NFL Nation: Matt jones

If the NFL assures players that the big money that’s gone to first-round picks in the past will be redistributed to veterans, I don’t see where the players can object.

AP reported details of the league’s pitch for reducing rookie salaries.

For context, here’s a look at the money the Jacksonville Jaguars have paid first-round picks since 2000 -- $111,380,562 in guaranteed money before playing an NFL snap, an average of $10,125,506 per player.


Nelson, Jones, Williams and Soward were outright busts and Harvey could be off the roster by opening day. The Jaguars have suffered and will suffer depth-chart consequences for those picks. But they also shelled out nearly $26 million to those five guys.

Personnel failures are one thing, the financial penalty is something else and the only element involved in all of this that would object to a system change is members of the rookie pool who aren’t actually very good.

Five-year deals for first-rounders negotiated in this context, with less total money, seems sensible. Nothing would change for draft picks outside of the first round.

The change could help fix what’s broken in the draft.

As Eagles president Joe Banner told AP:
"The whole concept of the draft and ordering of the picks is to maintain competitive balance in the league. Now teams get top picks who have become so expensive and there's the risk you can miss, and it makes the ability to trade in and out of those spots almost impossible. It can become a disadvantage to be in one of the top spots."

But agent Ben Dogra makes a good counterargument.

"Five years and reduced pay is basically restricting players," said Dogra, whose clients include Patrick Willis and Sam Bradford. "Roughly 68 percent of the NFL is comprised of players with five years or less of NFL experience.

"Even players from essentially picks 11 to 32 in the first round are good financial deals for the teams. If a player becomes a starter or an integral part of the team under the current system, the NFL teams have the player under a rookie deal that is favorable to the team."

The league’s done well to get this issue out front. It’s time to tinker with it, get it right and count it as one element of the deal that's done.

Draft Watch: AFC West

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: history in that spot.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos’ top pick is No. 2 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: DT Ndamukong Suh (Lions)

2009: T Jason Smith (Rams)

2008: DE Chris Long (Rams)

2007: WR Calvin Johnson (Lions)

2006: RB Reggie Bush (Saints)

2005: RB Ronnie Brown (Dolphins)

2004: OL Robert Gallery (Raiders)

ANALYSIS: This is the Broncos’ first top-five pick since 1991 when they took linebacker Mike Croel at No. 4. The Broncos would love to have the success Detroit had last year with the pick. Suh looks like a unit changer and Denver needs a similarly dominant defender. Detroit is the only team to have great success at No. 2 in the past seven years. Along with Suh, Johnson is a fabulous player. There are some good players on this list, though, with no flat-out duds. The Rams hope to see progress in Smith and Long, who made strides in 2010.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers’ top pick is No. 18 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: C Maurkice Pouncey (Steelers)

2009: LB Robert Ayers (Broncos)

2008: QB Joe Flacco (Ravens)

2007: CB Leon Hall (Bengals)

2006: LB Bobby Carpenter (Cowboys)

2005: LB Erasmus James (Vikings)

2004: DE Will Smith (Saints)

ANALYSIS: This is an interesting group. It shows teams can find franchise players at No. 18, but they can also make a major mistake with the pick. Flacco was a tremendous value for Baltimore in 2008. Pouncey looks like he’ll be at center in Pittsburgh for the next decade. Smith has also had a terrific career and was a solid pick at No. 18. James was a terrible pick, Carpenter wasn’t worth it and the jury is still out on Ayers. The Chargers know they have to pick smart. They took linebacker Larry English at No. 16 in 2009 and are waiting for a payoff. It’s interesting that there are four defensive ends/linebackers on this list. That’s exactly the position the Chargers will be looking for with the No. 18 pick.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ top pick is No. 21 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: TE Jermaine Gresham (Bengals)

2009: C Alex Mack (Browns)

2008: T Sam Baker (Falcons)

2007: S Reggie Nelson (Jaguars)

2006: RB Laurence Maroney (Patriots)

2005: WR Matt Jones (Jaguars)

2004: DT Vince Wilfork (Patriots)

ANALYSIS: The Kansas City Chiefs are not used to drafting this low. Kansas City has picked in the top five the past three years. However, Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli is plenty familiar with having the No. 21 pick. He was with New England when it had the choice in 2004 and 2006. Pioli has seen teams both score and whiff with the pick. Wilfork was a tremendous choice while taking Maroney was a blunder. However, the pick has paid solid dividends in recent years. This doesn’t appear to be a bad spot to be in.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders’ top pick is No. 48 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: QB Jimmy Clausen (Panthers)

2009: S Darcel McBath (Broncos)

2008: TE Fred Davis (Redskins)

2007: LB Justin Durant (Jagaurs)

2006: DB Cedric Griffin (Vikings)

2005: LB Odell Thurman (Bengals)

2004: LB Dontarrious Thomas (Vikings)

ANALYSIS: It’s interesting that a quarterback was taken at this spot in 2010. Clausen was the third quarterback taken last year. If a quarterback such as Washington’s Jake Locker or Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett takes a similar tumble, we could see a quarterback taken at No. 48 again. This pick has been hit-or-miss, so it could be worth taking a gamble. Oakland picked at No. 47 two years ago and is still waiting for safety Mike Mitchell to develop. Last year, Oakland took defensive lineman Lamarr Houston at No. 44 and he had a terrific rookie season. In 2007, Oakland took standout tight end Zach Miller at No. 38. The Raiders know they can find talent in the second round.

Cincinnati Bengals cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
9/04/10
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Check here for a full list of Cincinnati’s roster moves.

Biggest surprise: Chase Coffman was once considered the tight end of the future for Cincinnati. But the team drafted first-round pick Jermaine Gresham and re-signed Reggie Kelly, who will get all the playing time. The Bengals made a nice, last-minute acquisition by trading with the Jacksonville Jaguars for former first-round pick Reggie Nelson. Cincinnati traded cornerback David Jones, who was expendable after the team signed Adam Jones this offseason. But the Bengals were searching for depth at safety. Rookie receiver Dezmon Briscoe’s release also stood out. He didn’t immediately live up to his potential but showed flashes in the final preseason game. Cincinnati was very deep at receiver and chose Jerome Simpson instead for one of the final roster spots. Look for Cincinnati to claim Briscoe on the practice squad if he's not claimed by another team.

No-brainers: Veteran receiver Matt Jones was a predictable cut and I called this one in the AFC North blog. Jones, who was out of football in 2009 for off-the-field reasons, just never looked like the great athlete he once was when he was drafted in the first round by Jacksonville. He also had a team-friendly, one-year contract that made Jones easy to release. Mike Nugent also won the kicking competition with Dave Rayner, which made the Rayner cut predictable.

What’s next: This is the most talented team I've seen in Cincinnati during coach Marvin Lewis' tenure. Several Cincinnati players could find jobs with other teams soon, which is not the norm for the Bengals. That’s a credit to the depth on this year’s roster. Cincinnati also could be looking for a fullback with Fui Vakapuna waived/ injured.

Bengals players cut:

K Dave Rayner

G Isaac Sowells

S Marvin White

DT Orien Harris

S Kyries Hebert

TE Chase Coffman

TE Darius Hill

HB James Johnson

DT Clinton McDonald

S Rico Murray

WR Maurice Purify

WR Dezmon Briscoe

G Otis Hudson

OT Gabriel Manns

S Jeromy Miles

LB Vincent Rey

OT Chris Rodgers

CB Johnny Sears

FB Joe Tronzo

AFC North roster bubbles

August, 31, 2010
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Jones, Williams & VeikunAP PhotosMatt Jones, Demetrius Williams and David Veikune are among the AFC North players in danger of not making their teams' final 53-man rosters.
With teams required to cut down to 53 players by Saturday, it's time to focus on the final rosters in the AFC North.

Expect plenty of chatter internally this week among general managers, scouts and coaches throughout the division on who should make the team. This is always one of the most intriguing weeks of the NFL season.

With that said, here are several noteworthy players on the bubble in the AFC North:

1. Matt Jones, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: The Jones experiment probably will end this week. The Bengals took a chance on Jones, who was out of football in 2009 for off-field issues, to see if he had anything left. Except for a few flashes, such as the Hall of Fame Game, the former first-round pick has been injured and not nearly the same explosive player he was several years ago. Jones also signed a team-friendly, one-year contract, which makes him easy to release. The Bengals have a lot of depth at receiver, and Jones doesn't appear to be in their plans.

Cut-O-Meter: 80 percent

2. David Veikune, LB, Cleveland Browns

Analysis: Despite entering only his second season, this was a very important training camp for Veikune. The former second-round pick was a major disappointment in his rookie season. Veikune hasn't stepped up so far and is having another nondescript preseason. His best chance to make the Browns is his high draft status. But first-year president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert added their own linebackers and have no personal investment in Veikune.

Cut-O-Meter: 80 percent

3. Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: Placing Williams on the roster bubble has become an annual tradition in Baltimore -- and every year he survives. This year could be the same for Williams, who has a lot of ability but has yet to live up to his potential. Williams received a lucky "break," both literally and figuratively, when veteran receiver Donte' Stallworth suffered a broken foot in the third preseason game. Stallworth will be out approximately two months, increasing Williams' chances of making Baltimore's 53-man roster.

Cut-O-Meter: 35 percent

4. Justin Hartwig, C, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Hartwig struggled at center last year and lost his job this preseason to first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers believe Pouncey is a star-in-the-making, which leaves Hartwig's future in limbo. Despite the benching, there is no question Hartwig is one of Pittsburgh's best 53 players. That should be enough. But Hartwig also is scheduled to make a little more than $2 million this season. He's being paid as a starting center and that's no longer his role. There's a chance Hartwig could compete at right guard or simply be the first center/guard off the bench in the event of injury. Hartwig's experience and versatility help his case.

Cut-O-Meter: 30 percent

5. Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals

Analysis: Simpson is another second-round pick who is running out of chances. Despite coming from small-school Coastal Carolina, the Bengals were enamored with his physical abilities and reached for Simpson in the second round of the 2008 draft. But the Bengals tired of waiting for Simpson to develop and made several offseason additions at receiver, which included signing Terrell Owens and drafting Jordan Shipley in the third round. But Antonio Bryant's surprising release helps Simpson's chances.

Cut-O-Meter: 50 percent

6. James Davis, RB, Browns

Analysis: It's funny how quickly things can change in the NFL. Last summer, Davis was the talk of Cleveland after he led the Browns in rushing during the preseason as a rookie. This year, Davis is on the bubble after a lot of offseason additions at running back. The top three tailbacks for Cleveland are locks: Jerome Harrison, Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty. The question now is how many running backs Cleveland will keep. If the answer is four, Davis and Chris Jennings are battling for the final spot. I give Davis the edge.

Cut-O-Meter: 40 percent

7. David Reed, WR, Ravens

Analysis: Reed, a fifth-round pick, burst on the scene in Baltimore with a stellar spring. But since then he's been inconsistent and is back on the bubble. Like Williams, Reed also benefits from Stallworth's injury and the extra roster spot available at receiver. That increases Reed's chances to make it. Otherwise, the Ravens would love to develop him on the practice squad.

Cut-O-Meter: 50 percent

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJonathan Dwyer led the Steelers in rushing against the Broncos, but will it be enough to earn him a roster spot?
8. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Steelers

Analysis: Dwyer made a strong push late for a roster spot in Pittsburgh. After a disappointing training camp, Dwyer led the Steelers in rushing with 89 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's preseason loss to the Denver Broncos. Running back Isaac Redman has been stellar and secured the third running back job that was intended for Dwyer. Thursday's preseason finale will be vital for the sixth-round pick.

Cut-O-Meter: 55 percent

9. Brett Ratliff, QB, Browns

Analysis: Do not believe the hype in Cleveland involving third-round pick Colt McCoy being on the bubble. From everything we're told, there is no truth to the speculation. This means Ratliff, barring injury, is probably spending his final week with the Browns. Ratliff will play a half Thursday in Cleveland's final preseason game against the Chicago Bears. That could be a nice showcase for Ratliff to try to latch on with another team. Browns coach Eric Mangini traded for Ratliff as part of the draft-day deal with the Jets to be a developmental project last year. But Holmgren is calling the shots now and drafted his own developmental project: McCoy.

Cut-O-Meter: 95 percent

10. Maurice Purify, WR, Bengals

Analysis: Purify is one of Cincinnati's top special-teams players. But the Bengals' immense depth at receiver and Purify's one-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy make it very unlikely he makes the cut. There is no reason for Cincinnati to take a roster spot away from a player who will be available for the start of the regular season to keep Purify.

Cut-O-Meter: 95 percent

Here are five additional names to watch:

Seven-step drop

August, 30, 2010
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With the preseason coming to a close this week, here are seven notes and observations on the AFC North:

  • Are the Pittsburgh Steelers lacking discipline? Their first-team defense uncharacteristically had four personal fouls Sunday in a 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. Two were by second-year cornerback Keenan Lewis, who was subsequently benched and earned a spot in coach Mike Tomlin's doghouse. Lewis also made a bad situation worse by reportedly punching through a glass sign after the game. If you add cornerback Ike Taylor's fight last week against the New York Giants that cost him $10,000, Pittsburgh is having problems keeping its cool lately.
  • [+] EnlargeFarrior
    Ron Chenoy/US PresswireJames Farrior lost his helmet during a play in Sunday night's game.

  • I'm noticing an unusual amount of players losing their helmets this preseason. The two most high-profile occurrences were with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Sunday with Steelers linebacker James Farrior. Both players suffered cuts to the head and were knocked out of the game. These are not isolated incidents. I've seen several preseason games this summer where helmets are dangerously flying off at an alarming rate.
  • Baltimore's pass protection is not as sharp as expected. The Giants recorded five total sacks against the Ravens Saturday and the pocket overall wasn't consistently solid. At times, it was miscommunications. Other times New York simply outplayed Baltimore up front. We're not convinced Tony Moll is the answer at right tackle. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck had his way with Moll on several occasions. Baltimore tackles Oniel Cousins and/or Jared Gaither need to get healthy quickly.
  • We liked what we saw from Haruki Nakamura covering receivers in the slot. For a safety, he has pretty quick feet to keep up with receivers and make plays on the ball. Nakamura is considered an experiment in the slot until Baltimore's secondary gets healthy. But based on his performance, it's looking pretty good so far.
  • The Cleveland Browns have an update on safety Nick Sorensen. The bad news is he suffered a concussion Saturday against the Detroit Lions. But the good news is he is improving. Sorensen was not at practice Monday, and according to Browns coach Eric Mangini he will be resting for "a while."
  • Speaking of Mangini, this will be his first year putting together a 53-man roster with new president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. Cleveland currently has a mix of players leftover from the previous Mangini-George Kokinis regime and the new Holmgren-Heckert regime, setting up an interesting dynamic this week. Mangini will have his input and opinion on who stays and who goes, but Heckert and Holmgren will have the final say.
  • Cincinnati's receiver position is somewhat clearer now with Antonio Bryant's release. Cincinnati has a lot of depth at receiver, where six (maybe seven) could make the team. Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Jordan Shipley and Andre Caldwell are four locks. But at least two roster spots remain open for receivers Quan Cosby, Jerome Simpson, Matt Jones and Dezmon Briscoe. An educated guess is Cosby is in, making it a three-way tossup between Simpson, Jones and Briscoe.

Cowboys-Bengals observations

August, 9, 2010
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This was a Hall of Fame Game in name only. It wasn't pretty to watch either offense, but the Cowboys have reason feel good about their defense, which provided their only touchdown. Tight end John Phillips had an excellent evening, but it was cut short by what appears to be a serious knee injury. With Martellus Bennett's inconsistency last season, the Cowboys were counting on Phillips to play a significant role in the offense. The way his knee completely gave out as he started his route was not a good sign. Now, let's talk about what stood out to me in the Cowboys' 16-7 win over the Bengals.

  • I know it was only one series, but left tackle Doug Free was outstanding in protecting Tony Romo. Antwan Odom's a pretty solid pass-rusher, but Free controlled him throughout the series. Even when he got knocked off balance on one play, he stayed in front of Odom. Before he got hurt, second-team left tackle Alex Barron did not impress me at all. The Cowboys' backup linemen made Geno Atkins look like he belonged in Canton, Ohio, on a permanent basis. And Michael Johnson also gave the Cowboys' blockers fits. John Phillips was the only player who consistently stayed with his blocks throughout the first half.

  • When I saw that Ron Winter was running the show, I knew we were in for a long evening. I know it wasn't his usual officiating crew, but he made sure they called everything. They hit Andre Gurode for a holding penalty on the Cowboys' first drive.

  • That was pretty entertaining to watch Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton match up with Adam Jones. The cornerback held his own for the most part, but Crayton and Romo fooled him on an excellent back-shoulder pass. Just exquisite timing -- especially since it's so early in camp.

  • Romo connected with Roy Williams on a crossing route during that first drive. The ball was a little behind Williams and it was high, but he snagged it anyway. That's a really good sign for Williams. I thought he and Austin made the most of their limited opportunities. Jason Garrett made it a point to get Williams involved quite a bit.

  • Felix Jones got bailed out by an offside call when the Cowboys were inside the Bengals' 10-yard line. He has to secure the ball in that situation.

  • [+] EnlargeBrandon Sharpe
    AP Photo/Ron SchwaneBrandon Sharpe of Dallas scored the Cowboys' only touchdown, returning an interception 6 yards against the Bengals.
    Through one preseason game, it doesn't look like the Cowboys have solved those red-zone issues. It was only one opportunity, but there was no reason to get bogged down inside the 5-yard line.

  • David Buehler made his short field-goal attempts, but he missed a 49-yarder by about 20 yards to the left. It was a gigantic hook, and that's something that has to concern Wade Phillips. You can handle a miss from 49 yards, but it's concerning when the ball's not even close. I Thought I was watching more "highlights" of Tiger at the World Golf Challenge.

  • I loved how defensive end Stephen Bowen played Sunday night. He was an absolute beast from the right side. He forced a poor throw from Carson Palmer by collapsing the pocket in the first quarter. The Cowboys will be just fine if Marcus Spears isn't able to make it back for the first game. Jason Hatcher and Bowen both played well against the Bengals.

  • What an awful deal for John Phillips. He was the Cowboys' best offensive player in the first half and he hurt his knee in a non-contact situation. I seriously think he was ready to surpass Bennett. He can line up in the backfield as the lead blocker and he can make nice catches downfield. He was on his way to being the best blocking tight end on the team. I really believe that. Tough, tough injury for a guy who was having an excellent camp.

  • Kevin Ogletree caught everything thrown his way, but he has to know where he is on the field. On his first catch, he sort of staggered forward and lost the first down. It was an awkward play from a normally smooth player.

  • Tashard Choice showed some nice acceleration on that 21-yard run around the right side. You have to find a way to get him more involved in the offense. He's too good to only have two or three carries per game.

  • Herb Donaldson, it was nice knowing you. You can't fumble on your first carry of the evening. Gibril Wilson made a nice play to poke it out of there, but Donaldson did not secure the ball properly.

  • I thought Cris Collinsworth made a really nice assessment of Bowen when he compared him to Jim Jeffcoat. He's obviously not there yet, but he sort of moves like Jeffcoat. He doesn't look very fast, but he always seems to be causing trouble in the backfield. Really good night for him.

  • I'm not sure what happened to third-string quarterback Stephen McGee. He looked confident early in completing his first five passes. But as the night went on, he became more and more tentative. You're going to get sacked if you hold it that long. He reminded me of Drew Henson tonight because he just took too long to process things. McGee has good athleticism and an excellent arm, but you need to unload the ball. Otherwise, a guy named Michael Johnson suddenly looks like an All-Pro linebacker. Mike Zimmer appears to be onto something with that guy.

  • It was a good night for former Texas Tech players. Jamar Wall did an excellent job in coverage. On one particular play, Chad Ochocinco could not shake Wall. And linebackers Brandon Williams and Brandon Sharpe both had big interceptions. Williams had a nice return that should've set up a touchdown. Sharpe picked off a Jordan Palmer pass and returned it for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Sort of fun to see Tony Romo cut off an interview with NBC to celebrate the touchdown with a loud, "Yes!" And if I'm Carson Palmer, I'm in there tomorrow morning begging the coaches not to cut my little brother. For goodness sakes, Jordan Palmer looked nothing like an NFL quarterback. He held the ball too long, and then he made backbreaking decisions.

  • Sorry, but Robert Brewster looked like a bust on this evening. The former Ball State offensive tackle was taken in the third round in '09. He promptly tore a pectoral muscle while lifting weights. On Sunday, he had no chance against the Bengals backup defensive ends and linebackers. He wasn't strong enough to anchor his body and he just got bullied the whole time he was in there. I was not impressed with anything about his performance.

  • Brian McCann's back there trying to make a play on a punt return and Brandon Ghee just nails him. I know they said Ghee was blocked into McCann, but I thought the play could've been avoided. You hate to see a defenseless player take a shot in the chest like that.

  • I thought Danny McCray had a nice outing. He had the interception, but he also was very active on special teams. The Cowboys wanted more turnovers this season, and on Sunday, they caused four. Jason Hatcher applied the pressure that led to McCray's interception. Did I mention how poorly the Bengals' backup quarterbacks played?

  • Wall had a solid game, but he got burned going for an interception on a pass to Matt Jones.

  • The Cowboys' young linebackers were incredibly active. Insider backer Jason Williams flattened one of the Bengals' running backs and Brandon Williams was flying all over the field. Also strong showings by Victor Butler and Steve Octavien. It looks like the Cowboys have a ton of depth at linebacker based on what we saw Sunday night. And rookie Sean Lee didn't even play because of a quadriceps injury that has slowed him early in camp.

  • Great special teams play by former Oklahoma standout Manuel Johnson to help the Cowboys down a Mat McBriar punt at the 1-yard line.

  • I liked how Marcus Dixon played in the second half. He was very active and he always seemed to be in the right place. If Jordan Palmer's going to hold the ball, Butler and Dixon are going to get to him. For a first preseason game, the defense was very impressive.

  • I thought Marion Barber looked quick early in the game. And he brought a ton of energy to the offense. I think the Cowboys will try to do a better job of keeping him fresh for the fourth quarter this season.

  • Former University of Texas star Jordan Shipley burned the Cowboys for a 64-yard punt return. Apparently Carson Palmer has been raving about Shipley. Shipley and Wall have faced each other several times in Big 12 play. Shipley certainly got the best of Wall with a nice move in the open field. And McBriar's one of the best punters in the league, but open-field tackling's not his strength.

  • It's probably time to end the Pat McQuistan era in Dallas. He's just not quick enough to hold off defensive tackles. And if you run a stunt against him, he's in big trouble.

  • Rookie running back Lonyae Miller out of Fresno State had his moments. He'll be a good practice squad candidate.

  • Overall, not a bad first outing. The Phillips injury is tough blow.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 11

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals are now the hunted, and they believe they have enough talent to prove last year's AFC North division title was no fluke.

It has been 28 years since the Bengals last posted back-to-back winning seasons. But coming off a playoff appearance and new offseason additions, this is the deepest and most talented group Marvin Lewis has coached in eight seasons.

Cincinnati's six-win improvement was one of the biggest jumps in the NFL last season. On paper, this year's team looks even better, although the Bengals have to prove they can handle a brutal first-place schedule.

"Nobody is really sleeping on you. Everybody knows that you can play," Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers said of the upcoming season. "So we have to make sure we come out swinging, because teams are going to come out swinging against us."

Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco said it would be a "shame" if Cincinnati doesn't win the Super Bowl. That's one example of how high expectations are for the Bengals, who have to address several key issues this summer if they want to make a playoff run.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
Mark Zerof/US PresswireCarson Palmer is excited about the additional weapons at his disposal this season.
1. Can the Bengals improve their passing game? Cincinnati's passing offense was a disappointment last season, particularly late in the year. The Bengals aggressively attacked the problem by adding new weapons such as first-round draft pick Jermaine Gresham and receivers Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant and Jordan Shipley.

As a result, Cincinnati could have as many as three new receivers in the top four of its rotation to join Ochocinco. And Gresham is projected to start at tight end for the Bengals, surrounding Carson Palmer with enough weapons to make any quarterback happy.

"In the grand scheme of things, we're very explosive," Palmer said.

The chemistry between Palmer and Owens is still a work in progress. The difference between Palmer's comfort level with Owens versus his comfort level with Ochocinco, whom Palmer has worked with for eight years, was noticeable in camp.

The deep ball disappeared from Cincinnati's offense during the second half of last season. But with Owens (Batman?) taking some of the pressure off Ochocinco (Robin?), and added receiver depth, expect more fireworks this year.

"What I want the focal point of this team to be is I want the offense to be our strength again," Ochocinco said this week. "I think the defense has sort of taken over the outlook as the strength of the team. I want our receiving corps and the rest of our offense to be that strength, that backbone of this team."

2. Will the Bengals' defense generate a pass rush? The Bengals were the fourth-best defense in the NFL last season. But one area where they can improve is getting to the quarterback.

Cincinnati had 34 sacks last year, which was middle of the pack at No. 16. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made it a priority to dial up new and better ways to increase the sack numbers.

The healthy return of starting defensive end Antwan Odom should help. He was the team's top pass-rusher last season until he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. The Bengals also have young, athletic players who could see playing time in passing situations such as linebacker Michael Johnson and rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

Nugent
Rayner
3. Who’s the kicker? Kickers aren't important until you need them. The Bengals know that all too well after their experience with Shayne Graham, who had a knack for missing field goals in key moments.

This summer there is an interesting competition going between journeyman kickers Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent. The two have played for a combined eight teams in their NFL careers.

Nugent is hurt this week, which may have allowed Rayner to take a slight lead. But Rayner has had his ups and downs as well. Earlier this week he made all six of his field-goal attempts, but on Wednesday Rayner was 5-for-8. He missed two 50-yard attempts that were very wide left.

Expect this competition to be settled during the preseason.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

He is not the biggest player or the fastest, but there is something about Shipley that continues to stand out in camp. He has even caught the attention of Ochocinco, who said early that the rookie has potential.

Shipley seems at home in the slot. He has a knack for getting open and has sure hands and good ball security in traffic once the catch is made. The Bengals are very deep at receiver this year, so it's questionable how big a role Shipley could have. But for now he's making the most of his opportunities.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Former first-round pick Matt Jones seems to be falling behind daily in an effort to earn a roster spot. Once a big athlete with freakish speed, Jones clearly has lost a couple of steps after taking a year away from football.

Jones also suffered a foot injury recently, which hasn't helped his case. Ochocinco, Owens, Bryant, Shipley and Andre Caldwell probably will take up five slots at the receiver position. That leaves only one or two more roster spots for Jones and several other receivers to compete for. Do not be surprised if Jones doesn't make the cut.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Mark Zerof/US PresswireTerrell Owens is still working on establishing chemistry with Carson Palmer.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Despite signing just before camp, Owens arrived in very good shape. He still has to learn the offense, but Owens has shown some flashes of what he can do. On Wednesday night, Palmer connected deep with Owens, who beat cornerback Leon Hall, streaking down the sideline for a 55-yard touchdown. The play was one of the highlights of camp thus far.
  • Bryant continues to rehab his knee. He participated in the first day of camp but has missed every practice since. The Bengals signed Bryant to a four-year, $28 million contract but he hasn't looked explosive as he continues to heal from offseason knee surgery. The team is hoping he continues to progress.
  • Watch out for second-year running back Bernard Scott. He is my sleeper pick for the Bengals this season. Scott has a chance to contribute both as Cedric Benson's backup as well as a kick returner. With increased opportunities, Scott should have increased production.
  • Adam Jones should help the Bengals in some capacity this year. His technique as a cornerback still needs improvement, but he is competing hard in practice and his physical abilities are still apparent. Jones also looks natural as a kick returner and could be an early favorite to win punt and/or kickoff return duties.
  • Although none of the injuries is major, the Bengals have been banged up this week. Fullback Fui Vakapuna hurt his shoulder and missed practice time. Dunlap suffered a concussion. Linebacker Rey Maualuga injured his hamstring and cornerback Johnathan Joseph also had a thigh injury.
  • The Bengals don't have a lot of depth at fullback, but the position might not be as important as it once was. Cincinnati's offensive personnel dictates the team will run a lot of three-wide receiver and two-tight end sets. In both instances, the fullback will be taken off the field.
  • I have not been impressed with Cincinnati's pass protection early in camp. You cannot see everything, because players cannot touch the quarterback. But the number of defenders getting in the passing lanes has been noticeable. That will be something to keep an eye on in the preseason.
  • I'll exit with a prediction: I have a sneaky feeling the Bengals will keep only two quarterbacks this season. Cincinnati has waves and waves of players at other positions, and cutting the No. 3 quarterback -- most likely Jordan Palmer -- is one way the Bengals can save a roster spot to retain an extra receiver, defensive back or linebacker. Carson Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan would be the team's quarterbacks, while the Bengals could always add Jordan Palmer or someone else down the road in the event of an emergency.
GEORGETOWN, KY. -- The Cincinnati Bengals continued their 2010 training camp Tuesday, and the AFC North blog stopped by to check out the reigning division champs.

Here are some notes and observations:

  • [+] EnlargeBengals Camp
    AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe competition between Chad Ochocinco, left, and Johnathan Joseph has been fierce.
    My favorite part of practice Tuesday was watching the great receiver-cornerback battles between Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens against Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. Neither side is backing down and there is some high-quality football being played, especially for early in training camp. In the end, expect all four players to be better off for providing each other stout competition.
"He's all about his business," Joseph said, complimenting Owens. "He comes in, he works hard in practice, and I think it's a great pickup for this team. I think it will pay off big for us."

  • Overall, the defense won Tuesday's practice. The unit was very physical, and I saw at least three noticeable hits by safety Gibril Wilson and linebackers Keith Rivers and Brandon Johnson. In addition, safety Roy Williams got an interception in the middle of the field off quarterback Carson Palmer in team drills. The defense also stopped the offense from scoring in two-minute drills.
  • Cincinnati first-round pick Jermaine Gresham made his training camp debut after signing a five-year deal. The Bengals aren't wasting time with the rookie tight end. He is projected to start in Week 1 and will play in Sunday's Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys. Due to a knee injury, Sunday will mark his first game action in more than a year.
"If you have something you really love taken from you, you appreciate everything about it," Gresham said. "It's not just one specific thing, it's everything. Just being out there with your guys. Being able to play football with each other, laugh, joke, be tired with each other. You even miss that. It's everything in itself that you miss about football."

  • Another note on Gresham: He spent the past couple of weeks working out with No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams while both were waiting on contracts. Bradford and Gresham were former college teammates and a dangerous quarterback-tight end duo at Oklahoma.
  • Among the players who didn't practice Tuesday were linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring), rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap (concussion) and receiver Matt Jones, who was seen wearing a boot. Receiver Antonio Bryant (knee) also worked independently on the side.
  • There is a lot of competition at receiver, and for one day at least, Andre Caldwell didn't help himself. He had two drops Tuesday. Jordan Shipley and Jerome Simpson did make a few nice grabs. Expect all to have their ups and downs as they compete for roles on the team.

AFC North roster bubbles

July, 13, 2010
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Every year teams have tough decisions to make to trim their rosters to 53 players. Sometimes the coaching staff and front office can't agree on who stays and who goes, and the debates get pretty heated.

With training camp approximately two weeks away, here are eight AFC North players who could be heavily debated and on the roster bubble this summer:

1. Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

[+] EnlargeJones
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals cornerback Adam Jones looked good in training camp.
Case for: There is no denying Jones' talent. The former first-round pick looked quick and athletic playing cornerback and returning kicks during last month's mandatory minicamp. What's interesting is Jones is still working himself back into football shape after sitting out the 2009 season. The Bengals lacked a reliable third cornerback to go with starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. So there is a role available.

Case against: Jones sat out last season for off-field reasons. He has said and done the right things so far in Cincinnati, but he's on a very short leash with the league office. One mishap and Jones could be off the team and out of the league for the rest of the year. But if he stays clear of trouble, he has enough ability to make the team and contribute.

Chances of making team: 80 percent

2. Matt Jones, WR, Bengals

Case for: Jones has good size and experience. The former first-round pick had 166 career receptions and 15 touchdowns during his stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Outside of starters Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, Cincinnati has a pretty young group of receivers. That could give Jones a chance to earn roster spot if he's polished enough to contribute now for the defending AFC North champs.

Case against: After sitting out all of 2009 because of off-field issues, Jones appears to have lost a step. This spring he hasn't looked nearly as explosive as the freakish athlete who impressed at the NFL combine in 2005. Similar to Adam Jones, it's possible that Matt Jones can regain some of his form in the process of a grueling training camp. Jones also has an inexpensive, team-friendly contract, which the Bengals can easily terminate if they don't like what they see.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

3. Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals

Case for: Despite a lack of production, Simpson has stuck around for two reasons: draft status and lack of receiver depth. It's hard for teams to give up on second-round picks. The Bengals invested a lot in Simpson and still want to get a return on their high pick, even if it means an extended wait. In the past, the Bengals haven't had a lot of receiver depth, which has allowed Simpson to make the 53-man roster. But that has changed this year, as Cincinnati's receiving corps has a lot of competition.

Case against: The Bengals appear tired of waiting on Simpson, who has one reception in two seasons. They drafted two rookie receivers to compete for roster spots, Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe. This is a make-or-break training camp for Simpson. He showed occasional flashes in practice but not nearly enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff when it matters in the regular season. Entering his third NFL season, there are no more excuses for Simpson not to produce.

Chances of making team: 50 percent

4. Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore Ravens

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Williams
AP Photo/Rob CarrRavens receiver Demetrius Williams could be the team's deep-threat option.
Case for: With his speed and athleticism, a case can be made that Williams potentially is Baltimore's most dangerous deep threat. Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are more savvy, consistent receivers, while Donte' Stallworth is trying to get his legs under him after sitting out a year. Williams has averaged an impressive 16 yards per catch in his career, including two touchdown receptions of 70 yards or more. There is an open role for someone to get deep in Baltimore's high-powered offense, and Williams has a chance to be that player.

Case against: Health has always been an issue for Williams. He has played in 16 games once in his four-year career. Baltimore has kept Williams because of his potential, but at some point the Ravens would like to see consistency. To do that, Williams must stay healthy to find a role on a Ravens team with very high expectations.

Chances of making team: 70 percent

5. John Beck, QB, Ravens

Case for: Beck knows offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system well from their days together with the Miami Dolphins. Beck's future in Baltimore could come down to Troy Smith's situation. There have been rumors of interest in Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback injuries in training camp and preseason could also increase Smith's trade value this summer, which would gift wrap the No. 3 quarterback job for Beck.

Case against: If nothing happens on the trade front, the Ravens have an interesting decision to make between Smith and Beck. With Joe Flacco, Marc Bulger and Smith, Beck is probably the team's fourth quarterback right now, which naturally makes him the odd man out. If Smith is still on the roster, Beck will have to make up ground the old-fashioned way and outperform Smith in the preseason to win a roster spot.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

6. Bobby Engram, WR, Cleveland Browns

Case for: The Browns have little depth and little experience at receiver. Engram potentially could provide both. The 14-year veteran played for Cleveland president Mike Holmgren when both were with the Seattle Seahawks and knows what to expect. Engram recently had a big year in 2007, when he had 94 receptions for 1,147 yards and six touchdowns. He also can serve as a mentor to young receivers such as Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.

Case against: It's questionable what Engram, 37, has left. Last season he had only five receptions in five games for the Kansas City Chiefs. Holmgren is hoping Engram has one more decent year left in him to help Cleveland's struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009. But if there's any team Engram can make this year, it's the Browns.

Chances of making team: 60 percent

7. James Davis, RB, Browns

Case for: Davis was arguably Cleveland's biggest rookie surprise last summer when he led the team in rushing during the preseason. But high expectations were crushed when a season-ending shoulder injury limited Davis to only two games. Now he's back for his second season and looks healthy.

Case against: Cleveland's situation at running back is very crowded. One of the best things Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert did this offseason was put together a solid group of rushers. The Browns traded up to draft tailback Montario Hardesty in the second round and got Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos in the Brady Quinn trade. Last year's leading rusher, Jerome Harrison, also returns to make for a versatile group of ball carriers. All three running backs are ahead of Davis on the depth chart. So barring injury, Davis looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.

Chances of making team: 35 percent

8. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesPittsburgh sixth-round pick Jonathan Dwyer might be headed to the practice squad.
Case for: Despite being a sixth-round pick, Dwyer has a chance to contribute early for the Steelers. He displayed strong legs and good power in college, and that could translate into a short-yardage option for Pittsburgh. The Steelers struggled in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. If Dwyer proves he can move the chains, that would be more than enough to earn a roster spot.

Case against: Although the Steelers may end up with a bargain, no team is afraid to put a sixth-round pick on the practice squad. Dwyer played in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, which means he may need some time to learn a pro-style offense. But Dwyer could pan out in a limited role.

Chances of making team: 75 percent

AFC North draft analysis

April, 24, 2010
4/24/10
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

This season is expected to be a close race in the division. So the drafts of the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns could go a long way toward determining who comes out on top.

With that said, here is a look at the decisions made this week in the AFC North:

Best move

The "Wizard of Oz" was at it again. After trading out of the first round for the first time in franchise history, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome came back strong in the second round by grabbing two first-round talents in linebacker Sergio Kindle and defensive tackle Terrence "Mount" Cody.

[+] EnlargeSergio Kindle
Harry How/Getty ImagesSergio Kindle notched 16 sacks over the past two seasons for Texas.
Baltimore passed over some good players in the first round when the team traded its No. 25 overall pick to the Denver Broncos, who surprisingly selected former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. In return the Ravens got three valuable picks and selected two potentials steals on defense in Kindle and Cody.

"Well, I think the biggest thing that we did [is] we got guys that we wouldn't want to play against," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. "You know, these guys all have, really, a dominant trait in some respect. They do different things very well, and that's intriguing in our situation to get a linebacker that can really rush the passer -- a very explosive guy. And then we've had a lot of success over the years with these massive run-stuffers. Terrence Cody is that guy."

The Ravens had Kindle rated very high on their board and weren't scared off by injury concerns about his knee. That was the reason he fell to the second round. Cody has weight issues. But if he's able to keep that under control, Cody can be a force alongside Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata to create one of the biggest pairings of defensive tackles in the league.

Riskiest move

It's hard to doubt the Steelers with their stellar track record. But they did ignore more immediate needs in the top half of this year's draft.

Pittsburgh passed over help in other areas early to grab pass-rushers Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson. Barring injuries, this pair of outside linebackers will have a very hard time getting on the field while sitting behind Pro Bowlers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

Worilds and Gibson could turn out to be productive players at some point. But if I had rated positions of need for the Steelers entering this draft, outside linebacker would have been last.

In particular, there were plenty of quality defensive linemen available in the first three or four rounds who could've provided a more immediate impact in Pittsburgh's defensive rotation. But the team did a solid job addressing another immediate need at cornerback by trading with the Arizona Cardinals for former Steelers starter Bryant McFadden.

Most surprising move

McCoy
McCoy
Although it wasn't shocking the Browns landed former Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, the manner in which Cleveland did it was very surprising.

The Browns really liked McCoy, particularly his intangibles and accuracy, but felt they had more pressing needs to address early in the draft. Cleveland instead plugged holes in the secondary and at running back for three rounds as McCoy surprisingly slid further than expected.

When the Browns came up at No. 85 overall, Cleveland finally got its quarterback of the future.

"In Colt's case, I really didn't think that he would be available to us," Browns president Mike Holmgren said. "I really felt that he would go before we had a chance to pick him. But when it didn't happen, it was something I really wanted to do and [coach] Eric [Mangini] and [GM] Tom [Heckert] went along with me and there you have it."

McCoy, a projected early second-rounder, wasn't too thrilled about his slide. But it could work in his favor.

As much as the city of Cleveland tends to love its backup quarterbacks, McCoy is coming to the Browns as a low third-rounder and without a ton of pressure to perform immediately.

Veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme is the starter in 2010, and the team has an experienced backup in Seneca Wallace. So McCoy should be able to hold a clipboard, learn the offense and get used to the NFL game for a full season before Cleveland thinks about putting him on the field.

"I don't expect him to play this year," Holmgren said. "We didn't draft [McCoy] to play this year."

File it away

The Bengals' third-round selection of Texas receiver Jordan Shipley adds a tremendous amount of competition to Cincinnati's receiving corps. Out of necessity, expect a surprise cut or two at the position coming out of training camp.

Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco and free-agent pickup Antonio Bryant are set as the two starters. But Shipley, Andre Caldwell, Matt Jones, Quan Cosby and former second-round pick Jerome Simpson also will compete for roles on the team.

There are not enough roster spots to carry everyone. Could this be the year Cincinnati cuts ties with Simpson, who has been a bust his first two seasons? Or will the controversial signing of Jones, who’s had off-field troubles and was out of football last season, be for naught? Cosby, last year's punt returner, also is a possible cut.

The Bengals have a lot of options in their passing game, which struggled at the end of last season. But they will have to make some key decisions about who will be a part of it in 2010.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 31, 2010
3/31/10
1:00
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NFC History: 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: History in that spot.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns hold the highest slot in the AFC North, the No. 7 overall pick. With the type of money that's involved, this pick has to be a franchise player or it could set back an offense or defense. For example, the Minnesota Vikings selected running back Adrian Peterson at No. 7 in 2007 and he put the entire franchise on his back. But recent busts such as receiver Troy Williamson (2005) and safety Michael Huff (2006) haven't done enough to warrant the high pick. Either way, Cleveland has to be prepared to dole out a large contract. Last year's No. 7 pick -- Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey -- received a five-year deal worth a maximum of $38.25 million. So expect the Browns to be paying this year's No. 7 pick upwards of $40 million this summer.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh has the No. 18 slot this year. The Steelers could take advantage of getting a very good player in what's considered a deep draft. In the past five years, this pick has been hit or miss. Quality players such as Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (2008) and Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall (2007) were added to the AFC North from this spot. But there were also a pair of recent misses with Dallas Cowboys linebacker Bobby Carpenter (2006) and defensive end Erasmus James of Minnesota (2005). Last year the Denver Broncos selected Robert Ayers, who had a fairly uneventful rookie year.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati has the No. 21 pick, where the last two years offensive linemen have done pretty well. The Browns took center Alex Mack in 2009 and the Atlanta Falcons selected offensive tackle Sam Baker in 2008. Both players fit right in with their respective teams. But the previous three years were all misses for first-rounders. The Jacksonville Jaguars missed twice with this pick with safety Reggie Nelson (2007) and receiver Matt Jones (2005), who was out of football last season and signed with Cincinnati in February. New England Patriots running back Laurence Maroney, who was taken in 2006, has been decent but not great.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens hold the No. 25 overall pick, where there has been plenty of recent success. The group includes a Super Bowl MVP (Santonio Holmes), a starting quarterback (Jason Campbell), a one-time Pro Bowl linebacker (Jon Beason) and two good young cornerbacks (Mike Jenkins and Vontae Davis). If the Ravens have this type of success with the No. 25 pick this year, it will be a good draft day for Baltimore. The Ravens have thrived picking players late in the first round in the past. Great players such as Ed Reed (No. 24), Ray Lewis (No. 26), and most recently Michael Oher (No. 23) have all come toward the end of the opening round.

Ten AFC North mysteries

March, 22, 2010
3/22/10
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Andre Smith, Lawrence Timmons & Donte' StallworthIcon SMIAndre Smith, Lawrence Timmons and Donte' Stallworth are among the larger mysteries facing AFC North teams as they prepare for the 2010 season.
Mystery and intrigue are part of what make the NFL go.

Every year, there are players with various questions who could have a major impact on their teams' upcoming season.

With that said, here are 10 AFC North mysteries even Sherlock Holmes would struggle to solve in 2010:

Timmons
Timmons
10. Lawrence Timmons, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

2009 stats: 14 games (13 starts), 78 tackles, seven sacks

Why: Let's first give credit where credit is due: Timmons flashed more ability over the past few years than a majority of the players listed below. But his up-and-down 2009 season -- his first as a full-time starter -- raised a few questions. Does Timmons fit at middle linebacker, which is not his natural position? Considering his tremendous athleticism, why did Timmons struggle at times in pass coverage? Also, the decision to bring back veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote, who started ahead of Timmons in 2007 and 2008 before leaving as a free agent, certainly adds some intrigue.

Mystery rating (scale of 1 to 10): 6.5

Webb
Webb
9. Lardarius Webb, CB, Baltimore Ravens

2009 stats: 14 games (four starts), 35 tackles, one sack

Why: Webb's mystery revolves around youth and injury. The Ravens feel Webb has the potential to be their starting cornerback next season. The former third-round pick played well opposite Domonique Foxworth for a brief stint before suffering a torn ACL in December. Now there are questions about whether Webb will be ready for training camp or even the start of the regular season. Does Webb have enough experience? Can he be the same player, or will it take another year to shake off the injury? These are all questions Webb has to answer next season.

Mystery rating: 7.0

(Read full post)

AFC North: Got offense?

February, 25, 2010
2/25/10
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Dez Bryant/Jermaine Gresham/Arrelious BennUS Presswire/Icon SMIOffensive weapons like Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant, Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham and Illinois' Arrelious Benn could help spice things up in the AFC North.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Three of the NFL's top five defenses were from the AFC North last season. Therefore, don't expect any major turnover defensively from the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.

But when it comes to offenses in the division, it's a totally different story.

The AFC North was filled with inconsistencies, weaknesses and limitations on that side of the ball in 2009. Whether it was the offensive line in Pittsburgh, the passing games in Baltimore and Cincinnati or the rotating quarterbacks with the Cleveland Browns, offensive deficiencies prevented each team from getting to the next level.

So look for this usually defense-oriented division to search for the best offensive talent it can find at this week's NFL combine. The AFC North blog teamed up with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson to examine every team's offensive weakness and preview which college players your favorite teams could be looking at to fill those needs.

Baltimore Ravens

Offensive needs: Wide receiver, tight end

2009 recap: As the season went on, it became obvious that Baltimore's lack of big-play receivers would prevent the team from competing for a championship. There was no way the Ravens could keep up with the likes of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees by running the ball 52 times, which is what Baltimore did to win its opening playoff game. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome admitted that his goal moving forward is to build a team that can win offensive shootouts as well as defensive struggles. So this offseason is mostly about surrounding quarterback Joe Flacco with the proper weapons to make sure he reaches his full potential.

Potential offensive targets: Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham, Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn, Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez, Notre Dame receiver Golden Tate

Scouts Inc. analysis: "Baltimore needs pass-catchers. I want to see someone who can really get deep, because Flacco has a huge arm. Not only do they need an over-the-middle, move-the-sticks, red zone guy, but they also need somebody who's really going to threaten you deep outside the numbers. Maybe there's a chance that Donte' Stallworth is that guy. That signing could be helpful, but it's not nearly enough. Derrick Mason is not a No. 1 [receiver] anymore. Even if he comes back and everything is gravy with him, he's your move-the-sticks guy. But they need pass-catchers bad. There are a couple of tight ends that are interesting and could be [available] at the end of the first round like Gresham. Aaron Hernandez, he's not really their style. But they can get creative, detach him and use him like a Dallas Clark-type. I also think Arrelious Benn's stock is really going to grow over the next few days at the combine. But I don't know if Baltimore sits in a really good spot to fill their [offensive] needs in terms of value." -- Matt Williamson

Cincinnati Bengals

Offensive needs: Wide receiver, tight end, offensive guard

2009 recap: Last season's division champs were much different offensively from the Bengals in 2005, which was the last time they made the playoffs. Cincinnati ran the football extremely well and finally looked like a true AFC North team. The problem was, when the Bengals had to throw the football, they couldn't do it with any consistency. Receiver Chad Ochocinco had a solid season with 72 receptions for 1,047 yards, but there was a tremendous drop-off after that. No. 2 receiver Laveranues Coles didn't live up to his hefty contract, and the team didn't get much production from its tight ends.

Potential offensive targets: Gresham, Benn, Hernandez, Tate

Scouts Inc. analysis: "I would say the Bengals' biggest need is wideout, because historically they don't use the tight end. They used a high pick on Chase Coffman last year. So maybe their big-picture plan is to incorporate the tight end into their passing game, but they just didn't get the opportunity because their top three guys got hurt. If they can get Gresham and they dedicate themselves to throwing the football to him, that could be great. But considering Ochocinco's age, the uncertainty around Matt Jones and Jerome Simpson hasn't panned out at all, wide receiver would be a great first-round pick for them. Or, they can make a free-agent acquisition." -- Williamson

Cleveland Browns

Offensive needs: Wide receiver, quarterback, tight end, right tackle, right guard

2009 recap: When you're ranked last in the NFL in total offense, there is nowhere to go but up. Besides the left side of the offensive line and fullback, a case can be made that Cleveland needs an upgrade at every offensive position. The Browns couldn't pass all year and struggled running until the second half of the season. That's where new team president Mike Holmgren comes in. He has a tremendous offensive pedigree and led two teams to Super Bowls, the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. Offensive options with the No. 7 overall pick are somewhat limited. But with 11 total picks, the Browns have an opportunity to plug a lot of offensive holes.

Potential offensive targets: Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford

Scouts Inc. analysis: "They've got nothing at tight end, and they might have the worst wide receivers in the whole league. I like Mohamed Massaquoi, but I think at best he's going to be a very good No. 2 [receiver]. It would be great for the Browns to get Dez Bryant -- someone who is a stud, someone who is a potential Andre Johnson and someone who can really change the game for them. But that doesn't matter if you don't have a quarterback. That's the biggest issue: What do you do at quarterback and what offense are you going to install? Are you running a West Coast offense? Do you give Brady Quinn a shot for another year? Will you pick up a vet? Those questions are hard to answer from where we sit right now." -- Williamson

Pittsburgh Steelers

Offensive needs: Offensive tackle, guard, center

2009 recap: Pittsburgh's offense was very good in 2009. They had a 1,000-yard rusher (Rashard Mendenhall), two 1,000-yard receivers (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes) and a 4,000-yard quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger). But despite the gaudy numbers, the Steelers sputtered in the red zone and averaged only 23 points per game. Pittsburgh needs to get much tougher near the goal line, and it starts up front. The Steelers struggled to get the tough yards because their offensive line is below average and they have no dominant force to run behind when it's time to punch it into the end zone. Although cornerback help is probably the team's biggest need, a dominant offensive tackle or guard wouldn't hurt.

Potential offensive targets: Idaho guard Mike Iupati, Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams, Florida center Maurkice Pouncey

Scouts Inc. analysis: "If you look at their offensive line, there isn't one position that I would say, 'Wow, they are brutal there. Boy, do they need a center, or boy, do they need a tackle.' But if they could get one stud, if they can get one Alan Faneca or Dermontti Dawson and live with the other four, I think their O-line would go from below average to above average. Guys like Willie Colon, Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu would all of a sudden be a little better. I don't want to see them use a third-round pick on a guard or a center. Either go get the lineman that is a potential Pro Bowler or don't even bother, because I don't think it's going to make that big a difference. There are so many great interior defensive linemen in this division that you can't be average up the middle. You need to be really, really good. Use the first-round pick on a guy like Iupati from Idaho or don't even bother. Just go back with what you have and use your resources somewhere else." -- Williamson

Draft watch: AFC South

February, 24, 2010
2/24/10
2:07
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NFC Busts/Gems: 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 Wednesday 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: Busts and late-round gems.

Houston Texans

The previous regime traded with division rival Tennessee to get Western Michigan linebacker Jason Babin with a second first-round pick in 2004 and he never became what they envisioned. The first-rounder from the next year, Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson, wasn’t good either. Johnson flashed some but wasn’t long-term help. Wide receiver David Anderson (seventh round from Colorado State in 2006) is a quality slot receiver, and probably the team’s best late-round pick.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts traded up in 2007 to take Arkansas offensive tackle Tony Ugoh 42nd overall. He was the man to replace Tarik Glenn when he surprised the team by retiring the same year. But Ugoh lost his starting job in 2009 and was often inactive. Two third-rounders from the same draft also faded: cornerback Dante Hughes from Cal didn’t make it out of camp in 2009 and Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock quit football in 2008. Late-round finds abound: Howard safety Antoine Bethea (sixth round) is a Pro Bowl talent; Mount Union receiver Pierre Garcon (sixth round, 2008) just had a breakout season; punter/kickoff man Pat McAfee from West Virginia (seventh round, 2009) is a consistent performer. And Indianapolis does consistently well with undrafted rookies, such as safety Melvin Bullitt and cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Jacksonville Jaguars

First-round busts have been a major reason the Jaguars haven’t broken through as a consistent contender: receivers R. Jay Soward of USC in 2000, Reggie Williams from Washington in 2004 and Matt Jones from Arkansas in 2005 are gone and safety Reggie Nelson (Florida, 2007) and defensive end Derrick Harvey (Florida, 2008) rank as major underachievers. Late-round gems? Purdue guard Uche Nwaneri was a 2007 fifth-rounder and has started a lot of games and Florida’s Bobby McCray was a good defensive end for a seventh-rounder in 2004. James Harris was ousted as the personnel chief and the team seems on a better track under Gene Smith, who was named GM about a year ago.

Tennessee Titans

Any list of recent high-ranking failures has to start with first-round cornerback Pacman Jones, sixth overall from West Virginia in 2005. He was probably the best defensive football player there, but the Titans failed miserably in researching his personality. Other busts who hurt them: Ben Troupe (second-round tight end from Florida in 2004), Andre Woolfolk (first-round cornerback from Oklahoma in 2003) and Tyrone Calico (second-round receiver in 2003). Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was an All-Pro in 2008 and heads any list of recent late-round gems. He was a seventh-rounder from Samford in 2006. Tight end Bo Scaife was a sixth-rounder from Texas in 2005 and promising defensive end Jacob Ford from Central Arkansas was a sixth-rounder in 2007.

Thoughts on Ravens and Stallworth

February, 17, 2010
2/17/10
2:54
PM ET
The Baltimore Ravens made headlines Wednesday by signing embattled receiver Donte' Stallworth to a one-year contract.

Here are some additional thoughts on Stallworth and the Ravens:


  • Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIIf the season started today, Donte' Stallworth would probably be the Ravens' No. 1 receiver.
    This signing is in the same vein as Matt Jones' deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. It is a high-risk and high-reward move for Baltimore. Stallworth's case of DUI manslaughter was certainly the more severe of the two incidents. But a base salary of $900,000 is not much if Stallworth learns from his mistakes and is productive next season. Look for Stallworth and Jones to be closely monitored in 2010.
  • Both signings show how desperate the Ravens and Bengals are to improve their thin corps of receivers. Baltimore doesn't have any of its top four receivers from last year under contract for 2010. If the season started today, Stallworth is probably the Ravens' No. 1 receiver, which shows they have a long way to go to improve the position. It's likely the "Final Eight Plan" also played a role in the Ravens getting Stallworth while they can in what should be an extremely tight free-agent market. Last month Baltimore lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts.
  • I covered Stallworth for one year while he was with the Cleveland Browns in 2008. To me, he came across as an intelligent person and thoughtful, despite his mistake. I would be surprised if Stallworth doesn't realize how lucky he is to be able to resume his NFL career. Ravens coach John Harbaugh also worked with Stallworth when both were with the Philadelphia Eagles. Considering Stallworth's demeanor, I can see how the meeting went well enough with the Ravens to convince the team he deserves another chance.
  • How much can Stallworth help on the field? That remains to be seen. Stallworth hasn't played a down since 2008, and even then he struggled with injuries and production with Cleveland. But from what I'm told, the Ravens liked Stallworth's workout this week and the shape that he's in. Also, getting into the offseason program early can only help.

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