Baltimore Ravens

Assessing AFC North draft needs

On April 29, 2006, while their AFC North foes waited their turn at the NFL draft inside New York's Radio City Music Hall, the Ravens were on the clock. Trading up one pick to acquire the Cleveland Browns' No. 12 slot, the Ravens selected a future star defensive tackle out of Oregon named Haloti Ngata. The Browns next took bust-to-be Kamerion Wimbley. The sequence encapsulated how the next decade seemed to go for the two teams.

On Thursday, the Ravens again will pick before all of their division opponents for the first time in a decade, a testament to their sustained success and their rivals' inability to mimic it. Appropriately, the occasion comes at a potential crossroads of an offseason for the AFC North.


The Browns are picking behind the Ravens only after trading down, pursuing strength in numbers after their seventh straight losing season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' window to win another Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger closes a little more with every season.


The Cincinnati Bengals have much to be content about, except their postseason record under coach Marvin Lewis: 0-7.

Their needs vary by position and in number, but for each — yes, maybe even the Browns — the right move could be transformational.


Cleveland has picked before its AFC North brethren in the first round each of the past four seasons, mainly because its front office hasn't been very good at building winning football teams. But after another forgettable fall and the surprising hire of former baseball executive Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer, the woebegone franchise is going in a different direction this week.

This month, Cleveland traded its No. 2 overall pick to Philadelphia for the Eagles' No. 8 selection, and several other picks. The Browns have six top-100 picks this year, tied for most in the NFL, a downright "Moneyball"-esque accumulation of assets. No wonder: DePodesta helped spearhead the Oakland Athletics' sabermetric revolution before being named general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers at age 31.

Coach Hue Jackson and de facto general manager Sashi Brown, also newcomers to Cleveland, need every new piece they can fit on the roster. The Browns have holes at quarterback (sorry, Robert Griffin III), running back, wide receiver and offensive line — and that's just on offense. The defense isn't any less patchwork.

Their first pick, at No. 8, will be telling. A quarterback would be a reach, an offensive tackle would make Joe Thomas expendable, and another trade down wouldn't be a surprise.



Since 1998, Pittsburgh has used its 18 first-round picks on four linebackers, four offensive linemen, three wide receivers, two defensive tackles, a quarterback, a safety, a tight end, a running back and a defensive end. In other words, every position but punter, kicker, water boy and, yes, cornerback.

Last season, the Steelers finished 31st in the NFL in pass defense. This season, they're expected to contend in a division featuring three other quarterbacks with Pro Bowl honors (Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and the admittedly hobbled Griffin).

Guess which position Pittsburgh is expected to finally address at No. 25 overall? The offseason visitor log, if another hint was even necessary, offers some insight into general manager Kevin Colbert's priorities: Of the 29 confirmed prospects who interviewed or worked out for the team, 11 were cornerbacks.

Front-office and on-field strategies could dictate a pick elsewhere. The Steelers, like the Ravens, tend to adhere to a best-player-available strategy, and their 3-4 defense values front-seven play and pressure over back-four coverage. Nose tackle Steve McLendon, a salary cap casualty, needs replacing this season, and the defensive line talent available in the draft makes finding a successor easier.

But secondary help is more likely. Starting safeties Will Allen and Mike Mitchell do not have a place in Pittsburgh guaranteed beyond this season, and the team could still search for a passable imitation of retired Troy Polamalu.

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For a sense of just how good Cincinnati and owner/general manager Mike Brown have it this draft, consider the team's wide receiver position. The Bengals are widely expected to take a wideout at No. 24 overall. A.J. Green is already under contract through 2019. They have no plans to replace him, only to help him (and, by extension, Dalton). Rather than hope to uncover an All-Pro receiver, Cincinnati merely has to find a young playmaker to complement the star it already has.

A No. 2 wide receiver is not window dressing, even with the acquisition of Brandon LaFell. Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu combined for 98 catches and 1,210 receiving yards with the Bengals last season before walking in free agency. The roster needs another outside playmaker.

The defensive line could use a similar rejuvenation. End Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins are stalwarts, but nose tackle Domata Peko turns 32 in November and backup defensive tackle Brandon Thompson won't return from knee surgery until midseason. Both are in the last year of their contracts.

Former first-round draft picks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard join Pro Bowl selection Adam Jones at cornerback, but neither is a sure-thing No. 2 option. A little competition from a rookie wouldn't hurt.