AFC North mailbag: Andre Smith contract talks

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Let's see what's in the mailbag this week.

Christopher from Oakland writes: James, after two episodes of "Hard Knocks," a lot of Cincinnati Bengal fans are getting the feeling that Katie Blackburn is botching the negotiations with Andre Smith's agent. The sixth pick gets less than the fifth and more than the seventh. That's how the slotting system works. What is it about this concept that the Brown family doesn't understand?

James Walker: The Bengals are not your typical NFL franchise, Christopher. In my experience covering the league it's pretty obvious that Cincinnati rarely, if ever, overspends for a player. In this case, No. 7 pick Darrius Heyward-Bey got a great deal for his slot and altered the market, which was the worst thing that could've happen for Smith and the Bengals. Now Cincinnati either has to overcompensate because of Heyward-Bey's deal, or Smith's reps will look awful if the No. 7 pick is paid more than the No. 6 pick. That's why you have this current standoff. Personally, my suggestion would be to give Smith more than the No. 7 pick, as slotted, but have much of it in performance-based incentives where Smith would have to earn the big money on the playing field.

Dustin from Pittsburgh writes: James, what do you think the odds are that the Steelers keep six running backs -- Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Carey Davis, Isaac Redman, and Frank Summers?

James Walker: That's going to be tough, Dustin. My hunch is five players from this group make the team, unless a sixth becomes really important to special teams. I would say at this point Redman is a near certainty to at least make the practice squad, but you always run the risk of losing him on a waiver claim. Keeping Redman on the 53-man roster likely would require a surprise cut of someone else in this group.

Ryan from Green, Ohio, writes: James, Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald have shown flashes of brilliance and flashes of embarrassment. How do you think they will hold up in 2009?

James Walker: Both decent, young players, the Browns asked a little too much of Wright and McDonald last year and gave them roles too large to handle. For instance, Wright would be a great No. 2 cornerback if there was a shutdown guy on the opposite side. McDonald also would be very strong in the slot as the nickel cornerback, which is where he excelled as a rookie. But having Wright as the shutdown guy and McDonald in the starting lineup didn't work well last year. The Browns also had no pass rush and opponents picked on their inexperience. The best thing new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can do for this pair is to give them a pass rush.

Dave from Williamsburg, Va., wants to know if the recently cut Lorenzo Neal is back on the radar of the Baltimore Ravens.

James Walker: I spent the past few days in Baltimore and didn't get that sense, Dave. Neal was available all offseason and the Ravens didn't pursue him. But if an injury occurred in the backfield this summer, I would assume he could be on the Ravens' short list.