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05 May 2011

Four Downs: AFC North

by Aaron Schatz

This is part of a series in which we look at the biggest holes remaining on each team after the NFL Draft. Usually, that means the biggest holes remaining after the draft and free agency, but obviously, 2011 is a little different. So some of these holes may not actually be holes if teams re-sign their own players, and others will be filled when free agency finally begins.

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: The Pass Rush

It's been a while since the Ravens had significant holes on defense, but they had some clear ones heading into the draft. First-round cornerback Jimmy Smith helps a lot, as three of last year's top four Ravens cornerbacks are free agents this offseason. However, the Ravens also struggled to get to the passer last season. They had only 27 sacks and finished 27th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric.

The Ravens essentially had a two-man pass rush last year: outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive end Haloti Ngata. Together they had 17 sacks; no other Ravens defender had more than three. Together they had 20 quarterback hits; no other Ravens defender had more than four. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was very good dropping into pass coverage, but he didn't really bring pressure on the quarterback from the outside.

The Ravens either needed a player who could bring pass rush from the 5-technique on the line (someone like Jets draft choice Muhammad Wilkerson, or Saints draft choice Cameron Jordan), or an outside linebacker who could rush the passer opposite Suggs. Their only draft pick in this area was a developmental prospect, Pernell McPhee of Mississippi State, in the fifth round. If the Ravens want to get more pass rush in 2011, they'll either need to find an outside linebacker in free agency or hope for more improvement from third-year defensive end Paul Kruger.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Kicker

The Bengals demonstrate the difference between "a team with few holes" and "a championship contender." If they can re-sign their major free agents, the Bengals don't seem to have big holes on the roster. But the surface covering those non-holes is very thin for a number of reasons:

1. Inexperience. The Bengals passing offense will be built around two rookies (Andy Dalton, A.J. Green) and a second-year tight end (Jermaine Gresham).

2. Free Agent Questions. The Bengals have two major free agents, running back Cedric Benson and cornerback Johnathan Joseph. If they are unable to re-sign Benson, they are left starting Bernard Scott with no clear backup. The Joseph issue depends on the lockout. The Bengals put the highest tender on Joseph to keep him if the new CBA makes five-year players restricted free agents. If the new CBA makes Joseph unrestricted, however, the Bengals are unlikely to match the expensive contract he'll get elsewhere. That would leave them depending on Adam Jones to move into the starting lineup across from Leon Hall -- and keep his act together.

3. Mediocrity. There are places where the Bengals could definitely improve, but don't really have holes per se. The offensive line does its job, but no one player really wows anyone. Center Kyle Cook and left guard Nate Livings will likely stick around as restricted free agents, while right guard Bobbie Williams is 34, declining, and in the final year of his contract. Safety is another issue: The Bengals have a mixture of veterans coming off injuries, veterans who are free agents, and Reggie Nelson, who was run out of Jacksonville on a rail a year ago.

4. Kicker. They really do need one. Clint Stitser won't do, and Mike Nugent wasn't anything special even before an injury cost him most of last season. Coach Lewis, I have David Akers' agent on line one ...

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Depth in the Front Seven

It's hard to leave the draft with a lot of holes after you deal the sixth overall pick for five lower draft picks. But after other trades and some moving around the board, the Browns actually ended up with only eight picks.

The biggest task for the Browns this offseason was remaking their defense, which will be switching from a 3-4 front to a more conventional 4-3. Cleveland used its first two picks on defensive linemen who will likely go right into the starting lineup: Jabaal Sheard at end and Phil Taylor at tackle. However, they didn't draft any other linemen or linebackers with their later picks. That leaves little depth for a front seven that will lose a number of veterans this offseason, including tackle Shaun Rogers and three older linebackers who played a major role on last year's defense (Eric Barton, David Bowens, and Matt Roth).

Behind Sheard and Marcus Benard at end, the only player with any experience is 29-year-old Derreck Robinson, whom the Browns grabbed off the scrap heap in 2009. Backup tackle Brian Schaefering started nine games last year, but no other tackle has more than one game of NFL experience. There are a couple backup linebackers with some starting experience -- Jason Trusnik, Kaluka Maiava -- but the Browns need more considering the question marks around their starters. Scott Fujita saw his 2010 season ended by a knee injury, and D'Qwell Jackson has played just six games in the past two seasons due to season-ending pectoral injuries.

The Browns will no doubt be looking for veteran backups for their front seven when free agency finally arrives.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Cornerback

It's hard to write about post-Draft holes with a team that doesn't usually have many holes. The Steelers tend to draft players and then coach them on the bench for a year or two before putting them in the starting lineup, which means that there's usually a replacement ready to go when a veteran is ready to depart as a free agent.

This year, when it comes to cornerback, that may not be the case. Right now, two of the Steelers' top three cornerbacks are free agents. William Gay is likely to be a restricted free agent, depending on what this year's rules are. (He has four years of experience.) A bigger question is veteran Ike Taylor -- if Taylor leaves for another team, there is no clear replacement on the roster.

If Gay stays and Taylor goes, the starting hole still exists. Gay had excellent stats in 2008 and 2010 as a nickelback, but his poor stats as a starter in 2009 show that he's the type of player whose weaknesses are easily exposed in a larger role. Keenan Lewis was a third-round pick back in 2009, but he's only played 13 games, almost entirely on special teams, since being drafted. The Steelers passed over the top cornerbacks in the draft, players like Aaron Williams and Ras-I Dowling, who could have been able to start from Day 1. They did address depth at the position by drafting Curtis Brown from Texas in the third round and Cortez Allen from the Citadel in the fourth round. However, even first-round rookie cornerbacks usually struggle to adjust to the NFL. It's hard to imagine that Brown or Allen would be able to serve as a regular starter should Taylor depart the land of black and yellow.

A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 05 May 2011

18 comments, Last at 24 May 2011, 5:31am by Louis vuitton outlet


by big_jgke :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 11:38am

No projections or ideas on who might fill these weaknesses in free agency?

by Joseph :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 12:05pm

Probably because nobody knows if those 4th & 5th year guys will be restricted or unrestricted in the new CBA. Very few RFA's change teams in a normal year, and I can envision NONE changing teams this year if the lockout drags into July. It will just be impossible for a new player to get up to speed on his new team's playbook.

by Theo :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 7:07pm

Uh, don't overestimate that.
Football is a lot the same from team to team. Sure the terminology is different and sure 3-4 is way different from a 4-3 or a 4-3 over, but at the end, the rules are the same, and the pass coverage responsibilities are alike.

by Mr Shush :: Mon, 05/09/2011 - 10:01am

I'd be pretty surprised if a new CBA didn't go back to 4 years to qualify for unrestricted free agency. The issue, to me at least, is what rules the NFL is likely to impose in the event that the season has to start without a new CBA. I think it would be very hard to argue that restricted free agency was not an antitrust violation, which would mean anyone whose contract had expired would be a free agent.

by BJR :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 1:04pm

Re. the Ravens, you should at least mention that Sergio Kindle is still on the team. Ok, its doubtful whether he will ever properly recover from such an horrific injury, but having spent a high pick on a pass rusher last year, they probably didn't want to commit to another highly touted young prospect whilst there is still a chance that Kindle could become a productive player.

Ozzie has come out and said the Ravens will look to add to the pass rush in free agency, whenever that happens.

by Bobman :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 3:35pm

I wonder how draft graders will look back on the Kindle pick. Sad for him, of course, and pretty hard on the team as well--anybody know what really happened, the incident itself, the recovery, and his prognosis for ever returning to the field?

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 5:29pm

http://sports.espn.go.com/dallas/nfl/news/story?id=6128671 was the latest I could find (Feb) so he isn't cleared for contact yet, but he is working out.

by Matt9 (not verified) :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 8:14pm

Did he have any other injuries other than a fractured skull? It seems a 16 month recovery would be more than enough, even accounting an for an cautious approach towards head injuries.

by BDAABAT :: Fri, 05/06/2011 - 10:45am

I think the issue is precedent: has there ever been an NFL player who has had a broken skull, and then come back to play in the NFL???

Without that experience and precedent, it will be (and has been) extremely difficult to find a physician that will medically clear him to play.

Imagine if (Gawd forbid) Kindle DOES get the OK to play, but his head explodes during a game. That physician will get sued for a whole lot of money for clearing the guy who was so obviously at risk for head explosion syndrome. And, the Ravens can't let him play without getting medical clearance.


Acquired sig: Never let your mind remain so open that your brain falls out.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 05/06/2011 - 1:41pm

Crazylegs Hirsch fractured his skull in 1948 in the AAFC. He played for 9 more years.

by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 05/07/2011 - 1:09am

Never let your mind remain so open that your brain falls out.

I don't think this is a problem.

by piratefreedom (not verified) :: Mon, 05/09/2011 - 11:51am

head explosion syndrome was recently a problem for one of the al-qaida starters. It's not like it doesn't happen.

by Podge (not verified) :: Fri, 05/06/2011 - 7:23am

I seem to remember the incident itself was just bad luck - he suffers from (I think) narcolepsy (think this was a known condition) and had an attack of it while on the stairs at a friend's house, so he fell down them.

I can't remember if that was the official story or a rumour though.

by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Thu, 05/05/2011 - 9:04pm

even if the ravens knew kindle was healthy, they would be looking to upgrade the pass rush. there's is no team in football that couldn't do with an improved pass rush.

by BJR :: Fri, 05/06/2011 - 6:09am

Of course, I don't disagree that pass rush is a relative need for Baltimore. I was only pointing out that the article should have at least mentioned that Kindle was still there, and because he will effectively be a rookie if and when he does take the field, that might be why they passed on drafting another developmental pass rusher in the early rounds of the draft this year in favour of acquiring a proven commodity in free agency.

by Misfit74 :: Tue, 05/10/2011 - 11:32pm

Agreed. I was also surprised at the Kindle omission. He could be a factor and is certainly talented enough to be worth mentioning.

by AAAnonymous (not verified) :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 9:26pm

somebody over there at footballoutsiders smack this idiot aaron schatz upside his dumb a$$ head because Ike Taylor will never leave the land of black and yellow - there is no such place - If he chooses to leave it will be from the land of BLACK AND GOLD!!!

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