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Bengals head to Indy to begin title defense


Giovani Bernard

A look at the wants and needs of the AFC North heading into next week's NFL's scouting combine (Feb. 19-25) at Indianapolis:

BENGALS (11-5)


SALARY CAP STATUS: Reports have the Bengals with about $15 million to spend. It goes quickly since they traditionally project a budget for an injury pad, draft picks and one-year tenders for restricted free agents. Each of those is an estimated $5 million, so if they get tight the Bengals may cut some veterans in the wake of the draft.

FREE AGENCY: Right end Michael Johnson, last year's franchise player, and left tackle Anthony Collins are the club's top two targets and lone starters not under contract. The first day a team can designate its own free agents is this Monday (Feb. 17), but don't look for the Bengals to tag anyone.

The Bengals would love to have both guys back, but the conventional wisdom is they'll have room for only one of them. If it's not Collins, that could directly impact the draft in the first round if they want to leave Andrew Whitworth at left guard. Faced last year with signing an incumbent tackle or spending a draft pick, the Bengals opted to re-sign right tackle Andre Smith  so they could draft North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard.

Collins was brilliant last year; the lone starting left tackle not to be charged a sack by Pro Football Focus. But with Whitworth already averaging about $7 million per year and Smith at about $6 million, if someone backs up the truck, that will be that.

Of the other free agents, backup guard-center Mike Pollak and returner Brandon Tate look to be the next priorities. Pollak can play three spots and is a solid backup center. If Tate hasn't been spectacular, he's been reliable returning both punts and kicks the past three seasons.

With the glut of linebackers and the potential of drafting a cornerback high, the Bengals future for Taylor Mays and Brandon Ghee, respectively, is hazy.

DRAFT OUTLOOK: The Bengals have a selection in all seven rounds and are going to end up with nine or 10 via compensatory picks, the highest of which may be a fifth-rounder for Bills linebacker Manny Lawson.

If Collins re-signs, that opens up the first round for a cornerback, but the Bengals aren't in a critical have-to-have like they were in 2006 (Johnathan Joseph), 2007 (Leon Hall) and Dre Kirkpatrick (2012). It would be nice, though, with Hall coming back from a torn Achilles for the second time in three years, Terence Newman and Adam Jones turning 36 and 31, respectively, and Kirkpatrick looking at more seasoning.

But it is pretty much a best-player-available draft without glaring needs at the top. The way offensive coordinator Hue Jackson covets the running game, a highly-drafted back wouldn't be a surprise and the search for a backup center may take the Bengals to the middle of the draft. If the Bengals can't re-sign Johnson, a pass-rushing end that slides in one of the early rounds (remember Carlos Dunlap in the 2010 second round?) could be on the table.

Don't look for a quarterback before the third round, but don't let your eyes wander. The guy drafted in the second round may be the same guy drafted in the fourth. One scout notes the top four QB prospects in this draft (Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida's Blake Bortles, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Fresno State's Derek Carr) have enough pros and cons to put them around the Andy Dalton 35th pick if there wasn't such a need at the top of the draft. Which means, having Dalton at this stage gives the Bengals a leg up on most teams.

STAT: Time for the Bengals to make a move on the division. Since the '11 reboot they are .733 (22-8) outside the North and .444 in the division (8-10).



SALARY CAP STATUS: Tight. Left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley looks like he could be on the way out now that he's due $14 million this year and look for cornerback Ike Taylor to get the James Harrison treatment since the Steelers save $7 million if they cut him. If he doesn't redo, that's what Pittsburgh may do.

FREE AGENCY: The Steelers may have to change it up after years of ignoring the market and sign some veterans to help a defense that struggled against the run and gave up big passing plays while finishing an uncharacteristic 13th in the NFL rankings. Safety Ryan Clark is the last starter the Steelers signed in free agency way back in Ought-6 and eight years later they're ready to move on from the 34-year-old and let him go. Same with defensive end Brett Keisel, 35.

The Steelers also don't look like they're ready to re-sign No. 3 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. At 5-11, 185 pounds, 12.6 yards per catch isn't doing it.

The logical replacement for Keisel is Ziggy Hood, Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2009, but the Steelers aren't enamored enough of him to get into a bidding war. The guy they seem set on trying to get back is Woodley's replacement, Jason Worilds, after he played so well last year. Worilds had been so good and Woodley so inconsistent that the Steelers put Woodley on the other side when he came back from injury even though he had never played there.

DRAFT OUTLOOK: The Steelers are looking for a big, tall wide receiver. Someone 6-3 or more and they'll have plenty of chances to get a couple in the draft, or even from an intriguing crop of free agents. A scatback to complement running back Le'Veon Bell is also a need.

But other than that, the Steelers need help on defense and they should be aided by three compensation picks. Pittsburgh figures to get a third-rounder for wide receiver Mike Wallace and maybe as many as two fourth-rounders for running back Rashard Mendenhall and cornerback Keenan Lewis.

With Clark gone and Taylor maybe gone, the Steelers need secondary depth. The starter opposite Troy Polamalu is going to be Shamarko Thomas, the guy for whom the Steelers gave up this year's third-rounder to go get last year in the fourth round. Polamalu looks like he's sticking for the final year of his deal.

Pittsburgh may also have to check out some 3-4 nose tackles because it couldn't find a replacement last year for Casey Hampton. The Steelers thought Steve McLendon could do it, but after they gave him $7.5 million last year to stick around he didn't start a game and they finished 21st against the run.

STATS: In his last four games against Cincinnati, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown five of his 22 interceptions in 2012 and 2013 against the Bengals for nearly a quarter of his picks.

RAVENS (8-8)

FIRST-ROUND PICK: No. 16 or 17 (with Dallas)

SALARY CAP STATUS: There is a lot of work to do in the Land of Oz (Newsome), where reports have Baltimore with $11.9 million to spend and many starters among its 13 scheduled free agents.

FREE AGENCY: The word is the Ravens are contemplating a $6.7 million franchise tag on tight end Dennis Pitta. They also need to sign one of their two free-agent tackles and the choice looks to be left tackle Eugene Monroe while right tackle Michael Oher, the first-round pick in 2009, would appear to move on. Baltimore's other two tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark, are also up, as is wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who turns 30 and is coming off a season with just 37 catches and two TDs.

Like the rest of the contenders in the division, Newsome isn't a big free-agent guy. Looking at his 2012 Super Bowl champs, the most expensive of four free-agent starters was center Matt Birk at $4 million per year. Birk, safety Bernard Pollard, and cornerback Cary Williams didn't make it to 2013 and the only one who did, fullback Vonta Leach, played 19 percent of their snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

So, the Ravens will tip-toe into free agency for bargains and backups.

DRAFT OUTLOOK: No one does it better than The Wizard of Oz, but he'll have to get more out his rookies this year than he did last year. He looked to be solid again with his first-round pick, Florida safety Matt Elam, but his second (Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown), third (Missouri Southern defensive tackle Brandon Williams), and first fourth-rounder (Ohio State linebacker John Simon) played a total of 307 snaps. With defensive linemen Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody impending free agents, Williams is going to have to play more than 93 snaps.

Simon is being groomed to be a special teams player but the Ravens are going to need some bigger impact players for their offense via the draft, particularly up front and at wide receiver. The Ravens were 29th on offense, 30th running the ball, and they'll look to shore up center, guard and tackle.

The Ravens have a find at receiver in undrafted rookie Marlon Brown, but there was too much of a falloff last year between leading receiver Torrey Smith's 1,129 yards and Brown's No. 2 at 524. Given this is a draft deep with big receivers and offensive tackles, Newsome has a good pool to begin rebuilding the offense, but is it enough to give quarterback Joe Flacco some help?

STAT: In his last five games at Paul Brown Stadium, Flacco has four TD passes and nine interceptions.

BROWNS (4-12)

FIRST-ROUND PICK: No. 4 and No. 26

SALARY CAP STATUS: Reports have Cleveland with about $45 million to spend under the salary cap after rolling over about $12 million from last season.

FREE AGENCY: With the stunning dismissal of CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi this past Monday, no one is really quite sure what the new regime of general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine is going to unveil. The Browns have enough cap room to try to clear some of the mushroom cloud emanating from the events of this offseason with heavy spending if they'd like.

The Browns have two Pro Bowlers headed to market in center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward, and Ward has the lower franchise tag at $8 million. Mack, a two-time Pro Bowler, is in line to get a big deal from someone if he's not franchised at $12 million. Along with left tackle Joe Thomas and wide receiver Josh Gordon, Mack's the best player on an offense that is struggling mightily. Word is the Browns will move on from a pair of free-agent guards, starter Shawn Lauvao and backup Oniel Cousins.

The Browns have to make a call on inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, due $4 million in March. He's a fine leader and dogged tackler, but five forced fumbles and eight interceptions in seven seasons doesn't translate to big money.

Cleveland could use some help at inside backer in what looks to remain a multiple 3-4 that Pettine is going to take from former defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Too bad Pettine doesn't have Horton after he led the defense to a No. 9 ranking before being forced to Tennessee in the wake of the Chud firing. If Ward and Jackson come back, all the key elements are accounted for as the Browns zero in on getting an extension with cornerback Joe Haden.

DRAFT OUTLOOK: The Browns have a lot of pieces in place. A top 10 defense. A beast of a Pro Bowl wide receiver in Gordon. But they need a lot of help on offense, starting at quarterback. The Banner-Lombardi tandem was thought to be leaning to a QB at No. 4, but who knows now? They may be able to get one at No. 26, but whatever happens with that fourth pick the Browns have to swear on the ghost of Julio Jones it has to be an impact offensive player.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer looks to be The Bridge for the new guy while Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden are cut loose, but let's wait and see.

But the Browns also need at least one and really two complements to Gordon, not to mention a running back and new guards.

STAT: In Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's 22 games against the Browns, he has faced 13 different starting quarterbacks and beaten the Browns with each of his four QBs.

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