AFC North: Dont'a Hightower

Steelers: One big question

May, 4, 2012
Do the Pittsburgh Steelers still have the best defense in the NFL?

That depends on three factors: the health of nose tackle Casey Hampton, the ability to replace inside linebacker James Farrior, and the emergence of a No. 2 cornerback. The most pressing issue is Hampton, who had ACL surgery in January. It's unknown whether the 35-year-old veteran will be lining up against Denver in the season opener, or starting the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. His absence could force Ziggy Hood to shift from defensive end, or push rookie fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu into the starting lineup.

The Steelers already know they must replace Farrior, who was cut March 2. Some would dismiss this as a challenge, because Farrior was a part-time player last season and contributed a career-low 78 tackles. Still, he was a 10-year starter and the top leader on defense. Many expected the Steelers to draft Dont'a Hightower as his replacement, but they chose guard David DeCastro in the first round instead. Now, Pittsburgh will fill that spot with either Larry Foote, who was previously released so Lawrence Timmons could start, or Stevenson Sylvester, who has 21 career tackles.

The other question is at cornerback, where Pittsburgh must fill William Gay's starting spot. It's up in the air right now, and should come down to a three-player race between Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. Lewis and Allen played on the team's nickel defense last season, but the dark horse to win this battle is Brown, a tenacious defender who led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season. The Steelers' defense ended last season ranked first in fewest yards and points allowed after being criticized early for being too old. So, it's hard to predict much of a falloff as Pittsburgh goes through some transition at a couple of positions.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

As the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their rookie minicamp today, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac predicts first-round pick David DeCastro will be a Pro Bowl guard by 2013 but has lower expectations for second-round pick Mike Adams, at least for this season anyway.

Some have speculated that Adams will start immediately at left tackle for the Steelers. Dulac is not among them.

"Adams is not ready to be a starter in the NFL because he needs to get stronger," Dulac wrote. "He did only 19 reps in the 225-pound bench press at the combine, a low and disappointing number for an offensive lineman. Adams should be a starting tackle for a long time and, with DeCastro, automatically elevates the talent on the line. But not right now."

Hensley's slant: How the Steelers' offensive line will look this season depends on whether Adams is ready to start or not. If Adams needs another year before starting, Marcus Gilbert is the left tackle and Willie Colon is the one on the right. If Adams can start immediately, Gilbert goes back to the right side and Colon likely pushes guard Ramon Foster out of the lineup.

BENGALS: Secondary coach Mark Carrier reflected on the death of Junior Seau, who was a teammate at USC and was selected one pick ahead of Carrier in the 1990 draft. "He loved to play," Carrier told Cincinnati reporters, via the team's official website. "No matter where you went to play or who you were playing, you wanted him to be with you. You knew he had your back and that he was going to be the best athlete on the field. His love of the game was contagious." Hensley's slant: This isn't the first time that Carrier has had to deal with the suicide of a former teammate. In February 2011, Dave Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Carrier said Duerson helped him get acclimated to the NFL as a rookie even though the Bears picked him to replace Duerson.

BROWNS: First-round pick Brandon Weeden believes he can be the starting quarterback this season for Cleveland. "I feel like I'm ready," Weeden told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I have a long way to go, but I feel like I've taken the right steps to get to where I can play at that level. If I'm asked to be the guy Day One, I'm going to do everything on my part to put our team in position to win games and score points. I'm really anxious to get going and the season will be here before you know it." Hensley's slant: The Browns haven't officially given the job to Weeden, but they didn't draft a 28-year-old quarterback in the first round to sit for a season. The only question at quarterback is whether Colt McCoy or Seneca Wallace will be backing up Weeden this year.

RAVENS: Director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said DeCastro and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower were not among the seven players the team would've traded up for in the first round. He also indicated Adams wasn't high on the Ravens' board either. “Mike Adams specifically was not a player of great interest to the Ravens because of off-field concerns,” DeCosta said on the team's official website. “We always consider moving up based on scout opinions and coaching evaluations. We didn’t see any tackles in this draft other than [USC left tackle Matt] Kalil that we would have considered moving up to take in the first round.” Hensley's slant: The Ravens will get an up-close look at the development of DeCastro and Adams, who are expected to be fixtures on Pittsburgh's offensive line for years. We'll see if Baltimore's opinion on those two players changes over the years. The Ravens won't be doing them any favors by lining up Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs across from them.
Let's break down the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2012 draft:

FIRST-ROUND SPOTLIGHT: The Steelers would've been happy to come away with either linebacker Dont'a Hightower or guard Kevin Zeitler at No. 24. Not only did both players fall to the Steelers but so did Stanford's David DeCastro, the top guard prospect in a decade. Pittsburgh couldn't have drawn up a better board. DeCastro is a physically dominant blocker who will immediately start at left or right guard. The Steelers can thank the Bengals for passing on him at No. 21.

IN HINDSIGHT: The riskiest move of the Steelers' strong draft was taking Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams with the 56th overall pick. He was clearly the best offensive lineman left late in the second round, and he fills another need on the offensive line. But Adams was removed briefly from the Steelers' draft board because of character concerns. Pittsburgh's other option was Oregon running back LaMichael James, who was taken by the 49ers five picks later.

BEST VALUE: NT Alameda Ta'amu, Washington. Memphis' Dontari Poe, the draft's top-rated nose tackle, was taken at No. 11. The Steelers got the second-best one in Ta'amu 98 picks later in the fourth round. That's unbelievable value. The massive Samoan is the heir apparent to Casey Hampton.

TOP LATE-ROUND PICKUP: RB Chris Rainey, Florida. His acceleration and high-cut speeds add a different look to the Steelers offense. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has to be creative with Rainey because of his size (5 feet 8, 178 pounds), but Rainey can make some big-time plays if used the right way. He also has three career touchdowns as a returner.

SOMEONE WHO DIDN'T LIKE THIS DRAFT: Willie Colon. He might have lost his starting job when the Steelers drafted Adams in the second round, but he won't be losing money. After Colon refused to take a pay cut this offseason, the Steelers agreed to restructure his contract to create salary-cap room. Colon received $3.8 million of his $4.5 million base salary in the form of a bonus. The Steelers might have considered cutting Colon after this draft if not for the restructuring. With all that money the Steelers handed him in February, he's guaranteed to make the team.

One of the most popular first-round pairings is Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower going to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But that would go against the team's draft history.

The Steelers have selected only one linebacker in the first round in the past 20 drafts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was Lawrence Timmons in 2007.

I'm not saying the Steelers would pass on Hightower or Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. This trend just shows the Steelers typically find their linebackers after the first round and have had success doing it that way (LaMarr Woodley was a second-round pick, James Harrison was undrafted, Stevenson Sylvester was a fifth-rounder and Jason Worilds was a second-rounder).

In fact, the Steelers have drafted eight linebackers since 2007 (Mike Tomlin's first season) -- which is tied for the most of any team in that span.

Here are numbers and notes for the Steelers heading into the NFL draft, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Total picks: 10 (24th, 56th, 86th, 119th, 159th, 193rd, 231st, 240th, 246th, 248th)
  • Only one of seven 2011 draft picks started a game last season (Marcus Gilbert – 13 starts)
  • Ten picks would match the Steelers' most in draft since 2000 (10 in 2010)
There's been a strong buzz recently that the Baltimore Ravens are considering Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill with the 29th overall pick.

This is a little surprising because Hill is a unpolished prospect who needs time to develop as a route runner. But the Ravens appear intrigued by his downfield playmaking ability. And, as you saw last season with Torrey Smith, quarterback Joe Flacco can get the ball downfield when receivers can outrun or outleap defenders.

As I've mentioned before, the Ravens could be thinking ahead at wide receiver. This could be Anquan Boldin's final season with the Ravens. If that's the case, Baltimore could groom Hill for a season before asking him to become a starter.

I believe the Ravens are interested in Hill, but I think Alabama linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are rated higher on Baltimore' board. Hightower would be the eventual replacement for Ray Lewis, and Upshaw would fill the void left by Jarret Johnson.

Of course, the Ravens' interest in Hill could be a moot point. Unless the Ravens trade up to the No. 20 spot (held by the Titans), they have to hope Hill makes it past two division rivals -- the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 21 and the Cleveland Browns at No. 22.

Here are some notes and numbers for the Ravens heading into the draft, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Total picks: 8 (29th, 60th, 91st, 130th, 164th, 169th, 198th, 236th)
  • Of the 31 draft picks under coach John Harbaugh, 19 have been offensive players
  • Ravens selected guard Ben Grubbs with 29th pick in 2007 (only time drafting 29th)
  • All eight 2011 draft picks appeared in at least 3 games for team last season
  • Multiple fifth-round picks for fourth consecutive season

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.
Four down, two more to go in our "You make the call" series.

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


Who should the Steelers take at No. 24?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,790)

Today's pick is the Pittsburgh Steelers and the 24th overall pick. Here are the choices:

ILB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama: A two-time captain at Alabama, Hightower has outstanding size and strength, which he uses to stuff the run. One criticism is he's played too cautiously since his 2009 knee injury.

OT Bobby Massie, Mississippi: A big and athletic right tackle who is rising up draft boards. He needs to improve his technique and finish off blocks more consistently.

G Amini Silatolu, Midwestern State: Thick and nasty, Silatolu brings consistent intensity and power. But he is technically raw and has less-than-ideal foot speed.

DE-LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: His power and competitiveness jumps off the tape. He's not a great athlete and it showed in his combine results.
Just a reminder that the ESPN Blogger Mock Draft will start at 1 p.m. ET today. Until then, we have some time to open up some mail.


Kory, from Foster City, Calif., writes: I know you've been steadfast on the Browns taking Trent Richardson at No. 4. My question is, if you had the choice in a hypothetical scenario between Richardson and last year's No. 4 pick, A.J. Green, would you still stick with Richardson or would you be harping for the Browns to take Green?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: I would go with Green because you knew he was going to be a special wide receiver. Green and Julio Jones were both rated higher than Justin Blackmon is right now. That's the difference. So, the choice is to go with a playmaker like Green, who immediately upgrades the passing game and can catch big touchdown passes for 10 years. Of course, knowing a receiver like Green would be available, the Browns would have to address running back in free agency or consider using an early pick on a running back like Virginia Tech's David Wilson or Boise State's Doug Martin. Now, returning to reality, the Browns should draft Richardson with the fourth overall pick and be very happy about it.

Brian from Georgetown, Ky., writes: Do you think it is possible that, if both are available, the Bengals might take Stephen Hill over Kendall Wright given their history of taking big, fast wide receivers early (Jerome Simpson in the second round for example) in the past?

Jamison Hensley: You make a good point on why the Bengals would select Hill because their history suggests that. I just see Hill as a raw version of A.J. Green. Hill has the potential to be really good, although it's going to take some time. The team that drafts him is going to need patience. The Bengals need a No. 2 wide receiver and someone who can make an immediate impact for team looking to return to the playoffs. Wright is more NFL ready. He is elusive after the catch and can make the tough grab over the middle. Taking Hill wouldn't be an awful move. Selecting Wright would just be the better one for the Bengals.

Gene from San Diego writes: Are you buying ino Peter King's report that the Ravens aren't too hot about Peter Konz and that they are going to trade up to No. 23 in order to obtain Dont'a Hightower? Hard to imagine Ozzie Newsome trading up since their theme of this draft is deep depth.

Jamison Hensley: I think there's a better chance of the Ravens trading down than up. As you pointed out, the Ravens believe they can address a lot of areas of depth in this draft. And, with a division-low eight picks (only one selection in the first 59), Baltimore is more motivated to add more picks than trade them. Still, it comes down to who is available at No. 23. If the Ravens' board is getting wiped clean and Hightower is one of their top prospects remaining, they will consider jumping up to get him. Baltimore doesn't want to be left taking its 29th-rated prospect with the 29th pick. So, I wouldn't totally rule out a move up.

Carl from Erie, Pa., writes: I know the Steelers need to replace James Farrior, and Dont'a Hightower seems like the perfect fit. But wouldn't it be better for the Steelers to get a good lineman like Cordy Glenn to give Ben Roethlisberger more time and who ever our running back is more holes to run through? We all know how good Ben is when he gets time to throw.

Jamison Hensley: Hightower is the popular pick because he would fill a need, but he's not the slam-dunk pick. Assuming a player like Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe is long gone, the Steelers' decision will come down to linebacker or offensive line. Glenn would be a solid choice, especially because of his versatility. But the Steelers will have other options like Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler and Midwestern State's Amini Silatolu. Even if the Steelers take Hightower, they likely will address the offensive line with another early-round pick.

Here are some comments left in the mailbag ...

Jim Bigwood from Towson, Md., writes: Biggest laugh at lunch today, "Looks like they let a Ravens fan choose the Steelers throwback unis."

James Abernathy from Cincinnati writes: Regarding your comment on the Bengals' schedule: "If the Bengals can't pack the stadium for those games, there's a major problem in Cincinnati." Yeah, that problem's name is Mike Brown.

Logz from Pittsburgh writes: Steelers-Ravens the week before and after Thanksgiving? That's like getting in a bar fight, going to the hospital, and then back to a bar fight while the wounds are still fresh. Who says the NFL doesn't care about player safety.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden believes the Cleveland Browns are interested in drafting him.

"You never how it's going to go, but I feel really good about how everything's gone with the Browns throughout this whole process," Weeden told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "It would be exciting if I ended up there."

The Browns have been linked to Weeden in the second round, and some have speculated that Cleveland could use its second first-round pick on the 28-year-old quarterback. Weeden sees himself as an immediate starter, which could lead to a competition with Colt McCoy.

"I know Colt had a good year last year, and he's a good football player," Weeden said. "But I'm a competitor, and I want to play as soon as possible. I'd be excited about the opportunity to come in and compete with him and see how things pan out."

Hensley's slant: The Browns have a big decision when it comes to their second and third picks in the draft. They will have the opportunity to either add another offensive weapon for McCoy or bring in someone who will compete for McCoy's job. The Browns have not hid the fact that they're looking to upgrade the quarterback position.

BENGALS: Cincinnati could use its second first-round pick on a wide receiver. Cris Collinsworth, a former Bengals wide receiver and current NFL analyst, suggests Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill. "What he doesn’t do well, you can fix," Collinsworth told the team's official website. "You put him opposite A.J. [Green], what are you going to do? You're going to have to play seven against the run. You're not playing one of those guys without safety help. I wouldn't." Hensley's slant: The Bengals can go a lot of different ways with that 21st overall pick and wide receiver is definitely an option. I think Baylor's Kendall Wright could be a better complement to Green. Wright is smaller than Hill, but he has great speed and can make more difficult catches.

RAVENS: General manager Ozzie Newsome thinks it would be difficult to pass on an Alabama player in the first round. “I don’t want to tip my hand, but they are good players,” Newsome, a former Alabama player himself, told the team's official website. “I’ve had the opportunity to watch them for three or four years. If one’s there, it could make our decision tough.” The Alabama players who are considered first-round prospects are: running back Trent Richardson, safety Mark Barron, defensive end-outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Hensley's slant: The three players presumably on the Ravens' radar are Upshaw, Hightower and Barron. Upshaw would take the starting spot left by Jarret Johnson, Hightower would be the heir to Ray Lewis and Barron would eventually take Ed Reed's leadership role in the secondary.

STEELERS: In case you missed it over the weekend, Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is mulling a holdout. After Friday's deadline came and went without Wallace getting an offer sheet from another team, the restricted free agent told some within the Steelers organization that he does not plan to sign his first-round tender "until he has to," a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. This means that Wallace could wind up holding out for some or all of training camp. Hensley's slant: Wallace would only be hurting himself by dragging this out beyond June 15 (when the Steelers can cut the tender to $577,500 if he doesn't sign). If his protest goes beyond that, it still doesn't hurt his chances of staying with the Steelers long term.

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.

ESPN's Todd McShay offered the fifth version of his 2012 mock draft Insider this week. It's a little different than his previous ones because he discusses the different scenarios facing each team. Here's a look at the AFC North part of it:

4. Cleveland Browns

Version 1.0: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama

Version 2.0: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor

Version 3.0: Richardson

Version 4.0: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State

Current pick: Richardson

Hensley's comment: I've been on board for the past few weeks with this selection. McShay brings up the possibility of the Browns taking Blackmon or quarterback Ryan Tannehill here. For me, Richardson is the clear-cut choice. Blackmon lacks elite speed and Tannehill is too much of a risk.

17. Cincinnati Bengals

Version 1.0: David DeCastro, G, Stanford

Version 2.0: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama

Version 3.0: Kirkpatrick

Version 4.0: DeCastro

Current pick: DeCastro

Hensley's comment: McShay believes the decision to take DeCastro would be tougher if Alabama safety Mark Barron was available here, too. My feeling is the Bengals don't think twice about taking DeCastro here unless wide receiver Michael Floyd surprisingly falls (which won't happen).

21. Cincinnati Bengals

Version 1.0: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska

Version 2.0: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami

Version 3.0: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State

Version 4.0: Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina

Current pick: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor

Hensley's comment: Like McShay, I could see the Bengals addressing corner at this spot if someone like Kirkpatrick is still on the board. But taking Wright makes sense. His speed and playmaking ability would prove troublesome to defenses focusing their attention on A.J. Green.

22. Cleveland Browns

Version 1.0: Kevin Reddick, OLB, North Carolina

Version 2.0: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame

Version 3.0: Michael Brockers, DT, LSU

Version 4.0: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State

Current pick: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford

Hensley's comment: Not sure I would go with Martin, especially with Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill on the board. The Browns can get an offensive tackle like Bobby Massie early in the second round.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers

Version 1.0: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia

Version 2.0: Adams

Version 3.0: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama

Version 4.0: Hightower

Current pick: Hightower

Hensley's comment: I can see Georgia offensive lineman Cordy Glenn being tempting at this pick for the Steelers, but McShay has him going at No. 18 to San Diego. Hightower would step into the void left by James Farrior. Pittsburgh could also take an offensive lineman or cornerback in the first round.

29. Baltimore Ravens

Version 1.0: Adams

Version 2.0: Vontaze Burfict, ILB, Arizona State

Version 3.0: Peter Konz, C-G, Wisconsin

Version 4.0: Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame

Current pick: Smith

Hensley's comment: If Smith is the best player available here, I can see the Ravens trying to move back. There's also a chance that the Ravens could try to move up if Hill slips down around their range. One name that McShay mentioned -- Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler -- is another possibility here.