NFL Nation: Alameda Ta'amu

After the season, Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said he wanted the entire defense back, even though he admitted the likelihood of that happening wasn't very high.

The Cardinals began that process Thursday when they re-signed exclusive rights free agent nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu to a one-year deal. Bringing back Ta'amu, who started three games in place of Dan Williams while he dealt with the death of his father, shows how much the Cardinals valued Ta'amu. Even though he was a reserve, he was critical piece to Arizona’s defensive success, especially against the run. By having two agile nose tackles, Arians was able to conserve their energy by using Ta'amu and Williams in a rotation. Ta'amu played 224 snaps in 2013 compared to Williams' 269.

Normally, backup nose tackles aren't a priority but Ta'amu played a level worth more than the $480,000 he made in 2013. He was signed off waivers on Sept. 1 and was inactive for the first two games of the season. Arizona activated Ta'amu for the Saints game in Week 3 because Williams left the team.

Arizona must also be pleased with the progress of Ta'amu's rehab from an ACL injury he suffered in Week 17 against San Francisco.

In 14 games, Ta'amu had 13 tackles.

But his quickness off the snap made him tough for offensive linemen to handle. He would push centers and guards far enough back to alter opponents’ run schemes, which helped Arizona finish with the best run defense in the NFL.

GM Steve Keim: Cardinals are close

February, 21, 2014
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- It’s one thing for the Arizona Cardinals to want to get to the top. It’s another for them to be on their way.

In the eyes of Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, his team spent 2013 closing the gap between themselves and the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. A 10-6 season that finished with a 7-2 run and a bull rush toward the postseason still left Arizona sitting third in the division, but the Cardinals are as close as they have been since the recent resurgence of the Niners and the Seahawks.

Just how close are the Cardinals?

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsCarson Palmer and the Arizona offense found their groove in the second half of the season.
They have to consider the fact that their division is home to the now-defending world champion Seahawks, and both NFC Championship Game finalists.

“Moving forward, I felt like, on each side of the ball, we were at least two to three players away from being an upper-echelon team,” Keim said during his NFL combine news conference Thursday in Indianapolis.

“I think it's a great litmus test to play those teams (Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis) in those divisions, because it helps expose where your limitations are, where you feel like you need to improve,” he added.

More often than not against the West, the Cards were exposed. Through the first two days of the combine, Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have talked about their needs for next season. Keim said two or three players on each side of the ball. On offense that could mean a left tackle and a tight end. On defense, that is a safety geared to stopping tight ends, another cornerback, and a back up defensive tackle.

It took Arians just one season to make the offseasons in the West a chess match. Whatever one team does, the others will counter -- even St. Louis.

Based on how 2013 went, however, Arizona knows it needs to stock up in a few areas to compete for a division crown, namely on the offensive line. Keeping quarterback Carson Palmer protected, especially against the defenses the Cardinals face six times a year, can be the difference between 10 wins and 12, or even 13.

“You have to be on your A-game at all times,” Keim said. “All three teams that we're facing are very, very good defensively. You have to keep pace. It leaves very little room for error, not only in the draft but in free agency as well. You have to be physical on the offensive and defensive lines.

“You've got to have really good depth.”

After facing each team once last year, Arians began to adjust. He kept nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu around for depth behind Dan Williams, which kept the defensive line fresh down the stretch. And Arians began to trim the playbook, which helped the offense finally click.

If Keim needed a measuring stick last season to see how far the Cardinals had come -- or how far they have to go -- it came in Seattle in Week 16.

The Seahawks hadn’t lost at CenturyLink Field all season until Arizona’s defense stonewalled running back Marshawn Lynch and cramped quarterback Russell Wilson to his breaking point on Dec. 22 in a 17-10 win. It was the last time Seattle lost last season.

“Obviously, going to Seattle and beating them up there showed signs that we were headed in the right direction,” Keim said.

Said Arians: “The division we’re in is a great division. You’re battle-tested when you come out of it. The second half of the season, we competed very well in the division.

“If we were in the playoffs, we would have done some damage. We just didn't win enough games.”

Upon Further Review: Cardinals Week 15

December, 16, 2013
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals' 37-34 win over the Tennessee Titans.

Javier Arenas must want the Cardinals to play in cold-weather cities more often. For the second time this season he had at least three kick returns.

On Sunday, he returned those kicks for 72 yards, his second-highest total of the season. At the rate he's been going, Arenas didn't expect to return more than one, maybe two kicks -- if he even had the opportunity to return any.

Arenas
“It was the wind conditions,” Arenas said. “It's cold outside so he had a couple bad kicks. It shocked me as well.

“It felt pretty good. Great opportunity to get a lot of kicks and get a feel for it as opposed to once every two or three weeks.”

Leading the way: Followers of the Cardinals are used to Bobby Massie substituting in on offense as an eligible receiver. But when No. 66 was announced twice Sunday, a few eyebrows were raised.

Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu entered the game as a fullback to lead the way for Rashard Mendenhall, and on both plays Mendenhall scored. It was the first time Ta'amu had lined up at fullback since high school, and it didn't take long to remember what to do: put your head down and go.

He hopes to get another opportunity to block for Mendenhall, but he hopes Mendenhall will actually use him. On both runs, Mendenhall didn't follow Ta'amu's lead.

Was the big man mad?

“I mean ...” Ta'amu hesitated, then laughed, “yeah.”

Game-winning machine: Sunday marked the 11th game-winning field goal of Jay Feely's career and his second this season. He hit from 41 yards with 10:22 left in overtime to clinch the win. Feely's last game winner was in Week 3 at Tampa Bay.

It was the fifth game winner of longer than 40 yards.

Road warriors: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians didn't care about stats or “anything else.” He just wanted to get a win on the road.

“It's hard to get a win on the road in the NFL, but we did,” Arians said.

Only three of the Cardinals' nine wins have come on the road, but if you asked Darnell Dockett where he'd go to play a game, he doesn't discriminate.

“I don't care if you go to the Middle East, South America, as long as you get a win, it doesn't matter,” he said.

Upon Further Review: Cardinals Week 7

October, 18, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals' 34-22 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Passing by: When the Cardinals did find opportunities to throw the ball Thursday, their options included two familiar faces. Tight end Rob Housler caught all seven of his targets for 53 yards. And after starting the game with three quick catches, Andre Roberts wasn’t targeted again until the second half, but he finished with five catches for 33 yards. In all, quarterback Carson Palmer completed passes to nine receivers including cornerback Patrick Peterson. Michael Floyd had a team-high 71 yards on six receptions.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham and Russell Wilson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsVeteran LB John Abraham's playing time and productivity have recently picked up for the Cardinals.
Sack sighting: As if the Cardinals’ defense wasn’t good enough already, another dimension came to life Thursday night. Linebacker John Abraham got his first two sacks of the season. He came into this season as the NFL’s active sack leader with 122. With Abraham finding a groove from the outside, the Cardinals now have another way to get to the quarterback. And with the middle being plugged by Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu, having Abraham off the edge could continue to create problems for offenses. Abraham was pleased with his performance, especially since his two sacks caused fumbles (one recovered by the Cardinals), but losing put a damper on his two-sack day.

Not a sack party: In one game, the Cardinals increased their sacks-allowed by more than 50 percent. They entered Thursday allowing 13, but four in the last three games, a steady improvement from the nine allowed in the first three. But against Seattle, Arizona gave up seven, giving them 20 for the season. After seven games last season, the Cardinals had given up 28 sacks. Eight Seahawks accounted for the sacks. Seattle had 16 heading into Thursday night.

Wake-up call: The Cardinals’ defense didn’t seem to wake up until early in the second quarter when it forced the Seahawks into a turnover on downs after stopping them at the Arizona 43-yard line on fourth-and-1. Then it was like the Cardinals’ alarm clock went off. On Seattle’s next possession, Arizona linebacker Matt Shaughnessy strip-sacked Russell Wilson and Cards defensive end Calais Campbell recovered. Arizona continued to rub the sleep out of its eyes with another strip-sack of Wilson but the Seahawks recovered the fumble. The pressure the Cards’ defense applied kept the offense in the game. Twice the defense set the Cardinals’ offense up in prime position to score: once at the Seattle 3-yard line after Shaughnessy's strip-sack and the other at the Seattle 15 after Abraham’s strip-sack.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- For all the concern and preparation that went into playing three mobile quarterbacks in as many weeks, it turns out they haven’t been as much of an issue as expected.

And the Cardinals hope the same goes for Seattle’s Russell Wilson on Thursday night.

Arizona slowed Carolina quarterback Cam Newton two weeks ago, limiting him to 25 yards on the ground, seven below his average. And on Sunday, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran for just 18 yards, about 13 under his weekly average.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerThe Cardinals' challenge on Sunday: Keep dangerous QB Russell Wilson in the pocket.
The Cardinals’ defense has a lot to do with limiting both signal-callers from taking off on foot. Arizona is allowing just 3.46 yards per rush, the fourth best mark in the league. Wilson is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and is second on the Seahawks with 294 rushing yards.

Nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu said the Cardinals’ defensive philosophy against running quarterbacks is to funnel them outside.

“Everyone knows their assignments and what we need to do to stop them,” Ta’amu said. “A lot of the ways they like to escape was through the middle and me and [nose tackle] Dan [Williams] made it a point where that’s where they’re not going to try to escape.

“We’re going to hold it down in the middle and hopefully push them out toward [defensive end] Calais [Campbell] and [defensive tackle Darnell] Dockett to let them do what they do best.”

This week, Arizona defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said he hopes Wilson wants to stay in the pocket. But with his reputation of liking to scramble, that’s not likely. But as long as the Cardinals can contain Wilson out of the pocket and force him to throw, they might be in better shape than they expect.

Wilson’s completion percentage this season outside the pocket is 52.8, down almost nine points from last season. He’s thrown just one touchdown compared to two interceptions while on the move.

“It’s like he’s playing street football out there,” Ta’amu said. “He doesn’t give up on a play. He’s trying to make something of every play.

“You just can’t give up on him. He looks like he’s going down but he’s not. He likes to extend plays and make plays.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers have changed one small part of their draft process a year after having off-the-field issues with two picks, nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu and running back Chris Rainey. The Steelers have stepped up their interaction with prospects' families as part of their pre-draft evaluation.

In addressing how the team assesses character, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the process has remained the same, starting with reports they get from colleges and then conducting interviews, whether it's at the NFL scouting combine or pre-draft visits, as well as background checks. The one change is speaking to the people closest to the prospect.

"Coach [Mike] Tomlin and I did a lot of follow-up work this past spring when we visited the pro days. We actually tried to be a little more proactive in trying to meet families," Colbert said. "It is something that Coach Tomlin started three years ago. After we draft players, we start to bring their families in to get to know the kids that we drafted. Sometimes you get the opportunity at a pro day and sometimes you don’t, depending on where the kid’s family lives. We did try to make a conscious effort to extend the program Coach Tomlin started three years ago."

The Steelers should be more careful this year in taking risks on draft picks after two of their first five selections in 2012 got into legal trouble. Ta'amu, a fourth-round pick, was sentenced to 18 months of probation earlier this month after he pled guilty to reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and drunken driving stemming from a police chase last fall. Pittsburgh suspended him for two games and waived him but re-signed Ta'amu by the end of the season.

Rainey, a fifth-round pick, was released by the Steelers hours after he was arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident. He hasn't been signed by another team and remains a free agent.

Asked about the idea of visiting families, Tomlin said: "I just think it helps us develop a more complete picture about who and what a player is, and maybe more importantly, what he is capable of being. I think the more you look at where they come from and who they come from, it helps you paint that well-rounded picture."
Steelers nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu pled guilty to reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and drunken driving stemming from a police chase last fall. According to police, his SUV struck four parked vehicles, injuring a woman who was sitting in one of them.

Ta'amu
Ta'amu
What punishment did Ta'amu receive? He was sentenced Thursday to 18 months of probation and will spend four days in a program that's an alternative to jail.

Ta'amu should feel lucky. He actually should feel lucky that he is still with the Steelers.

It looked like team officials were taking a hard stance with him last year when they suspended their rookie fourth-round pick and later waived him. But the Steelers brought him back for the final game of the season.

The Steelers must believe Ta'amu can be the long-term solution to Casey Hampton's spot, because it's hard to justify why he is still with the team otherwise.

I'm all for second chances, and NFL teams couldn't field a full roster these days if they didn't feel the same. But this wasn't a drunken driving incident. Based on the police report, it was a drunken driving rampage.

The judge, on Thursday, found Ta'amu not guilty of fleeing from police after Ta'amu explained that he thought an officer in an unmarked car was an angry motorist chasing him.

"I was a rookie and I was scared. I was a Steeler and I was drunk driving," Ta'amu told the judge. "I wrecked my car and I panicked."

This would be easier to believe if this was Ta'amu's first incident. He was charged with driving under the influence after an incident in 2009 when he was playing for the University of Washington.

So, Ta'amu has two strikes against him. A third one would be a black mark on the Steelers, because Ta'amu shouldn't be on the team.


The Steelers sent the right message in waiving Chris Rainey and it goes beyond just parting ways with a running back who was arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident.

Rainey
Rainey
Pittsburgh kicked Rainey off the team only hours after he was arrested for, according to witnesses, slapping a woman in the face with an open hand. Along with the swift decision, the Steelers made it clear why they were waiving Rainey.

“Chris Rainey’s actions this morning were extremely disappointing,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement released by the team. “Under the circumstances and due to this conduct, Chris will no longer be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers."

This is the Steelers' way of telling their current players and future ones that this type of behavior won't be tolerated, and even those who don't like the Steelers have to applaud the team for taking this type of hard stance. Pittsburgh also released nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu in November after his drunken driving arrest, but the Steelers did bring him back for the final game of the season (it was his first off-the-field incident).

It's valid to criticize the Steelers for drafting Rainey in the fifth round after an incident in 2010 when he was arrested for threatening his girlfriend. But, sadly in the NFL, you couldn't field a team these days if you didn't give second chances. The Steelers decided to take a chance on Rainey, and that mistake cost them a fifth-round pick.

Going forward, the Steelers need to either put a bigger emphasis on character or getting a better feel for players before bringing them to Pittsburgh. The arrests of two 2012 draft picks is an indication that something is wrong in the Steelers' pre-draft process.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Chris Rainey was arrested Thursday morning in Gainesville for slapping his girlfriend in the face during an altercation over a cell phone, Gainesville Police told the Miami Herald.

Rainey, a fifth-round pick out of Florida who just completed his rookie season for the Steelers, was charged with one count of simple battery (dating violence), a first-degree misdemeanor.

Witnesses told police that Rainey and a female got into an argument because she took his cellphone and got into the vehicle of Rainey's roommate. According to the police report, Rainey went to the passenger side of the car where he pulled the woman out of the car and slapped her across the face. The woman was later identified as Rainey's girlfriend of nine months.

This isn't the first time Rainey has been in trouble. In September 2010, Rainey was arrested and charged with aggravated stalking. He reportedly went to a woman's house and the two spoke for 10 minutes and then the receiver was told to leave. According to a Gainesville, Fla., police officer, Rainey sent the woman a text reading "Time to die," which prompted her call to police. He had been dating the woman on and off for "about three years," according to the report.

Rainey's latest arrest raises character issues with the Steelers' 2012 draft class. Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, a rookie fourth-round pick, was involved in an embarrassing drunken driving arrest in October. According to police, Ta'amu was driving an SUV the wrong way at about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 14 when he fled from officers and crashed into four parked cars, injuring a woman. He then tried to run away before he was restrained by four officers and arrested, authorities said. The Steelers released Ta'amu in November but re-signed him by the end of the season.
The Steelers showed their level of discontent with backup nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu on Monday by waiving the rookie fourth-round pick a month after his embarrassing drunken driving arrest last month.

It could be seen as a tactical move because Pittsburgh signed wide receiver David Gilreath to add depth at that position with Antonio Brown (ankle) sidelined. The Steelers could re-sign Ta'amu or add him to the practice squad if he clears waivers. But the fact that the Steelers are allowing him to get taken by another team shows they're willing to part ways with the 109th overall pick.

Some might consider this a strong reaction to Ta'amu's first offense in the NFL. But this wasn't just a typical DUI. According to police, Ta'amu was driving an SUV the wrong way at about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 14 when he fled from officers and crashed into four parked cars, injuring a woman. He then tried to run away before he was restrained by four officers and arrested, authorities said.

This was a black mark for a public relations-conscious organization like the Steelers. In a football sense, it was an easy move to make. Ta'amu was drafted as the eventual replacement to Casey Hampton, but he never beat out Steve McLendon for the No. 2 job in training camp. He had been inactive for every game this season.
With right guard David DeCastro out indefinitely, there will be minimal impact felt from the Steelers' 2012 draft class this season. DeCastro, the team's first-round pick, was the only guaranteed starter from Pittsburgh's most recent draft.

Offensive tackle Mike Adams, the second-round pick, is in the running for the starting left tackle job. But it wasn't an encouraging sign when the Steelers started Max Starks at left tackle Saturday night.

The player from this draft class who has the best chance of changing games is running back Chris Rainey, a fifth-round pick. He's displayed electric speed this preseason, scoring on a 41-yard run and a 57-yard catch.

Inside linebacker Sean Spence (third round) will be a key contributor on special teams and could see time on the starting defense if there is an injury to Lawrence Timmons or Larry Foote. Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu (fourth round) has struggled at times and likely will be among the team's inactives every week. Pittsburgh's four seventh-round picks (wide receiver Toney Clemons, tight end David Paulson, cornerback Terrence Frederick and guard Kelvin Beachum) are long shots to make the team.

This isn't to say there won't be a rookie starting for the Steelers this year. Will Johnson, who was out of football last year, is expected to be the Steelers' starting fullback, and Drew Butler, an undrafted rookie, has punted well enough to earn a spot. But the Steelers have to determine whether they'll go with Butler or Jeremy Kapinos, who still hasn't punted this preseason because of issues with his back.

The Steelers had only one rookie starter from the 2011 draft class (right tackle Marcus Gilbert) and one in 2010 (center Maurkice Pouncey).
PITTSBURGH -- Veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton is still targeting to play in the regular-season opener, which would be eight months removed from tearing his ACL.

Hampton
"I’m planning on coming back for the season," Hampton said Wednesday. "That’s what I’m looking at. That’s realistic for me. I don’t know about anybody else.

The Steelers will have to make a decision on Hampton's status when they report to training camp in late July. They could put him on the physically unable to perform list, which would make him ineligible to play in the first six games of the regular season, or keep him on the active roster.

Hampton said he has yet to practice but he spent the time at Steelers mandatory minicamp running.

Has anyone mentioned the PUP list to Hampton?

"Nah, I can’t see that happening," he said. "I feel like I’m ready to go."

Hampton isn't the only one being optimistic. "The one edge Casey will have on anybody is that he's been through this [injury] twice," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in February. "He knows what to expect. He knows how to do this. He knows how much work he has to do and he knows how he feels."

If Hampton isn't ready, Pittsburgh has two options: go with backup Steve McLendon or rookie fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu. Asked about the massive 6-foot-2, 348-pound Ta'amu, Hampton said, "He’s got to be strong, not necessarily thick. He’s a big kid, though. He looks powerful. We’ll see when we put the pads on."
Let's take a quick look at what the division teams did in the fourth and fifth rounds:

BENGALS: Cincinnati should play a lot more two tight end formations with the addition of Georgia's Orson Charles (fourth round). He can get open in the passing game and help out the running game with aggressive blocking. ... Iowa CB Shaun Prater (fifth round) is a strong worker who lacks ideal height (5 feet 10). He projects to be a nickel back down the road. ...California's Marvin Jones (fifth round) is the second wide receiver taken by Cincinnati (Rutger's Mohamed Sanu was the other). He isn't technically sound but he was impressive at the Senior Bowl. ... Boise State FS George Iloka (fifth round) has a lot of range in pass coverage but he is an inconsistent tackler.

BROWNS: Cleveland addressed the need for speed at receiver with Miami's Travis Benjamin (fourth round). His other contribution could come as a returner. ... Nevada's James-Michael Johnson (fourth round) is listed as an inside linebacker but he could be the eventual replacement for outside linebacker Scott Fujita. ... Colorado's Ryan Miller (fifth round) is a mauling lineman who is extremely tall (6 feet 7) for a guard. He projects to be a right guard.

RAVENS: The Ravens found their potential center of the future in Delaware's Gino Gradkowski (fourth round). He could also compete for the job at left guard, where Jah Reid is currently penciled in as the starter. ... South Carolina State FS Christian Thompson (fourth round) adds depth at safety, where the Ravens lost Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura in free agency. ... Cal Poly CB Asa Jackson (fifth round) shows great burst as a punt returner but he is a raw cornerback prospect.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh's strong draft continued when the team selected nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu from Washington (fourth round). He could be pressed to start right away with Casey Hampton (ACL surgery in January) isn't ready at the start of the season. ... Florida RB Chris Rainey (fifth round) is an undersized explosive playmaker. He lasted this long because of character concerns.
There have been times in this draft where targeted players have fallen into the Pittsburgh Steelers' laps. This time, the Steelers went after one.

Trading up in the fourth round, the Steelers grabbed Washington nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu with the 109th overall pick. This addresses a major need because it's unsure whether five-time Pro Bowl performer Casey Hampton (ACL surgery in January) will be ready to start the season. Hampton, 34, is also entering the final year of his contract.

If Ta'amu isn't pressed into the starting lineup this year, the expectation would be for him to be the starter in 2013. The 6-foot-2, 336-pound lineman is all strength and power. He won't contribute on third downs, but he is the exact space-filler in the middle that the Steelers need to stop the run.

Getting Ta'amu continues a strong draft for the Steelers. Some had Ta'amu with a second-round grade.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Cincinnati Bengals

Key additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Reggie Nelson, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Adam Jones, DE Jamaal Anderson, DE Derrick Harvey

Key losses: DE Frostee Rucker (Browns), G Nate Livings (Cowboys), G Mike McGlynn (Colts), DE Jonathan Fanene (Patriots), WR Andre Caldwell (Broncos)

Grade after first wave of free agency: B. The Bengals were the most active team in the division and they should have been. Cincinnati entered free agency with over $50 million in salary-cap space, which was more than the rest of the AFC North combined. 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.

The prize of the Bengals' signings is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is an improvement over Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis isn't known for breaking long gains, but he is a force in the red zone and has never fumbled in the NFL. Wharton is a step up from Nate Livings at left guard because he is a strong run-blocker who will open holes inside. The biggest losses came on the defensive line, where Cincinnati will miss Frostee Rucker on run defense and Jonathan Fanene in the pass rush.

What’s next: The Bengals can still close the gap between the Ravens and Steelers because they have two first-round picks in the draft (No. 17 overall, which came from Oakland in the Carson Palmer trade, and No. 21). Even with the signing of Wharton, Cincinnati needs a right guard and could have a shot at the top interior offensive lineman coming out of college. Stanford's David DeCastro is one of the safest picks in the draft and would start immediately for the Bengals.

The second first-round pick could be used on a wide receiver or a cornerback. The Bengals surprisingly didn't add a free-agent wide receiver to pair with A.J. Green. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill or Baylor's Kendall Wright should be available in the bottom third of the draft. Another need is cornerback because Cincinnati could use an eventual replacement for Nate Clements, who is entering his 12th season. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, the second-best corner in the draft, has a chance of sliding to the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns

Key additions: DE Frostee Rucker, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson, DE Juqua Parker

Key losses: RB Peyton Hillis (Chiefs), S Mike Adams (Broncos), G Eric Steinbach, OT Tony Pashos

Grade after first wave of free agency: C. Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert said they were building this team through the draft and they weren't joking. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right guard. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. Blame the Washington Redskins. The Browns attempted to move up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III, and the Rams instead traded the second overall pick to the Redskins. Cleveland reportedly pursued wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and both took high-priced deals from Washington.

The Browns provided more help to the defense in free agency. Frostee Rucker will make an impact in stopping the run, which was the biggest weakness on the NFL's 10th-ranked defense. Juqua Parker, who has 31.5 sacks over the past six seasons, will team with Jabaal Sheard to give Cleveland a strong rush coming off both edges. The Browns didn't try to keep Peyton Hillis and Mike Adams from going elsewhere.

What’s next: Offense, offense and offense. Did I mention offense? The Browns need a quarterback but there's no one worthy of the fourth overall pick. Cleveland could trade down to select Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill or wait until the second round for Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. The big decision comes if the Browns stay put at No. 4. Cleveland's choices are Alabama running back Trent Richardson or Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The Browns could use either one because they don't have a starting running back or a No. 1 wide receiver.

Cleveland has a second first-round pick as a result of last year's trade with the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns need to target a wide receiver (if they don't take one earlier in the first round), right tackle or outside linebacker with the 22nd overall pick. Baylor receiver Wright, Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie and Nebraska outside linebacker Lavonte David have been linked to Cleveland.

Baltimore Ravens

Key additions: C Matt Birk, ILB Jameel McClain, OLB Brendon Ayanbadejo, CB Corey Graham, S Sean Considine

Key losses: G Ben Grubbs (Saints), OLB Jarret Johnson (Chargers), DE Cory Redding (Colts) and CB Domonique Foxworth

Grade after first wave of free agency: 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. It was a a rough start to free agency for Baltimore, which didn't sign any of its first three visits (guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Mark Anderson and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr.). The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

Baltimore was able to keep two free-agent starters, Matt Birk and Jameel McClain, and boost a struggling special-teams group that allowed three touchdowns last season. The Ravens signed Cory Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player from the Bears; Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special teams standout; and Sean Considine, who played special teams for three seasons under John Harbaugh in Philadelphia.

What’s next: The Ravens' biggest need is at left guard, but there might not be one that warrants being taken at No. 29. Wisconsin center-guard Peter Konz's stock has slipped recently even though he can guard right away before switching to center in future seasons. It's hard to pin down a player for Baltimore, which can go in a lot of different directions in the first round.

The Ravens could take the best wide receiver available (especially if he's a returner) because they need a third target who can eventually take Anquan Boldin's starting spot. They could take a safety because Ed Reed turns 34 at the start of the season and Bernard Pollard is a free agent next year. And they could take an offensive tackle because they don't have a reliable backup and Bryant McKinnie is a free agent in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key additions: None

Key losses: CB William Gay (Cardinals), LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE Aaron Smith, WR Hines Ward

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. It's been a quiet free-agency period so far for the Steelers. Then again, it's usually quiet for the Steelers at this point in the offseason. The only team that consistently does less than the Steelers in free agency is the Green Bay Packers.

The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've only lost 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. Injuries would force young players to step up into starting roles.

What’s next: There are question marks at running back, guard, inside linebacker, nose tackle and cornerback. Despite all of those needs, the consensus has been Pittsburgh will draft Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower if he's available at No. 24. He has a great combination of size and speed and excelled in a 3-4 defense in college. It seems like Hightower would be the perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

There's no chance that Memphis' Dontari Poe falls to the Steelers, but there some quality nose tackles in the draft. Those who should be available after the first round are: BYU's Loni Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) and Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round). The Steelers likely will become active later in free agency, especially in retaining their own players. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, running back Mewelde Moore and quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch could potentially return to the team.

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