NFL Nation: Marcus Spears

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' search for a possible replacement for Sean Lee has led them to Rolando McClain.

In 2010, the Oakland Raiders made McClain the eighth pick of the NFL draft. It never worked out for him with the Raiders for a variety of reasons, including some of his misdeeds. It never worked out for him in two short stints with the Baltimore Ravens that led to him retiring twice.

But he doesn't turn 25 until July 14.

The Cowboys are looking at a low-risk chance for a high-ceiling talent.

“He sounds as excited about football as I've ever heard him,” said McClain's agent, Pat Dye.

If that holds up, then the Cowboys might have found the guy to man the middle linebacker spot that opened when Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in May. The Cowboys mostly worked veteran Justin Durant at Lee's spot in the organized team activities and minicamp, but dabbled with rookie Anthony Hitchens and second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman at the spot.

Durant is an outside linebacker masking as a middle linebacker even if the coaches believe he can play all three linebacker positions. Holloman started two games at middle linebacker last year as a rookie out of desperation. Hitchens, a fourth-round pick, has a lot to learn.

McClain comes with a better resume than any of them, but his off-field issues -- a number of arrests since being drafted -- are a concern. The fact that he retired twice is a concern, but Dye's words offer encouragement that McClain, who ended Jason Witten's preseason in 2012 with a hit in a exhibition game that led to a lacerated spleen, knows this might be his last chance.

“I see, and Rolando sees, the Dallas situation as a great opportunity given Sean's injury, and you're talking about a great franchise and a great organization,” Dye said. “I've described to any of the clients we've had through the years there -- Emmitt Smith, Dexter Coakley, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Keith Brooking, DeMarco Murray -- that playing for the Cowboys in football is kind of like playing for the Yankees in baseball. Just an iconic franchise. With kind of what he's done going back to his time with the Raiders, I think that all of this has led him to a point where he feels like the game is too important to him to give up. He's just 24 years old. He's very talented. He's very bright. Tough. Competitive. There's a reason he was a top-10 pick at a position that is almost impossible to be a top-10 pick. Hopefully this situation will go smoothly.”

Patience will be required. McClain has not played in a game since November 2012, after he was suspended for two games for conduct detrimental to the team. He has not taken part in a full offseason program. He will have to learn a new defense and a new team.

The Cowboys have taken these sorts of chances on former high draft picks before. In 2005, they signed Marc Colombo, who was the Chicago Bears' first-round pick in 2002, after he suffered a serious knee injury. In 2006, Colombo became the Cowboys' starting right tackle and held the spot through 2010.

Asking that of McClain is too much. He's on just a one-year deal and the Cowboys believe Lee will be 100 percent in 2015, but this is a chance worth taking.

And it falls in line with how the Cowboys have conducted their offseason business, spending wisely if not exorbitantly on guys such as Henry Melton, Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey, Anthony Spencer and Amobi Okoye.
IRVING, Texas -- There was a time when the way the Dallas Cowboys ran their draft room was the envy of the league.

One of those years was back in 1991 and Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth ranked the Cowboys selecting Russell Maryland and Alvin Harper that year as ninth best on the all-time list of teams with two first-round picks.

The Cowboys actually had three first-round picks that year thanks to a deal with the Washington Redskins, but traded Kelvin Pritchett to the Detroit Lions for picks in the second, third and fourth rounds.

In Maryland, the top overall pick, the Cowboys got a vital piece to their vastly underrated defensive line. In Harper, the No. 12 pick, they got a complement to Michael Irvin who Norv Turner knew how to maximize.

In trading Pritchett, who had a solid career, the Cowboys got linebacker Dixon Edwards, guard James Richards and defensive end Tony Hill. Edwards was a starter, but Hill lasted two seasons and Richards didn’t make the team.

The Cowboys had two first-round picks in 1992, 2005 and 2008 as well.

In 1992, they took cornerback Kevin Smith (No. 17) and linebacker Robert Jones (No. 24), who became starters on Super Bowl teams. In 2005, they took outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (No. 11) and defensive tackle Marcus Spears (No. 20). Ware became the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. In 2008, the Cowboys selected running back Felix Jones (No. 22) and cornerback Mike Jenkins (No. 25). Neither signed a second contract, although Jenkins had a Pro Bowl season.

Status has its privileges

April, 8, 2014
IRVING, Texas – Back in the day American Express made famous the slogan, “Membership has its privileges.”

It was that iconic ad that popped into my head when I saw the picture of Tony Romo and Jason Witten in Jerry Jones’ suite at AT&T Stadium Monday night at the NCAA men’s basketball final with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Running back DeMarco Murray was also in the suite, but not in the much-circulated photo.

I tweaked the ad some: status has its privileges.

New SEC Network hire and former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears sparked debate on Twitter Monday and it continued on Tuesday. Spears wondered if teammates of Romo and Witten would be upset to see them hanging with the presidents and celebrities.

Spears has a point, but if Cam Lawrence or Ronald Leary were upset Romo, Witten and Murray were in the suite, oh well. Should I be upset Chris Berman gets to play in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am every year and I don't? Oh well.

Status has its privileges in any line of work. Those three have status, especially Witten and Romo, and we don’t know who else was invited to sit in the power suite to see Connecticut beat Kentucky but unable to attend for whatever reason.

Witten and Romo have been with the Cowboys since 2003. Witten has been to the Pro Bowl nine times. He was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2012. Romo owns most of the Cowboys’ passing records and has been to three Pro Bowls. Jones has showed his faith in the quarterback by signing him to two big-time contract extensions. Murray is coming off his first Pro Bowl season.

As teams go, not all players are created equally. Jimmy Johnson didn’t treat Troy Aikman the same as he treated a third-string safety. Bill Parcells treated “his guys” differently than the other guys.

Too many people believe professional sports are entirely different than an office you or I may work in. There is office politics everywhere.

You like some people. You’re OK with some people. You distance yourself from some people. You loathe some people. But you do your job for the common good, be it winning football games or producing widgets.

It can be safely assumed Witten, Romo and Murray were invited by Jones to the suite. He’s the boss. He’s the guy who signs the checks. You have a chance to talk with Presidents Bush and Clinton and some other celebrity folks, would you say no to your boss because the guy in the next cubicle didn’t get invited?

Of course you wouldn’t.

To me, the question is should Jones have put those three guys in position to be perceived as above their teammates in a public way? I doubt the question even crossed Jones’ mind and I’m not sure it even needed to cross it. He was simply making a kind gesture to three of his top players -- and maybe more -- and they took him up on the offer.

If there are players that are upset, then, well, they’ll just have to get over it. But they should also realize Witten, Romo, who is also rehabbing from back surgery, and Murray have been working out at Valley Ranch well before the official start of the offseason program on April 21.

That’s what should matter most to them.

Like just about everything with the Cowboys, perception overrules reality. The perception of the photo might tell one story, but it doesn’t mean it’s the whole story.
Former Cowboys defensive end and new SEC Network football analyst Marcus Spears had an interesting comment Monday night on Twitter that sparked debate on the social media site. It also prompted a written piece by Spears on the Dallas Morning News' website in which he questioned the perception of the relationship between Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo.

During the NCAA men's basketball national championship game, Romo, Garrett, Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray were seen in Jerry Jones' suite watching UConn-Kentucky along with former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Spears brought up the visit of Garrett and Romo to the Duke campus for a men's game in March. The former Cowboys defender's question about whether the relationship sends a bad message to the rest of the team: Are Romo and Garrett too close?

A quarterback should have a close relationship with the head coach. There are many examples of that being a successful union with other NFL franchises. But we've also discovered close relationships can fall apart, which was the case with Robert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan in Washington.

Each relationship should be judged on its own merit. Garrett-Romo is a good one.

The reality of the relationship is this: Garrett, entering the final year of his contract, needs Romo to buy into the program more than ever. And Romo, who has more say than any Cowboys quarterback since Troy Aikman, is doing whatever he needs to build his relationship with the head coach.

The career paths of Romo and Garrett are similar so far, that of undrafted players who fought for everything they got on the field.

Garrett seems to gravitate to players with similar backgrounds.

When wide receiver Miles Austin was dealing with his hamstring issues last season and reporters began to question his commitment, Garrett defended him. Garrett mentioned Austin being an undrafted player from Monmouth University and how, despite all the money he's made, knows his place on the team.

There's nothing wrong with having a good relationship with the head coach. I believe Garrett-Romo is genuine.

However, things can go bad quickly.

If the Cowboys don't make the postseason, Garrett is most likely gone as head coach. It wouldn't make sense to keep a man who has failed to reach the postseason four consecutive seasons in charge. If Jones was about to fire Garrett, would Romo step in and say something?

Garrett and Romo hanging in the luxury suite of the owner with Witten and Murray doesn't send a bad message. You just wonder, where was Dez Bryant? Where was Henry Melton? Orlando Scandrick? Travis Frederick? Doug Free?

You can't put 51 guys in there. Well, maybe in Jerry's suite you can, but solidarity is an important aspect for NFL teams.

You'd hate to think that something like coach and owner personal relationships with players would lead to hard feelings among a team.

The Cowboys' brass needs to make sure it never comes to that.
IRVING, Texas -- It should not surprise anybody if DeMarcus Ware has a Pro Bowl season in 2014 -- wherever he ends up.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/James D. SmithDeMarcus Ware, impacted by injuries in 2013, still has a passion to play and let his "actions speak" for themselves -- it'll just have to be with another team.
He turns 32 in July, is coming off elbow surgery and a career-low six sacks in 2013, but he will have a motivation to prove the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the naysayers wrong.

It will be hard for the Cowboys to stomach because there will be noise from here, there and everywhere if Ware has a 15-sack season and is as dominant as ever, but it would not necessarily mean they made the wrong move in letting their all-time leader in sacks go. If anything, the Cowboys decided to make a move a year too early rather than a year too late by releasing Ware.

"I want to be quiet," Ware said almost a month ago before undergoing elbow surgery. "I just want to let my actions speak for themself. But I do chuckle a little bit because I know there’s a tornado coming."

When he arrived from Troy in 2005, there were some doubts that he could not only make the jump from that level of football to the NFL but from defensive end to outside linebacker. Bill Parcells did not have many doubts, even if he wanted Marcus Spears with the No. 11 pick. Parcells quickly mentioned Lawrence Taylor after the Cowboys took Ware, so I wouldn’t say he didn’t want Ware.

He had seven straight seasons with at least 11 sacks. He had seasons of 20 and 19.5 sacks.

But injuries knocked him down in 2012 and ’13. The Cowboys did not view this from only a 2013 prism only. Even though Ware had 11.5 sacks in 2012, they felt the decline had started.

The move to the 4-3 might have quickened the fall, but there are images of Ware I can’t get out of my head.

It is of Ware in Oxnard, Calif., in training camp. Day after day he repeatedly beat Tyron Smith. He did it in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He did it in team drills. He was the best player in training camp almost every day. Better than Dez Bryant. Better than Sean Lee. Better than Jason Witten. Better than Smith.

He had four sacks in his first three games but then the injuries piled up. Ware's practice time became limited and his production sank.

There is good football left in Ware. He showed it last summer against one of the best left tackles in football.

The Cowboys will only see it if the next team he signs with his is on their schedule or if they pay attention to the highlights.
Free agency begins in 13 days, and the Baltimore Ravens need to do better with their signings next month than they did in the first wave of free agency last year. Half of the free agents signed by the Ravens from other teams didn't finish the season in Baltimore. This is one of the reasons why the Ravens went from Super Bowl champions in 2012 to an 8-8 team last year.

Let's grade the Ravens' free-agent signings from last March:


Position: Defensive end

Former team: New York Giants

Contract: Signed a three-year, $8 million contract. The deal contained $2.84 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: Canty was solid but not spectacular. He started off fast with a sack in two of his first three games. But Canty didn't have another one in his final 12 games. He showed his athleticism by batting down four passes. The Ravens were just expecting more of an impact from Canty.

Grade: C-plus.


Position: Outside linebacker

Former team: Denver Broncos

Contract: Signed a five-year, $26 million contract. The deal contained $8.5 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: The Ravens brought in Dumervil to get after quarterbacks, and he finished with 9.5 sacks, which was second-most on the team. But he faded in the final two months of the season. Dumervil recorded nine tackles and one sack in his final six games. He never made more than three tackles in a game and had three games without a tackle.

Grade: B.


Position: Quarterback

Contract: Signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract. The deal contained $52 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: It's easy to criticize signing Flacco to an NFL record deal after he threw a career-worst 22 interceptions last season. But Flacco didn't get much help from the worst rushing attack in team history and poor pass protection. This doesn't take all of the blame off Flacco, who forced too many passes. Still, Flacco delivered four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, which accounted for half of the Ravens' wins. He also threw for a career-high 3,912 yards.

Grade: C.


Position: Safety

Former team: Oakland Raiders

Contract: Signed a three-year, $6 million contract. The deal contained $1.5 million guaranteed.

How it turned out: Huff was the Ravens' most disappointing signing. He was supposed to replace Ed Reed, but he was benched after the season-opening 49-27 loss at Denver. Huff went through the motions on special teams. The Ravens cut Huff midway through the season after he made the glaring mistake of losing outside containment on a 44-yard kickoff return, which jump started the Pittsburgh Steelers' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. He pocketed $2.35 million (when you include signing bonus) for a half a season of work.

Grade: F.


Position: Safety

Contract: Signed a one-year, $780,000 contract. The deal contained $65,000 guaranteed.

How it turned out: Ihedigbo was one of the bigger surprises on the Ravens' defense. A special teams player for most of his career, Ihedigbo finished second on the Ravens with 101 tackles and provided much-needed leadership. He was named the strong safety on the All-AFC North team. But, with the Ravens moving first-round pick Matt Elam to strong safety, Ihedigbo is expected to play elsewhere in 2014.

Grade: B.


Position: Defensive tackle

Former team: Dallas Cowboys

Contract: Signed a two-year, $2.75 million contract. The deal contained $600,000 guaranteed.

How it turned out: Just like Huff, Spears was a bust. He never got in great shape and was outplayed by younger players like Brandon Williams and DeAngelo Tyson. The Ravens cut him after seven games. The impact of Spears in the defensive line rotation was never felt in an underachieving run defense, which ranked No. 13 at the time of his release.

Grade: F.

Note: Middle linebacker Daryl Smith, one of the Ravens' top free-agent signings last year, was signed in the second wave of free agency in June.
IRVING, Texas -- As thrilling as Sunday’s 24-23 win against the Washington Redskins was, it might have only delayed the inevitable for the Dallas Cowboys.

With a loss this week against the Philadelphia Eagles in a third straight NFC East championship game, there will be change. Actually, win or lose there will be changes, because that is just the nature of the NFL. How grand and how widespread are the questions.

Speculation abounds about Jason Garrett’s future. Twice in the past two weeks Garrett said he is focused on doing his job to the best of his ability. There is nothing else he really can say. Would Jerry Jones have the patience to bring Garrett back for a fourth season after three crushing Week 17 losses?

After last season’s loss to the Washington Redskins, Jones promised an uncomfortable season for everyone in the organization ... not named Jones.

Would it have made a difference if the Cowboys beat the Redskins last season? Would Jones have stayed with the status quo? They didn’t win, so changes were made.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired. So was running backs coach Skip Peete. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis was allowed to leave for the Chicago Bears. Garrett’s brother, John, was allowed to leave for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson was named “senior coaching consultant,” however, he has not been seen at one practice the entire season.

Ryan’s replacement, Monte Kiffin, would appear to be on thin ice after this historically bad season as the Cowboys switched to the 4-3. He has consistently said retirement is not in his plans, but at 73 years old that could change quickly.

Players, like Gerald Sensabaugh, Marcus Spears, Lawrence Vickers and Dan Connor, were cut in the offseason. Doug Free had his base salary cut in half. Players like DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin could be in the crosshairs this year win or lose to the Eagles.

A lot is at stake against the Eagles, and for some people it could be more than just a playoff spot.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said this team isn't about sending messages, but cutting safety Michael Huff and defensive lineman Marcus Spears did so anyway.

"The message is 'win,' plain and simple," Ravens defensive lineman Chris Canty said an hour after the roster moves were announced Wednesday. "If you don't get your job done, they're going to find somebody else that can get it done."

[+] EnlargeMichael Huff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichael Huff became a liability on special teams for the Ravens, who cut him Wednesday along with fellow former first-round pick Marcus Spears.
There's been an increased sense of urgency with the defending Super Bowl champions ever since linebacker Terrell Suggs declared a "state of emergency" after the Ravens lost at Pittsburgh. Harbaugh ratcheted up the pressure on the players when he said last week that the Ravens would do whatever it takes to improve this team -- and he wasn't bluffing.

When a team cuts ties with two longtime veterans (and two former first-round picks), it delivers a wake-up call. That's what this move is to a Ravens team that has lost three of its past four games.

"It's shocking," Canty said of the moves.

It's legitimate to criticize general manager Ozzie Newsome for whiffing in free agency this offseason. The Ravens signed four veterans from other teams in the first wave of free agency, and half of them are gone with the releases of Huff and Spears.

What you have to like about the Ravens is the immediacy in recognizing their mistakes. How much are the Ravens committed to turning around their disappointing 3-4 season? The Ravens are going to pay Huff and Spears a total of $926,470 the rest of the season not to be on the team because they saw younger players as upgrades. That doesn't include the combined $2.1 million in signing bonuses for those veterans.

"[What] we'll always try to do is have as strong of a roster as we possibly can and to be as good a team as we possibly can be on Sunday," Harbaugh said. "We feel like these moves move us in that direction. We feel like these are the necessary moves that we need to make to be the best team we can be in all three phases. Any message beyond that is guys already understand those things."

These moves are intended to improve the Ravens' special teams and run defense.

Huff was benched in the season opener when he failed to fill the void of Ed Reed and then became a liability on special teams. The breaking point for Huff was when he lost outside containment on Emmanuel Sanders' 44-yard kickoff return, which jump-started the Steelers' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter two weeks ago.

Spears never got in great shape and he was being outplayed by rookie third-round pick Brandon Williams. The impact of Spears in the defensive line rotation was never felt in an underachieving run defense, which has fallen to No. 13 in the NFL.

By not sitting on their hands, the Ravens believe they can still catch the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals or land a wild-card spot. Baltimore is 2.5 games behind the Bengals in the division and is one game behind the San Diego Chargers for the AFC's sixth and final playoff spot.

"I really have high hopes for this team," Harbaugh said. "I've told the players that. I really believe this team is really going to catch fire."

Harbaugh added, "I really believe we can be a great football team. We just have to go and get it done."

If the Ravens don't show immediate results, you can expect more changes to come. The Ravens have set the precedent.
Baltimore Ravens tight end Ed Dickson was a full participant in Monday's practice, which likely means he'll be ready for the season opener at Denver on Thursday, but starting defensive end Art Jones has been declared out with an illness. Marcus Spears, a free-agent pickup this offseason, started six of the final seven games last season for the Dallas Cowboys.

Dickson suffered a slight tear in his hamstring on Aug. 4, and he missed all of the preseason games. He is expected to replace Dennis Pitta, who dislocated his hip, in the starting lineup.

At one point last month, Dickson was skeptical about playing in the regular-season opener. But he returned to practice on Aug. 19 and hasn't had any setbacks.

"Obviously, they are kind of bringing him along slowly, but it shows that he’s making rapid improvement," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "We’re certainly glad to get him out there and get him a little work.”

Jones, meanwhile, hasn't practiced in more than a week. There won't be a downgrade in run defense with the stout Spears, but Jones provides more of a pass rush.

With Jones out, the Ravens defense will likely have seven different starters from their lineup in the Super Bowl.

As expected, Pitta has been ruled out as well. The plan is to put him on the injured reserve-designated to return list Tuesday. Nose tackle Brandon Williams (toe), wide receiver Deonte Thompson (foot) and center Ryan Jensen (foot) all didn't participate in Monday's practice.
Matt ElamAP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The Baltimore Ravens will officially start the defense of their Super Bowl championship in about four months. This week, however, the next chapter for the Ravens' defense truly began.

In the same year Baltimore said goodbye to two future Hall of Fame players in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, the Ravens used their first two draft picks on Florida safety Matt Elam and Kansas State inside linebacker Arthur Brown.

Coincidence? Not exactly. Four days after the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, general manager Ozzie Newsome told reporters that it was a priority to upgrade the middle of the defense.

That was the focus of free agency, when Baltimore signed defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears along with safety Michael Huff. And that was the focus of this year's draft, where Baltimore took a playmaking safety in the first round and an instinctive yet undersized inside linebacker in the second. This will sound eerily familiar, but the Ravens aren't expecting Elam and Brown to be the next Reed and Lewis.

Let's be honest, the Ravens' defense wasn't the same dominating and disruptive group even with Reed and Lewis last season. The unit ranked 17th in yards allowed (350.9 per game) in 2012, its lowest ranking since 2002, when it was 22nd. Teams ran at will at times against the Ravens. Baltimore lost games in December to backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Kirk Cousins. Yes, the Ravens finished as a championship defense. No one would call it an elite one, or even a consistent one.

It was time for the Ravens to make major changes on a defense steeped in tradition and pride. There is already an established foundation in linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb. The next wave is Elam and Brown.

These aren't two prospects that the Ravens had to settle on at the bottom of the round. These are two players the Ravens coveted, and those are their words and not mine. That's a major statement coming from an organization that has found 15 Pro Bowl players in 17 drafts.

When Newsome called Elam to tell him that the Ravens were picking him, he gave him a quick history test, asking Elam about the player the Ravens lost to the Houston Texans. It was, of course, Reed.

“Now what player is going to be able to come in and line up in our secondary and play the game like an All-Pro player?" Newsome asked Elam, according to the team's official website. “Matt Elam? OK, that’s what I wanted to hear.”

Elam is the first safety selected by the Ravens in the first round since they took Reed in 2002. The significance was not lost on Elam, whose knack for making clutch plays is reminiscent of Reed coming out of college.

"After a great player like Ed Reed was back there before, that’s a lot of big shoes to fill," Elam said, "but I am just coming in and trying to do all I can and help win championships.”

The Ravens chose Elam over inside linebackers Manti Te'o and Kevin Minter because he was the higher-rated player on their board. That led to the Ravens making an aggressive move, trading three picks -- ones in the second (62nd overall), fifth (165th) and sixth rounds (199th) -- to slide up six spots in the second round.

Brown, who is expected to compete against Rolando McClain for a starting job, is considered one of the best read-and-react linebackers in this draft. He has the instincts to diagnose a play as soon as the ball is snapped. The biggest knock on Brown is his size. He's listed at 228 pounds, which is just eight pounds heavier than when an equally undersized linebacker named Ray Lewis was drafted by Baltimore in 1996.

"It’s an honor to be even mentioned in the same sentence with him," Brown said after being drafted Friday night. "I have a lot of respect for Ray, not only the player that he is, but the person of which he projects himself to be. He’s truly had an impact on the game and also many people throughout the game. That’s what I was thinking what I appreciate about him the most.”

While the timing of this draft will lead many to countless comparisons to Lewis and Reed, it's unfair to put that weight on two rookies. There is no one who is going to fill the shoes of Lewis and Reed. The Ravens just hope Elam and Brown can help the franchise along the same successful path. The next chapter of the Ravens defense has begun.
The Baltimore Ravens made history when they parted ways with seven starters from their Super Bowl-winning team (and that number could grow to nine if offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu aren't re-signed). Just don't say "the Ravens are history," at least not when general manager Ozzie Newsome is in the room.

In what is typically an uneventful pre-draft news conference, Newsome showed his competitive side when asked about the major overhaul of his team.

"We like our football team this year," Newsome said in his first comments since losing the likes of safety Ed Reed, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe last month. "To say that where this team is going to end, I’d like for someone to be able to tell me that we aren’t good enough to go to the playoffs right now. Can anyone say that? OK then."

Since I was the blogger who predicted the Ravens wouldn't make the playoffs last season, I thought it was wise that I kept quiet this time. In fairness, the Ravens didn't look like a playoff team after linebacker Ray Lewis retired, Boldin was traded, Reed signed with the Texans, safety Bernard Pollard was cut and young players like Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Paul Kruger got big deals elsewhere.

But the Ravens were rewarded for their patience. They got lucky in picking up pass rusher Elvis Dumervil after a fax debacle unexpectedly made him a free agent. They got great value in adding a couple of veteran starters in safety Michael Huff and inside linebacker Rolando McClain. And they addressed a weak defensive line by signing Chris Canty and Marcus Spears.

The unspoken theme for the Ravens was not to overextend themselves. Baltimore could've re-signed Reed and matched the contracts for Ellerbe, Kruger and Williams. But it would've come at a cost that the Ravens were unwilling to make.

"I think what we did is we just wanted to make sure that when we look downstream that we were able to keep the Torreys [Smith], the [Dennis] Pittas -- guys that we wanted to keep," Newsome said. "If you don’t make tough decisions this year, then it will be tougher to keep those guys in years to come.”
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each AFC North team thus far this offseason:

Baltimore Ravens. Marcus Spears, defensive end. When it comes to Baltimore's defensive line, the big-name signing in free agency was Chris Canty. The addition of Spears didn't generate much buzz because he never reached expectations of a first-round pick with the Cowboys and ended his time in Dallas as a backup. But Spears will make a significant contribution to the Ravens' run defense, which finished No. 20 in the NFL last season. Spears will be asked to handle the unforgiving job of taking on double-teams, which allows Haloti Ngata and the inside linebackers to be more effective. The Ravens' defensive line won't wear down as it did last season, because Spears gives Baltimore experienced depth.

Cincinnati Bengals. Aaron Maybin, linebacker. Some may be asking: When did Maybin join the Bengals? That's the definition of being under the radar. Technically, Maybin wasn't signed during the free-agency period. He was added in late January. Maybin was a first-round bust in Buffalo, but the Bengals have had success with reclamation projects (see safety Reggie Nelson). He is also still young; he turns 25 on Saturday. Maybin, who has six sacks in 48 career games, will get a shot to redeem himself in Cincinnati. The Bengals have a need at outside linebacker after the team let Manny Lawson sign with the Bills and didn't re-sign Thomas Howard (which could still happen down the road). If the Bengals don't address the linebacker position in the draft, Maybin will compete against Emmanuel Lamur, Dontay Moch and Vincent Rey for a starting job.

Cleveland Browns. Quentin Groves, linebacker. The addition of Groves got lost in the Browns' fast start in free agency, when they signed linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant. Although Groves won't be a starter like Kruger or Bryant, he will serve an important role behind the scenes. Groves will help in the Browns' transition to Ray Horton's 3-4 defense after playing under him last season in Arizona. It was obvious that Groves clicked with Horton. A 2008 second-round pick by the Jaguars, Groves struggled in his two years in Jacksonville and two years in Oakland. In his first season with Horton, Groves recorded career highs in tackles (46) and sacks (four). He will try to repeat that success for the Browns.

Pittsburgh Steelers. Larry Foote, linebacker. All of the Steelers' moves fall into the under-the-radar category because they don't have the salary-cap room to make any other kind. And, by most standards, Foote is an under-the-radar type player. Outside of those Terrible Towel-waving fans, few knew the leading tackler for the NFL's top-ranked defense was Foote. It was key for the Steelers to re-sign Foote a few hours before he was set to hit the free-agent market. There was speculation he was headed for Arizona. The Steelers didn't miss longtime starter James Farrior in 2012 because of Foote's surprisingly strong season. In 16 starts, Foote finished with a career-high 113 tackles and tied a career best with four sacks.
The Baltimore Ravens signed Dallas Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears to a two-year, $3.55 million contract, which continues a free-agent trend for Baltimore to upgrade the defensive line.

The Ravens made it a priority earlier this week when they signed former New York Giants defensive end Chris Canty, and they addressed it again Friday with another 30-something lineman from the NFC East.

Don't expect Spears to start. He was a backup last season for the Cowboys. And don't expect him to make an impact in the pass rush. Spears has two sacks in his past three seasons.

What Spears brings is the ability to stop the run and a charismatic personality to the locker room. Spears, 30, was a 2005 first-round pick by Dallas who was cut Thursday because he was scheduled to make $2 million in 2013 and he didn't fit in the Cowboys' new 4-3 defense.

After signing two veteran defensive linemen, the Ravens should turn their attention to adding an inside linebacker and safety. Those are major needs after Baltimore lost inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe to Miami and released safety Bernard Pollard. The Ravens could also lose Ed Reed, who is currently a free agent.
Paralyzed in free agency, unable to get Tony Romo extended, and the hits just keep on coming for Dallas Cowboys fans, who are going to absolutely hate this story from Calvin Watkins about right tackle Doug Free. Calvin reports that, according to a source, Free's future with the Cowboys is "secure for now."
Earlier this offseason, executive vice president Stephen Jones said of Free's possible return: "I wouldn't rule Doug out."

[+] EnlargeDoug Free
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports Tackle Doug Free is scheduled to count $10.02 million against the Cowboys' salary cap.
Free's status could again become tenuous if the Cowboys believe there's a tackle worthy of selecting in the first two rounds of the draft. If that's the case, Free could be sent packing, and Jermey Parnell or the draft pick would become the starter at right tackle.

Yeah, see, that's the whole thing. The phrase "secure for now" doesn't really mean much, right? You're either secure or you're not. If the status of your security can change, you're not secure. So I wouldn't worry too much. I still think there's a really good chance they designate Free a June 1 cut and save $7 million against the cap during the summer.

But the fact that they haven't done that yet speaks to their situation, and their lack of ability to find a replacement for Free. They literally can't sign a free-agent tackle (unless they get that Tony Romo deal done and reduce their quarterback's 2013 cap cost in the process), and picking 18th in the draft they can't be certain they'll find their answer at right tackle in the draft. They could find a very good guard at that spot, such as Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper, which might help convince them they can afford to give Parnell a shot. But six weeks away from the draft they can't possibly know.

So they will wait on Free. They cut defensive lineman Marcus Spears and designated him a June 1 release because they felt like they had enough depth on the defensive line to do that now. But obviously, and justifiably, they don't feel the same about their offensive line. And as bad as Free was last year, they don't feel as though they can let him go without knowing who's going to replace him. Add all of that to the Cowboys' famous tendency to hang onto their own players too long and refuse to admit mistakes, and you find yourself unable to say with complete certainty that they will part ways with Free. Even if it seems obvious to all of us on the outside that they need to do so.

This Cowboys' offseason is going to be like this -- slow and frustrating -- and they're going to need to have a very good, 2013-focused draft if they're to make the playoffs this year. Cowboys fans aren't used to Marches like this one, but they don't have much choice right now other than to deal with it.
Hey, did you see who the Dallas Cowboys picked up in free agency Wednesday? Yeah, that's right. Same guy they signed Tuesday. Nobody.

The Cowboys are stuck up against the salary cap, as we have discussed here many times, until they find a way to get a contract extension for Tony Romo and/or Anthony Spencer. And even the moves they're making to save cap room aren't helping them right away. They decided Wednesday to release veteran defensive lineman Marcus Spears, but even that move doesn't help them until after June 1. Spears is designated a June 1 cut, as right tackle Doug Free is likely to be, so the Cowboys can't get the $2 million cap savings on him until then.

That (along with the expected release of Free) is likely to help the Cowboys sign their draft picks, but not to be factors in this early part of free agency. As of Tuesday morning, the Cowboys were $175,000 under the cap, which is kind of the same as being $1 under the cap, and until they get Romo's extension done (or, less likely, Spencer's), they're not going to be able to do much of anything in terms of signing players. The $5 million in league-imposed penalties they're still facing this year are a large part of the problem.

Why cut Spears now when they can't get the savings until June? Basically, it's a courtesy to Spears that allows him to look for work elsewhere in the meantime. They feel as though they have enough depth on the defensive line that they don't need to keep him around if they've decided they don't have a spot for him. So why not let him go find a job? Free's case is different, I believe, because they don't have as much depth on the offensive line as they do on the defensive line and they don't want to get caught short if they're unable to find a replacement for him.