Second of an eight-part series
With the NFL draft coming up April 26-28, we examine each team's personnel and identify its top three needs going into the draft, subject to any free-agent signings it may make before then.
Overview: The Ravens were a play here or there from winning the AFC title for the first time since 2000, but this is a key draft for them because of an aging core and some free-agency losses. The Ravens got some key contributions from their 2011 draft class, with WR Torrey Smith becoming a big-play threat and DE Pernell McPhee and CB Jimmy Smith showing promise. The Ravens have eight draft picks, including two compensatory selections. One of the compensatory picks is in Round Four — a fortunate turn for Baltimore, which traded its original selection to Buffalo for WR Lee Evans.
Need No. 1: Offensive line
The Ravens have needs throughout the offensive line. Guard might be the biggest area of concern after OLG Ben Grubbs' departure, but Baltimore's depth throughout the line is shaky. Also, C Matt Birk is nearing the end of his career, and OLT Bryant McKinnie is in the last year of his contract. Five years ago, the Ravens drafted Grubbs in Round One and selected Pro Bowl ORG Marshal Yanda in Round Three; oh, for a draft like that one for the Ravens.
Need No. 2: Wide receiver
Smith's solid play gave the offense a big-time lift last season, and he could become the Ravens' go-to target in time. Veteran Anquan Boldin is a solid starter in his own right, so the Ravens are set at the outside WR spots for 2012. However, the Ravens' wideout depth is not a strength. Evans, who struggled a season ago, was released, and there is no clear-cut favorite for the No. 3 WR spot.
Need No. 3: Safety
FS Ed Reed is on the back end of a Hall of Fame-caliber career, and ideally, the Ravens would groom a center fielder to step in to replace him. This draft is not deep at safety, and the Ravens usually don't reach to fill needs, so it will be interesting to see whether they add to this position. They lost safeties Haruki Nakamura (Panthers) and Tom Zbikowski (Colts) in free agency; both had proven they could contribute on defense and special teams, but each left for other opportunities.
Overview: The Bengals' 2011 draft was a smashing success. Their first two picks, WR A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton, helped lead the club to the postseason, and each earned Pro Bowl nods. The Bengals hold two first-round picks in this draft: the No. 17 overall pick, which came from Oakland in the Carson Palmer selection; and the No. 21 pick. The majority of Cincinnati's first-rounders have been plug-and-play starters in the Marvin Lewis era, so don't be surprised if multiple rookies immediately get a chance to contribute.
Need No. 1: Cornerback
Former Texans CB Jason Allen strengthens the depth here. Also, the Bengals re-signed veteran Adam Jones, who finished the year as a starter after Leon Hall's Achilles injury. However, the Bengals are still not as strong as they were at this position when Hall and Johnathan Joseph were the starters. Hall and Joseph were first-rounders who lived up to their billing; could the Bengals add at this position again?
Need No. 2: Wide receiver
The Bengals lost Andre Caldwell to Denver, and unrestricted free agent Jerome Simpson faces the prospect of prison time and NFL discipline after pleading gulty to a drug charge in March. With the Bengals failing to add a wideout in free agency to this point, the draft might be their best bet to find an impact wideout. However, it is worth noting that they added Terrell Owens late in free agency in 2010.
Need No. 3: Defensive line
The Bengals lost DEs Frostee Rucker (Browns) and Jonathan Fanene (Patriots) in free agency and replaced them with two former first-rounders (Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson). Still, the Bengals' DL depth was a strength a season ago, and if Harvey and Anderson don't pan out, Cincinnati won't be as strong up front. Another lineman or two would be a big help. Someone with position versatility would be desirable, as Fanene could play end and tackle.
Overview: Opportunity knocks — and pressure mounts — for the Browns' front office as the 2012 draft approaches. GM Tom Heckert and president Mike Holmgren want to build via the draft, and with two first-round picks, five picks in the top 100 and 13 selections overall, the Browns have no shortage of chances to find the playmakers this club so desperately needs on offense. After failing in an attempt to trade up for the No. 2 overall pick and not adding any skiil-position talent in free agency, the importance of the 2012 draft is magnified for Cleveland.
Need No. 1: Quarterback
The Browns could not pry the No. 2 pick from St. Louis, eliminating their shot at adding Baylor QB Robert Griffin III. It's logical to believe the Browns will add a quarterback in this draft, but whom they add remains to be seen. A quarterback added with selection Nos. 4, 22 or 37 could be an immediate threat to start, while a later-round passer might be hard-pressed to threaten Colt McCoy or Seneca Wallace this season.
Need No. 2: Wide receiver
The Browns traded out of the No. 6 overall pick a season ago. While they received a bundle of draft picks, including the No. 22 selection in this draft, they passed on an opportunity to add WR Julio Jones, who showed major promise for Atlanta a season ago. The Browns do not have a go-to receiver on the roster, and it would be an upset if they did not seek help at the position in this draft.
Need No. 3: Running back
The Browns' 2012 featured back could be added in this draft. Peyton Hillis, the Browns' leading rusher the past two seasons, signed with Kansas City, leaving Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya as the top options at running back. Durability is a major concern with Hardesty, and Jackson missed all of last season with a turf toe injury. Ogbonnaya proved he merited a roster spot last season but was behind Hillis and Hardesty in the pecking order when both backs were healthy.
Overview: The Steelers have consistently found key contributors in the draft in GM Kevin Colbert's tenure as the primary personnel decision maker, and the very best of those players have been true difference makers, a la QB Ben Roethlisberger. With 10 draft picks, the Steelers will have a chance to add some youth to an aging team. The Steelers, as usual, have been quiet in free agency, and they always have done their best work in the draft.
Need No. 1: Nose tackle
Casey Hampton took a paycut to stay in Pittsburgh, but he's entering his 12th season, turns 35 years old in early September, and is coming off a knee injury. Backup Steve McLendon is capable, but more depth here would not be a bad idea. The Steelers have had an eye on the future of the defensive line for some time, drafting defensive ends in Round One in two of the last three years.
Need No. 2: Offensive guard
The Steelers could stand to improve their depth and talent at guard. OLG Doug Legursky and ORG Ramon Foster are restricted free agents; if they are back in Pittsburgh, they will be in the final year of their contracts. The Steelers released former OLG Chris Kemoeatu, who struggled a season ago, in March.
Need No. 3: Offensive tackle
The Steelers likely will turn to Marcus Gilbert at left tackle after Max Starks, an unrestricted free agent, suffered an ACL injury in the playoff loss at Denver. Willie Colon has had his moments at right tackle, but he has played one game in the past two seasons because of injuries. A young tackle who could serve as the top reserve on the left and right sides could be helpful. An ability to slide inside at guard also would be an asset.