AFC North: Kiper draft grades

CINCINNATI -- The Bengals avoided making too many splash picks in this year's NFL draft, but the selections they did make still earned high marks from ESPN draft insider Mel Kiper Jr.

In Kiper's post-draft grades published Sunday, the Bengals trended on the positive side of the curve. He gave them a "B."Insider

I'd have to agree, and depending upon how you view draft hauls, I'd argue that maybe they deserve an even higher grade than that.

From the traditional "best player available" draft model, a solid "B" probably is about the cap on what grade one could give them. After all, one could easily consider Carlos Hyde a better-rated running back than Jeremy Hill, the second-round pick the Bengals ultimately made. Hyde certainly had his off-field red flags, but they seemed tame compared to Hill's conviction for sexual assault in high school and college arrest that stemmed from a bar fight that was caught on camera. In the third round, there also seemed to be better rated players on the board at other positions instead of defensive end William Clarke.

If you instead choose to view the Bengals' draft through the lens of addressing team needs, they probably deserve a "B-plus" and could even make their own case for a fringe "A-minus." They did end up selecting players -- and good ones -- at the spots they needed the most. Their first-round pick, Darqueze Dennard, fit a need for cornerback and he certainly was the best player available at the time of his selection. The fourth-round trade up for center Russell Bodine was brilliant and arguably one of the more underrated moves of the entire draft. That pick, along with Hill's, showed how serious the Bengals are about turning their offense into a more physical and run-focused machine.

Along with the key offensive additions, the Bengals also had defensive picks that reflect their belief of where the league is headed from a schematic standpoint. With so many offensive players coming out of spread systems in college, you're beginning to see NFL teams spread out the field with multiple receivers and tight ends and backs who can catch passes out of the backfield. As a result, defenses are in nickel packages more often than they might have been in the past, meaning they need players on the field who can cover the taller receivers, the bigger tight ends who are playing slot receiver-types of roles, and the athletic backs who sometimes get flanked out, too.

The Bengals' pick of Dennard reflects how seriously they take their man-press coverage. Acoording to some draft pundits, Dennard may have been the best cover corner in the draft. Along with him, the Bengals added a tall defensive end in Clarke whose long arms and height can help disrupt short-to-intermediate passing windows on the edges. Sixth-round pick Marquis Flowers could eventually be the ideal nickel backer after playing everywhere in the secondary in college. He's been a safety before and was both a Sam and Will linebacker at Arizona. The Bengals believe his athleticism will be perfect against some of the offenses they'll have to see.

Cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks' selection in the seventh round also shows of the serious emphasis the Bengals are hoping to put on defensive coverage. Like Flowers, the Bengals hope to use him on specials teams.

Then there's the fifth-round pick, quarterback AJ McCarron. His selection might have been in response to Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray being taken one spot before at No. 163 to the Chiefs, but the Bengals' brass contends they liked McCarron anyway, even despite the Day 3 reports that said he rubbed some team executives the wrong way during the pre-draft process.

McCarron's persona is different than starting quarterback Andy Dalton's. And while Dalton still should be convinced that he is not entering a quarterback controversy, he still has to wonder if McCarron's addition was to help step up the competition at the position. The move certainly seems to suggest that.
PITTSBURGH -- Count Mel Kiper Jr. among those who think the Steelers hit it big in a draft they had to get right.

The Steelers were one of just five teams that received an "A" grade from the ESPN analyst following the NFL draft, one in which Pittsburgh made nine picks.

Kiper gave the Steelers an "A-minus"Insider for their draft haul and the only thing he questioned is why they didn’t add more reinforcements at cornerback.

“Did they do enough at cornerback? Maybe not,” Kiper wrote. “But they got everything else right.”

Such praise emanates from the Steelers' top two picks, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Shazier adds speeds to the Steelers’ defense and should make an immediate impact. Kiper wrote that Tuitt is a “stud” who is a perfect fit on a defensive line that needed help.

As for cornerback, here is what general manager Kevin Colbert said on why the Steelers only picked one and waited until the fifth round to take Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson: “The way [the draft] broke, any player that we took really we were happy to get them where we got them. We weren’t going to reach for any position that we didn’t feel comfortable with. You knew a guy like Shaquille Richardson was probably going to be available in the fourth or fifth round. You just hoped he was going to be there and fortunate for us he was."

Time will ultimately tell whether the Steelers did enough to help themselves at cornerback and whether Kiper’s glowing assessment of their draft is correct.

Remember, none of the players drafted have played a down in the NFL and we probably won’t know for three years how well the Steelers did.

But I agree with Kiper that, at first blush, it looks like the Steelers had a really good draft.

“If you look at the men that we had an opportunity to select, their size, their speed, their versatility, obviously those are things we value,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We buy into the upside of these young men and we look forward to getting down to business and working with them.”
Ray Farmer is confident he can put a sound receiving corps on the field for the Cleveland Browns this season, with or without Josh Gordon.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. falls into step with the masses, though, saying the Browns needed a receiver before the news of Gordon’s possible suspension broke, and they really needed a receiver on the draft’s second or third day after "Outside the Lines" broke the news that Gordon would miss the 2014 season.

Kiper gave the Browns a B-minusInsider in his annual grades, crediting them for some picks but wondering about the pass-catcher. In the Kiper parlance, that’s a pretty good draft, with a minus. He summed it up by saying: “The Browns have potentially changed the face of their franchise, but (Johnny) Manziel could use somebody to throw the football to.”

Elsewhere ...

On SI.com, Greg Bedard had nothing but praise for the Browns' draft, writing: “Yes, it’s disappointing that Gordon had another lapse, but he’s just one of 53 and doesn’t play quarterback. It takes a team to win the NFL, and that’s the important work Farmer is doing.” Also on SI, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar felt better than Kiper, giving the Browns a B-plus and calling the draft’s first day one of the most exciting in franchise history.

At Yahoo! Sports, Rob Rang of The Sports Xchange was harsher, saying the decision not to draft a receiver was an “inexplicable ignoring” of the position. Grade: C-minus.

Noted harsh grader Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com agrees with Rang, saying the decision not to take a receiver drops the Browns' grade to a B-minus.

I interpreted Bedard’s high praise as an A, and I’ve devised a very clever way to figure the draft grades. Call it Pat Macalytics, something that would make sabermatricians proud. It involves a ... wait for it ... point system for each grade, A-plus through F.

Combine them all and the average grade for the Browns is a B.

Which I think is understated.

The Browns landed the top cornerback and quarterback on their board on Day 1.

They landed an offensive lineman and a running back they like a great deal on Day 2.

They landed a highly thought of cornerback on Day 3.

I’m not sure about a 230-pound inside linebacker, but they also landed a first- , fourth- and sixth-round pick in next year’s draft.

Yes, they traded out of picks, but they took guys they like, guys that make sense.

The decision not to take a receiver is ... interesting. There’s no arguing that Sammy Watkins and Manziel sounds better than Justin Gilbert and Manziel. But Gilbert, Manziel and 2015 first- and fourth-round picks is impossible to criticize.

The receiver position is a bit of an enigma. On the one hand losing Gordon is a huge problem. Huge. There’s no sugarcoating it. But I always flash back to the season opener in 2006, when New Orleans visited Cleveland with two undrafted and unknown receivers. Those unknowns went out and competed, and the Browns were embarrassed in their opener by a team led by Drew Brees that would go on to the playoffs. Those two receivers turned out to be Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, guys who would play for the Saints for 17 seasons and catch 852 passes and score 83 touchdowns. Prior to that game, they were weak links. At season's end, they were in the playoffs.

Not taking a receiver is head-scratching. Taking the guys a GM believes in and works months to find and rate is not.

I think the loss of Gordon is a serious blow (more on that later today), but I still give the Browns a very solid A-minus for the 2014 draft.

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