go.
Bottom line -- the Browns aren't that good. If Bill Parcells is right, and you are your record, then the Browns are a 4-10 team with only a hope of winning six.
This is the third season in a row the Jets will not make the playoffs. Has Ryan's time run its course, or are players still hearing his message?
Cimini: This three-year drought is the franchise's longest since the dark ages of the mid-1990s, when they went six seasons without a postseason appearance. Ah, memories. Frankly, I think Ryan has done a good job this season, considering the paucity of talent on offense. They played hard last week against the Carolina Panthers -- it was a three-point game before they collapsed in the fourth quarter -- so it's not like they've tuned him out.
This is a rebuilding season and, although management never called it that, owner Woody Johnson asked the fans before the season to be patient. The team has overachieved, but the problem for Ryan is that first-year general manager John Idzik might want to hire his own guy, presumably an offensive mind to help rebuild their offense.
At least the Browns can score points, Pat. I know the Chicago Bears did a good job of containing Josh Gordon, but his eyes will light up when he sees the Jets' secondary. I'm guessing the Browns are glad they didn't trade him, right?
McManamon: Sort of like they're glad Paul Brown took the job way back when. In truth, Rich, the Browns never really planned to trade Gordon unless they got an offer that knocked their proverbial socks off. That didn't stop them from answering the phone, which they did, which started the "trade talks" rumors. But the Browns' starting point for Gordon was always a first-round pick, and no team was willing to do that given he's one mistake from a one-year suspension. The Browns are thrilled he's with the team, but they also hold their breath about what could happen.
As for the Jets' secondary, of course he's eager to face it. On paper, he should have a huge game, but the same was true last Sunday against Chicago's secondary, and for whatever reason, the Browns didn't get him the ball enough, especially early. In the first half, he was targeted one time. That number has to increase this weekend.
Rich, there was some talk at last year's draft that the Browns should take Geno Smith with their first-round pick. Has Smith shown enough to justify the selection as the Jets' future quarterback?
Cimini: Absolutely not. The Jets will end this season in the same position they did last season -- not knowing their starting quarterback. Smith has the physical tools, but he has been wildly inconsistent. I could throw out a bunch of negative stats, but I'll just say this: He has had only two turnover-free games.
Like a lot of rookie quarterbacks, he'll lock on to his No. 1 read, drawing safeties into the play. He has to do a better job of finding his checkdown options and reading blitzes, a huge problem. The kid can sling it and he's durable, but he hasn't done enough for the decision-makers to say, "He's our guy." They will draft another quarterback and make it an open competition or acquire a proven veteran to take the No. 1 job. Mark Sanchez figures to be a goner.
So, Pat, it's hard to find a lot of positives in a 4-10 record, but have you seen enough to believe coach Rob Chudzinski can be "the guy"?
McManamon: I've seen enough to believe he deserves a fairer chance. No coach that has three different starting quarterbacks and four different starting running backs can win a lot. That Chudzinski had the team at 4-5 at the bye is pretty amazing. That he lost five in a row since the bye is disappointing but shouldn't be surprising.
Chudzinski has brought an aggressive attitude to the Browns, and he has handled himself well. There have been mistakes -- taking a timeout when the clock was stopped before New England's game-winning touchdown was an egregious mistake that considerably hurt the Browns' chances to win -- but also some good moments. He has handled the quarterbacks properly, shown patience with players who needed it and helped bring along Jordan Cameron and Gordon. Chudzinski looks like he could and should be the answer, but he sure deserves a fuller deck than the one he was given this season.
Old friend of the Browns Kellen Winslow spent this season in New York. Has he made any major contributions?
Cimini: Well, he made a few headlines but not for his work on the field. He got off to a decent start -- the team's leading receiver through five games -- but he was slapped with a four-game PED suspension. (He blamed it on an allergy medication, which caused some eyes to roll.) Since his return, his role has diminished. He plays only 20 to 25 snaps a game, prompting him to publicly wonder about his lack of playing time. I don't think the Jets' Thought Police appreciated the comments, so now all he does is speak in clichés.
He also didn't win any friends when he recently predicted via Twitter a Patriots-Broncos championship game -- even though the Jets were still alive. Get the picture? Winslow can still catch, but his surgically repaired knee is shot and he can't stay on the field for long stretches.