Before the Ravens opted to trade out of the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night, they watched their three AFC North rivals make moves that appear to make them better heading into the 2012 season.
The Cleveland Browns were boldest. Less than an hour before the draft began, they engineered a trade with the Minnesota Vikings to move up one spot to pick No. 3. There they selected Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who some say is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. He should be a significant upgrade over current Browns backs Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbonnaya and Brandon Jackson.
(By the way, Richardson said he "can't wait" to go head-to-head against Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.)
The Browns were back on the clock at No. 22, and they made one of the most surprising selections of the night, taking Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, who turns 29 during the 2012 season. Now, despite a report that the Browns thought incumbent starter Colt McCoy was ready to take the next step, they are shopping him, clearing the way for Weeden to be under center in their season opener.
The Cincinnati Bengals also had two first-round draft picks. With the 17th overall pick, they selected Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, a tall, physical cornerback who could be in the starting lineup come September. The Bengals sorely missed Johnathan Joseph (who is now with the Houston Texans) last season, especially after Leon Hall sustained a ruptured Achilles tendon that ended his season early.
They also held the 21st pick, but they traded it to the New England Patriots for the 27th pick and a third-rounder. At that spot, two picks before the Ravens were up, the Bengals selected a player that was on the Ravens' radar in Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler. Physical and tough, Zeitler might have been the frontrunner to replace Ben Grubbs at left guard. But instead he will be wearing tiger stripes.
The Pittsburgh Steelers passed on Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower at No. 24 -- Hightower was later selected by the Patriots -- and landed the draft's consensus top guard, Stanford's David DeCastro. He has been compared to former All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. Teamed with Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, DeCastro gives the Steelers three-fifths of a talented, young offensive line.
Each of these three AFC North rivals have improved. The Ravens, who now have nine picks in the final two days of the draft after trading out of the first round, will attempt to play catch-up tonight.