One question for each AFC North team before NFL Draft
[This is the first in an eight-part series detailing one question that every NFL team will face as it heads into the NFL Draft. Broken down by divisions, we begin with the AFC North]
The NFL has been drafting college players since 1936. Over that time, nearly everything about how players are scouted, evaluated and, ultimately, even selected. However, there is always one constant: general managers will face some tough draft decisions, with no sure answers.
There isn’t a general manager in the league who isn’t tasked with pressing issues, conundrums and, sometimes, the future direction of his franchise in the weeks, then days, then hours leading up to the draft. It’s during those three days, beginning this year on April 25 in Nashville, Tennessee, a team could decide its fate for the next 10 years.
Not every question will mean the same to each team. With 32 clubs, there are certainly bound to be a variety of needs and challenges.
For example, do the Redskins move up to draft a quarterback, trade for someone else’s or do neither and wait until next year? Or will the Broncos select a defensive cornerstone to further enhance one of the league’s better units, or give Joe Flacco another offensive playmaker?
Beginning with the AFC North, let’s take a look at some of the NFL Draft questions facing teams this year.
Baltimore Ravens: Which offensive playmakers will be available at No. 22 overall?
The Ravens will certainly be on the lookout for defensive help, especially at pass-rushing positions, as they lost two such players, along with C.J. Mosley in free agency. There are sure holes in the unit that finished first in total defense and second in points allowed last season. However, the team’s most significant needs may reside on offense.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson showed flashes during his rookie season but was wildly inconsistent. The offense’s strength was in the run game, as opposing teams needed to account for the running ability of Jackson. It came, though, at the cost of the passing attack far too often.
At No. 22, the Ravens will likely be in a position to select one of the draft’s top receivers. More importantly, Jackson needs to be able to beat defenses down the field. With only Willie Snead left from last year, the position needs an infusion of talent.
D.K. Metcalf would certainly fit the bill. As would Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown. Even Ohio State’s burner Paris Campbell would fill the need nicely. With the top half of the draft littered with the defensive front seven players and quarterbacks, the board should fall nicely for Baltimore to find its playmaker late in the first round.
Cincinnati Bengals: Help the offensive line or fix a terrible defense?
It won’t be a smooth ride for Zac Taylor in his first head coaching gig, especially now that the new-look Browns, once the division’s perennial doormat, now looks like the most talented team of the bunch. The Ravens have a dynamic, young quarterback, and the Steelers are always a tough team.
The Bengals finished last season 30th in scoring defense and dead last (32nd) in total defense. The team’s personnel department would do well to start there. However, the offensive line was also a big issue for this team. With improved health from Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, though, the offense should perform well enough to mask some of those issues.
However, there is no path to competition with the current state of that defense. The top half of the NFL Draft is loaded with blue-chip defensive talent, and Bengals need an influx of talent at nearly every position. It is also where the better value for their selection will reside. Players such as Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Devin Bush, Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat are all impact players that could be available at No. 11 overall.
Cincy cannot give up 28.4 points per game again in 2019.
Cleveland Browns: With all the skill players, will the O-Line allow them to flourish?
Let’s just say this: if you are not excited to watch the Browns this season, then I question whether you actually follow football. While they don’t have a first-round pick after trading the No. 17 overall selection in a package for receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the team still has a list of needs.
All three levels of the defense could use another addition, perhaps most so the secondary after including perhaps the team’s best safety, Jabrill Peppers, in the blockbuster trade. However, the additions of Beckham Jr. and running back Kareem Hunt won’t amount for much if second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield does not have the requisite time to orchestrate the offense.
Pass protection got better as the season wore on last year, but the offense relied far too much on short, rhythm passes to Jarvis Landry to compensate. And the value of adding Beckham will only be fully realized if Mayfield is allowed to push the ball downfield. Tackles are a need, and players such as Dalton Risner of Kansas State and Tytus Howard of Alabama State would both be valuable second-round picks.
However, the trade of guard Kevin Zeitler makes the interior of the line an even bigger concern. That may be where the team looks for its first selection. Keep an eye on names such as Elgton Jenkins and Chris Lindstrom here.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Do they replace Antonio Brown in the first round?
Brown’s trade to Oakland leaves the Steelers in an interesting spot. They still have a No. 1 receiver in Juju Smith-Schuster, but how much did he benefit from the attention that Brown drew? They also have a nice up-and-coming player in James Washington and signed Donte Moncrief in free agency. However, the unit could still use another piece.
At No. 20 overall, a receiver may be the best player available if Metcalf or Brown are still on the board. The consensus seems to be that the Steelers could look for a corner here, and it wouldn’t be a bad pick. But if one or two of those defensive backs go earlier than expected, they could look in a different direction.
Of course, players such as Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, Georgia’s Riley Ridley, and UMass’ Andy Isabella are just a few of the players that could provide value in later rounds, but it’d be hard to pass up a blue-chip talent in the first round if one is sitting there.