If the Pittsburgh Steelers are ever going to use a first-round draft pick again on a cornerback – they have not done so since 1997 – this would appear to be the year to do it.

Cornerback and outside linebacker are the Steelers’ biggest need with the draft five weeks away.

And with the draft “rich” in pass-rushers, according to coach Mike Tomlin, it makes sense for the Steelers to address cornerback first and then target outside linebackers.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said the three most likely cornerback candidates for the Steelers to pick in the first round are Washington’s Marcus Peters, LSU’s Jalen Collins and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson.

All three come with concerns.

Peters was kicked off Washington’s team last November after a series of run-ins with coaches. Collins started only 10 games in three seasons at LSU and recently underwent foot surgery. Johnson, meanwhile, might be better playing off coverage and the Steelers like to use their cornerback in press coverage.

But all three are widely projected as first-round picks – the Steelers have the No. 22 overall selection -- and for good reason.

Peters might be the most talented cornerback in the draft and Collins might be the best long-term prospect at the position. Johnson, meanwhile, is polished and experienced and oozes confidence, a trait that is critical for cornerbacks.

Two cornerbacks to also keep an eye on when it comes to the Steelers, Kiper said, are UConn’s Byron Jones and Utah's Eric Rowe.

Jones tested as well as anyone as the NFL combine, is a high-character kid and has position flexibility. Like Jones, Rowe tested well at the combine and also has experience playing safety.

“He tested like a first-round and played like a high pick as well at a variety of positions,” Kiper said of Rowe.

Jones did not run the 40-yard dash at the combine because he was still recovering from shoulder surgery. But he set a broad jump record with 12 feet, 3 inches – no one had ever exceeded 12 feet at the combine -- and also recorded a vertical leap of 44 inches.

“He's a really good 40 time away from having one of the better corner workouts we've ever seen," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said after the combine.

Jones is slated to run next Tuesday at UConn’s pro day and it will be interesting to see who the Steelers send to Storrs to watch the workout.

Florida State is also staging its pro day on March 31, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that is among the annual showcases he never misses.

Jones will only boost his draft stock if he runs at his pro day. Kiper said on Thursday that it would not “shock” him if Jones works his way into the first round and is selected in the range where the Steelers pick.

CLEVELAND – Alex Mack stands tall inside the Browns’ weight room on a dreary March day, wearing team workout gear and sporting a thick beard. He’s ditched the crutches and the wheeled cart he once used to support a shattered left fibula.

He’s looking like a 6-foot-4, 311-pound Pro Bowl center again. And he’s excited to talk about football again, bringing up unprompted his love for when a play is “executed correctly, touchdown” -- a fitting comment for the savvy orchestrator of an offensive line, whose presence was sorely missed in 2014.

That joy wasn’t there for the 11 weeks Mack spent on injured reserve after breaking his leg against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. The more he got involved in team meetings and walkthroughs, the more sobering his reality became.

“I couldn’t walk out there and stand next to the guys. I had to wheel out there on a little cart,” Mack said. “They didn’t necessarily need my support -- they’d rather have me protecting the passer. That was tough.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Mack
AP Photo/Tony DejakBrowns center Alex Mack broke his leg in the Oct. 12 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mack is slowly regaining his form.

The center will participate in the Browns’ offseason workouts, though to what extent is still being worked out. Mack acknowledged it's possible he won't go full-on during team OTAs, but that's not because of a setback. Mack and the training staff plan to be overly cautious because the goal is a fully healthy return for Week 1 in September. The Browns’ rushing offense dipped from 146.4 rushing yards per game with Mack to 90.5 without him.

Helping cope with a rigorous rehab was a series of offseason trips, including a week with three other NFL players on a USO tour in the Middle East, which Mack chronicled in a feature for clevelandbrowns.com. He spent a week in Turkey helping teammate Gary Barnidge’s American Football Without Barriers initiative. Mack also served as a volunteer for the Browns’ First and Ten program, which assisted with a Play 60 football festival for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Special Olympics.

The trips helped Mack “refresh,” he says, supporting troops while spreading support for a game that’s “given me so much.”

Mack rehabbed in the shadows all year, rarely appearing in the locker room and declining interviews on the final day of the season. Coach Mike Pettine during the season alluded to Mack dealing with “something more” than a traditional leg break, suggesting ligament damage was possible.

“We’re making some pretty steady progress, doing what we need to do to get out there for training camp,” Mack said. “But it’s more important that I’m out there for game day. Those two feelings have to balance out. It just takes time, having patience. Two weeks after the surgery, I wanted to be up and running around. I’m not 18 anymore.”

Considered one of the game’s best centers, Mack isn’t anticipating a production drop-off upon return. But he wasn’t exactly shocked to see the team's rushing numbers drop without him. That would have happened anyway, he said. The Browns were running the ball at a fervent pace, so he knew defenses would eventually adjust and the offense needed a counter move that never came.

Mack, who enters the second season of a five-year, $42 million deal, expects the offensive line to reignite the vibe they had in first five games of last season.

“The core of who we are is going to stay the same,” Mack said.

In between visits to various job sites, Mack took questions from troops overseas. He would answer a question about what drives him in life. Then a Browns fan asked him who will be “our quarterback this year?” Browns fans were everywhere.

“I ask myself that question,” said Mack, jokingly. “It’s going to be a quarterback battle. Josh McCown’s coming in. I think Johnny (Manziel’s) going to be back and we will see how Johnny does.”

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers added depth at wide receiver when they brought back another one of their free agents.

The team re-signed Darrius Heyward-Bey to a one-year contract. The former first-round draft pick caught just three passes last season, but established himself as a key special-teams player.

Heyward-Bey is the fourth unrestricted free agent to re-sign with the Steelers, joining outside linebackers James Harrison and Arthur Moats and tight end Matt Spaeth.

This signing won’t budge the needle, but the Steelers needed proven depth behind Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton and also a player who is willing to accept a limited role in the offense.

The return of Heyward-Bey makes it unlikely that the Steelers will sign an outside free agent at the position. It is another strong draft for wide receivers, so look for the Steelers to add one in the later rounds and also take a long look at C.J. Goodwin, who spent last season on their practice squad.

Heyward-Bey is just 28 years old and is one of the fastest players on the team. He recorded five tackles on special teams and snuffed out a fake punt by the Cincinnati Bengals in a victory that delivered the Steelers their first AFC North title since 2010.

The seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft, Heyward never fulfilled expectations in Oakland -- he averaged 517.8 receiving yards in four seasons with the Raiders –- and played a season with the Colts before signing with the Steelers.

Heyward made $795,000 in 2014 but counted just $635,000 against the salary cap, as he signed a veteran-minimum contract.

The regression of Matt Elam forced the Baltimore Ravens to sign a starting safety in free agency and publicly prod the 2012 first-round pick.

For the second time in two months, the Ravens stressed the importance for Elam to become a better football player in 2015.

General manager Ozzie Newsome bluntly said this at the end of February at the “State of the Ravens” news conference, and coach John Harbaugh reiterated it at the NFL owners meetings earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Nick Wass/AP PhotoMatt Elam "has got to become a good player," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's his burden to bear, along with us as coaches to do everything we can to help him get there."

Last season, Elam lost his starting job and his confidence, or it might have been the other way around. The lowlights included failing to wrap up ball carriers and getting beat deep on pass plays.

Elam ranked 12th among all NFL defensive backs with 16 missed tackles, even though he played only half the snaps as many of the qualifying players, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed an average of 16.3 yards on 17 catches, which ranked ninth-worst among safeties.

Pro Football Focus rated Elam the ninth-worst safety in the league in 2014.

“He’s got to become a good player,” coach John Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings earlier this week. “That’s his burden to bear, along with us as coaches to do everything we can to help him get there. We’re going to do our best to make that happen.”

As a rookie in 2013, Elam had his problems while starting 15 games. The biggest criticism was the lack of impact plays (one interception, three passes broken up and no forced fumbles). But he wasn't considered a major liability like he became last season.

In Week 3, Elam not only allowed Taylor Gabriel to get behind him for a big pass play but he forgot to touch down the Browns receiver after he fell to the ground. In Week 8, he missed five tackles in a loss at Cincinnati, which included him whiffing on wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on a 48-yard catch. In the playoff loss at New England, he missed a tackle on wide receiver Danny Amendola, who ran past him along the sideline for a touchdown.

“I just want to get better and improve my game,” Elam said at the end of the season. “That’s really all I can say.”

The Ravens aren't used to disappointing first-round picks, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With the exception of Elam, the other nine defensive players taken by the Ravens in the first round -- Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Duane Starks, Chris McAlister, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Jimmy Smith and C.J. Mosley -- have either reached the Pro Bowl or played a key role in helping the franchise win a Super Bowl.

The Ravens' lack of confidence in Elam showed this offseason, when they used the little cap room they had on signing Kendrick Lewis to start alongside Will Hill at safety. But the Ravens will give Elam a chance to make an impact this season.

"Matt Elam has to be a better football player for us next year," Newsome said last month. "He has to be."

PHOENIX -- What key things did I learn from spending time with the Cleveland Browns at the NFL owners meetings?

1) The Browns feel strongly that Josh McCown "stabilized" the quarterback position. Stabilized. General Manager Ray Farmer, coach Mike Pettine and owner Jimmy Haslam all used that word. The Browns believe McCown is the guy to bring order to the position. "He's proven that he can start in this league," Pettine said. The latter point could be argued, but it's clearly what the Browns feel. Or at least it's clearly what they say they feel. Pettine also said: "As we've talked about all along, when you surround your quarterback with the right scheme, and more importantly the right supporting cast, if you feel you have the right guy regardless of what the past history's been, if you feel you have a guy that can be credible for you and be functional, then you go ahead and make that move. That move we felt stabilized the position." There is nothing quite like being "stabilized."

2) A coach and GM can work together even after the GM texted coaches during games about in-game strategy. Pettine said at the combine he wasn't happy when he first learned of the text messages. A month later he said everyone was working well together and on the same page. Asked how that could be, he said: "If you talk to a lot of GMs, those three to four hours [during games] are among the most frustrating. There's going to be questions. 'Why are we doing this?' Fortunately Ray owns it and he chose that way as his outlet, but we get the opportunity to talk each week and we have our postgame audit and those questions get raised as well and we're not going to agree on everything 100 percent. But from a philosophy standpoint, we are very much on the same page. So it won't be 100 percent. Just like any other GM-head coach, it's not going to match perfectly. You're constantly in the process of educating each other, but we both feel like we're very much on the same page and we're moving forward to make this team better." Evidently the front office-coach relationship also has been … wait for it … stabilized.

3) The chances of trading up for Marcus Mariota never seemed lower, and the chances of a second-to-fourth round quarterback never seemed higher. Farmer said he covets numbers of draft picks. Haslam said the team would slowly but surely build more and more with the draft. Pettine was the only one to take it a little farther, saying quarterback was a position that justified giving up picks, but he likes having numbers of picks. Either the Browns have great poker faces, or they are just not that interested in Mariota.

4) The team expects Johnny Manziel back and they will give him a full chance to start. Despite offering excuses for his 2014 performance -- like Farmer saying last year's coaching staff changed the entire approach for Manziel's starts -- the Browns are going to give Manziel a chance to work with McCown. "When [Manziel] is back, it will be full speed ahead for him," Pettine said. "I think he's very anxious at this point."

5) The definiton of "changing an entire offense" can vary. Farmer said the Browns changed everything for Manziel. Pettine, politely, disagreed. "I know the run game stayed the same and I know we had some things in all year that were more suited for a mobile quarterback," Pettine said. "So there was a shift in emphasis there, but I wouldn't categorize those changes as drastic."

6) The Browns may not take a receiver in the first round because they will draft the best player available." I think its hard to go wrong when you take the best players that are available," Farmer said. Pettine said the Browns will try to make the team better in the draft. In his mind "value" trumps need. "If you're picking at 30 [be sure] you're getting a player that's 15th on your board," he said. "That you're not picking at 30 for a guy that's ranked 50th on your board because he plays a certain position."

CINCINNATI -- On one hand, the Cincinnati Bengals have to expect that a healthy Vontaze Burfict will be back to playing like the intimidating, aggressive tackler he was for most of his first three seasons.

On the other, they also have to prepare for the possibility that he won't. They have to go into the year understanding that Burfict may not be his old self in Week 1 as he continues to rehab from microfracture surgery on his left knee. Heck, they have to know he may not even play in a couple of early-season games.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Bengals can't count on having a healthy Vontaze Burfict to begin the season.

It's quite the juggling act of game plans and expectations.

"We've got to feel positive about what's going on with him," coach Marvin Lewis said at the owners meetings in Phoenix this week. "[But] we can't approach the season with him. We just have to go forward, and when he shows up and does his thing then we're better."

See? It's a juggling act of emotions.

But this is where the Bengals are as they wait for Burfict to overcome one of the scariest surgeries in sports. For Burfict and the Bengals, this offseason will be all about patience.

In the middle of January, not long after the Bengals' playoff run ended with what's become a customary first-round exit, Burfict underwent microfracture surgery.

He was injured in Week 8 last season when he took a hard shot to the knee as he chased a Baltimore Ravens running back. After several plays off, a hobbled Burfict returned, wrapping up multiple ball carriers at the end of a dramatic early-game goal-line stand that kept the Ravens off the scoreboard. He finished the eventual win with seven tackles.

But afterward the team discovered he had issues with cartilage in the knee. He required surgery to clean it up before he could play again. A simple procedure, most players typically come back from knee scopes within three weeks.

Despite a comeback attempt, he never made it off the rehab fields. By Week 15 he was officially placed on injured reserve with an injury that was worse than originally thought.

Microfracture surgeries have their post-operative success stories. But they've also ended careers. There's very little in between. It's that uncertainty about what to expect once an athlete completes rehab that creates worry, and juggling acts like one the Bengals currently have.

Burfict's patience will be tested this spring and summer as he slowly does more and more to strengthen his leg. It's a tedious rehab process, and if he tries to speed it up, it could lead to disastrous results when he officially steps back onto the field.

The hope is he'll be ready for training camp. But depending upon how well his body and mind have settled back, there is a chance that return could be delayed. That's why Lewis said the Bengals can't pencil Burfict in at weakside linebacker.

Some staff members, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and linebackers coach Matt Burke among them, have traveled to California to visit Burfict while the new dad goes through the early stages of rehab.

"It's a situation where he's got to really feel great with the people he's working with," Lewis said. "We've tried to do a great job of incorporating us and them. He knows the value he brings our team, so we wanted to make sure that everybody's been checking on him personally."

PHOENIX -- Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said last month that everyone will probably find out before April whether running back Ray Rice will get a second chance to play in the NFL.

With April quickly approaching, Rice has had no reported talks or visits with any teams. Defensive linemen Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald were signed this month after they faced domestic violence charges, but Rice is still searching for a job after being reinstated four months ago.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsRay Rice has several things going against him as a free-agent running back, and that's going beyond his domestic violence incident.

At the NFL owners meetings, two coaches with ties to Rice -- the Ravens' John Harbaugh and the Colts' Chuck Pagano -- both said they hope Rice gets a second chance. Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who was Rice's offensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013, said he believes some team will give Rice a second chance.

But no team has stepped up to do it. There have been 16 running backs who have signed deals in the first 15 days of free agency, including the Raiders signing Trent Richardson and his 3.3-yard per carry average.

What works against Rice is there are available free-agent backs such as Pierre Thomas and Stevan Ridley who don't carry the off-the-field baggage, and there are impact runners who can be drafted in the first four rounds. The biggest concerns about Rice as a player are his career-worst 3.1-yards per carry average in 2013, his age (28) and his wear and tear (fourth-most carries in the NFL from 2009 to 2013) at a position where teams are always looking to get younger.

The major hurdle, of course, is his domestic violence incident on Feb. 15, when he struck his then-fiancee unconscious in the elevator of an Atlantic City elevator.

"I think each team looks at their situation individually and looks at each player individually," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think that's why you see players get second chances. It's just a comfort level the club, the organization from the top down ends up with that particular player and that situation because as we know when you take these things on, the fire storm that can come with it. Everybody has to be on board. It reaches such a broad place of who it affects. It affects a lot."

One team that would make sense for Rice is the Lions. Detroit released running back Reggie Bush, and Caldwell has familiarity with Rice.

Asked if the Lions would be interested in Rice, Caldwell said Wednesday, "I don't foresee that, to be plain and simple. There has to be a need and a fit in all areas. At this point in time, he's not a fit for us."

Caldwell said he believes some team will sign Rice, and Harbaugh hopes that will be the case.

"I still support the Rice family, and Ray Rice as a friend and want to see what's best for him," he said. "Like anybody you've been close to, you want things to work out well for them. That's the way we feel about Janay and Ray."

Pagano, who knew Rice from his four seasons as a Ravens' assistant, said Rice deserves a second chance. The Colts, however, chose to running back Frank Gore, 31, instead of Rice this offseason.

"I hope and pray that Ray gets an opportunity, because I know there's still gas left in the tank, so to speak," Pagano told CBS Sports. "And if somebody gives him that opportunity, I know he'll make them proud, and I know he'll make good on that opportunity."

There are plenty of coaches saying Rice should get a second chance, but it's still unknown whether a team will actually give it to him.

PHOENIX -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday that no players were involved when the Cleveland Browns made their pitch to acquire quarterback Sam Bradford.

Which is the reason the Rams said no. To trade Bradford, the Rams had to get a quarterback in return.

Which means Johnny Manziel was never offered in the deal. Not that anyone ever thought he was. Just that it’s important to note the Browns didn’t offer Manziel along with a first-round pick.

Which means the Browns are counting on him to at least compete for the quarterback spot in 2015. Which the Browns reiterated all week at the league’s annual meetings. The non-offer on the Bradford deal buttresses the statements.

Fisher said the Browns made an offer well after the combine and a few days before the Rams acquired Nick Foles from the Eagles.

The Browns offered the 19th pick in the draft.

The Rams said no, and would not have accepted the 12th pick for the same reason — the trade did not leave the Rams with a viable option at quarterback.

“At that point, you still don’t have a veteran quarterback,” Fisher said. “Nick, for us, was a perfect fit. I had talked with Chip [Kelly] and he thinks Sam is a perfect fit so this was a good deal. For us, we get a younger quarterback that’s won a lot of games in this league, can make all the throws and is healthy. I know he’s had shoulder issues but everybody has.”

Fisher said there were numerous offers and numerous discussions, but none involved a player.

PHOENIX -- Competitive advantage will not be a vital factor in the league’s ruling about Ray Farmer's in-game text messaging last season.

“The violation of the rule and the integrity of the rule is not necessarily whether you got an advantage or not,” commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday. “It’s the fact that you broke the rule. That's a more general comment. We don't want people breaking the rules.

"There are 32 clubs who are going to be operating under the same rules.’'

Which means the context of the texts from the Cleveland Browns' general manager to an assistant coach isn’t as important as the fact they happened -- because they mean Farmer violated the league's ruling about electronic devices.

The league’s investigation continues. Goodell said it will be a focus the next couple of days.

A decision, though, probably will not come this week.

The Browns could be fined or lose a draft pick. The investigation is being led by Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Vice President of Football Operations.

It’s interesting that the situation has dragged on this long. Farmer admitted one month at the combine that he did text during games, and he admitted he was wrong to do so.

“It definitely gave me more pause and that pause in my mind was rooted in, ‘I know I did something wrong and I answered to that,’” Farmer said earlier in the week. “Again, at the end of the day, every trial I face or every circumstance that's not positive or whatever, it'll make me better.

“I saw this at a buddy's office. He had a saying on a little rock, like a little statue thing. He had a saying on there. It said that 'thunderstorms come in everybody's direction. Those that really get it learn to dance in the rain.’

"So that's one of the things I've kind of taken away from it. Sometimes you've got to learn to dance in the rain.”

Farmer said he has not been hampered by the thought of a potential sanction. He said the possibility of losing a draft pick has not interfered with his attempts or ability to trade one.

“I guess I could [make a trade],” Farmer said. “And then if I traded enough of [those picks], they wouldn't have [any] to take.”

Farmer was joking.

Goodell was not.

“Any violation of our rules,” Goodell said, “is something we take seriously.’'

PHOENIX -- Whether you want to call it the Ravens rule or the Patriots rule, no team will be able to employ the same tactic that the New England Patriots used in their divisional playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens two months ago.

The league passed a rule Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings aimed at the Patriots' eligible-ineligible receiver substitution scheme, and the Ravens should feel some measure of vindication. Now, an offensive player wearing the number of an eligible pass receiver who reports as ineligible must line up within the tackle box. If a player fails to notify the referee of a change in his status or the player with an eligible number reports as ineligible and lines up outside the tackle box, a 5-yard penalty for illegal substitution will be assessed.

Ravens officials didn't speak specifically about the rule proposal this week, but coach John Harbaugh voiced his objection to what he called a "substitution trick" by the Patriots after the playoff loss in January. Ravens president Dick Cass said the team voted in favor of the change because it was submitted by the NFL competition committee, which includes Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.

In the AFC divisional playoff game, the Patriots removed an offensive lineman and replaced him with a player who was wearing the number of an eligible receiver on three plays in the second possession of the second half. Ravens players were confused about which Patriots to match up with in coverage, and Harbaugh drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for running onto the field and screaming in objection.

"The league will look at that type of thing, and I'm sure that they'll make some adjustments and things like that," Harbaugh said in January.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady quipped after the game that "Maybe those guys ought to study the rule book and figure it out."

Now, the rule book has changed. Here is the newly minted Rule 5, Section 3, Article 1:

"Reporting Change of Position. An offensive player wearing the number of an ineligible pass receiver (50-79 and 90-99) is permitted to line up in the position of an eligible pass receiver (1-49 and 80-89), and an offensive player wearing the number of an eligible pass receiver is permitted to line up in the position of an ineligible pass receiver, provided that he immediately reports the change in his eligibility status to the Referee, who will inform the defensive team.

"He must participate in such eligible or ineligible position as long as he is continuously in the game, but prior to each play he must again report his status to the Referee, who will inform the defensive team. The game clock shall not be stopped, and the ball shall not be put in play until the Referee takes his normal position."

PHOENIX -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping for an extended stay on the West Coast this season.

Whether it will be granted by the NFL remains to be seen.

The Steelers petitioned the league to schedule games at San Diego and Seattle back to back so the team can stay out west and not have to make separate trips to the other side of the country in the regular season.

“I don’t have high hopes that this is going to happen, so let’s be realistic about it; but we’ll see,” Art Rooney II said Wednesday at the conclusion of the NFL owners meetings.

The Baltimore Ravens made the same request for their two West Coast games this season.

In other Steelers news, the team got a bump in the compensatory draft pick they received earlier this week from the NFL. The Steelers get an extra pick in the sixth round instead of the seventh based on gains and losses last year in free agency.

“They just said they miscommunicated,” Rooney said of why the league moved the Steelers’ compensatory pick to the sixth round.

Rooney, before leaving the Arizona Biltmore for his return to Pittsburgh, said he did not hear anything this week about when the NFL will inform the Steelers of running back Le’Veon Bell’s punishment for violating the personal conduct policy.

The same is true of the 2015 season opener, Rooney said.

The Steelers are strong candidates to play in the first game of the season at New England. The season opener is usually a home game for the defending Super Bowl champions and the Steelers are scheduled to visit the Patriots this season.

PHOENIX – There is a lot of uncertainty on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense as Kevin Colbert illustrated earlier this week.

The Steelers general manager said he sees as many as five spots open as far as starting jobs -- both cornerback positions, both outside linebacker positions and inside linebacker alongside Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons.

Two spots secure as any on defense are end, where Cameron Heyward has established himself as a cornerstone of the unit despite starting for only one full season and where Stephon Tuitt has a chance to really come into his own in his second season.

Tuitt, a second-round draft pick in 2014, took some time to adjust to the NFL and get comfortable in the Steelers' defense.

But he started the final four games of the regular-season after Brett Keisel went down with a triceps tear and showed flashes of why the Steelers thought they got a steal when the former Notre Dame standout slipped to the second round.

No play stood out -- and revealed Tuitt’s enormous potential – more than when the 6-foot-5, 303-pounder throttled Jamaal Charles from behind after the Kansas City Chiefs running back caught a screen pass.

Tuitt, who showed excellent pursuit on the play, forced a fumble that loomed large in the Steelers’ 20-12 win.

“I think his arrow was pointed up at the end of the season and from that standpoint it’s exciting,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He didn’t die on the vine the way some rookies are capable of dying. He’s a talented young guy. He was a third-year guy out of Notre Dame when we drafted him.If you look at our football team some of the most dynamic contributors have come to us under those circumstances -- Maurkice Pouncey, Le'Veon Bell, Lawrence Timmons and others. If that group is an indication of where he is capable of going then that’s exciting.”

Tomlin should be just as excited about Heyward, who doesn’t have Tuitt’s growth potential only because he has already established himself as one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.

Heyward led the Steelers with 21 quarterback pressures in 2014 and tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks. The 2011 first-round draft pick is carrying on the Steelers' legacy at defensive end, one he inherited from Aaron Smith and Keisel, his mentor.

“Cam Heyward is the core central leader to our defense and a good one,” Tomlin said. “He’s a good player. He’s got good football character. He’s hard-working. He’s a good communicator and he’s vocal. It’s been fun to watch him ascend over his years with us to that role. I look forward to him continuing to grow in that role.”

PHOENIX -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh knows one of the biggest challenges for his defense is replacing five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. He just believes the Ravens already have the players in place to fill that massive void in the middle of the defense.

The Ravens are banking on two 20-something linemen -- Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams -- to uphold the tradition of stopping the run that Ngata established for nearly the past decade.

[+] EnlargeHaloti Ngata
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Ravens shipped Haloti Ngata and a seventh-rounder to the Lions for picks in the fourth and fifth rounds of the 2015 draft.

"There’s no reason we can’t be a great defense and a great defensive front next year," Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings.

Harbaugh isn't simply being optimistic. He has watched the Ravens succeed without Ngata in the lineup.

Last season, the Ravens were statistically a better run defense with Ngata on the sideline. Their defense limited teams to 3.8 yards per carry with Ngata on the field and kept them to 3.4 yards per carry with him off the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

When Ngata was suspended for the month of December last year for violating the NFL's policy for performance-enhancing drugs, the Ravens went 3-1 with Jernigan in the starting lineup and allowed an average of 94.2 yards rushing per game (10th-fewest in the NFL during that span).

"I think Timmy Jernigan is a good, young player," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, he has a lot of work to do, and he acknowledges that, which is what I love about him. I have no doubts that he’s going to give it his best shot and he’s going to do well."

The Ravens wanted to keep Ngata because they realize they're a better team with him clogging up running lanes and hitting quarterbacks. The sides just couldn't agree on an extension to lower his salary-cap number, and the Ravens were forced to trade Ngata and a seventh-round pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for picks in the fourth and fifth rounds.

The last time the Ravens prepared for a season without Ngata was 2005. The Ravens lost double-digit games that season, and Ray Lewis vented this frustration about not having space-eating defensive tackles in front of him that would allow him to roam free.

Since Ngata fell to the Ravens in the first round of 2006, their defense ranked first in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (71) and second in fewest rushing yards per game (92.5). Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta acknowledged that he had a "sickening feeling" when the Ravens struck a deal with the Lions.

"He's an iconic player for the Baltimore Ravens. It's a difficult loss for us," Harbaugh said. "He's been a mainstay for us, as a player and a leader. It's going to be something that we're going to have to deal with and overcome."

PHOENIX -- Steve McLendon had the misfortune of following Casey Hampton, who made five Pro Bowls in 12 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and looked the part of nose tackle as much as any player ever did.

But McLendon, a battler who made the NFL as an undrafted free agent, has held his own since replacing Hampton in the middle of Steelers’ defense. The fifth-year veteran received a vote of confidence from coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday.

McLendon fought through a recurring shoulder in jury that cost him four games in 2014 to record 18 tackles and a sack. The 6-foot-4 McLendon, who played at around 330 pounds last season, also helped the Steelers finish sixth in the NFL in rushing defense (100.3 yards per game) in 2014.

“I was really pleased with his growth and development over the last 12 months, particularly during the season,” Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. “It was a difficult season for him because he faced some injury adversity, but I think that’s an opportunity for growth. I think he displayed that growth in terms of how he dealt with the discomfort associated with injuries and how he was able to push through and be what it is we needed him to be in the midst of those things.”

A couple of notes:

  • Dri Archer will not only get a chance to win back the kickoff returner job he lost last season, but the 2014 third-round draft pick might also get an opportunity to return punts with the Steelers possibly looking to ease the burden on All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. “I’m excited about where (punt returner) may go for us this year whether it’s Antonio Brown, whether it’s Dri Archer whether it’s a player to be named later,” Tomlin said.
  • Tomlin has been asked several times at the owners meetings about the early retirement of Jason Worilds and has applauded the former Steelers outside linebacker for following his heart. “I respect any man’s decision to choose to work in this business or not work in this business,” Tomlin said. “It’s a tough way to earn a living. And you have to be 100 percent committed to it, and if you are not then that is the appropriate decision. I champion that.
  • Tomlin has no imminent plans to add another coach to his staff. The Steelers seemingly have an opening for a defensive assistant after Joey Porter and Jerry Olsavsky were promoted to fill Keith Butler’s spot at linebackers coach -- they are splitting duties -- when Butler succeeded Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator. Tomlin said he might hire another defensive assistant, or not. “We are comfortable with the collection of men that we have working right now,” Tomlin said.

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