Thursday, March 31, 2011
Draft Watch: AFC North
By James Walker
» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South
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: decision-makers.
Ozzie Newsome continues to be one of the NFL's best general managers, and right-hand man Eric DeCosta is starting to create a significant buzz in league circles as well. DeCosta is widely viewed as the Ravens' future GM whenever Newsome decides to retire. But together they have helped Baltimore become a consistent contender in the AFC North.
The Ravens rely heavily on their regional scouts to provide the initial groundwork, while the front office digs deeper to determine which prospects fit the system. The Ravens have an established identity, and they evaluate toughness and football character better than most teams. Baltimore also thrives on finding value picks in the draft, particularly in the middle rounds, which is hard to do.
Many have been critical of Cincinnati's lack of a general manager and lighter resources in its front office and scouting staff. Bengals owner Mike Brown recently defended the practice. But the results, which include zero back-to-back winning seasons in 29 years, speak volumes.
The Bengals had a solid draft last year and that needs to continue to develop the same consistency as their rivals. With fewer resources than most teams, the Bengals too often miss on important things such as character and work ethic, which eventually comes back to haunt them.
The power duo of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert flexed its muscle for the first time last year in Cleveland. The result was a solid draft that landed cornerback Joe Haden, safety T.J. Ward and quarterback Colt McCoy in the first three rounds. The Browns also made a shrewd trade to land 1,000-yard rusher Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos for quarterback Brady Quinn.
But Cleveland posted its second consecutive 5-11 season, proving there is still plenty of work to do. Starting with the No. 6 overall pick, Holmgren and Heckert have a chance to land impact players in this draft to help ease the transition for rookie head coach Pat Shurmur.
Not much has changed in Pittsburgh, which is a good thing for the Steelers. Pittsburgh continues to let the front office dominate the offseason while giving way to the coaching staff during the season. Kevin Colbert mostly stays out of the public eye but is well-known as one of the league's top general managers. The Steelers continue to build through the draft and got plenty of rookie contributions last year from center Maurkice Pouncey and receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown during their Super Bowl run.
This year some of Pittsburgh's philosophies will be put to the test. The team usually avoids cornerbacks in the first round but may have several good options at No. 31. The Steelers also have the propensity to take the best available player later in the first round instead of the biggest need. Do not be surprised if the Steelers go against the grain in both instances.