AFCN Round Up

A quick look at what's happening (and it's not much) in the AFCN from our content partners at The Sports Xchange.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

INSIDE SLANT

In his attempt to adapt to a new position, Terrell Suggs came into his second season with a new physique. As a pass-rushing specialist last season, the first-round pick led the Ravens in sacks (12) as well as slices. It became a weekly tradition for Suggs to nab some pizza from the media workroom before hitting the field for practice. But this year, Suggs has been given the responsibility to develop as an every-down outside linebacker and the former college defensive end has already put in the work. 

The little bulge around Suggs' midsection is history, thanks to intensive offseason workouts in the Arizona heat with fitness guru Jay Schroeder, St. Louis Rams safety Adam Archuleta and Ravens tight end Todd Heap. Suggs has lost 10 pounds, which is allowing him to breeze through recent minicamp drills like a marathon runner walking a treadmill. "I think, last year, I prepared only for 60 minutes," Suggs said. "This year, I've prepared for a season. There's a big difference. I just feel good. I feel a lot stronger now."

One obstacle that still stands in Suggs' way is a Sept. 9 court date in Arizona, where he faces two counts of felony aggravated assault. Even that, says Suggs, is no sweat. "If I had something to worry about, then maybe it would affect me, but it doesn't affect me at all," said Suggs, who is accused of assaulting a man with a reinforcement rod and attacking another man in the parking lot of Phoenix Municipal Stadium after a three-on-three basketball tournament in March 2003. "My life is great. It's a minor thing that happened, and we're going to get that taken care of and totally out of my life. We're going forward. It's just senseless when it comes up again. It's nonsense."

Asked if he thinks the court date, which is three days before the season opener against the Browns in Cleveland, will force him to miss the game or preparation time leading into it, Suggs said, "Not at all. I just can't wait to get it over with. I can't wait for it to come out so everyone can say, `He didn't do nothing,' so I can be viewed the way I want to be viewed. I'm a great guy, a happy-go-lucky guy."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Javin Hunter, who has yet to make an impact in his first two seasons as a receiver, worked at cornerback in the final minicamp. It has yet to be decided whether the former sixth-round pick will enter training camp as a defensive back or receiver. "The defensive backfield coaches wanted to take a look at him," coach Brian Billick said. "Javin's got that type of speed and ability. We'll come back in camp and see what he wants to do with it."

--The Ravens plan to move into their new practice complex during their bye week in October. But the indoor facility has been built, meaning the team can practice there during inclement weather before the relocation. The Ravens have worked at an out-dated complex that was used by the Colts in the early 1980s before they moved to Indianapolis.

--QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it can be top shelf in this league. Let's not keep them at that same level but take them higher. The essence of it is that you want to put that ring on. So, we need to be No. 1 in pass defense." -- New secondary coach Johnnie Lynn on a Ravens' pass defense that finished No. 4 last season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With Corey Fuller moving back to safety, the Ravens will go with Dale Carter as their nickel back. In passing situations, Gary Baxter will move to cover the slot receiver with Carter going on the outside. Team officials also said the roster is virtually intact and that they do not anticipate adding any of the bigger-name free agents still left on the market, a list that includes linebacker Jason Gildon, running back Antowain Smith, offensive lineman Marcus Spears and receiver Antonio Freeman.

Asked whether things will be quiet around the Ravens' complex from now until training camp opens, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said: "I hope so. I'd like to keep it that way."

FRANCHISE PLAYER: CB Chris McAlister (tendered at $7.154M).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): LB Bernardo Harris; DE Riddick Parker; QB Chris Redman.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OG Bennie Anderson; OT Orlando Brown; OT Damion Cook; S Will Demps; DE Marques Douglas; C Mike Flynn; LB Edgerton Hartwell; WR Randy Hymes; DE Ma'ake Kemoeatu; LS Joe Maese; C Casey Rabach; FB Alan Ricard; PK Wade Richey; LS Mike Solwold; PK Matt Stover; LB Adalius Thomas; CB Raymond Walls; QB Anthony Wright.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: CB Dale Carter; WR Kevin Johnson; QB Kordell Stewart.
PLAYERS LOST: TE John Jones; CB Tom Knight; WR Marcus Robinson; WR Frank Sanders.
MEDICAL WATCH: Linebacker Ray Lewis (thumb) did not practice in minicamp but is expected to be ready by training camp. Bart Scott has filled in with the starters... Cornerback Gary Baxter (hernia) was limited and should be close to full strength by training camp. Dale Carter has filled in at Baxter's spot. ... Linebacker Peter Boulware (knee) will miss training camp and be a situational pass rusher at the start of the regular season. Adalius Thomas has worked in Boulware's place. ... Backup QB Anthony Wright (right shoulder) will be unable to throw a football until September and likely will miss the first six weeks of the regular season.


CINCINNATI BENGALS

INSIDE SLANT

As of July 8, like roughly half of all NFL teams, the Bengals had yet to sign a draft pick. They have 11 rookie draft picks to sign before July 30, reporting date for training camp at Georgetown (Ky.) College. But many agents representing the rookies don't anticipate problems getting their clients into camp on time.

The most difficult rookie to sign could be first-round pick Chris Perry, the 26th overall pick. It was noted that the player taken after Perry, former Western Michigan linebacker Jason Babin, who went to the Houston Texans, received a split signing bonus when he signed within the past week.

The Bengals had made a stand against split signing bonuses, the second half traditionally paid as a roster bonus in March of Year 2. It was one of the issue that led to former first-round pick Justin Smith, the defensive end, missing all of his rookie training camp in 2001.

But the Bengals signed Smith to a split bonus. And their last two first-round picks, offensive tackle Levi Jones and quarterback Carson Palmer, also received two-part bonuses.

A Bengals executive said in June that initial talks with all of the agents for the draft picks showed that they weren't looking to sign until the second half of July.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--A Washington Times story, citing an unnamed source, says that former Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener will retire because of a degenerative disc in his back.

--"Pro Football Weekly," in its preview magazine, asks fans to vote for each of the 32 team's franchise players. The five choices listed for the Bengals are quarterbacks Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason, cornerback Ken Riley, running back Corey Dillon and left tackle Anthony Munoz. Munoz, who played for the Bengals from 1980-92, is the only Bengal enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

-- QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a young guy. I'm a young guy. I was glad the organization took care of him (extending Johnson's contract through 2009). He can be one of the best players in the league, and it's part of my job to get him to that level." -- Quarterback Carson Palmer, on wide receiver Chad Johnson.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): QB Shane Matthews.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: S Rogers Beckett; C Rich Braham; PK Shayne Graham; WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh; RB Rudi Johnson; S Kevin Kaesviharn; OG Victor Leyva; CB Reggie Myles; TE Tony Stewart.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: S Kim Herring; WR Patrick Johnson; C Larry Moore; CB Deltha O'Neal; LB Nate Webster; OG Bobbie Williams.
PLAYERS LOST: RB Brandon Bennett; CB Jeff Burris; RB Corey Dillon; DT Oliver Gibson; OG Mike Goff; CB Artrell Hawkins; LB Riall Johnson; OG Matt O'Dwyer; OG Scott Rehberg; S Mark Roman; DT Glen Steele.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.


CLEVELAND BROWNS

INSIDE SLANT

Can a team that plays the Cover-2 defense win a championship if it doesn't have Warren Sapp and the league's most ferocious defensive line? The Browns will join a lot of other teams in testing that theory this year. Last season when the team brought in Dave Campo as defensive coordinator, it went exclusively with the Cover-2.

It's a defense that Minnesota coach Mike Tice said he hates because he doesn't think defenses can consistently stop the run playing Cover-2. It's a sit-back-and-don't-give-up-the-big-play scheme, a scheme that relies on the front four for pressure and the middle linebacker to patrol a big part of the field. It's also a defense that produces no answers if things aren't going well. Witness the team's complete inability to stop Jamal Lewis last season. In two games he ran for 500 yards against the Browns.

The Browns' rallying cry in the offseason was to improve against the run, and they had to improve the tackling at safety,  which seems to beg the question: By the time a back gets to the safety, isn't it almost too late?

The Browns are backing on growth in the system providing some of the answers as it tries to turn around a 5-11 team.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Fans have been disappointed with the play of Gerard Warren, the third overall pick in Butch Davis' first draft. Warren has at times been overweight and lethargic, but the coaches insist that at other times he has done things that have not been noticed.

--The Browns spent the offseason bringing in new people to play at Earl Little's safety spot. They never succeeded until draft day when they took Sean Jones in round two. Jones' torn ACL, though, means the team again will have to rely on Little, who seemed to be the scapegoat for the defensive struggles against the run in 2003.

--QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told the players that going into the fourth year (of Davis' tenure in Cleveland), this is clearly the furthest along we've been through minicamp. In more ways than one, the chemistry, the electricity the feelings for each other, the way the veterans worked -- they set an unbelievable practice picture for all the young incoming guys." -- Coach Butch Davis at the conclusion of the team's offseason minicamp.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): PK Brett Conway; DE Tyrone Rogers.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OT Chad Beasley; LB Brant Boyer; WR Andre King; DT Michael Myers; OG Paul Zukauskas.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: WR LaTarence Dunbar; DE Ebenezer Ekuban; QB Jeff Garcia; OG Kelvin Garmon; S David Gibson; LB Warrick Holdman; FB Terrelle Smith.
PLAYERS LOST: QB Tim Couch; P Chris Gardocki; OG Shaun O'Hara; CB Lewis Sanders; OT Barry Stokes; RB Jamel White.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.


PITTSBURGH STEELERS

INSIDE SLANT

The Steelers are counting on a healthy line and the addition of halfback Duce Staley to bring order back to an offense that was out of kilter last season.  A change in philosophy - from the run to the pass - and a failure in their line partially brought about by health problems rendered their running game ineffective in 2003. Their passing game was not good enough to overcome it.

They ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing, the lowest ranking in franchise history. They were determined to rectify that and signed Staley as a free agent to do so. He joins Jerome Bettis, who agreed to take a steep salary cut to return.

The decision to replace Bettis as their starting halfback with Amos Zereoue in training camp last year was a disaster, and coach Bill Cowher overturned that error after six games. Zereoue was then released in the spring. 

Their line seems healthy now, if unchanged on paper. Left tackle Marvel Smith missed half of last season with a pinched nerve in his neck/shoulder and that ultimately forced them to move All-Pro left guard Alan Faneca to tackle. Both are back in place today. Right guard Kendall Simmons, who lost 35 pounds and discovered he had diabetes days before training camp opened in '03, has the disease under control and his weight and strength back. A big question remains at right tackle, where Oliver Ross will get another chance to hold down a job he lost at the beginning of last season.

Quarterback Tommy Maddox, happy after signing a new contract, will remain the starter while rookie Ben Roethlisberger learns the ropes in his first season. An unexpected problem arose when receiver Plaxico Burress skipped all of the team's spring workouts, unhappy that the Steelers failed to negotiate a contract extension for him as he enters the final year of the deal he signed as their first-round draft choice in 2000. He has said he will report to training camp on time but the coaches worry about the kind of dedication he will bring with him.

Pittsburgh has several new coaches on offense and a new coordinator in Ken Whisenhunt, promoted from his job coaching the tight ends after Buffalo hired Mike Mularkey. Mark Whipple was hired to coach the quarterback, Bruce Arians the receivers and James Daniel the tight ends. 

Whisenhunt wants to get back to Pittsburgh's roots. "You want to strive for balance, but, especially, the run game establishes a mental toughness, a physical toughness with your team. I think that's important where you start."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Although offenses have caught on to many of the mechanics of the zone blitz defense, the man who first devised it believes it remains effective.
"The defense is very popular because it is productive and it is sound and it is a safer way to pressure," Dick LeBeau said. "The offenses are more familiar with it and they have some answers. Of course, our objective is to make those answers the wrong answers."

--Players will discover better footing when they report to St. Vincent College and the opening of training camp July 30. New drainage and sprinkler systems were installed since last year on the three fields the Steelers use at the Latrobe, Pa., college. Last year, they were forced to occasionally use one makeshift field cut next to a cornfield, and the players complained about its hard surface filled with rocks. 

--QUOTE TO NOTE: "Why would a guy sit out a whole year when he's in the last year of his contract?" -- WR Hines Ward, on why he expects Plaxico Burress to report to training camp.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OT Barrett Brooks; DT Kendrick Clancy; TE Matt Cushing; WR Chris Doering; LB Clark Haggans; DE Chris Hoke; CB Chidi Iwuoma; FB Dan Kreider; S Mike Logan; C Chukky Okobi; PK Jeff Reed; LS Mike Schneck; OG Keydrick Vincent.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: P Chris Gardocki; DT Travis Kirschke; RB Duce Staley; DB Shane Walton; CB Willie Williams.
PLAYERS LOST: S Brent Alexander; DE Rodney Bailey; TE Mark Bruener; LB Jason Gildon; P Josh Miller; OT Mathias Nkwenti; CB Dewayne Washington; RB Amos Zereoue.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: LS Drew Caylor; TE Matt Kranchick; DT Eric Taylor.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.


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