AFC North 2020 Draft synopsis

May 9, 2020

As usual in today’s NFL, the biggest question in this division revolves around the QB position. Can Rookie JOE BURROW turn around the recently sinking prospects of the Bengals? Will BAKER MAYFIELD rebound from a sophomore slump season under the new coaching regime of KEVIN STEFANSKI? Will the Ravens continue their reign atop the division under the leadership of  young budding superstar QB LAMAR JACKSON? And finally, will BIG BEN come back from his injury ruined 2019 season to flash his old form for a few more years of Play-Off runs? We’ll attack those questions by looking at what the Draft did to bolster each teams overall talent level and biggest needs.

BALTIMORE RAVENS     The emergence of JACKSON at QB was a huge boost to the Ravens Offense, but the magic ran out in the Play-Offs. The off-season has been plagued with retirements and Cap induced roster purging, so as usual, this team will rely on immediate contributions from their Draft. Their LB unit has taken some major hits in the past two off-seasons. Accordingly, the team used two Top 100 Picks to bring in some highly regarded collegiate players. Their first Pick at #28 was PATRICK QUEEN from National Champ LSU. QUEEN came on like gangbusters in his only year as a full-time starter for The Bayou Bengals. QUEEN recorded 85 Tackles in 2019, which included 12 TFL, 2 PBU’s, 1 INT, 1 sack, and 1 FR. He’s a tad underweight @ 229 by old standards, but that size allows him to run a 4.51/40 which will help him stay on the field in passing downs. It’s all upside with QUEEN, who should start for them as the season progresses, if not immediately. On the other side of the coin, the team grabbed Ohio State defensive leader MALIK HARRISON, a more traditional sized ILB at 6’3/246. But even HARRISON ran a 4.64/40 at the Combine and showed very well at the Senior Bowl. In a short zone area, he can handle most TE’s and RB’s coming over the short middle of the field in coverage. He’s very strong and relishes the chase of the ball. Both of these guys look like solid additions that should play early, which is what the team needs this season. This team still wants to run the ball to control the clock, and adding another Buckeye in Round 2 named J.K. DOBBINS will surely add depth and strength to their RB group. DOBBINS runs inside or out with 4.46/40 speed. He gained 2,003 yards at 6.7 ypc last season, including 21 TD’s. He can also catch a bit. The team also continued to reshape its WR group with two slot specialists; DEVIN DUVERNAY of Texas and JAMES PROCHE of SMU. Both players caught over 100 balls for their teams last season. DUVERNAY is an absolute speedster with a 4.39/40-time. He runs like a RB after the catch with his 5’11/205 frame. Both players have some Return Game in their resumes. The team also drafted two OG prospects as they try to replace perennial Pro Bowler MARSHALL YANDA, who has retired. BEN BREDESON in Round 4 is the bully-boy from Michigan that needs to upgrade his pass-pro, but punishes defenders in the run game. TYRE PHILLIPS was a college OT, but is more likely to slide inside. His 5.53/40-time tells you all you need to know about his limitations at an OT against speed edge-rushers at the pro level. The team is reworking its DL this year and Round 3 Pick JUSTIN MADUBUIKE, Texas A&M, is the man to watch. He combines power with quickness and may provide inside pocket pressure. He’s likely to share time at DT, which might allow them to move VFA signee DEREK WOLFE outside. 5th Rounder BRODERICK WASHINGTON from Texas Tech is also an inside DT prospect. He plays with power and has a non-stop motor. An interesting Pick in Round 7 was GENO STONE, an undersized S from Iowa at 5’10/207. He lacks speed (4.59/40), but is a high FBI player who should make a very good Special Teams addition, and we all know how important that is to HC JOHN HARBAUGH. It’s a solid group with some variety to it, but their first 5 Picks have got to produce this season for them to support the magic of QB JACKSON!

CINCINNATI  BENGALS     It’s all about QB JOE BURROW for this team. He was amazingly dominant last season for LSU, but he won’t find that kind of supporting cast in Cincinnati. BURROW has a high FBI and really blossomed last season under Co-OC JOE BRADY, who is now the OC for the Panthers. A healthy, and happy A.J. GREEN is critical for BURROW to succeed right away. And for better, or worse, the team cut loose ANDY DALTON, so they must sink or swim with BURROW. No pressure big JOE. Their Second Round Pick of Clemson’s TEE HIGGINS will also loom large in BURROW’s success, or failure, as a Rookie. HIGGINS is a big play, long legged (6’4), long armed (34 1/8″) receiver that can break it deep once he gets his legs stretched out. His 40-time of 4.56 seconds is deceptive, as he gains gains momentum and speed in the open field. The team also has done very little to improve protection for BURROW with their OL. Their only draftee up front was HAKEEM ADENIJI, a sound, tough guy from Kansas, but he’s likely to play inside at OG at only 6’4 and 302 lbs. They are hoping that they get a bonus, and last year’s First Rounder JONAH WILLIAMS/OT/Alabama will be healthy after missing his entire Rookie season to injury. In Round 5, they got Notre Dame’s KHALID KAREEM to bolster their edge-rush from the DE slot. He was a team Captain for the Fighting Irish, and despite only 5.5 sacks last season, he was credited with 11 QBH’s. He also had 3 FF’s. He’s a 5th Rounder that will help their DL rotation. Their best work overall may have come from their 3 LB Picks in Rounds 3, 4, and 7 respectively. LOGAN WILSON, AKEEM DAVIS-GAITHER AND MARKUS BAILEY may comprise their starting LB group in a year or two. WILSON is a smart inside thumper, who recorded 105 tackles last season for Wyoming. That’s 3 straight seasons of 100+ tackles. He seems likely to start immediately. DAVIS-GAITHERS, from App State, recorded his second straight year of over 100 tackles in 2019, with 104 stops. He also recorded 1 INT and 8 PBU’s, and is a solid coverage LB who can be a 3-down player. BAILEY lost most of his 2019 season to a knee injury, and is best stopping the run, with some pass-rush thrown in for good measure. In a healthy 2018 season, he had 115 tackles. He may not be 100% healthy for 2020, however, his workout videos recently looked pretty impressive. This team is probably the bottom feeder in the division, but BURROW might provide some light at the end of the tunnel.

CLEVELAND BROWNS     New coaching and management changes are a major reason for optimism in the Dawg Pound. Then again, everyone was psyched up last year at this time under the previous regime. New GM ANDREW BERRY and new Head Coach KEVIN STEFANSKI had a plan heading into the 2020 Draft, and it looks to have worked out pretty well, on paper. After signing VFA JACK CONKLIN to play RT for them, the team then drafted JEDRICK WILLS/Alabama in Round 1 to play at LT. WILLS wasn’t the most talented of the elite 4 OT’s in this Draft, but many felt strongly that he and ANDREW THOMAS were the most pro ready of the group. BAKER MAYFIELD has to be much more comfortable preparing for game day with these two at OT protecting him, compared to last year’s group. In Round 5, the team selected undersized, but crafty, OC/NICK HARRIS from Washington. He’s not challenging J.C. TRETTER for the starting OC job right now, but he likely upgrades the depth chart. HARRIS is a 4-year college starter that has played some OG as well. The season ending injury to TE DAVID NJOKU last season exposed the weakness of their TE group. So they fixed that by signing VFA AUSTIN HOOPER, and in Round 4 selected TE HARRISON BRYANT From Florida Atlantic. BRYANT was the John Mackey Award winner as college football’s top TE in 2019. He’s a serious downfield weapon, and has become a better blocker each year in his college career. He’s not a true inline TE, but he has become a willing blocker. He showed his all-around talents very well in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. He caught 65 passes for just over 1,000-yards last season at FAU. Their final Pick in Round 6 was Michigan receiver and return man, DONOVAN PEOPLES-JONES. He’s not a deep threat, but he runs well after the catch. He’s a good route runner that should get even better. He has 10 1/8″ hands and 33 1/2″ arms, which give him a very wide target area for his QB to throw to. He has shown an ability to find spots to sit down in, or run to, to help his QB when the pocket breaks down. He can also sky for the ball, as evidenced by his 44.5″ vertical jump at the Combine. Yes, the team did make some picks to help their Defense, as well. S GRANT DELPIT/LSU was their Pick in Round 2. He should make a serious upgrade as part of the group replacing the RANDALL/BURNETT Safety combo from 2019. IMO, he was unfairly downgraded coming off of a 2019 season in which he played through a high ankle sprain almost the entire season. Instead of getting kudos for playing through the injury, he was criticized for sub-standard play. Even with the injury, he had 65 tackles, 7 PBU’s, and 2 INT’s last season. When healthy, he has the tools to start in the NFL. Like just about everyone else, the Browns scouting personnel loved what they saw on the LSU roster. Late in Round 3, with a Compensatory Pick, the team snagged LB JACOB PHILLIPS. PHILLIPS led the LSU team in tackles in 2019, playing Inside LB. He has nice size at 6’3/230, and ran a 4.65/40 at the Combine. He wasn’t asked to do a whole lot in coverage at LSU, and that needs to be addressed to determine how much time he spends on the field on passing downs. He’ll likely start out his pro career as a backup player, but will see plenty of playing time on Special Teams coverage units. Shortly before taking PHILLIPS, the team selected DT JORDAN ELLIOTT from Missouri. ELLIOTT is a mobile defender who can penetrate, and flashes above average talent and ability. His 5.02/40 time from the Combine shows his athleticism. Against the run game, he’s a catcher inside, but has the speed to run down plays out wide. I’m sure that they see him as a rotation guy that is especially suited for passing downs. He needs to get stronger and develop more punch from his 10 1/4″ hands. This is a solid group, with a few guys with long term starting potential. WILLS and DELPIT are the guys they need to push for starting jobs right away.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS     The team battled to an 8-8 record last season and hung in there for a Play-Off spot until the bitter end, despite playing without QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER for all of 14 games. The cautious optimism currently says that he’ll be back healthy for 2020. The team had no First Round Pick this Draft, but they aren’t complaining. That Pick went to Miami for disgruntled DB MINKAH FITZPATRICK last season, just shy of the trading deadline. MINKAH was NOT unhappy in Pittsburgh, and they loved his impact plays in their secondary. In Round 2, the team grabbed massive WR CHASE CLAYPOOL from Notre Dame. CLAYPOOL showed up at the Combine in Indy measuring 6’4/238. Media speculation was that teams would look at him as a possible TE, especially given the relatively weak TE group for this Draft. Then when testing began, CLAYPOOL ran a 4.40/40. End of TE talk! CLAYPOOL needs to polish some of his route running and work on his explosion off the snap. However, he looks like a big time weapon. He is also an absolute ace on Special Teams, handling Gunner chores. In a pretty pedestrian Notre Dame Offense, he led the team in catches with 66, for just over 1,000-yards and 13 TD’s. He should make an awesome Red Zone threat. In Round 4, the team augmented their RB group with the selection of big play threat ANTHONY McFARLAND from Maryland, who gained over a thousand yards as a RS Frosh. Explosive and elusive describe him best. He’s short at 5’8, but not small at 209 lbs. He should make a great change of pace option from JAMES CONNER, their No. 1 RB. The team needed some Interior OL help with the retirement of OG RAMON FOSTER and the loss of top back-up B.J. FINNEY in VFA. They drafted a favorite of mine in Round 4 by the name of KEVIN DOTSON/OG/La-Lafayette. DOTSON is a text book OG at 6’4/310, and 4-year starter for the Rajin’ Cajuns. He has 33″ long arms and 10 1/2″ hands. He’s powerful leading the running game, either inside or out. He will need work in pass-pro, but the coaches will probably ask vet OC MAURKICE POUNCEY to help him out there whenever possible. Coach TOMLIN likes to redshirt Rookies, but DOTSON may force his way onto the field. Long term, I see him as a starter for them. Their other 3 Picks were on the defensive side of the ball. Early in Round 3, the team selected Charlotte’s DE/OB/ER ALEX HIGHSMITH. If you don’t think that he has the talent to pressure the QB off the edge, then please note that HIGHSMITH was second only to CHASE YOUNG with 21.5 TFL, including 14 sacks in 2019. He will play standing up, and his 33 1/8″ arm length and 4.69/40-time, plus explosion off the snap, will translate into pro edge-rush production. He’s probably just a role player as a rusher for the Steelers as a Rookie. In Round 6, the team grabbed Maryland DB ANTOINE BROOKS, who was a 3-year starter for the Terps, and may be a poor man’s DARNELL SAVAGE, his former S-mate. He has flaws in coverage, but is excellent in-the-box. He has good quickness breaking to the ball in coverage, but will struggle with deep coverage. He had 87 tackles last season, and should step right into coverage units on Special Teams. And finally, in Round 7, the team took CARLOS DAVIS/DT/Nebraska. He’s the twin brother of KHALIL DAVIS, who went to the Bucs in Round 6. CARLOS ran a 4.78/40 at the Combine, where he measured 6’2/314 and Bench Pressed 27 reps. He played multiple spots in the Nebraska DL rotation. He may have the same job as a pro. Given his athleticism perhaps he can be coached up for a more productive role as a pro. Look for him to help a group of guys replace the VFA departure of JAVON HARGRAVE on the Nose. I like this Draft for its overall, functional talent and diversity.

Long term, the biggest impact from the Draft in this division needs to be JOE BURROW in Cincinnati. However, his total impact will likely not be felt for a couple of seasons with another good Draft or two. For immediate impact, I will take the BROWNS for shoring up their biggest need areas at OT and S, with WILLS and DELPIT. If those two start right away, it’s a Home Run. Every team in this group used the 2020 Draft to good advantage.