NFL Nation: Buster Skrine

The Cleveland Browns will not have the last unsigned rookie in the league.

Cornerback Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall pick, agreed to terms Wednesday and should be on the field for practice when training camp opens to the public Saturday.

Gilbert
ESPN's Chris Mortensen first reported the contract. Spotrac.com reported the deal is for four years and $12.8 million, with a $7.65 million signing bonus.

Gilbert's presence completes the cornerback group, a postion "where we upgraded the most," Browns coach Mike Pettine said.

Given the additions elsewhere, that's an interesting statement.

Joe Haden will be one starter. Gilbert and Buster Skrine will compete for the other spot.

Isaiah Trufant and Aaron Berry will be in the mix. Pettine sounded intrigued with both -- especially Berry, a veteran who had off-field issues but is trying to resurrect his career.

"You'll enjoy watching him in camp," Pettine said. "If you don't see him, you'll at least hear him. He's got a lot of swagger to him. He'll definitely energize practice for us."

Pettine simply smiled when asked about Trufant and said he's a "good player." His body language and expressions were so positive it seems possible Trufant could be the nickel corner. He is a pure slot cornerback though, so he would compete at that spot.

The Browns have stressed competition, and Pettine is a huge believer that players who push each other make each other better. That's why Pettine is so happy to have Gilbert, and have him signed. Not only does the scheme demand aggressive cover corners, it adds depth and competition.

Skrine and Gilbert will push each other, with Trufant pushing both, and Berry evidently forcing his way into the mix.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
3:58
PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

What it means: The Browns set a new standard of futility in a season of futility. For the first time in team history, the Browns lost seven games in a row to end a season. Although there was a lot of chatter about the future of Rob Chudzinski, this kind of season does not reflect well on anyone with the team, from the owner through the CEO to the GM to the coach to the players. Call it a collective flop. And to think there was a point when some thought the Browns might win the division.

Chudzinski chatter: The way the season ended led to a lot of speculation about unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the front office, which led to gamelong buzz about Chudzinski and whether he might be let go after the season. The Browns initially declined to comment on the rumors but by the fourth quarter put out a statement that said: "Our focus is on the game today. We will not discuss any evaluation of the season until this upcoming week."

Stock watch: Browns fans can enjoy life again: The talk is again about the draft. The team that has gone six years in a row with at least 11 losses and has averaged four and a half wins per season in those seasons can point its fans to the most exciting time of year. That's the draft, when fans annually regain belief in anything related to an orange helmet.

Josh and the flu: Josh Gordon played the season finale with the flu. It showed. After every play, he got up the way Jim Brown used to -- slowly and with discomfort. Chudzinski said after the game that Gordon needed IV fluids before the game. Gordon finished with seven receptions for 80 yards.

Corners out: The Browns started the game without Joe Haden at cornerback. They finished without Buster Skrine. With both corners out, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing game had to contend with Julian Posey and rookie Leon McFadden. That is a tough challenge for a defense.
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns' defense talks a good game.

The Browns can recite numbers with the best of them to show where they are ranked league-wide, and what they need to do to be ranked high if they’re not.

But there is also is this fact: For the third week in a row, the Browns had a fourth-quarter lead and the defense squandered it.

Sunday the Chicago Bears scored 21 points in the final 15 minutes en route to a 38-31 win.

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Cleveland Browns had trouble stopping Alshon Jeffery and the Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter.
Which would project to 84 points a game, which is pretty good.

Early, the Browns were buoyed by two defensive touchdowns -- an interception and a fumble return -- that had the defense off to a great start. But late, the defense did not come through when it mattered most. It collapsed, buried under the weight of its mistakes and the Bears' athletic plays.

That makes three games in a row the defense did not stop the other team when it mattered most.

Jacksonville (!) drove 80 yards in the final minute for a game-winning touchdown.

New England had officiating help on its last drive, but the 82-yarder that made that last drive meaningful was against the Browns' defense.

And Chicago saw Jay Cutler salivate at the loss of cornerback Joe Haden to a hip pointer, then lead the Bears to three scores in the final 10:59.

The first was an athletic catch by Alshon Jeffery behind Tashaun Gipson, with the help of the wind. That play was set up by an interference call on Leon McFadden and a holding call on Buster Skrine, the two corners playing with Haden out. (Julian Posey wound up covering Jeffery on the touchdown.)

On Chicago’s next two possessions, the Bears ran the ball down the vaunted Browns' throats.

Twenty-two of 36 yards came on the ground on the next TD drive, then 74 of 78 on the drive that sealed it.

The Browns played a team that had to go on the road after playing Monday night, a team that had a quarterback starting his first game in a month. The defense gave up 179 yards rushing, 127 to Matt Forte, and 265 and three touchdowns passing.

The fourth quarter was the worst.

While the Browns have been giving up 12, 16 and 21 points in the fourth quarter the past three games, they’ve scored 21 -- seven against the Bears on a late TD when the Browns were already down 14. In fourth quarters all season, the Browns have been outscored 128-66, or just less than 2 to 1.

The last four games the opposition finished with 27, 32, 27 and 38 points, an average of 31 per game. Yes but, some might say. As in, but the offense turned it over, or the defense was tired, or the moon was in the seventh house. Last time anyone checked, the defense was on the field when many of the points were scored.

In 11 of 14 games this season, the other team scored 23 points or more -- 23.5 was the league average heading into the game. In five of them it was 31 or more. Opponents are averaging 26 points per game on a defense that touts itself as quite a bit more special than it is.

Sure, the Bears scored on an interception return, which means they scored 31 on offense. Hoo hoo.

A top defense does not give up this kind of scoring.

A top defense does not finish games this way.

A top defense makes a stand when a stand is needed.

Until that happens, perhaps it’s time to put away the numbers and metrics. Just go out and win a stinking game.

Upon Further Review: Browns Week 4

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
12:31
PM ET
A weekly examination of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals:

1. Cameron crazies. Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer may be the feel-good story in Cleveland right now, but he'll be the first to tell you the dream season he's currently experiencing wouldn't be taking shape if it wasn't for his big tight end, Jordan Cameron. In the two games Hoyer has started, Cameron has caught 16 passes and four touchdowns. During Hoyer's homecoming Sunday, his first career start in the stadium he attended games as a teenager, Cameron hauled in 10 passes and went up high and brought down a fade in the end zone. As the season continues, still possibly with Hoyer behind center, football fans across the country will learn more about Cameron. In that respect, before you know it, there might be a new kind of Cameron crazies.

[+] EnlargeJoe Haden
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesCleveland's Joe Haden (23) made life difficult Sunday for Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green.
2. Some good, some bad. The middle two quarters Buster Skrine played Sunday likely left some Browns fans scratching their heads and screaming at their TVs wondering if and when he might be replaced. In the fourth quarter, though, that all changed when Skrine read the high tip off a mishandled Andy Dalton pass and dived to snag the game's only interception. When the defensive back grabbed the ball out of the air with 3:43 remaining in the game, he effectively ended the contest. Even though the Bengals ended up getting the ball back one more time, they would have needed to score on that possession and another with time expiring in order to pull off a comeback. Along with the interception, Skrine had a pair of tackles and broke up three passes, including one that came on a pivotal third-quarter third down. He also had penalties for pass interference and unnecessary roughness that could have cost the Browns. Cincinnati, however, was unable to take advantage of either.

3. Efficient red zone play. Cleveland had to be encouraged by its play inside the Bengals' 20. Only once in three trips did the Browns not convert a red zone possession into a score. The lone failed red zone conversion came early in the second quarter, when kicker Billy Cundiff missed his first of two field goals. The other two drives ended in goal-to-go territory and resulted in passing touchdowns to Cameron and running back Chris Ogbonnaya.

4. Haden halts Green. Browns cornerback Joe Haden and Bengals receiver A.J. Green have been going against one another since they were in college playing in the SEC at Florida and Georgia, respectively. By now, they know each other's tendencies and nuances. In this latest matchup, though, it was Haden who got the better of Green, locking him down and making it difficult for Dalton to complete passes in Green's direction. When Haden wasn't batting away one of his two passes, he was typically right in Green's face, forcing an overthrow, or hitting him as soon as he caught the ball, limiting Green's yards after the catch. Targeted 14 times, Green caught seven passes for just 51 yards.

Upon Further Review: Browns Week 4

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
12:31
PM ET
A weekly examination of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals:

1. Cameron crazies. Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer may be the feel-good story in Cleveland right now, but he'll be the first to tell you the dream season he's currently experiencing wouldn't be taking shape if it wasn't for his big tight end, Jordan Cameron. In the two games Hoyer has started, Cameron has caught 16 passes and four touchdowns. During Hoyer's homecoming Sunday, his first career start in the stadium he attended games as a teenager, Cameron hauled in 10 passes and went up high and brought down a fade in the end zone. As the season continues, still possibly with Hoyer behind center, football fans across the country will learn more about Cameron. In that respect, before you know it, there might be a new kind of Cameron crazies.

[+] EnlargeJoe Haden
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesCleveland's Joe Haden (23) made life difficult Sunday for Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green.
2. Some good, some bad. The middle two quarters Buster Skrine played Sunday likely left some Browns fans scratching their heads and screaming at their TVs wondering if and when he might be replaced. In the fourth quarter, though, that all changed when Skrine read the high tip off a mishandled Andy Dalton pass and dived to snag the game's only interception. When the defensive back grabbed the ball out of the air with 3:43 remaining in the game, he effectively ended the contest. Even though the Bengals ended up getting the ball back one more time, they would have needed to score on that possession and another with time expiring in order to pull off a comeback. Along with the interception, Skrine had a pair of tackles and broke up three passes, including one that came on a pivotal third-quarter third down. He also had penalties for pass interference and unnecessary roughness that could have cost the Browns. Cincinnati, however, was unable to take advantage of either.

3. Efficient red zone play. Cleveland had to be encouraged by its play inside the Bengals' 20. Only once in three trips did the Browns not convert a red zone possession into a score. The lone failed red zone conversion came early in the second quarter, when kicker Billy Cundiff missed his first of two field goals. The other two drives ended in goal-to-go territory and resulted in passing touchdowns to Cameron and running back Chris Ogbonnaya.

4. Haden halts Green. Browns cornerback Joe Haden and Bengals receiver A.J. Green have been going against one another since they were in college playing in the SEC at Florida and Georgia, respectively. By now, they know each other's tendencies and nuances. In this latest matchup, though, it was Haden who got the better of Green, locking him down and making it difficult for Dalton to complete passes in Green's direction. When Haden wasn't batting away one of his two passes, he was typically right in Green's face, forcing an overthrow, or hitting him as soon as he caught the ball, limiting Green's yards after the catch. Targeted 14 times, Green caught seven passes for just 51 yards.

Rapid Reaction: Browns 17, Bengals 6

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
4:15
PM ET
CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

What it means: The Browns' win means we all of a sudden have a three-team race in the AFC North. While Pittsburgh continues its difficult slide to start the season, Cincinnati's loss triggered a race that now includes Cleveland and Baltimore. The Browns, a team the entire sports media universe was willing to write off two weeks ago, suddenly has a chance to really compete for the postseason. The Bengals are in need of some serious offensive help if they want to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive.

Dark hour for Dalton: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has had his share of successes in the three years he has worn a Bengals uniform, but he also has compiled his share of moments to remember for vastly different reasons. Sunday afternoon, he had one of the latter. After throwing at least one touchdown in each of his first three starts this season, he didn't have one. He also threw for only 206 yards. The problem, it seemed, was that he never looked comfortable at any point in the game. He and his receivers appeared to be on different pages. Once, in the second half, Dalton threw a comeback route to A.J. Green, who was sprinting downfield on a straight fly route. Other times, his throws were too high, too low or too far behind his receivers.

Hoyer homecoming: Dalton might have had a day to forget, but hometown kid and Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer will remember it for the rest of his life. Not only was the Cleveland native making his first professional start in the stadium where he attended games as a teenager, but he had the type of showing that made Browns fans believe he could be their starting quarterback for the long haul. Hoyer replaced Brandon Weeden two weeks ago and looks to continue starting after passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

Penalty problem: The only real issue the Browns had Sunday was their apparent penchant for penalties. They had five in the game for 80 yards. Two of the penalties that came in what appeared to be pivotal situations in the second and third quarters were called on defensive back Buster Skrine. He made up for them, but the Browns will want to clean those up as they move forward.

Stock watch: In the wake of the Trent Richardson trade and their decision to name Hoyer the starting quarterback, the Browns have been dominating headlines because of their offense. After the defense's performance in Sunday's win, it deserves some attention, too. The unit entered the game ranked third in the NFL in sacks with 12 and continued the pressure against Dalton. The Browns sacked him twice and held the Bengals to a season-low 266 yards of total offense. Despite being called for two penalties in the second and third quarters, Skrine had an otherwise strong performance, intercepting a pass and breaking up three more. D'Qwell Jackson led the Browns with 10 tackles.

What's next: Cincinnati (2-2) will have one of its biggest conference games of the season next Sunday when New England makes a trip to Paul Brown Stadium. The Browns (2-2) look to build upon their momentum when they host Buffalo on Thursday night in the second game of a three-game homestand.

My thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins:

What it means: New regime, same result. In the first game of the Joe Banner-Rob Chudzinski era, the Browns had a similar look of past teams: a solid defense and a struggling offense, albeit a short-handed one without its No. 1 receiver and a third-string right guard. Cleveland fell to 1-14 in home season openers since rejoining the NFL.

Stock watch: Rising -- Tight end Jordan Cameron. He was the Browns' best offensive weapon with nine catches for 108 yards and the team's only touchdown. He was the only Browns player with a catch longer than 20 yards.

Falling -- CB Buster Skrine. He got burned by Brian Hartline on a double move for the Dolphins' first touchdown, and he was penalized in the end zone, which led to Miami's second touchdown. Undisciplined play has always been a problem for Skrine, who committed nine penalties last year.

Don't blame Weeden: It's easy to point the finger at quarterback Brandon Weeden, who threw three interceptions in the first half and finished with 23-of-53 passing (49 percent) for 289 yards. But one interception came off a drop by Greg Little, and the Dolphins converted only three points off those turnovers. Weeden didn't get much help from his receivers, who dropped a handful of passes, and pass protection (five sacks allowed). Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz allowed three sacks, and right guard Oniel Cousins struggled mightily, too. Cousins' holding penalty negated a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Pass defense falters: The Browns got pressure on Ryan Tannehill in the first half, limiting him to 98 yards passing before halftime. But Cleveland gave him too much time in the second half and allowed 174 yards passing. The Browns didn't stop the Dolphins enough on third downs. Free-agent pickup Desmond Bryant was a bright spot, stopping two drives with sacks.

Where was Richardson? Running back Trent Richardson is the Browns' best playmaker, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner didn't get him involved enough, especially with No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon suspended for the first two games. The Browns abandoned the run too early, and Richardson finished with 47 yards on 13 carries. If Turner didn't think the running game was working, the Browns had to get the ball to Richardson more in the passing game. Richardson had one catch for 18 yards.

What's next: The Browns (0-1) look to end a 10-game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens (0-1) when they visit Baltimore next week.

Observation deck: Browns-Rams

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
11:30
PM ET

Here are my thoughts on the Browns' 27-19 win over the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night:
  • The Browns contend there is a quarterback competition, but Brandon Weeden likely ended any notion of one. In two drives, both of which resulted in points, he went 10-of-13 for 112 yards and one touchdown. That's a passer rating of 127.7. It's quite an improvement from last year's preseason opener, when Weeden had a rating of 19.0. His two longest passes went for 21 yards to Josh Gordon and 30 yards to Jordan Cameron.
  • It wasn't a popular move when Cleveland didn't re-sign Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs and instead went with Travis Benjamin to return punts. In his brief time doing so, Benjamin showed that he is capable of delivering big plays. On his first punt return of the preseason, Benjamin scored a 91-yard touchdown. Last year as a rookie, he only had three punt returns but one went for a team-record 93 yards.
  • Dion Lewis showed he'll make an impact as a change-of-pace back, catching three passes for 22 yards, including a touchdown. Lewis made the start because Trent Richardson (shin) and Montario Hardesty (hamstring) were out. He didn't do too much in the running game. Take away a 9-yard gain and Lewis had 3 yards on four carries.
  • Buster Skrine made the most of his opportunity as a surprise starter at cornerback. Chris Owens was an unexpected scratch with a foot injury, and rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden didn't play because of a groin pull. Skrine came up with a fumble recovery on the first drive after defensive tackle Phil Taylor forced the turnover.
  • In the kicking battle, Shayne Graham made an important 41-yard field goal. His weakness has been making kicks beyond 40 yards. Brandon Bogotay was 1-of-2 on field goals, making a 25-yarder and pushing a 54-yarder wide left.
  • As far as the defense goes, the Rams' first touchdown was set up by Trevin Wade getting beat on a 59-yard pass. The Browns also allowed six points off two long field goals, from 54 and 55 yards.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC North team as training camps get underway.

Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 wide receiver. The Ravens are hoping Jacoby Jones steps up and wins this job. Baltimore named him the No. 2 receiver going into training camp, but there's no guarantee he will remain there. Jones is the most experienced option in a battle that includes Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, LaQuan Williams and Tommy Streeter. But Jones has never produced more than 562 receiving yards in any of his six NFL seasons. The Ravens believe Thompson has the talent to develop into a productive receiver at this level, and Doss looks much improved from last season. Thompson is a speed receiver like Jones, but Doss is a better route-runner. David Reed is also in the mix, too.

Cincinnati Bengals: Strong safety. While there will be competition at the cornerback spot opposite Leon Hall, the strong safety position is the most unsettled area on what could be one of the top defenses in the NFL. It's been a trouble spot for years, and the Bengals didn't address it in free agency or in the first two rounds of the draft. Shawn Williams, a third-round pick, is considered the early favorite. The Bengals have been impressed with his ability to pick up the defense and feel he has the physical presence needed to excel at this position. George Iloka is the dark horse in the competition after having a strong offseason. But he might be a better fit at free safety, where the Bengals already have Reggie Nelson. Taylor Mays failed to win the job last season, so it's difficult to project him winning it this year.

Cleveland Browns: Cornerback. The Browns have one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Joe Haden on one side and a major question mark on the other. It will come down to rookie Leon McFadden, Chris Owens and Buster Skrine. McFadden, a third-round pick, has been running primarily with the second team during offseason workouts, but he is the most talented defender in this battle. Even though he lacks size, he is extremely confident and competitive. Owens has been getting time with the starters despite struggling with consistency for most of his career. He was benched at times last season, when he was the nickel back for the Atlanta Falcons. Skrine has the speed you want at this position. He just doesn't have the technique down. Skrine continually put himself in bad situations last season, committing nine penalties.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Running back. While the Steelers have yet to name a starter, there's a feeling that this is rookie Le'Veon Bell's job to lose. The Steelers used a second-round pick on Bell because they felt Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman failed to get the job done last season. Bell was a workhorse in college and brings more big-play ability than Dwyer and Redman. His strength is generating yards after contact. This could end up being more of a competition for the backup job. Dwyer and Redman are both similar running backs, and the Steelers likely will only keep one. LaRod Stephens-Howling, a free-agent pickup from the Arizona Cardinals, will factor in as a third-down back and a returner. He essentially replaces Chris Rainey, who was released in January after getting arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: I expect the Ravens’ secondary, like the rest of their defense, to be vastly improved from a year ago. Of course I realize that nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed is gone, along with fellow starting safety Bernard Pollard and starting cornerback Cary Williams. I felt Williams’ value was overblown during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and, while he is an enforcer, Pollard is a liability in coverage. As for Reed, well, he isn’t what he once was, but of course his ability to quarterback the secondary and make plays on the ball is still very valuable. Reed and Pollard were replaced by veteran Michael Huff and Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick of the draft. Expect Huff to more often than not play the Reed role, as a deep middle player, but Huff also has cornerback skills and can play man coverage against wide receivers. Elam is a great hitter like Pollard, but is much younger and has tons more upside. Baltimore’s safeties are better in 2013. But the key here is the return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best corners in football who no one seems to know. Corey Graham was very solid for the Ravens last year, but it is Jimmy Smith who needs to step up. If that happens, this secondary should be among the league’s best, but depth here overall isn’t great.

Cincinnati Bengals: Overall, this looks like a fine group, with a lot of able bodies and depth. The safety spot next to Reggie Nelson, who has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Cincinnati, might have been the Bengals’ worst starter in 2012, but the drafting of Shawn Williams in the third round should improve that situation. Expect Williams to unseat Taylor Mays before long. At corner, Leon Hall is the top guy, but the Bengals also get 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick back from injury, so this will more or less be his rookie season. Terence Newman should start if Kirkpatrick isn’t ready; Newman proved to have quite a bit left in the tank during the 2012 season. Adam Jones obviously entered the NFL with a ton of physical ability. At this stage of his tumultuous career, Jones has established himself as one of the top No. 3 cornerbacks in the league. There might not be a true star on the back end of Cincinnati’s defense, but overall it is a quality, well-coached unit with a good blend of veterans and youth. If Kirkpatrick hits big, this secondary could be exceptional.

Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden is the star here. He is a top-five-type corner and is capable of shutting down the opponent’s No. 1 wideout -- and could get better. The only other top-flight member of Cleveland’s secondary is T.J. Ward, a very capable two-way safety who could be on the verge of a true breakout in 2013. Beyond Haden and Ward, the Browns’ secondary has a lot of question marks. Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden is a good-looking prospect, and Cleveland picked up Chris Owens on the cheap for cornerback depth. Is McFadden ready for a starting role that will be sure to attract attention from every quarterback the Browns face? Also in the mix is Buster Skrine, who is best suited as a third corner. Several players will be fighting for playing time at safety alongside Ward, with sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter possessing the most long-term upside of that group of relative unknowns. Overall, the Browns’ secondary might be a major priority for upgrade after the 2013 season, but at least Cleveland looks to have significantly improved its pass rush, which could mask some coverage problems.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis emerged at cornerback for the Steelers last season, but he is now playing for the Saints. Pittsburgh also allowed its depth safeties, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, to depart via free agency. The only prominent secondary signing was former Steeler William Gay, who is obviously familiar with the system. Gay isn’t starting caliber, but he can play outside or in the slot as a third or fourth cornerback. Ike Taylor often shadows the opponent’s top wideout and overall has done a very good job. He rarely secures the interception, but Taylor is a high-end coverage player. The Steelers are counting on Cortez Allen to replace Lewis opposite Taylor. From what we saw from Allen in 2012, he should be ready for full-time action. Lewis, Gay, Taylor and Allen were all Pittsburgh mid-round picks that the Steelers developed. This past draft they again used a mid-round pick on the position with Terry Hawthorne. They did the same in 2011 with Curtis Brown. As most of these mid-rounders do, Hawthorne will likely "redshirt" during his rookie season, but Brown’s role could increase. At safety, the Steelers have one of the best starting pairs in the league -- when Troy Polamalu is healthy. Still a superb player, Polamalu just has to stay on the field. The Steelers’ defense with and without Polamalu is remarkably different. Ryan Clark has been Polamalu’s partner in crime for some time and has somewhat quietly put together a very impressive career, including an excellent 2012 season. Wisely, the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas, who could be Polamalu’s successor -- or his injury replacement. In the meantime, expect this young heat-seeking missile to be a dominant special-teams player.
The Cleveland Browns only have two picks from the first five rounds of the 2013 NFL draft, and both have heard scrutiny during the team's rookie minicamp this past weekend. Pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo was questioned about being too skinny, and cornerback Leon McFadden has heard the talk about him being too short.

[+] EnlargeLeon McFadden
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsCleveland defensive back Leon McFadden practices during rookie minicamp at the Browns' training facility on Friday.
McFadden, a 5-foot-9 third-round pick out of San Diego State, was the 11th cornerback taken in the draft. But he was the first cornerback under 5 feet 10 drafted this year. Most of the top cornerbacks measured around 5-11, and three (Xavier Rhodes, Johnthan Banks and David Amerson) were over 6 feet.

“I don’t think my height is a problem,” McFadden said, via the Morning Journal. “I take that as a chip on my shoulder and turn it into a positive and go out there and compete on every down."

Heading into the draft, everyone knew the Browns would take a cornerback at some point. It was the biggest need on the team. I thought the Browns would be looking for a cornerback with more height and length. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton was a longtime secondary coach for the Steelers, and Pittsburgh is known for the size of its corners with Ike Taylor (6-2), Keenan Lewis (6-0) and Bryant McFadden (6-0).

From the Browns' perspective, McFadden isn't replacing a tall cornerback in Sheldon Brown (5-10) and he isn't competing against one either in Buster Skrine (5-9). For the Browns to improve upon the NFL's 25th-ranked pass defense, it might not be about the size of the cornerbacks. It's about the size of the mistakes.

Cleveland allowed 22 touchdowns to opposing wide receivers last season, tied for second most in the NFL. Brown, who wasn't re-signed, and Skrine combined to give up nine touchdowns last season. Brown and Skrine also ranked in the top five in penalties committed by cornerbacks, getting flagged nine times each.

“Obviously we all want 6-1 corners," general manager Mike Lombardi said. "We all want Willie Brown from the old days, but sometimes it’s harder to find."

McFadden is considered the favorite to start opposite Joe Haden, but veteran Chris Owens is expected to rotate with McFadden.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what's the most pressing issue on each AFC North team's agenda?

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Determine if they have someone to replace Anquan Boldin at wide receiver. Torrey Smith is going to assume Boldin's role as the No. 1 receiver. The problem is finding out who is going to step into the No. 2 role. Baltimore didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency and didn't draft one until the seventh round. The Ravens do have options, although none of them are proven. Jacoby Jones could move into the starting lineup, but that reduces his role as a returner. The Ravens can turn to Tandon Doss, a 2011 fourth-round pick, and hope he improves from last season (seven catches on 18 targets). Another possibility is splitting out Dennis Pitta and using him more as a wideout than a tight end.

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Sort out who's going to start at strong safety. This was a question mark last year at this time, and the Bengals never came up with an answer. It really didn't hurt the Bengals too much because their defense ranked No. 6 overall and seventh against the pass. Cincinnati waited until the third round to address this spot this year, taking Georgia's Shawn Williams with the 84th overall pick. The Bengals passed on Florida International's John Cyprien in the first round and South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger in the second. If Williams isn't ready to start immediately, the Bengals will look to two players who failed to establish themselves a year ago in Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles. And it seems like you can never rule out the return of Chris Crocker.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Figure out if Leon McFadden or Buster Skrine will start at cornerback. The Browns put themselves in a predicament by not signing a veteran starter in free agency to replace Sheldon Brown, who wasn't re-signed. In the first round of the draft, Cleveland also decided to draft LSU pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo over Alabama's Dee Milliner, the top cornerback in the draft. Without a second-round pick, the Browns had to wait until the third round, where they selected San Diego State's McFadden. He's experienced (45 starts in college) and has good awareness. The knock on McFadden is his small frame and lack of height (5-foot-9). Skrine is also the same height, but he has much more speed. His biggest problem last season was committing nine penalties, which ranked third among cornerbacks. The Browns had better hope their improved pass rush gets to quarterbacks this year.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Make sure tight end Heath Miller is going to be ready for the regular season. Miller tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Dec. 23, and the Steelers have been vague about his timetable to return. Some suggest the Steelers know Miller won't miss significant time because they didn't use any of their nine picks on a tight end. Pittsburgh needs Miller to be ready considering the rest of the depth chart. Matt Spaeth, David Paulson and David Johnson have combined for 74 career catches and nine touchdowns. Just last season alone, Miller caught 71 passes for eight touchdowns. There would be a major transition for the Steelers' passing game if Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have Miller in addition to wide receiver Mike Wallace, who signed with the Dolphins in free agency. Miller and Wallace accounted for 41 percent of Pittsburgh's receiving yards last season.
Every team talks about taking the best player available in the NFL draft, but filling a need does play a factor. Not all needs were addressed over three rounds of drafting. Here are the biggest post-draft questions facing each AFC North team:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Who's starting at strong safety next to Reggie Nelson?

The Bengals addressed safety, but not as early as many predicted. Cincinnati waited until the third round to take Georgia's Shawn Williams. He'll compete against Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles for the starting job. This wouldn't be a question if the Bengals had chosen to take Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien or Florida's Matt Elam in the first round. The Bengals have never made strong safety a priority in the draft or free agency the past couple of years. That's why it wasn't much of a surprise to see Cincinnati pass on safety in the first round in favor of tight end Tyler Eifert, who was clearly the higher-rated player on the team's draft board. The Bengals had Kerry Rhodes in for a free-agent visit earlier this month, but coach Marvin Lewis indicated there are no plans to sign a free-agent safety. Plus, as the Bengals have shown in the past, you can always bring back Chris Crocker.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

What's going on with the defensive backfield?

There are question marks for half of the starting spots in the secondary, and the Browns obviously weren't going to be able to address them by making two picks in the first five rounds of the draft. It's crazy to think the Browns have over $30 million in salary-cap space and they don't know with any certainty who is starting at cornerback and free safety. At cornerback, the top candidates are rookie third-rond pick Leon McFadden, penalty-prone Buster Skrine, Trevin Wade and Chris Owens. The prospects are slightly better at free safety, where the Browns will decide between Eric Hagg and Tashaun Gipson. In other words, it's a major step down after cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. The Browns had better hope their much-improved pass rush won't allow quarterbacks to look downfield.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Who is starting at left tackle and wide receiver?

No one really believed the Ravens were going to find the answer at left tackle when drafting at the bottom of each round. There was hope, however, the Ravens would bring in someone to complement Torrey Smith. But Baltimore didn't draft a wide receiver until the seventh round. The Ravens' decision now is whether to start Jacoby Jones (which would likely reduce his role as a returner) or go with an unproven young receiver like Tandon Doss. Another option is to go with more two tight-end sets and use Dennis Pitta in more of a wideout role by splitting him out. At left tackle, the Ravens have Kelechi Osemele penciled in that spot for right now. Baltimore can always bring back Bryant McKinnie, but he may only be re-signed if Osemele shows he can't play left tackle in minicamps. This is what the Ravens' lineup could look like heading into spring workouts: Osemele at left tackle, Jah Reid at left guard, Gino Gradkowski at center, Marshal Yanda at right guard and Michael Oher at right tackle.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

What happens if tight end Heath Miller isn't ready for the start of the season?

The Steelers have been vague on Miller's recovery from knee surgery and have yet to comment on whether he'll miss a significant amount of time in the regular season. By Pittsburgh not taking a tight end in this draft -- and passing over Notre Dame's Eifert in the first round -- you could see that as a message that the Steelers believe Miller won't miss a chunk of time at the start of 2013. But, by not adding a tight end, the Steelers have put themselves in a predicament if Miller is sidelined for an extended period. This is the depth at tight end: Matt Spaeth and David Paulson. Spaeth has averaged eight catches per season, and Paulson had seven catches last season as a rookie. That's not exactly going to replace Miller's eight touchdowns from last season.
Barkevious MingoDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns' pick of Barkevious Mingo suggests a more aggressive defensive scheme is coming.

The Cleveland Browns could've gone with the flashy pick by drafting West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. They could've played it safe by taking Alabama's Dee Milliner, the top-rated cornerback in the draft.

Instead, Cleveland made the right move in going with LSU pass rusher Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 overall pick, sending a message to the rest of the league: The Browns are coming after your quarterback this year.

The first free-agent signing by chief executive officer Joe Banner was Paul Kruger, the sacks leader for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The first pick of this new era was Mingo, one of the most explosive and athletic defensive players in this draft.

The Browns didn't address their biggest need at cornerback. They didn't bring in a playmaker to spark a long-struggling offense. What the Browns did accomplish was to put some fear into Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton.

"We've talked about bringing in aggressive players to play in an aggressive scheme. He fits that very well," Banner said. "This was the outcome we were hoping for."

How much did the Browns want Mingo? Banner said he had a trade in place if Mingo didn't fall to them. When he was there, the Browns didn't think about trading down.

The Browns are doing more than switching to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Ray Horton. They want to change the mentality. Last week, during the Browns' first minicamp, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson talked about giving the Ravens and Steelers "a little dose of their own medicine."

That wasn't the case last season, when Browns linebackers combined for 19.5 tackles for loss or sacks, the lowest mark in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Browns now have playmakers in Mingo and Kruger.

"We feel like building this the way we are, with character and aggressiveness and quickness, that this was the right guy at this time as we looked at our board," Banner said.

There will be some teeth-gnashing that the Browns didn't draft someone to improve upon the NFL's 24th-ranked scoring offense. But the Browns didn't need Smith, another strong-armed quarterback like Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell.

Some will worry that Buster Skrine is still penciled in as the starter at cornerback. As I wrote previously, Milliner doesn't make enough plays to be taken at No. 6.

Asked about passing over a cornerback, Banner said: "We're not going to force filling a need on a short-term basis. We're not going to fill all the needs on this team this year. It's just not going to happen."

Plus, teams can get by with average corners if they can put pressure on quarterbacks. Look at the Ravens, who won a Super Bowl with Cary Williams (a seventh-round pick in 2008) and Corey Graham (Pro Bowl special teams player) at cornerback.

"It all starts with the pass rush," coach Rob Chudzinski said.

The reason why I like the decision to pick Mingo goes beyond his name, which sounds more like a character in the "Harry Potter" books. (His name, by the way, was made up by his mother, who wanted something different. His brother is named Hughtavious. Yes, really.)

In his first interview with Cleveland reporters, Mingo didn't sound overwhelmed by the upcoming challenges of the NFL, which comes from his SEC pedigree. His sacks dipped to 4.5 in his final season in college, but his confidence did not.

On his vision for his pro career, Mingo said: "I think I can be as good as I want to be -- and I want to be great. I want to be one of those guys that gets their names in Canton, Ohio, and be a dominant player."

Even though Mingo didn't produce strong sack numbers, he still made quarterbacks move out the pocket and hurry throws. He recorded 28 total pressures (hurries and knockdowns), tied for the second-most in the SEC. Only Jarvis Jones (31), who was later drafted by the Steelers, had more.

Mingo is freakishly athletic. He has a tremendous upside. Sure, Mingo needs to bulk up if he wants to defend the run. But he brings something you can't teach: an explosive first step.

"I think I'm the best pass rusher," Mingo said. "Week 1 and the preseason, I'll get to show it."

Cleveland didn't need to draft a pass rusher. The Browns already had Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves (and Browns officials said they had no immediate plans to trade Sheard).

The Browns, though, made the right pick because they went with the best player available. Reaching for a player like Smith or Milliner won't change double-digit losses year after year. This about building a team, and that begins with embracing an attacking style of play. And, adding some 'Bark' to the Dawg Pound seems appropriate.

"It really started with our coaching search and Chud's philosophy, which is part of the reason why he got the job frankly, about playing aggressive and attacking defense and making life uncomfortable for quarterbacks," Banner said. "It's about being on the attack even when the other team has the ball. I think you could see it in the moves that we made, whether it's in the free-agent moves or what you've seen so far in the draft. It fit the plan."
This week, the AFC North blog will be taking a look at what each team has done now that the first wave of NFL free agency is over.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Signed (eight players): OLB Paul Kruger (Ravens), DT Desmond Bryant (Raiders), OLB Quentin Groves (Cardinals), TE Kellen Davis (Bears), CB Chris Owens (Falcons), RB Chris Ogbonnaya, TE Gary Barnidge (Panthers) and CB Kevin Barnes (Lions).

Lost (five players): K Phil Dawson (49ers), TE Ben Watson (Saints), DE Frostee Rucker (Cardinals), LB Kaluka Maiava (Raiders) and QB Josh Johnson (Bengals).

Top remaining free agents: WR-PR Josh Cribbs, CB Sheldon Brown, WR Mohamed Massaquoi and DE Juqua Parker.

What's next: The one starting spot that the Browns have to address is cornerback. Some consider the Browns to be the favorites to land Atlanta's Brent Grimes, who is the top cornerback remaining in free agency. But Cleveland hasn't signed him yet and it's been 10 days since he had his visit there. It makes you wonder whether there is health concerns with Grimes, who tore his Achilles last September.

If the Browns can't get a deal done with Grimes, the other available free-agent cornerbacks are Antoine Winfield (who is visiting the Redskins), Nnamdi Asomugha (who is considering the Saints and 49ers) and a second-tier one like DeAngelo Hall. The Browns don't have a proven starting cornerback besides Joe Haden. Don't try to make a case for Buster Skrine, who committed nine penalties last season (tied for third most among cornerbacks). He will likely compete against Owens for the nickelback job.

Existing needs: Cornerback, left guard and free safety.

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