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14 Feb 2014

Four Downs: AFC North

by Cian Fahey

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Hole: Offensive Line

The Ravens followed up their Super Bowl season with an eighth place finish in the AFC. Their overall DVOA rating on Football Outsiders ranked them as the 22nd-best team in the league because of a 30th-ranked offense and a seventh-ranked defense. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)

For the first time since Joe Flacco became the team's starting quarterback, the Ravens didn't have a running game that ranked in the top half of the league. Since 2008, the Ravens have ranked in the top 10 of rushing DVOA four times and they never dropped below 13th overall. In 2013, the Ravens finished 31st in the league, barely ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars. In fact, Baltimore's offensive run DVOA rating was one of the five worst in the 25-year history of DVOA, going all the way back to 1989. (The teams below Baltimore and Jacksonville: the 1991 Colts, 2005 Cardinals, and 2002 Texans.)

Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce finished 46th and 47th in DYAR and DVOA for running backs, but neither are expected to depart. In fact, Pierce figures to be a perfect fit in Gary Kubiak's offense. In order to fix their running game, the Ravens need to fix their offensive line rather than their running backs.

The Ravens line underwent a number of changes last season. A midseason trade brought in left tackle Eugene Monroe to replace Bryant McKinnie, who was then shipped to the Miami Dolphins. Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele landed on IR, forcing the Ravens to start journeyman A.Q. Shipley. And center Gino Gradkowski struggled after taking over the starting center spot vacated by the retired Matt Birk.

Both of the team's starting tackles, Monroe and Michael Oher, are now free agents, but the return of Osemele, who can play right tackle or left guard, gives them options. The Ravens can either let Oher leave, giving them needs to fill at left guard and center, or re-sign him to keep Osemele at left guard before trying to find a new center. Re-signing Monroe to be the starting left tackle will be a priority after he was acquired for multiple draft picks last season.

Presuming the Ravens are able to re-sign Monroe, they should be able to fill out the rest of the line through free agency. There are a variety of good centers and guards entering free agency who should be affordable and who should fit in Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

Quarterbacks Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell started for the Browns in 2013. Of the three, only Hoyer showed any long-term potential, and he tore his ACL after just three starts. Weeden finished the season with a 24.7 total QBR, Campbell finished with a 38.6 QBR and Hoyer finished with a 47.5 QBR. Hoyer didn't do enough to guarantee himself the starting job entering the 2014 season. Instead, the Browns will likely look to land a top quarterback prospect in the draft.

This year's crop of quarterbacks is somewhere in between the last two classes. There isn't a consensus top two like in 2012 with Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck, but multiple quarterbacks are being projected to go in the top 10. Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater are candidates to go first overall.

Picking for the first time at fourth overall means the Browns are not guaranteed one of the top three quarterbacks. However, the opportunity to trade up with the St. Louis Rams should be there. The Rams pick second overall and they appear to be committed to Sam Bradford long-term.

The draft is the only real option for the Browns. Josh McCown finished the season with the highest QBR of any qualifying quarterback, but McCown will be 35 by the start of next season and doesn't have a long-term track record of success. McCown and other veterans such as Michael Vick and Matt Cassel figure to be very good backups, but won't be leading a team to the playoffs all by themselves. Josh Freeman is a younger free agent with some talent, but his recent track record suggests that he's not a better option than any of the quarterbacks in the draft.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

In a perfect world, the Bengals might look to replace starting quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has been good enough to be a starter in the NFL, but his capitulations late in the season have become a major concern. The Bengals will likely bring in some competition through the draft or in free agency, but it won't be a priority.

The priority for the Bengals should be the cornerback position. The Bengals defense as a whole has been excellent in recent seasons. Departed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer led a unit that finished fifth in defensive DVOA in 2013, fourth against the pass and 13th against the run. Yet even though they were excellent against the pass last season, the Bengals need to address the cornerback position.

Star slot cornerback Leon Hall is 30 years old and is coming off his second torn achilles injury in three years. Terence Newman started 13 games last season and has played very well since signing in Cincinnati two years ago, but he is 35. Adam Jones has also surpassed expectations during his time in Cincinnati, but he is best suited to a limited role and is 30.

Former first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick and former third-round pick Brandon Ghee are the only young cornerbacks who featured for the Bengals last season. Both players played very limited roles as they combined for just 381 total snaps on defense.

Cornerback is a young person's position. There are very few players over the age of 30 who are consistently playing effective football as full-time starters. Zimmer proved during his time as the team's defensive coordinator that he could get the most out of veteran players, but it's unclear if that will continue without him. Without Zimmer, there is uncertainty at every position, but cornerback stands out the most because that position has less individual talent than the other areas of the defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Hole: Nose Tackle

Left tackle is an obvious need after Mike Adams' struggles early in 2013. However, Kelvin Beachum played well in Adams' place. He benefited from the Steelers' offensive design and play calling, and new offensive line coach Mike Munchak may be able to whip the unit into better shape. Assuming he can do that, Pittsburgh's biggest hole is on the defensive line.

The Steelers ranked 20th in defensive DVOA last season. It was the first time in five years that they weren't ranked in the top 10 in either pass or rush DVOA. A major reason for this is the drop-off in quality on the defensive line.

Everything the Steelers do on defense is predicated on their ability to stop the run. The most important run defender in LeBeau's scheme is the nose tackle. Casey Hampton excelled in that role for years before Steve McLendon took over last season. McLendon had thrived in a pass-rushing role, but he struggled to sustain quality play as a full-time starter at nose tackle. McLendon made his average run tackle after a gain of 3.0 yards, the highest figure for any starting nose tackle on a 3-4 defense last year.

It's possible that McLendon could move to defensive end if the Steelers identify a nose tackle in the draft. At this stage, the Steelers only have one viable starter on their defensive line entering next season: Defensive end Cameron Heyward.

Brett Keisel is a 35-year-old free agent who isn't guaranteed to return. Evander "Ziggy" Hood, who is also a free agent, is only 26, but his play suggests he should only be re-signed if he is going to compete for a backup role. Therefore, if the Steelers don't find a nose tackle, they will be forced to either retain inadequate starters or spend resources that they don't have retooling multiple positions.

This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 14 Feb 2014

15 comments, Last at 21 Feb 2014, 12:59am by Steve B


by Theo :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 4:31pm

Ah ESPN Insider, so that's why the cat dragged in QBR.
Can I propose you replace it with DVOA/DYAR if you publish it on this site, please? Readers here are used to it and know what it means.
QBR could mean 'swagger and clutcheness rating' for all I know - I have no idea and quite frankly...

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 10:40pm

I don't think it would make much difference with this article. There are probably times when it could also require changing the narrative. Not necessarily severely. But more trouble than it's worth. I'd feel differently if this were a premium site. A free site requires some compromise.

by dbostedo :: Sat, 02/15/2014 - 11:15am

You could take the time to look up the methodology behind QBR which is published for free on ESPN's site. It's not a bad metric, and actually dealt with criticism that it was too much of a "clutchness" rating by modifying the formula for this past year.

by RickD :: Tue, 02/18/2014 - 4:27pm

But we still have no idea what the QBRs listed "mean". Are all three terrible ratings? Is the highest of the three actually a good rating? They just look like numbers to me. It's a scale without an intrinsic meaning to it.

by LionInAZ :: Tue, 02/18/2014 - 8:49pm

Total QBR has a scale of 0-100. The median for 39 qualifying QBs in 2013 was 51.2. Peyton Manning was ranked 2nd with 82.4. Matt Flynn was at the bottom with 19.

by jonnyblazin :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 5:23pm

Oher had easily his worst year as a pro in his walk year. I don't see the Ravens attempting to resign him. I think they'll pull out all the stops to resign Monroe. With Monroe, a healthy Osemele, and Yanda they have the pieces to put together a decent o-line. It'll be interesting to see how Kubiak's overall coaching awesomeness improves the o-line play.

Hopefully Rice's awful season was due to wear and tear from the superbowl run and he'll be able to bounce back. If he regains his burst he can at least be a good 3rd down scat-back. My guess is Kubiak will look to turn a late round RB into the primary RB with Pierce as a complementary player, since Pierce has trouble staying healthy.

by Steve B :: Mon, 02/17/2014 - 4:28pm

Given what supposedly happened over the weekend, Rice's return to the Ravens may not be as likely now.

by jonnyblazin :: Wed, 02/19/2014 - 10:55pm

It's not a good look for Rice, but they can't cut him this year due to financial reasons. I don't see him missing more than a game or two even if the situation is as bad as reported by deadspin.

by Steve B :: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 1:35pm

If it's proven that he coldcocked the woman and then drug her from the elevator to their room, he should be suspended for a min. of 4-6 games.

by LionInAZ :: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 4:04pm

misplaced post

by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 7:11pm

Well I don't think anyone thinks he coldcocked her because she was charged with simple assault too. I'm not saying what he did wasn't terrible, but I don't think domestic violence incidents typically get 4-6 game suspensions.

There are also some mysterious aspects of this. What happened in the time between when Rice and his fiancé fought and the elevator incident? Did he knock her out, then drag her into the elevator in front of everyone at the casino without anyone intervening? Why didn't she go to the hospital and reportedly have no injuries according to the police report after being knocked unconscious?

by Steve B :: Fri, 02/21/2014 - 12:59am

There's reports that he did uppercut her and knocked her out. If there's evidence to prove that (and there's cameras everywhere in casinos, so if he did it, I'm sure it was recorded), he's going to be suspended and suspended for a while and there's a good chance he'll have played his last game with the Ravens. Doesn't matter if she instigated/escalated things (there's also been reports that she spit on him).

by jebmak :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 6:29pm

I just saw this on Forbes, and immediately had to share it on FO.


by Steve B :: Mon, 02/17/2014 - 4:26pm

Posted this in the "Under the Cap" comments section, probably worth posting here, too

(Full disclosure, I'm a Steelers fan)

When the team was 0-4 and then 2-6, I had some thoughts about them 'blowing it up', too. But given the team's strong second half (6-2), that would now seem a mistake, particularly trading Roethlisberger. The O looked better once Bell and Miller returned from injuries and got fully acclimated and, if there were doubts, Roethlisberger and Haley now seem to be on the same page. While Mike Adams struggled at LT and ended up in more of a reduced role, his replacement Kelvin Beachum, as noted, showed enough to think that he could be at least serviceable there if they decide not to give Adams another shot there and look to move him to RT. David DeCastro, after missing most of his rookie season, had a very fine season. Somewhat quietly, the team made one of the better assistant hires of the off-season so far by bringing in Mike Munchak to be the o-line coach. Funny enough, the O looks to be in better shape right now than the D overall. Biggest keys there look to be:

-Re-signing Worilds. Kind of a tough situation for the Steeler FO. Worilds played very well overall after replacing Woodley at strong side OLB, but we're only talking about basically an 8-game stretch. In the three seasons before that, as understudy to Harrison and Woodley, Worilds only showed an occasional flash here and there and he's had injury issues. If he signs elsewhere, that leaves them with Jones (who hasn't really proven much of anything, yet) and Woodley (still at least an above average OLB, but can't seem to stay healthy) as their projected starting OLBs for 2014. Pretty dicey proposition. I'm sure they want Worilds back, but not at any cost. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

-Jones showing why he was the 17th overall pick of the '13 draft and why he was being talked about as a top 5 pick for a while. Safe to say he'll never have the burst of a Von Miller, so he needs to focus on developing strength and moves.

-Finding a play making FS. Ryan Clark's had a nice run with Steelers, but his play fell off noticeably in 2013 and even in his prime years he wasn't exactly a ball hawk. Add in that he's got one foot in the media world and it's unlikely that he'll be back. This looks to be an area they'll have to address in the draft.

-ILB. They're set at one spot with Lawrence Timmons, but the team had noticeable and very uncharacteristic issues at times during the season vs. the run after losing the dependable and largely unheralded (including by a number of Steeler fans) Larry Foote to a torn bicep in the season opener. Among other things, Foote was the signal caller for the defense. Vince Williams, a 6th round rookie from Florida St., ended up being Foote's replacement and while he showed some potential, he also had his share of struggles. Eventually, the team decided to use Polamalu at ILB. Safe to say they don't want to do that two seasons in a row, so who gets the spot going into 2014? Do they bring back Foote, who turns 34 in June and, while smart and dependable, has never exactly been an athletic marvel? Do they see if Williams can grow into the role? Do they hope that Sean Spence, a third round pick from Miami in 2012 who suffered a devastating knee injury in a pre-season game and hasn't appeared in a regular season game has something left? All of the above?

On Troy, while no doubt he's nearing the end of his career, I don't think his athleticism is completely gone. Witness the forced fumble he caused in the game vs. the Packers.

So the Steelers obviously have some holes, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think that if they address some of them adequately think can win at least 10 or 11 games. Who else in the division (really the conference as a whole) is really that scary?

by Sifter :: Mon, 02/17/2014 - 5:31pm

I'll admit I'm feeling a bit sorry for Brandon Weeden. Already people hated him and wrote him off because he was 'old' as a 28 year old rookie, he is about to have his 4th head coach and offensive scheme in 4 years (yes I'm counting final yr of college), and he was cast aside very quickly last year. He got 2 starts at the beginning of the year (the 2 games without Josh Gordon, significantly), then gets injured and only sporadically played again. Seems a very quick dumping of a former 1st round pick.

I'm aware he had issues, particularly being sacked too often last year, with a few fumbles ensuing. But his 2012 rookie year showed some promise in my view, enough to give him a reasonable trial.

Guess it all depends on Kyle Shanahan's preferences now. He might try and get Matt Schaub given their history together.