NFL Nation: Eric Steinbach

'Hard Knocks' report: Episode Four

August, 29, 2012
8/29/12
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HBO's "Hard Knocks" with the Miami Dolphins aired its fourth episode Tuesday night. It was another interesting week in Miami, which included the trade of cornerback Vontae Davis.

Here were several highlights from the show:
  • The show began with former guard Eric Steinbach's decision to retire. Steinbach, who was once one of the best guards in the NFL, sat out all of last season with a back injury. Miami head coach Joe Philbin said he looks “real stiff.” Steinbach was honest with the coaches that he just wasn’t the same player and it was time to shut it down. Steinbach said he received his closure and he’s happy he tried one more time.
  • There has been a goat on "Hard Knocks" every week. This episode it was Daniel Thomas. The second-year running back had a meeting called in Philbin’s office. The head coach discussed Thomas’ tardiness and it was revealed Thomas was late for the team plane to Carolina and was 15 minutes late to lift weights. "From where I sit, I get concerned about this stuff," Philbin told Thomas. The running back was fined by the team. Philbin said he's getting "queasy" about Thomas.
  • It's interesting to note the Indianapolis Colts called the Dolphins about Davis, not the other way around. Miami general manager Jeff Ireland received a text from the Colts and debated in his office whether Davis was part of the team’s long-term plans. Ireland later discussed with the coaches that Indianapolis started with an offer of a fifth- and sixth-round draft pick. Then, the value moved up to a third-rounder and later a second-rounder. The Colts kept offering more and more and, in my opinion, came off as desperate for a corner. Ireland even told a Colts official on the phone that, “It has to be something that will blow me away. You called me.” Miami eventually got a second-round pick and a conditional sixth-round pick. It was good work by Ireland and Miami’s front office to get value.
  • The show ended with Ireland having to inform Davis that he was traded. Davis had a wide-eyed look on his face, prompting Ireland to ask, “Are you OK?” Davis immediately wanted call his grandmother, which was a little odd. But Ireland kept things on track and told Davis to finish the conversation first. Ireland told Davis he was too inconsistent and that’s why the Dolphins traded the corner.

Miami Dolphins 'Hard Knocks' report

August, 7, 2012
8/07/12
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HBO produced its first episode of "Hard Knocks," featuring the Miami Dolphins Tuesday evening. It was a good start to what should be an interesting season.

Here is a recap and observations on the show:
  • As expected, there was plenty of focus on the quarterbacks. Matt Moore got the airtime first with his newborn and wife. It was a good view of Moore's home life, in addition to the pressures of trying to win a three-way quarterback race with David Garrard and rookie Ryan Tannehill. HBO did a good job of introducing all three quarterbacks to the audience.
  • Tannehill's holdout was documented well behind the scenes. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said at one point in the show the holdout is "driving me nuts." Tannehill eventually signed his contract and showed up past the team's curfew after 11 p.m. ET. He took his conditioning test the same night and practiced the following morning.
  • Here is some shameless self promotion: I got a two-second cameo on the show during Dolphins' owner Stephen Ross’ press conference. I just had to get that in.
  • The Dolphins showed their workouts with both receiver Braylon Edwards and guard Eric Steinbach. Ireland questioned Edwards about his prior stops and if there's any concerns to worry about. Miami passed on Edwards, who later landed with the Seattle Seahawks, but signed Steinbach.
  • Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis says he was "gassed" in the first practices. I remember watching Davis getting beat the first few days and thinking he wasn't the same player at the end of last season. Davis appears to have come into camp out of shape, which is not a good sign. The Dolphins have already put Richard Marshall ahead of Davis on the first depth chart. Davis has some ground to make up.
  • Receiver Chad Johnson was featured prominently. The former "Ochocinco" jokingly said he took the year off so everyone else could catch up. But Johnson also admits that he was exposed, and he's hungry to bounce back. The funniest part of the show was when Johnson interrupted a coaches' only meeting and demanded to have a seat. He left soon after. But it's a ploy you know Johnson could not have pulled off at a Bill Belichick-ran meeting with the New England Patriots. Johnson probably would've been released on the spot. Philbin, however, did not like Johnson’s profanity during a press conference and had a one-on-one talk with the receiver to clean up his language.
  • The show ended with Philbin meeting with all the quarterbacks. Philbin explained that he must release a depth chart and explained that Garrard is the No. 1 quarterback, Moore No. 2 and Tannehill No. 3. Philbin concluded that this chart was not final and someone is going to have to earn it. Overall, it was a good first episode of "Hard Knocks" but not many huge surprises.
New Miami Dolphins guard Eric Steinbach has a glass-half-full outlook on sitting out the entire 2011 season with a back injury.

[+] EnlargeEric Steinbach
AP Photo/Alan DiazAfter missing all of last season, Eric Steinbach is eager to prove his back woes are behind him.
"When you go eight years hard, missing only three games and take a year off, I look at it as a positive," Steinbach said. "I’m hitting the refresh button. I’m going to come back hungry and ready to get back at it."

Steinbach was happy to be back on the practice field this weekend for the first time in a while. Following major back surgery, the former Pro Bowler and longtime Cleveland Browns star is trying to shake the rust and work his way into the starting lineup with the Dolphins.

Steinbach says he is 100 percent recovered from surgery and ready to help Miami in any way possible. Steinbach played his entire career at left guard, but says he just wants to be on the field, regardless of which position. Steinbach’s best chance to get on the field is probably at right guard, where he will compete with Artis Hicks and John Jerry.

Steinbach, 32, also had interest from the Baltimore Ravens. He worked out for Baltimore but the Ravens didn’t offer a contract, because they were scared off by Steinbach’s back issues.

Miami’s signing reunites Steinbach with Dolphins rookie head coach Joe Philbin. The pair have a lengthy past together. Philbin was Steinbach’s offensive line coach at the University of Iowa a decade ago and is a huge reason Steinbach is in Miami.

"It’s good to get back with someone you know and have a relationship with," Steinbach said of Philbin. "When you’re out, missing a year due to back surgery, it’s good to know you have a home."
The addition of former Bengals guard Bobbie Williams reveals how desperate the Baltimore Ravens are at that position.

This shows a lack of confidence in rookie second-round pick Kelechi Osemele and Jah Reid, who were expected to compete for that starting spot. While Williams adds much-needed experience, I'm not sure if Baltimore really improved itself. The Ravens are still going to go from a Pro Bowl guard (Ben Grubbs) to one who will turn 36 in September and is coming off ankle surgery (Williams).

The best-case scenario is that Williams holds up like another former Bengals lineman did in 2008, when Willie Anderson started at right tackle for a Ravens team that went to the AFC Championship Game. But you have to have doubts because the Bengals, who were in desperate need of a guard this offseason, didn't try to keep Williams. Cincinnati signed Jacob Bell, who has since retired, as a backup over bringing back Williams.

“Bobbie is a guy who has been in the league for a long time,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a statement. “We’ve played against him, and we like his style of play and his demeanor as a person and as a player. We’re excited to have him as a member of our team.”

In nine games for the Bengals last season, Williams took a step back as a powerful run blocker but he graded out positively as a pass protector. Williams, who played right guard for the Bengals, might not technically be replacing Grubbs, who played on the left side. If the Ravens go with Williams at right guard, they would move Marshal Yanda to the left.

The Ravens potentially have one of the oldest lines in the league now. They might have three starters in their 30s: Williams, left tackle Bryant McKinnie (32) and center Matt Birk (35).

Baltimore tried to fill the void at left guard in free agency. The Ravens fell a few million short of re-signing Grubbs and couldn't lure Evan Mathis away from the Philadelphia Eagles. Baltimore is also limited in what moves it could make because of limited salary-cap room.

I thought the Ravens would look at former Browns guard Eric Steinbach, who missed all of last season with a back injury. The signing of Williams rules out that move.

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.
The Browns are planning to release Eric Steinbach after the guard refused to take a pay cut, his agent Jack Bechta said in a statement.

This is a tough move for the Browns because they could use Steinbach on an offensive line that already needs a new right tackle. But Cleveland couldn't keep Steinbach at his $6 million salary for 2012 considering his injury status. This was an unwanted but necessary decision.

Steinbach, 31, was a four-year starter for the Browns but he missed all of last season after having a disk fragment removed from his spinal nerve in August. He is expected to be cleared to participate in football activities by April 15.

Steinbach
While Steinbach has left open the possibility of returning, he said he will explore free agency.

"It has been a good ride in Cleveland, and I hope it can continue," he said in a statement. "I'm proud to say that the offensive line has been a bright spot through the past few seasons. I will continue to work with the Browns through my agent in hopes of striking a deal that is practical and fair for both sides."

Steinbach then channeled his inner "Anchorman" when he added, "If my time here comes to an end, I want the people of this great city to remember one thing: 'You stay classy Cleveland!'"

The real issue is whether Steinbach will ever play like he did previously. Before the injury, he was one of the most durable linemen, missing three games in eight years. But a back injury can be tricky, especially for linemen.

If Steinbach is healthy again, the Browns could certainly use him at left guard and move Jason Pinkston, who played left guard last year as a rookie, to right guard. But you could also see Steinbach going back to Cincinnati, where he played from 2003 to 2006. Adding a guard is one of the Bengals' top free-agent priorities.

Here are some other Browns notes from today:
The Cleveland Browns took a significant loss on the offensive line Tuesday. Starting guard Eric Steinbach will be out for the season with a disc injury in his back. He will be placed on injured reserve.

Steinbach
Here are some thoughts on the loss:
  • More than anything, this hurt Cleveland's running game. Steinbach was the team's best pulling offensive lineman. He also was agile enough to get in open space for screens and sweeps. Running back Peyton Hillis also had a lot of success running off the left guard in between tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
  • Finding Steinbach's replacement won't be easy. The Browns claimed Oniel Cousins off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. Despite struggling mightily in Baltimore, he is a candidate to start in Cleveland. The Browns also have free-agent John Greco and rookie Jason Pinkston on the roster. Either way, Cleveland is taking a significant downgrade with Steinbach out.
  • The Browns hope they can hide the left guard between Thomas and Mack. Cleveland will be strong at left tackle and center but pretty weak in between. Expect a lot of teams to attack the Browns with blitzes and stunts on that side early to see if Cleveland can handle it.

Long gets slight edge over Thomas here

June, 14, 2011
6/14/11
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Jake Long or Joe Thomas?

It's like deciding between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They're both elite. You can't go wrong with either pick.

But when you belong to ESPN.com's prestigious Power Rankings syndicate, you have to make tough choices.

In this week's left tackle poll, Thomas edged Long by one point. Long was listed first or second on each of the eight division bloggers' ballots. Three of them, including me, placed Long on top. Thomas received one third-place vote, but amassed five first-place votes to come out ahead.

The ballot I submitted:
  1. Jake Long, Dolphins
  2. Joe Thomas, Browns
  3. Jordan Gross, Panthers
  4. Michael Roos, Titans
  5. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets
  6. Ryan Clady, Broncos
  7. Chad Clifton, Packers
  8. Donald Penn, Buccaneers
  9. Doug Free, Cowboys
  10. Andrew Whitworth, Bengals

Choosing between Long and Thomas is splitting hairs. They've been selected for the Pro Bowl every season in the NFL and are the reigning first-team All-Pros. Thomas was the third overall draft pick in 2007, Long the top choice in 2008.

But I gave Long the edge because of the circumstances he has dealt with in Miami.

Thomas has benefited from playing alongside reliable and steady left guard Eric Steinbach all four years. Steinbach has started 62 of a possible 64 games. For the past two seasons, first-round pick Alex Mack has shined, going to a Pro Bowl last year.

Long has had no such luxuries. He has played next to five left guards in his three seasons: Justin Smiley, Andy Alleman, Nate Garner, Richie Incognito and Pat McQuistan.

The Dolphins have been just as dicey at center. They should have their fourth different opening day starter in four years after drafting Florida center Mike Pouncey. They've used five centers the past three seasons.

Long also played at an All-Pro level last season despite a shoulder injury that had some wondering if he should shut it down.

New England Patriots fans might be wondering why I didn't include Matt Light on my ballot. While he did go to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year, Stats Inc. blamed him for 10 sacks for 78 yards in losses and four penalties -- all more than his previous two seasons combined.

AFC North Pro Bowl candidates

December, 27, 2010
12/27/10
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The votes are in, and the NFL will announce its Pro Bowl team for the 2010 season on Tuesday. The game will be played in Hawaii on Jan. 30, one week before Super Bowl XLV.

Here are some candidates from the AFC North who will receive consideration:

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4)
Baltimore Ravens (11-4)
  • Terrell Suggs, OLB, 65 tackles, 11 sacks, two forced fumbles
  • Haloti Ngata, DL, 62 tackles, 5.5 sacks
  • Ray Lewis, LB, 128 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions
  • Billy Cundiff, K, 24-for-27 on field goals, 38 touchbacks
  • Sam Koch, P, 72 punts, 43.2 average, 37 punts inside the 20
  • Joe Flacco, QB, 3,497 yards, 25 touchdowns, nine interceptions
  • Le'Ron McClain, FB, 14 games, 85 rushing yards, 18 receptions
Cleveland Browns (5-10)
Cincinnati Bengals (4-11)

ESPN.com's Blog Network will have full coverage of the Pro Bowl selections on Tuesday. But in the meantime, have at it. Who deserves to make the Pro Bowl from the AFC North?

Seven-step drop: Ed Reed's on fire

December, 27, 2010
12/27/10
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 16 in the AFC North:
    [+] EnlargeEd Reed
    AP Photo/Mark DuncanRavens cornerback Ed Reed intercepts a pass intended for Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in the second quarter Sunday.

  • Both literally and figuratively, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed was on fire in their 20-10 victory against the Cleveland Browns. On the sidelines, Reed's jacket caught fire, which you can see here. But on the field, the future Hall of Famer took advantage of Cleveland rookie quarterback Colt McCoy's inexperience. Reed recorded two interceptions against McCoy, who threw three picks total. McCoy said Reed was reading his eyes the entire game to stay one step ahead. "Ed Reed is one of the greatest football players, and he has been over the last 10 years, and we knew that going in," McCoy said. "I told you guys I have to be aware of him. I have to know where he is at all times."
  • When Reed gets hot, his interceptions can come in bunches. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, Sunday marked Reed's 10th career multi-interception game. Reed is the NFL's active leader in that category, two games ahead of Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel.
  • Although the Browns played sloppily and committed four turnovers, there was nothing wrong with their effort this week. The Browns continued their season-long trend of getting up for good teams and admitted they were inspired by the trash-talking during the week by Baltimore's Ray Lewis. The Ravens' linebacker said Cleveland tailback Peyton Hillis' 144-yard performance in the first game wouldn't happen again. That prompted Cleveland fullback Lawrence Vickers to get into a pregame shouting match with Lewis, and Browns guard Eric Steinbach to mimic Lewis' dance during introductions. "I think everybody who reads [the comments] realizes that it was disrespectful," Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said after the game. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out if it was a lack of respect." In the end, Lewis got the last laugh. Hillis rushed for just 35 yards and was banged up after suffering a rib injury.
  • Browns president Mike Holmgren's name is starting to come up as more coaching jobs are vacated around the NFL. But in our opinion, the only opening that could possibly test his commitment to Cleveland would be the San Francisco 49ers. As ESPN.com's NFC West blogger Mike Sando wisely pointed out, Holmgren has very strong ties to the Bay Area and learned his craft under Bill Walsh in San Francisco. That might make Holmgren at least give it a thought. But Holmgren's absolute control in Cleveland will be hard to match, and there is no guarantee he could get that in San Francisco or any other job opening. Plus, Holmgren seems genuinely dedicated to turning the Browns around. And if he wants to return to the sidelines in 2011 -- which is certainly a possibility -- Holmgren can do it in Cleveland with a roster he's helped build for the past year.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are proving to be good finds. Both are playing well late in the season. Sanders, a third-round pick, has taken over as Pittsburgh's third receiver and has 11 receptions for 132 yards in his past two games. Brown, a sixth-round pick, also has four catches the past two weeks and is making plays on special teams. In addition to receiver Mike Wallace, who was a third-round pick in 2009, Pittsburgh is having tremendous success finding wide receivers in the middle rounds.
  • Speaking of receivers, could Jerome Simpson's sudden development signal the end for Chad Ochocinco with the Cincinnati Bengals? Simpson exploded in Sunday's win against the San Diego Chargers with six receptions for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Considering it will cost $6 million to keep Ochocinco in 2011, don't dismiss the possibility of the Bengals taking a $3.5 million buyout. Cincinnati is expected to rebuild and go with younger players next season. The team reportedly has no plans to bring back veteran Terrell Owens, and Ochocinco will turn 33 in a couple weeks and is coming off his second bad season in three years. The Bengals went through a 10-game losing streak with Owens and Ochocinco as starters, yet are winning down the stretch with Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley. That could be a sign the Bengals' offense can move on without the six-time Pro Bowler.
  • Finally, we want to give a special "Seven-step drop" birthday shout-out to Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who turns 31 today, and Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain, who is 26. Both players should be happy on their birthdays after picking up victories Sunday. Palmer played one of his best games of the season (269 yards and four touchdowns) against the Chargers. McClain rushed for 19 yards and caught one pass in the win against Cleveland.

Ravens-Browns halftime notes

December, 26, 2010
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CLEVELAND -- The Baltimore Ravens lead the Browns, 13-10, at intermission. Here are some notes at halftime:
  • There was some early trash-talking between these teams. Baltimore had talked all week about how it wasn't familiar with Browns tailback Peyton Hillis when he rushed for 144 yards in the first meeting and that it won't happen again. Browns fullback Lawrence Vickers obviously took exception and shared some words with several Ravens defenders in warm-ups. Browns guard Eric Steinbach also did the Ray Lewis dance during Cleveland's pregame introduction.
  • Speaking of Hillis, he hasn't been able to get on track for the Browns. He rushed for 18 yards on seven carries and might be banged up. He's been out of the game for long stretches and was dealing with a knee injury during the week. Cleveland backup tailback Mike Bell also rushed for 10 yards in the first half.
  • Conversely, there are more big holes in the run defense of the Browns this week. The Ravens are running heavily and are having success pounding Cleveland’s defense, which allowed 380 total rushing yards the previous two games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills. Baltimore gained 78 yards rushing in the first half and averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
  • The Browns came out early with a trick play that worked. On its second drive, Cleveland pitched the ball to receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who then threw it 20 yards to receiver Brian Robiskie for a 20-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. It was the first time a non-quarterback threw a touchdown pass for Cleveland since 2002. Massaquoi later made a bad play in the second quarter by getting stripped by Ravens cornerback Chris Carr, a fumble which led to a Baltimore touchdown.
  • Ravens safety Ed Reed got his fifth interception of the season but also had an injury scare. Reed was shaken up after a 20-yard return and in pain on the sideline. The nature of the injury was unclear, but doctors re-taped Reed's left shoe and he went back in the game.

AFC North rookie surprises

June, 22, 2010
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Jordan ShipleyFrank Victores/US PresswireJordan Shipley stood out at Cincinnati's recent minicamp and could be a contender to be the Bengals' No. 3 receiver.
Every year there are rookies around the league who, seemingly out of nowhere, quickly develop and contribute to their respective teams. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and 2009 third-round pick Mike Wallace was a perfect example last season.

So who could be this year's version of Wallace in the AFC North?

Here are seven rookies drafted in the third round or lower who could surprise in 2010:

1. Jordan Shipley, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Draft status: Third round (No. 84 overall)

Analysis: Shipley was one of the stars of Cincinnati's mandatory minicamp last week. The receiver caught everything from the slot position and already looks like a good fit for the Bengals' offense. Shipley has a knack for manipulating the middle of the field and finding openings in coverage. Cincinnati has lacked this type of receiver since the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Look for Shipley to have a good competition with third-year veteran Andre Caldwell for the No. 3 receiver spot behind Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant.

2. Ed Dickson, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Draft status: Third round (No. 70 overall)

[+] EnlargeDennis Pitta
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDennis Pitta will battle with fellow rookie tight end Ed Dickson for playing time in the Ravens' offense.
Analysis: Dickson was one of the top receiving tight ends in this year's draft, and he should be able to stretch the field for Baltimore's offense. At this point, Dickson is a luxury as a backup to starter Todd Heap. That should allow the Ravens to bring Dickson along and only put him in positions to be successful. He will have an interesting competition with rookie teammate Dennis Pitta, who is also on this list.

3. Carlton Mitchell, WR, Cleveland Browns

Draft status: Sixth round (No. 177 overall)

Analysis: Someone has to catch passes in Cleveland. Why not Mitchell? The Browns have arguably the worst receiving depth in the league. So this is a good opportunity for Mitchell to step up and impress Cleveland's coaching staff in training camp. He’s a bit unpolished but has good size and a good burst. If Mitchell can show some potential, that could be enough to earn playing time in Cleveland's offense, which is lacking playmakers.

4. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers

Draft status: Third round (No. 82 overall)

Analysis: The Steelers found Wallace in the third round last year. Could they find another solid contributor in the third round this season with Sanders? Pittsburgh's receiving depth took a hit with the offseason trade of Santonio Holmes and the season-ending Achilles injury to Limas Sweed. Each instance has moved Sanders up the depth chart. Wallace and Hines Ward are the starters, and veteran Antwaan Randle El probably is set as the No. 3 receiver. But Pittsburgh will give Sanders an opportunity in training camp to earn a role with the team.

5. Dennis Pitta, TE, Ravens

Draft status: Fourth round (No. 114 overall)

Analysis: In a bit of a surprise move, the Ravens took tight ends in back-to-back rounds. The organization felt the value for Pitta in the fourth round was too good to pass up. He had outstanding production at Brigham Young, and what Pitta lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with savvy and great hands. Pitta will compete with Dickson to back up Heap. The Ravens only need one of these rookies to pan out this season and put up numbers in what should be a very good offense.

6. Shawn Lauvao, G, Browns

Draft status: Third round (No. 92 overall)

[+] EnlargeJonothan Dwyer
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIJonathan Dwyer could make an impact for the Steelers in the red zone.
Analysis: The middle and left side of Cleveland's offensive line are set with tackle Joe Thomas, guard Eric Steinbach and center Alex Mack. But the two right positions are still undecided, which provides an opportunity for third-rounder Lauvao to produce in his rookie year. For what it's worth, Lauvao has looked good in non-contact practices and is getting quality reps in Cleveland's offense. But it's difficult to mark the progress of offensive linemen until there's full contact in training camp. Browns coach Eric Mangini likes to use various linemen in games, so Lauvao could see playing time regardless.

7. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Draft status: Sixth round (No. 188 overall)

Analysis: Dwyer was very productive in college, rushing for 1,395 yards and averaging 5.9 yards per carry at Georgia Tech last season. But right now, Pittsburgh is more interested in Dwyer's nose for the end zone; he rushed for 26 touchdowns the past two seasons. The Steelers lacked a short-yardage running back who could move the chains last year. The team also struggled in the red zone, and if Dwyer proves he can move the pile, he could have an immediate role with Pittsburgh.

Not all of these players will surprise in their rookie year, but there's a decent chance some from this group will be productive.

Which mid- to late-round draft pick do you think will surprise in 2010?
Besides the obvious headlines Thursday that came with the Cincinnati Bengals adding controversial cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, it also should be noted that the team agreed with Jones to a two-year deal.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Joseph
Frank Victores/US PresswireStandout cornerback Johnathan Joseph (left) is in the final year of his rookie contract.
Why would Cincinnati want to sign Jones, a player who was out of football last season, to a multiyear deal?

Reading between the lines, the answer could have something to do with starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

With the Bengals it is always wise to follow the money trail, and Joseph is a very good cornerback entering the final year of his rookie contract. If he has another great season, Joseph will be one of the most sought after free agents in 2011 at one of the league's glamour positions. That combination usually equals a very large contract -- one the Bengals may be unwilling to pay.

Cincinnati is no stranger to letting good players go to free agency. Recent examples include Eric Steinbach, Justin Smith and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who all signed big-money deals with other teams.

Joseph could be the next high-profile name added to that list if Jones, who makes the league minimum, flashes enough potential and stays out of trouble this season.

Keep an eye on this potential development in Cincinnati.

AFC North all-decade team

January, 28, 2010
1/28/10
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Jamal Lewis/Jerome BettisMatthew Emmons/US PresswireRunning backs Jamal Lewis and Jerome Bettis combined to rush for 15,806 yards during the 2000s.
The AFC North earned three Super Bowl titles this past decade, which means there were plenty of great players in the division over that span.

Here is our AFC North all-decade team.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Analysis: You can really start and stop this argument with Roethlisberger's two Super Bowls wins in the decade. In terms of starting quarterbacks, Roethlisberger trails only the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, who won three titles in the decade. Outside of Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals, no one was even remotely close for consideration, unless you wanted to reach for quarterbacks who had one or two good seasons in the decade, such as Kordell Stewart, Joe Flacco or Derek Anderson.

Other considerations: Palmer (Bengals)

Running backs: Jamal Lewis (Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens) and Jerome Bettis (Steelers)

Analysis: Typical of the AFC North, our all-decade backfield is as physical and heavy duty as it gets. Lewis, who retired after the 2009 season, registered 10,607 total rushing yards as a member of the Browns and Ravens. He had a 2,000-yard season with Baltimore in 2003. Bettis played six seasons (2000-05) in the decade with the Steelers and rushed for 5,199 yards in that span. Both players won Super Bowls and will be considered for the Hall of Fame. Although we don't have a traditional fullback, Bettis is versatile and big enough for the position.

Other considerations: Willie Parker (Steelers), Rudi Johnson (Bengals)

[+] EnlargeOchocinco
Frank Victores/US PresswireChad Ochocinco is just 48 yards short of reaching 10,000 career receiving yards.
Receivers: Chad Ochocinco (Bengals) and Hines Ward (Steelers)

Analysis: We have a good mix at receiver. Ochocinco came to Cincinnati as a raw second-round pick who worked his way to become a six-time Pro Bowler and one of the biggest personalities in the NFL. Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler in the decade, was a former college quarterback who now is one of the toughest and smartest players in the league.

Other considerations: T.J. Houshmandzadeh (Bengals), Derrick Mason (Ravens)

Tight End: Todd Heap (Ravens)

Analysis: When you look at the total numbers over the past decade, Heap was the clear choice as the top tight end in the division. Heap caught 427 passes over that span and made two Pro Bowls. Pittsburgh's Heath Miller, who has 244 receptions, is two years younger and may eventually match Heap's production. But Heap has the better numbers to date. Former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. also put up impressive numbers in just three full seasons with Cleveland.

Other considerations: Miller (Steelers), Winslow Jr. (Browns)

Offensive line: OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), OT Willie Anderson (Bengals/Ravens), G Eric Steinbach (Browns/Bengals), G Alan Faneca (Steelers), C Jeff Hartings (Steelers)

Analysis: Besides leaving off three-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, putting the offensive line together was easier than I thought. Anderson of the Bengals got the edge over Thomas for two reasons: He's a natural right tackle and played nine years last decade at a high level. Thomas, with just three years, doesn't have the same longevity.

Other considerations: OT Thomas (Browns), OT Levi Jones (Bengals), C Rich Braham (Bengals)

Specialists: K Matt Stover (Ravens), P Chris Gardocki (Steelers/Browns), KR Josh Cribbs (Browns), LS Ryan Pontbriand (Browns)

Analysis: Stover made the Pro Bowl in 2000, and his 93.3 field goal percentage in 2006 led the NFL. He's been consistent for a very long time, which is all you ask from kickers. Gardocki and Dave Zastudil is a toss up. But Gardocki led the NFL in punts two years in a row (2000 and 2001) as well as punting yards in 2000. Zastudil cannot boast those claims. Cribbs was a no-brainer, and teammate Pontbriand made two Pro Bowls as Cleveland's long-snapper.

Other considerations: K Phil Dawson (Browns), K Jeff Reed (Steelers), P Zastudil (Ravens/Browns), B.J. Sams (Ravens)

Defense line: Casey Hampton (Steelers), Aaron Smith (Steelers), Justin Smith (Bengals)

Analysis: It's only fair that the AFC North all-decade defense runs a 3-4 scheme. Since 2001, Hampton has embodied what a 3-4 nose tackle looks like and plays like. He has five Pro Bowls in the decade, including this past season. Aaron Smith also is a prototype for 3-4 defensive ends. He's always put personal numbers aside so other defenders in Pittsburgh could flourish. Justin Smith of Cincinnati never quite lived up to his lofty draft status. But he was a consistent player for the Bengals.

Other considerations: DT Kelly Gregg (Ravens), DE Kimo von Oelhoffen (Steelers), DE Trevor Pryce (Ravens)

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireRay Lewis was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003.
Linebackers: ILB Ray Lewis (Ravens), ILB James Farrior (Steelers), OLB Joey Porter (Steelers), OLB Terrell Suggs (Ravens)

Analysis: You can win a lot of games with this group. You have intelligence and physicality in the middle, and plenty of pass-rush ability on the outside. Lewis, a future Hall of Famer, is the captain and emotional leader of the all-decade defense. Farrior also has the smarts to keep everyone in line, while Suggs and Porter can fly around and wreak havoc on the quarterback. There were several very good candidates at outside linebacker. But Porter and Suggs were dominant forces in the AFC North for a longer period.

Other considerations: OLB James Harrison (Steelers), OLB Adalius Thomas (Ravens)

Defensive backs: CB Chris McAlister (Ravens), CB Ike Taylor (Steelers), S Troy Polamalu (Steelers), S Ed Reed (Ravens)

Analysis: Polamalu and Reed are two of the all-time great safeties, so there is no debate there. Also, fans may recently remember the aging and injured McAlister who was cut by the Ravens last year. But at one point "C-Mac" was the most physically dominant cornerback in the division. Taylor won two Super Bowls with the Steelers and is the best of what's left at cornerback. I also considered Anthony Henry, who played in Cleveland for four years during the decade and had one stellar season when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2001.

Other considerations: CB Henry (Browns), S Rod Woodson (Ravens)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Those who followed Steve Hutchinson's messy departure from the Seahawks following the 2005 season might be interested in this cautionary tale about $7 million guards.

Five NFL guards were making that much money on average heading into this offseason. Their teams have won zero playoff games since agreeing to those contracts. The players are not to blame, obviously. Hutchinson has upgraded the Vikings' offensive line. But the next time you get excited about adding a guard in free agency, think of the Bills' decision to release Derrick Dockery two years into the seven-year, $49 million deal he signed.

Guards are important. They might not be that important, however. A quick look at the four remaining guards earning at least $7 million per year:

  • Alan Faneca, Jets: Good player, average team. His former team (Steelers) won the Super Bowl in its first season without him.
  • Leonard Davis, Cowboys: Good player, underachieving team. His former team (Cardinals) advanced to the Super Bowl with Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui at guard.
  • Eric Steinbach, Browns: His former team (Bengals) is still struggling.
  • Hutchinson, Vikings: His former team has struggled without him.
A couple other guards are earning just short of that $7 million figure annually. The Giants' Chris Snee and the Chargers' Kris Dielman have rewarded their teams for re-signing them. The Rams invested more than $6 million per year in Jacob Bell last offseason, but Richie Incognito was their best guard.

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