Continuing with our series looking at the early 2014 draft needs by division, today we examine the AFC North.
The Cincinnati Bengals took control of the division in 2013, and in fact was the only team with a winning record. After making a surprising Super Bowl run last year, the Ravens were unable to overcome the loss of several key players in the offseason and took a step back offensively. While in Pittsburgh, the Steelers finished strong in the second half of the season (6-2) and were a missed field goal away from sneaking into the playoffs after starting the season 0-4.
Here is a quick breakdown at what positions and potential prospects each team could be targeting for May's draft. And as always, draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (8-8)
Draft Position: T16 (Pending on coin flip with Dallas)
Needs: Offensive line, tight end, wide receiver
The Ravens took a big step back in the run game this season, ranking 30th in yards per game (83.0) and dead last in yards per carry (3.1). LT Eugene Monroe and RT Michael Oher are both free agents this year. General manager Ozzie Newsome will likely look to sign Monroe, who turns just 27 in April, but the question remains as to what they will do with Oher, whose play has been up and down. Kelechi Osemele, a 2012 second-round pick, played in only seven games this year before being placed on IR with a back injury. He has experience at right tackle, so there is always an option to bump him from guard back outside to replace Oher. Michigan OT Taylor Lewan would bring strong value here if still on the board. Also, given his track record, Newsome could elect to trade back a few slots while picking up extra picks and target Notre Dame OT Zack Martin, who has the anchor and versatility to line up at right tackle or bump inside to guard, or Virginia OT Morgan Moses.
After signing QB Joe Flacco to a monster $120.6 million deal, the Ravens need to find him weapons. While rookie Marlon Brown was a pleasant surprise, the Ravens were unable to overcome the loss of Anquan Boldin, whose toughness and strength to win in traffic played a key role in their Super Bowl run last year.
In addition, Newsome must make a decision on whether to bring back WR Jacoby Jones, who served as the No. 2 receiver while playing a vital role as a returner on special teams. Getting another playmaker on the perimeter to take some attention away from Torrey Smith wouldn't be a bad option, and prospects such as Texas A&M WR Mike Evans or Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin, if he elects to come out, could fit the bill in the first round.
While Baltimore needs to find another receiver, tight end may be a more glaring need as both Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are slated to be unrestricted free agents. Pitta has been Flacco's security blanket for the past few seasons and, even after missing the first 12 games because of a dislocated hip, will likely attract big money on the free-agent market. Fortunately, this year's tight end class is shaping up to be a strong group as North Carolina's Eric Ebron, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro and Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins could all be viable options in the first round.
OL: Lewan, Martin, Moses, Stanford OG David Yankey
TE: Ebron*, Amaro*, Seferian-Jenkins*, Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz
CINCINNATI BENGALS (11-5)
Draft Position: Pending playoff results (Nos. 21-32)
Team needs: Strongside linebacker, cornerback, safety
The Bengals have put together one of the more talented rosters in the league. Yet, a glaring need is at linebacker, particularly at the strongside position. James Harrison was signed from Pittsburgh this offseason, but is clearly on the downside of his career while his backup, Jayson Dimanche, has been a valued special teams contributor but is more suited in a reserve role. In addition, MLB Rey Maualuga has just one year remaining on his contract. Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack would be an ideal fit, but he will be long gone by the time the Bengals are on the clock. Alabama's Adrian Hubbard, Stanford's Trent Murphy or Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu would be a reach at this point and the better value would be to wait and see if they could get either at some point on Day Two.
Cincinnati could also add some depth at cornerback and would do well to add a playmaking safety to the mix. After a shaky start and dealing with injuries, 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick is starting to bring return and has played well down the stretch of the regular season. However, CB Terence Newman is on the last leg of his career and turns 36 at the start of next season. Pacman Jones has played well, but has had numerous incidents since entering the league in 2005, and was cited for disorderly conduct this past September. A trust factor has to be in the back of the minds of Bengals coaches and front office personnel.
A prospect to keep an eye on is Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert. After a subpar 2012 season, Gilbert was able to refocus as a senior. He possesses above-average size and showed that he has ball skills with six interceptions. Some scouts believe that Gilbert may end up being better at safety in the league, such as Aaron Williams, Malcolm Jenkins and Jairus Byrd. Gilbert lacks elite movement skills and is at his best with the play in front of him, where he can use his playmaking instincts to read and react on the ball. Whatever position Gilbert ends up playing, his playmaking ability would be a nice addition to the Bengals' secondary.
LBs: Hubbard, Murphy, Attaochu, Florida State's Christian Jones
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12)
Team needs: Quarterback, running back, cornerback
The Browns are still searching for stability at the quarterback position. Former 2012 first-round pick Brandon Weeden has had a rough first two seasons and was replaced by Brian Hoyer -- who played very well before suffering a season-ending injury in his third start – and Jason Campbell, who was signed off the waiver wire. It will be a surprise if the Browns go any direction other than quarterback with the fourth overall pick.
Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida's Blake Bortles and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel could all be in the mix at this point. Owner Jim Haslam and general manager Mike Lombardi must first find a replacement for Rob Chudzinski, who was let go after just one season as head coach.
Which quarterbacks are off the board and Chudzinski's replacement will play a big factor on which trigger guy they would select if they elect to take a QB. Also, there is another option of using their second first-round selection – acquired from Indianapolis in the Trent Richardson trade – or an early second-round pick to target UCLA's Brett Hundley*, Fresno State's Derek Carr or Alabama's AJ McCarron.
Richardson's absence has left a glaring need to find a true No. 1 running back. Edwin Baker, a 2012 seventh-round pick, flashed down the stretch but is more suited as a No. 2 or No. 3. There are no elite running backs in this class worth taking with the fourth-overall pick, and it still may be a reach to use their second first rounder on a back as well. However, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Washington's Bishop Sankey could all be options on Day 2. Hyde is the most intriguing who, at 235 pounds, has natural power, above-average burst and brings strong versatility in the passing game for a bigger back.
On defense, finding another playmaking cornerback opposite of Joe Haden wouldn't be a bad option. Buster Skrine and Leon McFadden both have flashed but appear best suited in a sub-package role. A few prospects Cleveland could elect to target in the late first or early second rounds include Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Ohio State's Bradley Roby* and Florida's Marcus Roberson* and Loucheiz Purifoy*.
QBs: Bridgewater, Bortles, Manziel, Hundley, Carr, McCarron, LSU's Zach Mettenberger
CBs: Dennard, Roby*, Roberson*, Purifoy*, TCU's Jason Verrett
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-8)
Draft Position: No. 15 overall
Needs: Offensive tackle, cornerback, safety
The Steelers' offensive line was like a game of musical chairs this year. Once again, injuries and inconsistent play plagued this unit. While 2012 first-round OG David DeCastro made strides in his second year and center Maurkice Pouncey should return from a season-ending knee injury next fall, two former second-round offensive tackles Mike Adams (2012) and Marcus Gilbert (2011) have had more than their share of struggles early in their respective careers. In fact, 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum was by far their most consistent edge protector this year.
Addressing the offensive tackle position makes sense from a few standpoints. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turns 32 in March and, while he is still playing at a very high level, he has lost a few steps in terms of his mobility. That said, buttoning up protection on the edges will only help prolonged the franchise quarterback's career.
Secondly, rookie RB Le'Veon Bell showed a lot of promise in his first year and appears to have his best football ahead of him. Pittsburgh would be wise to bulk up front and improve its rushing attack that ranked 27th overall to use Bell's talents and take some pressure off Big Ben.
Pittsburgh may have a few options in the middle of the first round. Lewan would make sense here as he is an adequate athlete who plays with solid technique and plays the toughness teams look for in a tackle. Other prospects at this point worth taking a look at could be Cyrus Kouandjio, Brandon Mosley and Martin. If they elect to wait to address this position until later on a pair of Tennessee tackles in Tiny Richardson and Ja'wuan James would be viable options.
On defense, the Steelers' secondary is an aging group facing a lot of questions heading into the 2014 season. Safeties Ryan Clark (34), Troy Polamalu (31) along with CB Ike Taylor (33) are into their 30s and on the downslope of their respective careers. Pittsburgh is handcuffed against the salary cap, and keeping Clark will depend on if he is willing to take a significant pay cut. In addition, there is talk about moving Taylor to safety in order to prolong his career.
The Steelers did well to get strong value with 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas, who should step into a starting role within a few years. However, the secondary only produced 10 interceptions last year and the need to infuse playmaking talent, particularly outside at cornerback, is there. Gilbert could be a logical option and bring solid value at 15th overall, if not, Pittsburgh could elect to look at Dennard or wait until the second day where Roberson, Purifoy, Florida State CB/DS Lamarcus Joyner and Verrett could all be in play.
Finally, don't rule out the Steelers searching for another big, physical wide receiver at some point in an attempt to take some pressure off Antonio Brown, who is coming off the best season of his career. The Steelers took Markus Wheaton, who has shown promise, in the third round last year. However, Emmanuel Sanders has been inconsistent and is slated to be a free agent while Jerricho Cotchery, who had a strong year with 10 touchdowns, turns 32 this offseason and is also set to hit the free-agent market.
DBs: Gilbert, Dennard, Joyner, Roberson*, Purifoy*, Verrett, Clinton-Dix*, Kansas State DS Ty Zimmerman
WRs: Benjamin*, Evans*, Landry*, Rutgers' Brandon Coleman*