NFL Nation: Jamal Lewis

Offensive tackle Michael Oher signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Tennessee Titans last week, becoming one of a handful of Baltimore Ravens' first-round picks not to remain with the team beyond their rookie deal.

Oher, the 23rd overall pick of the 2009 draft, will be known as a durable yet not dominant offensive tackle during his five seasons with the Ravens.

Let's take a look at where Oher ranks among the Ravens' first-round picks:

1. Ray Lewis, linebacker (1996): He will be remembered as one of the greatest players in NFL history. Few can match Lewis' resume: Two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, two Super Bowl rings, 13 Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl MVP award.

[+] EnlargeOher
AP Photos/David DrapkinMichael Oher has been a durable, if not outstanding, tackle for the Ravens.
2. Jonathan Ogden, offensive tackle (1996): How revered is Ogden? He became the first pure offensive tackle to be voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility since Jackie Slater in 2001. Ogden went to the Pro Bowl in each of his final 11 seasons in the NFL.

3. Ed Reed, safety (2002): He was the 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the first safety in 20 years to win the award. Reed led the league in interceptions for three seasons, and he holds the NFL record for most career interception return yards (1,541) and longest interception return (108 yards).

4. Jamal Lewis, running back (2000): In 2003, Lewis was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year for rushing for 2,066 yards, falling just 39 yards short of the NFL's all-time single season rushing record. He carried the Ravens' offense in the 2000 Super Bowl run and still ranks as the franchise's all-time leading rusher.

5. Terrell Suggs, linebacker (2003): He became the third Ravens player to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year, earning the award in 2011 by leading the AFC with 14 sacks and topping the NFL with seven forced fumbles. Suggs has recorded 94.5 career sacks, which is 24.5 more than any other Ravens player.

6. Haloti Ngata, defensive tackle (2006): A five-time Pro Bowl player, Ngata was considered the NFL's best interior defensive lineman a few years ago.

7. Chris McAlister, cornerback (1999): The Ravens' first shutdown cornerback, McAlister forced quarterbacks to throw away from him for years before a knee injury and off-the-field issues caught up to him.

8. Joe Flacco, quarterback (2008): He led the Ravens to a Super Bowl with a Joe Montana-like run and has produced more wins than any other quarterback since 2008. But Flacco's pedestrian regular-season numbers have stopped him from becoming an elite NFL quarterback.

9. Todd Heap, tight end (2001): Overshadowed by Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates in the AFC, Heap remains the Ravens' all-time leader with 41 touchdown catches.

10. Peter Boulware, linebacker (1997): The 1997 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Boulware finished with 70 sacks (second all-time for the Ravens), including a team-record 15 sacks in 2001.

11. Duane Starks, cornerback (1998): He struggled mightily at times, but he had three interceptions in the Ravens' 2000 championship run including a 49-yard return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

12. Ben Grubbs, guard (2007): He started 70 of 74 games for the Ravens and made the Pro Bowl in 2012, his last season with the team.

13. Michael Oher, offensive tackle (2009): He never missed a start in his five-year career, but he fell short of expectations because of false starts and inconsistent pass protection.

15. Mark Clayton, wide receiver (2005): He never led the team in receiving, and he had nine 100-yard receiving games. His best season was 2006, when he caught 67 passes for 939 yards and five touchdowns.

16. Kyle Boller, quarterback (2003): A flop as a franchise quarterback, Boller had one 300-yard passing game for the Ravens and seven starts where he threw under 100 yards. His five seasons with the Ravens produced a losing record as a starter (20-22) and just one more touchdown (45) than interceptions (44).

17. Travis Taylor, wide receiver (2000): Yes, Taylor is a bigger bust than Boller. The 10th overall pick of the 2000 draft, Taylor eclipsed 60 catches once and produced a grand total of two 100-yard games. If that doesn't convince you, Taylor didn't score a touchdown in his final 22 games with the Ravens.

Note: Safety Matt Elam was left off the rankings because he's only played one season.
PetersonBruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireVikings RB Adrian Peterson isn't playing like a guy who had major knee surgery in December 2011.
Six years ago, I spent some time with Adrian Peterson while working on a profile for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Our conversation turned to his career goals, and a relatively lighthearted conversation grew serious.

If he were an actor, I would guess Peterson was pausing for effect. In this case, however, I think he was just taking a moment to put his ambitions into words. Eventually, Peterson turned, looked me straight in the eye and said he wanted "to be the best player to ever play this game."

That mentality is, I think, an appropriate context with which to view his unprecedented return from major knee surgery. Peterson wasn't driven simply to resume his career as soon as possible after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee on Dec. 24, 2011. He wanted to do it more quickly, and with better immediate returns, than anyone in the history of the game.

There are no objective ways to judge that mission, given medical advances and variances in the timing of injuries. But with the help of several resources, including ESPN Stats & Information, I looked at a cross-section of running backs who have suffered at least a torn ACL over the past decade or so. The chart shows our results, and while you'll notice some nice production in the first post-injury season for several backs, each had a substantially longer recovery time than Peterson.


Less than 10 months after his injury, Peterson leads the NFL in both yardage (775) and yards per game (96.9) while ranking second in offensive touches (174). He has run with power, leading the league with 479 yards after first contact while forcing a league-high 28 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. And he has been explosive, ripping off a league-high eight runs of at least 20 yards and breaking away for a 64-yard touchdown scamper last Thursday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"He's doing everything you would hope he could do," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. Indeed, I would suggest Peterson has re-written the protocol for returning from an injury that has been career-ending even in some recent cases.

For years, the adage for NFL running backs was that any production in the first year after an ACL injury was gravy. FootballDocs has a thorough examination (from a fantasy perspective.) The mid-1990s case of former Vikings tailback Terry Allen marked the first really effective and immediate return from an ACL injury, but it's worth noting Allen's occurred during a July 1993 practice, giving him a full calendar year to recover before putting together a 1,031-yard season in 1994.

Until recently, however, Allen's case had proved the exception. It was only 11 years ago, in fact, that Atlanta Falcons tailback Jamaal Anderson retired because of lingering impact from a 1999 injury. Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, meanwhile, played two relatively unproductive seasons after tearing his ACL and MCL in 1999.

Medical advances have helped running backs resume their careers more regularly since then, and it's worth noting that Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis rushed for a combined 3,393 yards in his first two seasons back from an ACL injury. But like Allen, Lewis had a full 12 months to recover before resuming practice because the injury occurred during training camp in 2001.

Peterson, of course, had no such luxury after his injury occurred in Week 16 of the 2011 season. Yet he returned to the lineup, and played on more than half of the Vikings' offensive snaps, 260 days later. On the season, Peterson has played 70 percent of the Vikings' snaps and has appeared stronger with every week -- culminating in consecutive 100-yard games in Weeks 7 and 8.

"I said before I was at 100 percent, which I am," Peterson said recently. "But it's just so much more that I know is going to come. So each week, I feel myself getting better and just try to stay on path."

As a result, Peterson has outgained two other elite running backs who suffered ACL injuries last season. Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs, whose injury occurred three months before Peterson's, has 595 yards in seven games. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall has returned to the field earlier this month after a January 2012 injury, but he is currently sidelined by an Achilles injury.

Documenting Peterson's production and putting it in perspective is easy. Explaining how it happened is much more difficult. As we've discussed, Peterson is as ambitious and competitive as they come. The Vikings have smartly limited the times he is asked to run laterally, directing 94.6 percent of his carries between the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Medical advances are making ACL rehabilitations more routine, and you can't discount the plan crafted by Vikings athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, who accommodated Peterson's wishes to do part of his rehab in Houston during the offseason.

A more detailed discussion is for another post, probably at the end of the season. For now, however, we can say that Adrian Peterson is on his way to being the best player to ever return to the game after suffering a catastrophic knee injury.
Jamal Lewis will be honored at halftime Thursday night when the running back's two former teams play each other.

Lewis
But Lewis will always be remembered as a Raven, and is rightfully becoming the sixth Ravens player to enter the team's Ring of Honor.

His biggest personal achievements were the 2,066 yards rushing in 2003 (second all-time in the NFL) and the then-record 295 yards in September 2003 (which happened to come against the Browns).

Still, Lewis' impact can be best measured by his first two seasons in the NFL. The Ravens won a Super Bowl because of Lewis. They failed to repeat because they didn't have him.

There's no question the Ravens captured their first NFL title in 2000 on the strength of their record-setting defense. The offense, however, was driven by Lewis. During the Ravens' 11-game winning streak, Lewis accounted for 42 percent of the offense and gained 102 yards in the Super Bowl victory against the Giants.

The next season, Lewis went down with a season-ending knee injury in training camp and the Ravens were never the same. Baltimore advanced to the divisional playoffs that season, but it couldn't produce the same consistent ground game with Terry Allen.

Lewis left the Ravens as the team's all-time leading rusher in 2007, when he signed with the Browns as a free agent. But Lewis considers himself a Raven.

"All my memories are pretty much here,” Lewis said. "This is kind of where I grew up. … This was like home for me."
Maurice Jones-Drew has a 3-yard lead on LeSean McCoy for the NFL rushing title.

It’ll be a nice accomplishment if the Jaguars' running back wins it, but it’ll also be used as evidence of how being a top running team doesn’t equate to being a top team -- or even a winning team.

If he wins it, it’ll be particularly impressive since the Jaguars have the league’s worst passing offense. Since defenses do not fear Blaine Gabbert or his downfield weapons, defenders are typically willing to key on MJD.

And still, he’s churning out 4.5 yards a carry and has taken a league-high 250 rushing attempts.

I asked ESPN Stats & Information for other instances in which the league’s top running back was on the NFL’s worst passing team.

They got this from Elias:


With Simpson and Lewis, you have to assume for a guy to run for that many yards the passing game was de-emphasized. The Titans were 23rd in pass offense in 2009 when Chris Johnson ran for 2,006 yards.

That’s obviously not what’s going on in Jacksonville, where rookie Blaine Gabbert is struggling and has no threatening downfield weapons. Jones-Drew is very much a one-man gang. The Jaguars are playing from behind a ton. And he’s still got a shot at being the league’s most productive running back.

That’s impressive work.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Whether or not Chris Johnson advertised that he’s hoping for a 2,500-yard rushing season, he’s in an awkward spot this year.

The two most recent backs to surpass 2,000 yards -- Jamal Lewis in 2003 and Terrell Davis in 1998 – did not face the extraordinary popularity of fantasy football that Johnson does.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Don McPeak/US PresswireAfter eclipsing 2,000 yards last season, Chris Johnson faces the highest expectations.
That factors into external pressures and public expectations for CJ, the No. 1 pick in millions of leagues.

If he runs for 1,600 yards and scores 16 touchdowns -- a fantastic season -- many will judge him a failure on the heels of 2,006 yards and 16 TDs.

That’s ridiculous in football terms, of course, especially if the Titans are winning.

Fans of the NFL who play fantasy need to work, in situations like this, to disconnect the two.

Johnson took some questions on this sort of thing Wednesday after practice. Here are the two best things he said.

“I don’t want to sit there and say it’s a good year knowing my goal is 2,500. But if you look around at the average rushing yards a guy has in this league, I think Steven Jackson last year had 1,500 or 1,600 yards rushing and he had a pretty good year …”

“I feel like if I end up rushing for 1,500 yards and this team goes further in the playoffs and the Super Bowl than it would be OK.”

Meanwhile, Johnson learned of a new number that seemed like it might stick in his head.

The franchise record for rushing yards on opening day is 216 -- Eddie George’s total in an overtime win over the Raiders. It was the club’s first regular-season game in Tennessee and was played at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 1997.

“That’s a goal I can set to try to beat or whatever like that,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to go out there and say, ‘I’m going to run for this many yards versus Oakland’ or anything like that. My main focus is to go out there and get the win.”

Oakland’s defense will present challenges in both size and speed, Johnson said.

Raiders coach Tom Cable, who was on the staff that coached Johnson at the Senior Bowl, was the first of 16 to offer the obligatory compliments leading into a matchup against the Titans and CJ.

“Well, coaching-wise there are a lot of us here that are familiar with Chris because we had him in the Senior Bowl,” Cable said. “So, we do know how fast he is, but we’re not the ones out there trying to tackle him. You can only explain that to your team, and try to play great team defense ...

"He had a toughness about him and certainly played the game at a different speed -- you knew that for sure.”

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 8, 2010
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Chris Johnson is up, Brett Favre is down and Donovan McNabb is out since the final MVP Watch from last season.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePeyton Manning has thrown for 4,000 yards in 10 of his 12 NFL seasons.
The initial list for 2010 overlooks defense entirely, with good reason. Lawrence Taylor was the last defensive player to win the award and that was 24 years ago. Some of the leading defensive candidates from last season -- Elvis Dumervil and Darren Sharper come to mind -- are dealing with injuries.

Peyton Manning could win the award every season. There isn't a surer bet in the league. He's reached 4,000 yards passing nine times in the past 10 seasons and his teams have averaged 12.7 victories over the past seven. What more could anyone want from an MVP candidate?

Answer: another 2,000-yard rushing season from Johnson, this time with a winning record for the Tennessee Titans.

Johnson was the sixth player in NFL history to reach the milestone, but the first to do so for a team with a non-winning record. O.J. Simpson (1973), Barry Sanders (1997) Terrell Davis (1998) won MVP awards (Sanders shared his with Favre). Eric Dickerson (1984) lost out to Dan Marino. Jamal Lewis (2003) watched Manning and Steve McNair share the award. Manning beat out Johnson last season.

A look at some of the favorites heading into the 2010 season ...

Best Ravens Team Ever: 2000

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Notable players: LB Ray Lewis, OT Jonathan Ogden, S Rod Woodson, TE Shannon Sharpe, RB Jamal Lewis, LB Peter Boulware, CB Chris McAlister, DT Sam Adams

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
AP Photo/Nick WassRay Lewis and the Ravens' defense helped the young franchise win its first, and so far only, Super Bowl.
Analysis: The 2000 Ravens are the clear choice for a franchise that's only been in existence for 14 years. It was the only team to win a Super Bowl and also had arguably the most dominant defense of all time.

Baltimore was far from a perfect Super Bowl team in 2000. Most notably, the team had issues at quarterback. The Ravens started with Tony Banks under center but finished with Trent Dilfer, who played efficiently enough for Baltimore to make an incredible run to end the season.

At one point, the Ravens were a middle-of-the-pack, 5-4 team. Then Baltimore got hot, winning seven straight to end the regular season and four more postseason games, including a victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

Led by middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens set several defensive records in 2000, including fewest points (165) and fewest rushing yards (970) allowed in a 16-game season. Baltimore also pitched four shutouts.

There were seemingly no weaknesses on defense. Baltimore's defensive line was stout with Adams and Tony Siragusa, the linebackers were elite, and the secondary had stud playmakers at safety (Woodson) and cornerback (McAlister).

Then-rookie tailback Jamal Lewis anchored the offense with 1,364 rushing yards. Tight end Sharpe was the team's most dependable receiver, recording 67 receptions for 810 yards.

Most impressive win: Although the Super Bowl win over the Giants will go down as the biggest game of the season, the most impressive was Baltimore's dominance in the AFC Championship Game, a 16-3 road win over the Oakland Raiders. The Ravens' defense smothered Oakland's high-powered offense led by quarterback Rich Gannon. Baltimore forced five Oakland turnovers.

Research Room: Longtime Ravens kicker Matt Stover made the only Pro Bowl of his 19-year career in 2000. With an inconsistent offense, Stover was clutch in connecting on 35 of 39 field goals. He led the NFL in both field goals made and field-goal attempts that season. Stover also converted all 30 extra-point attempts.

Lone ranger: Ray Lewis remains the only player currently with the Ravens from their Super Bowl team in '00. Now 35, the future Hall of Famer is still playing at a Pro Bowl level. Lewis signed a multi-year deal in '09 to make certain that he retires a Raven.

Several key members from Baltimore's Super Bowl team left the organization in the past several seasons. Jamal Lewis last played for the Ravens in '06, Ogden retired after the '07 season, and McAlister and Stover last played for Baltimore in '08.

Honorable mentions (in order):

2006 (tie): Baltimore finally got solid quarterback play from former NFL MVP Steve McNair, and the Ravens won 13 regular-season games. But in the postseason they ran into nemesis Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, who eventually won the Super Bowl.

2008 (tie): The Ravens became the first NFL team to win two road playoff games with a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco). But their run was stifled in fourth quarter of the AFC title game to another eventual Super Bowl champion: The Pittsburgh Steelers.

2001: Baltimore's attempt to defend a Super Bowl title ended with a second-round playoff exit. The Elvis Grbac experiment was a disaster. After signing a big free-agent deal with Baltimore, he had more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (15).

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 26, 2010
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NFC Under-The-Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Under-the-radar needs.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens posted a tremendous No. 3 ranking in total defense in 2009. But often lost in that ranking was the fact Baltimore had just 32 sacks in 16 games, which was 18th in the NFL. The Ravens need to generate a better pass rush, either by acquiring help via the draft or getting more production from their current players. For example, three-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs suffered through injuries and had a career-low 4.5 sacks. He needs to have a bounce-back season. The lack of pass rush also hurt Baltimore's pass coverage.

Cincinnati Bengals

Can someone who didn't kick in 2009 and who has bounced around with eight teams -- including a brief stint in Cincinnati -- really be the answer? Maybe Dave Rayner comes in this upcoming season and kicks lights out for the Bengals. But he wasn't the answer in Washington, Detroit, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City, Green Bay or Indianapolis. So it's fair to wonder if Rayner can solidify the kicking position during his second stay with the Bengals. Cincinnati hasn't re-signed veteran free agent Shayne Graham, which means a kicker could be a target in the NFL draft. The Bengals have nine picks next month and, at the very least, Rayner should have someone to push him and compete with in training camp.

Cleveland Browns

Coming off a 5-11 season, the Browns have a lot of needs and it's debatable whether any are "under the radar." But while most of the conversation focuses on quarterback, receiver and the secondary, not many in Cleveland talk about the running backs. Last year Jerome Harrison led the Browns with 862 yards thanks to a great stretch toward the end of the season. But can the smallish Harrison handle 30 carries a week over the course of a 16-game season? Cleveland's new regime has its doubts. The Browns need another quality running back to complement Harrison. There is very little tailback depth on the roster after the team released veteran Jamal Lewis. James Davis is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and the team acquired Peyton Hillis in a trade with the Denver Broncos. Hillis can play both fullback and tailback positions.

Pittsburgh Steelers

With everyone healthy, the Steelers do not have a lot of holes beyond the obvious like offensive line and cornerback. So let's dig deep with a covert need: Pittsburgh could use a good fullback next season. The Steelers struggled in short yardage and in the red zone, in part, because they lacked a devastating lead blocker to bust open holes in the defense. Carey Davis couldn't cut it. Converted tight end David Johnson was average but played out of position. Frank "The Tank" Summers was too green as a rookie last season. Adding to the quandary is offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' reluctance to utilize the position. Pittsburgh often uses three-receiver and single-back sets at the expense of fullbacks, and perhaps the Steelers' lack of talent at the position contributes to that. But if Pittsburgh finds a punishing run-blocker at fullback, third-and-short won't be such a daunting task next season.

Browns cut Jamal Lewis

February, 17, 2010
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And the constant flow of AFC North news continues.

Lewis
Lewis
The Cleveland Browns released veteran running back Jamal Lewis, the team announced Wednesday. It is another move by new president Mike Holmgren as he continues his makeover of the team.

Lewis' future in the NFL is uncertain. He initially said that 2009 would be his final season. But Lewis later hinted that he may be open to returning. He played nine games for the Browns last season after going on injured reserve for post-concussion syndrome.

The release makes Lewis an unrestricted free agent, which means he can sign with any team if he decides to continue playing. Lewis rushed for 10,607 yards and 58 touchdowns in his career with the Browns and Baltimore Ravens.

AFC North all-decade team

January, 28, 2010
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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)

2K for CJ

January, 3, 2010
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Chris JohnsonAP Photo/John FroschauerChris Johnson becomes the sixth player in NFL history to go over 2,000 yards rushing.
SEATTLE -- The packaging wasn’t what he wanted.

How great would it have been to go over 2,000 rushing yards on the season with a 62-yard touchdown sprint?

It got called back on a debatable holding call and Chris Johnson had to join an exclusive club weaving together smaller runs, with nothing longer than 12 yards, during a 17-13 win over the Seahawks.

The hosts managed to prevent the big play, keeping Johnson away from Eric Dickerson’s all-time record, but allowed him to become the sixth running back to reach the magical number.

It took 36 carries, seven more than he’s ever had before, for him to get to 134 rushing yards and a season total of 2,006. That is the fifth-best ever, ahead of O.J. Simpson’s 2,003 in 1973.

He was already talking about targeting Dickerson’s 1984 record 2,105 yards next year, a season Vince Young said won’t end until the Super Bowl.

“I didn’t get the record (this) year, so that’s what’s next for me,” Johnson said. “That would be my goal coming into next year. That would be something I can work hard for.”

Based in the Bible Belt, Johnson has spent his second season converting a lot of football people. He’s got swagger. He’s got a sense of humor. And, having talked about 2,000 yards back in training camp, he’s got the right to predict the outlandish without drawing raised eyebrows and scoffs.

Johnson thinks he can beat Usain Bolt over 40 yards, because Bolt’s best work in the 100 comes after that. Go ahead and laugh. That’s what everyone did when he talked 2,000 back in July or August.

(A bit of context: Johnson finished second in a Florida state high school final to Walter Dix in the 100-meter dash, and Dix finished third behind Bolt in the Beijing Olympics. And again, we’re talking 40 not 100.)

“He set a goal and people kind of laughed it off,” Titans tight end Alge Crumpler said. “And every week as we got closer and closer people realized it was attainable. I’m proud of him.”

Johnson just ran for 2,000 yards for an 8-8 team, a team that started 0-6 and trailed by enough often enough that running plays on offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger’s play sheet should have been crumpled up and tossed in a sideline garbage can.

The club he joined, for reference: Dickerson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and Simpson.

Now, with your permission, I will meander a bit rather than take the straight line Johnson prefers.

Called back

Just before he got to 2,000, Johnson had one of his signature breakaway runs -- darting through the line, he left the people chasing him looking like they were in slow motion as he went those 62 yards.

But fullback Ahmard Hall was called for a hold of linebacker David Hawthorne.

Referee Ed Hochuli said he had no question about throwing the flag.

“The ruling was that he hooked him with both arms at the point of attack, and pulled away from where the ball carried ran right by him,” Hochuli told a pool reporter.

But Hawthorne said while he was happy for the flag, he didn’t know it involved him until a couple reporters surrounded him when the locker room opened.

“You just told me,” he said.

Hall was surprised by the call and said it’s a block he makes all the time.

Tennessee’s veteran center Kevin Mawae talked with Hochuli about it and the ref said he wouldn’t have called it unless it was legit.

“My opinion now, not talking bad about the referee because I don’t want to get fined, but unless it’s just so blatant and a takedown, you’ve got to just let the guy go,” Mawae said. “We’re on the cusp of breaking an all-time record and to have it take away like that is just disappointing.”

It’s hard to know what unfolds from there if the 62-yard run stood. Take away the six yards Johnson was credited with on that play, the eight additional yards he gained on that drive and figure he would have had at least 48 more than he finished with. That gets him within 51 yards of Dickerson and puts him third all-time.

And if Dickerson was in range at the end, Mawae said Jeff Fisher would have allowed for more carries at the end of the game instead of instructing Vince Young to kneel down twice to run out the clock.

A young face of the league

By all accounts including mine, Johnson’s a good guy. If you’re scared off by gold teeth or dreads or less than perfect grammar, you’re missing out on friendly and funny.

Peyton Manning’s not vacating any major endorsement slots anytime soon, but should Johnson be near the front of the line of the next wave of marketable NFL stars?

“I feel I should,” he said from behind a podium under Qwest Field, a sparkling cross hanging over a sharp purple, silver and white tie loose at the collar under a gray vest. “I don’t know if any back has done it in two years. That’s what any guy wants to plays any sport. They want to be the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or whoever you want to name. They want to be that guy.”

His name doesn’t sing. But Crumpler said he doesn’t see an Average Joe moniker slowing down the running back.

“If you can get a Chad Johnson that level of attention, you can get it for Chris Johnson,” Crumpler said.

Said Hall: “With the braids and everything, a lot of people try to stereotype him. He’s a good guy. He’s a great guy. He doesn’t get in trouble. He’s never been in trouble. He definitely should be up there with the rest of the guys as a face of the league, according to his accomplishments.”

A special line on a resume

Mawae has played in 241 games in 16 seasons and been named to seven Pro Bowl teams.

The big hole in his career is the Super Bowl, and he still expects to get to one.

At this point, though, where does being part of the line that blocked for one of just six 2,000 yards back in history rank for him? What slot on his NFL resume should it occupy?

“This would probably have to be No. 1 right now,” he said. “No. 2 is winning the rushing title in 2003 (with the Jets and Curtis Martin).”

Johnson doesn’t know that yet, and I’m certain he will be flattered by it. As the Titans go through a Monday meeting and take exit physicals, Mawae said he expects there will be a moment he will let the running back know how he feels about what he did.

Others will too.

While they have several alternates that will likely get to the game, Johnson’s the only Pro Bowler now. He once promised cars to his linemen if he got to 2,000, then quickly backed off. But premium gifts have been purchased and will be presented Monday.

And he’s inviting them all to join him at the Pro Bowl, though he’s unsure how many will accept and be with him in Miami.

The next big number

Hold 2,106, Johnson’s yardage, up against $560,000, his scheduled base salary for next year, and even the staunchest opponent of contract renegotiation might allow agent Joel Segal to broach the topic.

Johnson’s also slated for $800,000 in 2011 and his base should jump from $960,000 to $2.5 million in 2012 because of an escalator.

The 24th pick in the 2008 draft is outperforming his five-year, $12 million deal, with $7 million guaranteed, but that’s what the Titans get for being smart enough to draft him.

Running backs have short life spans, Segal knows. If Johnson waits for his sixth year to get what he’s worth, odds are he won’t be worth it any more. Still it’s awfully early for any renegotiation.

“We’ve talked about that, about the money situation,” Hall said. “I think he and his agent will handle that well, but I don’t think the team will want to risk anything with CJ. I think he’s the best running back in the league right now as far as production goes.

“I think both sides will handle it well and get something done, because you definitely don’t want to break up this chemistry that’s going on with CJ. …He’s outplayed the contract and I think he deserves more money.”

General manager Mike Reinfeldt said the Titans haven’t even begun to ponder such things.

“He’s had a very special year,” Reinfeldt said. “But it’s also very rare that going into the third year people redo a deal.”

Final Word: AFC South

December, 4, 2009
12/04/09
4:02
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

[+] EnlargeDallas Clark
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Titans may not have enough people to keep Colts tight end Dallas Clark in check.
Dallas Clark had nine catches for 77 yards when the Colts dismantled the Titans on Oct. 11. He told Nashville media this week that Tennessee doesn’t generally lock in one guy to matchup with him, but that he expects nickelback Vincent Fuller most of the time with a splash of Keith Bulluck. With Clark, Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie playing well and Pierre Garcon rebounding from a tough stretch, will the Colts have more targets than the Titans are able to defend with Cortland Finnegan, Nick Harper and Fuller as the primary defensive backs?

Minus cornerback Rashean Mathis (groin), the Jaguars have given up significant passing yardage the last two weeks -- 297 to the Bills 26th-rated pass offense, 232 to the 23rd-rated Niners. What’s that mean as they head into a game against Houston, which is ranked third? Pass pressure’s been an issue for the Jaguars. Matt Schaub is much less effective against the blitz, but can the Jaguars afford to send extra rushers when their coverage is already more susceptible without Mathis?

If Chris Johnson runs for 104 yards in Indianapolis, he’ll become just the fifth player ever to reach 1,500 in the first 12 games of the season. Walter Payton did it in 11 games in 1977, Jim Brown did it in a dozen games in 1958 and 1963, O.J. Simpson did it in 1973 and 1975 and Terrell Davis did it in 1998. Only two of those six seasons wound up over 2,000 yards. Johnson’s 1,396 yards this season put him on pace for 2,031 and is currently ahead of where Eric Dickerson and Jamal Lewis were through 11 games when they had the top two rushing seasons in NFL history. If CJ tops 125 rush yards, he’ll be the first player ever to do it in seven consecutive games.

Brian Cushing against Maurice Jones-Drew should a very compelling matchup. Cushing been resting a foot injury during the week but playing fantastic on Sundays, making a case for defensive rookie of the year. The Jaguars will doubtlessly look to establish MJD and feed him the ball early and often. Three of the four times MJD has had fewer than 10 touches in the first half, they’ve lost and the one they won they jumped up to a big lead early and basically rested him.

The Titans five-game winning streak isn’t in the ballpark of the Colts’ 20-game string (11 this year), but add this year’s stretches together and you’ve got something. Tennessee and Indy square off tied for the longest combined winning streak -- 16 games -- in an NFL Week 13 game since the AFL-NFL merger. In 1984 Denver (10) and Seattle (six) played in similar circumstances, with the Seahawks winning by three.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 4, 2009
12/04/09
4:01
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Cedric Benson
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarCedric Benson will rejoin a crowded Bengals backfield.
'Big Ben' is back: Amid controversy and plenty of national headlines, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns to the starting lineup Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. Team captain Hines Ward questioned the decision to pull Roethlisberger one day before Pittsburgh’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But Ward said this week that the issue has been resolved. The best way for the Steelers to truly move on is to get back on the winning track and for Roethlisberger to have a big game. Their three-game skid has caused a lot of discontent for a proud group that’s not used to losing this time of year. This game against Oakland is virtually a must-win for the Steelers (6-5), who have a small margin of error if they want to get into the postseason.

Benson rejoins crowded field: Another player who is returning to the starting lineup, but with less attention, is Cincinnati Bengals starting tailback Cedric Benson. He missed the past two weeks with a hip injury. Cincinnati’s offense has run the ball well without Benson, which makes you wonder how carries will be distributed between Benson, former Pro Bowler Larry Johnson and rookie Bernard Scott. All three tailbacks have had 100-yard games this season. Benson wasn’t too happy with the recent signing of Johnson. It will be interesting to see how Cincinnati's coaching staff handles this sensitive matter the rest of the season.

Protections issues: If the Baltimore Ravens (6-5) want to pull off the upset Monday and beat the Green Bay Packers (7-4) at Lambeau Field, the Ravens must apply constant pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's offense is red hot, averaging 32 points the past two weeks. But the Packers’ biggest weakness has been protecting Rodgers, who has been sacked an astounding 44 times. Baltimore has been inconsistent in rushing the passer. But this is a golden opportunity for the Ravens to turn up the heat against a team that hasn’t blocked well all season.

The Clayton factor: In the first four games after the bye week, Baltimore Ravens receiver Mark Clayton had only five catches for 58 yards. Then Clayton exploded for seven catches for 129 yards in last week’s huge win over Pittsburgh. The Ravens (6-5) need more of that from their former first-round pick if they expect to make a push to the postseason. Clayton has been one of the great enigmas in the AFC North. He’s had big performances over his five-year career but usually disappears for weeks afterward. Clayton's biggest game before Sunday was in Baltimore's season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, when he had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.

New rushers: With the season-ending concussion to Jamal Lewis, the Cleveland Browns will now turn to backups Jerome Harrison and Chris Jennings for the remainder of the season. Both Harrison and Jennings have shown a few flashes this year but are averaging only 3.6 and 3.4 yards per carry respectively. The coaching staff pretty much knows what it has in Harrison, who is a smaller, change-of-pace type of runner who struggles with pass protection. Look for the team to give Jennings a lot of touches down the stretch to find out what the former CFL product is made of.

Is Jamal Lewis a Hall of Famer?

December, 3, 2009
12/03/09
2:30
PM ET
Jamal LewisGetty ImagesJamal Lewis has over 10,000 career rushing yards, including a 2,066 yard season in 2003, but will it be enough to get him to Canton?
Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis, who plans to retire, was put on injured reserve Wednesday after suffering a concussion, ending his 10th and reportedly final season in the NFL.

With more than 10,000 career rushing yards and a Super Bowl championship with the Baltimore Ravens, is Lewis worthy of the Hall of Fame?

ESPN.com's AFC North blog checked in with several Hall of Fame voters Thursday to get an early gauge on Lewis' candidacy.

John McClain, Houston Chronicle: "I’m always open to discussion. But considering all the other backs coming out with big numbers like Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Curtis Martin, Edgerrin James, etc., I think he's a long shot."

Jim Trotter, Sports Illustrated: "My initial reaction is no. But you have to keep an open mind when reviewing all candidates."

Mike Sando, ESPN.com: "I think it's going to be tough for some of the very good running backs to break through what seems to be quite a backlog of great, and borderline great, candidates at multiple positions."

Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "My immediate reaction would be no. But there's a reason we go through this whole voting process, so we can have time to look at what they did and where he came from. You can put me down for a wishy-washy [undecided]."

Joe Reedy, Cincinnati Enquirer: "I think when you look at the year-by-year numbers, along with what he meant to the Ravens' Super Bowl run in 2000 and keeping the Browns’ offense even remotely afloat the last two years, he has a legitimate candidacy. He was in only one Pro Bowl. But Lewis meant a lot to the Ravens' offense while he was there and his 2,066-yard season in 2003 and performance in the regular-season finale that year against Pittsburgh are what got the Ravens into the playoffs."

Johnson: 'I want MVP'

December, 2, 2009
12/02/09
4:33
PM ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Chris Johnson isn’t concerned with Brett Favre, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees.

Chris Johnson
Don McPeak/US PresswireChris Johnson doesn't think team records should play into the MVP voting.
The Titans’ second-year running back joked Wednesday after practice that he intends to launch an MVP campaign soon.

“Of course I should be in the conversation,” he said. “And I’m about to start a campaign, an MVP campaign. Everything. When is the voting?”

And while he expects the Titans to fulfill the prophecy he offered after the Titans' first win that they would win 10 in a row and make the playoffs, he said it shouldn’t have to come true for him to win the honor.

“I don’t understand that,” he said “MVP, that’s an individual goal, that’s not a team goal. Last year, my team, we had a first-round bye, went to the playoffs and all that and they still gave Matt Ryan [offensive] rookie of the year. So it shouldn’t have to go on how good your team is doing.”

He also said he’s not sure a 2,000-yard season is a necessity, though he’s currently on pace for 2,030 rushing yards. That number is too far away for him to think about much now, he said.

Johnson will be pleased to know he's moved up in Mike Sando's weekly "MVP Watch."

Voters who prefer one of the quarterbacks of a playoff team for MVP might look to Johnson for a different award -- offensive player of the year.

The MVP and offensive player of the year have been the same player for the four of the last five seasons. Last year Manning was MVP while Brees was offensive player of the year.

In the five seasons before that, a quarterback was MVP while a running back was offensive player of the year four times.

Marshall Faulk was OPOY twice when Kurt Warner was MVP. Priest Holmes won the second award when Rich Gannon was MVP in 2002. The same scenario played out for Jamal Lewis when Peyton Manning and Steve McNair were co-MVPs a year later.

“That’d be good too,” Johnson said of possibly being offensive player of the year. “But I want MVP.”

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