Monday, April 25, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: AFC North

Welcome to part two of our team-by-team NFL draft preview. In this installment, we''ll take a look at the AFC North, and project which direction each team might head in this Thursday’s draft.

Last year, the AFC North was a division with a clear divide between the haves and the have-nots. Pittsburgh and Baltimore dominated the division, while perennial disappointments Cincinnati and Cleveland remained in the cellar. How have the Steelers and Ravens maintained their dominance over the Bengals and Browns? One very important reason is that they draft better than their rivals, of course. Hit the jump to find out where each team might go this year.

Baltimore Ravens
2010 Record: 12-4 (Lost in Divisional Playoff)
Early Picks: 26th, 58th, 90th
Team Needs: Offensive Line, Cornerback, Safety

The Ravens are in a fairly comfortable position heading into this year’s draft. They have a solid returning roster, but some key veterans are free agents, including Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata. Expect at least Ngata to be re-signed, and it would be surprising if Reed did not return also. However, until the NFL labor contract gets worked out, the Ravens can't know for sure--and that's never a good feeling. With that said, Baltimore needs to get younger in the secondary and receiver positions and reload its offensive line for the long term.

Because they have such a late pick in the first round and because they have very few glaring holes in their roster, the Ravens can afford to see who is still available when their turn comes around. They definitely need a good draft class for the upcoming season, however, so do not look for Baltimore to trade its pick. Instead, look for GM Ozzie Newsome to take the top offensive lineman available, unless cornerback Jimmy Smith (Colorado) is still available.

Cincinnati Bengals
2010 Record: 4-12 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 4th, 35th, 66th
Team Needs: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Defensive End, Safety

The Bengals have a ton of needs and not enough picks to fill them. In addition, the franchise faces a lot of uncertainty with their 4th overall pick, thanks to franchise quarterback Carson Palmer threatening to retire if he is not traded. As a result, the team has been looking hard at the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. The Carson Palmer situation is hamstringing the entire team, however, because the team also needs top players in other positions.

Cincinnati’s pick is nearly impossible to predict. If they decide to find a long-term replacement for Carson Palmer, the Bengals will most likely select Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. If they choose to look elsewhere, the team could desperately use players such as Texas A&M OLB Von Miller, Georgia WR AJ Green, Alabama wideout Julio Jones, or LSU CB Patrick Peterson. Knowing Cincinnati, look for the team to select Gabbert regardless.

Cleveland Browns
2010 Record: 5-11 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 6th, 37th, 70th
Team Needs: Guard, Tackle, Wide Receiver, Linebacker, Safety
President Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert have the Browns moving in the right direction, but last season was still a disappointment considering the talent on the roster. With the 6th pick, Heckert has a lot of options, depending on which direction he wants to go in.

Like many of the draft boards are saying, it makes the most sense for Cleveland to take a wide receiver with the 6th overall pick. Last year's tandem of Mohamed Massaquoi (36 catches, 483 yards) and Brian Robiskie (29 catches, 310 yards) just won't cut it. No offensive linemen are rated highly enough to warrant being selected that high, and it is unlikely Von Miller will fall out of the top five. LSU Cornerback Patrick Peterson is an option, but he does not fill a direct need in the same way a receiver would. For this reason, look for Cleveland to select either Georgia’s AJ Green or Alabama’s Julio Jones, depending on which one is still available.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2010 Record: 12-4 (Lost in Super Bowl)
Early Picks: 31st, 63rd, 95th
Team Needs: Guard, Tackle, Cornerback

After New England, Pittsburgh might be returning the NFL’s most complete roster. The Steelers always seem to plan ahead, and this year their only significant free agents are cornerback Ike Taylor and tackle Willie Colon. Beyond that, however, the Steelers return nearly all their weapons from last year’s Super Bowl team. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is getting older, however, so they might look that direction in this year’s draft.

The Steelers can go in one of two directions with the 31st pick. They can choose to replace Ike Taylor (if they choose to let him walk) with Texas cornerback Aaron Williams. As I mentioned before, however, look for Pittsburgh to take the best available offensive lineman with the second to last pick in the first round. If Baylor guard Danny Watkins is still available, the Steelers should be happy to select him.

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