Thursday, March 10, 2011
Draft Watch: AFC North
By James Walker
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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'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.
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.
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 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.