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Two NFC teams were hit hardest by injuries last year. One already set the AGL record in 2016, while the other has a coach with the worst AGL since 2002. Also: the Rams' incredible bill of health in L.A., and Tampa Bay's questionable injury reporting.

29 Mar 2005

Four Downs: AFC North

By Ryan Wilson

Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: AFC North? You'll find it here.

Baltimore Ravens

Derrick Mason's Children

Historically, the Baltimore Ravens have been slow to use free agency as a means to rebuild their team, but this off-season has been a little different. Actually, it's been a lot different. Thanks to the Tennessee Titans having the kind of financial problems that would make Neverland Ranch employees shake their heads, the Ravens were able to sign two salary cap casualties -- and perennial Pro Bowlers -- in WR Derrick Mason and CB Samari Rolle.

After getting screwed last off-season when the trade for Terrell Owens fell through, Baltimore finally gets the legitimate outside threat it's been lacking since, well, Baltimore arrived from Cleveland in 1996. Mason's presence should also take pressure off both QB Kyle Boller and RB Jamal Lewis. Boller is entering his third season as the starter and has yet to live up to the hype he garnered as the "guy most likely to throw a football through uprights from midfield while kneeling to improve his draft position." Lewis spent most of the off-season in the pokey with Martha Stewart and it'll be interesting to see if he's able to rebound from a tumultuous 12 months that also included a four-game suspension and an ankle injury that caused him to miss some action.

Baltimore had every intention on re-signing CB Gary Baxter. At 6'2", 215 lbs. he was one of the most physical corners in the AFC and was a priority for GM Ozzie Newsome heading into free agency. But when the two sides couldn't reach an agreement and Baxter bolted for Cleveland, the Ravens turned to Samari Rolle -- not a bad consolation prize. Although several years older than Baxter, Rolle is one of the best cover guys in the NFL and his presence will mean that Baltimore can use a lot more single coverage schemes leaving Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to blitz the quarterback silly.

One of the least publicized but most important acquisitions to date was G Keydrick Vincent. Incumbent Bennie Anderson was well-suited as a run-blocker but lacked the athleticism to get out in front of plays to wreak havoc. Vincent had a surprisingly solid season for a Pittsburgh team that led the AFC in rushing and is adept at pulling, trapping, and pass-blocking. There are still some questions along the offensive line, but Vincent is an upgrade at the guard position.

Draft Needs

Going into free agency the talk was that Baltimore would probably use the draft to take another wide receiver in the hopes that they would finally hit the jackpot. The Ravens will probably still take a wideout, but don't expect it to be in the first round. This draft is particularly deep at the wide receiver position and West Virginia's Chris Henry might be an intriguing pick in round two. Physically he's got first round talent, but his mental makeup is more likely to conjure images of Randy Moss than Hines Ward. But the Ravens aren't easily scared off by guys with character issues, and if Deion Sanders can serve as his self-appointed mentor (like he volunteered to do for Randy Moss) this could be really fun to watch.

Because new defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will in all likelihood switch the team back to the 4-3 defense, the focus now seems to be on upgrading the defensive line so Ray Lewis can have more opportunities to make plays near the line of scrimmage and scream into his microphone. At the top of the list is DT Shaun Cody of USC, who actually might be better suited as an end in the NFL. Given that Baltimore is still unsure that DE Anthony Weaver is the long-term answer, Cody might be the safest pick.

Baltimore must also approach the draft with the idea that cornerstones Ray Lewis and Jonathon Ogden won't play forever so look for them to address these positions probably sometime on day two.

Recent Draft History

Since 1999 the Ravens have taken eight receivers in the draft and have yet to develop a consistent deep play threat (as an interesting side note, the Colts have only drafted one WR in that time and that was Reggie Wayne in 2001). Travis Taylor was taken with the 10th overall pick in 2000 and never came close to being a number one receiver. By comparison, the Ravens have drafted seven defensive backs (including Chris McAllister, Reed and Baxter), five running backs (Lewis, Chester Taylor and Musa Smith), and two linebackers (Edgerton Hartwell) at positions that are routinely manned by some of the best players in the league. So why the front office clumsiness when it comes to the WR (and to a lesser extent the QB) position? A lot of it probably had to do with Billick's reputation as an offensive mastermind when he arrived in Baltimore. After serving as the offensive coordinator in Minnesota, he got a first hand look at how a bad defense often trumps a good offense, and to his credit set out to not make that mistake in his first head coaching gig.

Unfortunately, he took it to the extreme when he built teams around guys named Banks, Dilfer, Grbac, Redman and Blake who often had tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Todd Heap as favorite targets because of the dearth of talent at the wideout position. For the first time in a long time, the 2004 draft yielded some promising WR prospects. Devard Darling and Clarence Moore are two players who have a shot at growing into solid number two receivers, especially now that Mason will be the first legitimate go-to guy since the team played in Cleveland and Paul Warfield was leading the league in TD receptions.

Cleveland Browns

Savage Love

Thanks to the wonders of the salary cap, the Cleveland Browns have wrestled the title of Off-season Super Bowl Champions from the stubbornly thrifty Washington Redskins. New head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage have been busy re-tooling a team that hit rock bottom harder than Ashlee Simpson following her Saturday Night Live appearance. QB Jeff Garcia, CB Anthony Henry, DE Courtney Brown and DT Gerard Warren are out, while QB Trent Dilfer, G Joe Andruzzi, DT Ryan Fisk, LB Matt Stewart and CB Gary Baxter are in. Cleveland has given another one of its perennial first round underachievers, RB William Green, permission to seek a trade, but he's still with the team.

Taking over a team with self-esteem issues that would make Richard Lewis blush is one thing. Making matters worse is that Crennel wants to switch to the 3-4 on defense. Helping to ease the transition will be Fisk and Stewart, two players who have experience in the 3-4 during stints with previous teams. Baxter will also bolster a decidedly mediocre secondary, and his imposing presence and physical skills will allow the Browns to take more chances defensively.

Cleveland has done more to strengthen their offensive line in the first few months of the Crennel tenure than Butch Davis did during his four year regime. Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman will upgrade the guard positions, but there are still questions about how well this unit can pass-block.

Draft Needs

Currently, in terms of personnel, this Browns team is at whatever comes before square one. Other than P Kyle Richardson and K Phil Dawson, every position could use either a quality starter or some added depth. Cleveland has the third pick in the draft and it's still not clear what direction the team might go. They could get their quarterback of the future in Aaron Rodgers (assuming the 49ers take QB Alex Smith), or instead take Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, who would be a good fit in Crennel's 3-4. Another option would be for the Browns to trade out of the third pick in an effort to get more warm bodies on the roster.

If the Browns do decide to take Rodgers, there will be the inevitable questions about whether his Jeff Tedford pedigree will hinder his NFL growth. And there may actually be something to this. Looking at all the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1994, there are some noticeable differences between Tedford and non-Tedford coached signal-callers.

Pass Yds. Comp. Pct Pass TDs INTs Rush Yds
Tedford QBs 1,714 53.4 8.8 10.0 103.8
Other QBs 2,259 57.3 13.8 10.4 173.6

Using t-tests, there is a statistically significant difference in passing yards, completion percentage, and touchdown passes. There were no discernable differences in interceptions and rushing yards when comparing Tedford to non-Tedford quarterbacks. This was a just a cursory look at a potentially interesting phenomena, so it's by no means definitive. Still, it points to the fact that when looking at potential first round picks, Tedford-trained quarterbacks might on average, have a tougher transition to professional football than their counterparts.

Recent Draft History

If Cleveland's recent draft history was an actor, it would be Brian Bosworth without the talent. We're all familiar with the Browns taking QB Tim Couch and DE Courtney Brown with the first overall selection in consecutive years. And that they followed that up by taking perpetual underachievers DT Gerard Warren in the first round in 2001 and RB William Green in 2002. Making matters worse is that if we played the "what-if game: the later rounds edition," names like QB Aaron Brooks (4th round), DE Adalius Thomas (6th round), DT Shaun Rogers (2nd round) and RB Najeh Davenport (4th round) would've all been available, and all have turned out to be much better pros than any of the Browns' first round picks from 1999-2002.

There is good news, however. Lost in all these forgettable names is the fact that in the past two drafts, the Browns have done a respectable job of stocking their roster. In 2003 they not only got C Jeff Faine, but also managed take three other players who should start this season (LB Chaun Thompson, S Chris Crocker and RB Lee Suggs). And their top two picks from the 2004 draft -- TE Kellen Winslow and S Sean Jones -- played in a whopping three games last season because of injuries, but both look to play big roles in the "Cleveland Browns Makeover Story." The only thing missing is Carson Kressley.

Cincinnati Bengals

T.J. Who's Your Daddy: The Return

The Bengals haven't been as active as the Ravens or Browns, but they still managed to re-sign two of their best offensive players. Both RB Rudi Johnson and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh were unrestricted free agents given long-term deals to stay in Cincinnati. And the fact that the players actually wanted to stay says more about the direction of this franchise than back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

And any concerns about Johnson being able to replace Corey Dillon were all but forgotten after he rushed for over 1,400 yards in 2004. In fact, his 30.6 DPAR (Defensive Points Above Replacement, explained here) was better than any DPAR Dillon posted from 2000-2002, all seasons where he rushed for no fewer than 1,300 yards.

The Bengals also used free agency to address their biggest weakness last season (other than those uniforms): the defensive line. They signed DT Bryan Robinson, who does a good job of occupying multiple blockers. He should give both DT John Thornton and DE Justin Smith more opportunities to make plays in the backfield and pressure the quarterback.

Draft Needs

The good news is that Cincinnati improved its run defense DVOA (What is DVOA? Explained here.) in 2004. The bad news is that they were still only the 22nd best team in the NFL following a league-worst performance in 2003. As mentioned above, the Bengals will look to strengthen a defensive line that finished ahead of only the Vikings in our adjusted line yards measure (3.98). (What are adjusted line yards? Explained here.)

Anytime the words "defense" and "Vikings" are used in the same sentence when describing your team, it's "back to the drawing board" time, and that's exactly what the Bengals have mind. They could take either a defensive tackle or defensive end with their first round pick (17th overall). Florida State DT Travis Johnson is widely considered the best at his position, but he probably won't be around when the Bengals pick. And given that the position isn't particularly strong after Johnson, Cincinnati may be eying one of three defensive ends: Wisconsin's Erasmus James, Maryland's Shawne Merriman and Georgia's David Pollack. James is coming off a hip injury and this could scare off some teams picking ahead of Cincinnati; both Merriman and Pollack have been mentioned as outside linebackers in the 3-4 and there is some concern that they might struggle against offensive linemen at the next level if they stay at defensive end.

After the defensive line, the only other issue on this side of the ball is the strong safety position. If all of Cincinnati's DT/DE favorites are gone by the time they pick, they might take S Thomas Davis from Georgia. He's built like a linebacker and is very strong against the run, but there were some concerns about his 4.69 40-time during his pro day. But with Madieu Williams playing free safety like Ed Reed Lite, Davis's primary job will be to stop the run like, well, a fourth linebacker.

Look for the Bengals to also draft C Rich Braham's replacement. He's 35 and has battled injuries the past few seasons. And because this draft is stocked with running backs, Cincinnati may also add depth to a position still mired in uncertainty due to last year's first round pick, Chris Perry missing virtually all of last season with injuries.

Recent Draft History

Unlike their AFC North counterparts in Cleveland, Marvin Lewis and the Bengals have done a good job of taking players who immediately make contributions. Since 2003, Cincinnati has taken 20 players; seven now start while another 11 contribute as backups. And of the top five picks in last year's draft, four ended the season as starters. Ironically, only first round pick Chris Perry didn't start due to injuries and some guy named Rudi Johnson. The fact that the Bengals signed Johnson to a five-year deal this off-season might be an indication they're uncertain as to Perry's long-term future with the club. Once again turning to the "what-if" game, many people were scratching their head during the 2004 draft when the Bengals traded down in the first round and eventually passed on both Stephen Jackson and Kevin Jones, considered the two best backs in the draft.

Still, despite recent futility, their 2001 draft yielded four starters on last year's team. DE Justin Smith (1st round), WR Chad Johnson (2nd), RB Rudi Johnson (4th) and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (7th) all were all integral to last season's success. If the Bengals can build on recent draft successes, this team could battle the Ravens and Steelers for the top spot in the AFC North.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Arrivals and Departures (Well, Departures)

You get the impression that the Pittsburgh Steelers run their organization like it was a Mom & Pop ice cream stand located on the boardwalk. It's open during the busy season, but boarded up once all the tourists head for home. Now that the 2004 season is in the books, you're all but certain that Cowher turned out the lights at their South Side facility on his way to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and the winter meetings.

Of course that's not what really happened, but it sure does seem that way. So far, the Steelers have lost four players from last year's 15-1 team. In addition to QB Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target, WR Plaxico Burress (now a Giant), the right side of the offensive line is also playing somewhere else next season (RG Keydrick Vincent is a Raven and RT Oliver Ross will ply his trade in Arizona). Also gone is 2001 AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, MLB Kendrell Bell, who was ridiculously overpaid to take his game to Kansas City.

And Pittsburgh? They got WR Cedrick Wilson -- all 5'10" 190 lbs. of him to replace Burress. He may be six inches shorter than his predecessor, but his ability to stretch the field will help neutralize his lack of height. As of now he'll battle the other 5'10" 190 lbs. receiver, Antwaan Randle El, for the number two spot, although there's a very good chance the Steelers will take a receiver early in the draft.

Draft Needs

It was either Vince Lombardi or David Brent who said you can never have enough defensive backs. Whoever it was, the Steelers are believers. They have the 30th overall selection and, depending on how things play out, they could either take a cornerback or a wide receiver. They released CB Chad Scott and currently have 34 year old Willie Williams penciled in as the starter. Last year's 2nd round pick, Ricardo Colclough, and third-year player Ike Taylor will also get a chance to win the job. Currently names like Clemson's Justin Miller, LSU's Corey Webster, and Michigan's Marlin Jackson are all mentioned as players who may be around late in the first round.

If Pittsburgh instead decides to find Burress's replacement, there are a few intriguing names that should be available. South Carolina's Troy Williamson is a 6'1", 200 lbs. junior who can run by anybody. He still is considered a bit raw, but his athleticism and big-play ability make him a very interesting prospect. If Pittsburgh waits until later rounds to get a receiver, two guys that turned a lot of heads at the combine were Arkansas's Matt Jones and Northern Colorado's Vincent Jackson. Jones played QB in college, but he's a 6'6" athlete who busted out a 4.4 sec. 40-yard dash at the combine and also played on the basketball team. He's considered a project. Jackson on the other hand, is a polished route runner who also happens to be 6'4", 240 lbs. If Jerome Bettis were five inches taller, a lot faster, and could catch, he'd be Vincent Jackson.

There's some talk that Jackson could move to tight end at the next level, which would also suit their draft needs since they currently have only one tight end on the roster who's ever started an NFL game, Jerame Tuman.

Finally, if Pittsburgh doesn't sign a proven offensive lineman during free agency, look for them to take one during the draft. Their offensive line may actually improve next season, but due to lack of depth they must avoid injuries.

Recent Draft History

The New England Patriots get more out of their drafts than any other team in the NFL. Often overshadowed -- but almost as effective -- are the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially when it comes to production out of late round picks. In 1998, Pittsburgh took WR Hines Ward in the third round and CB Deshea Townsend a round later. The next year, the Steelers got OLB Joey Porter in the third round and DE Aaron Smith in the fourth round. Both were Pro Bowlers last season. In 2000 they drafted their other OLB, Clark Haggans, in the fifth round. And with consecutive picks in 2002 Pittsburgh got FS Chris Hope (3rd round), MLB Larry Foote (4th round) and RB Verron Haynes (5th round) -- all big contributors last season.

The Steelers have also had some good fortune with early round picks too. Since 2001 Pittsburgh has selected Roethlisberger, S Troy Polamalu, G Kendall Simmons, and NT Casey Hampton in the first round. Polamalu and Hampton are Pro Bowlers and Simmons and Roethlisberger aren't bad either.

As long as Pittsburgh avoids getting locked into filling a particular position (see WR Troy Edwards, 1999 draft), they're often very successful. They've traded up in the early rounds the last two seasons (giving up draft picks in the process), but don't expect to see them do that next month. Unlike seasons' past, there's not enough differentiation between players to necessitate a move up the board.

Next week: NFC South by Russell Levine and NFC West by Mike Tanier.

Posted by: P. Ryan Wilson on 29 Mar 2005

1 comment, Last at 28 Apr 2006, 5:27pm by ray


by ray (not verified) :: Fri, 04/28/2006 - 5:27pm

It is very funny to read all of these comments now that we all know what happened with the steelers and ravens this year. How ridiculous were the ravens superbowl predictions???

--Ray in Pittsburgh