Sirius Business: The North Stars (Bengals, Packers, etc.)

This past Sunday, Matt Camp and I spent a lot of time talking AFC North, with some Packers thrown in. We got a lot of interesting tidbits, so naturally, Sirius Business is back. Will T.O. end up in Cincy? Even if not, the Bengals’ interest in him is telling:

Joe Reedy covers the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer (@joereedy on Twitter):

Reedy raised an interesting point with the Terrell Owens situation. If Antonio Bryant is actually healthy (his knee looks severely questionable at this point), who becomes the #3 receiver if T.O. is signed? You’re paying Bryant like a #2, and Owens isn’t going to be comfortable playing third fiddle (hell, do we know if he can he even play second fiddle?). This is already a crowded WR position. Rookie Jordan Shipley and Andre Caldwell will be battling it out for the slot role, Dezmon Briscoe is a talented rookie, and don’t forget that the Bengals signed Matt Jones early in the off-season. Reedy’s point was this: the Bengals have enough talented young guys who won’t clear waivers if they choose to sign Owens and go with three big names at the WR position.

T.Ochocinco? It may happen.

The concerns with Bryant’s knee arose when he began to wear down a bit toward the end of minicamp. Now, there are legitimate doubts whether he can become the same explosive Bryant that dominated at times during the 2008 season with Tampa Bay. At this point, the Bengals don’t know what to expect of Bryant, and for a guy they signed to a four-year, $28 million contract, that’s not good (to put it bluntly). In fact, it’s the same contract the Bengals signed Laveranues Coles to last season. Reedy offers a warning to any free-agent WRs: DON’T SIGN A FOUR-YEAR, $28 MILLION CONTRACT WITH THE BENGALS (he was joking. We think).

The Bengals have focused a lot of attention this off-season on revamping the passing game. Their 1st-round pick in April was spent on TE Jermaine Gresham, a talented but somewhat raw player for whom the Bengals anticipate an active red-zone role. Reedy mentioned that the Bengals haven’t had a consistently viable fantasy TE since Rodney Holman in the 1980s. That’s a pretty long stretch of futility. But Reedy also asks if the Bengals would have drafted WR Dez Bryant at #21 if they knew Antonio’s knee was shaky. If Bryant is hurt and the Bengals don’t sign T.O., there might be a little bit more pressure on Gresham than originally anticipated. The Bengals are also forseeing the offensive line coming together more strongly in the pass game this year. The line was extremely effective in run blocking situations last season, but struggled mightily in the pass game. Remember, only G Bobbie Williams was in the same position from 2008 to 2009. That’s a big factor.

The Owens interest has taken the focus off of RB Cedric Benson’s recent arrest in connection to an alleged late May assault in Austin, Texas. However, Reedy doesn’t expect a suspension for Benson, given Commissioner Goodell’s comments on the similar Vince Young situation. However, even if Benson didn’t commit a crime (which at this point appears the case), a side effect of the arrest has been a halt into the extension talks Benson was having with the team. The Bengals have been comfortable with their star RB’s behavior when he’s in the Cincinnati area, but all his “issues” occur when he returns to Austin, where he went to college. It appears as if the Bengals are willing to waive minor issues for a guy who should have been a Pro Bowler last year, but they’d obviously prefer him to stay out of trouble (and Austin).

Should Benson get into trouble or suffer another injury, it looks as if talented youngster Bernard Scott is in line to be the primary backup. He’s a little bit more dynamic than any other back on the roster; the Bengals want to get him about 8 touches per game, including in the return game. To prevent Benson from getting worn down, they’ll mix in Scott and continue to get Brian Leonard involved on 3rd down, because he can pound out short yardage and also catch the football effectively. Don’t count out project Cedric Peerman making the roster either.

James Walker covers the AFC North for ESPN.com’s AFC North blog (@espnafc_north on Twitter):

Considering our earlier interview with Joe Reedy, we didn’t spend too much time on the Bengals with Walker, but he did make an interesting observation: if it wasn’t obvious enough already that the Bengals were worried about Antonio Bryant’s health, remember that they had the option to sign Bryant or Terrell Owens in March, and they went with the younger Bryant. The fact that they’re reopening the T.O. case right before training camp starts tells you all you need to know.

Moving on to the Browns, Walker confirmed what we already thought: it looks as if impressive rookie Montario Hardesty will

Can Jerome Harrison carry a full RB load? The Browns may not think so

start at RB at some point this season, if not immediately. It’s easy to overrate players when they aren’t wearing pads, but Hardesty looked great to everyone who saw him practice. Browns coaches are especially impressed with Hardesty’s understanding of the offense and his ability to pick up his blocking assignments at such an early stage in the game. Since Cleveland is unsure if Jerome Harrison or Peyton Hillis can carry a full-time load, this is a good sign for Hardesty’s 2010 fantasy prospects.

Despite some potential upgrades (Mike Holmgren thinks Jake Delhomme’s horrid 2009 season was an aberration), Walker is still very low on the Cleveland passing game. He said that it seems as if every player with a tangible role is playing “one peg too high.” In other words, Mohamed Massaquoi is the #1 WR when he’s best as a #2, Brian Robiskie is the #2 when he’s probably best suited as a bench guy, rookie Carlton Mitchell may have a role as a deep threat when he would be put to better use honing his raw skills in practice. In other words, it’s probably asking too much of a guy like Massaquoi to catch 70-plus balls, so treat him more as a #2 guy when drafting him than as the #1 he actually is on the Cleveland roster.

Walker shared many of the same views as we do on second-year Steeler WR Mike Wallace, whom has been thrust into a starting role in the wake of the Santonio Holmes trade. Wallace was in perfect spots last year. He’s the fastest guy in the AFC North, but he was able to contribute last season because he ran a very limited route tree, just like he did in college at Ole Miss. He’s been spending his off-season working on expanding his knowledge of the offense with Hines Ward, whom Walker argues doesn’t get enough credit for his role as a teacher (he helped shape Holmes as well). While Walker is concerned about Wallace’s learning curve, he expects him to become a viable fantasy threat when all is said and done this season.

We rounded out our discussion with the Ravens, whom Walker called the early favorites for the 2010 division crown. Walker wasn’t surprised when the Ravens signed Donte’ Stallworth, traded for Anquan Boldin, and drafted two young TEs. Walker argues that the moves aren’t entirely because QB Joe Flacco is primed to carry the offense. He thinks it’s because the Ravens believe a very effective passing offense is absolutely essential to winning in today’s NFL. While teams can still build around the run and defense (as the Ravens have for their entire existence), the ability to win the occasional shootout is what separates the contenders from the pretenders. In other words, to win the AFC, you have to beat the Colts, and it’s unlikely Peyton Manning will lose 10-7 in the playoffs. The Ravens now have the talent, on paper, to put a lot points on the board in different ways.

Bob McGinn covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

It’s amazing that we even had so much to talk about with McGinn, considering the Packers typically are a boring team during the off-season (hey, that’s how Ted Thompson rolls). But we did ourselves pretty well.

QB Aaron Rodgers had about as dominant a season as anyone could have expected, but he still needs to work on his tendency to hold on to the ball for too long. By McGinn’s calculations, Rodgers was responsible for about 30% of the sacks he took last year, and that’s simply too much. Rodgers has about the most effective group of receivers in the game, and I like the way McGinn put it: let go of the ball and “let the weapons do their thing.”

Now, that doesn’t mean the Packers were completely pleased with the way the offensive line played last year. They re-signed veteran tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher to enter the season as the starters, but there are intriguing young options who could take over at some point. Obviously, 1st-round pick Bryan Bulaga figures in to the equation in the near future. And while Bulaga could play either tackle spot or even at guard, he’s been practicing exclusively at LT. The Packers are intrigued by the potential of both T.J. Lang and Breno Giacomini at RT, as well. If Clifton and Tauscher falter or suffer injuries, they might never regain their starting spots.

10 of 10 experts agree: Jermichael should be a star

TE Jermichael Finley was immature as a rookie in 2008, but he made great strides to post a breakout 2009 campaign (which was mostly relegated to half of the season, but still). McGinn said Finley’s progress has continued, and the Packers have been thrilled with his off-season thus far. It appears to McGinn that Finley legitimately wants to be a great player, and he certainly has the physical ability to do so. Finley spent 40% of his snaps in 2009 away from the formation, and that is expected to continue. It’s likely that the Packers will occasionally break the huddle with two TEs, so defenses can’t scheme and substitute for Finley pre-snap. He’s a legit game-changer, and he’s only 23. Whoa.

McGinn is also intrigued by the battle for the #3 WR job, which he describes as “really tight” between James Jones and Jordy Nelson, both of whom are having spectacular off-seasons. A nagging knee injury to Nelson made Jones the guy who got the majority of snaps in 2009 (596, in comparison to Nelson’s 224), after Nelson dominated the playing time in 2008. So really, there’s no statistical indicators as to which player will receive more PT in 2010. It’s a wait-and-see approach.

Considering the Packers have so many dynamic weapons in the passing game, they’re content with the considerably more “boring” Ryan Grant at RB. McGinn warns not to “canonize” Grant, because he isn’t exceptional at anything, but he does the things the Packers need most from the running backs. He runs hard, gives considerable effort, has curbed his fumbling problem, and he blocks well. But the Packers may want more versatility behind him (Brandon Jackson, the current backup, isn’t much different, aside from being a better receiver). That’s why Brian Westbrook’s name has been bandied about. The issue, McGinn says, is that acquiring a veteran like Westbrook isn’t a Ted Thompson type of move, as Thompson isn’t known to tinker with his roster from the outside, preferring to build from within.

Category: Joe Dolan

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One Response

  1. Camperhead says:

    And how does James Starks figure into the future Packer backfield situation? In plotting out my upcoming dynasty league rookie/free agent draft, I’m not sold on either Ben Tate or Montario Hardesty (I may just look to trade out of the first round rather than devote the pick to either of them). But Starks really intrigues me as a mid-to-late second-rounder (which is where he seems to be going according to the only ADP data I can find on such drafts).

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