AFC North: C.J. Mosley
Most mock drafts have the Ravens selecting tight end Eric Ebron or another offensive player (wide receiver and tackle). If you're going to change it up, linking the Ravens to an Alabama player is a good choice. The Ravens have drafted six players from general manager Ozzie Newsome's alma mater, second only to Oklahoma (seven players).
Mosley is a high-energy player with great instincts. He should start immediately and has Pro Bowl potential. His strengths are stopping the run and providing leadership in the locker room. Whether the Ravens would be interested will be determined by how they address inside linebacker in free agency.
The Ravens are hoping to re-sign Daryl Smith, which would decrease the chances of Baltimore taking an inside linebacker in the first round. It was only last year when the Ravens chose inside linebacker Arthur Brown in the second round. But, if the Ravens can't bring back Smith and add a stop-gap in free agency, drafting Mosley makes a lot of sense.
McShay also went with Mosley after the top two receivers (Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M's Mike Evans) and top three offensive tackles (Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan) were off the board.
The Ravens haven't selected an inside linebacker in the first round since taking Ray Lewis with the No. 26 overall pick in 1996.
Position of need: Inside linebacker
The Steelers need depth at the position and possibly a long-term starter. Rookie Vince Williams started 11 games at left inside linebacker following the loss of Larry Foote in the 2013 season opener. Williams, a sixth-round draft pick, made steady improvement, but struggled in coverage. It is too early to tell whether he is a viable NFL starter in the mold of Foote, who stood out against the run, or is better suited as a reserve who is also a core special-teams player. Foote has one year left on his contract, but given his age -- the 12th-year veteran turns 34 in June -- and the fact that he is coming back from a ruptured bicep, there is no guarantee he returns for another season. Stevenson Sylvester will be an unrestricted free agent next month.
Three players the Steelers might be targeting
Chris Borland, Wisconsin: The Steelers, like most teams, should fall in love with his game tape. Borland made tackles all over the field at Wisconsin, racking up 416 stops during a career in which he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times. Borland burnished his reputation as a guy who can simply play at the Senior Bowl ,and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks the 5-foot-11, 245-pounder second among inside linebackers. Concerns about his height and short arms, which raise questions about whether he will struggle to shed blocks at the next level, could hurt Borland’s draft stock. Couple that with the belief many teams have that inside linebackers can be found later in the draft, and there is a good chance Borland will still be available when the Steelers pick in the second round.
Christian Kirksey, Iowa: Kirksey played outside linebacker in college, but he would likely move inside if drafted by a team that plays a 3-4 defense like the Steelers. Kirksey had an outstanding senior season -- he recorded 104 tackles despite getting overshadowed by teammates James Morris and Anthony Hitchens -- and he drew good reviews from his week at the Senior Bowl. The 6-2, 234-pounder has good size and athleticism, and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has raved about his character. Kirksey could be among the inside linebackers available to the Steelers in the middle rounds if they address other positions earlier in the draft.
C.J. Mosley, Alabama: The consensus All-American and possibly the most ready-made NFL player in the draft might not even get to the Steelers at No. 15 overall. The 6-2, 228-pound Mosley is a three-down linebacker who should make an immediate impact, if not start right away. The hunch here is that Mosely does make it past the first 14 picks with a handful of teams in front of the Steelers desperate for quarterbacks and the de-valuing of inside linebacker in the draft in general. If Mosley, who is expected to test well in all aspects at the combine, is available when the Steelers make their first-round pick, it will be very temping for them to take him and pair him with Lawrence Timmons. That, if Mosley is as good as advertised, would help the Steelers improve a run defense that allowed 125 yards per game in 2013.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson, who led the NFL in tackles last season, is looking to assert himself as more of a leader on defense in 2009.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
BEREA, Ohio -- When Eric Mangini first arrived in January and studied the Cleveland Browns' game tapes of 2008, there wasn't much that stood out from their 4-12 season. That was evident after the new coach swiftly executed an immense roster overhaul in his first offseason.
But there was one player who caught Mangini's eye in nearly every game he studied: Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.
Mangini watched Jackson hustle. He saw Jackson flow to the football and make play after play, despite the fact most games were out of reach and playoff dreams were shattered by midseason.
The result for Jackson was an NFL-leading 154 tackles in Cleveland's No. 26-rated defense. His accomplishments last season went mostly unnoticed except in the film room of his new head coach.
"I've really enjoyed watching D'Qwell," Mangini said. "He is pretty much in the frame at the end of every play and that is always what you look for. You always try to count how many defenders are in that last frame and he seems to be everywhere."
Jackson is happy someone recognized his play last season and plans to use it as motivation.
"It's a great compliment coming from the head guy coming in," Jackson said. "Now I got to take it and run. I don't call it pressure but it's my job to fulfill that role. I have to take a bigger leadership role and I have to be the guy to count on these plays."
The Browns are a combined 5-19 against the Ravens and Steelers since 2003, because those two teams physically dominate the Browns at the line of scrimmage. The Cincinnati Bengals split with Cleveland last season but are also making significant improvements this offseason to become a more physical team, following the blueprints provided by Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the division.
Even with Jackson's production, Cleveland was very pedestrian defensively. The Browns failed to stop the run (rated No. 28) in 2008 and couldn't sack the quarterback, posting an anemic 17 sacks in 16 games.
As a point of reference, Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison had 16 sacks alone in 2008.
"If you look at that defense, he's certainly not the problem," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said of Jackson. "If there are 11 starters, he's probably the second- or third-best guy. [Defensive tackle] Shaun Rogers is their best player on defense, and D'Qwell could very well be their second-best player."
Critics of Jackson often say too many of his 154 tackles were not impact plays. Williamson agrees to some extent but added that one player cannot stop the run alone. It takes all 11 defenders shooting their gaps and knowing their assignments, which has been a challenge for Cleveland in recent years.
"D'Qwell does tend to make a fair amount of his tackles further down the field than you would like, but he is still a very good player," Williamson said. "He's a very good tackler, has good reaction, and he doesn't take many false steps. He's also good in coverage, so there is a lot to like there."
For Jackson to take his game to the next level, the former second-round pick in 2006 will need a lot more help running Mangini's 3-4 defense. Cleveland's coach acquired assistance in the form of several defenders Mangini worked with in his previous stint with the New York Jets.
Veteran starting linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens, both older than 30, will work closely with Jackson. The Browns also added former Jets at every other level of the defense with safety Abram Elam and cornerback Hank Poteat helping in the secondary and C.J. Mosley adding depth on the defensive line.
But Barton in particular has been a great tutor for Jackson, because Barton will line up next to his younger counterpart at middle linebacker. The two former Maryland Terrapins, seven years apart in terms of experience, are expected to become the leaders of Cleveland's defense and are already developing a good chemistry together.
"All of his career he is a Mangini guy, and you know Mangini is a
smart guy," Jackson said. "That's what Eric Barton stands for; that's what type of guy he is."
From the second Cleveland's new coach turned on the game film, Jackson showed potential to become the latest "Mangini guy." Now it's up to Jackson to prove on the field in 2009 that he deserves that distinct moniker from his new head coach.
|Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images; Andy Lyons and Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|The AFC North has lost some star power, with Bart Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh departing through free agency and Kellen Winslow Jr. sent off in a trade.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
With the busiest portion of free agency coming to an end, it is officially time to evaluate the decisions made by all four AFC North teams.
The range of activity in free agency varied this year. For instance, the Baltimore Ravens were extremely active in signing and losing players, while the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers only visited with a couple of players without reaching deals.
Let's examine the moves.
Analysis: Going into free agency, I thought the Ravens were doomed for failure with the amount of big names set to hit the open market. Baltimore certainly lost some of those players, but a creative and cost-effective plan allowed general manager Ozzie Newsome to soften the blow. The Ravens lost three key starters in linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown and safety Jim Leonhard. They also released starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. But Baltimore quickly added talent in free-agent cornerback Domonique Foxworth, veteran center Matt Birk, tight end L.J. Smith and return specialist Chris Carr. Keeping Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were vital. And if the Ravens put together another solid draft class, which is Newsome's forte, Baltimore should be fine in 2009. This good grade is given to the Ravens for their resiliency in coming up with a plan to stay in contention despite losing a wealth of talented players.
Key pickups: WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier
Analysis: No one was surprised when former Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for the Seattle Seahawks. But it was surprising when the Bengals paid former New York Jet Laveranues Coles $28 million over four years-- including a whopping $9.75 million in his first year -- to replace Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh had 90-plus receptions the past two seasons, while Coles is more of a 60- to 70-catch receiver. Someone will have to make up that missing production whether it is a bounce-back year from Chad Ocho Cinco or a career year from one of the young receivers -- Chris Henry, Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson -- in the No. 3 role. Keeping tailback Cedric Benson was important, but the team still needs a big-play threat at that position. J.T. O'Sullivan was a decent pickup to back up quarterback Carson Palmer. With Palmer's return, a stellar draft could put Cincinnati in position to surprise next season.
Analysis: The Browns are cleaning house, and they probably are not done yet. New coach Eric Mangini and first-year general manager George Kokinis are turning over the roster quickly through every avenue possible. The Browns have not retained most of their in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and linebackers Andra Davis
and Willie McGinest. They also cut offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer and receiver Joe Jurevicius and traded former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay for a pair of draft picks. The replacements have not been overwhelming. Former Jets linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens are both stop-gap players who are 30-plus. Royal is not nearly as dynamic a tight end as Winslow, and Cleveland still has a lot of holes left to fill in the draft. The Browns are clearly starting from scratch, which is why they are attempting to stockpile draft picks. Coming off a 4-12 season, Cleveland appears to be headed for another transition year in 2009.
Key pickups: None
Analysis: Pittsburgh hasn't signed anyone outside of its building. Instead, the team placed its focus on keeping together last year's championship team. The Steelers retained three starters from their offensive line in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks and brought back a host of backups and special-teams players. They are staying true to their identity of not being major players in free agency. But it would have been beneficial to add at least one or two offensive linemen from the outside to compete and provide depth. That probably won't happen until next month's NFL draft. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden bolting to the Arizona Cardinals could be softened if William Gay continues to develop in 2009. The Steelers are banking on it. Pittsburgh also brought in a few intriguing free agents, such as receiver Joey Galloway and cornerback/return specialist Chris Carr, for visits. But its reluctance to pay much on the open market this offseason forced those two players to sign with other teams.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
But are they good enough to make a difference?
Yet ironically all four players have a shot for much bigger roles in Cleveland, which provides a great opportunity to shine but also demonstrates how talent-deprived the Browns are.
Bowens and Elam, a restricted free agent, have a chance to make the biggest impact. Bowens has 32.5 career sacks and, despite starting just seven games the past two years, he should start for Cleveland right away. Bowens can play both inside and outside linebacker with the Browns, replacing players such as Leon Williams or Alex Hall.
Poteat would have to beat out one of Cleveland's young corners in Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald. But at the very least, Poteat, 31, can play the nickel and teach Wright and McDonald the nuances of Mangini's system. Mosley was signed to provide depth on the defensive line, which is also an area the Browns will address in the draft.
All four signings are not overwhelming but could turn out to be solid. And when you're trying to completely rebuild a roster, that's not a bad thing.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- Considering the team's moves in free agency, including Wednesday's deal with linebacker Ray Lewis, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome has proven he is "among the elite of team decision-makers in all of sports."
- The three-year, $22 million agreement between Lewis and the Ravens should ensure the linebacker finishes his career in Baltimore.
- The Ravens will replace free-agent departee Jason Brown with six-time Pro-Bowl center Matt Birk, who agreed to a three-year deal on Wednesday.
- A day after losing T.J. Houshmandzadeh to Seattle, the Bengals signed free agent receiver Laveranues Coles to a four-year contract Wednesday, worth a reported $28 million.
- The Bengals are reportedly close to an agreement with former 49ers signal-caller J.T. O'Sullivan.
- The team signed its first player in the free-agency period, agreeing to terms with former Bills tight end Robert Royal Wednesday night.
- The Browns are hosting two players from coach Eric Mangini's former team, the New York Jets. Free agents David Bowens and C.J. Mosley were scheduled to arrive in Cleveland Wednesday night.
- Things are quiet for the Steelers on the free-agency front: No free agents have visited the team this week and none are expected through the weekend.