Each AFC North Team’s Greatest Weakness After the NFL Draft and Free Agency
Now that the bulk of free agency and the draft is over, each one of the 32 NFL teams are beginning to take shape for the 2013 Regular Season. Although there will be reasons for every teams’ fan-base to be excited, this is also the time of the year when weaknesses on each roster finally come into focus.
In an eight part-series, I am going to try to identify and inform you about every NFL team’s weakness division-by-division. To kick things off, we go to the home of the current Super Bowl champions, the AFC North.
Baltimore Ravens-Offensive Line
The Ravens don’t have any real obvious weakness. Ozzie Newsome has rebuilt the team brilliantly this off-season despite giving Joe Flacco a huge deal and watching many of his prized picks in the draft move on in free agency. Even with the Anquan Boldin trade, the Ravens still have a plethora of offensive weapons from running-backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, to tight ends Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, Vonta Leach(fullback) and receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. They may not be the New Orleans Saints, but they have enough talent to get by.
Defensively, Newsome has rebuilt the front seven so that it is deeper and more versatile than the previous group. The secondary is an issue because of the new combination at safety and the question marks over Lardarius Webb’s health, but on the whole, the Ravens are well-set across the board.
What really stands out for the Ravens is their offensive line however. The production from that unit is one of the more under-appreciated aspects of last year’s Super Bowl run. When starting left guard Jah Reid was injured just before the playoffs, former starting left tackle Bryan McKinnie returned to the role he had lost prior to the beginning of the year. That move allowed Michael Oher(right tackle) and Kelechi Osemele(left guard) to move into positions that better fit them.
McKinnie played very well in the playoffs and eventually re-signed with the Ravens on a two-year-deal. So, everything is fine, right? Not exactly.
When McKinnie wasn’t in the line-up, the unit was very inconsistent. Oher struggled at left tackle and Reid was an underwhelming left guard. The Ravens will be right back to that combination if McKinnie misses time in 2013, something that is more likely than unlikely. The soon-to-be 34-year-old has a history of durability issues that could crop up and quickly land him back on the bench.
In that scenario, the Ravens would now be looking to move Osemele to left tackle, somewhere he is untested, and would then have Reid back at left guard. With Matt Birk retiring, that would mean the left side of their offensive line would feature Osemele, Reid and Gino Gradkowski. A very young, inexperienced unit that has the most important responsibility of the whole offense: protecting the $120 million quarterback.
The top of the Bengals’ draft in 2013 had a concentrated effort on improving the offense around the quarterback position. Adding Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard to the Bengals’ offense should dramatically improve the production at both the tight end and running-back positions. Incumbent feature back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a benefactor of the team’s offensive line, while then starting tight end Jermaine Gresham has consistently struggled to catch the football throughout his career.
With weapons permeating through the offense, one of the best offensive lines in the league(if not the best) and a close to dominant defensive unit, the only thing holding the Bengals back is the development of quarterback Andy Dalton.
Dalton had an impressive season as a rookie. He made good decisions on the whole and didn’t lose games for his team on a consistent basis. The post-Carson Palmer-era started off better than anyone could have hoped it would as the Bengals were an unexpected wildcard team in the playoffs.
Wildcard weekend proved to be a step too far for the rookie quarterback and his limitations in carrying the offense overcame him on the field. Dalton was still a rookie however, so the season as a whole was still considered a positive one.
Last year, Dalton’s second season as the starting quarterback, brought the same level of success, but because he was no longer a rookie, that level of success wasn’t as satisfying. The Bengals’ roster as a whole improved, but Dalton didn’t. Instead the same problems from his rookie campaign carried over. He has next to no deep ball accuracy and lacks the pocket presence to hold onto the ball.
Unless he develops dramatically before the start of next season, the Bengals are facing the prospect of another early exit in the playoffs.
The AFC North projects to be one of the more curious divisions in football this year. Arguably the two most talented rosters in the division have the two worst quarterbacks by some distance. Yes, the Browns have gotten to the point where they have one of the more talented rosters in the whole league, but they are still missing that final piece under center. In a project where 32 football experts were asked to draft players for their own (imaginary) start-up teams, the Browns had 13 players taken in the first eight rounds.
In that same draft, 18 quarterbacks were taken in the first round, while 12 more had gone by the end of the 10th round. Over halfway into the 16th round, Browns’ quarterback Brandon Weeden is still on the board.
Of course, Weeden’s age is working against him. Entering the league in your late 20s is always going to lower your value, but he did little as a rookie to prove himself capable of carrying the Cleveland franchise any further than it went in his first year. His accuracy is very inconsistent and he is still developing his overall ability to play the position. Some day you may be able to win with Weeden the same way you can win with Dalton, but that will require the perfect situation.
Fortunately for the Browns, they may not be too far from finding that supporting cast for their quarterback.
Ray Horton’s unit is stacked on defense, while Weeden plays behind probably the best combination of young starting offensive tackles in the league. Joe Thomas is a superstar blindside protector, while Mitchell Schwartz was one of the best rookies to play in the league over the past five years. With Alex Mack guiding the line from the center position, Weeden’s protection is in good hands.
With that protection in place, the Browns also put together a congruent and big-play-capable unit of receivers. Davone Bess arrived in a trade this off-season to fill the possession role and play some slot, while Josh Gordon proved all his doubters wrong when he showed off his explosion as a rookie last year. With Greg Little and Travis Benjamin continuing to develop, the Browns have plenty of gun powder even if Weeden is struggling to consistently light the match.
Throw in Trent Richardson and there will be times when Weeden won’t need to be a spark for the offense.
Pittsburgh Steelers-Defensive Line
I could choose a number of positions here, Marcus Gilbert’s translation to being a starting left tackle is worrisome, while Larry Foote has proven incapable of being a worthy three-down linebacker in today’s league. William Gay’s presence in the secondary is also going to be a real issue and Heath Miller’s injury makes for a depleted tight end group.
However, the most notable of all the Steelers’ weaknesses is most definitely on the defensive line. In the past Dick LeBeau had built much of his success on a strong defensive line who dominated blockers to open up lanes for blitzing linebackers. Whether it was Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke or Nick Eason, the Steelers could always rely on their defensive line to set the tone upfront and alleviate the pressure on those behind them.
Nowadays, that is not the case. When Von Oellhoffen left Pittsburgh, his natural replacement had been groomed to immediately fill his role. Keisel stepped in and immediately made the unit even stronger. However, when Aaron Smith’s career was prematurely brought to a close because of injuries, not only did Evander Hood fail to fill his shoes, but he’s still struggling to grab hold of the laces. Smith was a dominant player who wasn’t appreciated by the casual fan but whose importance was always promoted by the true experts of the game. Hood is the complete opposite.
A lack of statistical representation or understanding of LeBeau’s scheme led fans to overlook his importance in the past, but having learned from that lesson, many are now using those same excuses to promote Hood’s poor play as misunderstood. Hood has been nothing short of terrible since becoming a starter, but even more worrying is the fact that 2011 first round pick Cameron Heyward hasn’t replaced him as a starter or even taken away many of his snaps.
Heyward has less than 600 snaps in his two seasons on the field, while Hood had 800 last year alone. It’s not uncommon for Steelers’ rookies to sit down early in their careers, but it’s also not an excuse for earning so few snaps in such a terrible situation. Heyward is the heir apparent for Keisel who is going to be 35 early on during next year. Keisel’s play has gradually fallen off over the past few years, and while he can still be a solid part of the rotation, he shouldn’t be a starter.
Along with the defensive ends, the Steelers are ushering in a new era at nose tackle with Steve McLendon taking over the starting role for Casey Hampton. McLendon is an exciting player who was underused last year. He is a better fit for today’s passing era than Hampton ever was because of his pass-rushing ability. However, McLendon needs to prove that he can carry the load as a starter while backup Alameda Ta’amu needs to prove himself both on and off the field.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf