AFC North: Draft Watch 2011

Draft Watch: AFC North

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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: dream scenarios and Plan B.

Cincinnati Bengals

Dream scenario: The Bengals own the best pick in the AFC North at No. 4 overall. The Bengals can go in a lot of different directions. So their dream scenario involves flexibility. Cincinnati, ideally, would like one of the top two quarterbacks -- Auburn's Cam Newton or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert -- to be available at No. 4. That way the Bengals can decide whether they like one of these quarterbacks as Carson Palmer's replacement or entertain trade offers. Cincinnati would be in a position of power at the top of the draft.

Plan B: If both Newton and Gabbert are gone within the first three picks, Plan B would be to fill a need with the highest player on their draft board. Georgia receiver A.J. Green and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson are two possibilities.

Cleveland Browns

Dream scenario: Cleveland's dream position is pretty similar to Cincinnati's. If one of the top two quarterbacks fall to No. 6, the Browns should have no shortage of interested trade partners looking to draft Newton or Gabbert. The Washington Redskins at No. 10 could be a possible suitor, as well as the Minnesota Vikings at No. 12.

Plan B: If Newton and Gabbert are off the board at No. 6, that increases the chance of Cleveland using the pick. The Browns need receivers and defensive linemen in the worst way. Defensive linemen Marcell Dareus of Auburn and Robert Quinn of North Carolina are possibilities on defense, and on offense Green is the most likely target. A dark horse for the Browns could be Peterson. Secondary help is not Cleveland’s biggest need. But if Peterson is dangling there at No. 6, he may be too good to pass up.

Baltimore Ravens

Dream scenario: The Ravens thrive on finding great value picks late in round and have another chance at No. 26. This draft is very deep, and a top-15 talent could be available in the late-20s. The Ravens need offensive linemen and pass-rushers. Therefore, a dream scenario would be for Baltimore to have the ability to choose several players at these positions. Some possible options would be Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder, Florida guard Mike Pouncey and pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue.

Plan B: The Ravens could also address a lesser need but add talent at wide receiver or corner in the first round. Colorado CB Jimmy Smith could help the Ravens, but he enters the draft with character concerns.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Dream scenario: A dream scenario for the reigning AFC champions would be reuniting Mike Pouncey with his twin brother, Maurkice Pouncey, to anchor the offensive line in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers have the No. 31 pick and know that's probably not going to happen barring a trade up.

Plan B: A more realistic option would be to draft a cornerback, a position the Steelers must upgrade and has little depth. No. 1 corner Ike Taylor and top reserve William Gay are pending free agents, and there's no guarantee either will return. Texas defensive back Aaron Williams and Miami corner Brandon Harris are options. Drafting an offensive linemen also is a possibility.

Draft Watch: AFC North

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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: history in that spot.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals' top pick is No. 4 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: OT Trent Williams, (Redskins)

2009: LB Aaron Curry (Seahawks)

2008: RB Darren McFadden (Raiders)

2007: DE Gaines Adams (Buccaneers)

2006: OT D'Brickashaw Ferguson (Jets)

2005: RB Cedric Benson (Bears)

2004: QB Philip Rivers (Chargers)

Analysis: Draft history shows the Bengals are in a good spot at No. 4. Most players on this list have turned out to be productive pros or are getting playing time right away while trying to make a name for themselves. The last franchise quarterback taken in this spot was Rivers, who was drafted by the Giants and traded to the Chargers on draft day in 2004. That was a great pick in a strong quarterback class that included the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and the Giants' Eli Manning. Is that caliber of quarterback available this year for the Bengals, whose starter, Carson Palmer, has threatened to retire? Prospects such as Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert would be much riskier picks.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns' top pick is No. 6 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: OT Russell Okung (Seahawks)

2009: OT Andre Smith (Bengals)

2008: LB Vernon Gholston (Jets)

2007: S LaRon Landry (Redskins)

2006: TE Vernon Davis (49ers)

2005: CB Adam Jones (Titans)

2004: TE Kellen Winslow Jr. (Browns)

Analysis: Recent history shows the No. 6 overall pick can be hit or miss. Smith, Gholston and Jones are all certified busts as big-money draft picks. It's too early to tell with Okung, while Landry, Davis and Winslow have all had multiple productive seasons in the NFL. The Browns went 5-11 for the second consecutive year after having a similar pick in 2010. In the first year under president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert, Cleveland took cornerback Joe Haden at No. 7 overall, and he turned out to be a solid selection. The Browns need to add another impact player from the top of this draft to close the gap with the Ravens and Steelers.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' top pick is No. 26 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: DT Dan Williams (Cardinals)

2009: LB Clay Matthews Jr. (Packers)

2008: OT Duane Brown (Texans)

2007: LB Anthony Spencer (Cowboys)

2006: DT John McCargo (Bills)

2005: C Chris Spencer (Seahawks)

2004: RB Chris Perry (Bengals)

Analysis: Picking late in the first round is one of the toughest things to do for any franchise, but the Ravens thrive on it. General manager Ozzie Newsome is one of the best at finding late-round gems. Current Ravens such as Michael Oher, Ben Grubbs, Ed Reed, Todd Heap and Ray Lewis were all taken with picks No. 23 and later. Matthews is the most recent gem at No. 26. He was selected by the Green Bay Packers two years ago and quickly became one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL. But Baltimore also has to be careful. Most of this recent group has failed to live up to expectations.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers' top pick is No. 31 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: DE Jerry Hughes (Colts)

2009: RB Beanie Wells (Cardinals)

2008: S Kenny Phillips (Giants)

2007: TE Greg Olsen (Bears)

2006: CB Kelly Jennings (Seahawks)

2005: DT Mike Patterson (Eagles)

2004: WR Rashaun Woods (49ers)

Analysis: The Steelers, who have six championships, are in the unfamiliar position of being Super Bowl losers. They will try to use the No. 31 overall pick to fill one of the team's needs. These players are not expected to be superstars. But they are first-round picks and the goal is to become productive starters. Pittsburgh is similar to Baltimore with its ability to find great players late in rounds. Since 2005, Pittsburgh has drafted Rashard Mendenhall, Heath Miller, Ziggy Hood and Santonio Holmes with picks No. 23 and later. The Steelers will aim to continue their late-round success in this draft.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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: decision-makers.

Baltimore Ravens

Ozzie Newsome continues to be one of the NFL's best general managers, and right-hand man Eric DeCosta is starting to create a significant buzz in league circles as well. DeCosta is widely viewed as the Ravens' future GM whenever Newsome decides to retire. But together they have helped Baltimore become a consistent contender in the AFC North.

The Ravens rely heavily on their regional scouts to provide the initial groundwork, while the front office digs deeper to determine which prospects fit the system. The Ravens have an established identity, and they evaluate toughness and football character better than most teams. Baltimore also thrives on finding value picks in the draft, particularly in the middle rounds, which is hard to do.

Cincinnati Bengals

Many have been critical of Cincinnati's lack of a general manager and lighter resources in its front office and scouting staff. Bengals owner Mike Brown recently defended the practice. But the results, which include zero back-to-back winning seasons in 29 years, speak volumes.

The Bengals had a solid draft last year and that needs to continue to develop the same consistency as their rivals. With fewer resources than most teams, the Bengals too often miss on important things such as character and work ethic, which eventually comes back to haunt them.

Cleveland Browns

The power duo of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert flexed its muscle for the first time last year in Cleveland. The result was a solid draft that landed cornerback Joe Haden, safety T.J. Ward and quarterback Colt McCoy in the first three rounds. The Browns also made a shrewd trade to land 1,000-yard rusher Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos for quarterback Brady Quinn.

But Cleveland posted its second consecutive 5-11 season, proving there is still plenty of work to do. Starting with the No. 6 overall pick, Holmgren and Heckert have a chance to land impact players in this draft to help ease the transition for rookie head coach Pat Shurmur.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Not much has changed in Pittsburgh, which is a good thing for the Steelers. Pittsburgh continues to let the front office dominate the offseason while giving way to the coaching staff during the season. Kevin Colbert mostly stays out of the public eye but is well-known as one of the league's top general managers. The Steelers continue to build through the draft and got plenty of rookie contributions last year from center Maurkice Pouncey and receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown during their Super Bowl run.

This year some of Pittsburgh's philosophies will be put to the test. The team usually avoids cornerbacks in the first round but may have several good options at No. 31. The Steelers also have the propensity to take the best available player later in the first round instead of the biggest need. Do not be surprised if the Steelers go against the grain in both instances.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 24, 2011
3/24/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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: schemes and themes.

Baltimore Ravens

Two of Baltimore's needs involve players to fit a certain scheme. Defensively, the Ravens are searching for a versatile pass-rusher who can complement Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs and play in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. Baltimore is one of the few teams that play a varying scheme. Suggs is the prototype, because he can put his hand in the dirt as a defensive end as well as stand up and rush the passer or drop into coverage. The Ravens have reportedly shown interest in several pass-rushers, including Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and Georgia’s Justin Houston.

Offensively, the Ravens need a speedy deep threat at receiver to plug into offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's vertical passing game. Baltimore wants to run an attacking-style offense that puts more pressure on the defense. But the team struggled to stretch the field with mostly possession receivers last season. If the Ravens can find a burner who can make the same impact Mike Wallace did for the Pittsburgh Steelers two years ago, it could take Baltimore's offense to the next level. One option could be Maryland receiver Torrey Smith.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are one of two Ohio teams switching to a West Coast offense this season, and that will impact their draft strategy.

For starters, Cincinnati has to draft a quarterback to fit the system, which is based on timing and accuracy. Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer wants out and threatened to retire. In his mind, he's not coming back and the Bengals have to plan accordingly. Cincinnati has been linked to Auburn's Cam Newton the most. But don’t rule out Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett or other top quarterback prospects.

Depending on the future of veteran Chad Ochocinco, Cincinnati may also be in the market for a receiver. All indications are that the Bengals want to go younger at the position, which would make Ochocinco, 33, trade bait this offseason. Georgia receiver A.J. Green could be a possibility for Cincinnati at No. 4 overall.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are in a similar situation to Cincinnati. A new West Coast offense under rookie head coach Pat Shurmur will emphasize the passing game, and Cleveland has lots of questions at receiver.

It's hard to envision Cleveland throwing the ball at least 55 percent of the time to its current group of receivers. Brian Robiskie, Mohamed Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey struggled to get open consistently and make plays last season for rookie quarterback Colt McCoy.

Green could be that impact receiver for the Browns. But they have bigger needs, such as defensive line. The Browns are also switching to a 4-3 defense and are short on defensive ends and tackles. Filling one of those positions would make the most sense with the No. 6 overall pick. Teams like the Steelers (Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders) have proved that quality receivers can be found after the first round.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh's biggest need is at cornerback. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau specializes in getting pressure from his front seven. So the players in the secondary need to be physical and sure tacklers. One possibility could be Texas cornerback Aaron Williams, who fits that description.

Also, the Steelers are always in the market for 3-4 defensive linemen and linebackers, even when it's not a huge need. So don't be surprised if Pittsburgh adds more players to its front seven to stockpile for a couple of years and learn the system.

Offensively, the Steelers need help at tackle and guard. Many in Steeler Nation would love to see Florida's Mike Pouncey join his twin brother, Maurkice. But that's probably not going to happen unless the Steelers move up from the No. 31 overall pick.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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.

Baltimore Ravens

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.

Cincinnati Bengals

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.

Cleveland Browns

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.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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: biggest team needs.

Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore's offensive line gradually fell apart as the 2010 season progressed, and it affected both the running and passing game. That is why the Ravens' biggest need entering next month's draft is offensive tackle. The Ravens tried Marshal Yanda, Tony Moll and Oniel Cousins at right tackle and never found the right combination to pair with Michael Oher. Even Oher struggled at times on the left side. If the Ravens are fortunate enough to find a true left tackle in the draft with the No. 26 pick, they could put Oher back at right tackle, where he thrived as a rookie.

Pass rush is a concern but not nearly as pressing. Some mock drafts also have the Ravens taking a cornerback. Josh Wilson and Chris Carr are both free agents. But if one or both were re-signed, I think the Ravens would feel more comfortable with their secondary than people think. Starter Domonique Foxworth is returning from a knee injury, and Lardarius Webb still has room for growth.

Cincinnati Bengals

When you're picking so high in the draft, you have a variety of needs. The Bengals own the No. 4 overall pick -- the highest in the AFC North -- and could go several ways.

Currently, most of the attention has been put on Cincinnati's quarterback position after Carson Palmer's threat to retire. The Bengals say they're taking this situation seriously, and speculation has increased that they might be interested in Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who reportedly will hold a private workout for Cincinnati.

But unless the Bengals are 100 percent certain they will trade Palmer or he will retire, they may want to address other needs in the first round, like the defensive line. Cincinnati needs more help with its pass rush up front. The Bengals can always come back and draft "Palmer insurance" in the second round. Prospects include Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, Florida State's Christian Ponder or TCU's Andy Dalton.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns' two biggest needs are wide receiver and defensive line, and they could really be 1A and 1B. Cleveland could have a chance to improve both positions with the No. 6 overall pick.

Cleveland's passing game needs help. Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy had no one to throw the ball to last season. That really showed in the final two games, when the stiff defenses of the Ravens and Steelers put a hurting on McCoy. A legitimate No. 1 threat like A.J. Green could be just what they need in rookie head coach Pat Shurmur's new West Coast offense.

Defensively, Cleveland is very thin on the defensive line. There are very good prospects this year at defensive end and defensive tackle in the top 10, and the Browns could have their choice of several. Cleveland is switching to a 4-3 defense, where the linemen in the trenches are very important. If the Browns don't patch up their defensive line, they could get run over this season in this physical division.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh has very few holes to fill, and its needs are clear-cut. The team could use an upgrade and depth at cornerback and the offensive line.

Although not by much, the need at cornerback is probably more pressing, especially if the Steelers can't re-sign No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor. The lack of depth in Pittsburgh's secondary was exposed in Super Bowl XLV, as the Green Bay Packers used three- and four-receiver sets to pick apart Dick LeBeau's defense. Opponents will continue to follow that blueprint until Pittsburgh finds a counter, and it starts with getting better cornerbacks.

The offensive line has been an issue for years. Pittsburgh could use help at either guard or tackle. The Steelers hit big last year in the first round with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. Another blue-chip lineman could go a long way toward helping get the Steelers back in title contention.

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