Baltimore Ravens: Alex Mack

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.

He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.

Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.

"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.

His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.

"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.

Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.

"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."

The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.

Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
Cleveland Browns fans complained the past few years as the team sat idly by while free agency raged. The Browns fiddled while free agents burned holes in owners’ pockets.

Or something like that.

Since the 2014 version of free agency began, the Browns have spent $55.8 million in guaranteed money.

That’s the highest total in the AFC North, and following the matching of Jacksonville’s offer to Alex Mack, ranks third in the league in guaranteed money spent since March 11.

Which means the Browns rank third to the Bucs and Broncos in guaranteed money, with most of it going to Mack ($18 million reported, though the number has not been confirmed), linebacker Karlos Dansby ($12 million) and safety Donte Whitner ($13 million). The Browns started free agency with a glut of cap space, and they’ve not been shy about using it.

And they’ve spend more than $50 million in guaranteed contracts without even addressing the quarterback position.

Second in the division in spending are the Baltimore Ravens at $36.3 million, though their total does not include re-signing Dennis Pitta just before free agency began. That signing brings the Ravens' guaranteed money total to $52.3 million -- still short of the Browns.

Most of Baltimore’s money went to Pitta and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe ($19 million).

Take away those two re-signings and Baltimore’s guaranteed total of $18 million is more like a team that feels good about itself.

Same for the Bengals, a team that has made the playoffs three years in a row and feels it’s close to something good. Cincinnati has spent just $7.3 million in guaranteed money, the fourth lowest total in the league.

Pittsburgh? The Steelers never go overboard in free-agent spending and this year is no different. Their total of $8.7 million is just ahead of Cincinnati.
There are multiple reports indicating the Baltimore Ravens are close to re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe, and a deal could be complete before the start of free agency at 4 p.m.

This likely will be the first of a handful of moves in free agency as the Ravens look to improve the NFL's 29th-ranked offense. Let's take a look at who else could be on the team's radar:

WIDE RECEIVER

Smith
Steve Smith, Carolina: The Panthers are reportedly trying to trade Smith, and they could ultimately release him. Smith is the type of clutch, go-to receiver the Ravens need. He also brings an intensity and work ethic that can rub off on young receivers. The biggest problem is Smith turns 35 in May and he's coming off his second-least productive season over the past nine years. He had 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns.

Julian Edelman, New England: He fits what the Ravens want: a receiver who can make the tough catches underneath and can break tackles to convert third downs. Edelman's skill set would complement Torrey Smith's deep speed and give the Ravens two receivers hitting their prime. What is tough is gauging whether Edelman can come close to matching his 2013 breakthrough season (105 catches for 1,056 yards) without Tom Brady throwing him the ball.

Golden Tate, Seattle: Tate would be at the top of my list for the Ravens. At 25, he's just reaching the prime of his career. His receiving stats aren't overly impressive because he has played in a run-heavy offense, but the key is his numbers have improved each season. Tate's biggest selling point: He led the league in yards after catch per reception (7.75), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Plus, he's not afraid to block, and he's known for being a high-character player in the locker room.

TIGHT END

Pettigrew
Pettigrew
Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit: Even though the Ravens signed Dennis Pitta, the Ravens are expected to line up in two tight ends a lot under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Pettigrew, who is more of a complete tight end than Pitta, would be an excellent fit for the Ravens. General manager Ozzie Newsome liked Pettigrew in the 2009 draft, but the Lions selected him six picks ahead of the Ravens. Pettigrew, 29, never delivered the pass-catching numbers expected of a first-round pick. Last season's production (41 catches for 416 yards and two touchdowns) was his lowest since his rookie season. The Ravens need him as much for his blocking as pass-catching skills. He would be an upgrade over Ed Dickson, who is a free agent.

Owen Daniels, Houston: Daniels, who was released by the Texans on Tuesday, is on the list because of his obvious connection with Kubiak, the former head coach of the Texans. He runs great routes, can catch most passes thrown his way and has proved to be a functional blocker. Durability is the biggest concern. He has been limited to 11 games or fewer in three of the past five seasons. Last season, Daniels played only five games because of a fractured fibula.

Garrett Graham, Houston: Just like Daniels, Graham is here because of his history with Kubiak. He proved he could be effective in the passing game (49 catches and five touchdowns last season) and is an above-average blocker. With his age (27) and upside, some teams (like the Buccaneers) will view him as a potential No. 1 tight end. He wouldn't have that high-profile role with the Ravens.

CENTER

Mack
Alex Mack, Cleveland: There are reports the Ravens could turn their attention to Mack if they can't get a deal done with Monroe. What is going to be difficult is prying the Pro Bowl center away from the Browns, who put the transition tag on him. That means they can match any offer. If the Ravens can somehow pull this off, this would be a major step toward improving the offensive line. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I believe adding Mack would be a better move than keeping Monroe.

David Baas, New York Giants: Baas, who was cut by the Giants on Monday, would serve as a stopgap until Gino Gradkowski can get stronger. Baas is 32 and has an injury history, which is why he can be had for a one- or two-year deal. He has been the Giants' starting center since signing as a free agent in 2011, but has struggled to stay healthy. His 2013 season ended early as a result of a neck injury. The Giants could target Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who could follow offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo from Green Bay to New York.

Brian De La Puente, New Orleans: He's a three-year starter for the Saints who will draw interest because of a weak free-agent market for centers. Before joining the Saints, he was a journeyman who played on six teams in three seasons. At 28, De La Puente could be coming into his own at the right time. He's not considered a power player inside.
Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

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.

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