Hindsight: AFC North Offseason Grades
Year in year out the AFC North boasts some of the stronger teams in the AFC. This is generally due to great management. Ravens Ozzie Newsome has been the NFL’s best GM of the last decade, and the Steelers have been well run under the Rooney’s for quite some time. The Bengals might be the thriftiest team in the league, never spending much money, but always scooping great value in the draft on players with “character concerns.” I use quotes because somehow these players seem to do just fine under Marvin Lewis, one of the best examples being LB Vontaze Burfict. Initially viewed as a high pick, Burfict went undrafted last year because teams were worried about his “character.” The Bengals scooped him up, and he immediately rewarded them with over 1100 high quality snaps against both the run and pass. The Browns have been the bottom feeder of this division for awhile, but their talented roster could change that in a hurry.
The Ravens did not have a ton of cap room this offseason, and spent most of their money retaining their own players. LT Eugene Monroe, TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith, WR Jacoby Jones, and NT Terrence Cody will all return. The new faces of note are WR Steve Smith, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Justin Forsett. With new OC Gary Kubiak running the show, the TE’s Pitta and Daniels could cause a lot of damage this year. Steve Smith isn’t much more than a possession receiver at this point in his career, but the Ravens receivers were so poor last year that he is still an upgrade for them. Forsett is a good change of pace back, and will provide depth behind Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
A few players were allowed to walk, such as OT Michael Oher, DL Arthur Jones, CB Corey Graham, and SS James Ihedigbo. All these guys are decent players, but were not good enough that they warranted long contracts over the potential of compensatory picks. I cannot stress enough that this is one of the major ways that good franchises handle their own free agents; some starters are just not worth the money they will command when you can get a 3rd or 4th round pick in the future for letting them go.
In the draft the Ravens went with their normal, solid, best player available approach. As a result, the first 3 rounds lent them some good prospects. In the 1st round they took ILB CJ Mosley, a very solid all around player who should be a full time starter for them right away. The 2nd round saw them take NT Timmy Jernigan, a space eating interior defensive lineman who will clog the middle of the trenches. He doesn’t have much potential as a pass rusher and will likely be a two down player, but he will be so good as a run stuffer that he is pretty decent value in the middle of the 2nd round. My favorite pick of the Ravens draft came in the 3rd round; FS Terrence Brooks. He crushed the combine, with a 4.42 40 yard dash, 38” vertical, and a 9’9” foot broad jump. His athleticism is off the charts, and it shows on film, with very good coverage and run support. All things considered, I’m quite surprised he fell to the 3rd round, as I valued him as a 2nd round prospect.
I don’t have too much information on the rest of the Ravens draft, but 6th round QB Keith Wenning could end up being a steal. His accuracy and decision making were pretty decent last year, albeit against some weak competition. That said, he has the potential to be an NFL starter some day. As usual, Ozzie Newsome lead the Ravens through a quiet offseason with very few “sexy” moves, but plenty of solid ones. Grade: B
The thriftiest team in the NFL had yet another quiet offseason, signing only two free agent starters in S Danieal Manning and OT Marshall Newhouse. Neither player had a very impressive 2013 season, but will fill areas of need at reasonable prices. Starters that were allowed to walk included DE Michael Johnson and LT Anthony Collins. Johnson was a decent player, but with stars in DT Geno Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap, he wasn’t really a priority. I’m a little surprised they chose to let Collins walk, as he played well at LT this year. However one of Andrew Whitworth and Newhouse should fill the position just fine.
Moving onto the draft, the Bengals first two selections were pretty solid; CB Darqueze Dennard and RB Jeremy Hill. Dennard is a perfect fit for Marvin Lewis’ man coverage defense, and Hill is a nice power style running back who will be a perfect complement to the explosive but diminutive Gio Bernard. With any luck, this will mean fewer carries for BenJarvus Green-Ellis who brings very little to the table other than ball security. In the 3rd round they took DE Will Clarke, physically very similar to Michael Johnson at 6’6” 271 lbs. However he is more of a speed rusher than run defender, pretty much the exact opposite of Johnson’s game. Overall the Bengals are losing some production at the position, but improving the pass rush, not having to pay Johnson on a big contract, and gaining a compensatory pick for his departure makes this set of transactions quite worthwhile.
The Bengals 4th round pick was C Russell Bodine. He may be able to play every spot on the interior offensive line, but that might be all there is to like about him. His strength is lacking, and his mechanics might be even worse; a clear reach in the 4th round. The last pick I will comment on is QB A.J. McCarron in the 5th round. I was never a big fan of McCarron’s game, but with his arm strength and experience, he is definitely worth taking a gamble on in the 5th round. I don’t like the Bodine pick, but thats a small nitpick in an otherwise solid draft and overall offseason. Grade: B
The Browns had an extremely high profile offseason, with a ton of front office turnover, and no shortage of negative rumors. They were one of the most active teams in free agency, despite letting three free agent starters walk; G Shawn Lauvao, SS TJ Ward, and LB D’Qwell Jackson all found new homes this offseason. Lauvao is not a special player, but both Ward and Jackson were good enough that replacements were needed.
These needs were immediately addressed in free agency, with the signings of safety Donte Whitner and LB Karlos Dansby. Whitner will be a better fit for the defense of Mike Pettine, as he can play more free safety than TJ Ward who is better served as a strong safety. Dansby is an aging player whose best years are behind him, but he is still a very solid stop gap. The Browns went crazy on the skills positions, especially WR where they had the clear intention of improving depth. New faces included Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins, and RB Ben Tate. Tate will be a nice upgrade at RB, and the receivers will give the Browns a lot more options in the passing game even if none of them can be star players.
The Browns did pretty well in the draft early on, trading down with the first of their two 1st round picks, and picking up top CB Justin Gilbert. Gilbert is adept in both man and zone coverage, and will give the Browns a very tough CB tandem to pass against. With their second 1st rounder, the Browns got their man, QB Johnny Manziel. A lot of teams were scared off by his persona and undisciplined playing style, but make no mistake about it: Manziel was the most talented QB in this draft, and no one can argue with taking him at #22. In the early 2nd round, they bolstered their offensive line with OT Joel Bitonio, a very solid two way player.
The final pick I will comment on is 3rd round LB Christian Kirksey. An infusion of youth at the position was desperately needed, and Kirksey’s flexibility playing inside or outside should allow Pettine to use him right away. While a lot of people (including myself) were wondering what the hell was going on behind closed doors in Cleveland, the superficial results this offseason were pretty good. This is a very talented roster that can stand toe to toe with any team in this league, and if one of Brian Hoyer and Manziel can just play solid at QB, the Browns will contend for a playoff spot. Grade: A-
When you’re in cap hell, the offseason is not a fun time of year. After restructuring CB Ike Taylor’s contract, the Stealers had only about $12M in cap room to work with. This forced the exit of some key veterans such as edge rusher Lamarr Woodley, FS Ryan Clark, and WR Emmanuel Sanders. New players brought in were limited to depth signings, with the only free agent starter being safety Mike Mitchell, who signed a 5 year contract. WR’s Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore will attempt to fill the shoes of Sanders, but their performance last year makes their potential seem limited.
As for the draft, the Stealers first pick came in the form of physical phenom LB Ryan Shazier. He has incredible speed for a LB, and is an impressive athlete. However, film seems to show a lack of polish in his all around game. He tends to shy away from contact, even though he is capable of engaging blockers, and his instincts sometimes seem poor in the running game. That said, he has a ton of talent and its hard to hate this pick too much.
2nd round DE Stephen Tuitt will be a solid 5-tech taking over for the aging Brett Kiesel. While his physical stature is very nice 6’5” 304 lbs, his game tends to rely on good hand usage as his explosiveness is somewhat lacking. That said, he is decent value in the middle of the 2nd. In the 3rd round, the Stealers took diminutive RB Dri Archer. At just 5’8” 170+ lbs, he is physically quite similar to Dexter McCluster. While he does possess good receiving and route running skills, the lack of success of players with this body type makes this seem like somewhat of a reach.
My favorite pick of the Stealers draft was 4th round WR Martavis Bryant. His potential is off the charts; 6’4” 211 lbs, a 4.42 40 yard dash, 39” vertical, and 10’4” broad jump. He is a one year wonder, but its also tough to gauge how much better he could have been with a legitimate QB instead of screen-pass-only-Tahj-Boyd. Regardless, Bryant is a nice pick in the 4th round. The Stealers started the offseason in a tough financial position, and were limited in the moves they were able to make. While their draft was somewhat mediocre, their overall offseason is not that bad. Grade: C+