Wilson: Working our way around the AFC North

So what does the inevitable Steve McNair signing do for the Ravens? Is Chad Johnson serious when he claims the Bengals will dominate in 2006? Are the Browns finally making a move? Blogger Ryan Wilson investigates.

The draft ended six days ago and I think we're officially out of Steelers-related topics to discuss -- at least until minicamp (or next week – we'll see). In the meantime, I thought I'd take a stroll around the AFC North and see what the division rivals have been up to since the season ended.

Baltimore Ravens

It now only seems to be a matter of time before quarterback Steve McNair emerges from Mordor wearing the purple and black. The sad thing is McNair's the type of guy that's hard to hate. Even when he made beating the Pittsburgh Steelers routine -- especially in the days of the AFC Central, when the Oilers/Titans and the Steelers were division rivals -- you still had to respect the guy for not only being so friggin' good, but for the way he carried himself while doing so. Well, that's all about to change. The Pope, Mother Teresa or Gandhi could sign with the Ravens and all their previous accomplishments would be worthless in my eyes. So no matter how much I like and respect McNair's game, once he suits up in that Grimace costume, he's one of them: The Enemy.

But enough about my personal issues concerning the Baltimore Ravens -- those will eventually get worked out in therapy -- the more important question is this: Will Steve McNair make a difference in Baltimore in 2006? Three words: Not a chance.

Sure, the quarterback position has been a problem with that team since, well, Bill Belichick benched Bernie Kosar back in the 1990's and they were still called the Browns, but unless McNair changes his name to Anne Sullivan: Miracle Worker it won't much matter. Kyle Boller's just the most recent manifestation of how incomprehensibly incompetent the organization has been at finding anybody to play the position.

What makes the whole McNair-to-Baltimore story all the more hard to believe is that according to the story on RavensInsider.com, the Titans wanted a fourth-round pick and the Ravens were only willing to part with a fifth. (As I write this, no deal has been consummated, but it seems to be only a matter of time.)

Baltimore indicated that they were willing to wait Tennessee out, since McNair will have to be released before the start of training camp. Even though it now seems unlikely, the problem for the Ravens would be that if McNair didn't join the team until July, he'd still have to learn the playbook. (After talking to one of my sources, this may not be as daunting as it sounds. From the looks of this offense, there only seem to be three or four passing plays, and a couple of running plays. Okay, I made that up. And no, I don't have any sources. But you have to admit, watching Kyle Boller sure makes it seem that way, doesn't it?)

Yeah, in all likelihood, things won't drag out all summer, and who knows, by the time you read this McNair could already be a Raven. But if you're Ozzie Newsome, what's the hold up? Seriously, in 2003 you traded up to the 19th pick to grab Kyle Boller. All Tennessee wants is a fourth-rounder. Yes, McNair is 33 years old, but take a look at the Ravens recent history of fourth-round selections:

2005: C - Jason Brown
2004: No fourth-round pick
2003: DE - Jarret Johnson, RB - Ovie Mughelli
2002: P - Dave Zastudil, WR - Ron Johnson
2001: LB - Edgerton Hartwell

One for six. Baltimore is batting .167 on fourth-rounders in the last five drafts. If anything the Titans are doing the Ravens a favor by taking that pick off their hands. And not only does this deal seem like a no-brainer, but what leverage does Baltimore have? Going back to Kyle Boller for another season? He's clearly not the answer and Steve Bisciotti made Billick admit as much during that really-hard-to-watch-but-I-just-can't-turn-away joint press conference way back in January.

Whatever happens, it won't much matter for Baltimore. They'll still stink in 2006. The team is chocked full of holes, and not even Steve McNair will make much of a difference. Don't believe me? Well, let's take a look.

The Ravens were glacial in their approach to free agency and basically used the draft to replace the guys they were unable to re-sign. Is DT Haloti Ngata such an obvious upgrade over Maake Kemoeatu? Maybe down the road, but certainly not this season. He's basically one fat guy replacing another fat guy.

Safety Will Demps was never going to make any Pro Bowls, but he always managed to get the job done. Demps is now a New York Giant. His backup, Chad Williams, wasn't very good, but he was better than nothing, which is what the Ravens were left with when he signed with the 49ers last week. Currently on the depth chart the Ravens have Ed Reed, B.J. Ward, 2006 fifth-rounder Dawan Landry and a bunch of undrafted free agents. What do you think opposing offensive coordinators are going to identify as a weakness on this defense? Hmmm? Anybody want to take a wild guess?

The Ravens did manage to grossly overpay DE Trevor Pryce, a guy with a history of back problems (he only played in two games in 2004) who's on the downside of his career. Mike Anderson wasn't overpaid, but he's a fossil. And yes, Anderson was very good in Denver, but who isn't? Plus, he's never had to run behind Baltimore's offensive line.

Wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, and tight end Todd Heap are easily the three most consistent players on the roster. And if when McNair joins the team, he'll be reunited with a guy who racked up four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons while in Tennessee. But again, the offensive line will be the biggest obstacle to McNair (a) reliving his Titan glory days, and (b) not missing time because of sack-related injuries.

I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe McNair is the answer. I mean, last summer some "experts" had the Ravens making it to the Super Bowl and those guys usually know what they're talking about. Of course Baltimore went on to win a whopping six games and the team imploded during a Week 5 contest against the Lions when they committed something like 467 penalties, but that's beside the point.

Seriously though, here's the thing: The 2006 version of this team is virtually identical to the 2005 version except Kemoeatu has been replaced by Ngata and Anderson replaces Chester Taylor. And perhaps more importantly, McNair looks to take over for Boller. But even with McNair, this is virtually the same team that ended the 2005 season by losing to the Browns. This team has the odd distinction of being both old and inexperienced: Old at almost every position; and very little depth behind the starters (hence the inexperience). Baltimore will be lucky to win six games next season. And while that seems all well and good if you're a Steelers fan, it certainly seals Brian Billick's fate, which is a bad thing. I love having the guy around just because he's always sure to give you something to write about. Either way, the bottom line remains the same: McNair won't matter.

Cincinnati Bengals

By now we've all heard Chad Johnson's latest: The Bengals will dominate in 2006. Before going on, let me say that I love Chad Johnson and I think he's great for the NFL. He's one of the top wideouts in the league, infinitely likeable -- even for a Bengal -- and other than allegedly putting a coach in halftime headlock, seems focused on making his team better.

So knowing all that, Johnson was probably giggling uncontrollably as he spoke to reporters for this story. Kidding or not, we can still talk about what the Bengals can expect this season. Let's say Carson Palmer, as some people speculate, won't be ready until Week 5. This means that Doug Johnson, Anthony Wright and Craig Krenzel are at the controls in the interim. The team might as well officially change its name to the Cincinnati Hindenburgs because that's the direction the season is headed if any of these guys are asked to do more than hand the ball to Rudi Johnson.

I know what you thinking: "Anthony Wright didn't look that bad during his time in Baltimore." Fair enough, but let me ask you this: Who looks bad next to Kyle Boller?

Back to the Bengals. As Carson Palmer goes, so goes his team. Chad Johnson, no matter how good he is, can't throw the ball to himself. And if he doesn't have someone to get it in his hands, then he's impact is obviously minimized. And don't forget, Doug Johnson is the guy who filled in for an injured Michael Vick in 2003. That Falcons team went on to win five games.

Defensively, you expect the Bengals to improve for a couple of reasons. First, Marvin Lewis is the head coach, and at previous stops in Baltimore and Washington he was very good and fielding strong defenses. Cincinnati's run defense is still abysmal, but the addition of Sam "Tons-O-Fun" Adams should helps things if for no other reason than he's really, really fat. Sure, he's old, but he's surprisingly nimble for such a big guy, and he's certainly an upgrade over Bryan Robinson.

Amazingly, the Bengals didn't draft a defensive lineman early, and instead opted for DE Frostee Rucker from USC in round three and DT Domata Peko from Michigan State a round later. They also added LB A.J. Nicholson from Florida State in the fifth round, just to ensure the crime rate doesn't drop in Cincinnati if Chris Henry doesn't return. Neither Rucker nor Peko are projected to be great starters, but hey, I just spent an entire column lambasting guys for handing out draft grades so soon, so I probably shouldn't be passing judgment just yet.

Still, it won't matter if the 2000 Ravens were out there because without Palmer, the Bengals are going to struggle. And even if he's back on the field a month into the season, he'll still have to knock off eight or nine months of rust.

Cleveland Browns

Personally, I think the Browns have had a great off-season. As much as I despise the Patriots, former defensive coordinator and now Browns head coach Romeo Crennel is one of those guys you quietly pull for (except in obvious Steelers-related situations). He got the best free agent center in LeCharles Bentley (more on that later), signed Willie McGinest who, although almost 60 years old, is still an upgrade on this defense. McGinest will also play opposite first-rounder Kamerion Wimbley who could turn out to be pretty good. And if you think Sam Adams is fat, wait till you get a load of 365 pounds of Ted Washington. Washington eats guys like Adams for breakfast. The Browns also nabbed arguably the best ILB in the whole draft in D'Qwell Jackson. The secondary will have two young safeties (both former second-round picks) in Sean Jones and Brodney Pool, and cornerback Gary Baxter will team with Cleveland's own version of Ike Taylor: Leigh Bodden. It's not a stretch to think that the defense will be much-improved and actually has a shot at being solid if not spectacular. From where I'm sitting in the month of May, the real issues on this team are on the offensive side of the ball.

Charlie Frye's the starter-by-default now that Trent Dilfer has been traded to San Francisco for Ken Dorsey. By the way, if Dorsey beats Frye out for the starting job in training camp, the Browns are basically admitting they're throwing the season in the hopes of getting the first overall draft pick in 2007. (And yes, they'll be taking Brady Quinn with that pick.)

With the addition of Bentley, the offensive line should be improved. Reuben Droughns also adds an "I'll tread right over you" mentality to the running game (for proof, just ask Chris Hope to show you the tire marks). Unfortunately, the rest of the skill positions are still a mystery. It looks like Kellen Winslow will finally get to see the field, but he hasn't played an NFL game since September 2004. Braylon Edwards blew up his knee last season and he probably won't be back until October or so. Joe Jurevicius, another off-season signing, is a solid number two receiver but doesn't strike fear in defensive coordinators like Edwards might. Dennis Northcutt is a pretty good punt returner but has been inconsistent as a pass catcher.

In a perfect world, Frye would be asked to just manage the game, but in its current form, this offense won't afford him that luxury. Instead, he'll have to make some plays if this team is to have a chance to compete, and more likely than not, he'll struggle. And given that he's entering his second year in the league, and Edwards and Winslow are returning from serious injuries, it's not really a surprise. Unless Cleveland's defense can pitch shutouts every week, the Browns will probably have a tough go of it. But unlike the Ravens, they seem to be going in the right direction and could legitimately be a playoff team in the next few seasons. Seriously.

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