NFL Nation: Scouts Inc.

For the past month or so, the universal opinion in mock drafts seemed to be that the Carolina Panthers would take defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in the first round, the New Orleans Saints would take a defensive player and the Atlanta Falcons would get a cornerback or a pass-rusher.

But it seems like those opinions have shifted a bit in some of the mock drafts I’ve been seeing in recent days. The latest example of that comes in this seven-round mock draftInsider from our friends at Scouts Inc.

You have to have an Insider subscription to see the whole thing, but I’ll share the NFC South picks for the first two rounds.

Carolina Panthers

First round: Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle, Utah

Second round: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, cornerback, Connecticut

My take: This would be a coup for the Panthers because they would get two plug-in starters. But the key to this scenario is whether or not Lotulelei still is available at No. 14.

New Orleans Saints

First round: D.J. Fluker, offensive tackle, Alabama

Second round: Pick was forfeited as part of the bounty punishment

My take: I think Fluker’s more of a right tackle and the Saints need help at left tackle. I’d be shocked if the Saints go this route. After putting a horrible defense on the field last season, I think they need to use their top pick on that side of the ball.

Atlanta Falcons

First round: Justin Pugh, offensive lineman, Syracuse

Second round: Gavin Escobar, tight end, San Diego State

My take: I like the Escobar pick a lot. Escobar could spend his rookie season taking lessons from Tony Gonzalez and then replace him. I’m not sold on the Pugh pick. The Falcons have some young offensive linemen that can compete for the right tackle spot. They have a much bigger need at cornerback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First round: Pick was dealt as part of the trade for Darrelle Revis

Second round: Kawann Short, defensive tackle, Purdue

My take: The Bucs firmed up their secondary by adding Revis. Adding Short to a defensive line with a lot of young talent could make the Bucs special in this area.
Tom BradyJim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesHistory is against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots returning to the Super Bowl this season.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots have the talent, experience and depth to get back to the Super Bowl in February. Many football pundits agree the Patriots -- led by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick -- are one of the safest picks to represent the AFC in New Orleans.

But history suggests New England is better off not showing up this season. The Patriots were runners-up in Super Bowl XLVI -- and historically that is an awful position to be in.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it's been 39 years since a team bounced back from a Super Bowl loss to win a championship. The Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII in January 1973 after losing Super Bowl VI the previous year. In fact, it's only happened twice in the Super Bowl's 46-year history.

New England is trying to become just the third team to accomplish the feat -- and the first in nearly four decades. Thirty-eight consecutive teams have tried and failed. That is a ton of history against the Patriots as they chase their fourth Super Bowl title in the Belichick-Brady era.

Mathematically, only 4.3 percent of NFL teams have been able to accomplish what New England is trying to do this year. Those are long odds, indeed.

"The Patriots played more games than any other team but one last year and I think that takes a toll," Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said of difficulty of getting back to the Super Bowl. "Those playoff games are really intense and you have to do more physical damage to your roster than teams that didn’t make it deep into the playoffs. So I think it’s a little more difficult to be fresh when your season comes around. Your offseasons aren't as long and you're more beat up."

To Williamson's point, the Patriots are still ailing from last year's playoff run.

Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins tore his ACL in the postseason and had surgery in February. He is questionable for Week 1 and could begin the year on the physically unable to perform list. Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski needed ankle surgery this offseason after getting injured in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He continues to rehab and hopes to be back by training camp. Neither star was able to participate in offseason workouts.

The numbers are a little more in New England's favor in terms of getting back to the big game. Seven Super Bowl runners-up have repeated as conference champions in 46 years, which is 15.2 percent. Most recently, the Buffalo Bills bounced back from three Super Bowl losses to return to the title game in the 1990-93 seasons. The Denver Broncos also lost Super Bowl XXI in the 1986 season and made it back to Super Bowl XXII the following year. But 17 consecutive Super Bowl runners-up have not returned to the big game. The Patriots will try to end the drought this season.

History is not on New England's side, but there are reasons to believe the Patriots can shake the runners-up curse.

For starters, New England is stacked this year. There is depth at nearly every position, and the defense should be much improved from the 31st-ranked unit we saw a year ago. Second, New England has the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL. The Patriots play just four teams with winning records in 2011. A 12- or 13-win season appears very attainable for the Patriots.

Finally, New England's offense is a juggernaut. Brady is playing some of the best football of his career and he has a supremely talented supporting cast that includes Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez, veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney and a young, exciting group of running backs.

"They would be No. 1 on my power rankings. I'm not saying they will win the Super Bowl, but if I had to pick one team, they would be my pick," Williamson said. "The key to me is you can't outscore them. The Patriots were one of the two or three best offenses last year and they had some flaws. They had nothing outside the numbers and no deep-ball capabilities, and they went out and changed that with Brandon Lloyd. That's a big step forward on offense, and now you're going to have to score 40 to beat them."

The AFC appears to be the weaker conference, which also plays into New England's favor. There are only a handful of serious contenders. Besides New England, the list includes the Ravens, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and maybe the Broncos if future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning can return to full strength.

But the first step for the Patriots is conquering the AFC East. New England has won the division nine of the past 11 years under Brady and Belichick. Williamson does not see any reason the Patriots cannot win their 10th AFC East title in 12 years.

"I think the Jets are declining and the Bills are rising, but I don't think either one is close to the Patriots’ level," Williamson said. "I don't think the rest of the division is that good. The Bills have come a long way -- for the Bills. But I still think they're an 8-8 or 9-7 team if everything goes well. No one in the division has a quarterback close to Brady. No one has the big-game experience, and none of them have a coach on Belichick’s level."

Barring significant injuries, the Patriots are a safe bet to make the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. But when it comes to getting to the very top of the NFL mountain, history suggests New England's 2012 journey will fall short.

Scouting QB Ryan Tannehill

March, 7, 2012
How good is Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill? And why is he one of the fastest-rising prospects in this year’s NFL draft?

These are questions many are asking leading up to April's NFL draft. Tannehill, once thought to be a second-round or late first-round prospect, is now projected to be in the top 20. There is speculation the Miami Dolphins could be interested in Tannehill, considering his connection with former Aggies coach and new Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman.

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill
Troy Taormina/US PresswireTexas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill could be a first-round possibility for Miami in the draft this year.
"Coach Sherman runs a West Coast offense, kind of drop-back passing, and well as moving the pocket," Tannehill said at the NFL combine. "I think that’s a couple of things I do well is move and throw on the run. He likes to move the pocket -- bootlegs, nakeds, whatever it may be. Get outside the pocket and make throws downfield. I like what he did, and we’ll see what happens."

Here is how Scouts Inc. graded Tannehill Insider:

Accuracy (average): "Flashes good anticipation and ability to deliver the ball to a spot before the receiver makes his break. A bit unpolished with mechanics though, especially with footwork. Does not always step to target or throw in balance, which can lead to him missing the mark. Also has room for improvement with ball placement, and will force receivers to adjust on routine throws. Much more accurate with short-to-intermediate throws than as a deep thrower at this point."

Release, arm strength (average): "Possesses a three-quarter sidearm release where he almost pushes the ball. However, gets it out quickly and can release the ball accurately from a variety of launch points if need be. Low release point brings up some slight concerns about batted balls at the NFL level. Arm strength is adequate-to-good, and can make all the NFL throws. Does not have elite ability to stretch the field vertically though."

Scouts Inc.'s profile isn't too flattering for a top 20 pick, but it did grade Tannehill a 93, which is tied for 13th among all prospects. Does Tannehill have potential to be a franchise quarterback?
Who is the best player in Super Bowl XLVI? According to Scouts Inc., New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be the best player on the field on Feb. 5.

No. 2 on that list was New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. There will be a lot of debate this week about which quarterback is better heading into the big game. Manning beat Brady in the regular season, as well as their previous Super Bowl meeting four years ago.

Scouts Inc. ranked every player in Sunday's Super Bowl. We don't want to give it all away. But here are the Patriots in the top five:
Agree so far? You can check out the full rankings on ESPN Insider.

How much longer for Tom Brady?

January, 21, 2012
Tom BradyElsa/Getty ImagesDoes Tom Brady have what it takes to be an NFL starting quarterback until he's 40?
Here is scary news for the rest of the NFL: Tom Brady wants to play quarterback for the New England Patriots until he's 40 years old.

That means, theoretically, Brady and coach Bill Belichick plan to dominate the AFC East and keep New England in title contention until 2017. Brady will turn 35 next August.

But five more years? That is an eternity in the NFL, where the average career span is approximately 3-4 seasons. Does Brady have enough in the tank to play 17 years at such a demanding position?

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four quarterbacks in NFL history have started on opening day past the age of 40. Warren Moon (41) was the oldest, followed by Brett Favre (40), Vinny Testaverde (40) and Johnny Unitas (40). Brady wants to become the fifth player to accomplish that feat.

Former quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer played 14 seasons in the NFL and believes Brady will reach that goal. According to Dilfer, the key to quarterback durability is the lower body, not the upper body.

"What goes first with quarterbacks is their legs. Once you lose your legs, you kind of lose everything else," Dilfer explained. "I remember Kurt Warner talking about that late in his career, and obviously I experienced it. Every quarterback experiences it. I think Tom works hard enough to maintain the leg strength he needs to be as precise as he is, and I think he's a competitor that if he puts something in his mind that he's going to do something, he's a guy that goes out and does it.

"There's very few people in sports like that, talk about the Kobe Bryants and the greats in all sports. I think Tom is right up there. When he puts his mind to something, he's going to do it. So I fully expect him to be playing at 40 if he says he's going to."

It's hard to say when that window will close for Brady, who will lead the Patriots (14-3) in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens (13-4). He's proved over the past dozen years that, as long as he's healthy, he's an elite player. Brady is an MVP candidate this season and, by far the best remaining quarterback in the playoffs.

A case can made that Brady's three best statistical seasons occurred after the age of 30 -- in 2007, 2010 and 2011. He also is coming off a record-tying, six-touchdown performance in a 45-10 playoff victory over the Denver Broncos. It was one of his top single-game performances.

Brady projects to be an elite player for at least the next two or three seasons. Injuries are probably the only thing that can derail him at this stage of his career.

Brady had reconstructive knee surgery and missed 15 games in 2008. Otherwise, he has had a clean bill of health. Outside of 2008, he has missed just one start since taking over the job in 2001.

"If anybody can pull it off, it's Brady, but like we saw with Peyton Manning, he could break down easier [with age] too," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "Manning may never be the same. He may never play at that same high level. Who knows? If Brady hits one stumbling block like Peyton did, all of a sudden 40 is a long way away for him. But nobody is playing better than Brady right now."

Brady has been fortunate with pass protection throughout his career. He has been sacked 26 times or fewer in six of the past seven seasons.

Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi was a longtime teammate of Brady's and knows firsthand the importance of protecting the veteran quarterback. Brady is a classic pocket passer who moves well in the pocket. But he doesn't have the ability to run away from defenders.

"As players progress up into the years, the more shots you take, the shorter the second half of your career will be," Bruschi said. "And I think Tom Brady will play as well as his offensive line, his protection, allows him. I think he's shown over the course of the last few years that there are the usual (ailments), they're becoming normal now. Late in the season where he had a rib or a shoulder or various injuries like that over the course of a season.

"You end up accumulating some damage, especially as a quarterback, because you're the most sought-after hit in terms of the defensive perspective. So if he can be protected, I think that goal is possible. He can play as long as he wants to."

Brady currently is playing with a left-shoulder (non-throwing) injury that has to be managed during the playoffs. This week Brady sat out of Wednesday's practice to rehab and watched extra film of Baltimore's defense.

An under-the-radar aspect of Brady's longevity could be the development of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both have been tremendous weapons and security blankets for Brady in their second season together.

Throwing in the middle of the field is the quickest and easiest completion for quarterbacks. It also keeps the pass rush at bay.

"They're obviously a huge part of what we do," Brady said of his tight ends this week. "They are on the field quite a bit and they’ve been healthy so it’s been good to have them both out there. ... They're pretty good with the ball in their hands and break a lot of tackles so that’s definitely a plus for us also. We have a lot of yards after catch this year, and those two guys certainly do a great job with the ball in their hands."

Patriots owner Robert Kraft still remembers when the late-round draft pick came to Foxborough as a long shot in 2000. Kraft shared a great story about his first encounter with Brady this week.

"I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro Stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm, the skinny beanpole," Kraft said. "When he introduced himself to me and he said, ‘Hi, Mr. Kraft’ and he was about to say who he was and [I said] ‘I know who you are, you’re Tom Brady, you’re our sixth-round draft choice.’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.' It looks like he could be right, although hiring Bill Belichick, I think, also has been a pretty good decision."

Brady's Hall of Fame legacy is secure. If he retired today, Brady already would be among the top quarterbacks ever to play the position. He has three Super Bowl rings and could tie his childhood hero -- Joe Montana -- for the most playoff victories (16) with a win over Baltimore Sunday.

But the difference between being a top-five quarterback and the greatest ever could come down to these next five years. Brady can tie Montana (four) and Terry Bradshaw (four) for the most titles in these playoffs. But if Brady plays through age 40, he has a legitimate shot at being the winningest quarterback in NFL history.

"I'm really happy that we have him as our quarterback," Kraft said. "I hope we have the best quarterback and coach in the history of the game. I guess to prove that, we have a little more execution that we have to do over the next few years. I certainly hope we do it."

Rex Ryan needs Mark Sanchez

November, 30, 2011
Sanchez/RyanAP Photo/Charles KrupMark Sanchez and Rex Ryan need to be on the same page for the Jets to compete for a playoff berth.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. Sean Payton and Drew Brees.

Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez?

The tie between the head coach and his quarterback is paramount in the NFL. The Ryan-Sanchez tandem needs to grow together now if the New York Jets want to win a Super Bowl anytime soon.

Ryan and Sanchez are the two most important people in the Jets' organization. If one is failing, both will fail.

Ryan is doing his part. In his first two years as head coach, he's led the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games despite inconsistent play from his starting quarterback.

This was expected to be the year Sanchez, in his third season, made the necessary strides to take the pressure off his head coach and other areas of the team. Instead, Sanchez has been inconsistent, and the Jets are 6-5 with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread.

"I think until he wins the whole thing, he's going to be criticized just like I'm going to be criticized until we win it," Ryan said this week. "That's fine. It comes with the territory."

Ryan needs Sanchez. Sanchez needs Ryan. There's no way around it.

The Jets and Ryan hedged their bets on Sanchez in 2009 when New York traded up to the No. 5 overall pick and made Sanchez its franchise quarterback. Ryan, also in his first season, started Sanchez right away. Including playoffs, Sanchez has made 48 starts and the pair is 29-19 (.604 percentage) together. Sanchez missed one game in his rookie season.

By comparison, Belichick and Brady are 32-13 (.711), McCarthy and Rodgers are 36-11 (.766) and Payton and Brees are 35-11 (.761). The numbers don't seem too far off. But consider that Brady, Rodgers and Brees are the most valuable players for their respective teams. Sanchez, for the most part, has been along for the ride while experiencing growing pains.

Ryan and the Jets will have a hard time winning a Super Bowl unless Sanchez becomes capable of carrying the team.

"I just don't think he's close to being good enough," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Every step of the way, the Jets had to do things in spite of their quarterback. It shows up all the time.

"But I think the best thing he does is play his best football when it matters most. That's shown in the playoffs, it's shown against the Patriots at times and it shows in the red zone. I think he has those qualities where he steps up and that's tremendous."

Jets fans are getting impatient. It was evident by their constant booing of Sanchez in last week's 28-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium.

Sanchez started last week's game by completing just 8 of 20 passes for 66 yards in the first half. But he woke up later in the game with a clutch, fourth-quarter touchdown drive that potentially saved New York's season. Sanchez was 7-for-9 for 65 yards and a touchdown on New York's final drive.

Ryan gushed about Sanchez after the game, calling him "The Sanchise" and "a stud." He saw a glimpse of what Sanchez could be if he were more consistent.

But, as Williamson mentioned, erratic play and inconsistency are hurting Sanchez the most. He is ranked 30th in Total Quarterback Rating (38.6), which is an indication of the type of season Sanchez is having.

The only starting quarterbacks with a lower QBR are Tim Tebow (34.6), Kevin Kolb (33.1), Sam Bradford (29.5), Curtis Painter (23.4) and Blaine Gabbert (20.2). Players like Tarvaris Jackson (39.0), Colt McCoy (44.4) and Rex Grossman (44.8) are all having better seasons than Sanchez, according to Total QBR.

Sanchez recently admitted he's not playing his best. Sanchez also knows the Jets are a veteran team built to win now and needs him to produce.

"I feel good, physically and mentally," Sanchez told ESPN Radio 1050 in New York on Tuesday. "I'm just so focused [because] I want this to go right, because I don't want to miss an opportunity like this, with this kind of talent and this kind of coaching.

"I'm usually -- 'bubbly' is not the word -- but I smile a lot more. We're short on time here, and there's no time to mess around or smile or even laugh, in my opinion."

Is Sanchez getting too much of the blame? To his credit, Sanchez has already set a career high in touchdowns (18) and is on pace to set new career highs in yards (2,513) and passer rating (80.9). Other areas of the team are failing, particularly on offense.

With the exception of last week, the offensive line has been terrible with run blocking and pass protection. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer probably is having his worst year calling plays. And Jets running backs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson have disappeared for long stretches.

Leaks are springing up everywhere, but this is where franchise quarterbacks lift their teams. Brady, Rodgers and Brees all have kept their clubs in title contention despite injuries and weaknesses in other areas. At least Sanchez has New York's eighth-ranked defense on his sideline. That is a luxury Brady, Rodgers and Brees could only dream of.

"To say he's not going to be Aaron Rodgers is not to say he can't be successful," Williamson said. "But Sanchez has to be a complementary option, where they have the fantastic running game and the defense. He has to be Matt Cassel or Kyle Orton, and to me that’s not good enough for him, especially with the draft pick the Jets used."

Sanchez still has five games remaining to write his story of the 2011 season. The Jets are in must-win mode. If Sanchez gets them into the playoffs and makes another run, most will forget his uneven regular season. Ryan, more than anyone, hopes that is the case.

Is Fitzpatrick the next Schaub or Kolb?

November, 16, 2011
What is up with Ryan Fitzpatrick?

The Buffalo Bills' quarterback began the year hot and was an early MVP candidate after the team's 3-0 start. But lately Fitzpatrick has faltered, throwing just two touchdowns and five interceptions the past two weeks. The Bills (5-4) have followed suit, losing four of their last six games.

This week we check in with our resident scout -- Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. -- to get his take on Fitzpatrick's struggles and his prospects for the future.

Matt, what's gone wrong with Fitzpatrick these last couple of games?

Williamson: This is just how he is. He takes a lot of chances and he throws a lot of passes compared to other throwing quarterbacks of his talent level. It's different if you're Aaron Rodgers and you throw a ton of passes, or Tom Brady or an elite player. But Fitzpatrick is not all that physically gifted. And if you put the ball in the air that much and risk tough throws, you're going to pay for it sometimes. It seems like when Firzpatrick does, it comes in bunches. It must get in his head, because it's been like that since he's been a Bill. He will put four or five great games together and then three bad ones. It's not like he's streaky series to series. It's in stretches of games.

Have teams defended Fitzpatrick and the Bills' offense differently?

Williamson: Sort of. I think the Cowboys and Jets are two really good defenses, first of all. Then, they're able to play a lot of man coverage. Looking at the Bills' receivers, I don't think they're all that dynamic. They're not helping Fitzpatrick's cause at all. Terence Newman, Darrelle Revis, all those guys are very good man corners who are playing well. Steve Johnson got away from Revis on a play or two, but still he was more or less a non-factor in that game. I think it's just a talent situation. The Bills are getting to the point where their talent level is starting to show itself. There's a lot of tape on these guys. They were scheming people up early in the season and you can't get away with that as much.

The Bills recently made Fitzpatrick the face of the franchise and gave him a $59 million contract extension. It's early. But what is your gut feeling: Is Fitzpatrick more Matt Schaub or Kevin Kolb?

Williamson: I would lean more towards Kolb. And I'm not totally ready to flush Kolb down the toilet, either. But I understand why the Bills would sign Fitzpatrick. Things are going well. You don't want to completely kill all the momentum of the franchise. He's not a bad player. He's really smart. But in the end, I don't think Fitzpatrick is going to get the Bills where they want to be. He's going to have strings of bad games, and I don't think he can elevate those around him like a big-time quarterback. It still might work out. I think you can keep Fitzpatrick signed and eventually use a second-round pick on a guy with more physical ability. You can bring the draft pick along slowly while you still have Fitzpatrick in the fold.

Aaron Maybin 2.0 returns to Buffalo

November, 3, 2011
Aaron MaybinUS Presswire/Getty ImagesAfter struggling with Buffalo, Aaron Maybin has found a home with the New York Jets.
The last time Buffalo Bills fans saw Aaron Maybin at Ralph Wilson Stadium, he was a struggling first-round pick failing to find his niche in the NFL. Maybin, the No. 11 overall pick in 2009, never produced anything close to what his draft status suggested. He was cut by the Bills this summer, ending the two-year experiment.

But the New York Jets' version of Maybin is a different player this season. He is getting to the quarterback and is tied for the team lead with three sacks. Maybin also leads the Jets with three forced fumbles. He is finally living up to the "Mayhem" nickname he earned at Penn State.

A rejuvenated Maybin 2.0 returns to Buffalo on Sunday in a Jets uniform. He credits a change of scenery and New York's coaching staff for his newfound success.

"To me, it's not much of a difference other than the fact it's a different team," Maybin said in a telephone interview with the AFC East blog. "There's nothing different about me physically, from a preparation standpoint, or anything else from how I've been my entire career.

"The difference is I'm here. I'm with an organization and with a coaching staff that is putting me in the position to help the team win. Those opportunities put in my lap and faith being put in me have allowed me to go out there and be able to have a little bit of success this year."

Maybin' transformation was instantaneous in New York. He had a great preseason in Rex Ryan's scheme and recorded 2.5 sacks this summer in limited playing time.

Maybin began training camp as a long shot but initially made New York's 53-man roster. He was cut soon after to make room for several roster moves. But the Jets re-signed Maybin for good in Week 4.

Since then, Maybin has made his mark as a situational rusher in New York. He's recorded a sack in three of his four games. He had his best performance against the Miami Dolphins in Week 6 on "Monday Night Football," when he recorded a sack and forced two fumbles.

Playing in the New York City market rarely provides less pressure. But that has been the case for Maybin. He no longer has the "draft bust" label that he carried every day in Buffalo. He's simply a role player with the Jets.

"Whatever he gives the Jets is gravy -- it's total opposite expectations," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Oh, by the way, Ryan, Bart Scott, Darrelle Revis, they're not going to let you sit around and be a slacker. They're going to grab you behind the scenes and say 'Hey, this is how we do it around here.' There's a lot more leadership on that side of the ball."

Maybin acknowledges he's "pumped" for his return to Buffalo. It's his first chance to show the Bills the level of play he couldn't deliver in his first two NFL seasons.

In Buffalo, Maybin played for three head coaches in two years -- Chan Gailey, Dick Jauron and interim coach Perry Fewell. Maybin speaks very highly of Ryan, his fourth NFL head coach.

"Coach Ryan is a player's coach. He's the kind of coach that every player wants to play for and every coach wants to coach for," Maybin said. "He keeps the locker room excited every day. Sometimes it's even surprising to me how he's able to do that. He will come into a room that has no energy and the whole room will be energized within five minutes of him talking.

"He is passionate and coaches with his heart on his sleeve, just like most guys in this locker room play with their hearts on their sleeve. He's an awesome leader and a guy this whole locker room stands behind."

Not only is this a big game for Maybin, it's also a big game for the Jets.

Buffalo leads the AFC East with a 5-2 record. New York (4-3) is just one game behind Buffalo and the New England Patriots (5-2). That is surprising, considering New York's three-game losing streak last month nearly crippled its season. The Jets responded by winning two straight games to keep their playoff hopes alive.

"That was the first thing coach Ryan emphasized -- that us as a team and a locker room stay together," Maybin said. "We didn't let anybody come in and start to divide us and start to convince us that we weren't the team we thought that we were. That's what we did. We never lost sight of our focus and we never lost faith in each other. Now, we're starting to come out of it."

The same can be said about Maybin. The Jets saw something in him that Buffalo did not. Now, Maybin is repaying the Jets' confidence in him with his productive play on the field.

Why Tom Brady owns the Steelers

October, 26, 2011
Tom Brady Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTom Brady will be looking to improve his career record against the Steelers to 7-1 on Sunday.
This is not opinion. This is fact.

Tom Brady owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. There is no simpler way to put it.

The New England Patriots' future Hall of Famer dominates the "Steel Curtain" defense like no other quarterback in NFL history. Brady beats Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. He beats Pittsburgh at Gillette Stadium. He owns the Steelers in the regular season and in the playoffs.

Brady is an impressive 6-1 all-time against Pittsburgh. He will look to add to that record Sunday when the Patriots (5-1) travel to meet the Steelers (5-2) in a possible playoff preview.

Brady is the one quarterback Pittsburgh's vaunted defense doesn't want to see on the opposing sideline. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, he's thrown for 2,008 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only three interceptions.

Brady also has a 104.8 career passer rating versus Pittsburgh and a 67.8 completion percentage.

"It's just a terrible matchup for the Steelers," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. explained. "Any time you design a defense or offense, you're going to have strengths and weaknesses. ... Their defense isn't a good fit for the Patriots. If you're just looking at the roster, you want to force the Steelers to play nickel. You want to take Casey Hampton off the field when he's healthy and replace him with William Gay. Hampton is a good player and Gay isn't. The Patriots have the weapons and the receiving threats to do that."

On paper, this looks like it will be a tough battle between New England's No. 1-ranked offense against Pittsburgh's third-ranked defense. But Brady's history with Pittsburgh proves that the battle may not be so tough after all.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme thrives off disguise and confusion. But Brady, 34, is so cerebral that he stays one step ahead of Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and James Farrior
Jason Bridge/US PresswireAgainst the Steelers in 2010, Tom Brady was 30-of-43 for 350 yards and three touchdowns.
The most recent meeting in 2010 was a perfect example. Brady read Pittsburgh's defense like a book. He utilized short, decisive passes to carve up the Steelers and was 30 of 43 for 350 yards and three touchdowns.

Brady makes it look easy against Pittsburgh. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, now in his fifth season, has yet to beat Brady.

"He is just very good physically and mentally," Tomlin said this week. "He is very talented in both areas. He is tough to trick, he makes quick decisions, he has pinpoint accuracy and he has the arm to do the things he desires to do."

Schematically, Pittsburgh has a hard time adjusting to New England's multiple formations. For years the Patriots have used the spread offense to pick apart the Steelers' 3-4 defense. Other teams are starting to catch on. The Green Bay Packers did some of the same things to beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV this past February.

Pittsburgh's biggest strength is its front seven and its biggest weakness is cornerback depth. New England is able to dictate Pittsburgh's personnel groupings by putting three or more receivers on the field. Stud tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski often are moved outside the box and used as receivers. This forces Pittsburgh to go three- and four-deep at corner, while removing a linebacker or defensive lineman.

If Pittsburgh stays in its base defense, Patriots receivers like Wes Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski could have a field day against far-less athletic linebackers James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote.

If Pittsburgh takes its linebackers off the field in favor of extra cornerbacks like William Gay and Keenan Lewis, New England will have an easier time running the ball with its deep stable of running backs. The Patriots are tied for 10th in the NFL in rushing and average 4.6 yards per carry.

There are no easy answers for the Steelers.

"Both teams know each other well, so I don't think there will be a ton of surprises here," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week. "It will come down to preparation, execution and decision-making on game day."

It also doesn't help Pittsburgh that Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison will miss his fourth consecutive game with an eye injury. Getting to Brady is key, and Woodley (seven sacks) has been Pittsburgh's only consistent pass-rusher this year.

"I think [Harrison] is one of the top 10 or 15 players in the league, and now they're weaker at two positions," Williamson said. "Lawrence Timmons was a force on the inside. Now, he's disappeared on the outside. So they're much weaker there, and they're much weaker inside where Timmons used to be."

The key chess match in this game will be between Brady and Pittsburgh safety and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu. Brady usually gets the best of Polamalu with his ability to make great pre-snap reads.

But Brady knows Polamalu is capable of making big plays at any time. Polamalu has 43 tackles and one sack this season.

"Troy is a phenomenal player," Brady said this week on WEEI radio in Boston. "I watched a bunch of his highlights with Coach Belichick yesterday in our film study. He's as good as he's ever been. He flies around the field. He's incredibly fast and instinctive. He covers a lot of ground out there. You have to keep your eyes on him on every play."

Giving the Patriots two weeks to prepare is bad news for opponents.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, New England coach Bill Belichick is 8-0 after the bye since 2003. The Patriots have the second-longest active win streak following the bye, trailing the Philadelphia Eagles, who have won 12 in a row.

"New England adapts week-to-week to their opponent better than anyone in league on both sides of the ball," Williamson said. "Where I think the Steelers are more like 'We're the Steelers, and we're just better than you.'"

The Steelers have won championships. But they haven't been better than the Patriots for a long time.

It will remain that way until Pittsburgh solves the Brady conundrum.

Inside the Buffalo Bills' offense

September, 30, 2011
Fred Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve JohnsonGetty ImagesFred Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson have the Bills leading the NFL in scoring.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The NFL's highest-scoring offense may be found Buffalo, but it was hatched in Pittsburgh.

In the mid-1990s, Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey was a wide receivers coach for the Steelers. Gailey realized he had a deep and talented group and convinced Pittsburgh -- primarily a running team -- to use more four-receiver sets.

"We kind of evolved to it, to be honest with you," Gailey said. "Ron Erhardt was the offensive coordinator and we had four really good players. We had Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, and Charles Johnson and Yancey Thigpen. So we said 'How can we get them on the field at the same time?'"

The concept helped lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl after the 1995 season. Sixteen years later, Gailey's spread offense is tearing up the NFL once again. The Bills lead the league in scoring with 113 points in three games. Buffalo (3-0) averages 37.7 points per game, is third in total offense and is the only undefeated team in the AFC.

Now, instead of Neil O'Donnell, the Bills have fast-rising quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Thigpen's role as the No. 1 receiver in Gailey's offense is filled by Buffalo's Steve Johnson. Charles Johnson and Hastings are replaced by Donald Jones and David Nelson. Receiver Naaman Roosevelt, tight end Scott Chandler and tailback C.J. Spiller share time as Buffalo's fourth receiver.

Even Kordell "Slash" Stewart, who was used on trick plays by Gailey and Pittsburgh's staff, is comparable to Bills receiver/quarterback/returner Brad Smith. But so far Buffalo hasn't used many trick plays.

Gailey's system thrives on several core principles. First, by lining up with four receivers, Buffalo is able to "expand the defense." Buffalo's alignment forces defenses to spread out. It creates bigger seams and makes it easier for the quarterback to read defenses and recognizes blitzes.

Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate, is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league. He’s done a great job of reading defenses pre-snap and changing routes and protection. It's led to Fitzpatrick’s fast start and earning AFC Player of the Month honors. He's thrown for 871 yards and nine touchdowns in three games.

"When he's confident, on top of his game and hot, he's really hard to deal with," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc said of Fitzpatrick. "I don't know if that's going to keep up for 16 games. But he's on fire right now. He's at the pinnacle of his game."

Buffalo's spread also takes defenses out of its comfort zone. Every base defense in the NFL has three or four linebackers. The Bills, with three and four receivers, create tough choices. If opponents stay in their base defense, they have to cover wide receivers with linebackers. If opponents go away from their base defense, some of the better, front-seven players are taken off the field. That makes it easier to run the football. Bills tailback Fred Jackson is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (303).

It's a Catch-22 opponents have yet to figure out.

"Oakland stayed in a lot of base and we exploited that," Jones said. "David in the middle, if they're going to keep a linebacker on him, that's a mismatch all day. Kansas City did the same thing.

"That's why we do it: To see what the defense is going to do. Are they going to bring in extra corners, or are they going to stay base? We're going to exploit it, whatever it is."

Buffalo's offense works because it defies stereotypes. With spreads, typically you think of big plays in the passing game but also a lot of sacks and struggles running the ball. Fitzpatrick has been sacked just once this season, and Buffalo is fourth in the league in rushing. The Bills average 5.6 yards per carry.

One of the secrets of Buffalo's success has been its receivers' blocking downfield. Buffalo is second in the NFL with six runs of 20 yards or more.

"This is what we tell our receivers: 'Do you want the running back to block the protection when you're running a route so you can catch a pass?'" Gailey explained. "If you do, then when he's running the ball, you block for him because we're in this thing together."

Gailey's selfless team concept is working for the Bills. Buffalo usually sends four receivers out on passing plays, and it's Jackson's responsibility to block the extra rusher.

"I don't know if there's a better pass-protecting back in the league with what he does," Fitzpatrick said. "The fans and everybody watching the game, they see his runs, they see what he does after the catch, but that’s the thing that nobody really talks about and that’s what makes him one of the most complete backs in the game.

"He's taken on defensive lineman, he's taken on defensive ends and he's storming linebackers. Whatever it is, he's the best I've played with in terms of picking up blitzes. There are no stats for that."

The success of Buffalo’s offense has permeated the entire team.

Veteran Bills kicker Rian Lindell has seen a lot of bad offenses in his eight seasons in Buffalo. He provided some insight into how this year's offense has changed things.

"I have a kicking shoe that's tighter, so I don't wear it all game," Lindell said. "It used to be, I would wait until we get to midfield or in field-goal range until I put it on. Now, if we get the ball on our own 20, 25 or 30, I say, 'I better put the shoe on. It might be a couple plays and I have to get warmed up.'"

This Bills believe they can score with anyone. They proved it in a 34-31 shootout victory against New England. The Bills fell behind 21-0 in the first half and became the first NFL team to overcome deficits of 18 or more points in back-to-back weeks. Buffalo trailed by 21-3 at halftime of a 38-35 victory over Oakland in Week 2.

The offense is clicking because players better understand the system, Gailey said. In 2010, Gailey's first year in Buffalo, the Bills were ranked No. 25 offensively. The Bills got off to a horrendous 0-8 start but finished the second half of the season 4-4. The Bills are 7-4 in their last 11 games.

Surprisingly, Buffalo's offensive playbook is not huge, players say. Gailey puts an emphasis on keeping things manageable. He believes that if everyone knows exactly what he's doing, the plays will work and it's easier to hold players accountable.

Many question whether the Bills, a four-win team in 2010, have the staying power to remain in contention. Much of it rests on this offense's ability to perform at a high level over 16 games.

Through three weeks, Buffalo is on pace to score 602 points this season. That would break the NFL record set by the Patriots (589) in 2007.

"I don't know if we'll set records this year," Gailey said. "But it'd be nice if we did."

AFC North in Scouts' top 200

August, 23, 2011
Scouts Inc. released its top 200 players Insider entering the 2011 NFL season. There are a lot of things to discuss.

But let's focus on the top players in the AFC North and how it compares to "Walker's Fab 40" that we produced earlier this year.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireBen Roethlisberger was the top player from the AFC North in Scouts Inc.'s ranking.
Scouts' ranking: No. 8

Walker's AFC North Fab 40: No. 2

Analysis: There were rankings this offseason that didn't place Roethlisberger among the top 40 players. This one is much more accurate. Quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees were all rated ahead of Roethlisberger.

Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns left tackle

Scouts' ranking: No. 9

Walker’s Fab 40: No. 8

Analysis: I was surprised to see Thomas as the second highest-rated player from the AFC North. He is the best left tackle in football. But Thomas dealt with an elbow injury and didn't have his best year in 2010. Therefore, I had seven division players rated above Thomas in "Walker’s Fab 40." Many are on the list below.

James Harrison, Steelers linebacker

Scouts' ranking: No. 13

Walker’s Fab 40: No. 5

Analysis: I think Harrison's ranking was accurate. The former Defensive Player of the Year is one of the hardest hitters in football and still playing at a high level. I disagree that Harrison is better and more important to the Steelers' defense than safety Troy Polamalu. But we will get to that later.

Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman

Scouts' ranking: No. 14

Walker’s Fab 40: No. 4

Analysis: Ngata is the best defensive lineman in football, according to Scouts Inc. He has a rare combination of size and nimble feet that's scary for opponents. The Ravens and Ngata are working on a long-term contract to make him one of the highest-paid defenders in football.

Troy Polamalu, Steelers safety

Scouts' ranking: No. 18

Walker's Fab 40: No. 1

Analysis: This was the ranking that surprised me the most. Polamalu was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 but had six defenders rated ahead of him and 17 players total. Polamalu's Achilles injury at the end of last season put a big dent in his effectiveness. That seems to be what most people remember about last season. But, when healthy, Polamalu is a special talent.

Ed Reed, Ravens safety

Scouts' ranking: No. 21

Walker’s Fab 40: No. 3

Analysis: Polamalu was rated three spots ahead of Reed. I'm going to duck in case sparks fly on another "Troy Reed" debate.

There were more AFC North players in the top 60. Ravens linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs (No. 31), Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons (No. 46), Ravens tailback Ray Rice (No. 52), Steelers receiver Mike Wallace (No. 54) and Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley (No. 59) all made the cut.

Which players are too high? Which players are too low?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Colt McCoyAP Photo/Mark DuncanColt McCoy's numbers suffered when he played in cold-weather conditions.
It sounds like a simple question: Can Colt McCoy play in cold, inclement weather?

But the subject of handling the cold continues to be a hot topic in Cleveland and one that will follow McCoy until he proves otherwise with the Browns.

Playing quarterback in Cleveland is not easy. It takes good arm strength -- one of McCoy's biggest weaknesses -- because the stadium is located right off Lake Erie. That makes for heavy winds and creates more snow than usual in the key games in November and December, when many teams try to make a push for the playoffs.

McCoy, college football's all-time winningest quarterback at the University of Texas, didn't play in many cold-weather games in the Big 12. And the few McCoy had were mild compared to what he will face every season as Cleveland's starting quarterback.

McCoy's first NFL experience last year playing in inclement weather didn't go well, leaving many to question if he is the answer for the Browns. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, McCoy played three games during his rookie season in which the temperature was below 40 degrees. In those games, McCoy was 0-3, losing to the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, and saw his passer rating drop almost 25 points compared to games played in warmer weather. McCoy also threw six of his nine interceptions in those three games.

If playing well in the cold is something McCoy cannot do, it will surely be his undoing in Cleveland.

"Even though we didn't go through with it, that was something in my year with the Browns that we very much believed in: You gotta have a [strong-armed] quarterback because we were next to the lake," said Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson, who worked for the Browns in 2004. "And you got to have kickers and punters that are used to playing in that type of weather. I was there with Jeff Garcia and he didn't do well."

Coming off his success in San Francisco, Garcia was just 3-7 in his only season in Cleveland and turned out to be a bad fit. But he isn't the only Browns quarterback who has struggled. Former first-round pick Brady Quinn also couldn't solve Cleveland's tricky weather conditions.

Quinn spent three years in Cleveland and his numbers were dreadful in cold-weather games. Quinn's completion percentage (46.2) and passer rating (57.8) in games in which the temperature was under 40 degrees were both significantly lower than his career averages (52.1 completion and 66.8 passer rating). That led to Quinn's eventual demise and trade out of Cleveland.

The only Browns quarterback to have a Pro Bowl season in Cleveland since the team returned in 1999 was Derek Anderson, and he had the strongest arm of any Browns quarterback of the past dozen years.

Despite his woes in cold-weather games, McCoy scoffed at the idea that Cleveland's weather would be a factor for him late last season.

"I've played in the snow and wind in Kansas a couple times. I've played in Nebraska," McCoy explained. "We had some real wet games back home [in Austin, Texas]."

McCoy added that playing in bad weather is more mental than physical. He clearly didn't enjoy the constant questions about whether his arm strength was good enough to thrive in poor conditions.

"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" McCoy fired back last December.

But the early returns suggests it is an issue. McCoy's numbers across the board took a significant dip when weather became a factor.

McCoy's two victories as a starter came in a dome against the New Orleans Saints and an early November win at home against the New England Patriots. But back-to-back home games against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the final two games of te season exposed McCoy's inexperience and lack of arm strength, as both teams combined for six interceptions.

Many of McCoy's passes fluttered and Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu easily intercepted his throws. McCoy, who showed good accuracy most of the year, also became erratic in the final two games and his arm wasn't strong enough to cut through the winds and fit the ball into tight windows.

According to Williamson, you may see more of the same from McCoy against Cleveland's division rivals, particularly late in the year.

"I think their passing game is still one of the worst in the league. How much offense can they generate?" Williamson said of the Browns. "Colt McCoy still has a lot to prove, and I don't think he has a real high ceiling. They don't have anyone dangerous that scares you."

The Browns have a lot riding on McCoy in 2011. If he turns out to be a bust, Cleveland's rebuilding process led by president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and rookie head coach Pat Shurmur could be pushed back even further.

Andy Dalton & Colt McCoyUS PresswireThe futures of the Bengals and Browns are tied to young QBs Andy Dalton, left, and Colt McCoy.
Since the AFC North was created during the 2002 realignment, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been the biggest bullies within the conference. Those teams have combined for seven division titles in the past nine seasons.

With new eras beginning simultaneously for Ohio's two NFL franchises, young quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Colt McCoy will be aiming to shift the balance of power toward the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, respectively. Quarterback is the league's most important position, and if Dalton and McCoy turn out to be the long-term solutions, it could go a long way toward potentially turning the AFC North on its head.

The Steelers and Ravens have their answers at quarterback. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, 29, already has led his team to three Super Bowls, winning two, and is currently in the prime of his career. Baltimore's Joe Flacco, 26, has led the Ravens to three consecutive playoff appearances and continues to get better.

That puts an immense amount of pressure on Dalton and McCoy to catch up. Their futures directly tie into Cincinnati and Cleveland's ability or inability to close the gap within the division. If both are busts, there might not be an end in sight to the dominance by Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Neither the Bengals nor the Browns have any shot of overcoming these perennial contenders with shoddy quarterback play.

"It's horrible; there's nothing good about [inexperienced quarterbacks] facing the Ravens and Steelers," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They're not carbon copies of each other, but their philosophy is pretty similar. They're going to take away your running game, and you're not going to outwork them in the trenches or move them. Then you're one-dimensional, and then you're in trouble."

Cleveland has had a number of quarterbacks eaten alive by Baltimore and Pittsburgh since returning to the NFL in 1999. Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn are just some of the players who were battered, beaten and couldn't maintain long-term success in the AFC North. McCoy is next in line to give it a shot this season.

Last season McCoy showed flashes of promise, but he got off to an inauspicious start against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He went 0-3 against the Steelers and Ravens, throwing for two touchdowns and eight interceptions in those games. If McCoy has similar performances against Cleveland's biggest rivals in Year 2, he won't hold his starting job very long.

"I think he played like a rookie at times and then he far exceeded my expectations at other times," Browns president Mike Holmgren said recently of McCoy. "It coincided with the games we won and a couple games that we lost. ... Did he exceed expectations from me? I would have to say yes, because I didn't expect him to play. Is there a huge upside and much more to come? I would say yes to that, too, because he is a young man just learning to play the position in our league."

Holmgren echoes the sentiment of Cleveland's coaches and those in the front office, who remain optimistic about McCoy. But Williamson isn't convinced.

Williamson recently ranked the Browns last in his post-draft Power Rankings, leading Scouts Inc. to predict Cleveland will take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the top pick in the 2012 draft. If this scenario plays out, McCoy's first full season as a starter in 2011 projects to be a disaster.

"I really worry about the guy's arm strength. I just can't get around that," Williamson said. "When the weather gets bad, he's not going to be able to complete passes in Cleveland. I think he's a real good fit in the West Coast offense. I think he has some moxie to him and I like the way he plays. But when it's December and the Steelers and Ravens are in town, you better be able to complete a deep out."

Former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer did have success, which is why Cincinnati is the only team other than Baltimore and Pittsburgh to win the AFC North. The Bengals won division titles in 2005 and 2009.

Palmer, who demanded a trade and threatened to retire this offseason, was particularly tough against the Ravens. He was 9-4 as a starter versus Baltimore, and the Ravens certainly won't miss Palmer if he never plays another down in Cincinnati.

That is where Dalton comes in. Barring an unexpected change of heart by Palmer, Dalton is projected to be the Week 1 starter in Cincinnati after leading TCU to an undefeated season in 2010.

Dalton, like many successful quarterbacks, comes to Cincinnati with confidence and a very competitive attitude.

"Obviously, everyone knows about the current situation with Carson Palmer," Dalton said. "As far as I know, it's open [competition]. We're trying to figure out who will be the guy, and I’m looking forward to it."

Dalton's biggest strengths are his accuracy and leadership, which will be needed in Cincinnati. Dalton recently said he models his game after some of the top quarterbacks in the league.

"Growing up and watching the NFL, I saw what Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have done. They seem to have full control over their team," Dalton explained. "You see how well it's worked out for them. Recently, I watched Aaron Rodgers even before he won the Super Bowl. He's a guy who took advantage of his opportunity when it was his time. I think those are three guys that I've watched and studied. Hopefully I can take something from each of their games."

Neither McCoy nor Dalton was a top draft pick. McCoy was a third-rounder in 2010, and Dalton was taken in the second round last month. Yet both are projected to start very early in their careers and, thus, will carry pressure similar to being a first-round pick.

Time will tell if Dalton and McCoy will eventually lead to a quarterback changing of the guard in the AFC North. But count Williamson among the biggest skeptics.

"They both won a ton of games in college, were wonderful college players, and you want your daughter to marry them," Williamson explained. "But they just don't throw the football as well as they have to be 'The Guy' in that division."
We heard a lot of barking from the Dawgpound when Scouts Inc. recently ranked the Cleveland Browns dead last in the NFL and a prime candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in 2012.

This week the AFC North blog caught up with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson, who did the rankings, to get his thoughts on why Cleveland is due for a terrible 2011 season.

Matt, you ruffled a lot of feathers in Cleveland, where they're getting optimistic about their Browns. Can you elaborate on your No. 32 ranking?

Williamson: This is another one I've backtracked a little from. Now I would move the Browns from No. 32 to No. 31 and put Washington at 32. But overall it's a tough thing to ask right now. There's a ton of free agency where players are going to move around. But there are big worries. The Browns are in a tough division, although their schedule overall is reasonably easy. But that's not something I looked into a whole lot when I did these rankings. I just think in this league you need to stop the pass and be able to pass. Their passing game is still among the worst in the league. How much offense can they generate? Colt McCoy still has a lot to prove. I don't think there's a real high ceiling and they don't have anyone dangerous that scares you. I love the Greg Little pick, but he didn't even play football last year. I think their draft tells you everything you need to know -- that they are building for the long term. They are getting quantity versus quality, which is smart because their roster is so weak. If you look at how they're going to defend the pass, they don't have any pass-rushers. I love Joe Haden and I think their secondary is pretty good and will only get better. But their front four is still a really big worry to me, especially their pass-rushers.

As of right now, before free agency, which AFC North team has more talent: Cleveland or Cincinnati?

Williamson: Cincinnati. They're pretty equal at the quarterback position. Of course, Carson Palmer would be better than McCoy. But McCoy is a little better than Andy Dalton, although there's not light years in between those guys. I like the left side of the offensive line a lot better in Cleveland, but overall the offensive lines are close. Cincy has way more offensive weapons. I think the Bengals are loaded with weapons right now. Cincinnati's defense is average across the board, but there's potential to be better. Some of those young guys may step up. It's hard to say [before free agency], but I would take the Bengals' defense over the Browns' defense.

Can Jimmy Smith win DROY?

May, 16, 2011
Character issues aside, the Baltimore Ravens are getting some praise for drafting former Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith at No. 27 overall. On the field Baltimore is a getting a potential top-10 talent at an important position late in the first round.

Add Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to the list of experts who like the pick. Williamson recently tweeted Smith has the potential to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011. This week we caught up with Williamson to explain.

Matt, break down your recent prediction that Smith will win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Williamson: I'm uncharacteristically backtracking a little, but I will tell you why. I think with Jimmy Smith, when you think about the Defensive Rookie of the Year, cornerbacks rarely win that honor. If you're a great corner, people stop throwing at you. So it will probably be difficult for Smith to win that award. But I did say afterward that I think Smith will have the best rookie season of any defensive player, and I mean that. He's not going to get a ton of tackles, he's not going to get many sacks and interceptions are tough to count on. So to say that a corner is going to win Defensive Rookie of Year isn't a real smart thing to say. But I love the fit. I think he will immediately be their No. 1 corner. He's the Chris McAlister-type they needed. He had no business lasting that long in the draft. I don't worry about the character stuff, especially in his first year when he's trying to impress everybody and get acclimated in that locker room.

The Ravens made an interesting point that Smith will help their pass rush. In what ways can that happen?

Williamson: If the Ravens can trust Smith, they can bring another linebacker or a safety blitz or the opposite corner without a lot of fear. They can put Smith on the No. 1 receiver and he's going to do pretty well. And, by the way, Baltimore also has Ed Reed roaming around and eliminating any other issues. So, yeah, I don't think Baltimore is loaded with pass-rushers. But Smith will very much help the pass rush.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the Nnamdi Asomugha comparisons? Fair or too much too soon?

Williamson: Comparisons are rough. In general I'm not a fan of them, because no one compares these players to somebody bad. Mark Ingram is the next Emmitt Smith. Well, Emmitt Smith has rushed for more yards than anybody ever, and Nnamdi is the second-best corner in the league. Does Jimmy Smith have that kind of ability? I would say yes. I think he is more physically gifted than Prince Amukamara and he's right there with Patrick Peterson as the most gifted corners in this draft. He has the size, the speed, the hips -- he really has it all. So in terms of just physical gifts, putting Smith against Nnamdi, they're not that far off.


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