Cincinnati Bengals: james ihedigbo

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.
Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' season has ended, and coaching changes have kicked off the unofficial start to the offseason, we're counting down the 10 plays that helped shape the Bengals' 11-5, AFC North championship season.

Big plays, particularly those from Cincinnati's defense, and explosive ones from the likes of Giovani Bernard, were critical to the way 2013 played out.

As is the case with most top 10 lists, determining these plays was completely subjective. They could be placed in virtually any slot among these 10, or not among them at all. Some certainly won't make the cut that many believe should. It's the nature of lists. Somewhere a cut off has to come. Anyway, let's get back to it, with No. 6:

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesA.J. Green catches a batted ball for a touchdown against Baltimore, helping the Bengals send the game to overtime.
A.J. GREEN'S HAIL MARY HAUL

When: Nov. 10, 2013

Where: M&T Bank Stadium, where the Bengals lost to the Baltimore Ravens in overtime, 20-17.

What happened: If held up on its own, this play probably would appear higher on this countdown. "Ugly" was probably the best word to describe the penalty-filled, mistake-riddled mid-season AFC North contest. This pretty play, though, very nearly ended up saving the Bengals from the disappointment they ended up feeling later.

After taking a sack and spiking the ball with four seconds remaining in regulation, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton huddled the offense together near midfield. Cincinnati was down seven and in need of a miracle if it was going to force overtime and have a chance to steal a win. Dalton's only charge to his receivers was to go deep. It was Hail Mary time.

With a sturdy passing pocket in front of him, Dalton dropped back and tossed up a prayer into the strong winds that had been swirling throughout the stadium and knocking down passes all afternoon. Even this one was a bit shorter than he intended, but it hung in the air just long enough to rattle off the mass of hands and helmets at the goal line. After a bounce off Bengals receiver Marvin Jones, the ball went flying toward Ravens safety James Ihedigbo. With little time to react, he stuck up his hand. Instead of swatting it down, he tipped the ball even higher and deeper into the end zone.

There, looking up just in time to see the ball was Bengals receiver A.J. Green. He lost track of it as he sprinted toward the goal line and ended up drifting to a spot in the end zone just in case there was a chance the ball ricocheted in that direction. It was a smart decision. When the ball came back, he leaped with two hands and caught it for a clutch touchdown. Fans sitting in front of the press box were so stunned they looked up at reporters, mouths agape and shook their heads in disbelief. The play was so relieving for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis that a moment right after the Hail Mary was caught, a smile flashed on his face as his proudly stuck up one finger, calling for kicker Mike Nugent to bury the PAT that would send the game to overtime.

What they said about it: Green: "I was in the right spot at the right time. We talk about that a lot. I was just looking for someone to tap the ball so I could catch it. I stood off to the side and watched. I was thinking about coming back closer to the ball, but I stayed right where I was and the ball found me. It would have been a greater play, though, if we had won."

Dalton: "I just threw it up and hoped for the best. ... That's something we never practice, but we do talk about it. When I called the play, I just reminded everybody what to do."

Ihedigbo: "[Ravens safety, and former Bengal] Jeromy Miles, he's the jumper. He's tall, long. He's supposed to jump up, tip the ball. My job's to be back, almost in the back of the end zone. I saw the ball get caught in the wind, so I knew it was going to hit the end zone. I knew it was going to be short, so I moved up. Bonehead move. I moved up a little bit. I just should have stayed back. It probably would have fell right in my lap. I saw it drifting, tried to slap it to the ground. It went up in the air; easy touchdown."

How the Bengals' season was impacted: As you've read, the Bengals ended up losing the game, thereby making the AFC North playoff race tighter. With a home game against fellow division foe Cleveland the next week, they were hoping a win on the road against a Ravens team that was beginning to pick up steam would extend their division lead and all put the race to bed. It didn't. A win against the Browns on Nov. 17 did help the Bengals ultimately win the division, but it wasn't until Week 16 before the Bengals were finally about to close out the third AFC North title. Because of how poorly the Bengals played offensively for much of the game, they were resolved in the coming weeks to get back to a true run-pass balance. In a win against San Diego two games later, it showed up.

Bengals Breakdown: A.J. Green's Hail Mary

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
12:30
PM ET
A.J. GreenPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesA.J. Green's Hail Mary touchdown reception gave the Cincinnati Bengals new life.
Inspired by my ESPN.com colleague, Lions reporter Michael Rothstein, I'm starting a new weekly tradition on the Bengals blog. Following each game, we'll take a deeper look at one key play from the contest just passed, and analyze it with comments from those who had a true front-row seat for it.

Sure, it may be getting a little late in the season to start new traditions, but we're going to give this a shot anyway. As we do, what better play to start off our "Bengals Breakdown" than to explore what quite possibly is Cincinnati's clubhouse leader for play of the year?

With 2 seconds left in Sunday's AFC North showdown between the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton spiked the ball, leaving him time for one last valiant try at tying the game at 17, and giving his team a chance to pull off the improbable and win it in overtime.

Since the ball was sitting on the Bengals' own 49-yard line, the only thing Dalton could do was send his receivers racing downfield on straight go routes to the end zone and hope that one of them could catch his towering fly that was likely to get tipped. Hail Marys so seldom work, but if the Bengals were going to salvage their 17-0 deficit they overcame, this one was going to have to.

It did.

By now, you've certainly seen the highlights and maybe even heard the radio call featuring Dan Hoard and a breathless ("Ohh! Ohh man! Ohh my God!") Dave Lapham. When receiver A.J. Green grabbed Dalton's pass, which was tipped twice, in the end zone, Lapham's shocked but gleeful take on the play was probably repeated in countless homes of Bengals fans. Inside Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, a hush fell over the 70,000-person crowd, stunned the Bengals had actually tied it with the 51-yard score and subsequent point-after attempt.

Of course, as great as that play was for Cincinnati, it was completely negated moments later in the overtime period, when the Bengals failed to convert on a fourth-and-2 from the Ravens' 33, and ended up allowing them to mark into range for Justin Tucker's game-winning 46-yard field goal.

The following are snippets from interviews players and coaches have given in the last two days about the play:

Bengals WR A.J. Green
"I was in the right spot at the right time. We talk about that a lot. I was just looking for someone to tap the ball so I could catch it. I stood off to the side and watched. I was thinking about coming back closer to the ball, but I stayed right where I was and the ball found me. It would have been a greater play, though, if we had won."
Bengals QB Andy Dalton
"I did see the whole thing happen. I just threw it up and hoped for the best. I know we did a great job tapping the ball into the air, and I saw A.J. Green sitting there waiting for the ball. In that situation, if you can't make the catch you want to, tip it up and keep the play alive. That's something we never practice, but we do talk about it. When I called the play, I just reminded everybody what to do."
Ravens S James Ihedigbo, who tipped the ball last
"[Ravens safety, and former Bengal] Jeromy Miles, he's the jumper. He's tall, long. He's supposed to jump up, tip the ball. My job's to be back, almost in the back of the end zone. I saw the ball get caught in the wind, so I knew it was going to hit the end zone. I knew it was going to be short, so I moved up. Bone-head move. I moved up a little bit. I just should have stayed back. It probably would have fell right in my lap. I saw it drifting, tried to slap it to the ground. It went up in the air; easy touchdown."
Bengals S George Iloka, who was on the sideline
"We go over that play every Saturday. We don't really throw it, but we just practice what you're supposed to do as a defense and what you're supposed as an offense. When I saw the ball tipped and I saw A.J. near it, I was like, 'He's going to catch it. He just has to out-jump somebody, so he's going to catch it.' What was funny was right before that the [Bengals'] coordinators threw their headsets off and then someone was like, 'He caught it,' and everyone's scrambling. I'm not sure, but I think some of the guys in the [press] box were probably like halfway down. [Laughs] It was crazy. A lot of ups and a lot of downs, just like how the game went."
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden
"[Bengals receiver] Marvin [Jones] did a hell of a job getting in there and jumping up there and tipping it. A.J. kind of got grabbed and the ball just popped up to him. It was a fluke. Unfortunately, that's how we had to score."
Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict, who was heading into the locker room
"They were about to take me in and check me for a concussion. I saw it on the big board and I thought, 'Man, that was crazy.' It was like a video game. It was a great throw by Dalton. He threw it to the end zone. It was a great heads-up play by A.J. Green."

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