Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

Four Downs: AFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Kurtz

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Cornerback

The Ravens continue to hit all of the right notes this offseason. Baltimore went into the draft looking to build the next generation of its defense -- and did so with style. GM Ozzie Newsome traded out of the first round, but even without a first-round pick, the team still managed to get great quality depth for the front seven with Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody. Both players come with significant question marks -- fragility for Kindle and body maintenance for Cody -- but will have time to develop over the next few years.

That doesn't leave Baltimore with many holes, but cornerback remains the standout issue for what is arguably the league's deepest team. Domonique Foxworth is penciled in as one starter, but there's a huge hole across from him, where either undersized slot corner Chris Carr or 2009 third-round pick Lardarius Webb, coming off a torn ACL, will have to start. Furthermore, those three are backed up by undrafted free agents. If the Ravens can't muster up an elite pass rush -- and they didn't in 2009, ranking 23rd in adjusted sack rate -- they'll be exposed against the league's better passing attacks.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Marshall's Ashton Hall is an elite athlete who needs a lot of development time. The safety holds the Marshall school record for broad jump, and he broke Randy Moss' vertical jump record. Teammate Albert McClellan wanted to be the guy a bit too much and declared for the draft after a poor junior season, but he has potential. Tennessean and school sports editor Morgan Cox could provide the team with all-important depth at both long snapper and investigative journalist.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Strong Safety

After losing three different starting tight ends in 2009, the Bengals are hoping that first-round pick Jermaine Gresham can deliver on his promise as a receiver and -- more importantly -- to stay healthy. They also added a wide receiver in third-round pick Jordan Shipley, who has great hands and enough ability at the line of scrimmage to make hay while the secondary is distracted with Gresham and Chad Ochocinco downfield. The Bengals' passing game should be ascendant in 2010.

When other teams throw the ball, though, the Bengals may be in trouble. The Jets exposed Cincinnati's poor coverage and poorly chosen tackling angles of Chinedum Ndukwe when they beat the Bengals in two straight weeks (Week 17, then the Wild Card game). While the team re-signed Roy Williams and added Gibril Wilson in free agency, none of the three options is particularly palatable as a three-down safety.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Safety Jeromy Miles has an ethic and discipline that might get him a roster spot among the famously lawless Bengals roster -- he played for Navy before transferring to Massachusetts. Louisiana defensive end Rahim Alem, meanwhile, is another high-character player who could work his way into the roster.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Pass Rush

One of Mike Holmgren's main missions so far in Cleveland has been the overhaul at linebacker. Kamerion Wimbley, the team's disappointing 2006 first-round pick, was dealt to the Raiders for a third-round selection. Although Wimbley had 11 sacks in an extremely promising rookie season, he only managed to pick up 15.5 sacks in the three subsequent seasons, and the Browns weren't willing to pay him the contract extension that he'll be due shortly.

With the Browns staying in Eric Mangini's 3-4 scheme, the natural hope is that they get a pass rush from their outside linebackers. The new name here is Chris Gocong, who was acquired from the Eagles as part of the Sheldon Brown trade. Gocong had 42 sacks at the I-AA (now FCS) level in college, but he was used as a strong-side linebacker in Philadelphia's 4-3 scheme, limiting his ability to rush the passer. Gocong has all of five sacks through his first three seasons. (Although Gocong has just finished his fourth year in the league, he missed his entire rookie season with an injury.) The track record for players turning into excellent pass rushers without showing signs during the first three years of play is virtually nonexistent. The Browns will have to hope that changing Gocong's role will highlight skills some long-dormant pass rushing skills.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

With Gocong a question mark and no other prominent pass rusher on the roster, don't be surprised if the Browns pick between outside linebackers Eryk Anders of Alabama and Auston English of Oklahoma in an attempt to find someone who can take down the quarterback. Bet on English making the roster. Anders was listed as a pass-rush specialist at Alabama, but he could only muster 6.5 sacks in three seasons of relatively significant play. English was a three-year starting end who had 18 sacks. Hey, maybe Anders can go back to playing Pyramid.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Wide Receiver

The Steelers had a plan for wide receiver going into 2010. A rupture of Limas Sweed's Achilles tendon was not part of that plan, and Sweed will now be out for the entire season. Fortunately, the team drafted some depth beforehand in Southern Methodist's Emmanuel Sanders and Central Michigan's Antonio Brown. Brown is a prototypical burner who will have trouble competing against Mike Wallace, but Sanders should fit nicely into the slot and complement Heath Miller. Neither of these players is expected to contribute much in 2010, though, which could create problems if Wallace can't adjust to his new role as the team's flanker, or if Hines Ward begins to slip with age.

Although it's a terrifying name to say for a team that's been battling image issues, there is a player available that could provide the Steelers with some valuable depth in the short-term: Terrell Owens. Owens was disappointing in his lone year with Buffalo, but he was also playing with Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterbacks. While Owens isn't the player he once was, he's an effective short-to-intermediate range receiver. His presence would allow Wallace to stay in the slot, where he was wildly effective last year. And while Owens has a bad reputation, he has that reputation because he's a prima donna. He doesn’t get into trouble off the field, which means fewer headlines to anger the Rooney family. The Steelers could handle Owens for a year -- and he'd be worth it.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Rarely do you have contract controversies over undrafted free agents, but one has emerged around former LSU left tackle Ciron Black. Black, who had a second-round grade before a disappointing senior season, was widely reported to have signed with the Steelers, but he ended up absent from the team's official list on the heels of denials by his agent. Unfortunately for Black, the debate about which chair to honor with his presence ended with all the options full, and he remains a free agent at the time of writing.

(Portions of this article originally appeared on Insider.)


63 comments, Last at 11 Jun 2010, 3:38pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Fabian Washington is also in the mix for starting CB for the Ravens, depending on how he recovers from his ACL (just like Webb). They also signed Travis Fisher to compete for a spot at CB, although he's likely on par with the UDFA's in terms of quality.

It does seem like over the past few years Ozzie Newsome has become much more focused on maintaining an elite front 7 than putting together a quality secondary. On top of that he has spent a lot of energy rebuilding the offense. Neglecting the CB position might come back to haunt him, but overall its not a bad strategy.

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

In the last few years Ozzie drafted two new safeties (Nakamura, Zbikowski), traded for Fabian Washington, signed Foxworth to a hefty deal, brought in Carr, and drafted Webb with a fairly early pick. Plus I seem to recall reading that they reportedly like a couple of the young guys (Cary Williams, KJ Gerard) they have in camp.

Ozzie may or may not have been very *successful* in putting together a good secondary as guys like Washington and Foxworth may not be what he'd hoped they would be, but I wouldn't say he's "neglected" the secondary the last few years, either.

50 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I wouldn't call neglecting the secondary a strategy, either. Ozzie does find great value in the draft because he sticks to his board and isn't swayed by need. I do think that's great strategy, even if it does leave certain areas undermanned in the short-term.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

The Eagles never let Gocong rush the passer after drafting him specifically for his pass-rushing abilities. This means either 1) Jim Johnson had rocks in his head (unlikely), 2) the front office/scouting department completely whiffed (possible) or 3) Gocong is a lousy pass-rusher (probable).

Incidentally, why did the Steelers bring back Leftwich instead of giving the ball to Dennis Dixon during Rothelisburger's suspension?

Hail Hydra!

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Dixon isn't a sure thing to be competent for 4 games, and Leftwich can run the offense. If Dixon doesn't make the cut, Batch isn't a great starting alternative.

From what I've read, it seems like Leftwich is the nominal starter, but Dixon will be given the opportunity to prove he has earned the job. Tomlin was very clear that there is no quarterback competition, because that causes too much distraction and never works out. I think it's a pretty reasonable approach.

51 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

You can call it what you want, but there's QB competition. Maybe they'll call it "amicably deciding who should start", but you can bet the house Tomlin is not going to name a starter now and stick with him no matter how much the others outplay him.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I don't know why you seem to think that the Eagles drafted him for his pass rushing skills. He was a SLB from Day 1, and they never envisionned him as a DE or a rush LB.

What they saw is a 260 pound athlete that could run pretty well, and physical enough to set the edge, which he did with good success. The thing is, S.McDermott puts an emphasis on Cover LBs (that's why he brought the smalls Sims, K.Clayton, and Chaney), so he wasn't a good fit anymore.

The only time when we saw him with his hands on the dirt is facing the Pats in 07, when he did have a sack of T.Brady. His pass rushing skills are an unknown (although considering his production in college and great workout numbers, it wouldn't surprise me to see him with a high SackSEER projection).

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

bubqr, you're exactly right that Chris Gocong had a robust SackSEER projection. As AlanSP and I have been hammering to death, the Eagles' decision to turn him into a SLB was curious at best. I doubt that in such a short time before being turned into an SLB the Eagles were in a position to definitively evaluate Gocong's pass rushing skills.

The Four Downs' article's point is well taken that players who do not demonstrate pass rushing success in their first few years rarely come on later. However, that data set is composed entirely of failed 3-4 OLB's/4-3 DE's and not so much college edge rushers who are converted to 4-3 OLB's and are then converted BACK to the edge rusher position. In that regard, Gocong is a particularly rare data point. It may be too late for him to develop a force off the edge at this point, but it is certainly not a bad gamble for the Browns to take.

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Back in the sackseer article I actually looked at which players with double digit sacks in 2009 had come one after their third year and the was around 25% of players with double digit sacks. Another 25% had double digits from year one and the rest were in years 2 or 3 (i don't think it broke down to 25% for year and 25% for year 3 though.)Anyway, not sure if 2009 was an anamoly (nor can I remember if I even looked at other years), but a significant number of players do come on "later" in their careers. (That group included a healthy amount of OLB's like Lamar Woodley and Banta Tully-Cain)

And to throw my 2 cents in as an Eagles fan, Gocong was always a bad cover LB (just watch him get eaten alive in last year's SD game - it is a truly embarrassing, 2009-Trotter-esque performance) and the moment the Eagles started having depth problems at LB my main concern was how having Trotter & Gocong on the field at the same time was a recipe for disaster. (Which proved to be true... I wonder if Pat would admit that now. Anyhoo.) So, employing Gocong as more of a runner-stuffer/blitzer certainly couldn't hurt. He's not a terrible player by any means and I think he in the right system he could be very productive...

38 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Um, no. But thanks for playing.

AR: "I think you're looking at it the wrong way. You have to look at it the optimistic way, and that's to say he's going to get a lot of sacks at the SAM linebacker position. He'll just bring it a little more."

Hail Hydra!

53 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I certainly wouldn't say that Jim Johnson had rocks in his head, but I would say that his defense was not conducive to Gocong or any other LB putting up big sack numbers. In the Jim Johnson era, none of the Eagles' LBs ever generated a lot of sacks. The most any LB ever had in a season under JJ was 3.5 (Carlos Emmons in 2002 and Jeremiah Trotter in 2001). You might argue that this is because their LBs just haven't been all that good, and while there's some truth to that (especially at the OLB spots, which have been a revolving door for a long time), I think it has more to do with Johnson's scheme. We're talking about a 10-year period with a lot of different players, and none of them got a lot of sacks. Plus, guys like Nate Wayne, Mike Caldwell, Takeo Spikes, and Shawn Barber all had seasons with more sacks shortly before or after coming to the Eagles.

It's reasonable to wonder why this is the case, given how famous Johnson was for blitzing. My theory is that it's because of one of the elements that made Johnson's blitzes so hard to defend, namely that they could come from basically any defender on the field. Rather than blitzing a lot with any particular player (like a Julian Peterson), Johnson's blitzes were spread fairly evenly across the back 7.

In 10 years, Johnson's defenses recorded 416 sacks. 308.5 of those came from defensive lineman. Here's how the rest break down by position:
S: 37.5
OLB: 36
CB: 17.5
MLB: 16.5

Notably, the secondary actually had slightly more sacks than the linebackers. Since there's only one MLB compared to 2 of the other positions, this means that sacks were basically spread evenly among the LBs and safeties, with the CBs getting about half as many. So while the team as a whole blitzed a lot, each individual player didn't.

All of this is basically a long-winded way of saying that Gocong really didn't have that many opportunities to rush the passer, not necessarily because they thought he sucked at it (although they might have thought that), but because the defense is designed not to give that many opportunities to any individual blitzer.

57 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I don't disagree. I just don't understand the team's thought process behind drafting a DE with great measurables and one demonstrable skill, then asking him to change positions and not allowing him to do the one thing they know how he can do.

Hail Hydra!

58 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I completely agree. The odd thing is that Gocong wasn't even really undersized for a DE. He was 6-2 263 at the combine, which is at worst only slightly below average size for a 4-3 DE. Certainly not something that should have scared off a team that looked at the 236 lb. Trent Cole and saw his future at DE.

To their credit, the Eagles seem to have learned from the Gocong experiment and now seem more inclined to leave their pass rushers at DE. At least that seems to be the plan with the 3 they just drafted. They've even taken former 3-4 OLBs like Jason Babin, Chris Clemons, and possibly Alex Hall (the player they got back in the Gocong/Brown trade) and put them at DE. Why they never gave Gocong a serious shot there is beyond me.

59 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

"Content to leave their pass rushers at DE?" Have you heard what they are doing with Ricky Sapp and, to a lesser extent, Neshim in camp right now?

55 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

It's also worth noting that on the rare occasions when Gocong has gotten to rush the passer, he hasn't been bad at it.

According to PFF, Gocong rushed the passer on 105 snaps the last 2 years, counting playoff games, and had 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 6 pressures. For comparison, Brian Orakpo rushed the passer on 341 snaps (3.25 times as many as Gocong) and had exactly 3 times the production (12 sacks, 9 hits, 18 pressures). That's not to say that Gocong is as good as Orakpo; sample size matters. But it's not as if Gocong has been ineffective as a pass rusher when he's been given the opportunity. Usual caveats about the difficulty of what PFF is attempting apply.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Between Haloti Ngata and now Terrence Cody, do the Ravens have the most physically intimidating D-line in the league? With those two they can play a 2-4-5 and not be missing out on beef up front.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Neither Ngata nor Cody have the quickness to play the 46.

We're also jumping the gun in assuming Cody will pan out. He's one of the more well known prospects, so the pick tends to get lauded, but for the moment, he's just another rookie. It's premature to say that he will succeed or fail.

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

They already play the 46, everything abou the Ravens defense screams 46. It was clear that they regarded Suggs as a right end in their 46 from when they tagged him as one, they were forced to pay him linebacker money because it's a higher tag and right ends in a 46 drop into coverage a lot. Ngata's been playing right defensive tackle in the 46 his whole career and it's the nose guard in a 46 that has to be quick anyway. If Cody is any good then he'll play right tackle and Ngata will move to the nose, which he's plenty quick enough for.

43 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

It makes sense you would be a little confused, the 46 is crazy. In the 46, you line up both outside linebackers on the same side, and basically on the line. So they could easily look like ends lining up.

63 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Ravens played a ton of 46 when Rex Ryan was DC. (Surprise! Rex wrote the book, of course: )
They played less last year under Mattison.

Kind of a shame. Mattison believes in being more "sound", ie blitzing less. It's an annoying departure, for me as a Ravens fan.

13 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

My concern is that they bring in the big beef on first down and then good teams go no-huddle/short passing game against them, wearing the big boys out with pass rush after pass rush but never having time to get to the QB and not able to substitute because of the no-huddle.

18 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Fair point, but while they are very important, division games are still only 6 out of 16 each year. Plus, the Steelers had some success going no huddle against the Ravens off and on over the last few years (although who knows what they can do anymore with Holmes gone and Ben dealing with "issues"). Cincy might have done it last year as well. I was also thinking of potential playoff foes such as Indy, NE, SD, etc.

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I was also thinking of potential playoff foes such as Indy, NE, SD, etc.

So was I. I was going for deadpan irony. Successfully, apparently.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

TO on the Steelers. How about absolutely no chance in a million zillion years is that going to happen?

Quarterback in crisis? Bring in a guy that throws them all under the bus when things go wrong!

C'mon Mike Kurtz...these columns are great but I expect much better.

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Yeah really, they trade away Santonio Holmes because of off the field issues and then bring in TO? Hm, no.

I also don't get how he's developed this reputation as a possession receiver. He was always pretty effective as a deep threat in Dallas, and while I didn't see much of him in Buffalo (who did?), he has terrible hands and doesn't run great routes or give very good effort. Having those qualities without his old athleticism doesn't make you a possession receiver, it just makes you bad.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

And if you'd actually bothered to read the article, and/or knew anything but kneejerk reaction, you'd realize that T.O.'s issues aren't off-field.

The commenting here has hit the crapper since this site got more mainstream.

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

"The commenting here has hit the crapper since this site got more mainstream."

says the (not verified) guy. if you are such a wizard with words and such a football guru why don't you comment more often?

26 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

What a preposterous comment.

First of all, I read the article.

Second of all, TO's issues are off the field. Just because he has issues on the field too doesn't mean he doesn't have extreme off the field issues. The guy's freaking nuts and has had teammates and coaches turn against him on multiple teams because of his poisonous attitude.

And third, I've been reading and commenting since 2006, so I'm not sure when the site "got mainstream", but it certainly has nothing to do with the quality (or lack of) of my comments.

So please, take your own advice and learn about kneejerk reaction. Also, get a clue.

54 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Just because TO's issues aren't legal problems, that doesn't mean that they aren't off-the-field. The guy has been a divisive presence on several different teams, so much so that those teams were all willing to cut ties with him when he was a a much more productive player than he is now.

61 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

My impression is that the 9ers and Iggles got rid of him for his divisiveness, and while he was divisive initially at DAL, he quieted down the last couple years. He was cut there b/c he stopped being a really good WR, and just became a big receiver with decent route running, good speed, and poor hands.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

TO to the steelers. Bwaaahahahahaha. Neh.
With all the receivers the Steelers already have, they expect receivers to play special teams and the trade of Holmes, the talk about less passing and more running (shivers)... not ever.

21 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

And don't overlook the fact that Arians seems like receivers with speed and great hands. If they need a big blocky guy who can catch, they can start using Heath as a pass catcher more and a blocker less. With McHough and Johnson both available, they still have enough TE/H back blocking.

Re: (shivers)
I'm clinging to the reed that says Rooney said they have to run *better*, not more often. It's a thin reed, but Arians stressed it in his one interview since last year. They did really have trouble running inside, especially inside right last year. If Kemo stays healthy and Pouncy can improve RG play (not at all out of the question), they should be able to improve.

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

The Bengals' biggest need is actually free safety, not strong. And though we do need to improve our coverage--and pass rush--we do have one of the best young CB tandems in the game in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall.

I seriously doubt our passing game will be "ascendant"--we did add new weapons in Antonio Bryant, Gresham, Shipley, and Dez Briscoe--but the o-line needs work, and Andre Smith is still nursing that foot injury.

I can't possibly see that UDFA DE getting onto the team. Though we've struggled to get sacks, we drafted a DE last year and this year, and we have depth guys like Jon Fanene who will probably win out, as they're more versatile (he can play both DT and DE).

29 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I'm of the opinion that Roethlisberger will be able to make any receiving corps look adequate (when he's in there), and the real problem area on the Steelers last season heading into this season is that the front seven is no longer verry good due to age and injuries (and the regime that built the previously outstanding front seven is no longer in place)

31 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Eryk Anders never actually signed for the Browns. He's now with the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL.

32 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

what's the difference between fragility (Kindle) and body maintenance (Cody)?
unless we are saying Cody won't maintain body size with tougher PED testing in the NFL?

36 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

how can this article completely ignore the fact that the Steeler's also picked up Randle-El and Arnaz Battle?

They are working on TEN wide receivers right now.
To say that's their biggest need and they should think about TO is not just shoddy reporting, it's downright stupid.

37 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Either that or they've seen Randle-El and Battle play recently. They're both well past their prime and their prime wasn't much to get excited about.

60 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Ward is still very good.
Wallace is good and getting better.
Add Randle El with 50 receptions and you've got 3 capable receivers.
You'd say that's only 3, but the Steelers use a lot of double TE sets with Miller and Speath.

If one of the 3 rookies or 1 of the 3 second year players step up, I don't worry about the Steelers receivers at all.

But for the love of the FSM, don't say the Steelers will ever sign TO.

42 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

why hasn't there been a four downs on the NFC north since march 25th? that's over 2 months!

44 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

[put tongue in cheek] Probably because you failed to complain enough about it during the preceding 2 months. Must be a Browns or Ravens fan... :) [/remove tongue]

45 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

can someone explain to me the 46 defense please? specifically how everyone lines up. thanks.

47 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

not trying to be a prick, but easier than typing

edit: damn you tuluse!

48 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

how often did the jets use a 46 defense last year? im confused because i thought they used a 3-4.

49 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

i think rex kind of merged the 3-4 and 46 in baltimore... im in over my head but the 46 is more about alignment and overloaded pressure schemes than personel. i don't see why you couldn't run it with a good 3-4 OLB subbed in... don't be confused by the "46" as compared to "3-4"... the name comes from doug plank's jersey number, not personel like 4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5 etc. all that being said maybe they swap out to a 4-3 when they run it. jets fans?

62 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I thought the key concept of the 46 was lining a defender up directly over all 3 interior O-linemen, the center and the two guards. This disrupts the O-line's ability to do any pulls or traps, and forces them to pass-block the guy directly in front of them.

The wikipedia piece is pretty good. It also has some nice external links.