Wednesday, May 4, 2011
How draft impacts AFC North free agency
By James Walker
Draft-day moves by their teams could mean Ike Taylor (Steelers), left, Chad Ochocinco (Bengals), middle, and Lawrence Vickers (Browns) will be wearing different uniforms next season.
While one dream was being made last week, another was coming to an end.
Saturday in California, former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic happily took a call from the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round. Marecic was excited to be entering the NFL and knowing his destination in 2011.
"Honestly, my first reaction was 'Wow,'" Vickers told the AFC North blog this week. "I'm amazed. I was amazed I was still a free agent and wasn't signed [by the Browns] before the deadline. I didn't understand it. But at the same time I do understand, because nothing has ever come easy to me. So I was prepared for it.
"If they want me, they want me. If they don't, they don't. As a man, you have to be prepared for anything. But in the back of my mind I thought I would be in Cleveland."
Welcome to the harsh world of the NFL.
As teams were making draft picks last week, each move to replace players and plug holes could impact what AFC North teams do in free agency. Let's take a look at where each division team stands.
Potential impact: The Browns were in need of talented players and could have as many as four Week 1 starters in this year's draft class. Health permitting, Taylor and Sheard are heavy, heavy favorites to start at defensive tackle and defensive end, respectively. Cleveland doesn't have many bodies at those positions. Little will be thrown into a receiving corps that includes Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Both have struggled and Little, who missed last season at North Carolina because of a suspension, will have every chance to compete for a starting role. But Marecic was the pick that turned some heads. The Browns were eerily quiet about Vickers' pending free agency this offseason, and speculation began to grow that the new coaching staff didn't feel he was a good fit for the West Coast offense. Those thoughts were confirmed Saturday, when Cleveland made a surprise pick for a fullback in the fourth round. Vickers, one of the top blocking fullbacks in the NFL, is expected to test the market, where he will surely get interest. The Browns did a good job of filling holes but still need to address certain areas. Safety and the right side of the offensive line remain glaring needs.
Potential impact: Cincinnati's first two picks were not a surprise, but both were telling. It likely signaled the end of the Chad Ochocinco-Carson Palmer era with the Bengals. Both veterans, who have been the faces of the franchise for years, are under contract. But Ochocinco is in the final year of his deal and is expected to be traded or released following the acquisition of Green. Palmer wants to be traded or he plans to retire, which is why the Bengals drafted Dalton. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is already projecting Dalton to be the Week 1 starter. Cincinnati should get all the value it can for Ochocinco and Palmer. It's questionable whether any team is willing to trade and pay the approximate $6 million for one year with Ochocinco. But it takes only one team. With Palmer, there will be several teams lined up and ready to pounce if the Bengals put him on the market. Cincinnati's coaching staff appears ready to move on without Palmer, so it will come down to ownership. Bengals owner Mike Brown said recently that the team has no intention of trading Palmer. The Bengals did not draft a cornerback until the seventh round (Korey Lindsey), but that probably has no bearing on pending free agent Johnathan Joseph. Cincinnati isn't expected to retain Joseph, who will be one of the league's top free agents. But the team has Adam Jones for insurance to pair with starter Leon Hall. The Bengals also want starting tailback and pending free agent Cedric Benson back, as evidenced by the team not drafting a replacement.
Potential impact: The Ravens took one of the biggest risks in the draft by selecting Smith of Colorado. He has a long list of off-the-field issues at Colorado, but the Ravens feel confident Smith will stay out of trouble. In terms of talent, Baltimore landed a player with the potential to be the team's first shutdown corner since Chris McAlister. Smith is expected to start right away, and this impacts two pending free agents in Josh Wilson and Chris Carr. Wilson played well for Baltimore once he earned the starting job in the second half of the 2010 season. Carr was a backup, but a solid presence in the locker room. With the pickup of Smith, Wilson and Carr are no longer huge priorities in free agency. The Ravens are getting Domonique Foxworth back from a knee injury and Lardarius Webb is still on the roster. The pick of Torrey Smith in the second round fills a need for a speedy receiver to pair with Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin. He is expected to fill the No. 3 receiver role T.J. Houshmandzadeh will leave behind. Ravens coach John Harbaugh also spoke highly of Reid, the team's third-rounder. Former starting offensive tackle Jared Gaither was injured last season and has been in the doghouse for quite some time and isn't expected to return. In terms of holes, the Ravens still need an impact pass-rushing threat to pair with Pro Bowl defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Potential impact: The Steelers stayed true to form by drafting for depth in the first two rounds with Heyward and Gilbert. Barring injury, both players will be put in the rotation but are not expected to start. But the third and fourth rounds are where things got interesting for Pittsburgh. The Steelers went with cornerbacks in back-to-back rounds with Brown and Allen. They hope one or both rookies can make an immediate impact. That might be asking a lot for the reigning AFC champions. Brown was the second-best corner on his team at the University Texas to Aaron Williams, on whom the Steelers passed in the first round. Allen played at a small school (Citadel) and will make a significant jump to the NFL. All of these factors increase the value of Ike Taylor, who is Pittsburgh's biggest free agent. The Steelers' No. 1 corner would fill an important starting role and take a lot of pressure off the team's young corners. That way Brown, Allen, Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler can all compete for reserve roles and develop at a more gradual pace. The price tag will be the biggest question. The going rate for solid cornerbacks this offseason has been about $10 million per season. It's doubtful the Steelers are willing to pay that much to retain Taylor. Also look for the Steelers to fill their kicker positions in free agency and perhaps add another backup tailback to replace Mewelde Moore.