The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
09 Jun 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
Baltimore has done a fine job of replacing the massive amount of talent lost after winning Super Bowl XLVII. This offseason has been much quieter for Ozzie Newsome, but he did add the vocal Steve Smith to a talented receiving corps that should be better by health alone. Last year, both Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta suffered injuries. Pitta especially should rejuvenate the tight end position, and Owen Daniels was a good insurance signing. While the offensive line may be shaky, last year's in-season trade with Jacksonville for tackle Eugene Monroe will start paying dividends when he's not trying to learn the offense on the fly and has a full offseason under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
The heart of the team is still on defense even without Ray Lewis. The front seven is led by a strong core of veterans including Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil. Newsome has gone defense-heavy in the last two drafts and getting Lardarius Webb back last year (ACL injury in 2012) was a big boost.
The problem is that the secondary is razor thin once you get past the four starters: Webb, Jimmy Smith, Matt Elam (last year's first-round pick) and possibly third-round rookie Terrence Brooks at free safety. Elam had his adventures last season, allowing 11.2 adjusted yards per pass (ranked 73rd out of 78 safeties) according to the FO game charting project. Adding another inexperienced safety could hurt the defense on big pass plays. Corey Graham was last year's slot corner, but he's with Buffalo now. After Webb and Smith, the Ravens are likely looking at Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown for nickel and dime responsibilities. Both have been with Baltimore the past few years, but neither has much playing experience. In a league that loves spreading the field with four or five receivers, the Ravens are putting a ton of pressure on the front seven to cover up weaknesses that will be exposed in this limited secondary.
Perhaps the Ravens can add some secondary depth from this class of 17 players that features five defensive backs. Safety Dexter Moody (Albany State) is a converted linebacker who picked off seven passes in 2012 when he earned first-team All-SIAC honors. Deji Olatoye (North Carolina A&T) played corner and free safety, notching 18 passes defensed in 21 games. Coming from a bigger program, but standing at just 5-8, Oregon's Avery Patterson played 50 career games and has experience at safety, cornerback and on special teams. Sammy Seamster (Middle Tennessee State) has more ideal size at 6-0 and 200 pounds. His most productive season was last year, earning him an invite to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Texas A&M's Tramain Jacobs played 26 games and made 55 tackles.
The following sentence has rarely been written, but the Bengals have a really solid roster in place. If we weren't focusing on players, the coaching staff may have been the choice here after Marvin Lewis lost both coordinators -- Mike Zimmer (Minnesota) and Jay Gruden (Washington) -- to head-coaching jobs. The Bengals promoted from within and have kept many of the same players from last year. Andy Dalton's progression gets the majority of attention, but he's proven he can be successful enough (in the regular season) to lead the team to the playoffs. There's a young core of skill players in place with Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert, and A.J. Green, and most of the offensive line is solidified. The defense will return its best player, Geno Atkins, from a torn ACL.
Cincinnati's roster was complete enough that the 2014 draft was practically a luxury event where they could add pieces that may only fill supporting roles (think second-round back Jeremy Hill splitting time with Bernard) or take time as development projects (A.J. McCarron in the fifth round).
If there's a position that could be the team's 2014 downfall, cornerback may still be the choice even after adding Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard in the first round. Rookie corners rarely have a huge impact. The most talented ones like Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson generally are mediocre as rookies, as they get used to the NFL game. The worst case scenario is something like Dre Kirkpatrick, who the Bengals drafted 17th overall in 2012. He still hasn't justified his draft status. And the rest of the Bengals' depth chart? Leon Hall's a good player, but he'll be 30 and has been seriously injured in two of the last three seasons. Terence Newman has his moments, but he'll be 36 come Week 1. Even Adam Jones will be 31.
Many teams right now want to emulate Seattle's secondary success, but the Bengals do not have a "shutdown corner" (youthful or experienced) and they certainly don't have a safety duo like Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor to make things so much easier. If Atkins is not dominating up front and the defense fails to adjust without Zimmer, who was credited for turning this unit around back in 2008, then the secondary could be exposed by the plethora of talented AFC passers the Bengals have to deal with en route to that elusive first playoff win since the 1990 season.
It's not often you'll find a player of Vontaze Burfict's caliber in these signings of warm camp bodies, but every year guys are given a shot. Fullback Ryan Hewitt received the largest signing bonus ($10,000) out of the Bengals' UDFA rookies. He could compete with Nikita Whitlock (Wake Forest) for a roster spot if the Bengals are really interested in a power/run-heavy offense. James Wilder Jr. has a loaded backfield to break through, but he is indeed the son of former NFL back James Wilder, who still holds the single-season record for touches with 492 in 1984 with Tampa Bay.
Let's start with a disclaimer. If Josh Gordon gets slapped with a significant suspension, then the biggest hole defaults to wide receiver. The ship has sailed on Miles Austin and Nate Burleson being big-time contributors. Earl Bennett is a No. 3 receiver at best. Even with Gordon's incredible season, the Browns were 28th in offensive points per drive. It takes more than one receiver to have a great offense.
It also takes at least one quarterback. The Browns have had 20 of them since 1999, but that's far too many. As much as I hate to fuel the Johnny Manziel Madness, this team's biggest hole is quarterback.
Give Gordon his "this is your last straw" speech and Cleveland has built a roster that a good quarterback could take to the playoffs. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack provide stability up front and guard Joel Bitino was another high draft pick. There's more talent in the backfield now with Ben Tate and rookie Terrance West. Jordan Cameron had a breakout year at tight end. Phil Taylor mans the defensive line. Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger have been key free-agent additions in the last two years. The secondary locked up Joe Haden, drafted Justin Gilbert in the first round, and while it lost T.J. Ward, the Browns did a reasonable job of replacing him with veteran Donte Whitner. There's something at every level but quarterback.
The fact that many people believe Brian Hoyer played "so well" last season shows just how starved Cleveland is for good quarterback play. Hoyer had a nice game-winning drive against a porous Minnesota defense to which he still threw three interceptions. He played well against Cincinnati. He was hurt very quickly against Buffalo and that was his 2013 season. His 47.5 Total QBR was below the league average (50.0). The long-term answer is not Brian Hoyer. At some point in 2014, the 21-year-old Manziel has to become the 21st starting quarterback for Cleveland 2.0. He may be a complete disaster, but that's all the Browns will be anyway until they find a good quarterback.
If the Browns don't have enough off-field problems, real or overblown, with Manziel and Gordon, then consider this potential roster addition. Running back Isaiah Crowell may be a name familiar to college football fans. He was the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2011 with Georgia, but he was dismissed from the team after a 2012 arrest for three weapons charges. He went to Alabama State and scored 15 rushing touchdowns. While you have to like a healthy Dion Lewis as a third back, there just may be a spot in the final 53 for Crowell if the talent shines through. It's a low-risk move for the Browns.
The Steelers entered this offseason dangerously thin at several positions and with little cap space to buy solutions. Safety Mike Mitchell (Panthers) was the big signing on defense, but cornerback was surprisingly not addressed by Kevin Colbert until the fifth round of the draft. The trio of Ike Taylor, William Gay and Cortez Allen all return, hoping for better results after a rough 2013 campaign. Pittsburgh did find a good backup for Le'veon Bell in LeGarrette Blount, while Lance Moore should play slot receiver and battle with youngsters Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant for catches. They are a Heath Miller or Cameron Heyward injury away from death at those positions, but at least the Steelers know what they're getting from those guys.
As always, there are more questions than answers along the Pittsburgh offensive line. Center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro have rarely played together due to injuries the last two years, but they look to solidify the interior. The biggest problem remains at tackle where Max Starks has been the only quality starter acquired in the last several years. Projected 2014 starters Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert are still young, but have not proven to be reliable blockers. Guy Whimper's purely a backup and Mike Adams pitifully averaged one blown block every 25.1 snaps last year according to Football Outsiders' game charting -- the worst rate for any offensive lineman with at least 400 snaps. It's no wonder Adams was benched for Beachum last year.
When it comes to a premium position like offensive tackle, the Steelers continue to field two turnstiles that provide opponents easy access to stuffing the run and pressuring Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers have not groomed many undrafted free agents of note under Mike Tomlin since 2007. Guard Ramon Foster is the closest thing to a standout. For this year's large group, defensive end Josh Mauro (Stanford) received attention from the Bednarik Award watch list and the Ted Hendricks Award midseason watch list. Cornerback was not deeply represented in this class, but the Steelers did just add Alabama's Deion Belue to the roster after he spent two weeks with the Dolphins. At best he had a seventh-round grade, but he's a small corner (5-11, 183) and scouts were not impressed by his tackling.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
6 comments, Last at 10 Jun 2014, 11:34am by tuluse