Ravens, Browns Need Help in Trenches; Steelers Need DBs

Cleveland Browns DL Jordan Elliott
Cleveland Browns DL Jordan Elliott
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.


Biggest Need: Offensive Line

The Ravens knew it would be hard to replace Marshal Yanda; they didn't expect to have to replace Orlando Brown. The big man's trade demands made that a reality, however, leaving tackle—a position of unmatched strength just two seasons ago—a large "maybe." Alejandro Villanueva, whom tackle-challenged Pittsburgh was quite content to let walk, was signed to take over on the right side, with Tyre (Fire) Phillips there as depth. And we still don't know how long it will take All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who tore an ACL last season, to return to full strength. The situation is dire enough that Baltimore brought in Andre Smith, who opted out in 2020 and hasn't been useful in at least half a decade, as insurance.

The interior also has question marks. Bradley Bozeman was a center at Alabama but has played only guard in the NFL. He's being moved back into the middle. Kevin Zeitler is still a competent right guard, but the only thing certain about the left side is that a guy named Ben will be the starter; whether that is Bredeson, Powers, or Cleveland remains to be determined. The first two Bens are gentle young vets who have shown little thus far, while the latter is this year's big third-rounder from Georgia, whom the team hopes will seize the spot.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Having dealt away Orlando Brown, Baltimore went back to Norman for another Sooners tackle, Adrian Ealy, who has the desired measurable traits but lacks the agility and hand usage needed to be drafted. Another Big 12 player, safety Ar'Darius Washington from TCU, is on the opposite end of the physical spectrum—a tiny sprite (176 pounds) who made lots of plays in Fort Worth alongside the Raiders' second-round pick, Trevon Moehrig. Whether Washington can make it in the big boy league at that size is certainly in doubt—maybe he and DeVonta Smith can meet up at an I-95 rest stop to wolf down crab cakes and cheesesteaks.


Biggest Need: Defensive Tackle

Cynics in Cincy will insist the biggest need remains offensive line, though the Bengals threw a second-round pick (Jackson Carman) at the hole at right guard, drafted two other linemen as backups, and signed Riley Reiff to be the right tackle. Certainly, the team feels it is in a better place than 2020, when it trotted out a sieve that consumed Joe Burrow. On the other hand, the defensive front is still a question mark. Other than free-agent signee Larry Ogunjobi, there isn't anyone on the roster who can be a 3-technique pass-rusher from tackle. D.J. Reader, Mike Daniels, opted-back-in Josh Tupuo, and newly drafted man-mountain Tyler Shelvin are all two-down run-stuffers.

That would indicate Cincinnati will likely use ends inside on passing downs, and indeed Sam Hubbard is often used in that capacity. Cincy did offset the loss of Carl Lawson by signing Trey Hendrickson, but beyond second-year man Khalid Kareem, the team is relying on rookies to provide the rest of the rotation. Third-rounder Joseph Ossai and fourth-rounder Cam Sample are solid prospects, but counting on them to withstand the rigors of a 17-game season and make a large impact is optimistic at best. The Bengals were forced to trot out street free agents as starters last year after a devastating run of injuries; the depth is somewhat better but still has plenty of room to grow.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Gio Bernard's departure left Cincy in need of a change-of-pace back. Enter the diminutive (170 pounds) and saucily named Pooka Williams, who played four games at Kansas before opting out. He is a good pass-catcher, but probably lacks the elusiveness needed to succeed at his size in the NFL. He has one thing in common with new teammate Joe Mixon: Williams too was accused of punching a female student in college. On the other hand, punter Drue Chrisman became a Columbus legend after proposing to his girlfriend while pretending to hold her field goal attempt at Ohio State's spring game in 2019. He won't unseat Kevin Huber as the Bengals' punter, but Chrisman has already won in the big picture.


Biggest Need: Defensive Line

There has been a furious swapping of names on the Browns depth chart along the defensive line, but the front four remains an area of doubt, if not actual need. Myles Garrett is an obvious anchor, and by himself lifts the unit into average territory. The unknowns follow—will Jadeveon Clowney shake off injuries and underperformance to ever approach his "former top overall pick" status? Can Takk McKinley stay healthy in a new spot? What will be the effect of opting out in 2020 on defensive tackle Andrew Billings, at the moment penciled in to start in the wake of the surprise release of Sheldon Richardson? Is Jordan Elliott ready to take over at the other tackle spot, or will aging but still peppy Malik Jackson have to shoulder the load? On a team with enviable depth elsewhere, the defensive line remains the unit with the most question marks.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Realizing the team could use another big body inside, the Browns won a reported bidding war to procure Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, a former top recruit who underachieved badly in Tallahassee in 2020, appearing overweight and disinterested while feuding with the coaching staff. Abominable athletic testing at his pro day tumbled Wilson out of the draft entirely. The 2019 version showed flashes of a powerhouse, relentless tackle able to fit multiple schemes. Given the hole at the 3-tech spot for Cleveland, Wilson will get every crack to stick.


Biggest Need: Cornerback

Pittsburgh has managed to cobble together an offensive line it feels will be nasty and better in the run game (where it has nowhere to go but up). That's certainly arguable, but the front five looks positively glowing next to the state of the team's corners. After losing Mike Hilton to the Bengals and the surprising release of Steven Nelson, the depth chart consists of the solid but aging (32) Joe Haden, versatile Cam Sutton, and a whole lot of question marks. Can either Justin Layne or James Pierre take a step up in quality to claim the third spot? Can vet Trevor Williams be resurrected to play a role? Will the vaunted Steelers pass rush make the weakness at corner bearable? We shall see in September.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

For the first time in 80 years, no Michigan State Spartans player was drafted, though many felt cornerback Shakur Brown should have heard his name called. A smart, instinctive player who was all-Big Ten in 2020, Brown makes up in intangibles what he lacks in ideal size and athleticism, and as noted above, there is a paved path for him to make the roster. In 2018 linebacker Calvin Bundage hunted for a surgeon who would operate on his back when most advised him to quit football; having found the good doctor, Bundage was healthy enough by 2020 to get seven sacks at Oklahoma State. Like Brown, Bundage lacks ideal physical traits but certainly boasts the competitive ones.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.


10 comments, Last at 04 Jun 2021, 6:23pm

2 I still can't find any way…

I still can't find any way to justify Pittsburgh's drafting of a running back. This isn't a case of the Chiefs two years ago drafting for value because they felt good everywhere else. Pittsburgh is so ricketty at so many places - it feels like pure incompetence to make the pick a rb.

4 May I predict that Mike …

May I predict that Mike "never had losing season" Tomlin will overuse Harris to the point where he will be ineffective at the end of the season.

Good player, bad pick.

With Ben's age, they are in win now mode, but their oline has big question marks.

3 I quite like the Ravens offseason

Still think they should've asked Stanley to move to RT to avoid trading OBJ buuuuuut it was nice return that they used appropriately. Doubling up with Bateman and Tylan Wallace was sweet. Unlike last years first picks of LB (oof what a rough season for Queen) then...RB (not that Dobbins is bad but they're usually smarter than that). Got Zeitler quick then waited for Alejandro. Brilliant. Kinda hoping it pays off for them soon. Ravens in the SB would be fun.

5 Ravens and Steelers, just say no to early round RB's

Certainly I agree with the comments above, I was shocked when the Ravens used a 2nd round pick to draft Dobbins. Queen's metrics were horrible last year. Positional value has been a much discussed topic, and to use the 1st two picks of a draft to get an ILB and a RB, you had better be drafting the next Ray Lewis and Jamaal Lewis. Maybe the running back better be the next Jim Brown.

I think the Raven's got boxed in with regards to Orlando Brown. Stanley was never going to move to RT, if he recovers from his injury his career will last beyond his current contract. Orlando Brown was successful at LT in a small sample size of about a half of a season. He is huge, his footwork and quickness are not believed to be adequate to become a star LT. When the Ravens let someone go, let the buyer beware. I would wish Orlando Brown the best, except that he went to the Chiefs, who are clearly an Orlando Brown like large roadblock to the Raven's making the Super Bowl.

It is hard to imagine a Ravens-Steelers matchup where both offensive lines are in question, but that is where we are right now.

As for the Steelers, they are the next victim of the draft a first round running back. If history repeats itself, the Steelers will be fine despite this first round faux pas. I must give Tomlin and the entire Steelers organization credit for never have a losing season in the Tomlin era, it is an amazing run. To not have a losing season with Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph at QB in 2019 alone is incredible. The Steelers looked bad down the stretch and in the playoffs last year, maybe 2021 is finally the year of a sub .500 record. However, this is a dangerous statement, just as you throw 11 guys on the field in a Ravens uniform and good defense is played, you throw together a 53 man roster in a Steelers uniform, and good football is played. These are two great organizations, the turnover rate of players in the NFL is mind boggling, yet the Steelers and Ravens being good teams is a constant, anchored by defense, which is not nearly as predictive year to year as good offense. As a Ravens fan, this looks like the worst Steelers team in a very long time (meaning that this is not a good Steelers team), yet I would gladly toss the two head to head matchups with the Steelers off the schedule and replace the games with two teams randomly picked teams out of a hat.

I will make a prediction: Starting in 2026 or sooner we will go on a decade long run in which 2 or fewer running backs are drafted in the first round. I would go to zero, but there will always be that one or two teams that will be foolish, or that one or two players that someone will say, "No this guy is different"

6 The Ravens being good for so…

The Ravens being good for so long is a freaken miracle. Other Ravens fans have speculated how they have maintained defensive competency but it's one of the most impressive and underappreciated feats in NFL history. 

The Steelers are similarly impressive although they don't have quite the consistent calling card that the Ravens do other than wide receiver I guess. Having Big Ben helps explain a lot of the consistency, but they have won games without him too. 

Hard to forecast if this is slated to continue. We shall see

8 So much continuity

Other Ravens fans have speculated how they have maintained defensive competency...

I know you read my novel on this in some other comment thread here a few months ago, but just to reiterate: the Ravens have had unbelievable continuity on the scouting side, and the defensive coaching side, the past 25 years. 

Current GM Eric DeCosta was an assistant back in their inaugural season of 1996.  And Ozzie is still in the building, as an executive VP.  I don't know any names of individual scouts; but I bet if DeCosta is still there 25 yrs later, some other scouts are too.  There is long established institutional knowledge about what a linebacker looks like, what a 3-technique looks like, what a safety looks like.  I'm sure they've "refined" things some – maybe valuing a slot corner more than they would have 10 yrs ago, or looking more for coverage ability over thumping size in an ILB, stuff like that – but overall the scouts have been looking for the same kinds of things for over 20 years.  

They've had just two head coaches since the 1998 season.  Maybe more to the point, for 25 years every new Defensive Coordinator has been an internal promotion.  They've kept DCs even thru HC changes.  The last "big" scheme change was when they switched from Marvin Lewis's 4-3 to Mike Nolan's 3-4 in 2002.  Current DC Wink Martindale did a much ballyhooed re-write of the defensive playbook in 2018, to streamline the play calls and supposedly make it easier for the players to learn (and call in no-huddle situations).  But he was already in his seventh season with the team; that wasn't a "chuck the whole system" move.

One of the hidden benefits of that kind of continuity is, young players who were "up & coming" or "developing" don't "lose their spot" when the team changes coordinators.  The other defensive coaches stay in place; so the new staff was already there and already knew them and was already on board with their "promise" and their place in succession.  That lets the team benefit from the slow-developing 2nd- & 3rd- & 5th-rd picks – for example, there's no doubt in my mind that Tyus Bowser can do 85% or more of what Matt Judon did for the Ravens – in way that a team which churns coaches (hello Cleveland) just can't do.

It's fun rooting for the Ravens, honestly.  :-)  
(Much of the time.)

9 I am curious how much credit…

I am curious how much credit for the Ravens should go to the head coaches? I think Harbaugh is a good coach and he certainly has embraced analytics(though perhaps thats less him and more of a top down mandate?).


7 Ravens OL makeover is done; help may be needed at Edge or Safety

The planned starting OL for Baltimore is:
Ronnie Stanley — Ben Cleveland — Bradley Bozeman — Kevin Zeitler — Alejandro Villanueva

If Stanley is healthy for opening day, that line is a clear upgrade over last year's OL after game 7.  The Ravens were scrambling the last 11 games of the year (9 reg season, 2 playoffs). There's even a plausible argument that it would be an upgrade over last year's opening day line. Sure, a downgrade at RT (Orlando Brown > Villanueva); but the interior was weak all last season. All three interior spots look upgraded:

  • Bozeman is likely better at C than he has been at LG, which would make him a big upgrade over last year's center combo of Skura & Mekari.
  • Zeitler is a much better RG than Tyre Phillips was.
  • And Ben Cleveland is at least a size & strength upgrade over Bozeman at LG; he'll likely anchor better in pass-pro and get better push in-line. (Insert Hafthor Bjornsson joke about Ben Cleveland here.)

If Stanley is NOT healthy for opening day – well, that's a fucking emergency. Ravens fans are going to start wishing for Orlando Brown real quick. Hopefully Stanley will be good to go. BTW, there's no way in hell any team would move Stanley off LT for Orlando Brown. No team would even consider it.

On Ravens discussion boards, what we're talking about as the biggest remaining need is a veteran edge rusher like Justin Houston or Melvin Ingram. One OLB spot will go to Tyus Bowser. On the other side, the options are "unproven": rookie Odafe Oweh and 3rd-yr guy Jaylon Ferguson. I suspect that what the Ravens plan to do is give a nice long look to the young guys in OTAs and minicamp, and then decide at the end of the summer whether they need to sign a vet. If Oweh plays like a young Lawrence Taylor in minicamp, then maybe they'll just roll with him. Otherwise look for them to sign someone like Houston or Ingram or similar.

An under-the-radar need for the Ravens is at safety. Their two starters played every snap last season; there was no depth behind them, the Ravens just got lucky. Neither of them is the classic "single high" Ed Reed / Earl Thomas type. The Ravens just don't have that guy on the roster; the returning starters are hybrid types. Draftee Brandon Stephens is likely to play safety. If a quality veteran safety shakes out post- June 1, Baltimore might scoop them up.

10 "No team would even consider it."

Why is that? People seem to not want to think (slightly) outside the box. OBJ was good at LT and made the transition mid season. Yall don't think Stanley could do the same but over the offseason? Maybe he turns out be a better RT than OBJ and OBJ with an offseason becomes a better LT than Stanley (even though less likely than the former)?

They're LITERALLY asking street free agent LT Alejandro to go to RT and he knows nothing about their scheme! IDK, the objections to it seem silly not to even try and ask him. If he doesn't want to, then sure trade OBJ but why's it not worth a shot asking him? Seems to be rooted in very (VERY) old thinking that LT must be superior in pass blocking (as if the Ravens aren't a run heavy team)! That is no longer true! Especially for an odd team like the Ravens who utilize QB running.