NFL Nation: University of Texas
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:
What about Flacco? On the flip side, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has a return meeting against the team he struggled with most this season. Flacco threw a career-high four interceptions in Baltimore's 15-10 loss to the Bengals in Week 2. The bad performance was a turning point for Flacco, who has only four picks in his past 13 games. The Bengals will try to confuse Flacco again, but the third-year quarterback has shown no signs of struggling in recent weeks. Flacco has led the Ravens to a 5-1 record in the past six games.
Will McCoy bounce back? Continuing our theme of starting quarterbacks, if there is one word to describe Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns during his football career, it would be "successful." So how will McCoy respond to his first awful game at the pro level? The Browns are about to find out as their rookie quarterback prepares for the Pittsburgh Steelers this week. McCoy left the University of Texas as college football's all-time winningest quarterback. The 2010 third-round pick played solid football until he ran into Baltimore's defense and threw three interceptions. McCoy doesn't have an easy task against Pittsburgh's No. 2-ranked defense.
Cleaning up special teams: Pittsburgh had a nice bounce-back game on special teams in last week's 27-3 win over the Carolina Panthers. Pittsburgh's kick coverage was shredded by the New York Jets in Week 15, but the Steelers didn’t allow any big returns and forced two fumbles (recovering one) against the Panthers. Covering kicks has been an issue for Pittsburgh the past couple of seasons, yet the team has cleaned up a lot of those mistakes this season under first-year special-teams coach Al Everest. It was a good sign for the playoff-bound Steelers to keep those struggles at just one game.
Easy playoff scenarios: The Week 17 playoff scenarios are simple for the Ravens (11-4) and Steelers (11-4). Both teams are already in the playoffs, but a Pittsburgh win would clinch the AFC North and a first-round bye. For Baltimore, it can win the AFC North and a first-round bye with a win and a Pittsburgh loss. Both games are at 1 p.m. ET.
Mangini gushed about McCoy's work ethic, quick learning curve and how the rookie wouldn't accept it when everyone in the organization -- from Holmgren on down -- said they didn't plan for McCoy to see the field this year. Instead, McCoy is projected to play eight games, which is half of the Browns' season.
McCoy landed his initial opportunity through injury, but he's regaining the starting job with solid play in five starts. He threw for 975 yards, completed 63.8 percent of his passes and had an 85.3 passer rating. The rookie proved to be the best quarterback on the roster and essentially forced the team into this decision.
"I wasn't really looking at this as just being the case where we're throwing a young guy in to see whether or not a young guy can do it," Mangini said. "I think Colt really did a good job with the opportunities that he had. I think he's earned the chance to play these three games."
Is McCoy the long-term solution in Cleveland? It's too early to tell.
But the Browns (5-8) and the rest of the NFL are about to learn a lot more about McCoy in the next three games against AFC North opponents. The first test is Sunday, a road game against the Cincinnati Bengals (2-11) and then there's back-to-back home games against the playoff-bound Baltimore Ravens (9-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3).
The training wheels are officially off for McCoy.
"It's no landmark day," McCoy said Thursday. "Today is the day that I know I'm the starter and I have to go out and play. I have to go out and get better and I have to go out and help us win."
McCoy's play down the stretch will affect a lot with the Browns, starting with the NFL draft. Quarterback is the league's most important position, and Cleveland has lacked stability there since returning to the NFL in 1999.
A lot of quarterbacks have passed through Cleveland's revolving door, including Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and now Jake Delhomme. Poor quarterback play is one of the biggest reasons Cleveland has just one playoff appearance in more than a decade.
McCoy showed promise, going 2-3 in five starts. But five games do not make a solid season. Three more contests will provide a half-season's worth of film to evaluate the rookie.
"The No. 1 goal of the Cleveland Browns right now has to be finding out what they have in McCoy," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They like what they've seen from him, but can he be the guy? Or do the Browns need to draft a guy or bring in a free agent? I think the Browns need to have a clear picture of that going into the offseason."
The Browns also need to find out whether McCoy can play in inclement weather. Garcia, Frye and Quinn didn't have the arm strength to throw against the heavy winds that come off Lake Erie in Browns Stadium during the winter.
McCoy's biggest asset is his accuracy, not arm strength, which raised some red flags when the Browns drafted the University of Texas product in the third round. McCoy didn't see a lot of bad weather as a four-year starter in the Big 12.
"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]."
McCoy believes playing in bad weather is more mental than physical. But when he was pressed by the media this week regarding his arm strength, a confident McCoy fired back.
"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" McCoy scoffed.
Running the carousel in the AFC North also will be a great learning tool for McCoy. If Cleveland is to turn the franchise around and make a run at the postseason, it first has to win within the division.
The past three seasons the Browns are just 3-12 against AFC North opponents. It's a major reason former head coach Romeo Crennel was fired in Cleveland and Mangini is currently on the hot seat. If McCoy can get hot and pick up two or three wins against Cleveland's biggest rivals, everyone in the organization looks better heading into the offseason.
It's obvious the Browns have a lot riding on McCoy's performance in these final three games.
But 2010 is expected to be a learning year for the University of Texas product. Browns president Mike Holmgren said he prefers veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme lead the team this season while McCoy transitions to the NFL and learns from the sidelines.
"I can't have the mentality coming out to practice that I'm going to sit out all year," McCoy said. "If I did that, I wouldn't be [prepared]. So every day I come here, I got to compete. I got to do my best and be ready whenever something happens."
McCoy will make his NFL debut Saturday when the Browns travel to play the Green Bay Packers. As the third quarterback, McCoy should get plenty of playing time in the second half.
Most of McCoy's offseason has consisted of limited reps in practice behind Delhomme and No. 2 quarterback Seneca Wallace. But it will be interesting to see how much McCoy has learned at this point about the NFL game.
"I spend a lot of time in the film room," McCoy said. "I'm really excited about Saturday and really excited about getting out there and playing live at Lambeau Field. That's going to be a lot of fun. So I feel really good. I do."
McCoy's former college teammate and close friend Jordan Shipley is making a splash for the rival Cincinnati Bengals. Shipley, McCoy's favorite target in college, is competing for the No. 3 receiver role in Cincinnati and likely will play right away as a rookie. Meanwhile, McCoy must wait -- perhaps an entire season -- for his first opportunity.
"It's just one of those things," McCoy explained. "Some rookies step in and play. My hats off to them. But I just really try to be the best I can be in the situation that I'm in. And when it's time, it's time."
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
ESPN.com held its first annual Blog Network NFL draft this week. The results were posted on Wednesday, and you can find all the results here.
But fear not, AFC North fans. Your division had the best general manager in the business.
We landed the top-rated offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, the top pass-rusher for the Cleveland Browns, one of the top receivers and a local product for the Baltimore Ravens and the best center for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here is how it all broke down:
Pick No. 5: Brian Orakpo, DE/LB, Texas
Why: After sending smoke screens in every direction possible, this is the guy we really wanted in Cleveland. We are smart enough to know that the AFC North is about defense first and having players who can pressure the quarterback. Orakpo is the best at that in this draft. Plus, he will make fellow linebacker Kamerion Wimbley a better player, so we feel like we're getting two players in this deal. We're glad Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree was taken one spot higher, because we never wanted to take him this high and the fact that he was off the board will keep the media off our backs.
Pick No. 6: Jason Smith, OT, Baylor
Why: We are still a little shocked by this one. Going in we didn't feel drafting Smith was a possibility for Cincinnati, but it shows how unpredictable draft day can be. Smith was the top player on our board for the Bengals, both because of need and talent. To land this left tackle at No. 6 was a great achievement. We thought Virginia's Eugene Monroe had a chance to fall at this spot. But NFC West GM Mike Sando must be down on Smith, because he passed him over twice with the St. Louis Rams at No. 2 and the Seattle Seahawks at No. 4. Because of Sando, Smith just told our coaching staff he's arriving in Cincinnati with a chip on his shoulder, which is what we like to hear.
Pick No. 26: Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland
Why: Right around pick 20, we got a little nervous. We contacted all blogger GMs saying we wanted to trade up from No. 26, and I had $20 in my pocket to do it. NFC East GM Matt Mosley laughed out loud and took Ohio State tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells with the No. 21 pick for the Philadelphia Eagles. True story. But with USC linebacker Rey Maualuga off the board, the only player we really coveted at this point was Heyward-Bey. Luckily he got past teams like the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins. Their loss is Baltimore's gain.
Pick No. 32: Alex Mack, C, California
Why: Things panned out just as expected for Pittsburgh. Every top center was available with the final pick in the first round, so we took the highest one on our draft board in Mack. He will help improve our running game and should give us some options up front to move players around. Or we can simply let Mack learn the system before taking over permanently at center in 2010, when starter Justin Hartwig becomes a free agent.
Overall, we hope AFC North readers are happy with their picks. Let's see if the real NFL draft turns out just as well this weekend.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Team needs: Linebacker, receiver, defensive line
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Because it's unlikely Aaron Curry will be on the board, the Browns should consider defensive lineman Brian Orakpo (above).|
Plan B: If Curry is off the board, the Browns could turn their attention to Texas linebacker/defensive end hybrid Brian Orakpo. New head coach Eric Mangini needs versatile players for his 3-4 defense. Orakpo also brings a pass rush, which was a major weakness last season in Cleveland. Do not completely rule out Cleveland looking at receiver. It recently released receiver Joe Jurevicius and starter Donte Stallworth is facing legal woes that have put his career in jeopardy. With top receiver Braylon Edwards a big name on the trading block, Cleveland will need someone to throw to in '09.
Scouts Inc. take: "Their needs are many. Going across their offense, the Browns need receivers now. I think receiver all of a sudden is a huge need and Michael Crabtree might be a great pick for them. They need a running back-in-waiting. But they really need a pass-rusher. Their pass rush is atrocious, so Orakpo makes sense for them, putting him on the other side of Kamerion Wimbley. I think Wimbley has proven that he is not a No. 1 pass-rusher. He could be OK as a complementary guy. But he's been disappointing when the attention is rolled in his direction. So Orakpo or Crabtree makes the most sense, but they need a lot." -- Matt Williamson, Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: Contractually, first-year general manager George Kokinis has final say on the 53-man roster. But based on the team's moves in free agency -- acquiring four Jets last month -- it's clear that new coach Eric Mangini is pulling many of the strings behind the scenes. The company line is that both Mangini and Kokinis will work together as an equal tandem.
Now on the Clock: Seattle Seahawks.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Team needs: Offensive tackle, center, pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker
|Paul Jasienski/Getty Images|
|An offensive tackle such as Eugene Monroe would provide an upgrade for the Bengals at a critical position.|
Dream scenario: Unless five teams in front of Cincinnati have brain cramps, Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith -- arguably the top player in the draft -- will not be available when the Bengals use their sixth overall pick. Smith would be perfect for Cincinnati as he would fill the team's biggest need at left tackle and provide tremendous value at No. 6. University of Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe would be another solid pick who may be off the board. Injuries have caught up to former Cincinnati first-round pick Levi Jones, so much so that he is no longer a dependable blindside protector for quarterback Carson Palmer, who's suffered two season-ending injuries (knee, elbow) the past four seasons.
Plan B: With Cincinnati possibly in a poor spot to secure one of the draft's two best tackles, the Bengals' focus could shift to taking the best defensive player along the front seven. Cincinnati has drafted a defensive player in the first round the past four years. The result is a sneaky good unit which steadily improved last season and finished No. 12 in total defense, despite little help from the offense. A player such as Texas defensive end/linebacker Brian Orakpo could be a good addition. The Bengals could still address the tackle position as a Plan B if they are desperate enough. They can take a risk on Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith, whose stock has taken a hit this offseason, or reach for Mississippi tackle Michael Oher, who is widely considered a mid first-round prospect. The recent flirtations with running backs and receivers the past couple of weeks appear to be more smoke screens than substance. Those positions are likely targets in the second and middle rounds.
Scouts Inc.'s take: "The offensive line certainly needs work, and a major weakness of this team that sometimes goes unidentified is the center position. In their division, the Bengals play six games against Shaun Rogers, Casey Hampton and Haloti Ngata. They were trying to get by with Eric Ghiaciuc, who is 280 pounds and he just gets manhandled. They had no inside running attack against those three divisional teams because they couldn't handle the 3-4 nose tackles. That's a huge disadvantage. But in the first round I think they can go a lot of different ways. I like their defense. I don't think their defense is as bad off as it usually is. But, boy, do they need a pass-rusher. They need a difference-maker, and Orakpo makes a lot of sense for them to rotate in with the defensive ends they already have." -- Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: With a miniature scouting department, the Bengals' coaches are responsible for a significant chunk of talent evaluation. That gives head coach Marvin Lewis' staff a decent amount of input. But the final call on all major decisions usually must go through the ownership level with the Mike Brown family.
Now On the Clock: Cleveland Browns, April 13.
Multiple reports have indentified Tampa Bay and Detroit as the two potential suitors who discussed a possible three-way trade to land Denver quarterback Jay Cutler. But according to this story from Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, two other members of the NFC North figured prominently in those discussions as well.
According to the report, Minnesota was the first team to discuss a deal but ultimately walked away because "elements" of the Vikings' coaching staff weren't sold on Cutler. Chicago also discussed his availability along with the Lions and the Buccaneers.
Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press is convinced the "element" is Vikings coach Brad Childress, who has a long-term investment in developing Tarvaris Jackson, but has said he plans a competition between Jackson and Sage Rosenfels. Powers writes:
So let me try to follow this: Brad Childress isn't sold on Jay Cutler, but he's sold on Tarvaris Jackson[?]
We've speculated that the Vikings, Bears and Lions all make sense as possible landing spots for Cutler. The biggest obstacle remains the Broncos' willingness to part ways with him. During the NFL owners' meeting this week, Denver coach Josh McDaniels said he has no plans to initiate trade discussions.
Continuing around the NFC North based on links available late Wednesday night:
- Bears general manager Jerry Angelo declined comment on the Cutler story, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Add another college player to the list of receivers Chicago is scouting heavily during the pre-draft season. According to Biggs, the Bears plan to meet with Ohio State receiver Brian Robiskie sometime in the coming weeks.
- Lions president Tom Lewand wouldn't acknowledge an image purported to be the team's new logo, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
- The Lions have too many holes to draft for need, according to coach Jim Schwartz. John Niyo of the Detroit News reports.
- Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson attended pro day at the University of Texas, according to NFL.com. Among the players working out were defensive end/linebacker Brian Orakpo.
|Michael Fabus/Getty Images|
|Limas Sweed (14) is focused on stepping up his game for his teammates this season and putting his rookie mistakes behind him.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Not only is he expected to produce, but he is coming off a season in which he struggled for playing time and catching the football for the first time in his football career. That's inspiring Sweed, a Steelers 2008 second-round draft pick, to improve in his second season.
The Steelers won their record sixth Super Bowl title with a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Feb. 1. About three weeks later, Sweed was independently training, running through routes and doing cone drills.
After what the organization deems a "redshirt year" in 2008 when Sweed caught six passes for 64 yards, the former University of Texas star knows the training wheels are being removed. He will be under the spotlight of playing for the reigning Super Bowl champions.
"I don't look at it as pressure -- I love pressure and I believe the Steelers love pressure," Sweed said in a telephone interview with ESPN.com. "This team is so close that guys are like brothers, and you don't want to let your family members down.
"I think that's how guys take it when they're out there playing -- they're not only playing for themselves but they're playing for the man next to them. And I definitely, definitely don't want to let any of those guys down."
In addition to starting cornerback Bryant McFadden, Washington was one of the few productive free agents Pittsburgh lost this offseason.
"I figured something might happen," Sweed said of the opportunity. "I may have been more shocked that [Washington] ended up in Tennessee. But I believe I can step in and do the job."
Pittsburgh believes both Sweed and a fellow 2008 draft pick, first-round tailback Rashard Mendenhall, are due for more productive sophomore campaigns. In many ways, the Steelers view the pair as extra draft picks or this year's free-agent acquisitions.
Starting receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes also have been two of Sweed's biggest supporters, which Sweed says "is like an added bonus." From the first day he arrived, both starters worked with Sweed in an effort to bring him up to speed with the offense.
Looking beyond the surface, there are plenty of reasons to believe in Sweed's potential. He is big (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), fast and has shown the ability to get open. Sweed also didn't have problems with drops in college, which leads many to believe his issues last season were more mental (inexperience, nerves) than physical.
|Streeter Lecka/Getty Images|
|Limas Sweed dropped a possible touchdown pass in the AFC Championship Game.|
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Sweed did not drop a pass during the regular season. But in the AFC Championship Game victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the streaking Sweed dropped a possible touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The rookie atoned for the miscue with two receptions for 20 yards and a crushing block on Ravens cornerback Corey Ivy.
"Being around guys like Ward, Holmes, [tight end] Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger should have a real positive effect on the kid,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He can certainly play at this level. I think he can be a real capable No. 2 receiver, maybe as soon as a year from now. He proved he was able to get separation and that's harder to do than anything.”
Sweed also is a winner. He is one of the few second-year players who sport both BCS Championship and Super Bowl rings. Sweed estimates that he has more than 100 career victories and j
ust 20 losses on his résumé playing football since high school.
"I wouldn't call it spoiled; I would call it getting used to winning," Sweed said. "To win a national championship in college in Year 2 and then come in here with the Steelers and win a world championship in Year 1, it's been unreal."
The Steelers are counting on Sweed to be prepared for his next reality check.
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians likes to run a lot of three-receiver sets at the expense of the fullback. The third receiver is almost considered a starter for the Steelers, as Washington caught 40 passes from that position last season and had plenty of opportunities to affect the game with big plays.
Sweed knows exactly what is expected of him from the beginning of camps this year. Instead of waiting his turn as a rookie, he will see significant playing from the beginning of the season.
That is why Sweed already is eager for September. All the work he is putting in now is focused toward the goals of fitting in with the defending champs and quickly erasing the memories of his rookie mistakes with his coaches and teammates.
"We're in the offseason program working out, and I'm seeing guys like NFL Defensive MVP James Harrison working out right next to me," Sweed said. "That's added motivation that if a guy can be Defensive MVP and come back early and workout, that tells me what this team is about.
"I'm glad I'm a part of that, and I don't want to let these guys down. I'm doing everything in my power every day to be prepared, so when the time comes I'll be ready to deliver."