I took a little hiatus from dumping on your favorite teams. In truth, I had to. There comes a point where espousing opinions becomes the same old nonsense. Although the subjects are often varied, the latest piece sounds just like the last piece, and the piece before that. When an author is bored silly by his own material, it’s truly time for said author to take a break and reassess his focus and direction.
That’s not to say that I’ve stayed away from the sporting world. I’ve remained focused on baseball, basketball, a smidge of hockey, skiing trials, golf…really, whatever happened to cross the airwaves at the same time that I did. And I most certainly stayed in touch with football.
I watched, with no small amount of derision, Peyton Manning’s tearful farewell speech, and snickered at the endless speculation about where he might be placing his genitalia these days. I’ve paid attention to player movement, including the latest forays into free agency. I have a rough idea, without consulting the headlines, who’s been franchise-tagged. I certainly know the status of every team’s quarterback…or lack thereof. Sadly, I’m very aware of every motion that Johnny Manziel has made since his ouster from Cleveland, up to and including yesterday’s indictment for assault. I know that the Rams have unceremoniously moved to Los Angeles, and that they’ve mortgaged the short-term future of any success they might have had by trading up to the first pick in this Thursday’s draft. Likewise for the Eagles, who seem determined to apply some sort of emotional antiseptic to every part of their organization that deposed coach Chip Kelly may have touched, even inadvertently, in trading up to the second pick.
And I followed the draft coverage. Every ridiculous, hackneyed, ill-conceived mock draft that’s been posted on a popular sports site has been the subject of my perusal, even the seven-round, I-must-confess-to-no-life variety that some folks have actually deemed valid.
What’s jumped out at me most, although this year is certainly no different, is how repetitive it all is.
Every year, the same basic template unfolds. The top five picks, barring overwhelming, often crippling trades, are usually inhabited by the neediest teams by virtue of subpar records. Those teams are usually in search of quarterbacks and left tackles – arguably the two most important positions on any team, as the latter is generally needed to support the former in any successful offense. In deference to those teams that are generally more well stocked and sensing that they’re “just that one piece away”, we invariably will see one or two teams trade a fortune in draft picks and cash, mortgaging their current future for either a chance at a better future (see: 2016 Rams) or a win-now-or-bust scenario (see: 2012 Washington team). The names and teams change, although not often enough as some fans would prefer, and the general drama plays out in an eerily perpetual loop. It’s almost predictable in an unwholesome way.
But I still watch. I still wait to see if a top-billed quarterback will pout his way to a location other than his originally-drafted city. I still count the ever-increasing number of picks that are gone before the first running back is chosen, wistfully remembering that running backs used to be as much of a cornerstone to a successful team as left tackles are. I try to earmark the busts before they’ve ever taken a snap. There’s still intrigue, which, I suppose, is what drags us back every Sunday in the fall. We don’t know the outcome, and we’re usually guaranteed a surprise, even if it just makes us lift an eyebrow at a referee’s poor call…or a team’s questionable pick.
That said, here’s my spin on the AFC North’s impending draft needs and what each team can do to effectively fill them early.
Oy. The Browns’ draft has been “done to death”, as is colloquial to say in these parts. Courtesy of some shrewd maneuvering (or blind luck), the Browns hold twelve picks, including seven in the first four rounds. As the Browns have many needs, including some they didn’t have at season’s end, it’s very tough to gauge their direction, particularly with their first pick at #8. Recent speculation points to Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, while many traditionalists have indicated a desire to build the offensive or defensive lines in accordance with the “build from the inside out” theory of team construction. Still others have advocated trading even further down to garner another 1-2 early round picks, pointing to a cupboard that may indeed be that bare. In short, who knows? Your guess is undoubtedly better than mine. That said…
My take at #8: Notre Dame T/G Ronnie Stanley
I’m one of those traditionalists. The simple truth, cliche as it sounds, it that a team can never have enough quality offensive linemen. It makes absolutely no difference who’s playing quarterback if he’s going to be routinely chased out of his comfort zone, and investing in Stanley now gives them a year to develop him into a solid piece to prevent that sort of thing. Stanley is a boring, steady, unspectacular pick, which means he might be precisely what the Browns need, and then some.
Second choice: Mississippi WR LaQuon Treadwell. Don’t laugh – ANY receiver would be welcome. And I think Treadwell’s going to be a very good one.
Simply put, the Ravens are at a crossroads. There are other ways to mortgage a team’s future, and their practice of deft drafting to fill holes vacated by departing/unsigned/cut veterans is only effective if the drafting has been..well…deft. Aside from the 2014 addition of linebacker C.J. Mosley, general manager Ozzie Newsome has been considerably less effective than in his glory years of accomplishing that. The recent failures of safety Matt Elam and wideout Breshad Perriman dictate that Newsome must get this one right or doom the franchise to spending several years wandering the NFL’s figurative desert, possibly without Newsome himself. The Ravens aren’t short on needs, but at #6, there are limited options to fill them directly, so the Ravens may opt for the “best player available”, which isn’t unfamiliar to Ravens fans.
My take at #6: Oregon DT/DE DeForest Buckner
The more I read up on Buckner, the more convinced I am that he’s the lone player that might – might be available at #6 that can provide immediate help. Buckner is long, mean-spirited, and by all reports is fully capable of Pro Bowl-level play immediately, with many scouts calling him the best defensive player in the draft and one with historic potential. While the defensive line is mostly solid, a true star at any position never hurts.
Second choice – UCLA LB Myles Jack. Needs bulk, but speed and intensity are always welcome.
Picking at #24 is usually dicey, as it indicates that a team has few glaring weaknesses, and in the case of the Bengals, nothing immediately presents itself except perhaps a lack of depth at wide receiver, and some expanding holes along the defensive line. Head coach Marvin Lewis has also been a proponent of the “best player available” approach, which has generally served him well in sporting one of the deeper rosters in the NFL. Mock drafts have been all over the landscape, including wild speculation that the Bengals might consider trading out of the first round entirely, so it’s safe to say that no one really knows what the Bengals will do…including the Bengals themselves until they see what’s available come Thursday night.
My take at #24: Alabama DT Jarran Reed
Reed is a solid prospect that can easily step in and immediately improve upon the production of the fading Domata Peko, who may be lucky to survive another training camp. This isn’t a matter of finding a star, because the Bengals don’t really need one. They need a gap-filler with longevity, and Reed fits that description perfectly.
Second choice – TCU WR Josh Doctson. Any WR pickup will thrive opposite A.J. Green, but Doctson will provide much more than that.
The Steelers, despite picking at #25, most assuredly have needs, and every fan can certainly elaborate on them. Secondary is clearly their largest deficit area, as the Steelers are lacking at safety and cornerback, and have been following the decline and retirements of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. The Steelers have been cycling through the NFL’s castoffs and bargain players to remedy this, even going so far as trading a fifth-round pick in the coming draft to Philadelphia for now-former cornerback Brandon Boykin, who inexplicably saw little of the field in 2015, where any contributions he would have made would have surely been welcome. The fact that last year’s second round choice, cornerback Senquez Golson, spent last season on injured reserve does little to change anything; most scouts see Golson as a third corner regardless, working primarily from the slot.
My pick at #25: Houston CB William Jackson III
Jackson has the length, speed, and coverage ability to play, possibly week one. By all reports, he needs to build his strength to handle some of the bigger wideouts he’ll face, but his knowledge of routes and pass anticipation make him an excellent pickup here. If Golson returns healthy and able to contribute, the Steelers may have some real cornerstones – finally – in the defensive backfield.
Second choice – WVU S Karl Joseph. Elite talent that may have to work slowly back in due to injury, but enormous potential overall.