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Monday, May 6, 2013
Don't overlook AFC North

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Much has been made about the amazing buildup of the NFC West, but some attention should go to the AFC North.

No doubt, the NFC West has become the most improved division in football over the past couple of years. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are drawing support in Vegas and in polls as being the No. 1 teams in football. The St. Louis Rams are much improved. The Arizona Cardinals might be a .500 team if Carson Palmer stays healthy.

The Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals didn't draw the headlines for what they did during the offseason, but their work has been solid.

Matt Elam
First-round pick Matt Elam made a strong first impression at the Ravens' rookie minicamp.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome faced the bigger challenge. Even though the Ravens won a Super Bowl, they recognized problems. Ray Lewis told them early enough last season that he was going to retire.

That started the front office working. As they do every year, Newsome and his staff started planning for the the offseason by November. They recognized the aging problem at safety. They knew the team was declining as a run-stopping unit.

Six defensive starters and pass-rushing specialist Paul Kruger were going to be potential targets for replacement. The Ravens also didn't know then if they had the cap room to retain wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

Kruger became too expensive, and the Ravens accepted that. What they didn't know is that linebacker Dannell Ellerbe would become a $7 million player, but the Miami Dolphins made it impossible for the Ravens to re-sign him. They also couldn't afford cornerback Cary Williams and safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard.

Newsome and company did an amazing job replacing lost parts. Defensive ends Chris Canty and Marcus Spears will help the run-stopping problems. They lucked into the signing of linebacker Elvis Dumervil. Michael Huff adds athleticism at safety. Rolando McClain was only a $700,000 gamble at linebacker, but the Ravens drafted linebacker Arthur Brown in the second round, too. The team also feels good about first-round pick Matt Elam at safety.

"Matt really picked up things quickly. The same for Arthur Brown," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after rookie minicamp Sunday. "Matt really did a nice job of communicating in the back end, which is not usual for a rookie. Most rookie defensive backs, even all defensive players, have a tough time with the communication part of it because they aren't confident enough to make the calls. He's smart. He picked it up quickly."

The Steelers held their rookie minicamp and liked what they saw of outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and halfback Le'Veon Bell. Third-round choice Markus Wheaton adds speed at wide receiver.

The Pittsburgh front office felt as though the team's 8-8 last year was indicative of the talent. Now, the Steelers feel as though the offseason helped to reload them for a playoff run.

As for the Bengals, who have their rookie minicamp next week, they concentrated on keeping their own. They re-signed 10 of their 19 unrestricted free agents. They had a nice draft. With back-to-back trips to the playoffs, the Bengals are ready to make the next step to see if they can win the division.

From the inbox

Q: As a Lions lifer, I'm sure you can understand that I have a hard time putting faith in the front office. If the Steelers, Giants, Ravens or any other organization with a track record of developing talent had drafted Ezekiel Ansah, I'd get the Jason Pierre-Paul comparisons. But these are the Lions. And if he's a project, can he really be counted on to contribute to an aspiring playoff contender right away? Please give me a reason to feel good about this pick.

Will in Detroit

A: Ansah has great potential and the Lions have demonstrated a great ability to pick defensive linemen. Plus, head coach Jim Schwartz has a good grasp of talent along the defensive line. He has worked with Bill Belichick and Jeff Fisher. I think you can put their trust in them. The Lions needed a pass-rushing defensive end. Schwartz has a scheme that should allow Ansah to do well. One player doesn't take a team to the playoffs, but Ansah is a player who can help this team. I'd feel good about it if I were you.

Q: Everyone says that the Bills selecting quarterback EJ Manuel was a total surprise? If so, why was he in New York for the draft? Who decides who is invited? That a player is at the draft, wouldn't it be a sign to everyone that someone was looking at drafting him in the first or second round?

Gregory in San Jose, Calif.

A: The NFL helps to make that decision. They go over the possibilities of the player going in the second round. If the agent sees a problem, he wouldn't allow his player to be in New York. Speaking afterward, Manuel said he had a feeling the Bills would take him, so he didn't have a problem being there. Because anything can happen in a draft, there was no guarantee he was going to be taken in the first round, but he was willing to gamble. As you can see from Geno Smith, who slipped into the second round, it's still a guessing game. This year's draft was more of a guessing game than most.

Q: The NFL puts a high emphasis on the importance of the left tackle position, presumably to protect a QB's blind side. But what about a team that has a left-handed QB such as the Eagles' Michael Vick. Does that switch the importance to the right tackle, or are there reasons other than protecting the blind side to be considered?

Ryan in Columbus, Ohio

A: It is important, which is why Lane Johnson should help at right tackle during his rookie season. Jason Peters will hold down the left tackle position. Because Vick scrambles so much and is still quick, there often isn't a precise launching point for the quarterback as there would be for a pocket passer such as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. The reason left tackles are so important to right-handed quarterbacks is the left side is the blind side. Running quarterbacks often have to have their heads on swivels.

Q: Everyone knows the different personnel needed for the front seven of a defense depends on whether the team runs a 3-4 or a 4-3, but is the play style of safeties and corners different in a 3-4 than it is 4-3?

Caleb in Morgantown, W.Va.

A: The difference is slight, but there tends to be a little more zone defense in the 3-4. On early downs, the safety tends to help more in the box in the 3-4, giving the defense eight players near the line to stop the run. The 3-4 tends to do a better job against the run. Safeties in the 4-3 might need a little more range. They don't have that fourth linebacker in front of them. Regardless, in both systems, safety is an important position.

Q: Why do you think Brandon Lloyd is still out there? He won't cost a lot and there are so many teams that have a need, especially with the uncertainty of rookie receivers.

Craig in Las Vegas

A: Good question. He is one of the best players out there. In fact, I think he would help out the New York Jets. One of the problems could be that he has been in so many places and been with so many teams, some may shy away from him. I'd be surprised if he doesn't have a job in the next week or two. He's got to be atop a lot of lists for available wide receivers. Even though he was considered a failure in New England last year, he still caught 74 passes for 911 yards. That's a lot of production.

Q: Why is it seen as a bad situation for a quarterback to be drafted to a team with an established starter (Ryan Nassib and Landry Jones)? Aaron Rodgers sat for three years and is now arguably the top QB in the NFL. Wouldn't it be better to be drafted by a good team such as the Giants or Steelers rather than going to a project like Buffalo?

James in Jackson, Miss.

A: Learning is great, but playing is better. It's hard to adjust to being a backup. Think about how hard it is for Ryan Mallett or any of these backups and playing behind quarterbacks who start 16 games. No one wants to sit for four years without playing. Football is a competitive sport. You don't want to give that up. It hurts from the football sense. It hurts from the economic sense. Sure, it worked out well for Rodgers, but talk to him about how tough it was.

Q: I'm trying to figure out the Eagles' QB situation. I know we don't know what Chip Kelly will actually run. But if, as I think he will, he runs an offense much like the Patriots do but without as many deeper routes and with less time spent in the pocket, which QB fits best? I'm assuming it will be some system where a majority of the plays have no routes over 20 yards and the QB has to read the defense, find an open receiver in the first few seconds -- whether it's a quick screen or slant or crossing route -- and if the first couple looks are covered, the QB just scrambles for whatever handful of yards the defense gives him. I feel like Nick Foles looked slow in running but quick in reading and decision-making, so wouldn't he be the top option on the team? How hard is it to improve a professional athlete's speed to where it would just be average (not necessarily an asset like Vick's, but right now it's a bit of a detriment to Foles)?

Brian in Reading, Pa.

A: Because the offense is fast-paced and run-based, I think Michael Vick has the significant edge. I don't think he will do a bad job. Vick's game has always been based on speed. I think he can make good, quick decisions. Tom Brady doesn't fit the mode of what you would expect of a quarterback trying to run the Oregon offense. Brady is not quick with his feet. He's a pure pocket passer. Still, he made Kelly's style of offense work well because of his quick decision-making ability.

Q: You say "one of the weird parts of the draft was what happened at tight end," given the four top TEs taken went to teams with already solid starting TEs. I'm not sure why you think that's weird. You always hear sports pundits say "the NFL is a copycat league." Aren't these teams simply doing what other teams in the NFL have been doing for years and trying to emulate the Patriots? Having seen what two strong TEs on the field together can do, that would make a lot of sense, no?

Thomas in London

A: I just found it as a weird trend in this particular draft. Most of the teams drafting in the first two rounds drafted for needs. While there is a growing emphasis on getting two-tight-end talent, I just found it interesting that more teams that didn't have that No. 1 tight end didn't take one or two of these tight ends for need. Three of those top draft choices at tight end went to teams that had starters who played more than 90 percent of the snaps. Most of those teams had decent slot receivers. It will be fascinating to see how these tight ends are used as rookies.