NFL Nation: 2012 NFL Free Agency

The Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed Charlie Batch to a one-year deal on Monday, but this doesn't necessarily mean he will be the team's top backup in 2012.

There's still a sense that Byron Leftwich is still the favorite for that spot. But there's no guarantee that Leftwich is coming back. He reportedly has drawn interest from the Indianapolis Colts and former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, although he remains unsigned.

Bringing back Batch is a logical move for the Steelers. He's been their decade-old security blanket when it comes to the backup quarterback position.

If Leftwich goes elsewhere, the Steelers have Batch, who is 5-2 as a spot starter for the Steelers. If Leftwich returns to Pittsburgh, the Steelers get a quarterback who is five years younger than Batch and appears to be the preferred choice. Leftwich was supposed to start for the suspended Ben Roethlisberger in 2010, but he hurt his knee in the final preseason game. He was also projected to be the team's No. 2 quarterback last season before breaking his arm in the preseason.

Even though Leftwich has major durability questions, you have to be equally unsure whether Batch can hold up for an extended period at his age. Last year, Batch looked solid in his only start, a 27-0 win over St. Louis, but he looked ragged in replacing Roethlisberger in the first meeting against Cleveland. The only quarterback from last year that is expected to move on is Dennis Dixon.

The backup quarterback position is the most critical No. 2 job on the Steelers, especially with the annual beating that Roethlisberger takes. Roethlisberger has managed one full season in his eight years in the NFL. The most games that Roethlisberger has missed in a season is four.

This is the latest in a series of moves by the Steelers to address their depth. Pittsburgh has signed tight end Leonard Pope, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and guard Trai Essex over the past week. Keeping Batch was the most important one considering the only other quarterbacks on the roster were Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson.
The Baltimore Ravens are among three teams interested in Steelers free-agent quarterback Dennis Dixon, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos are also in the running for Dixon, who is not expected to return to Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have been inconsistent in how they've addressed the backup quarterback position recently. In 2010, Baltimore spent $3.8 million on Marc Bulger to have veteran insurance behind Joe Flacco. In 2011, the Ravens went with rookie sixth-round pick Tyrod Taylor.

One reason why the Ravens could go with Bulger in 2010 was the uncapped year, but it's definitely a major philosophical switch to go from a playoff-tested quarterback in Bulger to a raw prospect like Taylor. Of course, Baltimore hasn't needed a backup, because Flacco has never missed a start in his four-year career (64 straight, the third-longest current streak in the NFL). But the Ravens' playoff chances would get decimated if Flacco got hurt, and the team had to turn to Taylor for an extended period.

Dixon, 27, the No. 3 quarterback last season for Pittsburgh, has made three career starts in his four seasons with the Steelers. He has a 2-1 record, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Dixon's first start came against the Ravens in 2009, when his interception in overtime set up the winning field goal.

Here are the backup quarterback situations for the rest of the AFC North:

BENGALS: Cincinnati is set with journeyman Bruce Gradkowski. When Andy Dalton was hurt in last year's season opener, Gradkowski rallied the Bengals to a 27-17 win at Cleveland.

BROWNS: At this point, the Browns are going with Seneca Wallace, the team's backup for the past two seasons. But the depth chart could get moved around if Cleveland drafts a quarterback in the early rounds. If the Browns don't take a quarterback, Wallace won't be competing with Colt McCoy for the starting job, the team said.

STEELERS: Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the only quarterbacks on the roster are Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson. The Steelers likely will bring back Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch. The favorite to return is Leftwich, who reportedly drew interest from the Colts.
In a move that should surprise no one, running back Ray Rice won't report Monday when the Ravens' voluntary offseason workouts begin, a source told the NFL Network.

This would have been bigger news if Rice had decided to show up Monday. Rice has yet to sign his franchise tag and isn't expected to do so anytime soon.

He recently expressed a desire to attend the workouts, but this is strictly a smart business decision. By putting the tag on Rice, the Ravens are only on the hook for this season. The team has given no long-term security to Rice, so why should he risk long-term consequences by participating in any team-related activity this spring?

Rice's absence shouldn't hurt the team even if it extends into training camp. He has always reported to camp in shape, so there's no concern about his conditioning. This is also Rice's fifth season in the same offensive system, which means he won't be behind in the playbook once he returns.

Ravens officials have been resigned to the fact that Rice would skip the workouts.

"Up until a guy actually signs his franchise tender, he's not under contract and we're not even allowed to ask him to our mandatory minicamp," general manager Ozzie Newsome said earlier this month. "We understand those things and lived them through [Terrell] Suggs, Chris [McAlister] and even Wally Williams. We've experienced that before. Would Coach [John] Harbaugh want 100 percent participation in every offseason program and every OTA and every minicamp? Yes he would. But he knows that unrealistic also."

The date to watch isn't Monday. It's July 16. That's the deadline for teams to reach long-term deals with players who received the franchise tag. Otherwise, Rice will play the entire season under the tag, which pays him $7.7 million this season.

In related news, cornerback Cary Williams is also expected to be a no-show Monday, according to the NFL Network. Williams, a restricted free agent, is in talks for a new deal with the team.

This is hardly news. He is still recovering from hip surgery and he wouldn't be able to participate even if he wanted to do so. Unlike Rice, it's in Williams' best interest to report as soon as he can. His absence only increases the likelihood that Jimmy Smith takes over the starting job next to Lardarius Webb.
A handful of teams are interested in trading for Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace, a league source told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

There's one snag to this happening -- the Steelers shouldn't be interested in trading Wallace. There's no logical reason for the Steelers to do this. Wallace isn't happy that he is playing under his restricted free-agent tender, and the Steelers won't be happy if Wallace decides to skip offseason workouts because of that. But all signs point to Wallace catching long passes from Ben Roethlisberger this season.

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireIf Mike Wallace leaves as a free agent after the 2012 season, the Steelers could expect to get a third-round compensatory pick.
First of all, the Steelers can't expect to get a first-round pick for Wallace on draft day because that's the price to acquire him right now as a restricted free agent. If any team is willing to part with a first-rounder, it will sign Wallace to an offer sheet before the April 20 deadline.

Another nugget of information to remember when trying to validate this trade rumor: The Steelers know they will get a compensatory third-round pick for Wallace if he leaves as a free agent after this season. While no one really knows the league formula for handing out compensatory picks, the Cincinnati Bengals received a third-round compensatory pick for wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh in 2009. Enough said.

The only remaining scenario is a team offering a second-round pick (and perhaps a package that includes a second-rounder and multiple later-round picks) for Wallace. But this deal shouldn't interest the Steelers either. Why get only a second-round pick for a No. 1 wide receiver? He's an integral part of the Steelers making another Super Bowl run this year, and Pittsburgh still has 10 months to get Wallace signed to a long-term deal. And, if the Steelers fail to sign Wallace, they still get a third-rounder for him.

Trading their top wide receiver wouldn't be unprecedented for the Steelers. Pittsburgh traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick 10 days before the 2010 draft. But Holmes and Wallace are two receivers who represent two different issues. Holmes was facing a four-game suspension at the time after a series of off-the-field incidents. Wallace is coming off a Pro Bowl season and has produced the second-most receiving yards ever (3,206) in a player's first three seasons in the NFL.

So, there's no surprise that there's a handful of teams interested in trading for Wallace. It would just be shocking to see the Steelers actually trading him.
The Bengals officially traded Keith Rivers to the New York Giants after the linebacker passed his physical today.

Cincinnati receives a fifth-round pick (167th overall) in exchange for Rivers, who has missed 29 games in four seasons because of injuries including all of last season after wrist surgery. As in their other recent player trades, the Bengals got the better end of this deal because Rivers wasn't going to start for the team this season.

A look at which recent players who have been taken at No. 167: Wide receiver Ryan Whalen (Bengals, 2011), linebacker Nathan Triplett (Vikings, 2010), guard Herman Johnson (Cardinals, 2009), defensive end Erik Walden (Cowboys, 2008) and safety Kevin Payne (Bears, 2007). The last Pro Bowl player to be selected at that spot was punter Reggie Roby in 1983.

The Bengals now have nine draft picks: First round (17th and 21st overall), second round (53rd), third round (83rd), fourth round (116th), fifth round (156th, 166th and 167th) and sixth round (191st).
There's only a week remaining for a team to sign restricted free agent Mike Wallace to an offer sheet. It doesn't seem like Wallace is going anywhere, but there's still a question of when he plans to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wallace doesn't intend to sign his restricted free-agent tender, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. That's a strong indication that he won't show up for Pittsburgh's offseason workouts unless he gets a long-term deal. If he doesn't sign his tender, he can't be fined for missing any offseason training activities because he's technically not under contract.

The next date to circle for Wallace is June 15. That's the deadline for Wallace to sign his tender or risk losing a lot of money. If Wallace remains unsigned by June 15, the Steelers can reduce his tender to 110 percent of last year's salary and still retain his rights. No team can sign Wallace to an offer sheet at that point because that deadline would have passed. Wallace's tender of $2.742 million can get cut to $577,500 -- a loss of $2.1 million. So, if Wallace wants to make a stand, the Steelers can take a bigger one.

All the Steelers have to do is notify Wallace of this possibility in a letter leading up to that deadline. This is what happened in 2010 to guard Logan Mankins in New England and wide receiver Vincent Jackson in San Diego. They chose not to sign their tenders to protest the restricted free-agency rules in the uncapped season and reported to their teams two months into the regular season.

I don't see Wallace taking it this far. He wants to show his displeasure for not getting a long-term deal, and he can do so by skipping most of the offseason workouts. The Steelers would prefer to have their No. 1 wide receiver at these practices because it's their first season under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, but it's more important that Wallace is there in training camp.

Everyone will know whether Wallace plans on showing up for training camp by June 15. That will reveal whether the sides are in for a long standoff. Again, I don't see that happening. When the time comes in June, Wallace should sign his tender, play this season for $2.7 million and get ready for free agency in 2013 if he doesn't have a new deal from the Steelers.
The statistics suggest the Pittsburgh Steelers simply signed a backup for the second straight day of free agency. But don't overlook the Steelers keeping wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery.

A source told the New York Daily News that Cotchery signed a two-year deal with the Steelers. This is a much more important addition than tight end Leonard Pope, who agreed to a deal Tuesday.

Cotchery finished with his lowest reception total since his 2004 rookie season, but he gained a chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger as the season progressed. A 31-yard touchdown pass to Cotchery with 3:48 remaining in the fourth quarter sent the playoff game at Denver into overtime.

This is why Roethlisberger publicly campaigned to re-sign Cotchery. "Without Hines [Ward], I think you have to do everything you can to sign Jerricho back," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in early March. "He's not only a veteran leader in that room but a really good player. I'd love to see him come back because he's a really good receiver and I like what he brings to the team."

Before the Steelers brought back Cotchery, they had no one with any experience behind Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The lack of depth was an obvious concern because coach Mike Tomlin said he was unsure whether Sanders could remain healthy for an entire season.

The Steelers needed to bring back Cotchery for much-needed insurance. If he plays the way he did in the second half of last year (15 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns), there's a good shot that he could get the No. 3 wide receiver job over Sanders. Cotchery received the chance to play a more important role when Sanders was injured and Ward was being phased out of the offense.

Cotchery drew interest from the Rams and Chiefs before returning to Pittsburgh.
Mike TomlinMichael Hickey/US PresswireMike Tomlin and the Steelers need to tap into their draft magic this year more than many.

Nearly a full month into free agency, the Steelers finally signed their first player Tuesday. It was -- yawn -- Leonard Pope.

Not excited about adding a backup tight end? Well, this is essentially a repeat of last year, when the Steelers' big free-agent signing was wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Let's face it, Steelers' free agency contains as much action as a Sarah Jessica Parker flick. Everyone knows this, and that's why no one is wringing their Terrible Towel over the inactivity.

The Steelers find players in April, not March. They hit on first-round picks every year -- at least in recent memory -- and develop undrafted prospects into starters. No one has built their team through the draft quite like the Steelers this decade. If the season started today, only one of the projected starters (safety Ryan Clark) joined the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent.

The Steelers need this remarkable track record in the draft to come through for them again. In some ways, this is the most important draft of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not saying this is a crucial draft in terms of finding immediate starters. But the pressure is on the Steelers to find "potential" starters for the 2012 season.

The organization lost a piece of its history when it parted ways with wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Chris Hoke and guard Chris Kemoeatu this offseason. Some have downplayed these departures because none were major contributors last season. Farrior was a part-time player, Ward was being phased out, Kemoeatu was benched and Smith and Hoke were both injured. The Steelers, though, could have used their experience as backups this season.

The loss of these veteran safety nets makes injuries a major concern. Two starters -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton -- are candidates to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (and miss at least the first six games) after ACL surgeries this offseason. Tomlin has expressed concern whether right tackle Willie Colon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can shake their injury histories. And the Steelers have to be worried about Maurkice Pouncey's ankle, LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings and Doug Legursky's shoulder.

If Hampton is placed on the PUP, the starting nose tackle would likely be an out-of-position Ziggy Hood. If Legursky is hurt, the current top backup at guard is John Malecki. If Colon goes down, the Steelers have to turn to the often-struggling Jonathan Scott. If Sanders can't play, the third receiver would be ... well, no one right now. These are all painful scenarios for the Steelers.

This is where the draft comes into play for Pittsburgh. Taking the right college player has always kept the Steelers in the mode of reloading, not rebuilding. No one knows whom the Steelers will select with the 24th overall pick. It could be Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener or someone not even linked to Pittsburgh. Based on the Steelers' history, the only certainty is the pick will become an impact player.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDefensive end Brett Keisel, taken in the seventh round, is just one of the Steelers' draft finds.
Since 2000, the Steelers' first-round selections have been wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. The only one who didn't quite live up to expectations is Mendenhall, and he is hardly a major disappointment, having led the team in rushing for the past three seasons. This great run is more amazing when you consider only two (Burress and Roethlisberger) were selected in the top half of the first round. Even the Ravens, who are known for excelling in the draft, have had two busts during this span with quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Travis Taylor.

General manager Kevin Colbert, one of the underrated decision-makers in the NFL, can't explain this string of success.

"We've been fortunate," he told reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We are capable as anybody of making a mistake. We never keep score. There's only one score that matters and that's the last game of the year."

If the Steelers had been keeping score, they would realize their success goes beyond the first round. They have come away with current starters in the second round (linebacker Woodley), third round (wide receiver Mike Wallace), fourth round (cornerback Ike Taylor), sixth round (wide receiver Antonio Brown) and seventh round (defensive end Brett Keisel). And don't forget about the undrafted finds like Legursky, right guard Ramon Foster and running back Isaac Redman.

This is why the Steelers don't have to write a $100 million check to free agents. This is why the Steelers can sign one player in the first 28 days of free agency and not sweat about it. Pittsburgh's way of business is about patience and faith. The Steelers believe in their front office to select the right college players and they believe in their coaching staff to develop them. It's a proven system that has led to five AFC North titles in 10 seasons and three trips to the Super Bowl during that span.

As players come and go, the Steelers' goals never change. Like Tomlin always preaches: "The standard is the standard."

"If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible."

And the organizations that are able to sustain success are often quiet in free agency and make their most noise in the draft.
Some might have been surprised when the Bengals agreed to a one-year deal with guard Jacob Bell. It has been four weeks since he visited Cincinnati.

But adding Bell makes sense, especially signing him to a short-term contract. The Bengals needed a right guard heading into the draft, and they could do much worse than a lineman who has 100 career starts. This isn't to say Bell was signed to be the starter, because he's a below-average run-blocker.

So, what does the signing of Bell mean? He's a one-year insurance policy. The Bengals will still likely draft Stanford's David DeCastro or Georgia's Cordy Glenn if one is available at one of the team's two first-round picks. The addition of Bell means they don't have to draft one of them.

The Bengals have more flexibility and can take the best player available at the 17th and 21st overall picks. They don't have to draft solely on need. And, even if the Bengals don't draft a guard, Bell will probably have to beat out Clint Boling and Otis Hudson for the job.

Finding someone to fill the spot long manned by Bobbie Williams was one of the last glaring holes in Cincinnati's starting lineup. The Bengals addressed left guard earlier this offseason when they signed Panthers free agent Travelle Wharton.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:


Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).


Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.


Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.


Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.
It wasn't Ravens coach John Harbaugh's preference to have starting cornerback Lardarius Webb returning punts entering this offseason. His mindset probably didn't change after Webb agreed to a five-year, $50 million extension with a $10 million signing bonus and a $5 million option bonus.

Having Webb field punts was a risk before. Now, it has become a pricey proposition. The Ravens will try hard to find a replacement for Webb on returns, and it probably will come in the draft.

"You can’t sit there and play scared, so I don’t have a problem with [Webb returning],” Harbaugh said Wednesday, a day before Webb's deal. “But I would rather have a backup doing it? Yes. If there is another option that is a better player or takes your starting corner and takes him off the punt return, that’s even better."

Webb ranked 16th in the NFL in punt returns (10-yard average), returning one for a touchdown. The other two punt returners listed on last year's Ravens depth chart -- Chris Carr (Vikings) and Tom Zbikowski (Colts) -- signed elsewhere in free agency.

Baltimore brought in Ted Ginn Jr. for a free-agent visit but he re-signed with the 49ers. The Ravens were also linked to Eddie Royal before he joined the San Diego Chargers.

“We tried to do something with a free agent or two, and it didn’t work out, but that’s OK,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll move on to the next opportunity.”

That "next opportunity" means the draft. One returner to keep an eye on is Fresno State's Devon Wylie. Other top returners coming out of college are: Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, Alabama's Marquis Maze and Stanford's Chris Owusu.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice said he wants to attend the team's offseason workouts and training camp. Whether he actually participates in them hasn't been determined.

Rice, who has yet to sign his franchise tag, isn't obligated to show up for any team activity. Many players choose not to attend to protest the tag, and others skip them to avoid getting injured while playing under a one-year contract.

“Me and my agent have been going over things and what we’re going to do is figure out what’s best for us going forward,” Rice told the team's official website. “We haven’t made a decision. As far as we know, we look forward to being [at offseason workouts]. Maybe it will be under some terms, whether I sign the tag or not. But I want to be there. I like to be around my guys.”

Rice made it clear he's due for a new contract. “Everybody knows I outplayed my contract," he said. "It’s not a hidden agenda. I think the Ravens have a history of taking care of their guys.”'s Andrew Brandt wrote an interesting piece on how negotiations with running backs can be tricky because there's no position with a shorter average career.

Of course, Rice figured into the discussion along with the Bears' Matt Forte. What stood out is how Rice could hold the key in whether he gets a long-term deal or gets the tag again next season. Here's what Brandt had to say:
"My sense is the Ravens and Bears would be willing to commit to the level of contract [Marshawn] Lynch and [Arian] Foster commanded. But if Rice and Forte are intent on reaching the level of the [Chris] Johnson and [Adrian] Peterson deals, the tag might persist."

The ballpark for Lynch and Foster is around $20 million guaranteed. The neighborhood for Johnson and Peterson is much pricier at $30 million.

Rice denied a previous report that he's seeking a deal similar to the one signed by Peterson but he did allude to contracts recently signed by other running backs.

“I didn’t set the number for what the running backs got paid,” Rice said. “There’s other guys that got paid before me with lesser stats, lesser numbers, or maybe the same productivity. I didn’t set that number.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer quiet in free agency.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers had their first free-agent visit of the year today, bringing in Bills offensive tackle Demetrius Bell.

He is the best offensive lineman available in what began as a weak free-agent market for tackles. Bell, 27, is an intriguing talent who has played parts of the past two seasons at left tackle.

Drafted in the seventh round by the Bills in 2008, Bell had struggled for the most part before last season. He only started six games in 2011 for the Bills, but those were perhaps his best games with the team. In seven games last season, he only allowed a half of sack and didn't commit a penalty.

There's no guarantees that Bell will continue to play at such a high level, but this could potentially be a strong first move by the Steelers. Pittsburgh is the only team in the AFC North not to sign anyone in free agency, which began 17 days ago.

The Steelers have a connection to Bell. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler spent two seasons working with Bell before leaving Buffalo for Pittsburgh.

Adding an offensive tackle isn't a necessity, but it would bolster the position. Right now, the Steelers are looking to move Marcus Gilbert from right to left tackle, and start Willie Colon on the right side. Colon has played in one game the past two seasons because of injuries, and Jonathan Scott is the top backup.
Matt Williamson, of Scouts Inc., handed out grades to the AFC teams after the first wave of free agency. It's an Insider piece, but I will share a small portion for each of the AFC North teams:


Williamson's grade: B-minus. While I am a proponent of not overspending on other teams' castoffs, and bearing in mind that the Bengals have a great opportunity to add quality talent in the draft with two first-round picks, I can't help but feel that the Bengals let a great opportunity slip through their hands this offseason. I would have attacked a high-end free agent or two such as Carl Nicks or Cortland Finnegan.

Hensley's grade: B. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.


Williamson's grade: D. The biggest crime of the offseason was the Browns allowing the Redskins to outbid them for the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, but even after losing out on the right to draft Robert Griffin III, the Browns didn't add nearly enough to consider them as anything but a bottom feeder for yet another year.

Hensley's grade: C. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right tackle. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. The Browns did improve their run defense by signing Frostee Rucker and their pass rush by adding Juqua Parker.


Williamson's grade: C. The Ravens lost several starters to other clubs over the past few weeks and will need younger players to step up in their place, but this remains a very strong roster.

Hensley's grade: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Evan Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.


Williamson's grade: C. Pittsburgh was greatly handcuffed by its salary-cap situation. But even though the Steelers released quite a few older brand name players, they sit in good shape for the 2012 season.

Hensley's grade: D. The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've lost only two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership.

Have the Raiders fallen behind?

March, 30, 2012
Reggie McKenzie, Dennis AllenAP Photo/Paul SakumaOakland's salary-cap woes have Reggie McKenzie, left, and Dennis Allen in a tough spot.

The Oakland Raiders are one of the most intriguing franchises in the NFL these days. How will the post-Al Davis Raiders evolve?

After Al Davis' death in October, the much-less-involved Mark Davis turned his father’s beloved franchise over to Reggie McKenzie, a respected personnel man from Green Bay, who is embarking on his first journey as a general manager. McKenzie has entrusted former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who at 39 is the youngest coach in the league, to be the next coach of a team that finished 8-8 last season and barely out of the playoffs.

The first focus for McKenzie has been clearing the Raiders’ roster of bloated contracts given to players as the Raiders desperately, and unsuccessfully, chased championships in Davis’ final years.

It has been a necessary exercise as Oakland begins the process of getting out of salary-cap jail. But Oakland has lost more talent than it has brought in the past month.

The question begs to be asked: Has Oakland fallen behind the rest of the AFC West for the 2012 season? It depends on whom you ask, of course. Asked this week if his team will be stronger or weaker in 2012, McKenzie, without explanation, said this: “Honestly, I envision it being stronger.”

However, many folks around the league wonder how.

“I think they have fallen behind,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “They are in a tough salary-cap position and they are paying for it now. I just don’t see the improvement.”

Added Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: “I do think they have slipped.” Williamson, in an Insider piece, gave the Raiders one of the worst free-agent grades in the AFC.

It’s difficult to look at the list of players Oakland has added and lost and not come to the same conclusion. Even given the need for salary-cap repair, a loss of talent mustn’t be brushed aside.

Some of the key players who were either cut or departed Oakland as free agents: linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, running back Michael Bush, quarterback Jason Campbell, cornerback Stanford Routt, tight end Kevin Boss, defensive tackle John Henderson, running back Rock Cartwright, receiver Chaz Schilens, defensive end Trevor Scott and cornerback Chris Johnson.

The projected starters who have been brought in: guard Mike Brisiel and cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer.

“You look who has come and who has gone, and it’s scary,” Horton said. “I like Mike Brisiel. He will help. But the two cornerbacks are just guys. They are not starters for a good team. The defense needs improvement and I don’t see it. All I see is the loss of talent. Where is the coverage coming from? Where is the pass-rush coming from?”

In addition to not having much cap room, the Raiders have a small draft class. They have five picks and their first pick is No. 95, at the end of the third round. McKenzie has said the Raiders need a starting outside linebacker. He might not know who that player is for some time.

Compounding the concern in Oakland is the fact that the rest of the AFC West has been aggressive this offseason.

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesDarren McFadden is an elite running back when healthy -- but the Raiders are an injury or two away, at many positions, from serious trouble.
Denver added the big prize of the NFL offseason --quarterback Peyton Manning. Kansas City added several players, including Routt and Boss after they were jettisoned in Oakland. The Chargers lost star receiver Vincent Jackson and key backup running back Mike Tolbert, but added several pieces and have been lauded by scouts around the league for using their resources properly and adding to their overall talent level. Speaking this week solely about his own team, Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said he felt the need to improve his roster because of the improvement around him in the division.

Meanwhile, McKenzie and Allen are seemingly beginning their tenure in Oakland by taking a step back. Asked about the loss of talent while at the NFL owners meetings this week, Allen took a realistic approach.

“You know what, we knew what the situation was when we were going into it,” Allen said. “We knew it was going to be a tough situation. I think Reggie’s done a great job of managing everything as we’ve gone through this. You go through it every year. Every year, you have good players that you lose. And you’ve got to find a way to regroup and replace those guys and that’s what we’re trying to get done.”

The problem is that Oakland has more holes than it did at the end of last season. In the past couple of seasons, the Raiders were intriguing because they were both young and didn’t have many glaring needs. All they needed was their young talent to continue to improve. Now, though, Oakland has holes at tight end and at linebacker and depth issues at all layers of the defense, running back, the offensive line and at quarterback.

“What if this team gets hurt a lot?” Horton asked. “There is no depth in this team.”

Still, not all is lost in Oakland. Running back Darren McFadden is an elite runner when healthy, the defensive line is an upper-echelon unit, the interior offensive line is strong, the special teams are top-notch, the receiver crew is potentially dynamic and the team believes quarterback Carson Palmer will benefit from a full offseason in the program.

The Raiders are hopeful that their talent can withstand this necessary offseason of cap repair. In a couple of years, if McKenzie continues to be financially prudent, the Raiders should be out of cap jail.

“This team wasn’t far away when I got here,” Allen said at the owners meetings. “We’re excited about trying to build on that and develop this team into a playoff-caliber team. Obviously, we took a couple hits because of the cap situation, but we’re looking forward to trying to develop the team, and the players.”

The only question: Has the rest of the AFC West left the Raiders behind in the immediate future?