Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

Four Downs: AFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Need: Edge rusher

After letting Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith leave in free agency, the Ravens could only walk away with one stab at the edge rusher apple in the draft: Jaylon Ferguson. Ferguson is the career leader in FBS sacks, but fell to the third round on subpar measureables, so he's kind of an eye-of-the-beholder prospect. Matt Judon has never really been a first-tier edge rusher and the backups at the position are Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser, neither of whom inspire a lot of confidence. Maybe the Ravens can piece together a strong pass rush from this group, but they're banking on a lot to go right.

(Ed. Note: You may have noticed that Ferguson was inexplicably left out of the SackSEER article this year. Oops. Ferguson is projected for 16.0 sacks through Year 5 with a SackSEER rating of 65.8 percent. His college production is balanced by a pro day 3-cone reported at over 8 seconds.)

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: You might recognize Gerald Willis III from being on the "top available prospects" scroll for the entirety of Day 3 of the draft. Willis finished second in the ACC in tackles for loss but has a checkered off-field history that includes: skipping an entire season for unreported reasons, beating up Marty Mornhinweg's kid at Florida, and dealing with a cacophony of injuries, including one that forced him to miss the Senior Bowl. Antoine Wesley out of Texas Tech is a wideout with true win-in-traffic skills who might be best utilized in a Lamar Jackson offense, and the depth chart at Baltimore wideout is nothing if not a vacuum.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Need: Linebacker

Nick Vigil had a promising start to his career but hasn't been healthy or good enough to warrant a huge commitment yet. With Vontaze Burfict mercifully released, the team has nothing but stopgaps and low-round picks at the position. Preston Brown is a temporary solution, while Hardy Nickerson Jr. and Jordan Evans didn't play well at all in 2018. Maybe Malik Jefferson, a 2018 third-rounder, gets out of the rookie growth box the Bengals seem to put most of their picks in. But you can argue that the Bengals shouldn't expect a single member of this unit to play well in 2019.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Bengals reeled in one of the consensus best UDFAs in Nebraska's Stanley Morgan, who flashed a lot of technique and skill as the Cornhuskers lead wideout in 2018. Morgan broke the Nebraska receiving yards single-season record twice in his last two years, and proved himself quite an athlete at the NFL combine with the second-best 3-cone drill time of all wideout prospects. John Ross has not exactly won many fans in Cincinnati his first couple of seasons.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Need: Offensive line

The Browns didn't spend a single pick outside at tackle even though Greg Robinson, Desmond Harrison, and Chris Hubbard didn't have great seasons in 2018. Robinson had enough of a second half to get the Browns to give him a full-time shot, but they're hardly locked into him as a long-term solution. Add the fact that the trade of Kevin Zeitler to the Giants has now forced Austin Corbett into a starting spot and he may be a bit of a question mark. It's hard to find a lot of damaging flaws on the rebuilt Browns, but they may be asking Baker Mayfield to make a lot of plays late in the down after avoiding an initial pass-rusher.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Buried behind other strong starters, Boston College's Wyatt Ray didn't get a fair shake until his senior season, when he led the Golden Eagles with 9.0 sacks and added 11.5 tackles for loss. That happens when Harold Landry is in front of you for playing time. Ray's an interesting developmental pass-rush prospect for a team that has a lot of settled starters but not much depth at the position after jettisoning Emmanuel Ogbah.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

The Steelers have effectively managed the downside of Ben Roethlisberger's career by having enough great receivers to make life easy for him. With Antonio Brown gone, we're no longer sure that will be the case. They do have options outside of JuJu Smith-Schuster, but none of the options are proven. James Washington's first year produced a -25.1% DVOA even with Brown and Smith-Schuster as cover, and Ryan Switzer was at -11.1% DVOA despite an 82 percent catch rate. Third-round pick Diontae Johnson is a credible stab at solving the situation -- he's explosive -- and the Steelers have shown incredible skill when selecting wideouts later in the draft. Still, they're going to need someone to show that skill off instantly.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: A hulking, 6-foot-7, 326-pound guard, Fred Johnson out of Florida might have a shot to stick to this roster if he can overcome his natural leverage issues inside. They've also added Texas A&M long snapper Trevor Wood. Don't sleep easy, Kameron Canaday!

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.


6 comments, Last at 05 Jun 2019, 11:38pm

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

I would say Roethlisberger's had something to do with these receivers becoming great in the first place. Why no mention of Donte Moncrief, who the Steelers signed as a FA?

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Well, let's look at it more closely.... Hines Ward was a three-time Pro Bowl WR catching balls from Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak before Rothlisberger showed up... Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders didn't exactly fade into oblivion after they left. Then they picked up Antonio Brown, Heath Miller as a productive TE, and more recently Schuster-Smith and LeVeon Bell as a pass catching running back. ( Why does this box keep changing RB to 4TH?).

At one point, Rothlisberger had Ward, Wallace, Sanders, Brown, and Miller at the same time. I think it's very fair to say that Rothlisberger has had a wealth of above average to great receivers throughout his career. If nothing else, you can't give him credit for "making" Hines Ward or Antonio Brown. Not to say that Ben has not been a top level QB, just that he has probably had more talented receivers around him than anyone but Peyton Manning.

I'm guessing that the reference to Dante Moncrief was meant to be sarcastic.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Well, we don't know yet how Brown will do w/o Roethlisberger. I certainly wouldn't assume, however, that an undersized, former walk on 6th round pick from C. Michigan goes on the run AB did with just anyone throwing him the ball.

Why would the reference to Moncrief be a joke? He went for around 50 catches and 650 yards in 2018 for a team with a shit QB situation. I don't think they expect him to be AB, but I'm sure the Steelers expect him to be a contributor in 2019.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

An undersized late-round draft pick with an uncanny ability to race downfield behind defenses sounds like a star WR, like Tyreek Hill last year. Sure, he probably would suck with a QB who Bortles.

Donte Moncrief didn't exactly excel with Andrew Luck as his QB. Why would he do better with Rothlisberger?