Around the AFC North

The Ravens find another draft steal (sigh), Bengals kickers battle, and a Steeler = Forrest Gump.

Perhaps the most surprising rookie of the Baltimore Ravens offseason is defensive lineman Arthur Jones.

But Jones isn't like many fifth-round picks.

In his eyes -- and many others before his senior season -- Jones is talented enough to be a pick in the first or second round.

"Yeah, he slid to the fifth round; we were thrilled to get him there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We were surprised he was still there. We understand why he was still there, but he does have a lot to prove."

After Jones' junior season at Syracuse, the NFL advisory committee gave him a late-second-round grade. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked him among the top 25 prospects in the country. A Ravens scout had him rated among the top 40 college players despite not watching Jones' breakout game against Notre Dame (a career-high 15 tackles, including four behind the line of scrimmage, and one sack).

Instead of declaring for the NFL draft, Jones decided to stay because he wanted to turn the Syracuse program around and lead the Orange to a bowl game. He also wanted to play with his younger brother Chandler.

"Where I come from, money isn't everything," Jones said. "I don't really regret anything. It was a learning experience."

A few weeks after deciding to stay at Syracuse, he tore his pectoral muscle while lifting weights. The injury likely limited his effectiveness during his senior season. Jones finished with only 19 tackles, but he was still named to the Big East's first team for the second straight season.

"He's the guy who probably every offensive line coach talked about when they came in to play us," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said after Jones was drafted. "They'd say: 'Hey, we have to make sure we stop him. He's their key player.'"

Jones' senior season ended abruptly. He tore the meniscus in his left knee with three games remaining and underwent surgery in November.

His recovery forced him to decline an invitation to the Senior Bowl and caused him to miss the NFL combine in February. He was able to work out for NFL teams at Syracuse's pro day, but a sore hamstring sidelined him for the 40-yard dash.

Most projections had Jones going anywhere from the second to the fourth round of the NFL draft. The wait, however, was longer than that.

Jones said he is healthy once again, and the Ravens agree. "We haven't seen him favor anything," Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. "I couldn't tell which knee was injured."

Dealing with injuries is a new experience for Jones, who never had a serious one until his senior year. "You kind of ask God, 'Why, what did I do to deserve this?' It was real humbling," Jones said. "Maybe it was God bringing me back to Earth a little bit."

Jones' determination has already made a mark this offseason. He is making a push for the regular-season roster in a deep defensive line group that has young tackles such as Terrence Cody, Lamar Divens, Brandon McKinney and Kelly Talavou.


Up until Shayne Graham signed with the Ravens, Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent felt like there was a small cloud over their heads with the possibility of Graham re-signing with the Bengals.

But with Graham off to a division rival, both Rayner and Nugent are ready for a kicking battle during training camp.

"It's been floating up here the last couple months. He had first dibs here, it was his deal and he played so well here," Rayner said. "Knowing that he is somewhere else we can kind of get a different mindset and know that there's a job to win and I'm excited."

The battle between Rayner and Nugent shapes up as an interesting one. Both have had success elsewhere but have struggled the past couple years.

This is Rayner's second stint with the Bengals (he was here for two games in 2008 after Graham suffered a groin injury) but also his eighth team. He started with Indianapolis in 2005 as a kickoff guy before going to Green Bay in 2006 and Kansas City and San Diego in 2007.

"It's all about the right situation and getting an opportunity," Rayner said. "Very few guys go to their first place and do well. Everybody has a spot and hopefully this is mine."

Last year Rayner was in Redskins camp but an injury derailed his chances of competing with Shaun Suisham for the spot. He has also spent time with the Dolphins and Lions on their offseason rosters. On field goals he is 42 of 59 for his career.

Nugent was drafted by the Jets in 2005 and made 75 of 91 field goals in his first three seasons. But his career started to go downhill in the 2008 opener he injured his quad. Jay Feely was signed and got hot.

Nugent, who grew up near Dayton, beat out Matt Bryant in Buccaneers' camp last year, but a 2-of-6 start caused him to be released after four games. Nugent was with Arizona for two games when Neil Rackers was injured and went 2 for 2.

"We're not reinventing the wheel, just polishing," Nugent said. "Frankly things weren't going the way I expected them the last couple years. As long as we get all the work done now, we should be ready for training camp."

Nugent and Rayner are friends off the field and former rivals -- Nugent was at Ohio State and Rayner at Michigan State. Both though are eager for the opportunity to succeed Graham.


--After a slow start to his career, Rashard Mendenhall came on like Forrest Gump last season: Run, Rashard, run. He ran 242 times for 1,108 yards, seven touchdowns and a 4.6-yard average.

Those may not be Pro Bowl numbers, but still a far cry from where he was early last season and the season before. He missed the final 12 games of his rookie season in 2008 after the Steelers drafted him in the first round. It happened early in his first start when Ray Lewis hit him and broke his shoulder.

By the third game of his second season, Mendenhall was said to be uninterested in his profession after coach Mike Tomlin benched him at running back for a game because he had poor practice habits.

But an injury to starter Willie Parker in that game prompted Tomlin to turn to Mendenhall and he did not disappoint him the rest of the season. He's now their horse, the one purebred who can carry their running game. He hopes that's the case because he did not see the commitment to a ground game last season, when the Steelers ranked only 19th despite their young back's success.

"As a running back, you want the ball in your hands, you want to run the ball," Mendenhall said. "That doesn't seem to be our focus, you know what I mean? But whatever's called to do, however this offense is formed and shaped, we'll be willing to do that."

Mendenhall likely will serve as their third-down back too after he took over that role at midseason and caught 25 passes for 261 yards. That means they must have someone to give him a breather on occasion. The two candidates for that are veteran Mewelde Moore, in his third season with the team after signing as a free agent from the Vikings, and sixth-round draft choice Jonathan Dwyer.

"Right now I feel a lot better," Mendenhall said of having finally played a full season. "Having that game experience, going out now I think everything's a lot more instinctive and comfortable. I'm preparing to do whatever I'm called to do and I'm preparing to carry that role (of third-down back) if necessary."

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is not a fan of using fullbacks, but he's under orders to run the ball more consistently this season and that might be part of the plan.

"As a running back, you want a fullback," Mendenhall said. "A fullback is another set of eyes in the backfield, they kind of read and feel through things that receivers and tight ends don't normally do, so, as a running back, you want that."

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