Four Downs: AFC North

Four Downs: AFC North
Four Downs: AFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Danny Tuccitto

Baltimore Ravens

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.

Cincinnati Bengals

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?!?!)

Cleveland Browns

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?

Pittsburgh Steelers

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.


45 comments, Last at 21 May 2012, 7:15pm

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Cossell didn't say that Zeitler is a better prospect than DeCastro. He said that he is a better athlete, but that DeCastro is nastier and more physical. And he expected DeCastro to go much higher. Both PIT and CIN got good bargains, though.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Maybe Cincy will let Mays play linebacker? That would remove a liability from the secondary and potentially help fill a hole in the front 7. They'd still need a safety, but they woudlnt' be any worse off than they are now.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Curtis Brown was leading the Steelers in special teams tackles before he went to IR, and Cortez Allen (who was widely regarded as a 'toy' for the new DB coach) was able to showcase his physical tools against Aaron Hernandez of all people. What I want to say: the Steelers have good reasons to believe that they won't miss McFadden and Gay and did not have to draft a CB on the first two days.

37 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Gay had a few good seasons in Pittsburgh and one bad one. Steelers fans being what we are, we will harp on that one bad season until the heat death of the universe. Lewis, Allen, and Brown may or may not be ready to step, up, but I still see Gay as our defense's biggest loss.

41 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Bigger than Aaron Smith? Granted that both Smith and Farrior are at the end of a distinguished road, but I think they'll both be missed more than Willie Gay.

42 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Bigger than 2011 Aaron Smith and James Farrior, yes. Those two will be missed more than Gay because of their outstanding contributions over long careers, but that's probably not what the other poster was talking about.

44 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

That's exactly it - Farrior, Smith, and Hampton (knock on wood) have had fantastic careers, but as of late they've all been having trouble getting on the field, and they've been much less effective when they're there. Gay is the only piece we're losing who consistently performed well in 2011.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Ravens: I'm not sure the problem is offensive line. While Baltimore doesn't necessarily have the most cohesive and stable unit in the NFL, they have a lot of very talented linemen, and eventually should find a way to play them all properly. This is a very good football team, so their problems are, in rough order of precedence: An inaccurate quarterback; Strong Safety (Pollard is well known but not amazing); linebacker (lots of talent but also lots of questions); WR3 (they have Jacoby Jones, who wasn't good enough for Houston in that role). Offensive line probably comes after that, assuming that McKinnie is motivated. Flacco was progressing nicely until this past year, but he took a big step back.

Bengals: Taylor Mays has the physical tools to be a really amazing strong safety. However, it appears he may never learn to be that player. So I don't disagree, but it doesn't matter. This team will rise or fall with the development of Andy Dalton.

Browns: Phil Taylor may be gone for the year, so run defense is going to be a problem. Of course, this is 2012. No one runs the ball. This team has so many holes and has done so little to fill them that it is difficult to imagine them anywhere but the cellar of the division. I view the Richardson and Weeden picks as huge mistakes: Colt McCoy is not a great quarterback but is at least replacement level, and there is no running back worth the #3 pick. Unfortunately, the Browns are now committed to giving an - older - QB a tryout, with an offensive line that has a few questions and a receiving group that is just frankly terrible. These guys make Al Davis look good.

Pittsburgh: New Steelers, same as the old Steelers. They should look a lot like they did last year. The defense will be as good as Polamalu is, the offense will live and die by Roethlisberger's ability to compensate for terrible pass blocking.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Re BAL, LB was definitely a consideration here, but I trust their scouts & coaches at that position as much as I do PIT's.

Ignored WR3 because (a) they use 3+WR as infrequently as any team in the league, and (b) Jones was signed for his value as a returner.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Jones was signed for his value as a returner.If there is one team which benefitted from Jones' skills as a return man, it would be Baltimore.

/bitter Texans fan

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I was mostly pointing out that deciding what unit (other than QB, which is probably their biggest problem and also the spot least likely to change and therefore not interesting) is a problem in Baltimore is difficult because the whole team is so good!

I also heard some scuttlebutt that for 3 WR sets they might move Anquan to the slot and let Streeter try his hand outside, if Streeter wins the 3rd spot in camp.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Can anyone name other players whose surnames matched the city in which they played?
Ken Houston played for Houston from 1967-1972.
Anthony, Fred, James, Joe, Marcus, and Mickey Washington all played for Washington.

I suspect there might be some more matches if you search through defunct franchises.

How much do you want to stretch it?
Ahman Green played for Green Bay.

Other fun ones:
Brad St. Louis (2000-2009) played for Cincinnati.
Wilson Rutherford Schwenk (1942-1948) played for New York, but it was the Yankees, who didn't play in East Rutherford.
Aaron Francisco (2005-2010) played for Arizona and Indy
Bunch of Pauls, none of whom played for the Vikings
Ted Buffalo (1923) played for the Oorang Indians (!)
Greg Cleveland (1987) played for Miami
Cleveland Pittsburgh Crosby played for Baltimore.

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Nice! Incidentally, the only reason it caught my eye was because seeing the Cleveland signing reminded me that I've spent eight frustrating years waiting for the 49ers to sign Aaron Francisco.

14 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Cleveland Gary (who never played in Cleveland, and Gary doesn't have a team).
Bear Pascoe (I was gutted when the Niners drafted him).
Colt McCoy (I don't know who he plays for though).

39 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Got lucky is what I did. I couldn't remember who McCoy played for. Really should have remembered 'the Baltimore Colt'.

Also forgot about lots of Orlandos.

21 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Leon Washington plays for Seattle, Washington.

In hockey, I'm moderately disappointed that Miroslav Satan never played for the Devils.

29 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I noticed Dwight King playing for the LA Kings the other night.

These guys all represent jerseys a fan can buy that will be appropriate even after the player leaves.

38 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Michael Irvin played in Irving, Texas.

No? Here's a better one: Josh Booty was briefly on the Raiders. Would've also been perfect for the Bucs. Or the Pirates if he'd stayed with baseball.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I was reading the Ravens part of this and going "Deja vu, I swear I read all this before". Then I googled some of the phrases and landed on However that 5/14 article actually quotes Danny Tuccitto in it. So did the Ravens staff writer travel into the future to copy this article? Was it a cooperative effort? Am I losing my mind?

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Ahh that explains it. So the article should really start with:

"I totally read this article on ESPN Insider, here's what it said. I also probably used quotes and changed words enough that we won't get sued. This is totally way easier than going to the Ravens rookie camp and reporting on real stuff I see!"

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

My understanding is that Zimmer in Cincinnati is mostly a single-high guy, which means that his scheme is (from a cornerback's perspective) superficially similar to a Nick Saban defense in its base package. That suggests that Dre Kirkpatrick might be a candidate for significant playing time in year one.

(Also: are any of the Bengals remaining CB's eligible for a conversion to safety? Nate Clements is the largest at 6' 200.)

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

"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."

The Seahawks traded the friggin FOURTH PICK IN THE 2009 DRAFT to the Raiders for a 7th round pick! OK, it was after 2-1/2 seasons, but that's worse...they paid him big bucks for 2-1/2 seasons of crap. Arrggh!

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

"Like the previous three teams, Pittsburgh had a limited number of holes to plug"
These words and Cleveland's roster do not compute.

32 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Gotta throw CLE fans a bone every once in a while. I mean, they've got one foot off the ledge often enough. In all seriousness though, three things:

1) CLE's roster really isn't as horrible as people think.
2) In that PIT sentence, I meant "or" in the omitted second half than "and." CLE had a bunch of holes at season's end (QB, RB, WR, DE, S), but they mostly addressed them (or have a guy like TJ Ward returning) by the time this post came around.
3) I wrote the post before Phil Taylor got hurt. Would have made DT their biggest hole if I was clairvoyant.

45 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

As a Browns fan, I'm gratified to hear you say that Cleveland's roster isn't as horrible as everybody thinks. In other words, it's only "sort of" horrible?

Joking aside, I've been trying to convince myself that we really aren't as lousy as our record would seem to indicate, but I'm having trouble doing so. There are a few positives. The O-line seems pretty decent to me, and the best part is that all five projected starters are 27 or younger. T-Rich should be at least a very good RB, and could be much more than that. The secondary is okay. Everywhere else, it seems that there are question marks or holes. Will Weeden be a good NFL QB? Who knows? The linebackers are so-so at best, the D-line couldn't stop the run last year and now they're going to try to do it without Phil Taylor (good luck), and the receiving corps is an absolute joke. Am I overlooking something, or being too negative? But then, when you're looking at a team that followed up a 5-11 season by firing its coach and then "improving" to 4-12, I'm not sure you can be too negative.

31 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

No comment on Cincinnati signing former Colorado UDFA QB Tyler Hanson? Sure, Hanson got treated poorly at CU since for awhile the head coach named his son the starting QB, but who are the Bengal's QBs after Dalton? Hanson has a great shot to make the team as their #3 or even #2 QB.

40 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Hanson is a joke. He arrived at CU as their supposed savior and Dan Hawkins handed Hanson the job when it was clear Cody Hawkins was the better QB. But through a combination of injuries and poor play by Hanson, Cody kept winning the job back. It was never a case of Hawkins favoring his son. He simply had no choice because Hanson never managed to beat him out.

33 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Iloka, Robert Sands and Taylor Mays ? The Cincinatti Bengals are very old school in their standard SS profile - Big 6'2/3+ 220+ safeties is quite uncommon these days.

34 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Isn't the guy better suited at linebacker?
His acceleration isn't safety speed - I found him quite bad at reacting towards a play.
His style of play suits better at a "run first, ask questions later" kind of position; rush linebacker or nickle linebacker.

36 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I’ve always hated Taylor Mays : He is « highlight reel » strong and tough, when it comes to hitting defenseless WRs on crossing routes he’s good, when it comes to taking on big blockers, navigating through blocks, and use some proper tackling, he just sucks. Plus, he has no instincts/no agility, so is not good in coverage.Can’t be a safety, can’t be a LB.