AFC North: Cordy Glenn

Offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie signed his two-year, $7 million contract Wednesday and attended a voluntary conditioning workout. It's all part of a deal that led to his return to the Super Bowl champions.

McKinnie agreed to play at a lighter weight, even lower than last year's playing weight of 352 pounds.

"The older you get, the more they want you to lose, but the harder it is. But I’m going to just do it," McKinnie told the Ravens' official website. "I have a gameplan this year, and I have people in place that will help me. I’m really dedicated to do it, because I really want to do it for myself and I just really want to play at that weight and play at a high level."

McKinnie added, “That’s been my goal for the last few seasons of my career, just to play at a real high level and dominate. If that’s what I got to do to play at that weight to do it, then that’s what I’m going to do."

At 6-feet-8, McKinnie is the tallest of the 32 projected starting left tackles in the NFL. At 352 pounds, he's also the heaviest. In fact, it's nine pounds more than the listed weight of any other starting left tackle. Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who played for the Ravens from 1996 to 2007, was 6-9 and played at 340 pounds.

McKinnie is the minority these days when it comes to his weight class. There are only six starting left tackles who are 325 pounds or more, including just three who are over 340 pounds. The average current weight for left tackles is 320.4 pounds. And most of these tackles are tall like McKinnie. Only four are shorter than 6-5.

Here are the five heaviest left tackles:

McKinnie, Ravens, 352 pounds

Cordy Glenn, Bills, 343 pounds

Jason Peters, Eagles, 340 pounds

Andrew Whitworth, Bengals, 335 pounds

King Dunlap, Chargers, 330 pounds

Here are the five lightest left tackles:

Charles Brown, Saints, 292 pounds

Jordan Gross, Panthers, 305 pounds

Anthony Castonzo, Colts, 305 pounds

Donald Penn, Buccaneers, 305 pounds

Tyron Smith, Cowboys, 308 pounds

Ryan Kalil, Vikings, 308 pounds
Let's break down the Baltimore Ravens' 2012 draft:

FIRST-ROUND SPOTLIGHT: The Ravens traded out of the first round, but they still got a first-round talent in Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. He will set the edge on run defense like Jarret Johnson, who went to San Diego in free agency, and he will team with Terrell Suggs as Baltimore's edge pass rushers (Upshaw had 15.5 sacks in the past two seasons). He has a high motor and lots of motivation after falling into the second round. “Once we get back to football," Upshaw said, "it's going to be me just wanting to go out there and prove someone should've taken me.”

IN HINDSIGHT: In addition to outside linebacker, the Ravens' biggest need was left guard. Baltimore should've thought about trading up from its second pick in the second round to get Midwestern State's Amini Silatolu or Georgia's Cordy Glenn, who were selected 40th and 41st overall. The price would've been a third-round pick, which the Ravens used on Temple running back Bernard Pierce.

BEST VALUE: C-G Gino Gradkowski, Delaware. He received a third-round grade by some teams and slipped into the early part of the fourth round. Smart and athletic, Gradkowski is expected to be groomed as the successor to Matt Birk, who turns 36 before the start of training camp. The last time the Ravens used a fourth-round pick on a center was Jason Brown in 2005.

TOP LATE-ROUND PICKUP: WR Tommy Streeter, Miami. This was a no-brainer for the Ravens to take a flier on Streeter in the sixth round. Some thought he could go as early as the second round, but his inexperience (a one-year producer) and inconsistent hands scared off teams. The Ravens needed another deep threat for Joe Flacco, and Streeter's size (6 feet 5) and speed (he reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds) is definitely intriguing.

SOMEONE WHO DIDN'T LIKE THIS DRAFT: Paul Kruger. He's waited to find his spot in the starting lineup since he was selected by the Ravens in the second round three years ago. It looked like he would finally get his opportunity when Johnson signed with the Chargers in free agency. But he's no longer a favorite for that outside linebacker job since the Ravens drafted Upshaw.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wasn't creating a smokescreen when he hinted that the team was going to address defense in the first round.

The Bengals selected Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with the 17th overall pick. I would've gone with Stanford's David DeCastro, the best guard in the draft, but I understand the reasoning.

Cincinnati went for the draft's third-best corner in Kirkpatrick because DeCastro and Georgia's Cordy Glenn are still on the board. With how the draft is unfolding, the Bengals could get one of them with the 21st overall pick.

Kirkpatrick is an aggressive and confident cover man who has proven himself against top competition. The reason why he lasted into the bottom half of the first round is he lacks elite speed.
Recent draft history says Stanford guard David DeCastro will fall to the Bengals at the 17th overall pick.

No guard has been selected in the top 16 in the previous 14 drafts. Since 2001, the highest a guard has been selected was No. 17 and it's happened twice (Steve Hutchinson in 2001 and Mike Iupati in 2010).

But all of that could change this year. DeCastro is considered one of the best guard prospects in over a decade. He has been projected to go as early as No. 11 to the Kansas City Chiefs. But there is talk that the Chiefs might look to trade down and take nose tackle Dontari Poe.

DeCastro has also been linked to the Arizona Cardinals at No. 13, the Dallas Cowboys at No. 14 and the New York Jets at No. 16. Is there any team that's not interested in DeCastro in the middle of the first round?

It looks like the odds are against DeCastro dropping to the Bengals. Their fallback option at guard could be Georgia's Cordy Glenn.

Here are notes and numbers for the Bengals entering the draft, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Total picks: 9 (17th, 21st, 53rd, 83rd, 116th, 156th, 166th, 167th, 191st)
  • The Bengals are one of three teams with multiple first-round picks (Browns and Patriots are the others).
  • The Bengals have drafted four Pro Bowl players since 2010 (A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Jermaine Gresham, Geno Atkins), which is two more than any other team.
  • Cincinnati had two rookie Pro Bowl players (Green, Dalton) last season. The Bengals were the first team with multiple rookie Pro Bowl players since the 1980 Lions had Billy Sims and Eddie Murray).
  • The Bengals selected tight end Gresham with 21st pick in 2010.
  • Cincinnati last had multiple first-round picks in 1998 (selected linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons).
  • The Bengals have drafted an offensive player with their past three first-round picks (Green, Gresham, Andre Smith).
As this blog gets posted, it's officially 12 hours before the first round of the NFL draft begins. This will be a special edition of "Wake-up Call" where we survey what the local beat writers are predicting for the teams in the division.

Everyone in the division believes the Browns will take running back Trent Richardson at No. 4 except the Browns' beat reporter. Likewise, everyone has the Browns take wide receiver Kendall Wright with the 22nd overall pick except the Browns' reporter.

There were a few surprises in these mock drafts. Two reporters had wide receiver Michael Floyd sliding to the Bengals at No. 17, and two reporters had the Ravens taking offensive tackle Mike Adams, who reportedly tested positive for marijuana.

Here are the mock drafts from the local reporters:

Joe Reedy, Cincinnati Enquirer

4. Browns: RB Trent Richardson, Alabama

17. Bengals: CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama

21. Bengals: DE-OLB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama

22. Browns: WR Kendall Wright, Baylor

24. Steelers: NT Dontari Poe, Memphis

29. Ravens: G Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin

Mary Kay Cabot, Cleveland Plain Dealer

4. Browns: WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State

17. Bengals: WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame

21. Bengals: CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama

22. Browns: RB Doug Martin, Boise State

24. Steelers: ILB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama

29. Ravens: OT Mike Adams, Ohio State

Matt Vensel, Baltimore Sun

4. Browns: RB Trent Richardson, Alabama

17. Bengals: ILB Luke Kuechly, Boston College

21. Bengals: CB Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama

22. Browns: WR Kendall Wright, Baylor

24. Steelers: G-T Cordy Glenn, Georgia

29. Ravens: ILB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama

Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

4. Browns: RB Trent Richardson, Alabama

17. Bengals: WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame

21. Bengals: DE-LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama

22. Browns: WR Kendall Wright, Baylor

24. Steelers: NT Dontari Poe, Memphis

29. Ravens: OT Mike Adams, Ohio State

ESPN's Todd McShay offered up his sixth version Insider of the mock draft. You'll need a subscription to view the entire Insider piece, but here's the AFC North part of it:

4. Cleveland Browns

Pick: RB Trent Richardson, Alabama

Hensley's comment: I've been on board with this pick for a while. The Browns need someone to build the offense around, and Richardson is an Adrian Peterson-type running back. He's the best offensive player on the board after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and he fills a pressing need for Cleveland.

17. Cincinnati Bengals

Pick: DT Michael Brockers, LSU

Hensley's comment: This pick surprised me because Brockers looks to be suited for a 3-4 defense and the Bengals have two productive tackles in Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. In looking at the players available at this spot in McShay's mock, I would've gone with North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples. He would make an immediate impact in the pass rush.

21. Cincinnati Bengals

Pick: WR Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech

Hensley's comment: The Bengals need a No. 2 wide receiver, so this is a necessary selection. I might have gone with Baylor's Kendall Wright only because he will contribute more this season. Hill has the potential to be the better receiver, but he will need time to develop. He's a raw prospect.

22. Cleveland Browns

Pick: G-T Cordy Glenn, Georgia

Hensley's comment: There will be clamoring that the Browns have to take a wide receiver here. Cleveland, though, can't ignore right tackle. The decision could come down to Glenn or Stanford offensive tackle Jonathan Martin.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick: ILB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama

Hensley's comment: This remains one of the more popular pairings in the first round. But I don't think this is a slam-dunk one. The Steelers could take outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw or an offensive lineman here.

29. Baltimore Ravens

Pick: OLB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama

Hensley's comment: The Ravens would be extremely happy with this pick. Upshaw takes over for Jarret Johnson, who left in free agency, and upgrades Baltimore's pass rush. There has been some talk of the Ravens trading up to get Upshaw.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. produced his final mock for the 2012 draft. You'll need a subscription to view the entire Insider piece Insider, but here's the AFC North part of it:

4. Cleveland Browns

Pick: RB Trent Richardson, Alabama

Hensley's comment: This should be a no-brainer for the Browns. Cleveland can instantly improve its offense by giving the ball 20 to 25 times to Richardson. There are options that would address need at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and wide receiver (Justin Blackmon). But Richardson fills a need and is the best player available.

17. Cincinnati Bengals

Pick: G-T Cordy Glenn, Georgia

Hensley's comment: The Bengals want Stanford guard David DeCastro to fall to them, but it's looking like that won't happen. Glenn is a very solid fallback pick who will start immediately at guard and provide a punch in the running game. He is a physically dominating lineman.

21. Cincinnati Bengals

Pick: WR Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech

Hensley's comment: The pairing of Hill to the Bengals is becoming very popular now. Hill has tremendous potential, but I'm not sure how much the Bengals will get out of him right away. He is an unpolished route runner. Still, the Bengals need a No. 2 wide receiver after losing Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell this offseason.

22. Cleveland Browns

Pick: QB Brandon Weeden

Hensley's comment: Weeden is one of the few quarterbacks in this draft class who can start right away. But taking Weeden here is a reach. The Browns would be better served by using this first-round pick on an offensive tackle like Stanford's Jonathan Martin or wide receiver like Rueben Randle.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick: NT Dontari Poe, Memphis

Hensley's comment: The buzz has apparently died down on Poe, who could slide down to the Steelers. In Kiper's mock, Alabama linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are still available at this spot. Under this scenario, I agree with Kiper the Steelers take Poe.

29. Baltimore Ravens

Pick: ILB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama

Hensley's comment: There are more pressing needs at guard and outside linebacker, but the Ravens couldn't pass on Hightower. Baltimore has to think about the future and the eventual replacement for Ray Lewis. The Ravens would be thrilled to land the two-time captain at Alabama.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

If Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw or inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower is still available at the No. 20 pick (which is currently held by the Titans), the Ravens will try to trade up to get one of them, according to the Sporting News' Mike Preston.

"Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is a former Alabama great and has all the inside skinny information on both players," Preston wrote.

According to Preston, Baltimore also likes Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill. The Ravens know he isn't a polished route-runner, but they think he has great potential.

Hensley's slant: Upshaw and Hightower have been popular picks for the Ravens recently. Upshaw can replace Jarret Johnson, and Hightower can learn from Ray Lewis. And trading isn't out of the question for the Ravens, who have made a move in the first round in three of the past four years.

BENGALS: Head coach Marvin Lewis hinted that the team will use its two first-round picks on defense, according to the team's official website. The Bengals have taken offensive players in the first round in the past three drafts. Asked at his pre-draft press conference if this draft is tilted to offense or defense, Lewis pointed at defense because, "Maybe we have more needs defensively." After taking defensive end Carlos Dunlap in the second round in 2010 he said, "We've kind of neglected defense over the last couple of years." Hensley's slant: I would be surprised if the Bengals used both first-round picks on defense because there should be quality offensive players available at the bottom half of the first round. It would make sense for Cincinnati to pick up a guard (David DeCastro and Cordy Glenn) or a wide receiver (Kendall Wright and Stephen Hill) with one of those top picks.

BROWNS: Will the Cleveland Browns pass on Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon one year after not selecting wide receiver Julio Jones? "Last year had nothing to do with the player," Browns general manager Tom Heckert told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "It had everything to do with the deal we were able to make. We loved Julio Jones." Blackmon had 232 catches for 3,304 yards and 38 touchdowns the past two seasons with Oklahoma State. He's only the second player to win the Biletnikoff award twice as the nation's best receiver (the other was Michael Crabtree). Hensley's slant: If the Browns take Blackmon fourth overall, it cause a lot of head-scratching. Blackmon isn't in the same class as last year's No. 4 pick, wide receiver A.J. Green, and he isn't graded as high as Jones. There will be better value for wide receivers later in the first round.

STEELERS: If Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe and Alabama's Hightower are still available at the Steelers' No. 24 spot, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette thinks the team will go with Poe. But Bouchette doesn't see Poe starting immediately unless Casey Hampton (knee) is sidelined. "It sounds as if he's one of those who can use a little grooming first," Bouchette wrote. Hensley's slant: I agree that the Steelers likely have Poe rated higher than Hightower. But Hightower is more likely to be there when the Steelers are drafting. It will take a handful of interested teams to pass on Poe for him to fall that far.
The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers engage in the NFL's best grudge matches every year. This week, that rivalry could cross over into the NFL draft.

The Ravens and the Steelers have similar needs and could be targeting some of the same players. The Steelers will have the first shot at a player with the 24th overall pick, but the Ravens could decide to trade up in front of Pittsburgh from the No. 29 spot.

Both teams are looking at guards like Georgia’s Cordy Glenn and Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler. The Steelers should upgrade at left guard from Doug Legursky, and the Ravens still have to replace Ben Grubbs at that same spot.

Both teams could use an inside linebacker like Alabama’s Dont'a Hightower. Pittsburgh has a leadership void there since cutting James Farrior, and Baltimore has to start thinking of an heir apparent to Ray Lewis.

Both teams could also consider an outside linebacker like Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw. The Steelers might look ahead with James Harrison turning 34 next month, and the Ravens could use an Alabama player to replace a departed one in Jarret Johnson.

Theses scenarios should bring AFC North drama to the bottom half of the first round. The Steelers could take a coveted Ravens prospect at No. 24, or Baltimore could jump ahead of Pittsburgh to do the same.

According to the trade chart, the Ravens would give up a third-round pick to move up to the Detroit Lions' No. 23 spot.
The live ESPN Blogger Mock Draft just wrapped up, and I'll give you my picks and my thoughts behind them:

4. Browns: RB Trent Richardson, Alabama. Not buying into the Browns' interest in wide receiver Justin Blackmon or quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Richardson is clearly the best offensive player in the draft outside of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. The Browns' struggling offense needs an identity, and Richardson can instantly give it a tough one.

17. Bengals: DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina. Things didn't go as planned in the first half of the draft for the Bengals, who watched guard David DeCastro, safety Mark Barron and cornerback Stephon Gilmore all get taken in the top 15. Defensive end is a major need for the Bengals, but it would be hard to resist taking a talent like Coples. Even though Coples has boom-or-bust potential, this is a pick based on best player available.

21. Bengals: G-T Cordy Glenn, Georgia. The decision here came down to Glenn, wide receiver Kendall Wright or cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. You could argue wide receiver is the bigger need, but Glenn is the better prospect. After failing to get DeCastro at No. 17, the Bengals turn to Glenn to make an immediate impact at right or left guard.

22. Browns: OT Jonathan Martin, Stanford. This was a tough call because the Browns need speed at wide receiver, and Wright and Stephen Hill are sitting there. But that's the reason the pick is Martin. There are so many more wide receiver prospects available than offensive tackles, so the Browns have a better chance of a wide receiver falling to them early in the second round (perhaps South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery).

24. Steelers: NT Dontari Poe, Memphis. Could the Steelers have envisioned a better draft unfolding than this? Pittsburgh would've been happy with Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw or even Amini Silatolu. Instead, Poe falls into their laps. He becomes the heir apparent to Casey Hampton.

29. Ravens: OLB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama. The Ravens are always looking for pass rushers, and Upshaw gives them another tone-setter on defense. He replaces Jarret Johnson in Baltimore's base defense and plays opposite Terrell Suggs as an edge rusher in passing situations. Upshaw has drawn comparisons to LaMarr Woodley, so you know he's an AFC North-type of player.
We're into our third day in gauging what you think the teams in the AFC North should do in the first round.

Once we get through all six first-round selections by early next week, I will compile an AFC North fans' mock for the Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers.


Who should the Bengals take with the 21st overall pick?


Discuss (Total votes: 320)

Today's pick is the Cincinnati Bengals and the 21st overall pick. Here are the choices:

CB Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: He's got all the traits to be an excellent cover cornerback -- height, speed and a reputation for being a hard worker. There are concerns about if he's physical enough to play in-your-face man coverage.

G-OT Cordy Glenn, Georgia: Agile for his size, Glenn has played every position on the offensive line besides center. His questionable work habits and soft temperament hurts his value.

CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama: Instinctive and tough, he's an aggressive cover corner who plays with confidence. His three career interceptions indicate a lack of playmaking ability.

WR Kendall Wright, Baylor: A big playmaker, Wright has the speed to beat defenders deep and the sudden stop-and-go movement to elude tacklers after the catch. At 5-10, he lacks ideal height and strength.

AFC North Sunday mailbag

April, 15, 2012
Teams can begin their voluntary offseason workout programs Monday, but that doesn't mean we're taking the day off here on the AFC North blog. Let's buckle up our helmets and open some mail ...


DogPound32 (Rocky River, Ohio) writes: Call me crazy, Jamison, but why in the world would any Browns fan want us to draft a QB, unless it was a late late round pick? Give my boy [Colt] McCoy a chance and surround him with [running back Trent] Richardson, [wide receiver Stephen] Hill, and [offensive tackle Bobby] Massie in this year's draft. Then if you want to pick up a QB in the seventh round, pick up Kellen Moore and call it a day. Wasting anything more than a late round pick on a QB is not worth it for the Browns this year. Moore may be smaller, but he's a proven winner with ice in his veins. He can definitely be a solid backup for Colt this year and it comes at a low risk. Thoughts?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: You're not crazy. That is, unless your real name is DogPound32. Your argument, however, is a valid one. I see two franchise quarterbacks in this draft, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. After failing to get RG3, the Browns should focus their energy on upgrading the surrounding talent on offense. That would put Cleveland in the best position to go all-in for a franchise quarterback next season. I do have to admit that Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden intrigues me more and more as the draft approaches. But getting Weeden at the bottom of the first round or early in the second would mean missing out on a wide receiver or offensive tackle. And that doesn't make sense to me.

Ben (Pensacola, Fla.) writes: Even if the Steelers draft a guard in the first round, they should pass on a running back to draft another guard in the second. Somehow I doubt any back in the draft is going to help much if Big Ben gets injured again. Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster are nice backups, but neither belongs as a starter. Frankly, I'd be perfectly happy if the Steelers passed on Dont'a Hightower to grab guards in both the first and second rounds: Amini Silatolu in the first and Kelechi Osemele in the second. Isaiah Pead would be worth a look in the fourth round, but that's the earliest I would go for a running back with the bigger needs on the roster.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Silatolu is my sleeper pick for the Steelers in the first round. He's a nasty offensive lineman who has Pro Bowl potential. I agree that Legursky needs to be replaced; his strength is being a versatile backup. But Foster is serviceable at right guard, so you don't need to draft a guard in the second round. I think a back who is tougher and more decisive than Rashard Mendenhall could make this line look a lot better. I like the idea of taking Virginia Tech's speedy David Wilson or Boise State's powerful Doug Martin in the second round.

Brian (Cincinnati) writes: What are the chances the Bengals have an All-Stanford first round this year with guard David DeCastro at No. 17 and tight end Coby Fleener at No. 21? The Bengals desperately need a No. 2 tight end in Jay Gruden's offense. Considering the free agents available and the fact that this draft class is not deep at all at tight end, why not take the best available?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: The Bengals are bringing back their top three tight ends after re-signing Donald Lee. Like you, I would like to see another pass-catching tight end, but I wouldn't classify Cincinnati as desperate for one. The Bengals just took a tight end (Jermaine Gresham) in the first round in 2010, so it's highly unlikely they would use one on another tight end so soon. If the Bengals draft DeCastro, which would be a great move for the Bengals, the second first-round pick can be used on a wide receiver, safety, cornerback or outside linebacker. Those are bigger needs than a No. 2 tight end.

Ben P (Boston) writes: What do you think are the chances that the Ravens trade up to the 23rd or 22nd pick in the first round? Both Detroit and Cleveland are probably just looking for best available players at that point and so they might be willing to trade back for extra picks. It would give Baltimore a chance to fill a need and keep a really good player like offensive lineman Cordy Glenn or linebacker Dont'a Hightower away from the Steelers.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: I would say there is a greater chance of the Ravens moving back than moving up. Baltimore covets draft picks and it only has eight, which is the fewest among AFC North teams this year. The only way the Ravens trade up -- and they indicated they would only go as high as No. 19 -- is if one of their top 15 prospects slides into the 20s. I got the impression from the team's pre-draft press conference that the Ravens want more picks, which means moving back.

Mike TomlinMichael Hickey/US PresswireMike Tomlin and the Steelers need to tap into their draft magic this year more than many.

Nearly a full month into free agency, the Steelers finally signed their first player Tuesday. It was -- yawn -- Leonard Pope.

Not excited about adding a backup tight end? Well, this is essentially a repeat of last year, when the Steelers' big free-agent signing was wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Let's face it, Steelers free agency contains as much action as a Sarah Jessica Parker flick. Everyone knows this, and that's why no one is wringing their Terrible Towel over the inactivity.

The Steelers find players in April, not March. They hit on first-round picks every year -- at least in recent memory -- and develop undrafted prospects into starters. No one has built their team through the draft quite like the Steelers this decade. If the season started today, only one of the projected starters (safety Ryan Clark) joined the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent.

The Steelers need this remarkable track record in the draft to come through for them again. In some ways, this is the most important draft of the Mike Tomlin era. I'm not saying this is a crucial draft in terms of finding immediate starters. But the pressure is on the Steelers to find "potential" starters for the 2012 season.

The organization lost a piece of its history when it parted ways with wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Chris Hoke and guard Chris Kemoeatu this offseason. Some have downplayed these departures because none were major contributors last season. Farrior was a part-time player, Ward was being phased out, Kemoeatu was benched and Smith and Hoke were both injured. The Steelers, though, could have used their experience as backups this season.

The loss of these veteran safety nets makes injuries a major concern. Two starters -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton -- are candidates to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (and miss at least the first six games) after ACL surgeries this offseason. Tomlin has expressed concern about whether right tackle Willie Colon and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders can shake their injury histories. And the Steelers have to be worried about Maurkice Pouncey's ankle, LaMarr Woodley's hamstrings and Doug Legursky's shoulder.

If Hampton is placed on the PUP, the starting nose tackle would likely be an out-of-position Ziggy Hood. If Legursky is hurt, the current top backup at guard is John Malecki. If Colon goes down, the Steelers have to turn to the often-struggling Jonathan Scott. If Sanders can't play, the third receiver would be ... well, no one right now. These are all painful scenarios for the Steelers.

This is where the draft comes into play for Pittsburgh. Taking the right college player has always kept the Steelers in the mode of reloading, not rebuilding. No one knows whom the Steelers will select with the 24th overall pick. It could be Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener or someone not even linked to Pittsburgh. Based on the Steelers' history, the only certainty is that the pick will become an impact player.

[+] EnlargeBrett Keisel
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDefensive end Brett Keisel, taken in the seventh round, is just one of the Steelers' draft finds.
Since 2000, the Steelers' first-round selections have been wide receiver Plaxico Burress, Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Mendenhall, Hood, Pouncey and defensive end Cameron Heyward. The only one who didn't quite live up to expectations is Mendenhall, and he is hardly a major disappointment, having led the team in rushing for the past three seasons. This great run is more amazing when you consider that only two (Burress and Roethlisberger) were selected in the top half of the first round. Even the Ravens, who are known for excelling in the draft, have had two busts during this span with quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Travis Taylor.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, one of the underrated decision-makers in the NFL, can't explain this string of success.

"We've been fortunate," he told reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We are capable as anybody of making a mistake. We never keep score. There's only one score that matters and that's the last game of the year."

If the Steelers had been keeping score, they would realize their success goes beyond the first round. They have come away with current starters in the second round (linebacker Woodley), third round (wide receiver Mike Wallace), fourth round (cornerback Ike Taylor), sixth round (wide receiver Antonio Brown) and seventh round (defensive end Brett Keisel). And don't forget about the undrafted finds like Legursky, right guard Ramon Foster and running back Isaac Redman.

This is why the Steelers don't have to write a $100 million check to free agents. This is why the Steelers can sign one player in the first 28 days of free agency and not sweat about it. Pittsburgh's way of business is about patience and faith. The Steelers believe in their front office to select the right college players and they believe in their coaching staff to develop them. It's a proven system that has led to five AFC North titles in 10 seasons and three trips to the Super Bowl during that span.

As players come and go, the Steelers' goals never change. Like Tomlin always preaches: "The standard is the standard."

"If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible."

And the organizations that are able to sustain success are often quiet in free agency and make the most noise in the draft.
Some might have been surprised when the Bengals agreed to a one-year deal with guard Jacob Bell. It has been four weeks since he visited Cincinnati.

But adding Bell makes sense, especially signing him to a short-term contract. The Bengals needed a right guard heading into the draft, and they could do much worse than a lineman who has 100 career starts. This isn't to say Bell was signed to be the starter, because he's a below-average run-blocker.

So, what does the signing of Bell mean? He's a one-year insurance policy. The Bengals will still likely draft Stanford's David DeCastro or Georgia's Cordy Glenn if one is available at one of the team's two first-round picks. The addition of Bell means they don't have to draft one of them.

The Bengals have more flexibility and can take the best player available at the 17th and 21st overall picks. They don't have to draft solely on need. And, even if the Bengals don't draft a guard, Bell will probably have to beat out Clint Boling and Otis Hudson for the job.

Finding someone to fill the spot long manned by Bobbie Williams was one of the last glaring holes in Cincinnati's starting lineup. The Bengals addressed left guard earlier this offseason when they signed Panthers free agent Travelle Wharton.