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08 May 2013

Four Downs: AFC North

by Rob Weintraub

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Wide Receiver

Joe Flacco is a rich man today mainly because a) Anquan Boldin was exceptional in the playoffs, and b) poor safety play by Denver and San Francisco made Jacoby Jones look like a starting wideout. Well, now Boldin is suiting up for the Niners, and Jones is being counted on to step up. Let’s remember that before his postseason heroics, Jones had all of 30 grabs in 2012 for 406 yards, with a middling catch rate of 55 percent. Football Outsiders DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Average) metric ranked him just ahead of Jeremy Kerley. There was a reason, after all, that Jones was jettisoned by the wideout-desperate Texans last offseason. Regular work at wideout could also diminish his superior kick-returning ability.

The days and nights of Ozzie Newsome (a dramedy that would get good ratings in Baltimore, at least) have been occupied by rebuilding the defense, and his work on that side of the ball this offseason was exemplary. But the real key to the Ravens’ championship run was that an average passing attack (15th in passing offense DVOA) during the regular season turned into a far superior passing attack in the postseason. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The Ravens probably won't be able to sustain that performance next season without the kind of solid performances Boldin gave them in the playoffs.

Surely you recognize the names David Reed and Tandon Doss, right? These gentlemen are the backups to Jones and Torrey Smith, and they have exactly one dozen NFL catches between them. The Ravens did draft a receiver, Aaron Mellette out of Elon, in the seventh round. He was a strong performer at the combine and the Senior Bowl, but the leap from the Southern Conference to the AFC North should tax even Mallette’s broad-jumping skills.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

Both Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are due to hit free agency after the 2013 season, so the Ravens signed a couple of tight ends after the draft ended. Matt Furstenburg turned heads at the combine by posting the fastest 40-yard dash and shuttle run at the position. He didn’t have the productivity at Maryland to match his athleticism, but the injury bug bit the Terps so hard that they were reduced to putting a linebacker at quarterback by the end of the season. Murphy Holloway is the latest basketball player to attempt to make it in football -- he didn’t even try out for pigskin at Ole Miss, preferring a trip to the Sweet 16 as a member of the Rebels hoops team. Finally, connoisseurs of fine names will hope Jose Cheeseborough, a cornerback out of Florida International, makes the Ravens.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Passing Attack

Rumors flew all spring, but in the end Cleveland’s new brain trust passed on drafting a new quarterback, didn’t trade for Ryan Mallett, and is apparently ready to open the season with Brandon Weeden at the helm. That thought can’t provide fans of this quarterback-challenged franchise with much hope.

Sure, Weeden was a rookie, but so were Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, and Andrew Luck, and none of those players are turning 30 this October. Even less-heralded newcomer Ryan Tannehill placed well ahead of Weeden in DYAR, DVOA, Total QBR, and ET (eye test).

While the Dolphins went out and signed Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller, and Brandon Gibson to juice their passing attack for Tannehill, the Browns mainly kept the arsenal doors padlocked, save for the draft day import of Davone Bess, a wideout made expendable in South Florida by the aforementioned weaponry. Bess is decent -- he placed a spot ahead of the far more acclaimed Jeremy Maclin in our DYAR stats for 2012, for example. But even if you consider Josh Gordon part of this year’s haul because the Browns used a supplemental choice on him in 2012, Cleveland didn’t do much to cure its offensive anemia.

Instead, much will depend on the development of Weeden, Gordon, and Greg Little. New head coach Rob Chudzinski didn’t exactly give Weeden a ringing endorsement last week when he told a local radio station that new backup Jason Campbell will be given every chance to claim the starting job.

Gordon provided several flashes of deep speed during his rookie campaign, and Little improved his catch rate from a putrid 51 percent to an underwhelming 58 percent. Yet neither receiver showed much route-running polish, and that can’t be blamed on the quarterback throwing to them.

Chudzinski is a former tight end, and has enjoyed much success working tight ends into the offense at previous stops. He’ll have his work cut out for him in Cleveland -- incumbent Jordan Cameron came to the Browns with very little college football experience, played very little as a rookie, and then ranked just 42nd in our tight end DVOA ratings in his second year. That put him four spots ahead of his new backup, Kellen Davis, who was run out of Chicago by irate Bears fans.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Browns hope to double their Kruger pleasure, signing Utah defensive lineman Dave Kruger after the draft to mirror their shiny new linebacker Paul, Dave’s older brother. (A third Kruger, Joe, was picked in the seventh round by Philadelphia.) Dave was productive with the Utes as a senior captain, though he was helped mightily by lining up next to Star Lotulelei. A tackle in college, Dave projects to play five-technique end in the Browns 3-4, potentially with his brother looming over his shoulder.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Linebacker, strong safety

Finding first downs was a weakness for Cincy’s offense in the final quarter of 2012, but the drafting of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard helped address those issues. Further adding diversity to the Bengals' attack, especially on third downs, will be the return to health of second-year receiver Mohamed Sanu, a sizeable (6-foot-2) possession target who had a three-game stretch with four touchdown receptions before a broken foot ended his rookie season.

Linebacker is still a concern. Between James Harrison and fourth-round pick Sean Porter, the Bengals hope to get by on the strong side. Rey Maualuga returned after a cold free-agent market, and Cincinnati hopes he gets it together in the middle now that any thought of moving last year’s rookie sensation Vontaze Burfict inside has been kiboshed. Maualuga is a heavy hitter but remains a two-down linebacker who is unreliable in coverage and often a step slow to fill gaps in the run game. In other words, he is a less-naive Manti Te’o.

Relying on Harrison’s intensity and anger over being unceremoniously dumped by Pittsburgh makes good copy, but is iffy strategy given his age and diminished skills. The Bengals are also taking a risk at strong safety, where they are hoping a rookie, third-round draft choice Shawn Williams out of Georgia, can step in immediately. Williams was a productive and fiery leader at UGA, where he notably called out his underperforming teammates at midseason. The Bengals have had great success with players from between the hedges, but asking Williams to start and play well may be as foolishly optimistic as hoping Harrison rekindles his 2008 season.

Cincinnati ignored the plethora of veteran safeties available in free agency, so if Williams isn’t ready, Taylor Mays or Jeremy Miles will have to play, and neither has proven he can. Chris Crocker will doubtlessly be waiting by his phone.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Bengals can’t be expected to hit the same bonanza in their UFA class as they did last year with Burfict, but there are a couple of interesting prospects. Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb is a speed demon who could challenge for a kick-returner spot, and the running back played some defensive back at his pro day in order to maximize his potential value. The Bengals also went hard after linebacker Jayson DiManche of Southern Illinois, a sleeper prospect with freakish athleticism and solid production (he had 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2012). DiManche has some physical similarity to Harrison -- he will get the chance to understudy the real thing in camp.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Offensive line

The much-maligned Steelers line did improve a touch in protecting Ben Roethlisberger in 2012, rising from 20th to 15th in Adjusted Sack Rate and giving up five fewer sacks overall. But Big Ben still took a pounding, missing three games after the beating he received against Kansas City. Meanwhile, run-blocking numbers fell off a cliff -- the Steelers plummeted from third in Adjusted Line Yards in 2011 to 27th in 2012.

Granted, a weak running back corps didn’t help, and the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell to bolster that position. But the line remains a question mark, especially if the injuries that have struck in recent seasons hit the unit again. Case in point: last season’s top draft pick, guard David DeCastro. Double-D tore up a knee in the preseason and missed much of the year. He and center Maurkice Pouncey, in theory, provide a solid 1-2 punch up the middle, but only if they stay upright. Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, the team’s young and talented tackles, also both missed significant time to injury in 2012.

The lack of depth and experience behind the starting five has to be worrying to new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. Bicknell prefers longer, more athletic linemen, so vets Willie Colon and Max Starks were let go. So was Doug Legursky, though that was more performance-based. Left guard Ramon Foster doesn’t particularly mesh with Bicknell’s system, either, but he was re-signed anyway, showing how anxious the team was to retain bodies with some experience.

The line wasn’t bolstered during the draft, leaving the top backup as Kelvin Beachum, a 2012 seventh-rounder who played poorly in the preseason last year. Former Texans lineman Antoine Caldwell, who can play guard and center, was in for a visit before the draft, and may be of renewed interest in Pittsburgh before camp opens in July.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

In order to further the running game, the Steelers signed Curtis McNeal out of USC, a back who suffered as a senior from the Trojans’ offensive line issues and general malaise. As a junior, McNeal was productive, with 1,005 yards and six touchdowns. Utah wide receiver Reggie Dunn will remind Steelers fans of the departed Mike Wallace in at least one trait -- Dunn ran sub-4.3 forties at his pro day. Dunn could step right into a kick return job in Pittsburgh, as he set an NCAA record with a pair of 100-yard-plus returns in a game against Cal last season. The Steelers had the inside track on Dunn as his father is close friends with former Pittsburgh wideout Louis Lipps. And if lineman Mike Golic, Jr., makes the team, a distinct possibility (see above), expect to hear much about the Steelers’ offensive line on ESPN Radio, where Golic, Sr. brays every morning in drive time.

(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)

Posted by: Robert Weintraub on 08 May 2013

14 comments, Last at 13 May 2013, 1:49am by RickyJohjima


by andrew :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 3:24pm

Any analysis of the AFC North starts by looking around the AFC East.

by Jim C. (not verified) :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 3:37pm

The Ravens cut Murphy Holloway yesterday.

by Theo :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 5:05pm

"Bicknell prefers longer, more athletic linemen"

and with 'longer' you mean taller? or something else?

by Insancipitory :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 6:17pm

Probably reach, a combination of long torso, very long arms, and short legs might be most desirable.

by BigWoody (not verified) :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 11:58am

And walking calluses on knuckles.

by jonnyblazin :: Wed, 05/08/2013 - 6:02pm

I would say the Ravens great passing attack in the playoffs was mainly due to a revamped offensive line that gave Flacco plenty of time to throw. That extra time allowed Flacco to pinpoint his throws to Boldin, who made some insane catches, and launch bombs to Jones, who surprisingly held on to the ball.

Most of Boldin's catches came when he was well covered, though. If the Ravens insert younger, faster WRs, they might be open more. Among the group my guess is Deonte Thompson will be the standout, but it could Doss, Reed, Mallette, Laquan Wiliams, or Tommy Streeter. They might all suck, however.

Or the Ravens will wait for a decent veteran to be released.

by CBPodge :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 4:42am

I believe the words "Flacco", "pinpoint" and "throws" just appeared in close proximity. I'm confused.

by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 10:22am

Flacco's low completion % has nothing to do with his accuracy, it has to do with the fact that the Ravens run a lot of 2 man routes and deep patterns. He's a very accurate thrower.

by commissionerleaf :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 1:43pm

That isn't actually true. He has a big arm and makes some very, very impressive throws. However, his accuracy is at best average among NFL starters, especially on anticipation throws.

by theslothook :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 4:07pm

I don't think completion percentage implies accuracy. As people mentioned above, play design has a lot to do with completion percentage. Short centric offenses - especially ones which use a ton of spread concepts with lots of passes to rbs tend to yield high completion percentage. You do need to have good presnap recognition and be decisive with your reads.

Ball location on passes is a more reasonable metric for judging accuracy - but that's a highly subjective. All in all, I'd say Flacco's post season demonstrated some really great ball location throws. Greg cosell calls them stick throws. I'd have to ask a unbiased ravens fan to answer if flacco had been doing this all year or was this just a postseason sort of thing. I meant, consistently hitting throws in tight windows all year.

by 0tarin :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 7:35pm

To this fan's eye, he had not been hitting them all year. But as mentioned above, his new OL setup and improved time in pocket should have helped.

by JimZipCode :: Fri, 05/10/2013 - 10:57am

Unbiased Ravens fan here, answering the call.

Flacco is streaky. Most games, he goes thru a stretch that lasts about a quarter, where the ball sails on him and he can't hit anything. Punt, punt, punt. And then in many games, there are a couple drives where he looks unstoppable and everything is right on the receivers hands. TD, TD. These two sides of him are often on display in the same game. Joe has always flashed the ability to stick throws into tight windows, but was not consistent with it it.

Flacco looked different after Jim Caldwell took over as OC last season. He had more time to throw after the line was reshuffled; but he also looked more decisive, and even more creative with the ball when he was flushed out of the pocket. And we didn't see any of those long stretches where he couldn't complete a pass: it was all the other Flacco, the good Flacco. Joe looked like his old Delaware highlight reels.

The hope in Baltimore is that what Flacco showed in the postseason is not a complete mirage, he really is more comfortable in Caldwell's offense (whatever that is). Joe's more comfortable, either because of more modern route combinations, or giving him more control at the line, or he just likes Caldwell more than he liked Cameron, or something. Caldwell is supposed to be one of those "empower the QB" kind of coaches, so maybe there is something to it. I guess we'll see when the season starts.

by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Thu, 05/09/2013 - 10:54am

Yeah, I'm not sure if it's possible to overstate just how un-repeatable anquan boldin's success from last year's playoffs is. Torrey Smith is possibly miscast as a true number 1 at this point, but he is already good enough to be a starting split end on most teams, and this is only his third year in the league. The ravens' problem is that they don't have a good possession guy to benefit from smith attracting double-teams, but those guys aren't that hard to find. If they could find a 2nd quality tight end that would probably be good enough.

by RickyJohjima (not verified) :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 1:49am

I hope the Eagles cut Joe Kruger and that he signs with the Browns and the three of them become a defensive force. That way, they can get what will become one of the best nicknames for a defense ever: Kruger Industrial Smoothing