Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

Four Downs: AFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Charles McDonald

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Need: Interior Offensive Line

The Ravens did well to secure their quarterback of the future by trading up for the electrifying Lamar Jackson, and they've thrown enough short-term solutions at wide receiver to at least have a competitive unit there. Where they're currently lacking is on the interior of their offensive line. Right guard Marshal Yanda is a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but Baltimore could use steadier options next to him. Center and left guard are currently manned by former undrafted free agents Matt Skura and Alex Lewis, respectively. There aren't currently any legitimate options in free agency to provide a serious upgrade for Baltimore, so this looks like a hole for them to patch up in 2019.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Ravens didn't have too many players of note in their group of undrafted free agents. One player to keep an eye on is Rutgers running back Gus Edwards. Edwards spent four seasons at the University of Miami before transferring to Rutgers for the 2017 season. He caught 13 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown last year, so he might be able to contribute in the passing game if he makes the team. A special teams role is obviously more likely for him.


Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Need: Right Side of the Offensive Line

The Bengals do deserve some credit for what they've done this offseason. They finished the season with arguably no viable starters along the offensive line. They added a couple pieces by trading for stud left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafting center Billy Price in the first round. However, they still have holes at right guard and right tackle that they need to patch up moving into the future. For now, right guard is likely to be manned by Trey Hopkins, an undrafted fifth-year player who moved into the starting lineup last year. Right tackle presents a camp battle between two disappointing 2015 draft picks, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, as well as Bobby Hart, formerly of the New York Giants.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Chris Worley and Quinton Flowers are the big names to watch for the Bengals. Worley was a standout linebacker for Ohio State who fell through the cracks in the draft. Worley had 56 tackles and five sacks in his senior season with the Buckeyes; with the Bengals lacking linebacker depth, he might have a decent chance to make the roster. Flowers was one of the most productive quarterbacks in college football last year, and arguably the best quarterback in the history of the University of South Florida. He didn't have a great completion percentage, but he averaged more than 8 yards per pass attempt. It might be worth the Bengals' time to develop him behind Andy Dalton; he does have intriguing upside as a big-play passer in the NFL.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Need: Left Tackle

This one is fairly straightforward. Future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas retired, leaving the Browns with a gaping hole at left tackle. Right now, it seems like that void will be filled by 2016 third-round pick Shon Coleman, who played right tackle last year. Unless Coleman greatly exceeds expectations, the Browns might need to throw some extra help to the blindside to protect the winner of their quarterback competition, be it Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The name that sticks out among the Browns' undrafted free agents is Georgia defensive lineman Trenton Thompson. Thompson was a former five-star recruit who flashed moments of absolute brilliance while he was at Georgia. He had a little off-the-field turmoil that derailed his college career, but if the Browns can create the right environment for him they could have someone who makes their final 53-man roster. Desmond Harrison from the University of West Georgia was an offensive tackle prospect who generated a decent amount of pre-draft buzz. Harrison ran a 4.9-second 40-yard dash at the combine, blazing fast for an offensive tackle prospect.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Need: Pass-Rushing Depth

The Steelers don't have many holes on their squad, but they could stand to upgrade their pass-rushing depth on the edge. T.J. Watt had a strong rookie season, but Bud Dupree has been up and down since arriving as Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2015. Behind those two the Steelers have Anthony Chickillo, a decent tertiary rushing option, and Keion Adams, a 2017 seventh-round pick.

The Steelers led the league in sacks and sack rate last year, but they were a bit too dependent on blitzes to amass that total -- Pittsburgh got 15 sacks from inside linebackers or defensive backs -- and Jacksonville was able to exploit their aggressive defense in the playoffs. If the Steelers want a more sustainable way of generating pressure, they should find a way to make their edge rush a bit more competitive.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Like the Browns, the Steelers were able to sign a former five-star recruit in Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas. Thomas struggled to stay healthy at Florida State, but he has undeniable talent as a prospect. Thomas blew up the combine, posting elite marks in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, and 3-cone drill. This isn't to say Thomas will ever be as good as Ryan Shazier, but adding a linebacker with freakish athleticism while Shazier is out makes sense from a stylistic standpoint.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider.


9 comments, Last at 24 May 2018, 9:00am

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Alex Lewis was the Ravens 4th-rd pick in '16. He was not an UDFA. Lewis started 8 games as a rookie, but struggled with an ankle injury. Then suffered a season-ending injury in training camp last year -- shoulder, maybe? He had shoulder surgery this past January.

A potential alternative to Lewis is Nico Siragusa, who was also a 4th-rounder, drafted last year. He shredded his knee in training camp last year, ACL/MCL/PCL, and had some kind of follow-up procedure recently.
(The Ravens were really devastated on the O-line by injury last season.)

A third interior alternative is Zeus Jr winning the starting RT job, and James Hurst shifting inside to LG, where he started all of last year.

Lewis is ready now for OTA's. Siragusa is pointing toward training camp, according to the Balt Sun. Zeus looked positively svelte at rookie photo ops; Hurst is healthy and solid.

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Good analysis.

Hurst was a terrible tackle most of his career and spent last year as a perfectly decent guard. Assuming everyone stays healthy the only two question marks should be Zeus Jr at RT (where he should be at least as good as Howard was) and Skura vs. Siragusa vs. Boseman at center. Stanley is set at LT, Hurst and Lewis can battle it out for LG, S v S v B can battle it out for center, Yanda's RG and then Lewis v Zeus for RT.

If Hurst starts any games at tackle next season (due to injury or coaching insanity) we're in trouble.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Also in the mix is 2016 5th-rounder Jermaine Eluemunor, who started two games last season at guard. He looked completely unready last year; but one of those games was early against the Jags. Maybe a year in the NFL will do him good.

In the 6th-rd this year the Ravens picked up Alabama center Bradley Bozeman. He's supposed to be limited athletically; but I assume that like other Alabama products he is extremely well-prepared.

I guess my point is: the interior O-line may not be a team STRENGTH right now, but it's not like they're without solid options. I'd think you could say the same thing here that you said about the WR position: that the Ravens have thrown enough potential solutions at it to at least have a competitive unit there.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

The Steelers pass rush depth issues are compounded by the fact that Pittsburgh doesn't view Watt as a pure pass rusher. They used him in coverage a lot last year to pretty good effect. With Shazier leaving a big hole at cover linebacker, I expect they'll have Watt playing plenty more coverage this year, which means that Dupree and Chickillo will have to bring more pass rushing spark than they have in the past.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Sorry to bring that discussion again, regarding the draft strategy of the Bowns. I'm still
shocked by the fact they didn't pick Barkley at #1.
The Giants would still have chosen a non QB at #2. And then, the Jets would have gone
for Darnold or Mayfield. Which leaves the poor Browns with MAYFIELD or Darnold at #4.
Forget the rationale about overdrafting a press corner at #4. Especially when you have 2
early second round picks to draft an OL and a CB.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Why are you so sure the Giants don't take a QB at #2 if Barkley's gone? Or trade the pick to a QB-needy team?

I suspect Mayfield would still be around at #4 for the Browns (the Bills clearly loved Allen, and probably would have made a move to #2, and the Jets probably still take Darnold) - but it was definitely a riskier move for the Browns to make if they were truly in love with Mayfield.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I don't think it would've made sense to take Barkley after signing Carlos Hyde as a free agent. They're going to pay Hyde up to $15 million over three years, which is already quite a bit in the current RB market. As the #1 pick, Barkley would have gotten something like $32 million over four years. $13 million a year (in addition to whatever relatively small amount Duke Johnson is getting) is way too much to spend on running backs when you're the Cleveland Browns. If they didn't sign Hyde, then it's a different story, though I still don't love the idea of paying a running back $8 million a year.