The rough-and-rugged AFC North is home to three teams (the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers) with physical outfits on both sides of the ball. The Cleveland Browns have closed the gap in recent years, though they still remain a few steps behind their rivals in terms of both talent and toughness. This pecking order has been largely defined by draft performance, causing coaches and scouts to spend inordinate amounts of time studying prospects to identify ideal fits for their respective teams. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have certainly gotten it right, with each winning a Super Bowl title over the past five seasons; the pressure is on Cincinnati and Cleveland to make their mark.
AFC North notables
Some draft picks just seem tailor-made for their new teams. Jones falls into this category, as his game ideally suits the Steelers' zone-blitz scheme. An explosive edge rusher with exceptional first-step quickness and burst, Jones wreaks havoc off the edges against the run and pass. From strip-sacks to game-changing tackles for loss, Jones has a penchant for disruption that perfectly fits the mold of Pittsburgh linebackers.
It was not a surprise to see Bernard land with the Bengals, based on the love affair between Cincy's offensive coaching staff and the running back at North Carolina's Pro Day. But it was a bit surprising that the former UNC standout was the first running back chosen after many declared Eddie Lacy to be the top dog at the position. Cincinnati believes Bernard is a better fit for its offense, though, due to his unique skills as a runner and receiver. Bernard thrives as the feature guy in a one-back set, which will enable the Bengals to run their "11" (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and "12" (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) personnel packages to maximize their explosive collection of players on the perimeter. The Bengals are on the verge of contending for the AFC crown; the addition of Bernard could push them over the top in 2013.
The Ravens lost an iconic leader and disruptive playmaker in the middle when Ray Lewis decided to hang 'em up. While Brown lacks the loquaciousness of his predecessor, he certainly possesses the athleticism and instincts to match Lewis' productivity as the designated playmaker in the middle. Brown thrived in that role at Kansas State. The rookie's deployment behind a stellar front line (led by Haloti Ngata) should enhance his opportunity to make plays between the tackles.
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Wheaton is poised to make a major impact on the Steelers' passing game as a vertical threat. Not only will he fill the void created by Mike Wallace's departure, he could surpass his predecessor's production and effectiveness, due to his polished overall game. In offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system, route runners are coveted at a premium, and Wheaton's ability to get open against any coverage could quickly make him Ben Roethlisberger's top target in Pittsburgh.
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BALTIMORE RAVENS: Credit general manager Ozzie Newsome for his thorough understanding of his team and the draft board. He simply lets the board work in his favor and selects the right players to fill the team's biggest needs at the right value. Safety Matt Elam replaces Bernard Pollard as the designated tough guy in the back end, bringing better ball skills and awareness. Brown, a plug-and-play starter at inside linebacker, has the athleticism to rack up gaudy production as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. Tackle Brandon Williams and end John Simon add depth to an already imposing defensive front. GRADE: B
CINCINNATI BENGALS: It's no coincidence that the Bengals have emerged as perennial playoff contenders in recent years, given that they've strung together a series of productive drafts. This year's draft was no exception, with Cincinnati adding explosive playmakers in Tyler Eifert and Bernard to an offense brimming with talent. Defensively-speaking, coach Marvin Lewis scooped up a few intriguing pieces in end Margus Hunt, safety Shawn Williams and linebacker Sean Porter. Those three might start the season in backup roles, but their collective talent upgrades the depth of the defense and gives coordinator Mike Zimmer options for exotic sub-package looks. With the Bengals stacking another solid class on top of an already loaded roster, Cincinnati is in position to be a legitimate contender in the AFC for years to come. GRADE: A
CLEVELAND BROWNS: The mismanagement of draft picks by the previous administration left the Browns lacking ammunition with which to improve their roster. However, the team landed a pair of potential impact defenders in pass rusher Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Leon McFadden. Mingo in particular is an athletic freak with the speed and quickness to create disruption off the edge. Now, he is not polished as a rusher at this point, but his overall athleticism could shine in defensive coordinator Ray Horton's aggressive scheme. McFadden is a potential starter with a balanced skill set that will enable the Browns to use press or off coverage on the perimeter. GRADE: C
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: The Steelers have long favored substance over sizzle on draft day. This has been the draft philosophy of the franchise since Chuck Noll roamed the sidelines, and it continues under the direction of GM Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers grabbed one of the most productive pass rushers in the draft in Jones. He dominated SEC competition over the past two seasons, displaying a knack for getting to quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield, particularly in big moments. Jones' disruptive game is reminiscent of former Steeler James Harrison, which makes him a viable candidate to start as an edge player. Le'Veon Bell is a big back with quick feet and outstanding instincts. Additionally, he is a natural pass catcher with the receiving skills to play a prominent role in the pass game. Wheaton is a more polished version of Wallace on the perimeter. He might be the star of this Pittsburgh class when the draft is revisited in a few years. GRADE: A-