AFC North Insider

As OTAs continue safely out of the site of the local media, the Browns rivals in the AFC North refuse to remain idle. Here's the latest from around the division, wherein Baltimore looks for offensive help, Cincinnati tries to protects its wallet, and the Steelers convince themselves that they've had a great draft...


The Ravens will need to find a dependable backup running back, especially after listening to coach John Harbaugh's recent comments about Willis McGahee.

"We just need to get him in football shape and give him an opportunity to learn this offense inside and out," Harbaugh said after a recent minicamp. "That's what he's doing right now."

Last season, McGahee's conditioning was a major question mark. He frequently pulled himself out of games to get a breather and never developed into an every-down back.

That's why it is important that the Ravens find a dependable backup running back.

The three players competing for the job are: Ray Rice, Cory Ross and P.J. Daniels.

Given his draft status -- a second-round pick -- Rice is expected to be the backup, but the compact rookie acknowledges that he is still adjusting to the NFL.

"Everything moves so fast," Rice said. "Without pads, you see how fast the defense is moving and how fast the game is that you have to learn. I'm just looking forward to learning quickly and getting into the meeting room and paying attention."

Although the former Rutgers star is listed at 5-8, 200 pounds on the roster, he's not diminutive in terms of his game or durability.

"That kid can flat-out play," McGahee said. "Man, he's quick."

Rice ran for a school-record 4,926 career rushing yards and 49 touchdowns while never missing a game.

During minicamps, his speed and ability to change direction were obvious in the open field while digesting a complicated playbook and adjusting to the increased speed of the game.

The Ravens decided to select Rice with the 55th overall selection of the draft when Baltimore was unable to land cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Brandon Flowers.

Even though Rice lacks ideal size, he plays with the requisite heart the coaching staff and scouts are seeking. Plus, he was endorsed heartily by offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg, his former offensive coordinator at Rutgers.

"I think he's our kind of guy," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's high character, he's tough, rough and loves to play football. He's from a great family.

"He's a playmaker, and not just a one-play playmaker, but he's a durable playmaker. He's done it for a long time. He had a lot of carries at Rutgers. He's proven."

Ross, who has played sparingly in two seasons since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska, understands the chance could be there with Smith and Anderson no longer on the team.

"With those guys no longer around, you definitely can get out there and get the job done and get some opportunities," said Ross, who gained 72 yards on 12 carries last season.

Daniels is still waiting for the opportunity. After being drafted in the fourth round out of Georgia Tech two years ago, Daniels didn't get on the field as a rookie. He then tore his hamstring during warm-ups before the first preseason game last season.


Lost beneath the bigger news that NFL owners had voted unanimously to opt out of their labor contract was word from Roger Goodell that teams now face fines for their players' off-field transgressions. The NFL Commissioner said during a league meeting in Atlanta that he would fine teams whose players were suspended for violating league rules.

"We want to continue to emphasize personal conduct and personal responsibility," Goodell said at a meeting-end news conference. "One way to do it is to hold teams responsible for the conduct of their players."

At a league meeting in Phoenix in March 2007, Goodell instituted a tougher personal conduct policy and the next month suspended former Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry for the first eight games of the 2007 season. The Bengals released Henry and linebacker Odell Thurman -- who had been suspended for two years by Goodell for violating the substance abuse policy -- within the past two months. The Cincinnati Enquirer had asked Bengals president Mike Brown for comment through the team's public relations department, and Brown declined.

The Bengals became the national focus of the issue of bad off-field behavior by NFL players when they had nine of their players arrested in a 13-month period from January 2006 through January 2007. The Bengals have made character a higher priority in their drafts, especially in 2007. But they selected Fresno State defensive tackle Jason Shirley in the fifth round this year and signed Nebraska wide receiver Maurice Purify as a free agent. Both players have histories of off-field issues.

Purify was arrested in May 2007 and charged by Lincoln, Neb., police with two counts of assault and one count of resisting arrest.

Shirley was in Fresno County Superior Court the week of May 25, facing a jury trial that stems from a series of misdemeanor charges last fall. Shirley was charged for driving under the influence, driving with a blood-alcohol content of .08 or higher, hit-and-run driving and driving with a suspended license and expired registration for two separate incidents last fall.

Of those nine Bengals players arrested in the 13-month span ending in January 2007, six -- linebacker Thurman and A.J. Nicholson, wide receivers Henry and Reggie McNeal, offensive lineman Eric Steinbach and defensive tackle Matthias Askew -- are no longer with the team. Still on the roster are defensive backs Johnathan Joseph and Deltha O'Neal and defensive end Frostee Rucker.


While much of the attention on the Steelers' rookies continues to center around their top two picks, running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed, another could also contribute in his first season.

Bruce Davis, a defensive end at UCLA, will convert to outside linebacker with the Steelers. That's a process many others have taken in Pittsburgh, including Joey Porter and Jason Gildon. Normally it takes at least a full year and sometimes more to make the conversion successfully.

In the meantime, however, Davis may help the Steelers' sagging pass rush that has produced fewer sacks in each of the past two seasons. Davis collared 24.5 sacks the past two seasons in UCLA's 4-3 defense. The Steelers hope to use him in their dime defense when they go to a four-man line with the outside two normally pass-rushing linebackers.

Davis, plans are right now, could spell either James Harrison on the right side or LaMarr Woodley on the left to keep everyone that much fresher.

"We feel that we needed somebody to provide us some help in that area so that James Harrison and LaMarr, as the season goes along, they don't wear down," linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "Or, as the game goes along, in the fourth quarter, we'll be fresh. Hopefully, this guy can be that guy for us."

Pittsburgh has not done much substituting at those positions in the past several seasons, and the sack total declined as the season went on. The Steelers had 39 sacks in 2006, down from 47 the previous season. That dwindled to 36 last season.

Woodley did play 80 defensive snaps and he had four sacks in that time, then added another two during their playoff loss to Jacksonville. His appearance fulltime and the addition of Davis could boost their pass rush and their sack total in 2008.

Davis is eager to fill that role and following in the footsteps of former ends-turned-linebackers in Pittsburgh.

"There is definitely a rich tradition at outside linebacker," Davis said of the Steelers. "It is a great feeling to know that the coaching staff and hopefully the people of Pittsburgh feel the same way about me. I know the tradition that I have to carry on. Tradition is very important to me."

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