Four Downs: AFC North
by Danny Tuccitto
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Offensive line
You'd think the Ravens would have learned their lesson. Just prior to last season, the potential absence of center Matt Birk and left guard Ben Grubbs meant that most of the offensive line consisted of players without positions. Michael Oher was a left tackle, a right tackle, or a right guard. Marshal Yanda was being considered at both tackle and guard on the right side. Andre Gurode could replace either Birk or Grubbs, but not both. And then, miraculously, everything fell into place with the resurrection of Bryant McKinnie's career.
Yet here we are entering 2012, and it's deja vu all over again. This time, Grubbs is gone for good having left for New Orleans in free agency, Birk has chosen to forego retirement but is still on the wrong side of 35 years old, McKinnie finds himself being monitored by literal "weight watchers,"and Gurode hasn't been re-signed. Naturally, Baltimore's addressed this situation by moving backup tackle Jah Reid to guard, drafting Iowa State tackle Kelechi Osemele, who the Ravens envision as a guard prospect, and selecting Delaware guard Gino Gradkowski to one day replace Birk at center. Follow all that? Yeah, me neither.
Versatility is often a virtue when it comes to NFL offensive linemen. However, there's a fine line between overemphasis on versatility and having a line that embodies the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none." There's something to be said for Baltimore's straightforward situation last year, wherein everyone played their "natural" positions, Reid comes in if a tackle gets hurt, and Gurode comes in if a guard or center gets hurt. Indeed, according to our offensive line metrics, the 2011 Ravens were slightly better in run-blocking and significantly better in pass-protecting than they were in 2010, when Oher was out of position at left tackle and Yanda was out of position at right tackle.
As it stands right now, the Ravens are one mishap away from finding themselves having to essentially rearrange the deck chairs on Titanic. McKinnie appears to be a shell of his former self and has that aforementioned, ever-present weight issue. So what happens if he needs to be replaced during the season? Sorry, the Oher-at-left-tackle ship has sailed. What happens if Birk's age catches up to him or Reid can't cut it at left guard? An out-of-position rookie in the starting lineup, that's what.
In terms of the best available free agents, there's former Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill, whose health status is in question, and former Steelers left tackle Max Starks, whom Baltimore should be pretty familiar with. Among interior linemen, the Ravens have reportedly shown interest in former Titans right guard Jake Scott. Also, there's always -- wait for it -- Andre Gurode (who is still available).
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Quarterback John Brantley, who goes from succeeding Tim Tebow at the University of Florida to a Ravens depth chart topped by the (self-proclaimed) best quarterback in the NFL, is probably the most well-known player among Baltimore's 20 signings.
North Carolina cornerback Charles Brown and Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey have a much better shot to make the 53-man roster than Brantley. Considering Baltimore was ranked 30th in special teams DVOA last season, Brown's experience with that unit certainly can't hurt his chances. Regarding reputed Ray Rice replica, Rainey, our own Matt Waldman and our former own Doug Farrar both think his skill set is good enough to overcome any perceived size limitations.
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Strong safety
It's amazing -- and completely out of character in the Mike Brown era -- that, in only one calendar year, the Cincinnati's roster has gone from having more holes than the plot of the Terminator franchise to being as solid as a terminator itself.
To be sure, the Bengals can still use some tweaking around the edges, but for the most part they're in good shape. In February's edition of "Plugging the Holes," we listed running back and guard as glaring needs. The former was met by signing BenJarvus Green-Ellis to replace the worst workhorse running back of the past two years, Cedric Benson. The latter was met by using a first-round pick on Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, who NFL Films Senior Producer (and avid game tape watcher) Greg Cosell thought was a better prospect than Stanford guard David DeCastro. Speaking of Cosell, he nailed Cincinnati's selection of Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who will immediately fill a need at cornerback.
It's at another position in the secondary, however, where the Bengals' biggest hole remains: strong safety. Typically, when a team decides to unceremoniously release an aging team captain, they have a promising understudy already in place (See Pittsburgh's handling of Hines Ward). To replace Chris Crocker, who was allegedly let go due to durability issues even though he started all 16 games last season, Cincinnati has ... Taylor Mays? So much for praising Mike Brown, I guess.
Let's recap Mays brief career, shall we? At the behest of Mike Singletary (and only Mike Singletary), Mays was taken by the 49ers in the second round of the 2010 draft. Shortly into the 2010 season, Mays was elevated to the starting strong safety spot in one of Singletary's last moves as head coach (San Francisco was 0-3 at the time). Mays played so badly that he was benched after only five games -- even Singletary couldn't take any more -- and finished the season having allowed 18.4 yards per pass. Then, in an extremely rare move for an NFL team, San Francisco basically gave Mays away after only one season, accepting Cincinnati's seventh-round pick in 2013 for a player they drafted in the second round.
Are there in-house options at strong safety other than Mays? Sure, except that Robert Sands, Jeromy Miles, and 2012 fifth-rounder George Iloka all have played even fewer NFL snaps on defense than Mays has.
On the free agent market, the pickings are even slimmer. The best strong safeties out there include Yeremiah Bell and Melvin Bullitt. Also, there's always -- wait for it -- Chris Crocker (who is still available). Perhaps Cincinnati is best off if they wait for training camp cuts to make their move.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
In addition to not addressing their hole at strong safety during the draft, the Bengals used exactly zero of their 10 picks on a linebacker even though middleman Rey Maualuga's contract expires next spring. Enter Vontaze Burfict, the headliner of Cincinnati's undrafted free agent class. The range of possible NFL career paths for Burfict is at least as wide as the performance extremes of his final two years at Arizona State: anywhere from winning individual awards to flaming out in a Haynesworth-esque inferno of laziness and cheap shots. The good news for Cincinnati is that, if the latter happens, they won't be losing a major investment in the fire.
With much less fanfare, the Bengals also signed long snapper Bryce Davis from Central Oklahoma. (Wait, 10 teams have signed undrafted rookie long snappers?!?!)
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Wide Receiver
According to Football Outsiders' metrics, Cleveland's weak spots in 2011 were in the running game, both on offense and on defense. Drafting Alabama running back Trent Richardson solved one of those problems. For the other, they signed run-stopping defensive end Frostee Rucker, and are counting on the continued development of their two young defensive tackles, Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor.
The Browns' pass defense, despite being ranked 17th last year in Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metric, doesn't seem that bad off either, especially with the return of strong safety T.J. Ward from injury. Joe Haden may have had a down year -- ranking 48th among corners in defensive success rate (explained here) -- but there's still plenty of promise from his rookie season. More importantly, though, both Sheldon Brown (ranked 11th in yards allowed per pass) and nickel cornerback Dimitri Patterson (seventh in success rate) actually had a better season than Haden according to our metrics.
So that leaves pass offense as the Browns main weakness, and selecting Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden means that their biggest hole is at wide receiver. Last season, Cleveland had three or more wideouts on the field 52 percent of the time, which was 12th-most in the NFL, and those three receivers were almost always Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Josh Cribbs. According to our metrics, Cribbs was the most valuable of the group, but he only ranked 42nd in the NFL. As for Little and Massaquoi, they ranked 85th and 88th, respectively -- out of 90 qualifying wideouts.
To their credit, the Browns drafted Miami wide receiver Travis Benjamin in the fourth round, but his small frame is best suited for slot duty. At least that allows Cribbs to focus more on what he's best at: special teams. Nevertheless, the cupboard in-house is otherwise bare.
That leaves free agency, where the best remaining options are an ancient Plaxico Burress, and three wideouts coming off knee injuries: Braylon Edwards, Mark Clayton, and Mike Sims-Walker. Let's hope that, for Weeden's (or Colt McCoy's) sake, either Greg Little breaks out in his second season, or an unnamed receiver falls into Cleveland's lap in August.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Given the above, it should come as no surprise that Cleveland added three wide receivers among their 15 total signings. The most intriguing of the three is Josh Cooper out of Oklahoma State. Having been a teammate of Cleveland's No. 22 pick, Brandon Weeden, Cooper has a leg up in the "special quarterback relationship" department. In fact, if ever there was motivation to help the other guy look good, Cooper essentially owes his employment to Weeden.
Also, Cleveland signed Idaho guard Matt Cleveland. Can anyone name other players whose surnames matched the city in which they played? Is this something that only amuses me?
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Cornerback
Like the previous three teams, Pittsburgh had a limited number of holes to plug, and did a good job plugging the ones in which they were able to do so. At nose tackle, Chris Hoke retired and Casey Hampton probably should, but the Steelers drafted a prototypical 3-4 space-eater in fourth-rounder Alameda Ta'amu. They released longtime inside linebacker James Farrior, but drafted Miami linebacker Sean Spence as his replacement (and maybe even Troy Polamalu's down the road).
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Their other roster limitations were largely due to injury, so the situation wasn't as bad as it looked. Most importantly, a pass rush that perennially ranks among the best in the league fell to 14th in adjusted sack rate partly because it was missing James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley some of the time. Similarly, the Steelers' offensive line, which wasn't good in pass protection to begin with, was the third-most-injured offensive line in the NFL. To address that concern, the team used their first two draft picks on DeCastro and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams.
That brings us to cornerback, a position that Pittsburgh basically ignored in the draft despite the free agency departure of William Gay, who last season ranked eighth among corners in yards allowed per pass. The team appears ready to elevate nickel cornerback Keenan Lewis to the starting lineup, a decision that's warranted given Lewis' No. 18 ranking in yards allowed per pass last season. Add him to Ike Taylor, who was a top-10 corner in both yards allowed per pass and defensive success rate, and the Steelers have the makings of a formidable duo.
One problem: Pittsburgh's defense was in nickel or dime over 40 percent of the time last year. So who is going to play when there's an extra cornerback on the field? Process of elimination suggests it will be either Cortez Allen or Curtis Brown, both of whom were drafted in 2011. Seeing as how Allen only saw 10 passes thrown his way last season, and Brown didn't even play a single defensive snap, that's a pretty tall order for both of them -- not to mention an uncharacteristically risky gamble by the Steelers. We're not saying they're bad prospects; they're just incredibly inexperienced for such an important position in this specific NFL era on this specific NFL team.
The good news for Pittsburgh is that there are plenty of serviceable free agents still available. The bad news is that -- who are we kidding? -- Pittsburgh doesn't sign free agents. Oh, lest we forget, there's always -- wait for it -- Bryant McFadden (he's still available).
Important Undrafted Free Agents
The only two players of note among the Steelers' 11 signings were Georgia punter Drew Butler and Pittsburgh (Panthers) endbacker Brandon Lindsey. Butler is notable because he had a prolific Bulldogs career (2009 Ray Guy Award winner), his father was the kicker on the 1985 Bears, and Pittsburgh's punting situation is a mess. They finally cut ties once and for all with Daniel Sepulveda because his right ACL tears more easily than an Earl Campbell jersey, and they seem to only want Jeremy Kapinos around when the inevitable tear occurs.
If you're like me, and trust the Steelers' scouting department to be better judges of outside linebacker talent than your own (amateur) eyes and brain, then you have to consider Lindsey as having some potential down the road. This year's SackSEER projections didn't like him all that much, but, outside of differing round projections, his statistical profile (i.e., what counts towards SackSEER) is nearly identical to that of Jason Worilds, who played well in seven starts last season.
The main problem for Lindsey is that he currently sits fifth on the depth chart at outside linebacker, and Pittsburgh almost ritualistically gives their pass-rushing prospects minimal playing time on defense (if any at all) during their rookie season.