Between the four teams in the AFC North, the division added 32 new players via the 2014 NFL draft. Some met immediate, pressing needs, while others will provide depth at positions that were decidedly shallow before last Thursday's event kicked off.
The draft is one tool teams use in order to get better in both the short and long term. With two perennial playoff teams in the division, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, both going 8-8 last season, the Cleveland Browns trying to dig themselves out of poor season after poor season and the Cincinnati Bengals trying to finally win a postseason contest, each team's picks carry a lot of weight for its future.
Here's a breakdown of where each team stands after this year's draft, ranked in order of how promising the upcoming season looks.
4. Cleveland Browns
2014 draft picks (in order): CB Justin Gilbert, QB Johnny Manziel, OL Joel Bitonio, LB Christian Kirksey, RB Terrance West, CB Pierre Desir
The Browns certainly made aggressive steps to round out their roster with players who reflect the football philosophy of new head coach Mike Pettine while also meeting needs at positions both offensive and defensive. They pulled off a number of trades as well, in Round 1 and through Day 3, that left the team with six drafted rookies after coming into Thursday with 10 picks.
Cleveland is certainly in better roster shape after the draft.
|Cleveland Browns Draft Picks|
|1||8||CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State|
|1||22||QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M|
|2||35||OL Joel Bitonio, Nevada|
|3||71||LB Christian Kirksey, Iowa|
|3||94||RB Terrance West, Towson|
|4||127||CB Pierre Desir, Lindenwood|
|Came into draft with 10 picks, left with 6 players|
The Browns picked up a shutdown-style cornerback in Justin Gilbert to pair with Joe Haden, an offensive lineman in Joel Bitonio who can play at either guard or tackle and should be a Week 1 starter and a coverage linebacker in Christian Kirksey who is likely to take over Craig Robertson's job on the inside. They also drafted running back Terrance West, who may find himself part of a two- or three-man committee, and promising small-school corner Pierre Desir.
Oh, and then there's the quarterback—Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, taken 22nd overall. Manziel brings an energy—and a lot of media attention—to the Browns, despite him having to win the starting job over Brian Hoyer, which may not happen in 2014.
There was one glaring positional absence in the draft, however—wide receiver. Even before reports surfaced on Friday that record-breaking receiver Josh Gordon could be facing up to a one-season suspension for a failed drug test and Nate Burleson had re-fractured the arm he broke last year, it was considered a high-priority position.
Instead, the Browns avoided it altogether, opting not to change their draft plans in a panic over recent reported events. However, that doesn't mean they are about to be in serious trouble at the position. As general manager Ray Farmer said post-draft:
There will be college free agents. There will be other receivers to move off of rosters depending on whom they selected. There will be opportunities to make trades based upon how teams look at their rosters once they've had a chance to evaluate the young men that they've drafted or picked up as college free agents.
He also mentioned the Seattle Seahawks, who won a Super Bowl with a group of relatively unheralded receivers and the rise of New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, adding, "There are names that people don't recognize yet. There are names that people don't know. There are players that people don't recognize as being good players until they're given the opportunity."
One example is Charles Johnson, the former Green Bay Packers receiver the Browns picked up last year and who missed the season with an ACL tear he came into Cleveland with. Despite the injury, he remains on the roster. Johnson has blazing-fast speed (he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash) and explosiveness (he had an 11'1" broad jump). If both remain after the knee injury, he'll be a name to watch this year.
The Browns have had quite the offseason—and not a bad one, either. They addressed needs and scheme fits throughout the spring, starting with free agency and culminating with the draft, and there will be other players added and subtracted in the coming months.
But it will take more than a talented roster for the Browns to start stringing together meaningful wins and put together a 2014 season that yields a .500 or better record. They have to change the culture in the locker room and believe they can win. The Browns roster was a talented one last year, but they still won just four games.
It should be noted, however, that the Browns players—their veterans, their new free agents and their rookies—seem to be more enthusiastic about the team's chances this year. This draft could be one of the first significant steps toward stability both on the roster and the coaching and front office staffs. On paper, at least, it looks like the Browns are headed in the right direction.
3. Baltimore Ravens
2014 draft picks (in order): LB C.J. Mosley, DT Timmy Jernigan, S Terrence Brooks, TE Crockett Gilmore, DT Brent Urban, RB Lorenzo Taliaferro, G/C John Urschel, QB Keith Wenning, WR Michael Campanaro
It's no secret that Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is one of the best player evaluators in the NFL and that his drafts often yield the team an embarrassment of riches. However, the Ravens have been making some serious roster changes over the last two years. They're getting younger, which means an 8-8 season like in 2013 will happen. Young players lack experience, which means there will be some hiccups.
|Baltimore Ravens 2014 Draft Picks|
|1||17||LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama|
|2||48||DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State|
|3||79||S Terrence Brooks, Florida State|
|3||99||TE Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State|
|4||134||DT Brent Urban, Virginia Tech|
|4||138||RB Lorenzo Taliaferro, Coastal Carolina|
|5||175||G/C John Urschel, Penn State|
|6||194||QB Keith Wenning, Ball State|
|7||218||WR Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest|
|Came into draft with 8 picks, left with 9 players|
It didn't help the Ravens that they had such a poor offensive line last season, one that yielded the worst rushing yardage total in franchise history and got quarterback Joe Flacco sacked more than he had in any other season. Because of this, it seemed to follow that the Ravens would heavily invest in the line via the draft, but they didn't.
The Ravens took only one offensive lineman in the draft, the guard or center-capable John Urschel from Penn State, selected in Round 5. They didn't have as many picks as it seemed—eight going in, nine coming out after trading back into Round 7—because four of those selections were compensatory picks, ones they could not trade.
Therefore, the team's hands were tied when it came to the opportunity to select offensive linemen, especially the highly coveted tackles. Plus, the Ravens had glaring inadequacies on defense, which is the direction they opted to go in for four of their first five picks.
In Round 1, they drafted Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. Mosley projects mainly to play inside linebacker, joining the likes of Arthur Brown and Daryl Smith, but his speed will allow him to move to the outside. He's the perfect hybrid player for the Ravens' hybrid system.
They also addressed their thin defensive line, with Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban likely to battle in camp for the starting defensive tackle spot vacated by Arthur Jones. Both also serve as higher-upside backups for nose tackle Haloti Ngata as well; prior to the draft, only Terrence Cody was available to do that job.
Most importantly, the Ravens filled a pressing defensive need in Round 3 with safety Terrence Brooks. Rangy enough to play either free or strong safety, he'll likely start at the former position with Matt Elam moving to the latter, his more natural position.
Baltimore added another running back—necessary because of Bernard Pierce's shoulder surgery and Ray Rice potentially facing a suspension—and a good one at that, taking Coastal Carolina's Lorenzo Taliaferro in Round 4. Taliaferro has the well-rounded skills as a runner, receiver and blocker to be an every-down back in the event of a Rice absence and could even replace him in a year's time.
But at receiver, the Ravens made no aggressive moves—unless you count trading with the Browns to move back into Round 7 aggressive. That's where they selected a local prospect, Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro.
Again, the team's depth at receiver will be young and inexperienced; hopefully its group of pass-catchers won't suffer a loss as significant as tight end Dennis Pitta's last offseason.
The Ravens added players who could be of use in time. Most project to be special-teamers who require development or are players with a checkered past, like Jernigan, who might need some hand-holding. But they had areas of immediate crisis, like cornerback (no depth) and offensive line (low talent), that didn't get much—or any—of the team's draft attention.
Granted, diamonds in the rough may still yet come from their crop of rookie free agents, and some of the team's more raw players from last year could have a bit more refinement and readiness in 2014. These nine picks could produce a major leap forward for the Ravens, but it looks like that will take some time. This season might not tap the full potential of these rookies.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
2014 draft picks (in order): LB Ryan Shazier, DL Stephon Tuitt, RB/WR Dri Archer, WR Martavis Bryant, CB Shaquille Richardson, OL Wesley Johnson, LB Jordan Zumwalt, DT Daniel McCullers, TE Rob Blanchflower
The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone 8-8 in their last two seasons, and it's possible that bad drafting could have had a hand in this development. None of the players the Steelers drafted in 2008 or 2009 remain on the roster, and there aren't many players left from their 2010 or 2011 draft classes, either.
The only way to improve is to get younger and cheaper, not older and more expensive. These poor drafts have left the Steelers with a number of aging veterans at starting positions and in bad salary cap situations.
|Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Draft Picks|
|1||15||LB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State|
|2||46||DL Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame|
|3||97||RB/WR Dri Archer, Kent State|
|4||118||WR Martavis Bryant, Clemson|
|5||157||QB Shaquille Evans, Arizona|
|5||173||OL Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt|
|6||192||LB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA|
|6||215||DT Daniel McCullers, Tennessee|
|7||230||TE Rob Blanchflower, UMASS|
|Steelers had 9 picks and came away with 9 players.|
However, the Steelers have taken steps both last year and this to up the youth quotient and lower costs. And they are one draft class away from turning things around. If the nine players they picked up in this year's draft pan out—if even six or seven of them do—the team will be in much better shape very quickly.
As usual, the Steelers used the 2014 draft to meet a few needs while also devoting some picks to simply selecting the best player available. A strong example of the latter is the team's first-round pick, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Shazier does meet a need—the Steelers are thin at inside linebacker, with Lawrence Timmons starting and Vince Williams and Kion Wilson the two best options to replace Larry Foote (Williams did so most of last year when Foote was placed on injured reserve).
For what the Steelers do with inside linebackers—they'd like them to blitz, but neither Williams nor Wilson is truly in that mold—Shazier had the best scheme fit. And he might not have made it to Round 2, leaving the Steelers again having to make do.
However, the Shazier selection pushed back other positions of seeming need, like cornerback and wide receiver. The team did address them both, in Rounds 4 and 5, but there were many holes on the roster and the priorities were fluid. Because of this, the Steelers had the best draft that they could have, even if it wasn't perfect.
They certainly managed to fill holes on the defensive line, with Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt taken in Rounds 6 and 2, respectively, and they got Ben Roethlisberger a tall and fast receiver in Martavis Bryant, who was a steal in the fourth round.
More importantly, the Steelers' new rookies have a better chance to start in their first season than those who preceded them. On Bryant, wide receivers coach Richard Mann told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, "I'm not going to say that he is going to start, but potentially he could."
Head coach Mike Tomlin, on the rookies starting, said, "I'm open to it," which is about as committed as he could be considering it's still May.
There are concerns about these rookies starting, however. Mark Kaboly at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes the injury histories of players like Tuitt, receiver-running back Dri Archer and tight end Rob Blanchflower could haunt them. But many players suffer injuries in college that don't resurface in the NFL.
The Steelers had a good draft—on paper. However, football is played on a field, in various weather conditions. It's not a piece of paper filled with names, jersey numbers and statistics facing off against another.
Pittsburgh needs the majority of these nine draft selections to make contributions, some of them immediate ones, if the team is going to return to playoff contention. It's on the right path, but the proof won't really be available until at least next January.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
2014 draft picks (in order): CB Darqueze Dennard, RB Jeremy Hill, DE Will Clarke, C Russell Bodine, QB AJ McCarron, LB Marquis Flowers, WR James White, CB Lavelle Westbrooks
The Bengals had one of the most complete and deep rosters heading into the 2014 NFL draft, but that doesn't mean they had to shy away from the opportunity to become even better and more well-rounded during the three-day event.
Further, they have two new coordinators in Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther. Though the two men were already on the Bengals staff when Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer took head coaching positions elsewhere, that doesn't mean their systems are clones of their predecessors'. Why not add a few players that help round out their particular visions?
|Cincinnati Bengals 2014 Draft Picks|
|1||24||CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State|
|2||55||RB Jeremy Hill, LSU|
|3||88||DE Will Clarke, West Virginia|
|4||111||C Russell Bodine, North Carolina|
|5||164||QB A.J. McCarron, Alabama|
|6||212||LB Marquis Flowers, Arizona|
|7||239||WR James Wright, LSU|
|7||252||CB Lavelle Westbrooks, Georgia Southern|
|Bengals came into the draft with 9 picks and left with 8 players|
The Bengals have become masters of the draft in the past few years, and on paper, their eight selections in 2014 appear to continue that tradition. Their mix of needs-based and best-player-available drafting has yielded a crop of new players who could find true long-term success in Cincinnati.
It began in Round 1 with the selection of Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The Bengals are rather deep at cornerback and have a number of players with first-round draft pedigrees (not all were drafted by the Bengals), but some are getting older. Terence Newman is 35 years old and Adam Jones is 30. Leon Hall is 29, but he's also coming off of his second career Achilles tendon tear.
Dennard was easily one of the best cornerbacks of the draft class, and the Bengals lucked out by him falling to 24th, where they picked in Round 1.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Guenther said of Dennard, "When we worked him out, (co-defensive backs coach) Vance (Joseph) and I said, 'That's Leon Hall." Considering Hall is one of the most underrated corners in the league, Dennard's ceiling looks to be significantly higher than 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick.
In Round 2, the Bengals selected LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who projects to be the replacement for BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis is an unrestricted free agent next year and Hill has many of the same traits—north-south power, strong blocking ability and good hands as a receiver when asked.
This is the second straight year the Bengals in which took a running back in Round 2; last year, they selected Giovani Bernard, the lightning in the Bengals' thunder-and-lightning rushing attack. With Jackson in command of the offense, expect more running this season, which means Hill will get a share of the touches.
Though the Bengals aren't hurting for defensive line depth—it's one of their greatest strengths—they couldn't pass up the opportunity to select West Virginia defensive end Will Clarke in Round 3.
Clarke has comparable size, speed and strength to departed end Michael Johnson and will be wearing No. 93, Johnson's old number. With Clarke in the fold, alongside Margus Hunt, Wallace Gilberry, Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have absolutely no talent issues at defensive end.
The Bengals didn't look to bolster their relative thinness at offensive tackle in this draft, but they did address thinness at center, taking North Carolina's Russell Bodine in Round 4. Bodine is one of the biggest and most powerful centers in the draft and The Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr. believes that he'll immediately challenge Mike Pollak for the starting job.
The rest of the draft was used to build depth on offense, defense and special teams, starting with Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. In Round 6, the team took Arizona linebacker Marquis Flowers. Flowers spent his first two years in Arizona as a safety. That type of rangy, speedy, hard-hitting background is a good fit for the Bengals (think Emmanuel Lamur), both on defense and in kick and punt coverage.
In Round 7, the Bengals took first LSU special-teamer James Wright and then Georgia Southern cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks, who "has a chance to come in here and compete for one of [the] cornerback spots," according to head coach Marvin Lewis, via The Enquirer.
In total, it was a very "Bengals draft." They have been almost transparently drafting to need in the past few years, taking the best players they can find to fill very specific holes, and this was no exception. Everybody fits. Even though the team is deep and strong at every position, all eight of these players have a role to fill in Cincinnati, and they could each earn roster spots this year with strong training camp showings.
The entire AFC North had good-to-great drafts this year, with all four teams selecting players that should improve their respective lots in the conference and in the league. But the Bengals were the richest team heading into the draft and only appear to have gotten richer. That's why their 2014 season seems to hold more promise than their compatriots in the division.