A key component in winning a division crown is the ability to draft not only to your needs, but to draft in response to the three teams that you will play a total of six times a year. The AFC North is known to be hard-nosed, uncompromising football with underrated playmakers on each squad.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have dominated the AFC North over the past decade. The Cincinnati Bengals made some noise a few years and the Cleveland Browns have not played postseason ball since 2002. An effective way for the latter two teams to flip the switch is to draft well.
Let’s rank the four AFC North teams in order from best to worst and slap them with a grade as well.
The Baltimore Ravens had the best draft by any team in this division. Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith is an absolute stud. He is a lock down corner with great size and the ability to be effective immediately. His long list resume of extracurricular, off the field issues was the reason he fell to the end of round one. Talent wise, he is not too far behind the highly regarded corner out of LSU, Patrick Peterson.
Trust me, Ray Lewis will be in his ear (if not already) to bury these issues for good. The veteran presence on the Ravens is excellent, and Smith is in the perfect situation. The cornerback position was in disarray before this draft, and the Ravens just picked up a man who only allowed 11 completions the last two seasons in man coverage.
Torrey Smith, the wide receiver out of Maryland, is a 6’1" receiver with great speed and even better leaping ability. He can and will make an immediate impact in the return game.
Besides cornerback, left tackle was probably the second biggest need for the Ravens. Their third pick was Jah Reid out of Central Florida. Flacco was sacked a lot last season, 40 times to be exact, and the offensive line had problems working in cohesion. Reid should have an opportunity to see a lot of playing time as a rookie, if not start.
Head coach John Harbaugh and his staff used their late round picks to pick up some solid additions. Tandon Doss out of Indiana has great size and hands and brings a different dynamic to the wide receiver position than Smith does. Tyrod Taylor, quarterback out of Virginia Tech, should be able to compete for the backup position with Marc Bulger most likely moving on.
The Ravens used a good combination of drafting to their needs and flat out talent and definitely had the best draft out of the four teams.
It is not difficult to mess up in the draft when you have a top five selection. Even the Detroit Lions finally figured out how to draft well with a top pick. The Cincinnati Bengals had an easy decision with Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. The Atlanta Falcons throwing five or six picks their way did not persuade the Bengals off this selection.
Green is an instantaneous starter, with by far the best ability of any wide receiver in this draft. Julio Jones is a distant second. Calvin Johnson comparisons are unfair, because Johnson’s physical traits are out of this world. With that being said, he has the size, hands and nose for pay dirt that is very similar to Larry Fitzgerald.
Quarterback questions loom in Bengal country, so enter Andy Dalton via round two. His intelligence cannot be questioned, and he could probably memorize a playbook during the commercials while watching “The Office.” He won 29 games while anchoring the Horned Frog’s offense and utilized his speedy and talented wide outs to perfection. With Carson Palmer possibly on his way out (hello, Seattle?), Dalton may see the field right away. Personally, I see Dalton and Jake Locker proving a lot of people wrong in the near future at the quarterback position. As of right now, though, I declare Dalton the greatest red hair quarterback to ever be drafted.
The Bengals round 3 selection might be the most underrated pick in this division. A combine freak, Dontay Monch is a 250 pound defensive end with 4.4 40 speed. He might be moved to linebacker, but he has tremendous ability to get under much larger offensive linemen and penetrate the backfield. He is still pretty raw, but with good coaching, he could turn into a very talented pro.
They also addressed their offensive line with Clint Boling out of Georgia in the fourth round, but the last three picks probably will not muster into anything. Robert Sands was severely overrated entering the draft, which is why he fell to round 5. The safety out of West Virginia probably will need a lot of adjusting to playing in a NFL defense. He played a hybrid position while at WVU in their college exclusive 3-3-5 defense. He is as raw as they come.
The Bengals drafted the most talented player out of any of the AFC North teams while not wasting anytime finding Palmer’s replacement. Overall, a solid draft by the Bengals.
The Steelers, Eagles, Colts, Patriots and a few other teams are on a different level when it comes to drafting. Year in and year out, they put themselves in position to win by addressing the current with solidifying the future. This year, the Steelers entered the draft with the 31st selection.
Cornerback and offensive line were the two biggest needs for the current AFC Champions. Once the Ravens selected Jimmy Smith, the Steelers did not reach on Aaron Williams or any other middle of the pack corner. At first glance, this might look like a bad decision, but honestly, Smith and Peterson are head and shoulders above the rest of the cornerback class, so it was the right decision to not stretch for one of the others.
Enter Cameron Heyward, the defensive end of the Ohio State University. This was an excellent value pick at the end of the round, but Steelers fans should not be overjoyed by this selection. He is not Aaron Smith and never will be. The good news is that he is probably NFL ready and fits the 3-4 scheme perfectly.
Ziggy Hood still has a bigger upside than Heyward, but both should anchor the defensive line for the next decade as the veterans move on in the near future. Heyward has excellent football smarts and pedigree, but he is not the most athletic player in the world. Fortunately for the Steelers, they do not need him to be extremely athletic, just an effective end with great technique.
Marcus Gilbert fills an obvious need, but might not be the right fit. He is a mammoth of a man with shorter arms that will make it difficult for him to be an effective tackle in the league. The Steelers insist he can play tackle or guard, but his only great technique is his ability to pull. The Florida Gators had serious line issues outside of Mike Pouncey, including Gilbert having his problems. The Steelers reached on him in round 2, but maybe his familiarity with Mike’s twin brother Maurkice will bring the best out of him.
Curtis Brown, the cornerback out of Texas, was an excellent selection in terms of value and need. As mentioned earlier, the Steelers did not reach on Brown’s teammate Aaron Williams or any of the middle of the pack corners. Brown is just as talented as Williams with better man coverage skills. The Steelers still must re-sign Ike Taylor, but even on a team that blitzes a lot out of zone coverage, they needed a guy who can flat out cover one on one.
Fresno State outside linebacker Chris Carter was simply too talented to pass up on in the fourth round. The Steelers probably needed an inside linebacker more and can manufacture double digit sacks out of anybody from the outside linebacker position, but Carter provides incredible depth at that position. Carter is a second round talent that the Steelers simply could not pass up on.
The Atlanta Falcons made an offer the Cleveland Browns simply could not refuse: a bundle of draft picks over the next two seasons for their first round pick. It was an obvious and correct decision. It is what they did with those draft picks that make this the most overrated draft in the league.
Phil Taylor, the DT out of Baylor, is a 380 pound question mark. He has serious weight issues and rumors of injuries to both of his feet. Some people are raving that he will be an upgrade over Shaun Rogers, but he has all the potential in the world to being a first round bust.
Pitt Panther Jabaal Sheard was their second round selection and made it clear that the Browns wanted to solidify the future of their defense starting at the line. That is an excellent strategy, but again, Sheard is not the right pick. The Browns will now play a 4-3 defense and he will not be an effective end out of that scheme. All the rumors out of the draft were that 3-4 teams were looking at the former Pitt lineman to be a potential outside linebacker. We saw this with LaMarr Woodley and his transition from DE at Michigan to OLB when drafted by the Steelers. Sheard does not have the size or strength to be a really good pro from the end position.
Greg Little, one of the talented players out of UNC that was ineligible in 2010, was drafted in the second round by the Browns. This kid has tremendous hands and talent, but you will never have to tell him that…he knows it. He has serious character issues, and this is very different than Jimmy Smith being drafted by the Ravens. When you look in the Browns locker room, there is no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed in sight. The Browns do not have the veteran presence to handle a potential diva wide receiver. At least for Browns fans, he did not play at Michigan.
The Browns, despite what a lot of people are saying, did not have a good draft. Even though the Falcons gave the Browns a ridiculous amount of picks for Julio Jones, maybe the Alabama wide receiver would have been the right selection, especially for Colt McCoy.