Thursday, March 17, 2011
Draft Watch: AFC North
By James Walker
Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.
Best choice: The Ravens were fortunate the Cleveland Browns were willing to do business with a division rival in 2006 when Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata became available. Cleveland considered Ngata but liked linebacker Kamerion Wimbley more and traded picks with Baltimore, allowing the Ravens to select Ngata with the 12th pick in the first round. Five years later, Ngata is arguably the best defensive lineman in the NFL and one reason future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, 35, continues to play at a high level.
Worst choice: The Ravens haven't had a lot of big misses, but 2009 second-round pick Paul Kruger is a candidate with two uneventful years in Baltimore. Too often Kruger failed to make the active roster because he doesn't contribute much on special teams. Last year Kruger gained weight to focus solely on playing defensive end but was a backup in 11 games and recorded one tackle and a sack. In two years he has only 12 tackles, a sack and an interception. This is a big third season for Kruger to find a role in Baltimore's defense.
On the bubble: There was a lot of optimism in Baltimore when former Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle fell to the second round last year. The Ravens drafted Kindle in hopes that he could be the pass-rushing threat they were looking for opposite Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs. But an unfortunate accident last summer resulted in a fractured skull and kept Kindle out of football last season. Baltimore is optimistic about his recovery but has to wait to see when Kindle will be cleared to play football again.
Best choice: The Bengals took cornerbacks in the first round back-to-back years in 2006 and 2007, starting with Johnathan Joseph. He has developed into one of the better cover corners in the NFL and has nine interceptions the past two seasons. Joseph is now a free agent and appears ready to join a long list of solid Bengals draft picks who bolted in free agency. The market for corners is starting at $10 million per season and Cincinnati doesn't seem interested in going that high for Joseph.
Worst choice: Despite several red flags, the Bengals were enamored with Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith in the 2009 draft and took him No. 6 overall. There were questions about Smith's weight and worth ethic entering the draft, and many of those concerns still exist two years later. Smith also suffered two foot injuries that required surgery and has only five career starts. The Bengals have the option of extending Smith's contract from four to six years this offseason, but that seems unlikely after two disastrous seasons.
On the bubble: Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga had a good rookie year in 2009 but followed it up with an average campaign last season. Now, 2011 is considered a swing season for Maualuga, a second-round pick, to prove himself. Cincinnati's coaching staff is challenging Maualuga to become the physical, dominant force he was at USC. He showed flashes of it as a rookie. The Bengals could move Maualuga to his natural position of middle linebacker this season, which could help put Maualuga in his comfort zone.
Best choice: The Browns went with the safest pick in 2007 by selecting left tackle Joe Thomas No. 3 overall, which was a slam dunk. Thomas is one of the NFL's best left tackles and has been to the Pro Bowl in all four seasons. Cleveland's biggest issue is finding a quality quarterback for Thomas to protect. Thomas also is entering a contract year in 2011, and it would be wise for Cleveland to provide an extension before he hits the open market in 2012.
Worst choice: The Browns have had a lot of misses the past five years, but former second-round pick David Veikune gets my vote. Veikune was a surprise pick by former coach Eric Mangini in 2009 and was a bust from the start. He quickly fell out of favor with Cleveland's coaching staff and didn't contribute on special teams. When president Mike Holmgren took over the following year, he cut Veikune. I'm sure a lot of Browns fans will make the case for former quarterback Brady Quinn, a first-rounder in 2007. But Quinn at least played a few decent games, and the Browns were able to trade him for tailback Peyton Hillis. So the Quinn experiment wasn't a total loss.
On the bubble: Mohamed Massaquoi, a second-round pick in 2009, has been an enigma in two seasons in Cleveland. Is he a No. 1 receiver? Probably not. But there's a chance he could be a decent No. 2 receiver. The problem is the Browns cannot find out until they're able to land a top-flight receiver to take the pressure off Massaquoi. In many ways, Massaquoi regressed last season. His yards and touchdowns were both down compared to his rookie year. Cleveland could help quarterback Colt McCoy and Massaquoi by finding a legit No. 1 receiver this offseason.
Best choice: Considering the player and value of the pick, LaMarr Woodley was Pittsburgh's best draft choice of the past five years. Woodley was taken in the second round in 2007 and joined the starting lineup one year later. He became only the second Steeler to record double-digit sacks in three consecutive seasons and is money in the playoffs. Last year Woodley was one of the NFL's best bargains, recording 50 tackles and 10 sacks while making only $550,000. Pittsburgh gave Woodley the franchise tag this offseason and will try to work out an extension.
Worst choice: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asked for bigger receivers, and the Steelers tried to accommodate him by drafting Limas Sweed in the second round in 2008. The pick didn't pan out as Sweed struggled to catch the football. Sweed's issues may be mental. He didn't have a reputation for drops in college and many in Pittsburgh were easy, wide-open opportunities. The Steelers grew tired of waiting for Sweed and drafted Mike Wallace in 2009 and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in 2010. They have taken firm roles in the offense, leaving Sweed's future with Pittsburgh in doubt.
On the bubble: Second-round pick Jason Worilds was a surprise choice in 2010. Pittsburgh has a wealth of talented linebackers, but it's a position it likes to stockpile for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme. Like most defenders in Pittsburgh, Worilds has to wait his turn and played mostly special teams last season. Worilds recorded two sacks in limited playing time, but it doesn’t appear he will have a chance to crack the starting lineup for a while.