With the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft in the books, let's take a look at how teams from the AFC North - the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, and Pittsburgh Steelers - fared and give them some preliminary draft grades. You know what? There's still a lot of draft left - six rounds, to be exact - so let's call 'em progress reports instead. Take these home, have your parents sign them, and I'll see you kids on Monday.
Baltimore Ravens: B+. For the Ravens to acquire a talent like Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith as late as No. 27 is a minor miracle. If you look at the kid, you might guess he was a strong safety or a linebacker - he's that much of a physical specimen. Smith absolutely tore up the NFL Combine, notching a 4.42 40, a 10'3" broad jump, and 24 reps on the bench press. Those are some impressive numbers. And here's another one: last season, opposing collegiate quarterbacks completed only seven - seven! - passes against Smith in man coverage. Of course, he comes with some red flags, as he was arrested twice for minor possession during his time at Colorado, so some headaches could be on the horizon for Baltimore's coaching staff. The Ravens get a B+ for failing to finalize a trade with the Chicago Bears that would've landed them an additional draft choice or two in addition to Smith, who would've likely been on the board after they traded down to #29. That's a gaffe no team has committed since the Minnesota Vikings in 2003.
Cleveland Browns: A+. I'm very impressed with how Cleveland has handled the draft so far, although you have to gave a lot of that credit to the Atlanta Falcons and their unbridled love for Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. I won't get started on Jones - I'll just say that I think he's a fantastic talent and has some crazy upside, especially when you consider he'll be lining up opposite Roddy White, who just might be the best receiver in the game at the moment - but what the Falcons gave up for him (and what the Browns got) is pretty mind-boggling. Here's how the trade breaks down:
Falcons get No. 6 (Julio Jones)
Browns get No. 27, No. 59, No. 124, plus first- and fourth-rounders in 2012
That's just ridiculous value right there. Even if Cleveland was in love with someone to draft at No. 6, you have to think it would be hard to turn down such an absolute treasure of draft picks. The Browns eventually went on to package the No. 27 overall pick to the Kansas City Chiefs and pulled the trigger on the guy they wanted: Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who should anchor the team's defensive front for years to come.
If Cleveland sticks with a 3-4 scheme, Taylor, the only true nose tackle in this year's class, will prove to be an excellent pick. While he, like Smith, comes with some question marks about his character, the talent here is undeniable. His presence in the middle could go a long way in turning around a Browns defense that has been a sieve for years. And should they go through with the shift to a 4-3, as has been rumored, then they must think he has the speed and acceleration to be a 4-3 tackle, as well.
Cincinnati Bengals: A-. It's tough to find fault with the Bengals' selection of Georgia wide reciever A.J. Green here, especially since the only other player on the board with as much talent (LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson) plays a position that Cincinnati already has covered (with starters Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph). You only need to take a quick look at Green's highlight reel to see that he's NFL-ready. He has amazing body control, terrific hands, excellent route-running abilities, and perfect size. Basically, he's everything you could want in a receiver. No matter who's throwing the ball for the Bengals next year, they'll be happy to have Green on their side.
Pittsburgh Steelers: A-. I'm very pleased with the Steelers' selection of Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward. Everyone was clamoring about cornerbacks, but there are only three corners gone after one round. Meanwhile, defensive linemen have been selling like hotcakes, so it's unlikely that Pittsburgh would've been able to snag a five-technique of Heyward's caliber in the later rounds. That said, I have to wonder if the front office made any calls to see if they could move up and take Prince Amukamara, the Nebraska cornerback who surprisingly fell to the New York Giants at No. 19. I also wouldn't be surprised if in a few years we're all wondering what might have been if we had selected Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod, who went to the Green Bay Packers on the following pick, instead. Time will tell. In any case, Pittsburgh is to be commended for letting the draft come to them and securing the services of a player who can definitely help them.
Many mock drafts had Heyward projected quite a bit higher, but the unexpected run on quarterbacks early allowed him to fall into Pittsburgh's lap. (It also basically ensured that the Steelers wouldn't find a trading partner from the early second round who might be interested in jumping up to grab a signal-caller at the bottom of the first.)
With third-year man Ziggy Hood coming into his own and Heyward on the roster, Steelers fans can feel a little better about their talented but rapidly aging defensive line. All three starters - nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith - are well over 30 and quite prone to injury, particularly Smith. A successful 3-4 scheme depends on the big men up front eating up blockers, so it makes sense to plan for the future. Plus, the value was there, as Heyward is a solid prospect with ideal size. He sheds blocks well and can play in a two-gap scheme in Pittsburgh's base defense or as an end in dime packages.
That's all for now. Obviously, it was a strong showing from every team in the division so far. Check back with us throughout the day for coverage and analysis of the second and third rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft!