As coaches and general managers prepare to make potentially franchise-altering decisions in the 2015 NFL Draft, now is the perfect time to look back and see how the choices made last year played out on the field. Bucky Brooks is reviewing and grading each team's rookie class from 2014, as well as highlighting what organizations should hone in on at this month's NFL Scouting Combine -- continuing with the AFC North below. CLICK HERE FOR THE OTHER DIVISIONAL BREAKDOWNS.
The Ravens are lauded in NFL circles for their ability to identify and develop blue-chip players. General manager Ozzie Newsome is viewed as one of the premier player evaluators in the business; his keen eye for talent has helped the Ravens consistently land Pro Bowl-caliber guys in the early stages of the draft. The wily personnel man knocked it out of the park again in 2014 with the selections of ILB C.J. Mosley and DL Timmy Jernigan. Both players were key contributors as rookies, and their play earned high marks from executives around the league. Mosley finished a close second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting and already ranks as one of the top players at his position. Tight end Crockett Gillmore and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro cracked the rotation. Safety Terrence Brooks was a bit of a disappointment, but the Ravens' exotic scheming can tax the mind of a young defender in Year 1. Grade: B+
Combine focus: The Ravens are solid along the offensive and defensive lines, but need to continue adding skill players on the perimeter. On offense, the team needs a speed receiver to complement (or replace, should he leave in free agency) Torrey Smith. Ohio State's Devin Smith and Miami's Phillip Dorsett could intrigue Baltimore. Or Ravens decision-makers could cast their eyes on a sleeper prospect like Tyler Lockett, who could serve as a multipurpose threat. Defensively, a long, rangy corner like LSU's Jalen Collins, Michigan State's Trae Waynes or Washington's Marcus Peters could be in play.
The Bengals have quietly assembled one of the league's most talented rosters under Marvin Lewis. The grassroots approach is certainly paying off with four straight playoff berths, highlighted by a division title in 2013. While critics take Lewis to task for his playoff failures -- Cincy has not won a postseason game under his direction -- the naysayers must remain quiet when examining the performance of his recent draftees. Jeremy Hill immediately cracked the running back rotation as the big-bodied bruiser in the backfield. He served as the perfect complement to Giovani Bernard and keyed the team's solid offensive play down the stretch, rushing for 929 of his 1,124 yards in the final nine weeks of the season. Russell Bodine was a surprise starter at center, but his solid play helped the Bengals handle some of the gritty defensive lines that dot the AFC North. Darqueze Dennard failed to work his way into a veteran-laden secondary, but the tough cover corner could make a major push for time in Year 2. Grade: B
Combine focus: It's time for the Bengals to find a successor to Andrew Whitworth on the edge. The veteran has been a steady player and leader for the team, but a young, franchise-caliber tackle is needed to keep the offense humming down the road. Stanford's Andrus Peat, LSU's La'el Collins, Pittsburgh's T.J. Clemmings and Miami's Ereck Flowers could spend ample time in the Bengals' interview suite detailing their work ethic and mental approach. Depending on who provides the best impression in the meeting room -- and, of course, on the field -- one of those guys could be donning a striped helmet at the beginning of the 2015 campaign.
The excitement over Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert seems like a distant memory now, after watching the young duo struggle with maturity, judgment and performance in Year 1. The rumors of missed meetings and consistent tardiness aren't surprising, considering the highly disappointing play from the Browns' two first-rounders. Although rookies are expected to struggle somewhat in their transition to the pro game, the lack of professionalism and preparation leads to questions about whether either player will ever fulfill his potential in Cleveland. Hopefully, Manziel's decision to enter a treatment facility this offseason allows him to get his life together and set his priorities straight. On the bright side, the Browns landed a potential star in linebacker Chris Kirksey. The former Iowa standout made a ton of plays on the interior and flashes the speed, athleticism and thump to be a dominant force between the tackles. Joel Bitonio is the real deal at offensive guard; his insertion into the lineup gave the Browns one of the best offensive lines in football. With the success of Isaiah Crowell, Taylor Gabriel and K'Waun Williams highlighting the Browns' undrafted free-agent haul, general manager Ray Farmer should be able to weather the storm of criticism surrounding the team at this point. Grade: B-
Combine focus:The continuing disappointment of the Josh Gordon experiment should prompt the Browns to take a long, hard look at the wide receiver class. This year's group features several WR1 candidates (Alabama's Amari Cooper, West Virginia's Kevin White and Louisville's DeVante Parker) at the top of the board, but there are a number of sleeper candidates (including ECU's Justin Hardy and Auburn's Sammie Coates) who could warrant first-round consideration by the end of the process. Of course, the quarterback position will draw a lot of attention, but the lack of star power outside of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston could prevent Cleveland from seriously investigating the class.
The Steelers went after explosive athletes with speed, quickness and exceptional playmaking skills in the 2014 draft. Pittsburgh added a freakish athlete in LB Ryan Shazier and an explosive offensive weapon in Dri Archer, but neither provided the spark that many anticipated on draft day. Although injuries and schematic transition impacted Shazier's contribution, the Steelers need their first-round pick to step it up in Year 2 and help the defense return to the ranks of the elite. Stephon Tuitt is a blue-collar worker on the defensive line with the strength, power and athleticism to make splash plays against the run or pass. Martavis Bryant came on like gangbusters during the middle of the season as the Steelers' vertical threat. He could play a huge role in the offense in 2015 as the designated WR3 on the outside. Grade: B
Combine on NFL Network
In advance of the draft, Marcus Mariota and others will look to showcase their skills at the combine (Feb. 17-23), only on NFL Network. SCHEDULE
Combine focus: With Ike Taylor hitting free agency and Troy Polamalu facing an uncertain future in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin will spend a lot of time checking out the defensive backs in Indy. The Steelers rarely invest in the secondary in the first round, but it's conceivable the team could take extended looks at second-tier cornerbacks like Stanford's Alex Carter, Florida State's P.J. Williams and Quinten Rollins out of Miami (Ohio) -- all of them have the length to play "Steelers football" on the perimeter. At safety, Louisville's Gerod Holliman and Virginia's Anthony Harris will get plenty of attention from Tomlin. Both are natural ballhawks with exceptional skills, but Tomlin needs to determine if they possess the size, toughness and grit needed to play for Pittsburgh.