AFC North: Kenny Vaccaro

The AFC North blog is wrapping up team draft needs with safety, the one position that is a need for every team in the division. There are scenarios in which the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers take one as early as the first round.

Mel Kiper Jr's top five safeties in this draft class are: Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, Florida International's John Cyprien, Florida's Matt Elam, Syracuse's Shamarko Thomas and Georgia Southern's J.J. Wilcox.

Here are the rankings (the greater the need, the higher the ranking):

1. Cincinnati Bengals: Considering the handful of good safeties in this draft, it would be a disappointment if the Bengals failed to land a starter with three picks in the first two rounds. There's no excuse to rely on Chris Crocker, Taylor Mays or Jeromy Miles. The Bengals had a private workout Monday with Cyprien, who could be one of the top options for Cincinnati at No. 21.

2. Cleveland Browns: The Browns released Usama Young, last year's starting free safety, earlier this month. Tashaun Gipson and Eric Hagg would compete for the spot if the Browns don't address it in the draft. In other words, the Browns would like to address safety in the draft. The problem is, the Browns have just one of the first 67 picks in the draft and they have multiple needs. Even though it's a need, Cleveland might not be able to land a starter in this draft.

3. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens parted ways with both starting safeties from the Super Bowl. Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans in free agency, and Bernard Pollard signed with the Tennessee Titans after being cut. The Ravens addressed one starting spot by signing Michael Huff and added a stopgap by keeping James Ihedigbo. But Baltimore would prefer to upgrade from Ihedigbo, a one-year starter for the Patriots who started three games for the Ravens last season. The Ravens have been linked to the likes of Elam, Cyprien and LSU's Eric Reid.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are likely the only team who will start the same two safeties from a year ago. But that doesn't mean the Steelers will ignore the safety position in the draft. Troy Polamalu, a seven-time Pro Bowl player, is 32 and has only played one full season in the past four years. Ryan Clark turns 34 during the season and is entering the final year of his contract. Plus, the Steelers lost their two top backups, Will Allen and Ryan Mundy, in free agency. The Steelers will have to consider Vaccaro if he somehow falls to them at No. 17.
The Cincinnati Bengals need a starter at strong safety, and there's a good chance that they will take one early with three of the first 53 picks in the draft. One prospect who is apparently on their radar is Johnathan Cyprien.

Considered one of the top three safeties in the draft, Cyprien is having a private workout Monday at Florida International with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The Bengals were unable to find a safety to pair with Reggie Nelson last season and ended up re-signing Chris Crocker.

Texas' Kenny Vaccaro is generally rated as the top safety in this class, but he isn't expected to last past the Rams (No. 16) or Cowboys (No. 18). At No. 21, the Bengals could have their choice of Cyprien or Florida's Matt Elam.

Cincinnati also has two picks in the second round, 37th and 53rd overall.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What’s the ideal first-round scenario for each team?

Baltimore Ravens: California wide receiver Keenan Allen. Sure, the ideal scenario is Baltimore native Tavon Austin falling to the Ravens. That's just not realistic, given that he's expected to be taken in the top half of the first round. The Ravens desperately need a wide receiver after not replacing Anquan Boldin in free agency. Allen, who is the top-rated receiver on some teams' draft boards, would be a fine complement to the speedy Torrey Smith. He would have to slip past five potentially interested teams from picks Nos. 24 to 31 (Indianapolis, Minnesota, Houston, New England and San Francisco) in order for him to fall to Baltimore. Allen's strengths are size, toughness and sure hands in going over the middle. Sure sounds like Boldin, doesn't it?

Cincinnati Bengals: Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro. Finding a reliable starter next to Reggie Nelson in the back of the defense has been a challenge for the past couple of seasons. It's time for the Bengals to finally upgrade from Chris Crocker. Vaccaro is the consensus top-rated safety in the draft. He has the size to make an impact in run defense and the versatility to play man coverage. It's questionable whether Vaccaro will last until the Bengals are on the clock at No. 21. Vaccaro has been projected to go as early as No. 15 (New Orleans), No. 16 (St. Louis) or No. 17 (Pittsburgh). The big hurdle is Vaccaro getting past Dallas at No. 18. Some would say the Bengals need to get a right tackle, especially if Andre Smith is unsigned before the draft. But Cincinnati can plug in Anthony Collins in that spot. Safety is the bigger need.

Cleveland Browns: Oregon linebacker Dion Jordan or trading down. Some would say getting Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner at this spot is the ideal scenario for the Browns. While drafting a cornerback is a priority, I'm not sold on Milliner being worthy of a No. 6 overall pick, based on how draft experts break him down. The better scenario is having Jordan fall into Cleveland's laps. Jordan is a top-five talent who is a perfect fit in the Browns' new aggressive 3-4 defense. He could get taken as high as No. 2 overall by Jacksonville. Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly knows Jordan from their days at Oregon, so the Eagles may also be interested at No. 4. If Jordan is selected in the top five, the ideal scenario for Cleveland is trading down in the first round to acquire a second-round pick. The Chargers and Dolphins, both of whom are in need of a left tackle, should be interested in jumping ahead of Arizona at No. 7.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Having a choice between linebacker Jarvis Jones, Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert. These prospects are the most popular choices for the Steelers at No. 17. Which one is the ideal one? It depends on your point of view. Eifert is the safest pick and would provide insurance if Heath Miller (torn ACL) isn't the same player this season. The issue here is whether taking a tight end this high represents the best value. Jones is the biggest risk because of a poor performance at his pro day and the medical concerns, but he has the potential to be heir apparent to James Harrison. And Patterson is the wild card. He would provide much-needed height and length to the Steelers' wide receivers group and still has the speed to be an elite playmaker. The knock on Patterson is he's raw in his route-running and he disappeared for large chunks of time in college games. Patterson, Jones and Eifert all have a good shot at being there when the Steelers are on the clock.
Eight days away from the NFL draft, and ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has raised his game. In his latest mock draft, he's going three rounds. It's an Insider article, so you'll need a subscription to view the entire piece. But, as always, I can give you the lowdown on the AFC North teams ...


Rd. 1 (32) LB Kevin Minter, LSU
Rd. 2 (62) OT Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Rd. 3 (94) S Phillip Thomas, Fresno State

Hensley's comment: All three picks address needs. Minter is a tackling machine who is more of a long-term solution than Rolando McClain. Armstead is a project who would be a reach in the second round. Thomas is a playmaker and fills a big need at strong safety, where James Ihedigbo is currently starting. My only problem is the lack of a wide receiver. The Ravens haven't replaced Anquan Boldin and need to find a pass-catcher in the first couple of rounds.


Rd. 1 (21) S Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
Rd. 2 (37) RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin (via Oakland)
Rd. 2 (53) LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
Rd. 3 (84) WR Denard Robinson, Michigan

Hensley's comment: The Bengals would be very happy if Vaccaro fell into their lap at No. 21. Strong safety is the biggest need on the team. While I agree the Bengals need to add youth to the backfield, Ball is more of an inside runner like BenJarvus Green-Ellis. North Carolina's Giovani Bernard represents a better change of pace. Greene, who led the Big East in tackles for the past two seasons, can step in at weakside linebacker. Robinson could become a Josh Cribbs-type return man for Cincinnati. All of these picks address the top needs for the Bengals.


Rd. 1 (11) G Chance Warmack Alabama (via San Diego)
Rd. 3 (68) QB EJ Manuel, Florida St.
Rd. 3 (76) CB Darius Slay, Mississippi St. (via San Diego)

Hensley's comment: Kiper and I are thinking alike when it comes to the Browns. I believe the Browns will trade out of the No. 6 overall pick (I see them getting a second-round pick from the Chargers and not a third-rounder), but I don't like the choice of Warmack. By all accounts, he's a great guard prospect. I just don't think teams should take a guard in the top half of the draft. Where I agree with Kiper is taking Manuel in the third round. He's drawn comparisons to Cam Newton, the quarterback who ran Rob Chudzinksi's offense in Carolina. This pick has a lot of potential. Slay would address the need for a cornerback, although he may not be ready to start right away. He started just one season at Mississippi State.


Rd. 1 (17) TE Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame
Rd. 2 (48) OLB Cornelius Washington, Georgia
Rd. 3 (79) WR Ryan Swope, Texas A&M

Hensley's comment: It's very reasonable that the Steelers take a tight end, outside linebacker and wide receiver in the first three rounds, although it may not be in the order that Kiper has it. Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who is a popular pick for the Steelers in many mock drafts, is going to the Jets at No. 9, according to Kiper. This is why Kiper is sticking with Eifert for Pittsburgh in the first round. The Steelers rarely make moves in the first round, but they could fall back and still get Eifert, who has drawn comparisons to Heath Miller (who was taken 30th overall eight years ago). It's a reach to take Washington in the second round. He's a rush linebacker who has only shown flashes in college. Swope is a fearless receiver who isn't afraid to go over the middle.
I'm heading back to AFC North headquarters this morning after a productive day-long NFL summit at ESPN on Wednesday. From the discussions and feedback, I came away encouraged about the continuing evolution of the blogs. We'll talk more about that as we get closer to the season. For now, it's time for your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Early last month, ESPN's Todd McShay had Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o falling to the Ravens at the bottom of the first round. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. doesn't see that happening. In a conference call, Kiper said there's "no way" Te'o will last until the last pick of the first round. Kiper doesn't see Te'o getting past the Giants, Bears or Vikings. He thinks LSU linebacker Kevin Minter would be a "nice pick" for the Ravens.

BENGALS: Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro and North Carolina running back back Giovani Bernard have pre-draft visits with the Bengals this week, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. Both players have been linked to the Bengals, who have three picks in the first two rounds of the draft. Cincinnati is looking for a starting strong safety and a speedy change-of-pace running back. Bernard reportedly drew the attention of head coach Marvin Lewis at his pro day and had dinner with team officials in Cincinnati on Wednesday night.

STEELERS: Running back-returner LaRod Stephens-Howling was among three unrestricted free agents to visit the cap-strapped Steelers on Wednesday, according to The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Before the start of free agency, I linked Stephens-Howling to the Steelers because he can fill the role of Chris Rainey. A free agent out of Arizona, Stephens-Howling is an elusive back who can provide a big-play spark, whether it's as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. Two backups, 49ers linebacker Tavares Gooden and Texans center-guard Antoine Caldwell, also met with the Steelers.

BROWNS: Brigham Young defensive end-linebacker Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, who has been linked to the Browns with the No. 6 pick, is scheduled to go to Cleveland for a pre-draft visit. He is also visiting the Eagles and Cardinals. Ansah is a raw pass-rushing prospect who played football for only three years. Last season, he had 62 tackles, including 13 for loss and 4.5 sacks. “Ziggy Ansah is going to be a top-five guy,” Kiper said, via The Akron Beacon Journal. “At the worst, top-10.”
At this point, you could make an argument for every team in the AFC North to take a safety early in the draft.

The Bengals have had a hole at strong safety for the past two years. The Browns need a free safety after they went through three last year (Eric Hagg, Usama Young and Tashaun Gipson). The Ravens have yet to replace Ed Reed. And the Steelers need to have a better backup plan behind banged-up Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, who is a free agent next year.

ESPN's Herm Edwards broke down this year's safety class in the draft, which lacks superstar talent but has some solid players. It's an Insider post, which means you'll need a subscription to read the entire piece. I can reveal his top three and an excerpt of Edwards' analysis:

1. Kenny Vaccaro, Texas: A three-down player who has strong closing ability, he is better close to the line of scrimmage than playing deep.

2. Matt Elam, Florida: An aggressive player, Elam is better in the box than out in space, and he can set the edge against the run.

3. John Cyprien, Florida International: He's got the potential to be one of the steals in this safety class and could potentially be a second-round pick, and maybe even a late-first-round selection.
NFC combine preview: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation previews the 2013 scouting combine by identifying the most important thing for each team to learn about its greatest area of need.

Baltimore Ravens: Days after the Ravens won the Super Bowl, general manager Ozzie Newsome pointed to the middle of the defense as the team's biggest need. Inside linebacker is the popular choice as the Ravens' biggest void, considering the retirement of Ray Lewis and the uncertainty with Jameel McClain (spinal cord contusion). That's why LSU's Kevin Minter has been linked to Baltimore. But Newsome was also talking about defensive tackle and safety. Nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu was average at best, and backup Terrence Cody has been a disappointment. Safety could end up being the Ravens' biggest need if they are unable to re-sign Ed Reed. There always seems to be good value at that position at the bottom of the first round.

Cincinnati Bengals: Strong safety is the biggest area of concern for the Bengals. Actually, it's been a need for the past two years, but the Bengals essentially ignored it last offseason. The hope was for Taylor Mays to take over that spot. When that didn't work out, Cincinnati tried to convert cornerback Nate Clements to safety. When that didn't work out, the Bengals brought back Chris Crocker, who is merely a stopgap player. Texas' Kenny Vaccaro makes a lot of sense for the Bengals at the No. 21 pick. Florida's Matt Elam is another highly-rated prospect at safety who could start immediately. The Bengals also need to add more youth at linebacker and speed at running back.

Cleveland Browns: The hope is for the Browns to address one of their top needs -- outside linebacker and cornerback -- with the No. 6 overall pick. That means keeping their fingers crossed that either Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones or Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner will fall out of the top five. Jones and Milliner are the top prospects at their positions. The Browns are transitioning to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Ray Horton and need to find versatile outside linebackers. Cleveland won't find a better one than Jones, who is an elite playmaker off the edge. Under Horton, the Browns are expected to blitz more, which puts more pressure on the cornerbacks. The Browns could play that style if they pair Milliner with Joe Haden.

Pittsburgh Steelers: As I addressed at length Tuesday, the Steelers need to find a way to come away with a feature running back in this draft. The biggest need on defense is at linebacker. There's a chance the Steelers could return all four starters from last season: LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on the outside and Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote on the inside. If Pittsburgh is able to do this, and it could take a pay cut from Harrison, no one expects this to be the starting group in 2014. Foote would be 34 by the start of 2014, and Harrison would be nearing Ray Lewis territory at 36. It would be solid forward thinking to take a linebacker with the No. 17 overall pick. Could the Steelers be the team to take Notre Dame's Manti Te'o? His showing the combine (on the field and in interviews) could determine whether or not he slips out of the top half of the first round.

Kiper's mock draft 2.0: AFC North

February, 8, 2013
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. put together his Mock 2.0 Insider which looks a lot like his first version for the AFC North teams. In fact, only one player changed on his picks for the division. As always, you'll need an Insider subscription to see the entire post. But I can give you some of Kiper's predictions on the AFC North teams:

6. Cleveland Browns

Kiper's pick: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State

Hensley's comment: Kiper is still sticking with Werner as his pick for the Browns. Werner, who had 13 sacks last season, would fill a big need as a pass-rusher. But Kiper has said Werner is a 4-3 end and wouldn't fit the Browns' new 3-4 scheme.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers

Kiper's pick: Ezekiel Ansah, LB, BYU

Hensley's comment: Once again, Kiper didn't change his pick. He still has Ansah going to the Steelers. He's a massive athlete who is being compared to Jason Pierre-Paul. Ansah is a raw prospect and there is concern whether he will ever be a 3-4 outside linebacker at 275 pounds. But he will make an impact as a pass-rusher immediately.

21. Cincinnati Bengals

Kiper's pick: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas

Hensley's comment: This pick makes a lot of sense for the Bengals. Vaccaro is a physical defensive back who would fill the biggest void on defense over the past year and would be a great compliment to Reggie Nelson. Teams often find good values by taking a safety in the bottom half of the first round.

32. Baltimore Ravens

Kiper's pick: Kevin Minter, LB, LSU

Hensley's comment: Inside linebacker is currently an area of need. Ray Lewis retired, Dannell Ellerbe is a free agent and Jameel McClain is coming off a spinal-cord injury. Minter is a tackling machine, but Kiper notes there's a chance that Minter won't last this long. With the drama surrounding Manti Te'o, Minter could take his spot in the top half of the first round and Te'o could fall down to the bottom of the first round.