AFC North: Kevin Minter

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. put together his Mock 5.0 Insider which is not his final version. Kiper could make changes before the first pick is announced, and the AFC North blog will relay any tweaks to the picks for the AFC North teams. 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 first-round pick: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama

Hensley's comment: This pick makes a lot of sense, even though Milliner isn't considered a playmaking corner. The Browns need a starting cornerback opposite Joe Haden. Kiper did mention that West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith could be in play at this spot.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers

Kiper's first-round pick: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame

Hensley's comment: Once again, this pick fills a big need. The Steelers don't know if Heath Miller will be ready for the start of the season, which puts a major question mark at tight end. Eifert can replace Miller as a top target in the red zone.

21. Cincinnati Bengals

Kiper's first-round pick: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama

Hensley's comment: The Bengals want to add a running back to share the load with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but none of the running backs deserve to be taken in the first round. If they did, the Steelers would take on at No. 17. I still like the Bengals taking a safety at this spot.

32. Baltimore Ravens

Kiper's first-round pick: Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU

Hensley's comment: You can't fault the logic. The Ravens need to replace Ray Lewis, and Rolando McClain's latest arrest puts his future in question. But it's debatable whether Minter is a first-round talent.
The AFC North blog continues to look at the different positions and rank each team in terms of draft need. For Tuesday, the blog is addressing inside linebackers. Mel Kiper Jr.'s top five inside linebackers are: Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, Georgia's Alec Ogletree, LSU's Kevin Minter, Florida's Jonathan Bostic and Rutgers' Steve Beauharnais.

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

1. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens thought they had at least a stopgap solution in Rolando McClain. But this latest arrest puts his future with the Ravens in jeopardy. Plus, even if the Ravens decide to keep him, they don't know if he'll be available for the entire season. His repeated off-the-field issues could result in a multi-game suspension by the NFL. Also, Baltimore is hopeful Jameel McClain can return from last year's spinal cord contusion but there is no guarantee. The Ravens have been linked to Te'o and Minter at the bottom of the first round.

2. Cleveland Browns: The Browns are banking on D'Qwell Jackson being able to go back to play inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. The other starting job is expected to come down to a battle between Craig Robertson and James Michael-Johnson, two players brought in by the former regime. It's possible that the Browns will take an inside linebacker in the middle rounds.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers did a good job in keeping Larry Foote in free agency. There would have been a big void otherwise. But he's 32 and he may not finish out his new three-year deal. The future is supposed to be Sean Spence, a third-round pick from a year ago. His status is uncertain after suffering a catastrophic knee injury last year. Even though they have Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers may have to consider a developmental prospect later in the draft to groom next to him.

4. Cincinnati Bengals: The biggest question here is who's going to be the middle linebacker for the Bengals? It could be Rey Maualuga or Vontaze Burfict. If one gets hurt, the other would replace him in the middle. The Bengals' depth at this position did take a hit when Dan Skuta signed with the San Francisco 49ers. If the Bengals take an inside linebacker in the draft, it would be more for special teams than an immediate impact on defense.
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.”
In the start of a league-wide series, ESPN Insider Gary Horton takes a look at the Baltimore Ravens' offensive and defensive philosophies and identifies the team's biggest needs off of that. You'll need a subscription to view the entire piece Insider, but I can let you know about the No. 1 need.

Horton believes it's inside linebacker for the Ravens, and it's hard to argue with him. There's uncertainty with Baltimore's top three inside linebackers from last year. Ray Lewis has retired, Dannell Ellerbe is a free agent and Jameel McClain is coming off a season-ending spinal cord injury.

As Horton pointed out, the Ravens' defensive line struggled to keep blockers off the linebackers in 2012. Unless Baltimore upgrades its defensive front, the Ravens need physical inside linebackers who can shed linemen. There's a chance the Ravens will address inside linebacker in the first round. Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree (if his stock drops from off-the-field concerns) and LSU's Kevin Minter have been linked to Baltimore.

If the Ravens lose Ellerbe in free agency and are unable to draft an immediate starter, they may have to make an adjustment on defense. Horton speculated Baltimore would be forced to play more 4-3 fronts.
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.

Kiper's mock draft 1.0: AFC North

January, 17, 2013
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay offered his first mock of the draft season last month, and Mel Kiper followed this week with his Mock 1.0 Insider. As always, you'll need an Insider subscription to see the entire post. But I have received permission to share with you some details about the teams in the division:

6. Cleveland Browns

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

Hensley's comment: Werner, who had 13 sacks last season, would fill a big need as a pass-rusher. But Kiper said Werner is a 4-3 end and wouldn't fit if the Browns switched to a 3-4. Werner has drawn comparisons to the Rams' Chris Long in terms of motor.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers

Kiper's pick: Ezekiel Ansah, LB, BYU

Hensley's comment: Ansah is a massive athlete who is being compared to Jason Pierre-Paul. He could become a top-10 pick if he tests well over the coming months. But, with Ansah being 270-plus pounds, he seems more suited to be a 4-3 defensive end than a 3-4 outside linebacker.

21. Cincinnati Bengals

Kiper's pick: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin

Hensley's comment: If the Bengals are going to use a first-round pick on a running back, he's going to be a home-run threat. Ball looks too much like the back that the Bengals already have in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Cincinnati needs to add speed to the backfield.

29. Baltimore Ravens

Kiper's pick: Kevin Minter, LB, LSU

Hensley's comment: Inside linebacker wouldn't be as big of a need if the Ravens can re-sign Dannell Ellerbe, who replaced Ray Lewis when he was injured during the season. Minter is a tackling machine who is a dominant force against the run. He's also an extremely safe pick with no off-the-field trouble.

Just for fun, here's what Kiper had for the first picks for each AFC North team in his first mock draft last year:

Browns: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor

Bengals: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska

Steelers: Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis

Ravens: Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State