NFL Nation: Matt Roth

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jacksonville defensive tackle Tyson Alualu had surgery on the balky knee that kept him from approaching his peak performance in 2011, Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said Friday at the scouting combine.

“We’re anxious to see how he is when he feels 100 percent,” Mularkey said. “I know that when we played him when I was with Atlanta, he was a disruptive player on that knee. Here’s a guy that’s going to hopefully come back full speed and see how much more he can improve from it. He should be ready to go by the time we get to camp."

Mularkey said the operation was not serious and is expected to solve Alualu’s issues.

The Jaguars can be an excellent defense, especially if they add a big-time pass rushing end. They are at their best when Alualu and Terrance Knighton clog up the middle and force teams to try to run outside.

Mularkey had less to say about other injured players like defensive ends Aaron Kampman (knee) and Matt Roth (concussions), linebacker Clint Session (concussions ) and cornerbacks Derek Cox (knee) and Rashean Mathis (knee).

“Our first camp will be on April 16, again I’m going to call it a veteran orientation camp … we’re hoping to see if they are ready for that but it’s not going to be a setback if they’re not,” Mularkey said.
Early thoughts on the Jaguars scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come March 13, with thanks to Mac’s Football Blog, where you can find complete team-by-team lists that include exclusive right and restricted free agents.

QB Luke McCown -- I would think they will look to upgrade the backup so they have a fallback plan and better mentor for Blaine Gabbert.

OT Guy Whimper -- He was banged up and streaky in 2011. He’s OK as a third tackle, but doesn’t rate as a priority.

DE Jeremy Mincey -- Had a breakout year and is a high-energy pass-rusher who will be better as they add a big-time end. Probably wants more than they’ll pay.

DE Matt Roth -- They got him cheaply on a one-year deal. As they look to add a premier guy at the spot, it seems they'd like him back as part of the rotation at the right price.

S Dwight Lowery -- The No. 1 priority among their free agents. He transitioned very well from corner to safety and fixed a problem they don’t want to have to address again.

CB Rashean Mathis -- Combination of torn ACL and age (31) means they will be looking to replace him. Though he could be back late if he’s cheap.

K Josh Scobee -- A very solid kicker I feel sure they’d love to retain.

Other UFAs:
Here are some thoughts on Denver coach John Fox's quick hiring of former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio to succeed Dennis Allen, who has been named Oakland’s head coach.

McClain
Nice score: Many Denver fans might have upset that Allen left; however, Del Rio is a terrific hire by the Broncos. Fox said Wednesday that he was in no hurry to find a replacement for Allen, but the quick hiring of Del Rio shows Fox felt great about this move. Though Del Rio had been on the market for several weeks, this reconnection between Del Rio and Fox — Del Rio was Fox’s first defensive coordinator in Carolina in 2002 before becoming Jacksonville head coach in 2003 — should ease the mind of Denver fans.

Seven is not a problem: Though Del Rio is Denver’s seventh defensive coordinator in seven years, this shouldn't be an issue due to the compatibility between Del Rio and Fox, who has a defensive background himself. Del Rio knows that this is Fox’s team and it is his defense. Allen deserves a lot of credit for turning Denver’s defense – the worst in the NFL in 2010 – into a competitive group. But the coaching started with Fox. He will continue using his system.

Fox loves familiarity: Fox closed the deal so quickly with Del Rio that there wasn’t time to find other candidates. Clearly, Fox focused on his former assistant as soon as Allen took the Oakland job. That means Fox is confident in his new choice.

More experience than Allen: Allen, 39, got the Oakland job after one year’s experience as the Broncos coordinator. Del Rio, 48 and coming off nine seasons as a head coach, is much more seasoned.

Recruiting means something: Even though Denver improved as a defense under Allen, it still needs to reload. Perhaps Del Rio will turn for help to a pair of defensive ends he coached in Jacksonville — Matt Roth and Jeremy Mincey, both free agents.

Jaguars players differ on concussions

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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Clint Session and Matt Roth talked concussions today, and they said the sensible things the league and most fans would expect to hear.

Roth
Roth
Session
Session
Roth told Tania Ganguli that he thought about playing through lingering headaches, but asked around and changed his mind.

"With all we know about head injuries now, it’s not something I want to risk the rest of my life with head injuries," Roth said. "... I think in the long run, for myself and for this team, I think that would probably be the best decision."

Said Session: "This is one thing that can affect you and it can affect your family. You get situations where you end up having dementia, all those things that those boxers get, all those different head injuries, they’re available to you as a football player once you start having those head injuries. I’m just trying to attack these symptoms. Quit while I notice them and just evaluate as much as I can and just try to get some peace."

Perhaps their assessments signal a change in thinking for NFL players with regard to head injuries. Their teammate, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, recently said he’d hide concussion symptoms in order to return to action.

Concussions are simply an occupational hazard, Jones-Drew said.

"The only reason they're making a big deal about concussions right now is because the league is getting sued over it," Jones-Drew said. "Before this, you never heard about it. A couple of years ago, you didn't hear anything about it. Let's not make something out of nothing. Yeah, people are getting messed up. That happens. Most of the time it's because they're not wearing mouth pieces and they're probably doing some other stuff. Obviously, back in the day they were doing some things that weren't going to help your body out. It's 2012; there's ways to fix your body. Sometimes that means you have to pay the price."

I appreciate Jones-Drew sharing a stance I am sure many guys around the league share. It helps give us a three-dimensional picture of the issue. Spurred by the threat of law suits or not, the league is hoping more and more players will increasingly think and act like Roth instead.

Three changes in Jaguars' lineup

December, 24, 2011
12/24/11
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Merry Christmas Eve from LP Field, where the turf looks to be in rare condition for December as the Tennessee Titans prepare to host the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jacksonville has three lineup changes.

Leger Douzable will play for the injured Matt Roth at left defensive end. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah starts for the injured safety Dwight Lowery. And undrafted rookie Cameron Bradfield is the man at right tackle for Guy Whimper.

The complete list of inactives:

Jaguars
Titans
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Matt Leinart and the Texans rank as the biggest story in the AFC South since it became clear the Colts would be horrible.

Leinart
I’ve crossed paths with few national media members this season at games.

As Leinart steps in for the injured Matt Schaub today at EverBank Field, I’m with writers from The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo.

Andre Johnson is back in Houston’s lineup. He’s averaged 102 receiving yards in his first game back from missed time because of injuries in his career. Arian Foster is averaging 161 yards from scrimmage against AFC South teams over the last two seasons. No player comes close against division opponents. LeSean McCoy is at 137 yards against the NFC East over the same stretch.

And Houston’s defense is allowing just 186 yards to division opponents this season. That doesn’t bode well for the Jaguars and their terrible offense.

The inactive lists for both teams:

Texans: QB Kellen Clemens, CB Brandon Harris, FB Lawrence Vickers, G Thomas Austin, T Andrew Gardner, TE Garrett Graham, DE Tim Bulman.

Jaguars: WR Brian Robiskie, C John Estes, DE Aaron Kampman, TE Fendi Onobun, DE Matt Roth, DT Terrance Knighton, QB Dan LeFevour.

For the Jaguars, Leger Douzable starts at left defensive end, C.J. Mosley starts at defensive tackle and Ashton Youboty starts at left cornerback.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Watch the Jaguars' defense: It did not play badly in New York, it’s just that the Jets were given so many chances by the Jacksonville offense. Cam Newton is due for a comedown, and a defense that loaded up on veterans this offseason needs to see a payoff Sunday in Carolina. Put the spotlight on Paul Posluszny, Clint Session, Matt Roth, probable new starting safety Dwight Lowery, and Drew Coleman. They were brought in to make this a good defense now, and if they can’t fare well against a rookie quarterback and a rebuilding team, it will be a major disappointment. The defense should play well enough to give Blaine Gabbert a chance to win his first start if he plays efficiently.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Saints will look to bring pressure on Matt Schaub to slow down the Texans' air attack.
Blitz alert: The Texans are probably sick of hearing about how challenging the blitz packages of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be. But they’ll also be reviewing the possibilities and reminding themselves of their schemes for handling blitzes. Matt Schaub is better when teams sit back and play coverages rather than coming after him. Still, although New Orleans wants to blitz and has the people to do it, the Saints are only 18th against the pass through two games. Although they collected eight sacks against the Packers and Bears, they’ve also allowed an opponent passer rating of 95.6. There will be room for Schaub to succeed.

Quick and short: I expect the Colts will try to combat the Steelers' high pressure 3-4 front with quick, short passes, hoping for yards after the catch. Kerry Collins can certainly connect with Joseph Addai in such circumstances. He’s done OK with Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. The guy who needs to be a bigger part of things is Austin Collie, who was targeted 10 times a week ago but had only three receptions for 24 yards. To move it better, particularly in the red zone where it was a struggle against the Browns, I think Collins-to-Collie has to become a bigger part of things.

Denver’s health: The Broncos were awfully banged up last week against Cincinnati when they managed to win without several key guys -- defensive end Elvis Dumervil, linebacker D.J. Williams, cornerback Champ Bailey, receiver Brandon Lloyd and running back Knowshon Moreno. At least some of those guys will return, and the Titans will face a better team than the one they have been watching on tape. Kyle Orton led Denver to a win at LP Field last season, so this is a trip the Broncos know they can make successfully. Underrated Titans left tackle Michael Roos will be ready for Dumervil if the defensive end is back.

Making Newton uncomfortable: Newton’s been very comfortable in his first two NFL games, even as Carolina has dropped both. For the Jaguars, making Newton do things he’s not been doing well is a major goal. What might that entail? According to ESPN Stats & Info, Newton’s been the best quarterback in the NFL throwing outside the numbers, where he’s got a passer rating of 109.5 and a Total QBR of 91.6. Take away receivers on the perimeter and make him look inside the numbers and you’ll find a much more average player: passer rating of 63, QBR of 39.2. The pressure is on Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, particularly against Steve Smith, who is responsible for a good share of Newton’s numbers to the outside.

Wrap-up: Jaguars 16, Titans 14

September, 11, 2011
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Thoughts on the Jaguars’ 16-14 win against the Titans at EverBank Field:

What it means: The Jaguars move to 1-0 in the AFC South where they are even with Houston while the Titans sit with the Colts at 0-1, each with a division loss. The Jaguars can clearly function as constructed, and won this one minus two key players -- end Aaron Kampman and right tackle Eben Britton.

What I liked about the Jaguars: Luke McCown played the sort of game the Jaguars need him to play to have a chance -- first and foremost he didn’t make any giant mistakes. Maurice Jones-Drew looked like himself with 24 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown. Jacksonville controlled the game with nearly 40 minutes of possession (the Jaguars ran 73 offensive plays to the Titans’ 49) and a 50 percent conversion rate on third down.

What I didn’t like about the Titans: Problems from the final season of the Jeff Fisher era that were supposed to be solved reared their ugly heads. The Titans couldn’t string drives together and the defense could not get off the field. Seven penalties for 60 yards did not suggest the newfound discipline Mike Munchak is supposed to be instilling.

Major contributors: The Jaguars’ six primary veteran defensive additions accounted for 21 of the team’s 41 tackles. Drew Coleman and Matt Roth had sacks of Matt Hasselbeck, and Dwight Lowery sealed the game with an interception.

Hard to believe but true: Six of Tennessee’s 11 possessions went three-and-out. Meanwhile, four of Jacksonville’s 11 series were 11 plays or more.

Dangerous man: While Chris Johnson was bottled up, Kenny Britt gave the Titans their big plays with five catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns.

What’s next: Jacksonville heads to New York to take on the Jets. The Titans host Baltimore, which started off with a rout of the Steelers.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
1:30
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeLuke McCown
Howard Smith/US PresswireLuke McCown has completed 59.2 percent of his passes over his career.
Don’t overrate David Garrard. A lot of people seem to think that the Jaguars' cutting Garrard makes them a less dangerous team. I assure you, they are not thinking that way. They will be the same run-heavy offense. The Jaguars, who play host to Tennessee on Sunday, will look to an upgraded defense to be physical and bottle up Chris Johnson. And they expect a crisper performance from Luke McCown than they would have had from Garrard, who struggled throughout the preseason. If McCown doesn’t have a good day, let’s hold the talk that makes it sound as though Garrard would have played like Johnny Unitas.

Can the Texans' running backs help out blocking? Their underrated offensive line has its hands full against the Colts' pass rush, which features Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But if Arian Foster is out or limited, the team could lean more on Derrick Ward for his experience than on Ben Tate for his potential. Tate ran great in the preseason, but can he take on a defender determined to bring down Matt Schaub?

Unproven pass rushes in Jacksonville. The Jaguars still haven’t solved their pass-rush issues. Aaron Kampman is back from knee surgery and Matt Roth is a solid addition. We know their middle guys can get push, but who’s going to make Matt Hasselbeck uncomfortable? Same goes for the Titans. Derrick Morgan is out, so Malcolm Sheppard will be in the mix at end behind William Hayes, Jason Jones (who's been hurt) and Dave Ball. They’re working with a more disciplined scheme to be sure they stop the run, but can those guys bother McCown working more technique than speed?

Spotlight on Kerry Collins. The whole football world is watching to see what the Colts look like without Peyton Manning. We’ve talked a lot about Collins' protection and how he’s picked up the system. But what kind of feel has he developed for his targets? Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie and Joseph Addai make up a very reliable quartet that knows how to be in the right spots and get open. Collins didn’t have a crew like that during his time with the Titans. Does he have a feel for the talent?

Unveiling the 3-4. Wade Phillips is a master at turning around defenses, but he’s had a shorter time frame with this new group. Surely there are elements of what the Texans will do that they did not show in the preseason. Phillips’ defenses have fared great against Collins. As the Texans look to extend that streak of success, end Antonio Smith could be a big factor. He’ll probably be working against Joe Reitz and Jeff Saturday.
Had they not wound up in position to move up to draft Blaine Gabbert, the Jaguars likely would have addressed defensive end in the first round. I believe they would have gone for Ryan Kerrigan.

But after making the move up for the quarterback of the future, defensive end went unaddressed. Until yesterday.

Matt Roth, a 3-4 outside linebacker in Cleveland, agreed on a one-year deal and will shift to defensive end in the Jaguars’ 3-4. As Tania Ganguli points out, he’s the third free-agent defender to join Jacksonville in the last two seasons in order to make the switch from 3-4 to 4-3. Aaron Kampman and Paul Posluszny did the same.

Scouts Inc. only had six free-agent defensive ends graded more highly than Roth.

Here’s’ their report on him:
“Roth is a big, strong outside linebacker with above-average athleticism. He seems to fit in well as a stand-up player who attacks the line of scrimmage off the edge. He is a better run stopper than pass-rusher as he doesn't have great initial quickness off the edge. He has good strength to hold the point and set the edge with proper hand use and body positioning. He is an instinctive player who reacts well to blocking schemes and maintains. Roth has improved his overall pass-rush package with counter moves off his initial power rush. Roth is a good player who may be a bit of an overachiever. He brings great toughness and energy to the Browns' defense.”

Via free agency the 2011 Jaguars' defense now has four proven new starters.

Roth not only added to that, but he will push Austen Lane and Jeremy Mincey down the depth chart and into the rotation, making Jacksonville deeper.

A solid move, I think.

A Jaguars’ aside: Bill Barnwell doesn’t like the Marcedes Lewis contract.
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.

2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.

3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.

Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence

Miami Dolphins

1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.

2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.

3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.

Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen

New England Patriots

1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.

2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.

3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.

Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren

New York Jets

1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.

2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.

3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.

Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

AFC North free-agent primer

March, 2, 2011
3/02/11
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This is the final week that several big names will be under contract with their respective AFC North teams.

The new league year starts on Friday, March 4, with a lot of labor uncertainty. Free agency cannot begin until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. But at least we will know who the key players are this offseason by the end of the week.

Here is how things are shaping up in the AFC North:

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Le'Ron McClain
Mitch Stringer/US PRESSWIREThe Ravens will allow fullback Le'Ron McClain to test the free-agent market.
Baltimore Ravens: Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata received the franchise tag, and signing him long term is Baltimore's biggest priority this offseason. The Ravens also have several interesting free agents. Offensive lineman Marshal Yanda is one of the most underrated free agents in this division. He has the versatility to play guard and tackle, and the Ravens want him back to help patch up the right side of their offensive line. The secondary also could be taking a hit as safety Dawan Landry and cornerbacks Josh Wilson and Fabian Washington are all set to hit the open market. Of the three, I think Wilson was the most consistent for Baltimore this season. The Ravens will allow fullback Le'Ron McClain to test free agency. He wants the opportunity to carry the football more and won’t get that in Baltimore. With the team expected to release Willis McGahee, the Ravens could be thin at running back behind starter Ray Rice if both McClain and McGahee do not return in 2011.

Cincinnati Bengals: We have addressed the situation numerous times with Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph. He has quietly been one of the top defenders in the AFC North and will likely get a huge payday, considering the going rate for cornerbacks. Unless Cincinnati is willing to pay at least $10 million per year to keep Joseph, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t hit the open market this week. Starting tailback Cedric Benson is another interesting free agent. He’s led Cincinnati in rushing two years in a row after posting a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. But Benson was unhappy with the Bengals last year and his production also tailed. Will he work out a deal to stay in Cincinnati? Stay tuned. The Bengals also have aging free agents like receiver Terrell Owens and linebacker Dhani Jones who are not expected to return because the team is rebuilding and going younger. Cincinnati also has to figure out what to do at quarterback now that starter Carson Palmer wants to be traded and threatened to retire.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns were lacking talent to begin with. So they don't have many big-name free agents. But some players who were productive in 2010 are hitting the open market, including fullback Lawrence Vickers, linebacker Matt Roth and safety Abe Elam. Both Roth and Elam were unhappy about not getting long-term extensions in Cleveland and probably will look elsewhere, while it's unknown how well Vickers, a power fullback, fits in a West Coast offense. With a new coaching staff led by head coach Pat Shurmur, expect a lot of turnover on the roster as the Browns get players who fit their offensive and defensive schemes. The Browns recently used the franchise tag on veteran kicker Phil Dawson to keep him off the market.

Pittsburgh Steelers: No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor has been in preliminary discussions with Pittsburgh but is likely running into the same challenges as Joseph. Similar to Cincinnati, would the Steelers be willing to commit at least $10 million per year to a cornerback? That appears to be the going rate for solid, free-agent corners. The Steelers will probably let Taylor test the market and compete with other teams before they pay that amount. If Taylor can get that elsewhere, he probably will take it. If not, Taylor can return to a Super Bowl contender in Pittsburgh at a reduced rate. Other than Taylor, the team doesn't have many key players hitting the open market next week. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley was given the franchise tag. Role players like tailback Mewelde Moore, backup center Doug Legursky and kicker Shaun Suisham are among other notable free agents for Pittsburgh.

Grading Ben Roethlisberger

October, 19, 2010
10/19/10
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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back. But is he all the way back? Not quite.

The AFC North blog covered Roethlisberger's 2010 debut Sunday against the Cleveland Browns and later broke down the game film of every throw to grade his performance. It's a new feature that we will do periodically in the blog.

Points are awarded or deducted on a five-point scale, depending on how Roethlisberger performed each play. Here is what we found:

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireBen Roethlisberger was 16-for-27 with 3 TDs and one pick in his 2010 debut.
Roethlisberger's first drive

  • Roethlisberger's first throw was a quick out to tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who gains 3 yards to get a first down. Nice play call to get Roethlisberger warmed up. (+1 point)
  • Good pump fake by Roethlisberger and read to spot receiver Antwaan Randle El in single coverage deep against cornerback Sheldon Brown. Roethlisberger causes Brown to bite and draws a pass interference penalty. (+2 points)
  • Browns blitz to Roethlisberger's left. He sees it, shuffles to the right to buy an extra second to hit Mendenhall out of the backfield, who gains 4 yards. (+1 point)
  • On third down, the Browns field seven defensive backs, four linebackers and zero defensive linemen. Roethlisberger is confused by the formation and calls a timeout. (-2 points)
  • Browns bring same formation after the timeout. Cleveland only rushes three and Roethlisberger's pass intended for Mewelde Moore sails high and into the hands of Browns rookie cornerback Joe Haden, who returns it 62 yards. (-5 points)
Grade for drive: -3 points

Second drive

  • Roethlisberger throws another quick hitch to receiver Hines Ward for 3 yards. Basic play to get Roethlisberger back in rhythm after the pick. (+1 point)
  • Good hook route by receiver Mike Wallace. Roethlisberger throws it in the open area of Cleveland's zone for 11 yards. (+2 points)
  • Browns read the screen play and it's not there. Roethlisberger scrambles for 5 yards to make something out of a broken play. (+1 point)
  • On third-and-13, Cleveland rushes three and Roethlisberger still finds rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders for 22 yards. Ball has good zip. Sanders is celebrating his first NFL catch as though he won the Super Bowl. (+3 points)
  • Browns blitz again and Roethlisberger holds the ball a little too long this time, which he's prone to do. He barely avoids the sack by throwing the ball out of bounds. (-1 point)
  • Browns blitz again and Matt Roth goes untouched to the quarterback. Roethlisberger shows great strength and toughness by taking a hit and still getting enough on the ball downfield to Mike Wallace for a 29-yard touchdown. Not many quarterbacks can make that play. (+5 points)
Grade for drive: +11 points

Third drive

  • Roethlisberger throws a pass a little high but Ward catches it for 7 yards. Some basic timing throws are sailing on Roethlisberger. (+1 point)
  • Pass protection breaks down and Browns linebacker Chris Gocong wraps Roethlisberger up but can't make the tackle. Roethlisberger still looking down the field, throws incomplete and gets hit by three Browns in the process. He tries too hard to make something happen. (-2 points)
  • Steelers max protect against Cleveland's blitz and Roethlisberger has time. Just overthrows Ward for what could have been a big gain on third down. Pittsburgh punts. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: -2 points

Fourth drive

  • In the first throw of the second half, Browns blitz and Roethlisberger finds Ward open on the hot route for 10 yards and a first down. Good read and throw. (+2 points)
  • Mendenhall picks up the safety blitz with a great block on T.J. Ward. Roethlisberger finds Hines Ward, who beats Wright for 26 yards. Roethlisberger is picking on Wright for big plays. (+3 points)
  • Another screen call doesn't work and Roethlisberger throws it away. It's apparent the Browns did a good job of studying Pittsburgh's screen game this week. (-1 point)
  • On a long third down, Roethlisberger tries to force the ball into double coverage and it's batted away. Poor read, poor throw. Steelers punt. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: +3 points

Fifth drive

  • Deep in Pittsburgh's territory, Roethlisberger eludes the cornerback blitz and finds Wallace, who blows by the safety with ease for 50 yards. Roethlisberger took a tough shot on the arm but the throw was still on a rope. It's another play not many quarterbacks can make under that kind of duress. (+4 points)
  • On next play, Roethlisberger drops in a touch pass to tight end Heath Miller for 36 yards against Cleveland's zone. Last two passes accounted for 86 yards. (+4 points)
  • On the same hot read from the previous drive, Roethlisberger points out the pre-snap blitz and finds Ward on a square in against -- guess who? -- Wright. Ward easily shakes off Wright's attempt to strip the ball and barrels in for an 8-yard touchdown. Three sterling throws and the best drive of the day for Roethlisberger. (+4 points)
Grade for drive: +12 points

Sixth drive

  • Roethlisberger stands patient in the pocket and finds Sanders again for 15 yards and the first down. Sanders doesn't celebrate his second career catch like he did his first. (+2 points)
  • Randle El runs a quick out to the sideline and Roethlisberger throws it to the wrong (inside) shoulder. Randle El still makes the catch but is hit pretty hard by Brown. (+1 point)
  • Browns continue to blitz on third down, and the pressure forces Roethlisberger to throw an incomplete pass to Randle El. Steelers punt. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: +2 points

Seventh drive

  • Steelers come out in a tight run formation and fool the Browns badly with a play-action pass. Wallace streaks down right sideline but Roethlisberger misses him by throwing several yards out of bounds. Roethlisberger smiles to the sideline, because he can't believe how badly he missed the open target. (-3 points)
  • On third down Roethlisberger throws too high again for Ward. Rust is definitely a factor. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: -4 points

Eighth drive

  • After Browns receiver Chansi Stuckey fumbles the punt, Roethlisberger finds Mendenhall coming out of the backfield three plays later for a first down. Mendenhall runs it in on next play to give Pittsburgh a 21-3 lead. (+1 point)
Grade for drive: +1 point

Ninth drive

  • Steelers running out the clock on first and second down. But Roethlisberger throws incomplete to Miller on third down. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: -1 point

Tenth drive

  • Steelers stay aggressive on final possession. On third down Roethlisberger finds Miller, who beats Brown in the corner of the end zone for final pass of the day. Steelers win, 28-10. (+3 points)
Grade for drive: +3 points

Roethlisberger's game grade: +22 points

AFC North blog's analysis: This was a great starting point to build on for Roethlisberger, who had not played in a meaningful game since January. As you can see above, there were some vintage plays but also several missed throws that Roethlisberger will probably make once he gets back in midseason form. I've covered plenty of Roethlisberger's starts over the past three seasons, and this was more of a B-level performance by his standards. When Roethlisberger gets back on his "A" game, the Steelers will be very tough to beat.

Grading Andre Smith

October, 7, 2010
10/07/10
2:48
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What's wrong with Andre Smith and why isn't he starting for the Cincinnati Bengals?

[+] EnlargeAndre Smith
Frank Victores/US PresswireAndre Smith saw extensive action against the Browns last weekend with mixed results.
We get this question often in our AFC North inbox. The former No. 6 overall pick came to the Bengals last year with high expectations but hasn't produced because of issues with weight, health and lack of performance.

But on Sunday, Smith received extensive playing time, rotating series with starting right tackle Dennis Roland in Cincinnati's 23-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The AFC North blog went back to study film of each Smith snap to grade his performance.

Points were awarded or deducted on a five-point scale, depending on how good or bad Smith performed on each play. Here is what we found:

Smith is out for the first and second offensive series. Roland is in.

Smith enters game on third series at right tackle.

  • Unbalanced line, Bengals run a stretch play left for 2 yards. Smith looks a bit awkward in space trying to find someone to block away from the play. (-1 point)
  • On his second play from scrimmage, Smith allows Browns defensive end Kenyon Coleman to bull rush and get under his pads. Coleman shakes Smith off easily and sacks Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. (-5 points)
  • On third down in an obvious passing situation, Smith does a decent job on Browns linebacker Matt Roth. But Palmer throws incomplete and Bengals go three-and-out. (+2 points)
Grade for drive: -4 points

Smith in for Bengals' fourth series.

  • Browns linebacker Scott Fujita brings pressure on the right side and Smith picks it up. Palmer finds receiver Chad Ochocinco for a 42-yard catch on the right sideline. (+3 points)
  • Bengals go with an unbalanced line. Browns blitz and Smith gets mixed up on who to pick up and doesn't block anyone. Pass incomplete. (-3 points)
  • Cincinnati calls a screen left and Smith blocks Browns defensive end Brian Schaefering on the backside. After making his block, Smith hustles to the action to get another block but doesn't get there in time. Solid effort. (+2 points)
  • Browns linebacker Marcus Benard puts a spin move on Smith and blows right by him. Palmer moves in the pocket to avoid Benard and completes a 12-yard pass to receiver Terrell Owens for a first down. (-2 points)
  • Smith puts a good block on Schaefering, then goes to the second level to hit Fujita to pave the way for Bernard Scott's 5-yard run. Good play. (+3 points)
  • Smith holds his ground against Schaefering for a 2-yard run by Scott. (+1 point)
  • On third down, Smith blocks Roth. Palmer rolls to his side but throws an incomplete pass. (+1 point)
Grade for drive: +5 points

Smith is replaced by Roland on Cincinnati’s fourth and fifth series.

  • However on special teams, Smith allows Fujita to penetrate on his left side to block a 44-yard field-goal attempt before halftime. The play cost Cincinnati points it could've used. (-5 points)
Grade for special-teams play: -5 points

Smith replaces Roland in the sixth series.

  • Palmer fumbles on an odd play where he second-guesses a throw and tries to pull his arm back. Smith, with his back to Palmer, is unaware the ball is on the ground and the player he's blocking (Coleman) recovers the football. (-1 point)
Grade for drive: -1 point

Smith in for seventh series.

  • Schaefering is stuffed by Smith as Palmer has time and finds Owens for a 17-yard gain. (+3 points)
  • Smith tries to block Roth but fails miserably. Roth stands Smith up, then impressively throws him to the ground and makes a tackle on Cedric Benson for a 3-yard run. (-3 points)
  • Smith crashes line to help with pass protection. Palmer finds receiver Jordan Shipley for a 9-yard reception. (+1 point)
  • Smith tries to move in space but quickly loses footing on a nice Benson run to the left for 12 yards. I notice a trend with Smith struggling to block in space and on the move. (-1 point)
  • On a passing play, Smith tries to engage Schaefering. But Schaefering quickly sheds him and puts pressure on Palmer, who throws the ball away. (-2 points)
  • Fujita blitzes again on the right side and Smith gets in good position to stop it. Palmer finds Owens for a 19-yard reception. Good blitz pickup. (+3 points)
  • Smith continues to have trouble with Coleman, who sheds Smith again and pressures Palmer. Roth eventually gets the sack. Smith is having trouble stringing two and three good plays together. (-2 points)
  • Schaefering beats Smith to assist on a tackle of Benson for 2 yards. (-2 points)
  • Smith whiffs at blocking Roth who forces Palmer to check down to running back Brian Leonard. Smith's footwork wasn't good. (-2 points)
Grade for drive: -5 points

Smith sits out eighth and ninth series.

Smith's game grade: -10 points

AFC North blog's analysis: Smith still has a long way to go in his development. There are several flashes that you can see above, but too often Smith makes negative plays and mistakes. The Bengals are giving Smith every chance to win the starting job at right tackle. But Cincinnati's offensive line is already struggling and it could be risky to insert Smith full time while he's learning on the job and making this many errors. Smith needs to improve rapidly and be more consistent to make a bigger contribution.

Camp Confidential: Cleveland Browns

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
1:00
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 28

BEREA, Ohio -- With three teams in the division coming off winning seasons, the Cleveland Browns have a long way to go to climb out of the AFC North basement

That’s why Cleveland's ownership put together the high-profile pairing of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. The new front office has reshaped the roster through the draft and free agency in hopes of starting to close the gap with its rivals and improving on last year's 5-11 record.

With so many new faces, Cleveland remains a team in transition. The Browns must come together quickly in training camp to be competitive in 2010.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeEric Mangini
Jason Miller/US PresswireThe heat is on Eric Mangini heading into his second season in Cleveland.
1. Will Eric Mangini win in Year 2? This is a critical year for Mangini, who begins the season on the hot seat. Holmgren, a longtime head coach, knows that it takes more than one season to implement a program and was fair in giving Mangini a second year. A four-game winning streak to end last season also helped.

But Mangini must keep that momentum going in what should be a very competitive year in the AFC North. He doesn't have the same level of talent to work with as other coaches in the division. But Mangini is optimistic about 2010.

"I feel really good about the progress we've made, the strides we've made," Mangini said. "The second year is different. Guys understand expectations. There are so many things that you don't have to cover because they get it and they become teachers to people who are new, and that helps a lot."

2. Is quarterback Jake Delhomme the answer? Despite his pedigree, the Delhomme signing has not instilled much confidence with Browns fans.

Delhomme is coming off the worst year of his career (eight TD passes, 18 interceptions) and was benched and eventually released by the Carolina Panthers.

But if Delhomme isn't the answer, the team will turn to backup Seneca Wallace, who is a longtime Holmgren protégé. Rookie third-round draft pick Colt McCoy is regarded as the quarterback of the future but isn't expected to start this season.

[+] EnlargeBrian Robiskie
AP Photo/Amy SancettaThe Browns are counting on players like Brian Robiskie to step up and contribute.
3. Will young players step up? When you have a rebuilding team, young players must step forward. Cleveland has a lot of first- and second-year players who are unproven but expected to be major contributors.

Players such as second-year receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi and rookies Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, a free safety, and Montario Hardesty, a running back, are expected to fill major roles. These players will learn on the job as Cleveland's coaching staff tries to minimize their mistakes.

Haden, a cornerback, will have the biggest spotlight because he was taken No. 7 overall this year and is the first draft pick of the Holmgren and Heckert era. Haden struggled some in minicamp but is starting to look more comfortable. He still must get to the point where he's thinking less and relying more on his football instincts. So far, Haden has been a step late on too many plays.

"It's getting better and better every day," Haden said. "[Tuesday's] practice was better than [Monday's] practice. … now I feel like I'm about at 90 percent of knowing of exactly what's going on, so when I get that next 10, it's going to be full go."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

With so much attention put on Delhomme this season, I thought the best quarterback in camp this week was Wallace. He made some very nice throws, particularly on the run, while leading the second-team offense.

But unless Wallace lights it up in the preseason, do not expect another quarterback controversy in Cleveland. The Browns are paying Delhomme $7 million this season to be the starter.

Despite being a backup, Wallace will play in another capacity as the team's Wildcat quarterback, which we will get to later.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

This was supposed to be a breakthrough camp for Hardesty. Instead, his first training camp never got off the ground because of a knee injury.

Hardesty was competing with incumbent Jerome Harrison for the starting tailback job, and after a solid spring, many considered him the early favorite. But the second-round pick has missed every full-squad practice of training camp thus far and has fallen behind.

According to Mangini, Hardesty may not return until sometime next week at the earliest.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeJosh Cribbs
Jason Miller/US PresswireJosh Cribbs should be more involved in the offense as a part of Cleveland's Wildcat package.

  • Something that jumps out right away is Cleveland's lack of team speed. The Browns look slow and not as athletic as the other two teams I watched in training camp (Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals). That could be a problem. Cleveland has plenty of thumpers, so size isn't an issue. But the Browns appear more built to win a 13-7 game in inclement weather in December than a 35-30 shootout in September.
  • The "Flash and Cyclone" package has been successful in training camp. Josh Cribbs and Wallace are arguably the most versatile players on the team and appear to be developing solid chemistry in Cleveland's version of the Wildcat. Both players are elusive and dangerous with the football.
  • I'm still not sold on Cleveland's receiving corps. Massaquoi has made some plays, but certainly not enough to be a dominant No. 1 receiver. The same goes for Robiskie, who is a projected starter. The Browns are throwing to the tight ends and running backs a lot in this camp, and a reason may be the lack of depth at receiver.
  • Ward is having a solid training camp. He continues to show up around the football, which is what you want from a starting safety. The rookie second-round pick still makes mistakes in pass coverage, but Ward usually shows good effort and practices hard. He is known as a big hitter.
  • Keep an eye on running back Peyton Hillis. He was the forgotten player in the Brady Quinn trade this offseason with the Denver Broncos. But Hillis is showing good toughness running between the tackles. He runs solid routes and has soft hands as a receiver out of the backfield. Hillis could be an underrated acquisition who works out well for Cleveland.
  • Another sleeper on this team could be second-year tight end Evan Moore. Although his run blocking needs work, Moore is probably the best receiving tight end on the roster. With starting tight end Ben Watson and Robert Royal able to do the dirty work, Moore could be a nice change of pace to give the tight-end position some big-play ability.
  • A weakness in Cleveland's defense could be its outside linebackers dropping in pass coverage. Matt Roth and Marcus Benard, in particular, do not look comfortable shadowing running backs. Hillis and Harrison beat Cleveland's outside linebackers repeatedly on passing routes in camp this week.
  • It's been difficult to get a firm read on McCoy. He has played a majority of camp with the third-team offense, which consists of many players who will not make the team. Inconsistent in camp, McCoy looks like a typical rookie quarterback. Preseason games probably will be a better gauge of where the third-round pick stands.

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