CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton dominated the Cincinnati Bengals' headlines this week when he told reporters at the start of voluntary team workouts that he believes he is the face of his franchise.

Most quarterbacks, he reasoned, are naturally the stars of their franchises because of the attention they receive. In what he calls a "quarterback-driven league," Dalton believes players at his position should be compensated as the superstars they are perceived to be.

In Dalton's mind, there isn't just a perception he is the face of the Bengals. It is a fact. Credit head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson for instilling that belief in him.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAndy Dalton set single-season Bengals records with 4,293 passing yards and 33 touchdowns in 2013.
"Everything that Marvin has said, Hue has said, and what everybody here has told me is that," Dalton said. "They've told everybody that. So I'm confident with that. I hope to spend a lot of my career here."

It's unclear how much more time Dalton will be spending in Cincinnati, but we know he will be around for the 2014 season. His contract negotiations are underway, with his representatives hoping to land him a long-term contract competitive with some of the game's $20-million-a-year passers. The Bengals aren't sure he's worth that much.

Dalton's rookie deal expires next March, and a look at the Bengals' 2014 schedule, released Wednesday, makes it clear he won't have long to prove himself as a franchise quarterback. If a new deal hasn't been struck by the start of the season, Dalton ought to take the first eight weeks of the Bengals' schedule as the ultimate challenge. He will be facing some of the game's best quarterbacks (and top earners, too). Beat them, and he'll prove he deserves the $18-$20 million per year that some salary-cap analysts think he might be worth.

It won't be easy for the Bengals to come out of their first seven games unscathed. The stretch includes both matchups against Joe Flacco and the Ravens, a night road game against New England (and Tom Brady), and games against young stars Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. So Dalton will have several opportunities in the first two months of the season to prove he belongs atop the quarterbacking food chain.

By the end of the season, Dalton also will have played Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers twice, and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. If he can beat two of the three, it will go a long way toward proving his status as a franchise player. Last season, Dalton had wins against Roethlisberger, Flacco and past Super Bowl champions Aaron Rodgers and Brady.

Of course, quarterbacks aren't the only ones playing in a game. Defenses must shut down the opposing quarterback and his playmakers. Special teams units must manage field position. Offensive lines have to block. Receivers have to catch passes. Running backs have to find daylight.

But in a "quarterback-driven league," it's the signal-callers who get most of the glory and all of the blame. That is just the way it works. It is particularly the way it works when said quarterback tosses a pair of interceptions and loses a fumble in the second half of a playoff game. (See: San Diego-Cincinnati, AFC wild-card game, Jan. 5, 2014)

In his quest to prove his status as the face of this franchise, Dalton will need to make it his mission to limit turnovers and refine his decision-making this season. It could be the difference in millions for him, assuming he doesn't have a second contract by the time it starts.

Contract numbers from ESPN Stats & Information show that Dalton makes less guaranteed money and less on his average annual salary than all of the quarterbacks he will be facing this fall. Of those, five have won Super Bowls and a sixth has advanced to a conference title game.


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PITTSBURGH -- A highly regarded pass-rusher and one of the top performers at the NFL scouting combine are among the players visiting the Steelers today.

Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, a projected second-round pick, and Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon are the Steelers’ latest pre-draft visitors.

Lawrence led the Mountain West last season in both sacks (10 1/2 ) and tackles for losses (20 ), and the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Lawrence as the 44th-best player in the draft and there is a possibility he could get taken late in the first round.

The Steelers have hosted a handful of outside linebacker prospects, including UCLA’s Anthony Barr, a projected first-round pick.

McKinnon is the second running back to visit the Steelers, and he is an intriguing prospect for several reasons. The 5-9, 209-pounder rushed for 3,899 career yards and he gained most of those as an option quarterback.

McKinnon, who led Georgia Southern to a 26-20 upset at Florida last season, played running back in the Senior Bowl and really turned heads at the combine two months ago.

He tested as well as anyone in Indianapolis, running the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds and notching 32 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press, tops among all running backs. Both speedy and shifty, McKinnon fits the profile of the kind of back the Steelers may be seeking to complement Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

McKinnon has been projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.

Teams are allowed to host 30 out of area prospects for visits prior to the draft. Sunday is the last day for pre-draft visits.
The Baltimore Ravens re-signed wide receiver LaQuan Williams on Thursday, a potential boost for the team's special teams.

Williams, an undrafted player out of Maryland, played 23 games for the Ravens in 2011 and 2012. He only totaled four catches, but he made his mark with nine tackles on special teams.

The Ravens placed Williams on injured reserve with a hamstring injury in the final week of the 2012 regular season. Williams was then released before the start of the 2013 regular season after suffering hamstring and shoulder injuries.

He signed with the New England Patriots in November 2013 but only lasted 10 days with the team.

The Ravens are set with their top four wide receivers this season: Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones. Williams would need to make contributions on special teams in order to make the Ravens as their No. 5 or No. 6 receiver.

Analyzing McShay mock: Bengals 

April, 24, 2014
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After winning the AFC North and claiming a third consecutive playoff berth last season, the Cincinnati Bengals earned themselves a low first-round pick in this year's draft. Two weeks from Thursday, they will select 24th.

They have needs all over the secondary, with cornerbacks and safeties likely high on their priority list. Outside linebackers might also be coveted, as could running backs, defensive ends, offensive linemen and quarterbacks.


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ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has linked a different player to the Baltimore Ravens in each of his previous four mock drafts.

In his first two, he gave them two playmakers: Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. McShay's third mock draft had Alabama's C.J. Mosley, the top-rated inside linebacker, going to the Ravens. In his fourth mock, Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin went to the Ravens.


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Analyzing McShay mock: Browns 

April, 24, 2014
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ESPN's Todd McShay makes the picks he thinks teams should select in his latest mock draftInsider. He's not predicting what will happen, but what he thinks should happen if he were the GM of 32 different NFL teams.

McShay has about the most sensible, logical and well thought out mock I've seen. He doesn't reach, but he does make picks based on the talent available, and the reality of the situation concerning the top quarterbacks. And the end result is a shock, and shockingly good for the Browns.


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Analyzing McShay mock: Steelers 

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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The Pittsburgh Steelers have the 15th overall pick of the NFL draft and it seems likely they will select a cornerback or a wide receiver in the first round.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay plays general manager for every team in his latest mock draft , pairing players with teams based on what he thinks are the best fits, not how he sees the first round unfolding in two weeks.


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Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBen Roethlisberger, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2004, has forever impacted the franchise.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers needed more than a little luck to end their long search for the rightful heir to Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback they had taken first overall in the 1970 NFL draft.

Ten years ago today -- and almost a quarter of a century after they selected Bradshaw by winning a coin toss to secure the top pick over the Chicago Bears -- the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick.

As with Bradshaw, the pick set the franchise on a glorious course.

Bradshaw struggled early in his career and was benched and booed by fans before winning four Super Bowls, but with Roethlisberger, the Steelers got a serious return on their quarterback investment earlier than anyone could have expected.



An injury to starter Tommy Maddox in the second game of the 2004 season thrust Roethlisberger into action. And the quarterback who had been considered more of a project than the two picked ahead of him (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) because he hadn't played against top competition at Miami (Ohio) responded by winning his first 14 starts.

The Steelers suffered a disappointing loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the 2004 AFC Championship Game, but they finally found their quarterback after going through their share of them following Bradshaw's retirement in 1984.

Roethlisberger led the Steelers to three Super Bowls from 2005 to 2010, winning two of them, and he showed a flair for extending plays after his pass protection had collapsed, as well as directing clutch fourth-quarter drives -- both the result of a competitive streak that is as long as one of the three rivers that converge in Pittsburgh.

He authored his signature comeback in Super Bowl XLIII when the Steelers trailed the upstart Arizona Cardinals by three points and were backed up at their 10-yard line with less than three minutes left in the game.

Roethlisberger needed eight plays and a little more than two minutes to lead the Steelers to a game-winning touchdown, capping the drive with a 6-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes.

The pass was vintage Roethlisberger: daring and something more likely seen in a backyard game, not the NFL's biggest stage. Roethlisberger unleashed the pass under pressure, throwing it into a crowd but only where his receiver had a chance to catch it.

That unlikely play, in retrospect, serves as something of a metaphor for Roethlisberger's Steelers career, because so much had to break just right for him to wear black and gold in the first place.

“We didn't expect that he would end up in Pittsburgh,” Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger's agent, said.

Indeed, 10 teams picked ahead of the Steelers in the 2004 draft, including the Browns, who would have been hailed for taking the Ohio native to lift the struggling franchise.

And Roethlisberger's camp didn't know to what extent he was on the Steelers' radar.

The team had met with Roethlisberger at the NFL scouting combine and also hosted him for a pre-draft visit, but they never worked him out. Tollner figured he would go to the Raiders at No. 2, the Cardinals at No. 3, the Giants at No. 4 or the Browns at No. 6.

If none of those teams drafted Roethlisberger, Tollner thought, Buffalo at No. 13 would be the probable landing spot for his client.

Meanwhile, another member of Roethlisberger's inner circle was convinced the Giants were going to draft him. Terry Hoeppner, his coach at Miami, had spoken extensively with Ernie Accorsi about Roethlisberger and had gotten a good vibe from the Giants' general manager.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/John Marshall MantelQB Ben Roethlisberger hasn't forgotten about all of the teams -- especially the Browns -- who bypassed him in the 2004 draft.
That is why when the Giants drafted Rivers -- they subsequently dealt him to the Chargers for Manning, who had been taken first overall -- Hoeppner fired a water bottle in disgust across the table where he was sitting with Roethlisberger and others at the draft in New York City.

The Redskins took safety Sean Taylor with the fifth pick, providing an opening for the Browns, who needed a quarterback after Tim Couch, the first overall selection in 1999, didn't pan out.

“[Roethlisberger] is a northwest Ohio kid, and played in-state at Miami of Ohio and here the Browns are, they've struggled at the quarterback position for a long time,” Tollner said. “Ben is sitting there and they elect to go with a tight end. It's something Ben's never forgotten and he never will.”

The Browns picking tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. proved to be one of the draft's pivotal points. But the Steelers also came close to passing over Roethlisberger after he lasted through the first 10 picks.

The team had zeroed in on Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews, but owner Dan Rooney deftly shifted the conversation to Roethlisberger before the Steelers made their pick.

Rooney had good reason to speak up.

The Steelers had built their dynasty in the 1970s -- and transformed an organization once synonymous with losing -- through shrewd drafting.

They had missed an opportunity near the end of Bradshaw's career when they passed on local legend Dan Marino in the 1983 draft and instead selected Texas Tech defensive tackle Gabe Rivera with the 21st pick.

The Dolphins pounced on Marino with the 27th selection, and his strong arm and quick-as-a-hiccup release allowed the Pitt product to become an early star in Miami and eventually a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

The Steelers, meanwhile, shuffled through enough quarterbacks in the post-Bradshaw era that seven different players led them in passing from 1983 to 2003.

Rooney fretted that overlooking Roethlisberger also might come back to haunt the Steelers.

“I couldn't bear the thought of passing on another great quarterback prospect,” Rooney wrote in his book "Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With The Pittsburgh Steelers and The NFL."

"So I steered the conversation around to Roethlisberger. After some more talk, we came to a consensus and picked Roethlisberger.”

Ten years later, Roethlisberger remains the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl -- he was only 23 when the Steelers beat the Seahawks in 2005 -- and joins Eli Manning and Brady as the only active quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl victories.

Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, already has broken many of Bradshaw's Steelers records and is five victories away from becoming the 13th quarterback in NFL history to win at least 100 regular-season games.

It hasn't all been smooth for Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

A motorcycle accident after his first Super Bowl victory left Roethlisberger seriously injured and may have contributed to his uneven play in 2006. And two sexual assault allegations made against him less than a year apart led to a four-game personal-conduct policy suspension by the NFL at the beginning of the 2010 season (Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime).

Roethlisberger since has rehabilitated his image, gotten married and started a family. He is considerably closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it, though he played every snap last season.

It's safe to say Roethlisberger is one of the best draft choices in Steelers' history -- and the most critical one to reconnecting the team that has won a record six Lombardi trophies with its triumphant past.

Oh, and yeah, Roethlisberger is 19-1 in his career against the Browns, the most notable and personal of the teams that passed on him 10 years ago.

“I think that Ben getting where he did in hindsight was the best thing that could have happened to him because he went to a strong organization but he went in a position that kept him feeling like an underdog,” Tollner said. “He entered the league a very respectable pick at No. 11 overall but very driven to prove that 10 teams made a very bad mistake in passing on him.”
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

Breakdown: Consecutive 8-8 seasons have not taken away from the Pittsburgh Steelers' broad appeal, at least to TV executives. The Steelers play five prime-time games -- that is the maximum teams are allowed unless granted a waiver by the NFL -- including two Monday night contests on ESPN. The Steelers host the Texans on Oct. 20. They play another Monday night game on ESPN a month later when they visit the Titans. Both of the Steelers’ games against the Ravens will be prime-time affairs, including Sept. 11 in Baltimore. The 8:25 p.m. game marks the Steelers’ only Thursday night game of the season. No stretch of the schedule looks particularly daunting, though the Steelers play four of their first six away from Heinz Field. Coach Mike Tomlin is probably pleased that the Steelers have 10 games scheduled for 1 p.m. and only one contest scheduled for the 4 p.m. ET slot. I’ve always gotten the sense that the players prefer early games or night ones since the latter provide a bigger stage. The schedule, in that sense, makes it a little easier on the coaches.

Complaint department: Yo, NFL, did I not make it clear that I prefer the bye week to come somewhere in the middle of the season and not right before Thanksgiving? The Steelers and Panthers are the last teams to get a bye as each is off in late November. That is not any better for beat-up players than it is for whiny beat writers who want to catch their breath. Early back-to-back night games on the road (Ravens and the Panthers) aren’t exactly a treat either, and couldn’t you have spaced out the Bengals games a little better? The Steelers visit Cincinnati on Dec. 7 and host their AFC North rival on Dec. 28, the final day of the regular season. Props for sandwiching two home games around Christmas.

Roads less traveled: The most favorable aspect of the Steelers’ schedule is it keeps them close to home even when they are on the road. The Steelers only play one game out of their time zone, and they are only an hour behind when they travel to Nashville, Tenn., for a Nov. 17 game against the Titans. Long-distance travel has not agreed with the Steelers under Tomlin. Since 2007, the Steelers are just 2-7 when playing outside of the Eastern and Central time zones. If minimal travel isn’t enough of a boost for the Steelers they only play two road games against teams that had winning records last season -- the Panthers and Bengals.

Strength of schedule: 23rd, .469 | Vegas over/under : 8.5

Steelers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 11, at Baltimore, 8:25 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Carolina, 8:30 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Monday, Oct. 20, Houston, 8:30 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Indianapolis, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Baltimore, 8:30 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 17, at Tennessee, 8:30 p.m.
Week 12: BYE
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Kansas City, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions



Breakdown: Getting off to a fast start will be important if the Baltimore Ravens want to take back the AFC North title. The Ravens play all three AFC North teams in the first three weeks of the season, including the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers at home. After Week 9 (Nov. 2), the Ravens will know where they stand in the division because they will have played five of their six divisional games. The only AFC North game remaining after that is the Dec. 28 season finale against the Cleveland Browns at home. It marks the first time the Ravens have finished the regular season at home since 2010.

The Ravens are scheduled to play only three games in prime time this season, which could be viewed as a slap in the face. It's the fewest nationally televised games for the Ravens since 2009. This could change because of flexible scheduling. But the Ravens had to expect this after failing to make the playoffs last season.

Complaint department: The brutal part of the Ravens schedule begins in October. The Ravens have a stretch in which they play on the road four times in five weeks. It begins Oct. 5 at Indianapolis, the Ravens' toughest out-of-division game in the first half of the season. The Ravens then play at Tampa Bay and home against Atlanta before traveling to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. This is what happens when there are three home games in the first month of the season. The Ravens can't be too happy with their bye either. It comes in Week 11, which means only the Steelers and Carolina Panthers have a later bye. It's the Ravens' latest bye since 2001. That just compounds a long opening haul for the Ravens.

Potential easy finish: If the Ravens have to make up ground, the schedule sets up favorably in the final month of the season. The Ravens finish up home against Jacksonville, at Houston and home against Cleveland. Those three teams combined to go 10-38 (.208) last season. If all three struggle again, it's not out of the question that the Ravens will see rookie quarterbacks in all three games. Getting the Browns in the final game is historically a luxury. Cleveland has lost its past four season finales, including the last two by a combined score of 44-17.

Strength of schedule: 28th, .461 | Vegas over/under : 8.5

Ravens Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 11, Pittsburgh, 8:25 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, at Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 24, at New Orleans, 8:30 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, San Diego, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

Breakdown: Fact: Taking 2013 win-loss records into consideration, the Cincinnati Bengals will be playing one of the NFL’s weaker schedules in 2014. What’s another fact? The league did the Bengals few favors when it assembled their schedule. Cincinnati’s upcoming season contains an early bye week, a potentially flexed road game in Week 5 and a bizarrely coordinated late-season stretch of three straight home contests followed by three-straight on the road.

After opening at Baltimore and then welcoming the Falcons to Paul Brown Stadium in Week 2, the Bengals host Tennessee a week later before taking off for the bye. Last season, their bye came in Week 12, giving the Bengals a chance to recuperate from nagging injuries before playing the last five games. They posted a 4-1 record following that late-season break.

The bye does come just ahead of arguably the toughest game on the schedule. On Oct. 5, Cincinnati travels to New England for a game that currently is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. on NBC. It falls within the NFL’s flex window, though, and could be changed ahead of the bye to an afternoon game.

Two division games against the Steelers pop up across the last four weeks of the schedule, possibly providing intrigue to what should be a tight AFC North race.

Complaint department: Aside from the early bye, the biggest gripe the Bengals ought to have pertains to the strange six-game stretch they have across Weeks 8-13. Instead of mixing up their home and road contests, the league has the Bengals hosting three straight games at home in Weeks 8-10 before traveling on the road for Weeks 11-13.

While team beat reporters might enjoy the warmth of New Orleans, Houston and Tampa in late November, the Bengals probably would have preferred those three teams make the trek to Cincinnati at that time of year. Coach Marvin Lewis believes cold-weather games are as much a part of the Bengals’ identity as anything. He probably would have rather played those latter three straight games at home if he could have.

Prime time times three: For the third consecutive year, the Bengals will be playing three games in primetime. Two of them -- versus Cleveland on Thursday, Nov. 6 and Denver on Monday, Dec. 22 -- will come inside their home stadium that’s nicknamed “The Jungle.” The other is the potentially flexed Oct. 5 Sunday night game at New England. The Bengals were undefeated at home last season. Having those two primetime games in Cincinnati could be big if only because of the team’s recent track record in Sunday, Monday and Thursday night games. Since 2009, the Bengals are 2-7 in primetime. They’re 1-5 in those games when played on the road.

Strength of schedule: 23rd, .469 | Vegas over/under : 9.5


Bengals Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Bye week
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at New England, 8:30 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Thursday, Nov. 6, Cleveland, 8:25 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 22, Denver, 8:30 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

Breakdown: A tough start and a tougher finish could make for a tough first season for coach Mike Pettine, as the NFL gave the Browns a schedule most coaches don't like. Included is a Week 4 bye, which means the Browns play 13 in a row to end the season, something no coach wants. That's tough for a team that's young and growing and could lack depth. The Browns open in Pittsburgh, then play New Orleans and Baltimore at home. The final stretch includes games against the Colts and Bengals at home, with road games at Carolina and Baltimore to end the season. Those four teams combined to go 42-22 last season.

Complaint department: An opener in Pittsburgh sounds exciting, and probably is. But to the Browns lately, trips to Pittsburgh have been like pouring iodine in an open wound. The past two years the Browns ended the season in Heinz Field, then fired their coach. The year before was the Colt McCoy concussion game on Thursday night. The Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003. Pettine boldly said there's no better way for a coach to start his career as Browns coach than in Pittsburgh, but in this case he's facing a monumental challenge right out of the gate.

In the middle: The first three games and last four are tough, but in the nine games between the Browns face only one team that had a winning record in 2013: Cincinnati. If the Browns are going to take any steps forward this season they have to survive the open and finish, and make some hay in the middle.

Strength of schedule: 26th, .465 | Vegas over/under : 6.5

Browns Regular-Season Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Oakland, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Thursday, Nov. 6, at Cincinnati, 8:25 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
The NFL releases its schedule Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. In the hours leading up to the announcement, here are some questions to ponder about the Baltimore Ravens' 2014 schedule:

What are the chances of the Ravens opening at home? Since the Orioles are out of town on the NFL's kickoff weekend (Sunday, Sept. 7, and Monday, Sept. 8), the schedule is open for the Ravens to start the season at home. By my estimation, the chances of this happening are high, especially after what occurred last season. In 2013, the Ravens became the first defending Super Bowl champions to open on the road since 2003.

Will the Ravens host the Pittsburgh Steelers in prime time? This would follow the NFL's trend. Since 2007, the Ravens and Steelers have hosted night games in two-year intervals. The Ravens played night games at Heinz Field in 2007 and 2008, as well as in 2011 and 2012. Likewise, the Ravens have had prime-time games against the Steelers in Baltimore in 2009 and 2010. So, with the Ravens and Steelers playing on Thanksgiving night last year, the odds say the Steelers are playing a nationally televised game at M&T Bank Stadium this year.

Are the Ravens expected to play on Thanksgiving again? Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants the Thanksgiving night game to become a tradition in Baltimore. The Ravens have hosted that game in two of the past three seasons. But owner Steve Bisciotti indicated other teams are interested in hosting this game, too. My guess is the Ravens will be enjoying a turkey dinner with their families that night.

Will the Ravens end the season in Cincinnati? This unofficial tradition has to end. The Ravens have played the regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium for the past three seasons. I understand the heightened drama that comes with closing the season against a division opponent, but let's mix it up a little bit. Since coach John Harbaugh took over as coach in 2008, the Ravens have finished the regular season at home only twice (2008 and 2010).

Here are the Ravens' home and away opponents for the 2014 season:

HOME: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.

AWAY: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.
PITTSBURGH -- Mel Kiper Jr. has the Steelers taking LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. with their first pick in his latest mock draft.

Dennard
But a different player stands out to the ESPN analyst as the best fit for the Steelers at No. 15 overall.

“I think the ideal pick if you’re the Steelers is Darqueze Dennard,” Kiper said of the Michigan State cornerback during a conference call on Wednesday. “He’s a Steeler. Rough, tough, aggressive football player, plays with a chip on his shoulder, very good in coverage, plays faster than he timed. Just a whale of a football player.”

So why doesn’t Kiper have the Steelers taking Dennard in his most recent mock draft? Easy. He has the Rams taking Dennard, the winner of the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013, two picks ahead of the Steelers.

Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Dennard are Kiper’s top-rated cornerbacks in the draft and his 14th- and 15th-best players overall, respectively. Gilbert has tremendous speed and has added value as a kickoff returner.

One concern Kiper has with Gilbert is whether he is a physical enough player to provide solid run support as well as get opposing receivers on the ground. Both are critical for cornerbacks in the Steelers’ defense.

“You’ve got to be able to tackle after the catch,” Kiper said. “That’s an underrated part of playing corner.”

That is also why he said Dennard would be the best pick for the Steelers if the 5-foot-11, 199-pounder is available at No. 15 and they want to address one of their most pressing needs.

“You look at that Steelers mentality, a Steelers kind of player, and I think it would be Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State,” Kiper said. “Pure football players [in the draft], he’d be on your top-10 list.”

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