2012 NFL Draft Team Needs: AFC North

Posted by Brad On October – 3 – 2011
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Micheal Profetta

Baltimore Ravens

1. Center Matt Birk (who was Ivy League before Ryan Fitzpatrick made it cool to be Ivy League) is 35 and backup Andre Gurode is no spring chicken at 32. Both are in contract years. Like every other team looking for a center in the mid-late first round, Baltimore will do their homework on Ohio State’s Mike Brewster. Georgia’s Ben Jones and Mississippi State’s Quentin Saulsberry are mid-late round options.

Could Ozzie Newsome look to an ex-teammates son for an answer at CB?

2. Cornerback Don’t be surprised if Ozzie Newsome drafts a corner in the first round for the second year in a row. Domonique Foxworth is out for the season once again and shouldn’t be counted on going forward. Lardarius Webb is good for the occasional big play, but is best served as a nickel corner/return man. Carey Williams is an intriguing size/speed project, but has yet to prove that he’s much more than a special teams guy.
Jimmy Smith is taking his rookie lumps but should grow into a solid pro as long as he stays out of trouble. If the Ravens can land a first round prospect like South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore, LSU’s Morris Claiborne, North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins or Virginia’s Chase Minnifield (who’s father Frank was Newsome’s teammate with the Browns), it would give them a solid, young trio of corners to serve as a cornerstone for the post-Lewis & Reed defense.
3. Inside linebacker Ray Lewis is approaching the end of an amazing career and his heir has to be found soon. If he returns for one last hurrah in 2012, the Ravens may wait until the 2013 NFL Draft to address this need, in which case Virginia Tech’s Bruce Taylor and Oklahoma’s Tom Wort could be first round options. If Lewis hangs ‘em up following this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Newsome target Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict in a Draft Day trade. (Burfict’s intensity, instincts and athleticism rivals that of a young Lewis). Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o could be late-first options if they declare.
4. Wide receiver It looks like the Ravens have finally found their deep threat in rookie Torrey Smith, so Lee Evans won’t be around much longer. Anquan Boldin is still effective over the middle, but he’ll be going into his 10th season in 2012 and is no more than a #2/#3 option at this point. Rookie Tandon Doss is strictly a possession receiver. Baltimore should think about investing a second or third round pick on tall, reliable red zone threat for Joe Flacco. Texas A & M’s Jeff Fuller, Arizona’s Juron Criner, North Carolina’s Dwight Jones and Wisconsin’s Nick Toon are candidates. Indiana’s Damario Belcher and Minnesota’s Da’Jon McKnight could be late round sleepers.

Cincinnati Bengals

1. Running back Cedric Benson, who turns 30 in December, has lost a step. His contract is up after this season, so you have to wonder if even the…um…liberal Bengals would be interested in re-signing a guy who is a headache off the field and is at the age where running backs usually peter out. If Alabama’s Trent Richardson is available to them in the first round, I’d be stunned if Cincinnati doesn’t grab him. He’s be the perfect, versatile workhorse for Jay Gruden’s take on the WCO. If they miss out on Richardson, Washington’s Chris Polk could be a second round target.

2. Safety Can you remember the last time the Bengals had a Pro Bowl safety? You have to go all the way back to the late ’80s and David Fulcher. I’m pretty sure that Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson aren’t going to end that drought. Crocker and Nelson are okay vs. the run and effective blitzers, but struggle in coverage and don’t make many big plays. (Cincinnati’s secondary has zero interceptions through three games, in fact.) Crocker turns 32 in March and Nelson is a free agent after this season. I’ll be surprised if backups Taylor Mays and Robert Sands ever amount to more than special teams guys. Knowing the Bengals, they’ll probably sign a cheap, stopgap veteran or two in free agency (James Sanders and Chris Hope sound about right) if Crocker and/or Nelson don’t return in 2012. What they really need to do is take a look at Alabama’s Mark Barron and Miami’s Ray Ray Armstrong in the second round. Both have the size DC Mike Zimmer likes in his safeties.

3. Guard Bobbie Williams has been an underrated run-blocking force at RG in Cincinnati for the last six seasons, but he’ll be 36 next year and is set to hit the open market. He’s currently serving a four-game suspension, and his replacement, rookie fourth-rounder Clint Boling, looked overmatched before being benched after one series in the loss to San Francisco. LG Nate Livings (also a free agent in 2012) really struggles in pass protection. The Bengals like their O-linemen jumbo-sized (312 lb. C Kyle Cook is the only starter under 335 lbs.), so Iowa State behemoth Kelechi Osemele could be right up their alley if he’s available in the second round. South Carolina’s Rokevious Watkins could be a third round option. Purdue’s 6-7/355 Ken Plue has intriguing upside, but also has some character and conditioning issues. He could be worth a look in the seventh round.

4. Cornerback This position is pretty much just Leon Hall and a bunch of questions. Hall and dime back Morgan Trent are the only corners on the roster under contract beyond 2012. Nate Clements will be 32 in December and one-year rental Kelly Jennings is unlikely to be around next season. Pacman Jones goes to court in November for his most recent “starting sh** at a bar” arrest. As a repeat offender, he could be looking at a lengthy suspension from the NFL if he’s found guilty. A fitting end to a thoroughly depressing NFL career. If you want to make some easy money come next April, bet a buddy that the Bengals will draft a player from Alabama in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. If Cincinnati is drafting in the 6 to 10 range and they miss out on Trent Richardson, they’ll be all over towering CB Dre Kirkpatrick.

Cleveland Browns

D.J. Fluker: Colt McCoy's protector opposite Joe Thomas

1. Right tackle Since the Browns’ organizational reboot in 1999, there has been a revolving door at RT, with the likes of Joaquin Gonzalez, Ryan Tucker, Kevin Shaffer, John St. Clair, Tony Pashos and Oniel Cousins taking their turns. Colt McCoy (6-1/215) isn’t exactly Adonis at QB, so Cleveland can’t afford to continue sticking band-aids over the hole on the right side of the line if they want him to remain healthy and find success. Hopefully, the Browns will be smart enough to ignore a 2012 free agent like Kareem McKenzie or likely cap-casualty Jason Smith, guys who would probably just continue the legacy of mediocre play on the right side. They should look to the 2012 NFL Draft to find a long-term solution. If Alabama wrecking ball D.J. Fluker declares, he could be the long-term solution on the right side, giving the Browns (potentially) the best pair of OTs in the NFL and finally balancing the O-line, which is rock solid on the left side. Oklahoma State’s Levy Adcock is a second or third round possibility.

2. Free safety/Cornerback LCB Joe Haden is a stud and ferocious SS T.J. Ward should be a Pro Bowl regular alongside Eric Berry as Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu’s careers wind down, but upgrades are needed at RCB and FS. 32-year old Sheldon Brown is in decline, but has the guile to extend his career at FS, where Mike Adams and Usama Young are mediocre. This versatility gives the Browns the luxury of not having to lock into one position or the other as the 2012 NFL Draft approaches. They can simply go with the best defensive back available, whether it be Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round or teammate Robert Lester in the second round. The Browns could use the first round pick (obtained from Atlanta in the Julio Jones trade) on a corner like Virginia’s Chase Minnifield or North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins. There’s great need in the secondary, but Cleveland should have plenty of options next April.

3. Wide receiver Brian Robiskie is an effortless route-runner with sticky hands, so I thought that the installation of Pat Shurmur’s WCO would be a boon to his disappointing career. Boy, was I wrong. Robiskie has literally done nothing through three games. It may be time to pull the plug on the ’09 second-rounder. Greg Little is raw, but flashes the athleticism and physicality that portend a bright future in this system. Mohamed Massaquoi, while not the toughest guy in the world, is capable of stretching a defense and should be a solid #3 WR if he stays healthy. It would be hard for Tom Heckert to pass on Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon if he’s on the board. A Little/Blackmon combo out wide could be a nightmare for defensive coordinators. Texas A & M’s Jeff Fuller, who operates in a West Coast system very similar to Shurmur’s, could be a good value in the second round, as could Little’s former teammate at North Carolina, Dwight Jones.

4. Outside linebacker It’s not uncommon to see draftniks site this position as the Browns’ most pressing need, but I don’t think the situation is as bad as all that. Sure, you won’t see too many Sportscenter highlight plays from Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita, but both are excellent against the run and rarely blow assignments. Gocong is a Dick Jauron favorite and recently signed a three-year extension. He’s not going anywhere. Fujita is a team leader and as savvy as they get. Browns’ management considers both to be core guys. Still, Fujita is 32 and there’s little depth, so a guy like Nebraska’s speedy Lavonte David could be a great second or third round pick. David could serve as a deluxe nickel LB, With the athleticism to blanket TEs and chase sideline to sideline, David could serve as a deluxe nickel LB for a year or two. When Fujita fades, Gocong is capable of switching to the strong side, opening up a starting spot for David at WLB.

Pittsburgh Steelers

1. Offensive tackle/Right guard The Steelers’ O-line is Maurkice Pouncey and a bunch of rubber bands and bubble gum. Granted, the injury bug has been a huge contributing factor, but there’s just not much talent here. The silver lining is nasty rookie RT Marcus Gilbert. Pittsburgh may have really found something with Gilbert, who has the versatility to move over to RG in place of Doug Legursky (who would be most effective as a C/G backup). This gives the Steelers the option of going RG or RT in the second or third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Huge, versatile run blockers like Iowa State’s Kelechi Osemele and Georgia’s Cordy Glenn would be great fits in Pittsburgh. Journeyman Jonathan Scott needs to be replaced on the blindside, so Iowa’s Riley Reiff or perhaps Ohio State’s Mike Adams could be first round targets. Expect the Steelers to be aggressive in shoring up the offensive line next April.

 

The Steelers could look to get younger on defense with Dont'e Hightower

2. Inside linebacker   A dominant 3-4 linebacking crew is the hallmark of the Pittsburgh organization and the Steelers have traditionally been proactive in addressing any cracks in the foundation. LILB James Farrior is 36 years old. There’s your crack. It’s unsure whether second-year guy Stevenson Sylvester will evolve into anything more than a kick coverage demon, so Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Notre Dame’s Manti Ta’o, who are experienced in the 3-4, are in play in the first round. Florida State’s Nigel Bradham and Texas’ Emmanuel Acho are second-to-third round possibilities. The Steelers have a history of mining gems in the mid-rounds at the linebacker position, so they could target an unheralded sleeper like Southern Miss’ Korey Williams.

3. Nose tackle Even at 34, Casey Hampton is still one of the better pure nose tackles in the league, but he won’t last forever. His gritty backup, Chris Hoke, is even older (35). The Steelers could take a look at a second or third round option like Alabama’s underrated Josh Chapman, or get by with Hampton next season and target a NT in the 2013 NFL Draft, which looks to offer a better and deeper crop. Memphis’ mammoth run-clogger Dontari Poe could be a first round possibility in 2013.

4. Safety With veterans Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark entrenched as starters and signed through 2013, Pittsburgh isn’t exactly hurting at safety. Once again, it’s that pesky old aging process that makes this position a moderate need. Both guys are on the wrong side of thirty and Polamalu, in particular, could see a drastic drop-off in effectiveness due to his physical nature and penchant for playing hurt. It’s always been the Steelers’ M.O. to use the draft to buy insurance against the inevitabilities of age and injury, so don’t be surprised if they burn a second round pick on Miami’s Ray Ray Armstrong or West Virginia’s Terence Garvin. Both are high-upside Juniors who offer the size and physicality that Dick LaBeau likes in his safeties.

Steelers’ fans may be wondering how on Earth I could exclude the cornerback position as one of Pittsburgh’s top four needs. Before you guys bring the ruckus to this article’s comment area, allow me to say my peace.

While it would be nice if the Steelers had an athletic, play-making corner to come up with big interceptions and add some excitement outside the hash marks, it’s not a priority in Dick LaBeau’s system, where corners are generally expected to be physical run-stoppers who don’t make a lot of mistakes, while the strong safety is the guy who flies around the field picking up the trash. Ike Taylor is perfect in that capacity. Although he’s 31 years old, he’s still effective, and the Steelers obviously think he has a few good seasons left in him if his recent four-year contract extension is any indication. On the other side, Bryant McFadden could easily be upgraded, but I’m giving rookies Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown a season to prove themselves before calling for the Steelers to draft a corner. Allen and Brown are being brought along slowly, but both are guys that I liked heading into the 2011 NFL Draft, and I’m confident that one will emerge as a potential starter before long.

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