Safe or Surprise Draft: AFC North
As the 2013 NFL Draft approaches, we’re laying out both the safest and riskiest route that teams might take with their first selection. Read them all.
First pick: Round 1, No. 32 overall
The Safe Route: Kevin Minter, LB, LSU
Free agency took the Ravens’ defense on a wild roller-coaster ride, with six starters ditching town. GM Ozzie Newsome landed a handful of players to replace them, including Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty.
But Newsome did not find anyone to take over for either Ray Lewis or Dannell Ellerbe — the current plan is to roll with Jameel McClain and Albert McClellan in their spots. That may be well and good, but another talented tackler will be needed. There’s a decent chance one of Minter or Manti Te’o will be on the board when Baltimore sends its pick to the podium.
The Surprise: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson both received restricted free-agent tenders this offseason, meaning they could hit the market in 2013. And the Ravens traded away Anquan Boldin, raising the importance of having a versatile tight end to use in the slot.
Ertz is just that. While not quite the blocker that Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert is, the 6-foot-6 Ertz could be a well-used weapon in an NFL passing game. Ertz and Pitta together on passing downs would be lethal for opposing defenses, and the Ravens might be able to move Dickson for an additional pick.
First pick: Round 1, No. 21 overall
The Safe Route: Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
The Bengals’ starting three-man linebacking corps for 2013, if the season were to open today, likely would be Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and Aaron Maybin. While Burfict was one of the surprises of the 2012 season, those other two names leave room for improvement — specifically in Maybin’s case.
Drafting Ogletree would, at the very least, force Maybin to beat out the rookie for a starting gig (and the guess here is that the athletic Ogletree would win).
The Surprise: Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State
My colleague, Don Banks, pitched this idea in his Mock Draft 4.0, mentioning Watson as a possibility should Andre Smith sign elsewhere. He might be even more in play if Smith re-signs, because Watson likely will need at least a season to harness his very raw potential and convert it to an NFL-ready game.
The Bengals enjoyed a sensational 2012 draft, which turned up for them several starters (plus Burfict, as an undrafted free agent). That young nucleus would allow them to swing more readily for the fences with a pick like this.
First pick: Round 1, No. 6 overall
The Safe Route: Ziggy Ansah, DE/OLB, BYU or Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
This one’s pretty simple — the Browns are moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4, putting a premium on outside playmakers. Though they signed Paul Kruger (and, to a much lesser extent, Quentin Groves) and bring back Jabaal Sheard, it would be hard to pass on a potentially elite talent like Ansah or Jordan.
The Surprise: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
If you ignore where the Browns are drafting in Round 1, this “surprise” selection is easy to comprehend, too. They spent their 2012 first-rounders on QB Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson, and used this year’s second-rounder to take WR Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft.
Those all were important stepping stones to building a dynamic offense (especially if you have any faith in Weeden), but the Browns cannot stop there. And they really cannot stop at wide receiver, though Gordon and Greg Little combined for 103 catches in 2012.
That unit remains lacking when it comes to pure talent. Which is why Patterson, perhaps the most exciting wide receiver prospect in this draft, could force Cleveland to gamble at No. 6. Patterson is still in his infancy as a route-runner, so he may not dominate from the get-go. Once he picks up the more technical aspects of his position, though, the Browns could have themselves a legit No. 1 receiver.
First pick: Round 1, No. 17 overall
The Safe Route: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State or Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
This is a tough spot to predict, because so many different things could happen in the first half of Round 1. It’s also tricky because the Steelers could address, in theory, just about any position save for quarterback here.
But let’s keep the focus on the secondary. Both Rhodes and Vaccaro may be gone by pick No. 17 (and I’d put money on Vaccaro being off the board). The Pittsburgh defense would benefit should either make it that deep into Round 1.
Believe it or not, the Steelers finished No. 1 in the league in passing yards allowed last season; they also picked off just 10 passes, so an aggressive corner like Rhodes would help.
And in Vaccaro’s case, it’s clear that Troy Polamalu’s days as a game-changing safety are over. Pittsburgh needs some youth there.
The Surprise: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
The tight end is a huge part of Pittsburgh’s offense, and Heath Miller has been integral in both the run and pass games. A devastating knee injury late last year has Miller’s 2013 season in doubt, however, and the roster options behind him (Matt Spaeth, David Paulson) are relatively unappealing.
Eifert is sturdy enough as a blocker to stay in and help protect Ben Roethlisberger. Perhaps more importantly, he is a proven pass-catcher — Eifert could replace Miller’s production, while adding much more of a downfield threat to a Steelers offense that’s thin at wide receiver.