- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
Free-agent signings and trades alter the landscape in terms of team needs and draft strategies every spring. Taking value over need is a lot easier when a team fills its most glaring weaknesses before draft weekend. On the other hand, organizations that fail to address their biggest needs are more likely to reach to fill them and have it backfire.
How has offseason movement affected the AFC North so far in 2013? Here's a look at how additions and subtractions could affect the draft plans of each team in the division.
With teams eager to acquire players with championship experience, it's tough for Super Bowl winners to keep their rosters intact. The Ravens kept QB Joe Flacco in the fold with a huge raise, but they were raided otherwise. Baltimore has seen FS Ed Reed, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, DC Cary Williams, OLB Paul Kruger and SS Bernard Pollard all sign elsewhere, while ILB Ray Lewis has retired and WR Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
They did sign LOLB Elvis Dumervil, DE Chris Canty and DE Marcus Spears, but that still leaves plenty of directions Baltimore could go early in the draft. It needs to strengthen the back seven on defense, but there won't be an inside linebacker or safety available worth the 32nd overall pick.
Notre Dame ILB Manti Te'o is a possibility, but do the Ravens have the defensive leadership to handle the off-field distractions Te'o could bring now that Lewis and Reed are no longer in the fold? The value at the safety won't be there, either. Taking a safety like LSU's Eric Reid in the second or an inside linebacker like North Carolina's Kevin Reddick in the third makes more sense.
If they wait to address the middle of the defense then they could take a receiver or an offensive tackle in the first. Jacoby Jones is a better fit as a No. 3 receiver than a No. 2, LOT Bryant McKinnie is an unrestricted free agent and Michael Oher appears more comfortable on the right than the left.
Receiver looks like the better option considering the expected run on offensive tackles in the first round, Oher's ability to play on the left and the possible return of McKinnie. With that in mind, Louisiana Tech WR Quinton Patton and Marshall WR Aaron Dobson are both capable of pushing for early playing time opposite No. 1 receiver Torrey Smith.
It will also be interesting to see who Baltimore takes with the sixth-round pick acquired in the Boldin trade. Missouri Western's David Bass is a name worth tossing out there. The Ravens could stand to add depth at outside linebacker and Bass has the potential to succeed in this scheme. He's an effective hand fighter rushing the passer, and he's athletic enough to hold up in underneath coverage.
The Bengals went 10-6 last season and are looking to take the next step, and franchising DE Michael Johnson helps. On the other hand, the Bengals have lost more than they have gained, with SLB Manny Lawson signing with Buffalo and DT Pat Sims signing with Oakland. The most notable new addition is backup QB Josh Johnson.
Cincinnati surrendered 46 sacks and finished 18th in rushing yards last season, so addressing the offensive line makes sense. LOT Andrew Whitworth is 31 years old and ROT Andre Smith is an unrestricted free agent who could re-sign, but if Smith doesn't return then Alabama's D.J. Fluker and Florida State's Menelik Watson are candidates at pick No. 21.
Even if Smith returns, look for the Bengals to add depth on Day 3, which could make Ohio State's Reid Fragel an option in the middle rounds. Fragel moved from tight end to tackle in 2012 and has the potential to develop into a starter if he can continue to hone his craft. If the Bengals don't target a tackle early and Alabama OG Chance Warmack or North Carolina OG Jonathan Cooper fall far enough, either could be an option. After all, Travelle Wharton is 31 years old and he missed the 2012 season with a torn ACL.
Improving the offensive line in the first shouldn't prevent the Bengals from finding good value fits at running back and outside linebacker, either. One possibility is landing Clemson RB Andre Ellington and South Carolina SLB Devonte Holloman on Day 2. Ellington's burst and ability to contribute on third down make him a good complement to bruiser BenJarvus Green-Ellis, while Holloman is an instinctive run defender who can match up with tight ends in coverage and is a good fit on the strong side.
The Browns poached an effective pass-rusher from the Ravens in Kruger, and further bolstered depth at outside linebacker by signing Quentin Groves. Cleveland did lose TE Ben Watson to the Saints, but also brought in Kellen Davis and Gary Barnidge. In addition, free-agent signing Desmond Bryant is a good fit at defensive end in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 defense, which softens the loss of Frostee Rucker to Arizona.
Corner is a position to keep an eye on. Sheldon Brown is an unrestricted free agent and there are still quality players like Brent Grimes on the market. Signing a free agent appears to be the right move, because taking any corner other than Alabama's Dee Milliner would be a reach at No. 6 overall, and the Browns don't have a second-round pick.
Taking West Virginia QB Geno Smith and giving new offensive coordinator Norv Turner a quarterback he can mold (assuming they are not high on 29-year-old Brandon Weeden) would seem like an interesting option. Texas S Kenny Vaccaro is another option, but he might be a reach at No. 6, too. The ideal scenario is to trade back and get Vaccaro, but he is an immediate starter who can match up in coverage, stuff the run and play the ball effectively.
The loss of PK Phil Dawson to San Francisco shouldn't be overlooked, either. Dawson had been with the Browns since 1999 and is coming off the best season of his 14-year career. Chances are Cleveland signs a free agent to replace him, especially considering that the Browns have only six draft picks. However, there are a couple of kickers worth considering on Day 3 in Florida State's Dustin Hopkins and Florida's Caleb Sturgis.
The loss of WR Mike Wallace to Miami hurts, but it came as no surprise. Losing restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders would be a tougher pill to swallow, and Sanders has until April 19 to sign an offer sheet with another team so the situation at receiver is fluid.
The losses of CB Keenan Lewis, OG Willie Colon, RB Rashard Mendenhall and OLB James Harrison don't help, either. Meanwhile, the signing of William Gay helps ease the loss of Lewis but he shouldn't be considered an upgrade. Plus, free-agent additions TE Matt Spaeth and QB Bruce Gradkowski are strictly depth players.
If the Steelers draft a receiver in the first round for the first time since taking Santonio Holmes in 2006, they could go with Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson. There are questions about Patterson's lack of high-level experience, but his big-play ability combined with QB Ben Roethlisberger's ability to improvise and extend plays would make the Pittsburgh passing attack that much tougher to defend.
Taking a corner makes more sense, though. Ike Taylor turns 33 in a month and Gay isn't a long-term solution, but Florida State's Xavier Rhodes has the length and speed to excel in the Steelers' scheme. If they land Rhodes in the first, they could then target a receiver like Baylor's Terrance Williams or USC's Robert Woods in the second.
Pittsburgh also needs to improve its depth at safety, where 31-year-old Troy Polamalu is having a hard time staying healthy and 33-year-old Ryan Clark would appear to be over the hill. The good news for the Steelers is that the safety class is deep and projected third-round picks like Georgia teammates Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams could prove to be steals.
Steve Muench looks at how offseason moves could affect AFC North draft plans, including the many holes the Ravens need to fill.