Projecting the NFL Draft: AFC North
By Andy Benoit
It was remarkable that Baltimore’s makeshift secondary survived so well in zone coverage down the stretch last season. That’s unlikely to happen twice. Depth at cornerback will be one of general manager Ozzie Newsome’s top priorities. Because Jimmy Smith (returning from a season-ending foot injury) is a breakout star and Lardarius Webb, another star, is back to full strength, Newsome doesn’t necessarily have to spend a high-round pick here. But he definitely wants to find someone to compete with Rashaan Melvin for nickel duties.
But first, Newsome should address safety. With 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam coming along shakily, and with stopgaps Darian Stewart and Jeromy Miles unsigned, depth is sorely needed. Most likely, Newsome will seek someone to start alongside talented 2014 pickup Will Hill (who, given his off-field transgressions with substance abuse and failure to pay child support, can’t be counted on as a cornerstone).
With offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and his zone-action system gone after one year, it’s not vital to re-sign running back Justin Forsett or tight end Owen Daniels. Both can work in new coordinator Marc Trestman’s scheme, but the roles available for them may not justify their price tag (especially Forsett, who could command $5-6 million a year on the open market after rushing for a career-high 1,266 yards). Of greater priority is wide receiver. Torrey Smith has the vertical prowess for Trestman’s system, but it’s easy to see another team overpaying him in free agency. At the No. 1 receiver spot, Steve Smith is still a star but figures to have no more than two years left.
By Andy Staples
If the Ravens want to give Marc Trestman a receiver to work with, they should have some options at pick No. 26. Dorial Green-Beckham may be available there, but he was kicked off the team at Missouri following a domestic violence accusation and hasn’t played in a game since the 2013 season. It will be very interesting to see how teams view Green-Beckham, because absent his troubling legal issues, he’d be a top-tier pick. Another possibility is Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong, a 6-3, 215-pounder who rules on 50/50 balls and routinely turned in highlight-reel performances in Tempe.
If the Ravens are looking for a potential replacement for Matt Elam at strong safety, they may find one in Samford’s Jaquiski Tartt in the second or third round. Tartt is big (6-1, 220), and he can hammer receivers coming across the middle. But if he shows during the pre-draft process that he has the speed to stick with slot receivers, he’ll be in in high demand.
Later in the draft, the Ravens can add depth at cornerback with Ohio State’s Doran Grant. Another possibility at that position is Auburn’s Nick Marshall. The 6-2 Marshall played quarterback for the Tigers the past two seasons, but he saw significant snaps at cornerback as a true freshman at Georgia, and his athleticism suggests he’ll return to form quickly at corner. If Marshall pans out, he’ll offer huge value to some team later in the draft.
By Andy Benoit
Andy Dalton wasn’t the reason Cincinnati went one-and-done for the fourth-straight postseason; injuries at wide receiver and an impotent four-man pass rush were. Many are calling for the Bengals to explore replacing Dalton, but that would require abandoning a formula that player personnel director Duke Tobin and head coach Marvin Lewis have committed strongly to: investing in weapons around a mid-level quarterback rather than investing in a big-time quarterback and hoping to survive with mostly mid-level weapons around him. Maybe it’s a flawed model. But four consecutive playoff appearances suggest it’s not that flawed. At the very least, it’s worth trying one more year. (Besides, you don’t just find a big-time quarterback between your couch cushions.)
The Bengals already have the necessary weapons around Dalton. The wide receiver position (when healthy) is loaded. The backfield boasts a young, dynamic one-two punch in second-rounders Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Recent first-round pick Tyler Eifert has the tight end position locked down. With Cincy unwilling to pay even one cent over low-market value for free agent Jermaine Gresham, a second tight end will be needed (though there’s plenty to like about last year’s undrafted rookie H-back Ryan Hewitt, the second coming of Jim Kleinsasser).
Assuming guard Clint Boling is re-signed, the Bengals can use their draft picks and $30 million-plus in cap space on defense. An edge-rusher is needed, and so is a mid-round gap-shooting defensive tackle to push Geno Atkins, who was underwhelming in his return from an ACL injury last year. The staple zone blitz concepts in coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme demand athletic linebackers; don’t be surprised if the Bengals tab two here, given that Rey Maualuga is a free agent this season, Vincent Rey is a free agent next season and Vontaze Burfict battled knee and concussion problems throughout last season.
By Andy Staples
There aren’t a ton of blazing-off-the-edge pass rushers in this draft, and the best could be gone by the time the Bengals choose at No. 21. So let’s give the Bengals LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter at No. 53. Hunter is a 6-6, 240-pounder who looks like he was sculpted from marble. He’s quick and strong at the point of attack, but he didn’t put up huge numbers in college. This could be because LSU didn’t have the defensive line depth and talent that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Baton Rouge. Put Hunter around players of similar talent, and he might look like a different player.
That first-round pick could be used on an athletic outside linebacker who could also help defensive coordinator Paul Guenther dial up more pressure. If Washington’s Shaq Thompson is available, the Bengals should snap him up. But he’ll probably be gone, so Virginia’s Eli Harold or Utah’s Nate Orchard could give the Bengals what they need here.
In the middle rounds, the Bengals can take a Geno Atkins-type to push or spell the actual Geno Atkins. Clemson’s Grady Jarrett (6-1, 288) might be available in the third round. Though Vic Beasley (6-2, 235) got much of the credit for Clemson’s ferocious defensive line play, it was Jarrett in the middle driving offensive linemen crazy.
If the Bengals want a second tight end to pair with Tyler Eifert, Florida State’s Nick O’Leary should be available in the middle rounds. O’Leary loves contact and is happy to block as a closed tight end, but he was one of Winston’s favorite targets in Tallahassee.
By Andy Benoit
Even before Johnny Manziel checked into rehab, some in NFL circles were sensing that he wasn’t prominent in the team’s 2015 plans. Only time will tell. But the Browns do need a new quarterback, whether owner Jimmy Haslam and GM Ray Farmer know it or not. A mentally and physically healthy Manziel is still ill-equipped for the NFL. Re-signing Brian Hoyer might make the most sense, though Hoyer’s likely leery of the organization’s dysfunction.
With Josh Gordon suspended yet again, wide receiver becomes the next most obvious need. Last year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan manufactured aerial productivity through schemes. But Shanahan is gone now, and new coordinator John DeFilippo can’t count on Cleveland catching that sort of lightning in a bottle twice. Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin and Taylor Gabriel are all diminutive catch-and-run types, best suited for the slot. At least two bigger-bodied perimeter targets are needed. A tight end may also be needed since rumor has it that free agent Jordan Cameron is also tired of the dysfunction.
Dysfunction is also a great word to describe the Browns run defense, which, despite solid front seven personnel and new alley-running safety Donte Whitner, ranked 32nd last year. Letting overrated defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin walk in free agency and finding a meatier clogger to serve alongside (or spell) Phil Taylor would change things. On the back end, the Browns may be wise to draft a man cover corner in the middle rounds rather than give free agent Buster Skrine a big second contract. The 2014 selection of Justin Gilbert was supposed to settle this situation, but so far, the early first-rounder has been a major disappointment.
By Andy Staples
The Browns probably aren’t going to have a shot at Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, but they could pick up a quarterback with question marks and a high ceiling—either UCLA’s Brett Hundley or Baylor’s Bryce Petty—at No. 43. At the very least, either one of those players would have the work ethic to either push Johnny Manziel or beat him out for the job. Since the Browns got another first-rounder from last year’s trade that allowed the Bills to land Sammy Watkins, that leaves two first-rounders to fill Cleveland’s other needs.
At No. 12, the Browns might be able to grab West Virginia receiver Kevin White. White is a 6-3, 210-pounder who attacks the ball in the air and breaks tackles after the catch. College defenses knew he was getting the ball and still couldn’t stop him. Unfortunately for the Browns, if White runs a blazing 40-yard dash at the combine, he may not be available here. There is a chance former Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham could work his way up to this point because no other receiver the draft has his blend of size (6-5, 225) and athleticism. He’s going to jump out of the stadium at the combine, but we’ve already addressed the concerns about drafting him. At No. 19, Cleveland might have a shot at Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown. Brown is a flexible and nimble 320-pounder who can handle double-teams against the run and get penetration in pass rushing situations.
By Andy Benoit
The only significant item on offense is Ben Roethlisberger’s contract, which expires after 2015. That’s a tough deal to figure. It’s always been assumed that Roethlisberger’s bruising style would lead to an early decline. Yet at nearly 33 years old, he’s coming off the best season of his career. Do the Steelers interpret this as a harbinger for his mid-to-late 30s? Or do they consider it an aberration? Re-signing Roethlisberger long-term now could be a means of lowering his $18.4 million cap number, which the cap-strapped Steelers desperately need.
Aside from finding a developmental tight end to initially back up (and eventually replace) Heath Miller, GM Kevin Colbert can use his picks exclusively on rebuilding a defense that’s been caught by old age. Cornerback is a big need; Ike Taylor won’t be re-signed, Brice McCain might not, and 26-year-old Cortez Allen is coming off a train-wreck season in which he got benched before getting hurt. The Steelers have always believed that their matchup zone system requires only mid-round-level corners; with longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler replacing Dick LeBeau at coordinator, the system won’t change, and therefore neither will Colbert’s approach.
So before drafting a corner or two, Colbert can look for an outside linebacker to replace Jason Worilds (not worth re-signing) and soon-to-be 37-year-old James Harrison (who won’t be brought back until the end of August, if at all). A versatile two-gap defensive lineman also could be a priority, though unless there’s an absolute steal early in the draft, expect this to be addressed after outside ’backer.
Lastly, many are calling for the release of Troy Polamalu, who clearly slowed down late in 2014. Third-year pro Shamarko Thomas, a devastating but undersized hitter, is the hopeful replacement, but with Will Allen a free agent, depth must be replenished.
By Andy Staples
If Clemson’s Vic Beasley is hanging around at No. 21, he could provide a pass-rushing outside linebacker that we can assume is still critical in Pittsburgh since the Steelers hired from within (Keith Butler) to replace Dick LeBeau. Beasley has some question marks against the run because of his size, but his explosiveness is undeniable.
The two-gap defensive tackles are few and far between, but aren’t they always? Depending on how much Iowa’s Carl Davis (6-5, 321) rises, he might be the pick at No. 21. He probably isn’t going to be there at No. 56, but outside linebackers such as Utah’s Nate Orchard or Washington’s Hauoli Kikaha might be.
If the Steelers want cornerback depth later in the draft, they also should consider Auburn’s Marshall. I’m going to keep banging this drum, because Marshall could be an absolute steal.