AFC Central teams hedge bets with draft, signings; Ravens and Steelers take limited gambles


The off-season philosophies in the AFC Central resembled a high-stakes poker game: Last year's big winners remained conservative while the rest of the division gambled for the immediate jackpot.

Jacksonville and Tennessee, last year's AFC finalists, have stayed pat, feeling they can repeat with the hands they've been dealt. The Ravens and Pittsburgh think their selective additions can make for a winning combination. And Cincinnati and Cleveland decided for overhauls, knowing they need to reshuffle the deck.

The Ravens have created most of the buzz in the division heading into this weekend's minicamp with arguably the best free-agent signings and draft pickups.

They first raised the free-agent bar by bringing in tight end Shannon Sharpe, the best offensive free-agent acquisition in the division. And when defensive tackle Larry Webster was suspended indefinitely, they upgraded that position by adding Sam Adams.

Through the draft, the Ravens provided a potential upside to their offense by taking running back Jamal Lewis and receiver Travis Taylor. They also had their future quarterback of choice, Chris Redman, fall to them in the third round.

Now that the draft is over and the higher-profile free agents are gone, too, have the Ravens done enough to turn possibly the NFL's best division into a three-team race with Jacksonville and Tennessee?

"You hope so," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We felt like we've bettered ourselves in the off-season, and so we hope we've moved into that echelon."

Here's a look at how the other divisional rivals have handled the off-season:

Cincinnati Bengals

It seems that the happiest Bengals are the ones seeking the "Get out of Cincinnati free" cards. So, the controversy over disgruntled holdouts, receiver Carl Pickens and running back Corey Dillon, has somewhat overshadowed a productive off-season by Cincinnati standards.

The Bengals addressed the NFL's seventh-worst defense with nose tackle Tom Barndt from Kansas City and run-stopping defensive end Vaughn Booker of Green Bay. That allowed Cincinnati to brace itself for the worst, drafting Florida State receivers Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans and James Madison tailback Curtis Keaton.

Still, many aren't optimistic. A day after the draft, the headline to a Cincinnati Enquirer column read: "Warrick can't fix this mess."

A league scout even reportedly said: "I always like their draft. Then every year, their team stinks. I don't know what that means."

Dugans, though, is a big target with possession-type catching abilities, fitting the same mold as Pickens, who is expected to be released before June 1 since all trade talks have dried up. Dugans will team with Warrick and Darnay Scott to form one of the best receiving corps in the NFL.

The Bengals maintain a satisfied front and will run this week's mini-camp on the practice fields next to their new Paul Brown Stadium.

Said team president Mike Brown: "It sends a message about the future."

Cleveland Browns

Looking up at the draft board last week, Browns director of football operations Dwight Clark sighed and said, "How are we supposed to catch up in this division?"

Answer: Probably with a different approach than the Browns have taken the past two seasons.

Coupled with the NFL's worst offense and defense, Cleveland selected Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown, topping off a highly suspect off-season. The Browns probably should have traded down for multiple first-round picks since one franchise-type player plugs just one hole with several others remaining.

Add that to the team overpaying for Pittsburgh free-agent defensive end Orpheus Roye as well as selecting Lewis Sanders in the fourth round to fill a cornerback need when he probably is best suited for safety.

On offense, the Browns used their second- and third-round picks on receiver Dennis Northcutt and running back Travis Prentice. The only moves regarding the line included signing New York Giants starting tackle Roman Oben and Ravens guard-tackle Everett Lindsay and waiting until the sixth round to take Colorado's Brade Bedell. "Our major problem is our division is so strong," Clark said. "But our goal is to make the playoffs. We took a great step in free agency to move us closer. And drafting Courtney Brown moves us a little bit closer."

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars, the division champions the past two seasons, may have fallen back to the pack this off-season.

Although it retained 10 free agents, Jacksonville kept silent on the outside market after getting middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who has played in four straight Pro Bowls. By securing the inside, the Jaguars will move Lonnie Marts to the strong side, allowing Bryce Paup to become a salary-cap casualty.

But last week's minicamp didn't resemble a team that went 15-0 last season against teams not based in Tennessee.

The Jaguars had to work around holdout defensive end Tony Brackens and fielded a near skeleton crew on offensive line with Tony Boselli still injured, reserve Ben Coleman unsigned and starter Rich Tylski now in Pittsburgh. Plus, the Jaguars shrugged off the loss of reliable backup running back James Stewart, who departed for Detroit.

Instead, run-minded Jacksonville picked Southern California receiver R. Jay Soward in the first round, possibly sending a message to veteran Keenan McCardell.

"I guess they're saying I'm not doing my job," said McCardell, whose average yards per reception dropped to 11.4. "I have no idea what they want. I just know I'm going to make plays."

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers improved their offensive line with Tylski from Jacksonville and added another receiving threat through the draft with Michigan State's Plaxico Burress.

But it truly wouldn't be an off-season in Pittsburgh without the spotlight on much-maligned quarterback Kordell Stewart.

When Pittsburgh opted for Burress over Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington, the Steelers weren't necessarily handing the keys over to Stewart for the season. They already signed Kent Graham, who lost the Giants' starting job in the middle of last season to Kerry Collins, and drafted some insurance in Tennessee's Tee Martin in the fifth round.

"I don't care who they bring in, what they do," Stewart said. "I have something I want to get accomplished -- that's getting the respect back from my coaches and my teammates and let everything else fall into place."

Tennessee Titans

The AFC champion Titans really took "off-season" literally.

They did minimal work after the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl, signing half of their six significant free agents and then taking care of two necessities.

When tackle Jon Runyan left for Philadelphia, they replaced him with St. Louis' Fred Miller. When tight end Jackie Harris bolted to Dallas, they drafted Florida's Erron Kinney.

Tennessee's best move was probably the only one not made to fill a void. The Titans signed linebacker Randall Godfrey, who led Dallas last season with 143 tackles but isn't known for adjusting swiftly to different systems.

On draft day, the Titans' biggest surprise occurred when four divisional rivals -- the Ravens, Bengals, Jaguars and Steelers -- used first-round picks on receivers.

""We sat there watching the draft," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "I turned to [defensive backs coach] Jerry Gray and told him to stay loose."

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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