Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Draft Watch: AFC North
By James Walker
Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: recent history.
With a consistently great defense in place, the Ravens have put a lot of effort recently into improving their offense. Offensive tackle Michael Oher (2009), quarterback Joe Flacco (2008) and guard Ben Grubbs (2007) -- all starters -- were Baltimore’s past three first-round picks. The Ravens also had major success with former second-round pick Ray Rice and former fourth-round pick Le'Ron McClain. Both running backs made the Pro Bowl this past season. Expect Baltimore to continue to search for more offense high in the draft this year, as the team attempts to take its passing game to the next level.
The reigning AFC North champs helped build their defense through the draft the past three years and will now focus on improving the offense. Recent draftees such as cornerback Leon Hall (2007) and linebackers Keith Rivers (2008) and Rey Maualuga (2009) are starters for Cincinnati's defense. If the team has similar success on offense this year, the Bengals will be in good shape. Cincinnati currently needs help at tight end, receiver and guard. The Bengals may patch some of those holes in free agency. For example, receiver Terrell Owens is visiting Cincinnati Wednesday. But it will be important to fill any remaining offensive holes in this year's draft.
This is the third regime drafting for Cleveland in three years. Former general manager Phil Savage was fired after the 2008 season. Former general manager George Kokinis followed but was fired in 2009, paving the way for new president Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert. A major reason the Browns are in the basement in the AFC North is their inability to draft impact players. Only five players selected in the past three drafts are steady starters, and only one (Joe Thomas) has made the Pro Bowl. With the No. 7 overall pick and 11 total picks, Holmgren needs to find impact players who can help erase the talent gap and turn around the Browns.
The Steelers are a veteran-laden team, so most of their picks the past three years have provided a delayed impact. Recent high picks such as Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Rashard Mendenhall all had to wait at least one year before getting their turn to be productive. Receiver Mike Wallace, last year's third-round pick, was a rare exception. Pittsburgh president Art Rooney II recently said it's vital for the team to develop its younger players more quickly. After missing the playoffs, the Steelers have a relatively high pick at No. 18. That player could turn out to be a rookie starter, particularly if the pick addresses the cornerback position or the offensive line.