The battle for AFC North supremacy traditionally hinges on defense. Last season, the Bengals claimed the division crown behind the NFL's third-ranked D. To gain ground on the reigning division champions, the Browns, Ravens and Steelers invested first-round picks on disruptive defenders. Unfortunately for them, the Bengals also went this route on Thursday night. In this rough and rugged division, stocking the defensive lineup with young, athletic specimens is a top priority for everyone.
AFC North notables
Mosley is a rare three-down inside linebacker capable of staying on the field in every situation. He displays the instincts and awareness to excel against the run while also showing the athleticism and cover skills to be a factor on passing downs. Additionally, Mosley is a sneaky blitzer with a knack for getting home when it counts. With the Ravens' preference for utilizing a variety of fronts and coverages, Mosley's versatility could make him a star in an ultra-aggressive scheme.
It didn't surprise many observers that the Bengals selected a developmental QB prospect, but few draftniks expected McCarron to still be on the board in the fifth round. Exhibiting a superb management style that will translate well to the pro game, McCarron won 90 percent of his starts at Alabama, leading the Crimson Tide to a pair of BCS National Championships in the process. Although his cocky attitude reportedly rubbed some personnel executives the wrong way, the fact that he played in a pro-style system -- one that featured a host of two-back sets and play-action passes -- makes him a perfect fit in Hue Jackson's offense. This pick could provide the Bengals with a solid backup plan, should Andy Dalton fail to establish himself as a true "face of the franchise."
After watching West run roughshod over FCS opponents (2,519 yards and 41 touchdowns on the ground last fall, both FCS records) with a punishing style that's ideally suited for the pro game, several running back coaches around the league touted the Towson standout as the best pure runner in the draft. Although some character concerns depressed his final draft grade, West is a blue-chip talent with the potential to blossom into a Pro Bowl-caliber runner in Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-based system.
Note: Click on team names to see complete draft classes.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: General manager Ozzie Newsome, who has a keen understanding of how to work a draft board, consistently nabs blue-chip players at every stage of the draft. He rarely reaches for players, yet consistently lands top talents by displaying patience and savvy on draft day. The wizard knocked it out of the park again last week with the selections of Mosley, DT Timmy Jernigan and FS Terrence Brooks within the draft's first 80 picks. Although neither Mosley nor Jernigan appear to fill a pressing need, both possess the kind of raw ability that Newsome often just refuses to pass up. Brooks gives the Ravens' secondary a swift ball hawk in the middle of the field, someone who nicely complements hard-hitting 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam. On the offensive side of the ball, Crockett Gillmore joins a talented cast of players at tight end -- a vital position in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's attack. Gillmore was one of the stars of the college all-star circuit. GRADE: B
CINCINNATI BENGALS:Marvin Lewis has quietly built one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. In a story by colleague Albert Breer that ran in February, Lewis discussed how his philosophy has evolved when it comes to taking chances on talented prospects with character concerns: "You gotta be sure he's gonna mature into the right person." This is certainly pertinent to the subject of second-round pick Jeremy Hill. The talented running back, who's been arrested twice in the past three years, sent a letter to all 32 teams during the pre-draft process expressing that such transgressions are behind him. If he can indeed stay on the straight and narrow, the bruising back could prove to be the perfect backfield complement to electric playmaker Giovani Bernard. Meanwhile, first-round pick Darqueze Dennard enters the league with impeccable character. The stud cover corner also boasts a gritty demeanor that fits the Bengals' defensive personality. Third-rounder Will Clarke is a sneaky edge rusher poised to eventually slide into the spot vacated by free-agent departee Michael Johnson. And McCarron, as mentioned above, could be an intriguing fallback option at quarterback down the road. GRADE: B+
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CLEVELAND BROWNS: First-year GM Ray Farmer wants to build a deep team capable of withstanding injuries and extended absences from key players. Heading into the draft, he wanted to stock the lineup with ultra-talented players who relish the opportunity to compete for playing time. Reviewing his initial draft class, it's safe to say Farmer achieved this goal. Of course, the selection of quarterback Johnny Manziel has received the bulk of the attention. But to me, it was Farmer's ability to maneuver up and down the draft board and acquire three top-tier talents (CB Justin Gilbert, OL Joel Bitonio and Manziel) that stood out the most. Gilbert should quickly establish himself as a starter, while Manziel and Bitonio will push hard to get on the field ASAP. Throw in West as a potential feature back, and it's clear the Browns left Radio City Music Hall with a fine prospect haul -- as well as a boatload of extra ammunition for the 2015 NFL Draft. GRADE: A-
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: In the past, the Steelers ruled the roost in the AFC North by leaning on a dominating defense fueled by an aggressive front seven. But advancing age and numerous injuries have weakened the unit over the past few seasons, forcing GM Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin to focus their efforts on adding young, dynamic defenders to the mix. The early selections of LB Ryan Shazier and DE Stephon Tuitt hammered that point home over draft weekend. Shazier is a disruptive defender capable of playing anywhere on the second level, while Tuitt is an ideal 5-technique with a game that reminds some of former Pro Bowler Richard Seymour. On offense, the additions of RB Dri Archer and WR Martavis Bryant make the unit more explosive on the perimeter. Archer will give Ben Roethlisberger a Darren Sproles-like target out of the backfield, while Bryant is a big-bodied pass catcher Big Ben can target in the red zone. GRADE: B+