The division-by-division review of the NFL Draft continues with the AFC North, a division that did very well during the draft and should do very well this season, excluding the Cleveland Browns in both cases. It’s a three-horse race in this division, and figuring out a winner during the season should be just as difficult as figuring out which team won the draft. We’ll see what happens during the season, but for now here’s how things unfolded during the draft in the AFC North:
1. Cincinnati – The Bengals had one of the best drafts in the NFL, and many think it makes them the favorite in the division heading into the season. Cincinnati added 10 players, starting with tight end Tyler Eifert, a versatile receiving that who will be a great luxury for quarterback Andy Dalton. Needing a running back, the Bengals added took Giovani Bernard in the second round and took a chance late on Rex Burkhead, which will give them the depth they need at that position.
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Defensive end Margus Hunt and linebacker Sean Porter are both great additions to the front seven that will give the Bengals a lot of versatility up front. The lone criticism is that Cincinnati waited too long to draft a safety, their biggest need, although they did add Shawn Williams to the group of contenders. With their extra picks, the Bengals added bulk and depth to their offensive line, selecting three players, and grabbed wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, who could be a major sleeper for them and has a chance to become a starter. From top to bottom, there’s no doubt that Cincinnati had the best draft in the AFC North and one of the best in the NFL.
2. Pittsburgh – The Steelers didn’t do quite as well as the Bengals, but they found a lot of players that fit the mentality the organization has developed over much of its history. Linebacker Jarvis Jones dropped because of a slow 40 speed, but the Steelers got him 17th overall, where he could become a steal, as he’ll step right in for James Harrison and have a real chance to put up a double-digit sack total his rookie year. Le’Veon Bell is a bulldog of a running back and fits the power and physicality that the Steelers love. Safety Shamarko Thomas is a hard hitting and physical player, who is as tough as they come, making him a great fit for Pittsburgh’s defense. Defensively, the Steelers also added depth in the later rounds at all three levels, taking player with high ceilings. Offensively, Pittsburgh needed speed after losing Mike Wallace, so they drafted Markus Wheaton in the third round, and they needed a young quarterback, so they took four-year Oklahoma starter Landry Jones, both good picks that addressed needs. Pittsburgh’s draft class isn’t quite as impressive as Cincinnati’s, but they took players that fit what they’re trying to do, and that makes their draft class a close second in the division.
3. Baltimore – The Ravens finish third in their division because after a strong performance early in the draft, they tailed off late. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are no longer with the team, but the Ravens immediately replaced them with first round pick Matt Elam and second round pick Arthur Brown, respectively. Both players have big shoes to fill, but they will bring a lot of talent and youth to the Raven’s defense. The rest of Baltimore’s draft was mostly dedicated to the line of scrimmage, where they got quality players on both sides of the ball. There may not be many impact players in that group, but the Ravens are trying to get younger, and they’re building from the inside out, which is the right move. One slight criticism is that Baltimore needed a wide receiver after trading Anquan Boldin, but didn’t take one until the 7th round. Other than that, the Ravens did a good job of addressing their needs, but their draft just wasn’t as deep and as the Bengals and Steelers.
4. Cleveland – The Browns are far behind the other three teams in the division, and the gap only grew in after the draft. Cleveland may have liked Barkevious Mingo, but he’s an awfully risky pick at sixth overall, as he’ll have to add weight and change positions in the NFL, in addition to questions about his work ethic. The Browns needed a pass rusher, but they needed a cornerback more, and passed up on taking one in the first round, and then didn’t pick again until the third round, where they drafted Leon McFadden, although he should start for them right away. Cleveland had no picks in rounds two, four, and five, and in the late rounds they took players they are hopeful can contribute, but uncertain if they can or not. When all was said and done the Browns ended up with one of the weakest draft classes in the NFL.