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15 May 2009

Four Downs: AFC North

by Mike Tanier

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens expect their young offense to get better as it gets older. That's why they only made minor changes on that side of the ball.

New tight end L.J. Smith gives the team a receiving threat who can take some pressure off aging Todd Heap. If Smith's fumbling and pass-dropping becomes a problem, fifth-round pick Davon Drew will see action. Drew, a converted quarterback, averaged 16.3 yards per catch at East Carolina in 2008, so he has the speed to stretch the seam. Heap remains on the roster and should still play a role as a blocking tight end.

The Ravens appear satisfied with Demetrius Williams as their third wideout. Williams missed the second half of last season with an Achilles injury, but the team didn't sign or draft any competition for his position. Williams was the least-used third wideout in the NFL, with just 23 targets; when he got hurt, the Ravens essentially phased slot receivers out of their playbook.

The offensive line will look different, with veteran Matt Birk replacing Jason Brown at center and rookie Michael Oher competing with either Jared Gaither or Adam Terry for a tackle position. The new faces will bolster a line that finished 22nd in the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate. A more experienced Joe Flacco will also help lower sack totals.

Defensively, free agent Domonique Foxworth and rookie Paul Kruger will help offset the losses of cornerback Chris McAlister and linebacker Bart Scott. Kruger, who had 7.5 sacks in his senior season at Utah, adds another element to the Ravens pass rush. Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Samari Rolle were all re-signed, so the Ravens defense will look very similar to last year's.

There will be some competition on special teams, where Yamon Figurs is coming off a disappointing year as a return man. Free agent Chris Carr was a solid returner for the Raiders, and third-round pick Lardarius Webb had three return touchdowns in his college career.

Undrafted Free Agents

There may be a kicker battle in Ravens camp, with Florida State rookie Graham Gano pushing inexperienced incumbent Steven Hauschka. Gano was 24-of-26 on field goals last season, and his only misses came from 50 and 52 yards. As a punter, he grossed 42.7 yards per kick, dropping four punts inside the 5-yard line in the Champs Sports Bowl. In 2007, he kicked off 63 times and averaged an acceptable 61.0 yards per kick. Hauschka was a kickoff specialist last year, with Matt Stover handling all but the longest field goal attempts. With Gano in camp, Stover's long Ravens career may be over.

Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (Georgia) would have been a midround selection if not for a 2008 MCL injury and a 2006 incident involving a teammate's car, a fake ID, a strip joint, an accident, some alcohol, and a less-than-honest consultation with the police. Ellerbe recorded 93 tackles in 2007 and has the speed and tackling ability to be a special teams terror and a developmental player at weakside linebacker. Coaches will have to monitor his behavior, of course.

Receivers Eron Riley (Duke) and Isaiah Williams (Maryland) both have 4.4 "Pro Day" speed and are listed at 6-foot-3. Riley had better collegiate numbers (2,413 career yards), but Williams is the more interesting prospect. Russ Lande of GMJR.com feels that Williams can contribute as a true No. 3 wide receiver if he adds weight to his thin frame.

Buffalo quarterback Drew Wiley threw for 3,304 yards and 25 touchdowns in the Mid-American Conference and had a solid game (28-of-39, 330 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) against Penn State two years ago. He's a camp arm who could make the practice squad. Fullback Jason Cook (Mississippi) is a high-character guy with experience as the personal protector on punt units. He should replace Lorenzo Neal on the roster.

Cincinnati Bengals

If you are going to face the Steelers and Ravens four times per year, you had better be able to stop the run.

The Bengals had a solid run defense last year. They allowed just 3.3 yards per carry from Weeks 10 to 17; the Football Outsiders advanced DVOA stats (explained here) rank them as the third best run defense in the league during that span. The team spent much of the offseason making that run defense even better.

Free agent tackle Tank Johnson made just 21 tackles last year, 20 of them on running plays. But 16 of those tackles were "Stops," meaning he stopped backs after minimal gains. Johnson's average stop came after a gain of 1.9 yards. Second-round pick Rey Maualuga is a run stuffer by trade; the 250-pound USC linebacker recorded 230 tackles in three college seasons. He'll join second-year linebacker Keith Rivers, who missed the second half of last season, to give the Bengals two big linebackers who can stack, shed, and chase. Rivers recorded an impressive 22 successful Stops in six games of work.

The Bengals improved an area of strength, but they didn't do a good job of filling needs. Michael Johnson, a 6-foot-7 shot blocker at defensive end, was the only addition to a pass rush that produced just 17 sacks (though Maualuga can also help here). With Chris Perry gone, Cedric Benson is the featured back by default, and Laveranues Coles just barely offsets the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. New backup quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan is a better game manager than Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the Bengals are still destined for the bottom of the standings if anything happens to Carson Palmer.

Worst of all, the Bengals reaffirmed their bad boy image by signing Tank Johnson, who has a long history of weapon-related arrests, and drafting Andre Smith, the king-sized Alabama tackle whose rep for immaturity and bad decision making was solidified when he left the Combine after performing badly in interviews. Instead of a full makeover, the Bengals opted to accentuate the positives. The changes won't amount to much in such a competitive division.

Undrafted Free Agents

Darius Hill (Ball State) was a productive college tight end, catching 147 passes and scoring 28 touchdowns in three seasons. Hill is more than 6-foot-6, so he has potential as a back-of-the-end-zone goal-line threat, and he has some speed. The knock on Hill is his frame: He plays at about 240 pounds, making him a high-leverage blocker who gets pushed around too easily.

The signing of Florida long snapper Jason Smith means Brad St. Louis will have some camp competition. St. Louis has snapped in 139 games for the Bengals. Smith told a Florida radio show that Urban Meyer called the Bengals and lobbied on his behalf. Meyer was probably just trying to get an inconsolable Brad Childress off the line.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns have a bad case of Vertigo. Not the dizzying illness, but the classic 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film.

In that movie, an obsessed Jimmy Stewart tried to turn Kim Novak into a carbon copy of his dead lover. In Cleveland, Eric Mangini is trying to remake the Browns into the Jets of the Cuyahoga. Thanks to some free agent signings and the Mark Sanchez trade, the Browns have enough ex-Jets to field a team within a team. The (probably) complete list includes: quarterback Brett Ratliff, defensive linemen C.J. Mosely and Kenyon Coleman, linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens, and defensive backs Abram Elam and Hank Poteat.

Barton, Bowens, and Elam are the potential starters in the list above, but Ratliff is the most intriguing name. Ratliff had an outstanding 2008 preseason, completing 32 of 47 passes for 499 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He was a favorite of the Mangini staff, and many felt he had the inside track to beat Kellen Clemens for the starting job if he stayed in New York. Look for Ratliff to gum up the already muddled Derek Anderson-Brady Quinn quarterback situation.

The Browns' offense took shape when the team drafted receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi in the second round. The two rookies join Braylon Edwards, Josh Cribbs, and David Patten in a rebuilt receiving corps with the depth to run the spread formations offensive coordinator Brian Daboll prefers. Both Massaquoi and Robiskie are tough blockers, so the Browns can run the ball from four-wideout sets or execute tunnel screens to Cribbs.

Even the offensive line will be different, with free agents Floyd Womack and John St. Clair, as well as first-round pick Alex Mack, seeking employment on a unit that finished in the middle-of-the pack in most categories in 2008. The newcomers could help in short yardage situations; the Browns finished 27th in the NFL in short-yardage conversions with a 59 percent success rate.

Then again, Mangini might just order Daboll to spread the field and throw on third-and-1. After all, that's how the Jets did it last year.

Undrafted Free Agents

Graham Harrell (Texas Tech) worked out at the Browns rookie camp last week but left camp without a contract. Harrell recorded space-age stats in Mike Leach's spread offense, including 10,816 yards, 93 touchdowns, and a completion percentage over 70 in his final two seasons. Despite the production, Harrell is a system guy who is at his best when throwing tunnel screens or short lobs into wide-open spaces on the field. The Browns will have a hard time finding enough practice reps for Brady Quinn and Brett Ratliff, so another developmental quarterback is the last thing they need. Still, they were impressed by Harrell, and they could call him back if their quarterback situation starts to sort itself.

UCLA safety Bret Lockett was the only significant rookie free agent to get a contract from the Browns. With eight draft picks and a host of trade acquisitions to sort through, it would be hard for a street free agent to catch the coaches' eyes, anyway.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed didn't make much of an impact as rookies. They'll have to fight for their jobs as sophomores.

Sweed appeared to have the third wideout slot locked up when Nate Washington signed with the Titans and the Steelers didn't pursue a receiver in free agency or the draft. After the draft, the Steelers signed former Rams and Lions receiver Shaun McDonald as an insurance policy.

Sweed has some advantages over McDonald. At 6-foot-4, he's a tough blocker who can duke it out with safeties when the Steelers run the ball from tight or bunch formations. He's more of a deep threat than McDonald, making him a better fit to fill Washington's role. About 20 percent of the passes thrown to Washington each year are classified as "bombs" by the Football Outsiders game charters, more than 25 yards through the air. McDonald, who averaged just 9.8 yards per catch last season, is better on short routes.

Mendenhall was penciled in to be the Steelers' short-yardage back this year, a role for which the 225-pounder seems tailor made. But the team hedged its bets by drafting Frank "the Tank" Summers. At 5-foot-9, 241 pounds, Summers is a perfect goal-line bowling ball. The Steelers desperately need Mendenhall or Summers to emerge as an up-the-gut runner; they ran the ball 28 times inside the 5-yard line last season but netted just 9 touchdowns.

Most of the other positions in the Steelers lineup appear set. First-round pick Evander Hood will slip into the rotation on a defensive line where the average age of the top five contributors last year was 31.8. The offensive line returns intact except for Marvel Smith, who started just five games last year. Kiewan Ratliff will take some sting out of the loss of cornerback Bryant McFadden. Most of their draft picks, including offensive linemen Kraig Urbik and center A.J. Shipley, were picked to fill roles in 2010 or beyond.

Even the Steelers ownership situation is stable, as Dan Rooney and oldest son Art Rooney organized a coalition of silent partners to buy shares of the team that the NFL forced other members of the family to divest. It adds up to the perfect Steelers offseason: top-down stability, minor improvements, and some healthy competition.

Undrafted Free Agents

The Steelers signed two undrafted quarterbacks: Mike Reilly of Central Washington and Kevin McCabe of California University of Pennsylvania.

That's right, California University of Pennsylvania. True story: That was actually my third choice college, after La Salle and Delaware. At a college fair back in 1987, I met a very nice recruiter who sold me on CUP's charms, including a rural setting, small class sizes, and some other feature that excited me at the time. (A good math program? A 12-1 female-male ratio? A free tote bag for early enrollment?)

At any rate, I went to La Salle, and McCabe went to Virginia, where he threw a game-winning overtime touchdown pass in a victory over Wyoming in 2006. He threw two interceptions in his next start and was benched for the rest of the season. He transferred to CUP, where he played well enough for the Vulcans to keep Steelers scouts interested.

Reilly, meanwhile, threw for 3,706 yards, 37 touchdowns, and six interceptions in his senior season while rushing for 415 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers contain Division II spread-offense helium, and the knocks on Reilly include a poor arm and a slow delivery. With three quarterback spots apparently set, he'll battle McCabe for the chance to make the practice squad, at best.

Wide receiver Cedric Goodman (Georgia) wasn't a starter in college, and at 6-foot, 189 pounds with 4.55 speed, he doesn't stand out as a size-speed prospect. Lande likes his competitive streak and thinks he could be a special teams contributor. Fellow receiver Tyler Grisham (Clemson) caught 60 passes in 2007 but just 37 in 2008. Offensive lineman Ramon Foster (Tennessee) is a long-armed 330-pounder who gets high marks for character. He'll get a chance to stick as a backup guard and right tackle.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 15 May 2009

33 comments, Last at 02 Jun 2009, 2:24am by Marvismyhero

Comments

1
by oljb (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 11:03am

Regarding Kevin McCabe, I don't know who he played for in 2006, but it would surprise me very much if he started over Pat White and threw an overtime TD pass against a team WVU didn't play that year. Thoughts?

2
by Travis :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 11:19am

It should be Virginia, not West Virginia. Game summary here.

3
by KJT :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 12:21pm

I actually live about 20 minutes from California, PA. It's a nice little campus.

4
by Uteranger (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 12:35pm

Paul Kruger played for The University of Utah, not his and our enemy,BYU.

5
by rk (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:11pm

I know it's nit-picking, but everyone else is doing it. It's California University of Pennsylvania (CUP not UCP).

6
by Independent George :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:42pm

Does California University of Pennsylvania ever play Indiana University of Pennsylvania?

8
by DrewTS (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:47pm

I'm guessing you're not a TMQ fan.

27
by Kevin from Philly :: Mon, 05/18/2009 - 3:55pm

I think they play Saskatchewan University of Pennsylvania - using CFL rules, naturally.

7
by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:43pm

Sorry about that. College errors now fixed.

10
by MJB (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 2:17pm

Just another nitpick, in the Steelers section it should be Bryant McFadden instead of Darren McFadden ("Kiewan Ratliff will take some sting out of the loss of cornerback Darren McFadden").

11
by Vincent Verhei :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 2:51pm

That's not a nitpick, that's a pretty big error. It's been fixed.

9
by Riceloft :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 2:08pm

The Browns also signed Mike Furrey at WR.

12
by Justin Zeth :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 3:59pm

A.Q. Shipley, fellas. He was a 7th round pick and will likely be gone and forgotten from football by 2011. Let's at least get his name correct during his 15 minutes :)

32
by Bradshaw2Ben (host SteelerFury podcast) (not verified) :: Sun, 05/31/2009 - 6:53pm

"A.Q. Shipley, fellas. He was a 7th round pick and will likely be the Steelers starting center by no later than 2011. Let's at least get his name correct during his 15 minutes :)"

Fixed for ya

P.S.: Don't be surprised to see Mike Wallace, Sweed, & McDonald all get some touches. Against the defenses the Steelers play this year, they should have a much more productive year on offense and all those guys can play. The dark horse in the WR derby is a guy who was signed from the CFL and has never played WR: Stephan Logan. Word is, the Steelers like him as a shifty li'l slot guy, a la somewhere-between-Wes-Welker-and-Brian-Westbrook. Steelers, for the first time in a while, are loaded at WR.

13
by AnonymousToo! (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 4:29pm

Yes -- A.Q. Shipley. And it's Keiwan Ratliff: you have the i and the e flipped.

Also, please explain the logic behind the statement "the Steelers didn't pursue a receiver in free agency or the draft" when they drafted Mike Wallace in the third round.

Does ANYBODY check these things before they are posted? Would you pay me $15 to proofread articles before Tanier makes a mockery (yet again) of your reputation for being a detail-oriented outfit that provides "intelligent analysis"?

Moving from outright errors to simply bad opinions, Mendenhall is not just slated to be a short yardage back, of course. You don't draft a short-yardage back in R1. He is slated to be the bell cow someday, possibly soon, when the wheels come off Parker or maybe even long before that.

14
by jonnyblazin :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 5:17pm

Mendenhall probably needs to show that he can avoid having his shoulder destroyed when being tackled before the Steelers ask anything more of him. Some injuries are fluky, but its a really bad sign when a routine collision results in being out for the year.

15
by Theo :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 7:56pm

I don't know his college injury history, but yes, any football collision can mess up a shoulder.
You can't conclude anything from that.

18
by c_f (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 8:34pm

Mendenhall sat behind Pierre Thomas (now of the New Orleans Saints) for two years, and chipped in as a "big play" backup in Illinois' rushing attack, until Thomas graduated. Mendenhall then started for one year and absolutely tore up the Big Ten. No injury history in his short college career. Some things can't be anticipated.

20
by Theo :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 10:12pm

The less the carries the better.
I've learned that running back is the most suicidal position in sports.
It's really a position you need to learn. Get a handoff, block and receive a pass and that kind, but breaking it down to the bone - it's the hardest position made of balls.

16
by ArchnerdUW :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 7:57pm

So your position is that his bones are particularly brittle? If Mendenhall's injury isn't the definition of fluky, then I don't know what is. The real thing that Mendenhall has to prove is whether or not he can actually play in the NFL. In preseason he seemed hesitant and not completely done with the mental adjustment from a spread out college offense to running it up the middle in the pros. The small number of appearances he made in the regular season were not much better.

19
by tuluse :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 8:57pm

He had a fumbling problem in college, that I'm sure will only be worse in the NFL if he doesn't work on it.

26
by AnonymousToo! (not verified) :: Mon, 05/18/2009 - 9:58am

There's simply no chance they'll work on this with him. He's a professional football player, after all. When would they possibly have time to work on how he carries the ball -- in between the flying lessons and the croquet games? There's simply no room on the schedule for this, and no likelihood of a professional coaching staff being able or willing to do anything about it.

28
by tuluse :: Tue, 05/19/2009 - 10:05am

I didn't phrase my point very well. Let me preface this by saying I'm a big Mendenhall fan, and I would love for him to do well. However, right now he is way below average at holding onto the ball. He struggled at it for 3 years in college. Now he is facing NFL defenders who I imagine are a little better than Iowa at stripping the ball. He also struggled at holding the ball in preseason last year.

Now, when I said he'll have to work at it, I didn't mean to imply he wasn't going to do anything, but I doubt Tiki Barber was trying to fumble for all those years. Sometimes things like this are hard to fix. I bet he'll always fumble more than anyone would like, but he can probably get it down to reasonable rates.

21
by jonnyblazin :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 11:30pm

I think his bones might be brittle. All I'm saying is that he wasn't caught in an awkward position, like twisting or getting caught in a pile, he simply ran straight into a LB and his shoulder was shattered. For a RB, that's not a great sign.

22
by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Sat, 05/16/2009 - 7:52pm

Jonny, I'd love to see you in a "routine collision" with an NFL linebacker. Anybody who has actually played knows there is no such thing as a routine collision. Writing Mendenhall off because of one play is silly; do you really think he reached the NFL never having been hit before?

25
by bengt (not verified) :: Mon, 05/18/2009 - 7:08am

I would also like to note that Ray Lewis' hit that caused Mendenhall's shoulder blade to crack was far from 'routine'.

17
by c_f (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 8:29pm

J.T. O'Sullivan may be a better quarterback than Ryan Fitzpatrick; by whatever YPA mark you want, JTO looks better, though FO's stats indicate he is worse (i want standard deviation numbers... but i digress). Both are pretty mobile.

I think it's a stretch to say that JTO is a better game manager than Fitzpatrick; JTO gets sacked and commits "fumblications" at appallingly high rates. Fitzpatrick's rates are bad, but not as bad as JTO's.

Of course, who really cares about the difference between two reasonably similar backup quarterbacks?

23
by BDAABAT (not verified) :: Sat, 05/16/2009 - 10:11pm

Mmmm... LJ Smith for an "aging" Todd Heap... they're both 29. Am also assuming that the comment was a nod to Smith's blocking ability (or lack thereof) when talking about keeping Heap in to block. Heap never had to do much blocking before last year. Let's be charitable and say he's still learning the nuances of blocking. And, the Raven's O line was so porous last year that Heap NEEDED to be kept back to block. Would expect things to improve a bit this year if things work out with Oher and the injury bug doesn't bite again.

Bruce

24
by BritDawg (not verified) :: Sun, 05/17/2009 - 4:01am

You say 'With eight draft picks and a host of trade acquisitions to sort through, it would be hard for a street free agent to catch the coaches' eyes, anyway.'

Not sure that's really true - the Browns roster has questionable depth and is in such a state of upheaval that there's a great chance that two or more undrafted free agents could make it to the 53-man roster. Possible candidates:

Undersized Phillip Hunt was C-USA's Defensive Player of the Year, and could well break the roster as an 3-4 OLB on passing downs. The Browns desperately need more of an outside pass rush, and Hunt might fit the bill.

WR Jordan Norwood is also undersized but has amazing hands (he was productive at Penn State and won the 2009 State Farm College Football All-Star Challenge Hands Competition ahead of Hakeem Nicks).

Alabama OG Marlon Davis played on a powerful line alongside Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell, blocking for Glen Coffee. He's probably destined for the practice squad, but he could sneal onto the main roster.

LB Marcus Benard from Jackson State also has a shot if he can beat out Phillip Hunt.

All of these players have at least as good a chance of making the roster than your suggestion of Bret Lockett.

30
by Bernard Bernoulli (not verified) :: Mon, 05/25/2009 - 7:08am

Didn't the Browns draft a pass-rushing linebacker in David Veikune? Also, Kamerion Wimbley's still on the roster, so it could be pretty difficult for Phillip Hunt to get playing time. I'd suggest that RB is the spot at which they have the least depth; James Davis could see quite a lot of playing time if he's even half decent.

29
by wackoforflacko (not verified) :: Tue, 05/19/2009 - 4:16pm

First of all, I love this sight and I love your work. Best football info on the internet. So I was waiting with eager anticipation for the AFC North entry. What I saw was pretty disappointing.
All I can really speak to is the Baltimore entry, since that's my team, but I can say conclusively that several of the comments were flat-out wrong. Oher will compete with Terry, but the Ravens are very happy with Gaither and are trying to sign him to a long-term deal. As a left tackle, Gaither's looking for big money, so I can't fathom why there would be competion there. If Oher ever moves to the left side, it will be several years in the future, barring an injury to Gaither. Davon Drew was probably drafted to play H-back this year, not to replace Quinn Sypniewski as the third TE. Sypniewski played well in his seven starts two years ago, and the Ravens need some kind of plan when they use FB LeRon McClain at running back. Kruger has nothing to do with replacing Bart Scott. He's strictly for the outside rush. Tavaris Gooden is being handed the inside job, which the Ravens made a point of over and over when describing why they didn't match New York's last offer for Scott.
Again, generally love the site, but I would suggest scrapping this feature, which is simply covering (and not very well) the same ground available everywhere else. Or change the format to cover some interesting number-crunching fact about each team, geared to explaining why they did or didn't take a certain course of action in the offseason. That's something you guys could shine at.

31
by zak (not verified) :: Thu, 05/28/2009 - 6:58pm

One thing about the Bengals defense that I think we are missing is that there offense was sooooo putrid last year that once teams had a lead they tried to run out the clock (as all teams do) but there was never any fear from the Bengal offense.

I remember in 2006 the Raiders had a 'great' defense and many saw it as something to build on. The next year the defense took a step back. The reason, the offense had gotten better and teams were actively trying to score throughout the game as oppose to packing it in during th 3rd and 4th quarters.

Of course a defense needs to be 'good' enough to prevent the opposing team from just running up the score. But the fact that there was never any threat from the Bengals offense probably contributed to stagnant offenses which in turn helped pad the Bengals defensive stats.

33
by Marvismyhero (not verified) :: Tue, 06/02/2009 - 2:24am

entry 31 can easily be turned on it's head--a terrible offense is never going to help the defense for a host of self-explanatory and well explored reasons. Also, I don't remember the Raiders having improvement in offense until certain flashes last year. The only thing between the Bengals and a competitive season is the offensive line. And can we drop the "bad boy" BS? Let's focus our hate on Brandon Marshall.