Team needs by Andy Benoit; draft targets by Gary Gramling.
None of Baltimore’s needs are dire, but all are definite. Start with the defense. If the season began today, Baltimore would trot out at linebacker ex-Steeler L.J. Fort, who is competitive and quick but not a true three-down player, and undrafted third-year pro Chris Board, who was prone to mental mistakes in the few snaps he got last season.
Defensive back is also a consideration. The recent re-signings of cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Anthony Levine make Baltimore once again deep enough here, but it’s imperative to always be cultivating talent here because, even with Matt Judon being franchise-tagged and veteran superstar Calais Campbell coming aboard, the Ravens are not rich in natural pass rushers. Thus, they must generate pressure schematically, which requires defensive backs who are smart enough to disguise looks and talented enough to cover without help.
It’d be a mid-round corner because the early round picks are likely to be spent offensively. Lamar Jackson needs a true No. 1 wide receiver, preferably a big-bodied perimeter specialist, allowing diminutive speedster Hollywood Brown to play a DeSean Jackson-type No. 2 role. For most teams, tight ends like Mark Andrews (a premier receiver) and Nick Boyle (a highly versatile run-blocker) would be enough, but Baltimore’s uniquely diverse ground game requires three good bodies here. And so a replacement is needed for Hayden Hurst, who was recently dealt to Atlanta. A replacement also must be found for right guard Marshal Yanda, who retired despite coming off another outstanding season in 2019. Ben Powers was drafted in the fourth round a year ago but lost out on a starting job last training camp to 2018 sixth-rounder Bradley Bozeman. Bozeman has blossomed into a quality on-the-move run-blocker but doesn’t possess the most dynamic traits. Given this, and that Baltimore’s diverse ground game asks a lot in terms of movement at right guard, a failure to replace Yanda could really hinder this offense.
Top-100 Targets (Baltimore owns picks 28, 55, 60, 92 and 106): It’s not a great linebacker class, but there’s a chance one of the top two will make it to the end of Round 1. LSU’s Patrick Queen was just scratching the surface of his immense potential last year and could be a three-down stud, while Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray is a run-and-chase athlete but can be slow to process. The best of the second-tier LBs, Ohio State’s Malik Harrison and Wyoming’s Logan Wilson, have limitations in coverage. A theme in this draft is the depth at wide receiver, so even if Baltimore passes on someone like Clemson’s Tee Higgins in Round 1, on Day 2 they could have their choice of big receivers like Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (a better version of 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin, also out of Notre Dame), South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards or Liberty’s Antonio Gandy-Golden. The draft is short on athletic interior linemen—if neither linebacker is available late in the first, maybe Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz is the pick. On Day 2, the possibilities include Clemson’s John Simpson, powerful but not a great fit in Baltimore, LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry, or perhaps they see Louisiana’s Robert Hunt as a guard rather than a tackle.
Despite some of the drama surrounding it, let’s consider the Joe Burrow pick to be in the books. What do the Bengals need around Burrow? A better offensive line, for one. At times last season, limitations up front prevented Cincy’s outside-zone-based offense from even functioning. Getting 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams healthy at left tackle should help. And one figures that 2019 fourth-round guard Michael Jordan will be better in Year Two. But that’s not a given, and the Bengals are still also rolling the dice at center (Trey Hopkins), right guard (Xavier Su’a-Filo) and right tackle (Bobby Hart). Individually, these guys have all played well for notable stretches in their careers, but mostly in fill-in starter type roles. Fill-in starters don’t look so good when they’re surrounded by other fill-in starters and asked to play full-time. The Bengals wouldn’t be wrong to simply draft the best offensive lineman on the board once or twice early on.
But before that, they may feel compelled to snatch a linebacker. This was perhaps the one position that was weaker than the O-line in 2019, which is why starters Nick Vigil and Preston Brown are now gone. (Brown was released late last season, in fact.) Last year’s third-round pick, Germaine Pratt, figures to fill one of the spots. He was touted for his coverage prowess coming out of North Carolina State, though it’s somewhat disconcerting that he didn’t garner a more significant role earlier last season when the desperation for linebacker help was first apparent. Pratt got notable action in the second half of the season and his performance drew mixed reviews. Of course, this season, Pratt will have the benefit of playing behind ex-Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader, who was signed to a four-year, $53 million free agent deal. Reader’s presence can help Pratt—and whoever is alongside him—immensely in run defense.
Top-100 Targets (Cincinnati owns picks 1, 33 and 65): They’ll almost certainly take Joe Burrow with the top pick. Moving on to Day 2, Michigan OL Cesar Ruiz is an outside-zone prospect who would probably be an immediate upgrade at any of the interior spots, though addressing the tackle spot opposite Jonah Williams might be the higher priority. Houston’s Josh Jones and Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson are high-ceiling developmental guys who could both end up available with the first pick of the second round, as could Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland. Finesse left tackle Austin Jackson and impressive-but-raw Prince Tega Wanogho and LSU’s Saahdiq Charles would fit the mold. LSU interior lineman Lloyd Cushenberry becomes an option with the first pick of Round 3. If they turn to the linebackers there (assuming neither LSU’s Patrick Queen nor Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray make it to the 33rd pick), Ohio State’s Malik Harrison makes sense as a thumper to complement Pratt.
It might be tempting for the Browns to play mega free agent signee Jack Conklin at left tackle, where the departure of unreliable veteran Greg Robinson has exacerbated the need for help at that position. But moving the career-long right tackle Conklin to the left side would be a mistake. Because Conklin played so well last year, it’s easy to forget his enormous inconsistency as a pass-blocker in Years 1-3 of his career. That inconsistency is why the Browns were even able to sign Conklin in the first place; if the 2016 first-round pick had played anywhere near his 2019 level in prior years, the Titans would have exercised his fifth-year option. Conklin redefined himself last season by altering his mechanics, including his stance. Moving him to the left side would offset some of the tremendous growth he achieved in 2019. And remember, in today’s NFL, the difference between right tackle and left tackle is negligible. It’d be unwise to move an expensive player under the notion that left tackle is a more important position than right tackle.
This draft is top-heavy at offensive tackle. Tapping into that would not only fortify both edges of the offensive line, giving Baker Mayfield his best chance at recapturing some of the magic he teased as a rookie, it would also enable Chris Hubbard, one of the NFL’s smallest offensive tackles, to compete with Wyatt Teller for the starting job at right guard. With stalwarts like center J.C. Tretter and left guard Joel Bitonio already in place, the Browns’ O-line could suddenly jump from the bottom to top shelf. Imagine that with skill weapons like Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Defensively, there are fewer needs than you’d guess for a unit that ranked 20th in points allowed last year. Safety would be one. Newcomers Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph play with the downhill aggression that new defensive coordinator Joe Woods and his pass D coordinator Jeff Howard will demand, but both are signed for just one year and have recent history with injuries. Getting a third option here—preferably a three-down starter—would add valuable security.
Staying in the middle of the defense but one level lower, at linebacker, you find Cleveland’s other area of need following the departure of Joe Schobert. 2019 fifth-round pick Mack Wilson’s surprising improvements in coverage last season have taken the edge off this need, but are the Browns comfortable with 2019 third-rounder Sione Takitaki assuming a three-down role? If they’re not, then finding a quality pass coverage linebacker becomes critical, as the Browns’ the potential lack of depth at safety means in pass situations they’ll have to play nickel (two linebackers) instead of dime (just one linebacker).
Top-100 Targets (Cleveland owns picks 10, 41, 74 and 97): If Conklin is indeed staying on the right side, the two top OT prospects with experience on the left side are Louisville’s Mekhi Becton (massive and nimble) and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas (exceedingly nimble). Alabama’s Jedrick Wills and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs both played the right side in college. The safety position gets interesting on Day 2, where Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. is a versatile piece to enter the league as a third safety, while dynamic-but-raw centerfielder Ashtyn Davis and Senior Bowl and combine star Kyle Dugger out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne would make outstanding developmental picks. Or could LSU’s Grant Delpit, thought to be a surefire first-rounder before a junior year marked by injuries and shaky tackling, fall out of the top 40? Similarly, rangy but raw linebackers Troy Dye of Oregon (needs to prove he can handle NFL physicality) and Davion Taylor of Colorado (undersized track star who came to the sport late in life) are Round 3 possibilities in a thin position group but might be a year away from contributing.
Ben Roethlisberger’s return fulfills Part A of improving this passing attack. Getting him a reliable weapon opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster would be Part B. The Steelers can be (mostly) pleased with receiver Diontae Johnson’s growth as a rookie and they shouldn’t give up on 2018 speedster James Washington quite yet, but this team’s Super Bowl window is now, while Roethlisberger is still here, the defense is loaded and the O-line is stable. The blunt truth is Pittsburgh can’t put those hopes in the hands of an incumbent receiving corps that far too often last season could not compete against press-man coverage.
GM Kevin Colbert must also get out in front in maintaining that “stable” offensive line. A replacement is needed for retired veteran Ramon Foster. Stefen Wisniewski, who is slated to start there now, is a fallback option. It would be prudent to find a new offensive tackle, too, since starters Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler are in contract years and coming off hot-and-cold seasons in pass protection. Feiler got a few snaps at left guard in 2019, so a quality rookie right tackle could perhaps kick him inside, killing two birds with one stone.
As for that loaded defense, it is minus one outstanding nose tackle in Javon Hargrave, who recently signed a big free agent deal in Philadelphia. The trade for Baltimore’s Chris Wormley fills some of the void, but Wormley doesn’t have the athleticism to execute designer run stunts and pass rushing twists like Hargrave could.
At cornerback, the Steelers are set for 2020 with Joe Haden on the left and Steven Nelson on the right. But in 2021, Nelson is slated to cost $14.4 million against the cap. Nelson has improved, particularly against deep balls, since his days with the Chiefs, but it’s hard to justify that kind of cap number for someone who is no more than a No. 2 corner. The Steelers could shave more than $8 million off that cap hit by cutting Nelson in 2021.
Top-100 Targets (Pittsburgh owns picks 49 and 102): They have no first-rounder due to the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade, which they’re surely fine with, especially because there are receivers to be had on Day 2. Among the most pro-ready are USC’s Michael Pittman Jr., though his skillset might be too similar to Smith-Schuster’s. South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards and Florida’s Van Jefferson are also potential early-impact wideouts. Replacing Javon Hargrave is a tall order, but late on Day 2 Ohio State’s Davon Hamilton could help as a rotational player, or they could try to mold someone like Arkansas’s McTelvin Agim, who played end early in his career before moving inside. As far as developmental boundary corners go on Day 2, Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene, a converted receiver with track star athleticism (and bloodlines), Notre Dame’s Troy Pride and Florida State’s Stanford Samuels come to mind.
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