Four Downs: AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Need: Interior offensive line

If we're being honest, the Ravens' massive influx of picks at least touched on all their holes and then some. But if there's one situation that could be a little shaky, it's the torch-passing up the middle. The Ravens spent a pair of mid-round picks there in third-rounder Tyre Phillips (Mississippi State) and fourth-rounder Ben Bredeson (Michigan). Those two will pair with Matt Skura, Patrick Mekari, and 2019 fourth-rounder Ben Powers to try to fill the shoes of Marshal Yanda at right guard and put an above-average center out there. As good as Baltimore's run game was last year, and as old as Yanda was, this is probably best regarded as a talent downgrade until proven otherwise.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Ravens have one of the more impressive UDFA classes in the NFL. Given their uncertainty about the interior offensive line, they signed three different UDFAs that project there. Missouri's Trystan Colon-Costillo reportedly got an $87,500 bonus -- Lance Zierlein called him a center-only prospect and noted in his weaknesses that he was "unable to control the man he's blocking," which maybe doesn't sound quite as promising as you'd like! The Ravens also added Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, a sleeper in some circles, for a $30,000 bonus. BYU running back Ty'Son Williams, a Matt Waldman favorite who tore his ACL before last season, was signed to continue to stack the backfield. Finally, Last Chance U alum Chauncey Rivers, who transferred to Mississippi State, was regarded as one of the better UDFA edge players. The rich get richer.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Need: Offensive line

Jonah Williams returns from injury, and Trey Hopkins was decent enough last season. But the Bengals spent just one pick -- a sixth-rounder on Kansas' Hakeem Adeniji -- on a line that was woeful last season. Now, the Bengals had plenty of other needs, they got good value in the draft, and there's not a lot of hole-poking to be done with their selections. But Joe Burrow is going to have to deal with Bobby Hart at right tackle, Year 3 of trying to make center Billy Price a thing, and probably Michael Jordan or stopgap Xavier Su'a-Filo at the other guard spot. It's likely all of those players will get some run this year. That's not ideal.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Second-team All-SEC last season, Georgia interior lineman Tyler Clark will probably have a tough time getting on the field early, but he's the most promising defensive player the Bengals signed. He projects as a high-motor run-stuffing tweener. Mitchell Wilcox from South Florida projects as a backup for Drew Sample as the in-line tight end. Wilcox actually had better receiving production early in his career, but finished as South Florida's all-time leader in catches (100) and receiving yards (1,326) -- so no matter how their pro careers turn out, he at least produced more receiving value in college than Sample did.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Need: Cornerback

Yet another AFC North team that had an excellent draft, the Browns plugged up a lot of their obvious holes. Denzel Ward's status as No. 1 corner is pretty secure, but Greedy Williams had an up-and-down rookie season. The Browns brought in Kevin Johnson off a nice rebound year in Buffalo, and Terrance Mitchell has had some decent years but hasn't exactly been steady. The elements to have a good full cornerback unit are somewhere in this group -- maybe even Andrew Sendejo gets involved in the middle of the field -- but it is far from a certainty that they are there.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: One of the biggest bonuses that we have reported this year is the $145,000 that Oklahoma State cornerback A.J. Green (no, not that A.J. Green) got from the Browns. Green did an excellent job roughing up Denzel Mims and CeeDee Lamb in 2019. As you might expect from that description, Green ran a 4.62s 40-yard-dash and was lauded for disrupting receivers more than for dealing with deep balls. Cleveland also picked up dripping raw South Carolina State tackle Alex Taylor, who ran a 5.09s 40-yard-dash at 6-foot-8, 308 pounds and was a star basketball player in high school. Taylor is currently all tools and no polish.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Need: Quarterback

The one team in this division that did not touch our main pre-draft hole was Pittsburgh, which is rolling with Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, and Devlin Hodges as the main members of the quarterback room. Roethlisberger has missed portions of four of the last five seasons and made several in-season cameos where the "240 pounds" he was listed at appeared to be just a suggestion. We can understand that Steelers fans believe he'll be good next year, and we're not counting it out by any chance -- there's absolutely a scenario where he plays 16 games and throws for 5,000 yards again. But if he can't stay healthy, the terrific remainder of this roster is going to be shackled down with subpar quarterback play, because we have no faith in the backups.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Pittsburgh loaded up on defensive undrafted free agents. Mississippi's Josiah Coatney projects as a down lineman in a 3-4 and will get some time to grow into the role behind Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Calvin Taylor, signed out of Kentucky as a 6-foot-9 behemoth, probably also projects to 3-4 end and had a real nice senior season with 8.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. The Steelers also stole a pair of solid corner prospects in Miami's Trajan Bandy and Florida Atlantic's James Pierre.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.


5 comments, Last at 09 Jun 2020, 10:20pm

1 Ben

"Roethlisberger has missed portions of four of the last five seasons"

You're correct to say a 16 game season for him is possible.  However your "greatest need"  plus his age and recent injury history speaks volumes for how likely you think it is.   Also, I'm old enough to remember that Terry Bradshaw's career was ended by an elbow injury so there's that as well.

2 It's also misleading- he…

In reply to by serutan

It's also misleading- he missed approximately one and a half quarters in 2018 due to some combination of Tomlin's hubris and Oakland's stadium being a dilapidated hellhole, and in 2017 the game he missed was a game he sat out because they had nothing to play for.  From 2013-18 he missed zero games due to injury in 4 of the 6 seasons.  None of those injuries that caused him to miss time were arm-related.  It's very well a concern, but mostly because he's 38 years old coming off elbow surgery and not because 4 years ago he suffered an ankle injury.   I am impressed with Rivers' ability to use different "hur dur Ben is fat" jokes in his articles.

4 Baby Ben.

The biggest issue is that we haven't seen Ben play football in some time and his age is a concern as much as injury.

We have to be skeptical.

The Steelers are going all in with Ben because their backups suck to put it mildly.

I still can't believe my Cards lost to the Steelers last year given their QB situation...

3 I'd have picked edge-rush for the Ravens

The Ravens "biggest need" is probably edge rush.  Last year's squad could not get any pressure without blitzing.  They added interior push in free agency with Calais Campbell & Derek Wolfe, also in the draft, and that should help a lot.  But the edge personnel is unchanged: Matt Judon, 2nd-yr guy Jaylon Ferguson, & Pernell McPhee, who all combined for 15 sacks in 2019.  McPhee was playing like a demon until he got hurt last year, but maybe needs some load management.

It's hard to believe the Ravens won't be able to come up with a solid combo at O-line from their basket of ingredients. 

At center, Harbaugh and DeCosta have both said the team is considering LG Bradley Bozeman, who he played the position at Alabama.  If he moves, then Mekari & Skura would be behind him (Skura is rehabbing a bad knee injury.)  At G, they signed DJ Fluker from Seattle and they have last year's 4th-rounder from Oklahoma Ben Powers.  So they could throw a starting 5 out there without depending on any rookie.  That seems most likely: the Ravens like to have their mid-rd OL rookies work for a year in practice and the weight room, before throwing them into the fire.

Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson seem likely to be backups this year, along with Mekari and either Skura or one of the UDFA centers.


5 Timing and Momentum.

I really considered last year the Ravens year to win the SB given the timing and the type of year Lamar Jackson had.

Now, with the league having had a year to gameplan for him, I don't see them having the same type of year.  I see a bit of regression overall even if they have the same record.

The NFL is all about who you play and when you play them.

You can be the best team in the NFL, but the playoffs are a one game elimination.  I would also be concerned with Jackson's judgement given how they lost against the Titans.  Hopefully he makes better gametime decisions going forward.