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» Four Downs: AFC West

There's a serious need for defensive help in Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos must determine whether or not Case Keenum can really be a long-term solution at quarterback.

06 Mar 2017

Four Downs: AFC North

by Rivers McCown

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Hole: Secondary wide receiver

Antonio Brown, it turns out, is pretty great at football. The Steelers had hoped to have Martavis Bryant around to terrify their opponents for years to come, but his substance abuse violation and punishment throws his likelihood of returning to the field into the hands of the Goodell Random Suspension Generator.

In his absence this year, the Steelers intermittently got great games from UDFA Eli Rogers and (when healthy) tight end Ladarius Green. But they did not find a consistent performer in the bunch. 2015 third-round pick Sammie Coates struggled to catch deep balls. Cobi Hamilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey are options in run-heavy game scripts, but the Steelers would like to get more at this position.

It's possible that Goodell ends the suspension for Bryant and this all goes away pretty easily. (And secondary wide receiver being the No. 1 need tells you all you need to know about how good this team could be in 2017.) But it's also possible that the Steelers make a proactive buy here and use another high-round pick or bring in someone like Kenny Stills to try and help Ben Roethlisberger's deep strikes.

Major Free Agents: RB Le'Veon Bell; RB DeAngelo Williams; ILB Lawrence Timmons

Flush with cap space for the first time in what feels like forever, the Steelers should franchise and/or sign Bell to a long-term deal with relative ease. Timmons is a more interesting debate. He missed 18 tackles in 2015 and 12 more this year, and he turns 31 in May. Is this a player the Steelers want to hang on to, or is it time to bring in some youth at the position?

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Hole: No. 1 Wideout

There has been something deeply odd about the Baltimore offense ever since Gary Kubiak was lost to the Broncos. Joe Flacco is a walking Elite Meme at this point, replete with a terrible contract, but he shouldn't be holding the Ravens back. The offensive line seems solid, especially up the middle. Kenneth Dixon's emergence late last year, combined with Terrance West's resurrection, set them up pretty well at running back. It's an offense that is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

With Steve Smith retired, the Ravens enter 2017 with Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman atop the depth chart. Being part of a head-scratching offense is a tradition for Wallace, who has spent his days since Pittsburgh in Minnesota and Miami, piling up empty stats as a high-volume target. Perriman missed his entire rookie season, and though he played in 2016 and showed flashes of the talent that made him a first-round pick, he's not exactly someone to be relied upon at this point. Beyond those two lie people who have had more words written about them in the Matt Waldman Rookie Scouting Portfolio than on the rest of the football Internet combined.

The Ravens are probably capped out of a run at someone like Alshon Jeffery, but it would definitely make sense for them to consider wide receiver early in this year's draft. Perhaps even in the first round if someone like Eastern Michigan's Corey Davis is still on the board when the Ravens select at 16.

Major Free Agents: DL Brandon Williams; OT Ricky Wagner; FB Kyle Juszczyk; S Matt Elam

Williams and Wagner are the priorities for Baltimore. Williams is a fine nose tackle on a team that seems to develop fine nose tackles at will, and Wagner is an undrafted find turned decent right tackle. Neither loss will kill the Ravens, which is good, because they don't have a lot of money to play with at the moment. You probably forgot that Matt Elam was alive. If so, you now have something in common with Ozzie Newsome.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Hole: Defensive tackle

The Bengals don't really have gaping holes so much as they have lost a lot of depth over the years. The offense with Andy Dalton was fine... but without Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu it wasn't the embarrassment of riches it had been in the past. The secondary is OK, but with Leon Hall injured and moving on, it wasn't as good as it had been a few years ago. The running game was acceptable, but Jeremy Hill is coming off his worst year and Giovani Bernard has a torn ACL. The offensive line isn't what it was a couple years ago. And so on.

One thing that has been a problem for the Bengals for years is stuffing the run. Nose tackle Domata Peko seems to have a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Bengals were 25th in adjusted line yards up the middle in 2016, and Peko's play was one of the root causes of this. (Another similar player the Bengals have relied on for way too long is Rey Maualuga.)

The Bengals don't have a bad team, but without the same star power or depth they had earlier in the decade, they can't afford to carry holes on their roster. I hear Baltimore had a pretty good nose tackle last year. If only Cincinnati ever spent in free agency...

Major Free Agents: G Kevin Zeitler; LT Andrew Whitworth; CB Dre Kirkpatrick; RB Rex Burkhead

Zeitler is young enough to be a core player for the Bengals, so I would expect the franchise tag to be in play for him if the two sides can't come to an agreement. Whitworth is much better than either of the tackles the Bengals drafted to replace him, to this day, but that may not matter because of age biases against older linemen.

Burkhead led all running backs with less than 100 carries in DYAR, behind an offensive line with some clear holes. He may be a nice find elsewhere. Kirkpatrick finished 16th among qualifying corners in success rate, so he's another key cog that is going to force the Bengals to make a tough decision.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

I mean, you knew that, right? Everyone knows that. Josh McCown has been released after years of talk about his great clubhouse presence because he's not actually a good quarterback. Robert Griffin is on the roster with an $8.7 million cap hit, but the number of believers out there is dwindling. And Cody Kessler showed flashes of competent backup play last year but is nobody's long-term solution.

The Browns have a few options. The trade market could yield Jimmy Garoppolo or Tyrod Taylor. The most frequently mentioned quarterbacks in the first round are DeShone Kizer of Notre Dame, Mitch Trubisky of North Carolina, and Deshaun Watson of Clemson. Given that pretty much everybody thinks that Cleveland is taking Texas A&M edge threat Myles Garrett at No. 1 overall, the Browns could use their second first-round pick (No. 12, from Philadelphia as part of the Carson Wentz trade) on one of those players. They could also attempt to go the free agent route, picking up Mike Glennon or making a play for eternally franchise tagged Kirk Cousins.

My advice would be to go for Taylor as a short-term option, along with a high-round pick on a quarterback they think can eventually be franchise-caliber. Let Taylor absorb the punishment, perhaps get a return on him if Hue Jackson can make all the lights come on, and prepare the Cleveland area for yet another Quarterback of the Future.

Major Free Agents: WR Terrelle Pryor; RT Austin Pasztor; DL Stephen Paea; S Jordan Poyer

Real shortage of free agents for this team for some reason. It's almost like they have $100 million in cap space. If the Browns want to continue with Pryor, they appear to both have the player's heart and the financial maneuverability to do whatever is necessary to keep him. The rest of this list is basically irrelevant.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 06 Mar 2017

27 comments, Last at 14 Mar 2017, 11:32pm by LionInAZ


by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Mon, 03/06/2017 - 7:41pm

Coates was fine (for what he is) until he hurt his hand and it never healed. Bryant is fine *if* his head is on straight. Bell catches 75 passes.

Timmons was at his best as a situational rusher/OLB
The standard is the standard!

by Steve B :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 11:00pm

No, no he wasn't

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Wed, 03/08/2017 - 12:38pm

coates or timmons? hard to slap your detailed argument down without the specifics you are objecting to

The standard is the standard!

by Jim C. :: Mon, 03/06/2017 - 9:02pm

If Ozzie Newsome had forgotten that Matt Elam was alive, he received a pointed reminder when Elam was arrested on drug charges last month.

One has to assume that Elam's NFL career is over.


by bobrulz :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 6:08am

I really think the Browns should make a serious play for Garoppolo. They have an extra first-round pick to play with, and he's clearly less of a project than any of the QBs that would be available at #12. The question is not as much whether he's worth the #12 pick as much as it is whether any other QB is actually worth a first-round pick, or whether a QB like Taylor or Glennon would be enough of an upgrade to be worth the investment (probably for Taylor, but Glennon is going to get way overpaid by somebody). Cleveland has just spent a lot of draft capital on developmental QBs and I feel like that's all they would be getting this year, too. The question is whether the Patriots would give him up for anything less than a top 10 or even top 5 pick, or whether they would even give him up at all considering the historically likely probability that Tom Brady will not play until he's 45.

Of course, making a play for Taylor or Glennon is probably a safer choice with less downside (and Romo is obviously not going to Cleveland). All I know is that they can't afford to go into 2017 with Kessler and Griffin as their QBs. Griffin really showed no flashes of his previous potential and is just dead weight, while Kessler proved himself a competent backup but is obviously not a franchise QB.

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 10:03am

Every QB this side of P Manning (and to lesser extent Luck) is a project to some degree. I remember watching Rodgers his first pre-season and wondering why the *%@# did the Packers draft this guy, especially when Favre's SB window was closing fast. Rodgers was not the QB we see today, or even the one everyone saw in 2010. There are very few guys who end up as star QBs, and the majority are drafted in the first few rounds. Finding a Brady or Prescott happens, but not as often as anyone thinks.

Garoppolo may turn out to be a decent QB. Is he someone you can build a team around and win with? Or is he another Matt Cassel, someone who can win a game or two when your starter goes down but not the QB you want starting? New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Diego, Carolina, Atlanta, New York Giants, Seattle, and Indy are all in a period where they don't have to think about a new QB for 10-15 years. Some are near the beginning. A couple are now at the end. But it's a nice luxury to have. And that's why you take a chance on Pat Mahomes or Deshaun Watson.

by LyleNM :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 12:03pm

New Orleans? San Diego? NYG? Their QBs are all on the wrong side of 35. They may not have to think about a new QB this year but they better start thinking about one within 2-3 years, not 10-15.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 3:12pm

Yeah, I'm not sure how those three (or Pittsburgh as well) would be on that list, and Tampa, Tennessee, and Oakland somehow are not.

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 6:02pm

Tampa, Tennessee, and Oakland may have started their set QB period, but I'd argue that none of the three has proven it long enough to be sure. All three starting QBs are on their first contract. I would agree that they are probably not looking for a new QB for at least the next couple years.

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 5:59pm

I said they are all in a period where they don't have to look for another QB. That period is pretty much over for all the teams you mentioned, but you can't argue that they haven't gone for a long time without having to look for a QB.

by LyleNM :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 6:27pm

You should go back and read what you wrote then because what you said in this message is not what you said in the first message.

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 03/08/2017 - 9:29am

I did and don't see what you're seeing. Maybe I'm too stupid and you can explain it.

by LionInAZ :: Tue, 03/14/2017 - 11:32pm

You wrote that all of the teams in your list, including NE, NO, SD, PIT, and GB, didn't have to worry about a new QB "for 10-15 years".

by bobrulz :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 6:36pm

But none of the QBs in this class are considered a sure thing - not even in comparison to say, Jameis Winston - and I would say that Garoppolo is more of a "sure thing" than any of the QBs the Browns could draft.

I don't believe that Garoppolo is another Matt Cassel, either. Even in his limited playing time he showed a lot more playmaking ability, and he was drafted in the 2nd round (as opposed to Cassel, who was a 7th round draftee who made it despite barely even playing in college).

That said I do understand the risk in going for Garoppolo, but is it any more of a risk than drafting one of this year's first-round prospects?

by Steve B :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 11:05pm

Is it any less of one? What's the proof that Garrapolo isn't another Cassell? All this hype is based on, what, six and a half quarters of play?

by Jerry :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 6:16am

the Steelers should franchise and/or sign Bell to a long-term deal

I assume this was submitted before they gave Le'Veon the exclusive franchise tag last week. (The long-term deal is still very much on the table.)

by jtr :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 9:35am

I'm sure these were all written earlier in the offseason. Still kind of sloppy that this got posted without updating it to include week-old news.

by jtr :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 9:47am

Coates had "fractures and tendon damage" in two fingers last year, which makes it very difficult to catch the football. I would expect him to be more effective next year after the surgery he had on the hand this offseason. The Steelers had a rather unlucky year with their #2 outside receiver got suspended, #3 was playing hurt, and #4 missed 6 games with a foot injury. I don't think there's any real reason to assume that all three won't be available and effective next season. They really only need one of them to be healthy, since any one of the three has the speed to take the top off the defense and divert some safety attention off of Brown.

by Theo :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 11:22am

Pass rusher, cornerback and Mike Tomlin's part of the brain that manages in-game management are the Biggest Holes for the Steelers.

by drobviousso :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 12:02pm

I think they need a safety, too. The tandem of Mike Mitchell and Whoever Mike Mitchell Is About To Concuss isn't working out too well.

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 3:24pm


The standard is the standard!

by Steve B :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 11:02pm

They just drafted Sean Davis last year. He had a nice rookie season overall.

by jtr :: Wed, 03/08/2017 - 2:09pm

I think the team's plan with Davis is slot CB, though he could also play at SS in the "base" 3-4 package.

by Steve B :: Sat, 03/11/2017 - 2:54am

I've seen no indication that they plan on moving him to slot CB.

by jtr :: Sat, 03/11/2017 - 1:43pm

He spent a lot of time there in addition to SS last year. I had thought I had seen something online about that being the teams long-term plan for him, but now I'm looking and I can't find anything solid to back that up. I'm not sure the team has made it clear one way or another what his permanent position is; he's versatile enough that he probably just ends up wherever their biggest hole is, whether that's the slot or one of the safety positions.

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Sat, 03/11/2017 - 1:54pm

he should be wherever he has to make the fewest tackles. he's terrible in angles/pursuit as well as form.

The standard is the standard!

by Steve B :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 11:19pm

I think OLB is actually the Steelers' biggest hole. Harrison's still surprisingly effective, but he's nearing 40 and can't really be expected to take all the snaps at one of the OLB spots in 2017. Bud Dupree showed promise after spending the first ten weeks of 2016 on IR, but even if he pans out they still need to find someone who can fill the other spot long term.