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24 Mar 2010

Four Downs: AFC North

by Mike Kurtz

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Hole: Defensive Depth

Baltimore seems to have all of the pieces in place: a young, promising quarterback, a trio of talented receivers, and the third-best defense in the league. While the postseason did not go quite as planned, the team seems poised to improve substantially and seize the AFC North next year. Yet one statistic is particularly troubling: Baltimore finished 26th in Adjusted Games Lost last season. (AGL measures effectiveness lost to injury, both when starters miss games and when they play hurt).

Baltimore has a very good track record for injury and recovery during the past few years. But there is a clear tendency for a team -- regardless of how good its medical staff is -- to trend back toward the league average in AGL. Injuries in recent years have disproportionately hit the defense. In Baltimore's worst-case scenario, the offense suffers an average number of injuries but the defense doesn't get any healthier.

Not even Morbo could come up with a more frightening record for the last two years of cornerbacks, a sordid history of benchings and injuries, principally to starter Fabian Washington, although his fellow starters and replacements have had their share of bumps and bruises. As if this weren't problem enough, the team's strategy for free agency left them without much depth behind the starting defensive line. Ed Reed is still one of the best defenders in the league, but he is getting older and nagging injuries are starting to catch up with him.

Fortunately for the Ravens, depth is one of the easiest things to draft for, since a team can work a best player available angle and get good value out of its picks (or trade down for more picks, if possible). By happy coincidence, this is also the best way to maintain a great team going forward, a comforting thought for Baltimore fans and a frightening one for the Ravens' divisional rivals.

Free Agency Recap

Where Cincinnati attempted to fix its wide receiver problems through free agency, Baltimore actually succeeded. Donte' Stallworth signed a one-year contract, giving Baltimore an inconsistent and injury-prone player, but one that can stretch the field. The crown jewel was, of course, Anquan Boldin. The vocal receiver had a complicated 2009 campaign, vacillating between devotion to his team, demands that he be traded, and simply being injured. Boldin rushed back to join in Arizona's playoffs push, so he may be more motivated than his PR lets on. It's an added bonus for fans that Boldin's already on record trashing the Steelers.

Derrick Mason filled the group out by re-un-retiring/re-signing/finally returning Ozzie's phone calls. That keeps the fan favorite in town for another two years. The trio of Boldin, Mason and Stallworth should give the relatively porous secondaries of the AFC North fits and provide plenty of opportunities for maturing quarterback Joe Flacco to develop among good-to-great talent.

Even with Stallworth's bargain contract, all that money shoveled to Boldin meant tightening belts elsewhere, and backup defensive linemen Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards jumped ship, leaving the Ravens' defense with all the depth of a galette. Corey Ivy has also been put on the back burner, but considering his lack of playing time even as the secondary burned to the ground, Baltimore does not seem inclined toward giving him a big pay day.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

Quarterback wins the prize here, because the current dynamic duo of Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace isn't scaring anyone aside from Drew Carey. While incoming general managers often "blow up" significant portions of the roster in order to distance themselves from old regimes, it is unusual for a team to ditch its top two quarterbacks without any real backup plan. Quinn (-19.5% DVOA, 32nd) and Anderson (-40.4% DVOA, 44th) were hardly world-beaters, but Delhomme (-20.2%, 33d) only comes up as an answer when the category is "Gratuitous Giveaways." Holmgren is clearly building for the future, trading Quinn away while he still has value and letting Anderson walk, but the timing is unfortunate as this is a very weak year for quarterbacks in the draft. The Browns would need a big trade up to get Sam Bradford, and Holmgren surprised everyone by actually discussing with the press his dissatisfaction with Jimmy Clausen.

Honorable mention for "biggest hole" goes to wide receiver. Last year, the Browns had exactly one wide receiver near the top 50 in our advanced ratings: Braylon Edwards. Of course, Edwards hasn't been on the Browns since October. The Browns are always looking for more ways to use Josh Cribbs because of his explosive explosiveness, but the real hope for short-term improvement in the Browns receiving corps will be sophomore Mohammed Massoquoi, who had a decent season for a rookie wideout on a bad team with a bad quarterback.

Cleveland has spent a lot of time and effort amassing 12 picks in the upcoming draft with which to start the rebuilding process. A few good picks could turn Cleveland's offense from miserable to merely ineffective, especially if the Browns can get good value at wide receiver. But they'll need a better quarterback to rise anywhere higher than that.

Free Agency Recap

Mike Holmgren is taking a relatively conservative, incremental approach to rebuilding, bringing in Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace essentially as placeholders, along with aging veterans Tony Pashos, Benjamin Watson and Scott Fujita.

Fujita is a solid addition to a the league's 30th-ranked defense, but his strength is in run support, not coverage. That said, Cleveland was at or near the bottom in almost every defensive category last year, so his particular skill set won't matter quite so much. Pashos and Watson will provide some veteran leadership and confidence, two clich├ęs Cleveland has lacked in recent years.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver

Pundits have made much of the Bengals' acquisition of Antonio Bryant, heralding it as the move that will bring Chad Ochocinco's inevitable return to form. The problem, however, is that Antonio Bryant doesn't have the best record. Ochocinco was at his best opposite a great possession receiver, T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Bryant doesn't have a similar profile as a quality route technician with sure hands. Last year, he posted a Roy Williams-esque 45 percent catch rate, which just isn't high enough to pull extra coverage off the big 85.

And more than anything, that's what Cincinnati's offense needs. The Bengals have finally put together a powerful offensive line, able to help convert short-yardage downs the passing game hands them. Last year, the team was the best in football on power runs. Fortunately for the Bengals, there is a decent chance that Golden Tate falls to them, as wide receiver isn't as much of a league-wide need this year. If they can't get good receiver value in the first round, the Bengals can address their defensive line (a tackle would go a long way toward shoring up their run defense) or go after a valuable asset that they have short supply of: depth. A few key injuries could lead to an all-out collapse of a blossoming defense and dash Mike Brown's dream of a second consecutive AFC North championship.

Free Agency Recap

Antonio Bryant, Matt Jones and Chris Davis (formerly with Tennessee) were brought in to help bolster the once-elite Cincinnati passing attack, but Bryant does not have sure hands, Davis has a career total seven catches in his two years, and Jones has serious off-the-field issues which should help him fit right in at the clubhouse but are nonetheless a liability. The team cut Laveranues Coles, which hurts their depth at this position. But depth isn't the problem -- quality is. Daniel Coats was not tendered and offer, but re-signed as an unrestricted free agent. The former undrafted free agent became part of the passing game by necessity last year, an experience Cincinnati should hope to avoid in 2010.

On defense, the team re-signed the always-interesting Tank Johnson to a four-year deal. While the deal won't make the mediocre Cincinnati defensive line any better, it will help ensure that it doesn't get any worse. Similar things can be said about Roy Williams, who confirmed that Roy Williams still exists by signing a one-year deal.

Larry Johnson, who has developed knee issues and locker room problems in the past few years, was released and later signed by the Redskins. At the moment, this leaves the recently acquired Brian Leonard as the only backup for the surprisingly effective Cedric Benson. While Leonard has shown flashes of talent, his skill set and style of play are significantly different from Benson's.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Hole(s): Big Ben Chaperone, Defensive Secondary

While the Pittsburgh defense is a crushing machine at its best, 2009 revealed that perhaps too much rests on the knee of Troy Polamalu. With Polamalu either sidelined or playing with limitations for almost the entire season, the Steelers suffered a precipitous drop in defensive efficiency, falling from -26.9% defensive DVOA in 2008 to -2.9% in 2009, the worst performance by Pittsburgh in the entire DVOA era.

The worst part of this decline was in pass defense, where the team led the league by a healthy margin in 2008 and then dropped to 14th in 2009. Surely a small part of this decline can be pinned on the loss of Bryant McFadden-- who quietly had a quality 2008 campaign for the Steelers before leaving for greener, mechanized pastures. Most of the decline, however, came from an absence of Polamalu's disruptive presence on both the pass rush and in disguised coverages. The loss of both was just too much for Pittsburgh's patchwork secondary to handle.

Look for the Steelers to go for depth in the secondary come draft time, as none of the premier defensive backs are likely to be on the board when the 18th spot rolls around. Their second priority will be shoring up the oft-maligned offensive line in an attempt to reestablish Pittsburgh's running prowess and keep Ben Roethlisberger from constantly pounding the turf. Their third priority is someone to keep Roethlisberger from constantly pounding the brewskis, but that's not something you find on draft day.

Free Agency Recap

The Steelers are notoriously tight-pursed when free agency rolls around, but things were a bit different this offseason. Facing a large number of free agents this year, Pittsburgh did opt to spend part of last year and this offseason securing essential players on the team, including Trai Essex, but also dipped into the free agent pool with a focus on quantity rather than quality. The team retained Ryan Clark to help ensure that the secondary doesn't get any worse, and reached out to Will Allen to ensure that there was a veteran waiting in the wings should everyone get injured again. Allen will also help with the team's near-league worst special teams in the coverage units.

The team even had enough money to reconnect with a few old flames. The first is Larry Foote, who realized that playing in Detroit meant actually playing for the Lions. Foote is a good all-around linebacker who will provide depth and give the team a bit of a boost defending short passes to tight ends and running backs. Second, Antwaan Randle El has returned after a largely mediocre stint in Washington, but the former starter will likely be the fourth wide receiver behind promising sophomore Mike Wallace.

Randle El's real value is as a punt returner. Stefan Logan was electrifying on kick returns for the Steelers last season, but seemed to think he was riding down Pall Mall in a convertible on punt returns. The Steelers are just hoping that the veteran wide receiver has fixed habit of running backwards after fielding the punt.

Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz on 24 Mar 2010

39 comments, Last at 31 Mar 2010, 6:23pm by Vlad

Comments

1
by justanothersteve :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 11:53am

Holmgren surprised everyone by actually discussing with the press his dissatisfaction with Jimmy Clausen.

Translation: Holmgren really likes Jimmy Clausen and hopes the 'Skins don't draft him first.

I'll admit I didn't hear Holmy's comments. But does anyone believe anything out of any front office concerning the draft at this time of year?

9
by Dean :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:43pm

Wouldn't be the first smokescreen a GM has thrown. But given Holmgrens track record with QBs, wouldn't he know better than to pick Clausen?

36
by Whatev (not verified) :: Fri, 03/26/2010 - 3:40pm

You're assuming that people learn from past mistakes.

2
by Joe T. :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:07pm

The Steelers should draft Tebow as Roethlisberger's chaperone and spiritual advisor.

33
by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 03/25/2010 - 3:15pm

Cut to next January, when Tebow and Big Ben will be shot-gunning Iron City's in the ladies room at the local tap room.

34
by Bobman :: Fri, 03/26/2010 - 1:34am

While on their knees, er, praying, right?

3
by jklps :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:12pm

"Randle-El's real value is as a punt returner"

I respectfully disagree. If Randel-El's value is as a punt returner, he has no value - unless you are interested in him catching the ball and falling forward 2 yards if he's lucky.

I've watched nearly every punt he returned for the Redskins, and while the special teams players around him will be different, Randel-El has clearly lost it or isn't trying.

He was an expert at the fair catch for awhile, until he started fumbling some away late last year.

4
by Joe T. :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:15pm

You forgot to mention that he is the all-time leader in horizontal yards.

5
by jklps :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:23pm

Thanks Joe T., I've been sucked up into college basketball since the Super Bowl and forgot.

8
by Jerry :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:42pm

He was, apparently, a much better punt returner when he was a Steeler than he was as a Redskin. We'll see if that's due to age or his team, although it doesn't sound like the Steelers are planning on him returning punts at this point.

17
by Nathan :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 2:13pm

give reggie bush a couple of years... last season i wanted to photoshop a "reggie bush field" where i swapped the sidelines with endzones and the endzones with sidelines, but couldn't find a good enough picture of the superdome... anyone?

6
by dedkrikit (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:24pm

The Steelers need to do something about Roethlisberger from constantly pounding some other turf, too.

11
by rengewnad (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 1:10pm

i was 1/2 was through the end of that section when i REALLY thought I was about to read "keep Roethlisberger from constantly pounding the coeds/lawsuites-in-waiting...etc" and was SOOOOO ready to ROTFLMAO...

good read regardless - thanks

35
by Bobman :: Fri, 03/26/2010 - 1:38am

Has any NFL team ever drafted a lawyer before? Might seem like a waste of a draft pick, true, but sends a STRONG message to the team. "We burned a 4th rounder on Melvin out of Harvard Law, a-holes, so straighten up. Oh, and Ben, he's also 6-6 and was an alternate on the Olympic judo team, so wipe that tequila-soaked smile off your bloated face."

7
by Dean :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 12:39pm

My impression of the Bengals needs at WR was exactly the opposite of yours. I think, and by their actions, I suspect Mike Brown thinks the same (which means I'm probably wrong) - that Caldwell can probably be the posession guy, and that what they really needed was a 3rd option who can stretch the field.

10
by KarlFA :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 1:04pm

No discussion of the Roethlisberger issue? That's surprising.

At the very least Dennis Dixon deserves some opinion here.

Karl, Miami

12
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 1:14pm

"Their third priority is someone to keep Roethlisberger from constantly pounding the brewskis, but that's not something you find on draft day."

Is Brewskis a simile for young women?

13
by Venger :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 1:21pm

Here's an opinion on Dixon: Ben Roethlisbergers' Dixon parade, and its going to get him in trouble sooner or later.

14
by KarlFA :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 1:34pm

haha. I think we're already past sooner or later. Only in the NFL can two accusations of rape not be considered "in trouble."

Karl, Miami

19
by Dean :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 2:18pm

Technically, it was sexual assault, not rape. That could mean anything from playing grabbass with her at the bar all the way up to forcible sodomy, or anything in between. Who knows? But it doesn't automatically mean rape.

21
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 2:22pm

That just isn't true, it's not just the NFL. In the English Prenier League you can be accused of sexual assault and rape over and over again and still have a decent chance of playing international football (see Ronaldo, Christiano).

15
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 1:38pm

Who exactly would Baltimore's three talented receivers be? Boldin and whom? Clayton? Stalworth? Mason maybe but he's very very old for a speed position.

Isn't picking out Bryant's dodgy catch rate last year a little disengenous? His catch rate was bound to fall as a deep threat playing with a rookie quarterback. The Bengals biggest problem is TE, they should make the Bears a decent offer for Greg Olsen. He'll be wasted in Chicago and could be available for either a second round pick or one of their surplus tackles, I'd suggest Anthony Collins.

Plus no mention of Corey Redding, who is a great fit at the end-tackle tweener position in their 46 defense. Trevor Pryce has filled the role admirably but he's beginning to break down, I thought this was a good move.

23
by Mike K. (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 5:05pm

You think the Bears would give up Olsen for a 2nd round pick or a surplus tackle?

Bartender, whatever this man's drinking: I'll take two.

25
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 5:38pm

He won't catch more than 35 passes for Martz in any given season which will drive down his value to other teams, so if they are going to trade him they should do it now. He'll only be of use to the Bears if they fire Martz but if that happens then everybody else in the building will have been sacked as well, they may as well try and convert some of his value to a position they actually will use this year.

He has decent hands and good athleticism but he also runs sloppy routes and couldn't block his own grandmother. I don't see how he's worth more than a 2nd. I wouldn't suggest they should trade him for a surplus tackle, the Bear's options at right tackle and left guard are not good, Collins would be a starter.

Oh, and you just ordered a cup of tea.

27
by Eddo :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 6:23pm

So you were drinking half a cup of tea? :P

With regards to your point: as a Bears fan, I'd be happy if they could get a second-round pick for Olsen. I like him, but he's losing value by the minute, it seems, and the Bears could use a second-round pick.

24
by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 5:10pm

Boldin, Stallworth, and Mason are all talented. A and B are troubled or troubling and C is old enough to be Flacco's father, but they're all very talented football players, which was the claim.

The point about Antonio Bryant isn't the catch rate so much as what it says about his role. Bryant is in the Chris Chambers line of fleet, tall receivers with questionable hands who are absolutely as good as anyone in the NFL on a go-route but aren't really even "good" at the curls, outs, and slants that most NFL teams make their bread and butter on. Hence they get targeted only downfield... or on routes they aren't suited to. The problem is... Chad Johnson is really a deep guy too, albeit a more versatile and talented player. What the Bengals are missing is big targets to pull coverage into the middle of the field, and maybe a slot receiver to catch those curls and slants (although Caldwell could maybe fill the second role). Which is why Terrell Owens or (almost ideal) Anquan Boldin would have been a better pickup than Bryant, who is just a one dimensional version of what Chad Johnson would do if he ever didn't draw double or triple coverage.

26
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 5:44pm

Stallworth is 29 and has never had 1000 yards in a season, he's only ever come close once.

I've watched a lot of Antonio Bryant and he can certainly do more than run a go route. It's deep threats that pin safeties on deep coverage, not possession guys. I did say that the Bengals should make a move for a TE, either in the draft or in the win-win trade that I suggested.

30
by greybeard :: Thu, 03/25/2010 - 2:28am

Antonio Bryant has good hands. If you want to talk about Chris Chambers, keep it to Chris Chambers.

Terrell Owens is not a possession receiver. His career average is 14.9 yards/catch. That is 2.1 yards higher than Boldin, 2.6 yards higher than Ward, 3.5 yards higher than TJ Hosh...., and 2.1 yards higher than Mason, 4.1 yards higher than Steve Smith (giants), and 1.5 yards higher than Andre Johnson, .4 higher than Chad-your-deep-threat and .5 yards higher than Colston, and .4 yards higher than Steve Smith of Carolina. But it is .7 yards less than Randy Moss.

16
by Dave51 (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 2:05pm

Not a Bengals fan, but doesn't the return of Chase Coffman figure to help their passing attack as well?

18
by Dean :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 2:16pm

Cincy's never been a team to feature the TE in their offense. Maybe that's because they've never had a reliable receiver at the position, or maybe that's the design of the offense, or maybe both? But I will not count on much from any Bengals TE until proven otherwise.

20
by Brad79 (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 2:20pm

Brian Leonard is Bensons only backup? What happened to Bernard Scott?

22
by masoch (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 4:48pm

He wants to wish your great grandmother a happy 100th birthday. Oh, wait, that's Willard Scott.

31
by Misfit74 :: Thu, 03/25/2010 - 3:59am

Exactly. In 2009:

Bernard Scott: 74 carries, 321 yards, 4.3 yards/carry.
Brian Leonard: 27 carries, 82 yards, 3.1 yard/carry.

Who's the #2 RB again?

28
by bob stevens (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 10:55pm

I guess the loss of Aaron Smith last year had no influence on Pittsburgh's defensive drop-off? C'mon, there is more to Pitt having a perennial top defense than just Troy P. and Aaron Smith is a HUGE part of it.

29
by Oscar (not verified) :: Wed, 03/24/2010 - 11:58pm

Trai Essex was not a free agent. He signed a 2 year deal last year.

32
by JCRODRIGUEZ (not verified) :: Thu, 03/25/2010 - 12:06pm

Regarding the Steelers drafting O-line on the first round, I dont think that BPA will get you to pick a lineman in that slot, and like the article pointed, the main issue in on the defense, so anything from NT, to ILB to CB could happen. Personally, if one of the top two corners slides past the 12th pick, I think they should pull the trigger and trade up.

37
by ArchnerdUW :: Fri, 03/26/2010 - 11:02pm

I agree. They are not going to get an elite OT at that point, and the current roster is lousy with slow footed tackles that were drafted low or even undrafted (Starks, Colon, Essex, Hills, Foster,etc). I don't see them drafting an interior lineman in the first round unless someone is certain it is the second coming of Alan Faneca, Mike Webster or Dermonti Dawson. The rest of the offense doesn't need addressed in the first round...so that leaves the defense. A shiny new CB would likely have the most immediate impact. One can only hope that the Steelers braintrust realizes that last year Polamalu had almost more picks than the rest of the Db's on the roster combined. Not acceptable.

39
by Vlad (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 6:23pm

I could see them taking Iupati, who would be decent value there. But he's really the only one.

38
by t.d. :: Tue, 03/30/2010 - 8:02am

Has Ed Reed definitely said he's coming back?