Draft Needs: AFC North
Teams have now had a month of free agency to chase down veteran upgrades, replacements, and hole-fillers but their roster-twisting work is not done. Next on the horizon is the 2013 NFL draft and with it comes the yearly opportunity to land youthful talent that, ideally, will provide a long-term positive impact.
In the coming days, we’ll be taking a division-by-division look at the top draft needs as things stand today. Steve Palazzolo will also offer early- and late-round draft day options for each team as we go.
We’ve recently taken a spin through the AFC East. Our next stop is the AFC North:
For a team that won the Super Bowl in February, the Ravens quickly found themselves with plenty of needs early into the offseason such was the scale of their departures and cuts. That being said, they have filled most of those needs with smart signings and, as we approach the draft, don’t have as many areas of concern as they did just a few weeks ago. There’s still a few different ways they may look, with wide receiver, linebacker, and safety all possibilities, but at this stage they have no greater need than at left tackle.
A problem spot in Baltimore since Hall of Fame player Jonathan Ogden retired at the end of the 2007 season, it’s an area the Ravens have just never been able to truly fix. Jared Gaither looked to be the man to replace him and, when healthy and motivated, he was a Top-5 left tackle in his own right. However, his inability to stay on the field and questions about his character put paid to his stay in Baltimore. The team has tried Michael Oher there several times now, but you would hope they have finally realized that he just isn’t suited to protecting the blind side – oh the irony! The offensive line as a whole improved when Bryant McKinnie took over at the position for the playoffs last year, but McKinnie is merely a solid option himself and the team hasn’t looked overly eager to bring him back as of yet. That makes finding someone to man that spot their top priority at this stage.
Early Round Option: Menelik Watson, Florida State
A fast-riser in the draft process, Watson is relatively new to the game of football and he may be available when the Ravens pick at the end of the first round. Though he played right tackle in college, a move to the left could keep Oher in his comfort zone on the right.
Mid/Late Round Option: Xavier Nixon, Florida
A three-year starter in the SEC, Nixon had his ups and downs at Florida, but he’s a good athlete who could have a better NFL future than he did college career.
Although they weren’t the team from the division to win the Super Bowl in February, the Bengals have the best all-around roster in the AFC North. Superstars like defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Wide Receiver A.J. Green highlight the group, but they continue to be held back by the sub-par play of quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton may have put up solid numbers and led the Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances in his first two seasons, but right now it’s his inconsistent play that stops this team from contending for a championship. That being said, the team hasn’t shown much interest (publicly, at least) in looking for a replacement, so the next biggest need on the roster looks to be at linebacker.
Despite his poor play, both in coverage and against the run, they opted to bring back Rey Maualuga, though the expectations are that he will swap places with second-year man Vontaze Burfict taking his spot in the middle. Burfict is coming off a stellar rookie season where he surprised a lot of people to make himself a mainstay as the team’s weak side linebacker, but the hole still remains on the strong side. The team know this and have made inquiries to rectify it, kicking the tires on former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison in the past week. With that in mind, don’t be surprised if they go that way early in the draft.
Early Round Option: Arthur Brown, Kansas State
We always hear about the declining value of the linebacker position, but Brown’s ability to cover and play the run should make for good value when the Bengals pick at No. 21.
Mid/Late Round Option: Sean Porter, Texas A&M
After excelling as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 scheme in 2011, Porter showed his versatility by switching to a more traditional linebacker role last season. He could be a nice pick in the third-round range as a 4-3 weakside linebacker.
Like their Ohio neighbors, the Browns have improved their overall roster in recent times, adding playmakers like running back Trent Richardson and wide receiver Josh Gordon to their offense last year. They’ll only go as far as Brandon Weeden carries them, however, and if he doesn’t improve on his rookie season it could be another frustrating year for fans in Cleveland. Switching back to a 3-4 defense, they made former Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger their top priority in free agency, but are still looking for a cornerback opposite Joe Haden.
Though he isn’t quite in the same category as Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, Haden has shown himself to be a very good player and still has room to grow to become a top corner. Sheldon Brown’s departure across from Haden, however, leaves a gaping hole at the position. With Brown gone, the next man up on the depth chart would be Buster Skrine and, while he isn’t the worst third cornerback in the league, he hasn’t shown enough to warrant a starting role himself, with some particularly poor performances when he started in Haden’s and Brown’s absences throughout 2012.
Early Round Option: Dee Milliner, Alabama
Milliner sits atop most cornerback boards as we head towards the draft on the strength of his size and athleticism. Many experts have already pegged him as the favorite for the Browns at No. 6 overall.
Mid/Late Round Option: Terry Hawthorne, Illinios
There’s a chance that a team could fall in love with Hawthorne’s athleticism before the Browns pick in the third round at No. 68 overall, but the former highly-touted recruit had an uneven career at Illinois. If he’s available, the potential could be too good to pass up, especially if Cleveland goes elsewhere with its first pick.
In an offseason that has seen them struggle to get under (and stay under) the salary cap, the Pittsburgh Steelers head into the draft with plenty of areas of need. Already thin after the departure of Mike Wallace, they opted to match the offer sheet Emmanuel Sanders received from the New England Patriots, keeping their wide receiver depth chart from being plundered further. Regardless, they have shown the ability to find receivers later in the draft in recent years, so it’s more likely that they look to replace James Harrison as the man opposite Lamarr Woodley.
Though he was clearly past his best and not worth his current salary, Harrison is still a big enough loss in Pittsburgh. His play as a pass rusher and against the run was better than Woodley’s throughout their time together in Pittsburgh, but the way the Steelers have covered his absence in the past makes finding a new partner for Woodley all the more important. Though he has been a very good inside linebacker, Lawrence Timmons had his worst stretch of play in 2011 when he moved outside for four games, something the Steelers surely want to avoid again.
Early Round Option: Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Medical concerns stemming from his spinal stenosis and sub-par 40 times have Jones’ draft stock bouncing around, but his drop from potential Top-10 status could make for a steal for the Steelers at No. 17 overall. Jones showed an ability to get to the quarterback in college while proving adequate against the run despite his slight build.
Mid/Late Round Option: Trevardo Williams, UConn
If the Steelers wait to attack their pass rush situation, Williams could get the call between the third and fifth round. After employing Harrison for nine years, it’s unlikely the Steelers will shy away from his slight frame at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds (Harrison is listed at 6-foot, 240 pounds). Williams’ explosiveness will make for a nice pass rush prospect.