Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
30 May 2008
by Stuart Fraser
When a team's first pick is spent on a quarterback, much of the rest of the draft gets subsumed into that pick -- at least in the minds of the national media. So by now Ravens fans know almost everything about Delaware's Joe Flacco excepting how good an NFL quarterback he will be. It's easy to say that the Ravens have a bad record in drafting quarterbacks, and that Flacco is another Kyle Boller, but it's also lazy. Boller does not comprise a bad record all by himself. Baltimore also drafted Derek Anderson and Chris Redman, and the jury is still out on Troy Smith, so it isn't as if their scouts are completely unable to find NFL-quality passers. Flacco impressed the coaches at minicamp, but have you ever heard a team's coaching staff not rave about their first-round pick after minicamp?
The remainder of Baltimore's ten picks received less fanfare, but some are more likely to get playing time than a quarterback who is widely regarded as too raw to start straight away (though they said that about Ben Roethlisberger, too). Of course, if we're looking at being NFL-ready, then cornerback Fabian Washington, this year's winner of the annual "get out of Oakland for a fourth-round pick" lottery, is probably at the front of the queue. The Ravens badly needed another corner, and while Washington isn't Nmandi Asomugha, he will probably be better than Samari Rolle. Ray Rice is typical of the sort of back who was a star in college but isn't quite the right shape for the NFL -- but 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds gives him a similar build to Maurice Jones-Drew, and the Ravens are probably thinking of a similar committee role for him.
Looking at the second-day picks, it seems that John Harbaugh's special teams background began to make itself felt. Tavares Gooden, Tom Zbikowski, Marcus Smith, and Haruki Nakamura are all either already-accomplished special teams players (Smith had 29 tackles during his New Mexico career) or the sort of tough, athletic playmakers who should be right at home chasing down kicks. Gooden is raw, but had an excellent senior year playing middle linebacker in Miami and the Ravens may see him as someone who can develop into the successor to Ray Lewis. Oneil Cousins is a roundabout sort of replacement for center Mike Flynn; regardless of whether guard Jason Brown or utility interior lineman Chris Chester is the new snapper, everybody on the guard depth chart shuffles up one and Cousins slips in at the bottom. The Ravens will be hoping their line suffers fewer injuries than it did last year, but if not, Cousins (and fourth-round pick David Hale, a developmental prospect who has the right frame to play tackle but lacks experience) could see some action.
The two wide receivers the Ravens picked have little in common. Smith runs good routes, has the size and strength to go across the middle, and was productive in college, but his ability to get separation is questioned and it's a long way up to the NFL from the Mountain West Conference. Justin Harper is a size/speed prospect whose work ethic, reliability, route-running and general ability to play receiver are questionable.
Allen Patrick succeeded Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma. He will not succeed Adrian Peterson as Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Despite the draft-day trade for Washington, cornerback is still a worry. Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister are both over 30 and struggled with injuries last year, and Rolle has been declining the past two seasons even when healthy. Corey Ivy is next on the Ravens' depth chart and he had a torrid season (and, at 30, isn't going to get any better or last much longer). Washington himself is far from a sure solution, given that he allowed more than nine yards per pass last year (teammate Nmandi Asomuagh allowed fewer than six), but cornerbacks often take a step forward going into their fourth season (and another one when not having to play with Oakland's 24th-ranked pass rush). Baltimore's tight ends are dropping like ninepins during OTAs (Quinn Sypniewski is gone for the season, Daniel Wilcox is still recovering from toe surgery, Todd Heap missed practices at minicamp, and free agents Lee Vickers and Scott Kuhn have hand injuries), so the Ravens may want to bring in a fresh batch relatively soon. Nothing else is glaring. How the offensive line will shake out (Jonathan Ogden still hasn't officially retired, but he's not attending workouts and nobody really expects him back) is a question, but Baltimore doesn't really need any more bodies to answer it.
The Ravens signed twelve undrafted free agents. The ones with the best shot at the roster are probably tight end Scott Kuhn (with Sypniewski down, only Lee Vickers stands between Kuhn and the third tight end spot; the Ravens actually have multiple undrafted tight ends on their roster, but Kuhn has the early lead) and wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright, who was regarded as an underachiever in college but has the physical tools to play receiver. Linebacker Jameel McClain and center Isiah Wiggins both might make the roster, but they're looking to break into strong position groups. With Baltimore having had so many draft picks (and having drafted well in previous years, 5-11 record notwithstanding), it'll be a surprise should any undrafted free agent make the roster, and doubly so if they're not a tight end.
Cleveland's decision to trade away the top of its draft for a pair of veteran defensive tackles (and Brady Quinn) was discussed to death in the days leading up to the draft. If the Browns hadn't made their two predraft trades and instead drafted the top defensive tackles available in those slots, they'd have ended up with Auburn's Pat Sims and Florida State's Andre Fluellen (as well as still having Leigh Bodden). It's highly unlikely that Sims and Fluellen will have more impact this year than Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams, but then they wouldn't have been eating up as much of Cleveland's salary cap either, and they have the potential for longer careers. Time will tell.
The five picks Cleveland did have were in part acquired by trading away the Browns' third- and fifth-round picks in the 2009 draft. GM Phil Savage defended these trades by noting the Browns had been able to scout the lower rounds of the draft more thoroughly than usual (thereby also winning "silver lining" awards across the country), but he must be cautious. Long-suffering Browns supporters want the team to win now, but Cleveland have a young core and no real need to rush things. Savage needs to strike a balance between keeping the crowd happy and not overly frontloading the roster. To do that in the long term, he's going to need to kick the habit of trading next year's picks to NFC East teams, but things haven't gotten out of hand yet.
Moving back onto picks that were exercised, the Browns did a reasonable job of providing reinforcements for a defense that could do with the help. Beau Bell has experience playing at both inside and outside linebacker at UNLV, which can only be good for Cleveland's depth. Early reports from OTAs had him behind Andra Davis on the inside. Martin Rucker has good athletic measurables and a solid record of college production, holding Missouri's all-time record for receptions. Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer said "The Browns better be able to teach tight end Martin Rucker to block" after watching his performance in early OTAs -- but then if he'd been a complete player he'd have gone higher than pick 111.
Ahtyba Rubin (6-foot-3, 315) has a similar build to Corey Williams (6-foot-4, 313). Williams has been lining up at (3-4) end in practices, but the book on Rubin is that he lacks pass-rushing skills and is mostly a straight-ahead run stuffer, so the Browns may be thinking of him more as a backup to Shaun Rogers at nose tackle. Paul Hubbard is more athlete than receiver, having been a champion long- and triple-jumper at Wisconsin but only notching 21 starts and 53 receptions. Alex Hall is a college end making the transition to 3-4 outside linebacker. If that weren't enough, he's also making the jump from Division II St. Augustine to the NFL. It's unlikely, therefore, we'll see anything much from him this year.
Cleveland's most pressing problem is at cornerback. The Leigh Bodden trade left Eric Wright and Daven Holly as starters, but Holly suffered a severe knee injury during practice and has been placed on injured reserve. That left Brandon McDonald as the other starting corner. We like McDonald here at FO based on his 2007 performance, which put him in the top 10 corners (amongst those with 20 or more targets) in both success rate and average yards per pass, but this fast a promotion is a pretty big risk. The Browns have signed Terry Cousin to help cover, but he's more a depth signing and a possible nickelback. With both safeties also young, Cleveland's secondary is very lacking in experience, and given the quarterbacks the Browns will be facing this year -- both Mannings, Romo, McNabb, Garrard, and Palmer and Roethlisberger twice -- that's not a good thing.
Questions also persist about Browns linebackers not named Kamerion Wimbley, but they are lesser ones -- and if Cleveland's revamped defensive line can keep blockers away from them, we may discover they were better than previously thought.
Aside from the aforementioned veteran Cousins, the Browns have been busy with undrafted free agents (as one might expect from a team that only had five draft picks). Cleveland signed 15 undrafted free agents and brought a total of 54 players to rookie minicamp as tryouts, later signing seven of them (waiving six of the previous UDFAs and former practice squad running back Kory Chapman). Defensive back Mil'von James is amongst those with the best chance to make the roster -- certainly his former UNLV teammate Eric Wright thinks so, though how much college solidarity is behind Wright's comments is anybody's guess. Other players gunning for a roster spot (again, needs dictate that all of the players with a good chance are defensive backs) include former Lions practice squadder A.J. Davis, who has also impressed onlookers.
Like Baltimore, the Bengals exercised ten picks in this year's draft. As in every year since 2005, Cincinnati's first pick went on a defender, in this case USC linebacker Keith Rivers. Rivers is a sure tackler and great in pass coverage, to the extent that USC used him at safety in some packages. In Bengals OTAs, Rivers has been practicing as the starting weakside linebacker. Hopefully he'll have better luck than Cincinnati's previous first-round linebacker, David Pollack, who retired after suffering a horrific neck injury.
Subsequent to the Rivers pick the Bengals went a bit pass-offense happy, selecting three receivers and a receiving tight end with four of their nine remaining picks. Jerome Simpson in the second round raised eyebrows. Draftnik consensus was that Simpson was a second-day pick, but the Bengals have an excellent track record when it comes to evaluating receiver talent -- almost the entire Cincinnati wideout corps was acquired this way. Simpson is fast, has big hands and good leaping ability. He dominated at Coastal Carolina, setting new conference career and season records for yardage and the season record for touchdowns. It is, of course, a long way from the Big South to the big time, but Simpson looks like he has the tools to follow the Bengals' last second-round receiver, Chad Johnson.
Andre Caldwell is the latest in a long line of Florida receivers who put up good statistics in college. Most of those have been disappointments in the pros. Caldwell has the size and speed to be a productive receiver, though that has also been true of most of the other Florida underachievers. The Florida "pedigree," if it can be called that, probably dropped Caldwell's draft status some, so he may have been good value at the bottom of the third.
The third receiver the Bengals took, Mario Urrutia, should have stayed another year at Louisville. He's tall and flashed big-play and red zone ability at Louisville, but lacks experience especially after losing much of this season to injury. Like most receivers of his height (6-foot-6), he sometimes struggles to get separation. Urrutia is a likely practice squad candidate. Tight end Matt Sherry has good speed and hands, but isn't much of a blocker at the line of scrimmage. The Bengals don't really have a legitimate receiving threat at this position -- the closest they come is Ben Utecht -- so they'll be happy if Sherry can develop into a reliable receiver. Will he? Probably not. Scouts note that Sherry doesn't run great routes and question his toughness, which isn't a great thing for a player expected to go across the middle more or less constantly.
Defensively, Pat Sims fits alongside Antwan Odom to give Cincinnati half a new defensive line; it's likely he'll play at least part of the time, since the Bengals' line is in dire need of change. Sims is a dangerous pass-rusher and a dominating physical presence, mentioned alongside Glenn Dorsey and Sedrick Ellis in terms of potential. But he's erratic and prone to mental lapses, and prior to his final season in college he was not terribly productive. In the right environment this would not be as much of concern, but this is the Bengals we're talking about.
The other defensive tackle picked, Jason Shirley, only adds to the litany of Bengals of questionable character. He's a big guy who could really help Cincinnati's porous run defense, but the rap sheet he ran up in 2007 rivalled Chris Henry at his prolific worst.
Angelo Craig played both end and linebacker for the Bearcats, but he'll be a linebacker for the Bengals -- or, more likely, for their practice squad, given that a player whose scouting report says "struggles ... when playing in space due to inconsistent balance and chance of direction" is probably not likely to contribute much on special teams. Corey Lynch, on the other hand, is a future special teams ace, as Michigan fans probably didn't need reminding. He might also get a crack at playing some safety in the Bengals' dime package. Anthony Collins is a project pick: The Bengals have all the offensive tackles they need right now, and Collins needs some seasoning before he's ready to compete in the NFL. We'll find out if he was worth it in a couple of years, or maybe sooner if Cincinnati can't come to an agreement with franchise player Stacy Andrews.
It's difficult to accurately identify where the Bengals' remaining needs are because the team is so much in flux. There are definite question marks at defensive tackle, where new draftees Sims and Shirley (assuming, that is, the jury trial currently ongoing in Fresno finds in his favour) both have a shot at starting on opening day. The safety position, where the continual decline of Dexter Jackson leaves the Bengals with Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe and not much else, is also questionable. With cornerbacks Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph also young, the secondary lacks veteran leadership. Nobody really knows what's going on at running back, where Rudi Johnson, Kenny Watson, Kenny Irons, Chris Perry and DeDe Dorsey are all pressing their claims, but the solution probably isn't adding anyone else (especially not you, Mr. Alexander). Center Eric Ghiaciuc battled injuries in 2007 and didn't have the best of years even when healthy, but the Bengals don't seem terribly worried.
Cincinnati signed a total of 13 undrafted free agents, including two running backs (James Johnson may have a chance merely because of his surname, which seems to be an important issue for the Bengals) and three more wide receivers, making both of those positions somewhat overcrowded. Safety Simon Castille has special teams experience which could give him an edge in making the roster. Linebacker Anthony Hoke is undersized for the NFL, but his speed off the as edge as a pass rusher and willingness on special teams may help him (and this description may remind Steelers fans of James Harrison, who is the same height and just 4 pounds heavier, though Hoke seems to lack Harrison's mean streak). Fullback Tyler Whaley may well get a long look as he offers more versatility than Jeremi Johnson.
Pittsburgh's draft seems to have been a study in "best player available." The Steelers came in needing, above all, interior offensive line help. Offensive tackle was only slightly better, their defensive line depth was questionable and while they had two excellent safeties, there wasn't much behind either of them. Seven picks later, the Steelers had drafted one safety, one tackle, no interior offensive linemen and no defensive linemen at all. To be fair, all of Pittsburgh's picks are counters to an identifiable weakness in the Steelers' roster, just not any of the major ones that most fans were expecting them to address. The run on offensive linemen in Round One shifted tackles up draft boards the league over, and it might well be that until Tony Hills in the fourth round, Pittsburgh didn't think reinforcements for the line were good value. Hills almost certainly is. He would have gone much earlier had he not broken a leg in the penultimate game of his final season at Texas, but Hills came back from a knee injury that left him barely able to walk to start 24 games at left tackle for the Longhorns, so a broken fibula isn't likely to hold him back for long. He's thought of as a good position blocker who sustains his blocks well -- which, given how long Roethlisberger likes to think over his passes, is probably a good thing.
Rashard Mendenhall is Pittsburgh's answer to the inconsistency of their running game. In Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport, the Steelers had two good change-of-pace backs but no reliable workhorse -- and attempts to use Parker in that role last year were far from successful. Mendenhall, compared to Edgerrin James by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, can help with that. In turn, that will help with pass protection, by keeping Pittsburgh out of the sort of third-and-long situations where opposing defensive ends can pin their ears back and go to town on Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh's depth at linebacker is somewhat questionable. Clark Haggans has left for Arizona (do Steelers sign anywhere else these days?), meaning that the players behind starting outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are largely unproven. Bruce Davis, a classic 4-3 end to 3-4 linebacker conversion project, will probably slip in to the rotation as a rush linebacker on obvious passing downs to give the regulars a rest and gain some experience. Iowa's Mike Humpal, a more conventional linebacker noted as a solid open-field tackler who takes good angles, will make an excellent special teams player (something the Steelers have need of) as well as providing depth on the inside. Ryan Mundy will also have to earn his stripes as a special teamer, but his work ethic and positional sense will appeal to a team often burned by Anthony Smith's desire to make a name for himself.
The selection of Dennis Dixon had Pittsburgh fans dusting off old memories of Kordell Stewart as "Slash," but the Steelers insist Dixon has been picked as a quarterback and the team has no plans to convert him to receiver -- though they didn't rule out the occasional gadget play. The 32-year-old Charlie Batch didn't look great in Week 17 against Baltimore, and Pittsburgh's approach to pass protection makes mobility a desirable trait in a quarterback, so Dixon may have a future in Pittsburgh, even if that future will probably begin on the PUP list after tearing his ACL against Arizona State.
About the only player who doesn't fill an immediately obvious need is Limas Sweed, the Texas receiver who had a first-round grade from much of the draft cognoscenti. Sweed is the long-term replacement for Hines Ward, but for now he'll be either the third or fourth receiver in Pittsburgh, behind Santonio Holmes, Ward, and possibly Nate Washington depending on how things go in training camp. Sweed needs to improve his route running and also (this being Pittsburgh) his blocking to reach his full potential, but in time Holmes and Sweed may prove an even better tandem than Ward and Burress.
Offensive line, and more specifically guard, is the biggest issue. Pittsburgh will probably be starting Chris Kemoeatu and Kendall Simmons (Sean Mahan is also a possibility), a combination which will inspire fear in nobody except possibly Steelers quarterbacks. Pittsburgh's depth is a worry at tight end, where there is nobody behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, and in the defensive backfield, where the team is relying on second-year player William Gay to step up and make a positive contribution and on Anthony Smith to grow up (or on both Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu to get through 16 games, which is even more unlikely). Additionally, after the last two seasons, anybody who can catch and then hold on to a punt or kickoff will be welcome at training camp.
The Steelers have flirted with veteran blocking tight end Kyle Brady, but haven't made him an offer yet. If this means Pittsburgh would rather go into the season with Jon Dekker, then Brady is truly washed up. The Steelers have also signed 12 undrafted free agents, comprising three defensive linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks, a center, a quarterback, a kicker, a wide receiver, and a tight end. Ignoring the quarterback and kicker as training camp accessories, that's a list that matches well to Pittsburgh's remaining holes. Center Doug Legursky was a four-year starter at Marshall and will have a chance at coming out of the camp battle for that position with a backup role; he's got plenty of competition, though, being up against Justin Hartwig, Sean Mahan, Darnell Stapleton, and Kendall Simmons. The Steelers are a UFA-friendly team, even sending two former such players to the Pro Bowl this year (Willie Parker and James Harrison), so it wouldn't be a surprise to see one or more stick on the roster. Linebackers Donovan Woods and Patrick Bailey are probably in the best position to do so.
27 comments, Last at 01 Aug 2008, 9:47pm by Miguel