AFC North Roundtable: 2018 Post-Combine

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Jan 7, 2018; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) drops to throw a pass during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 7, 2018; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) drops to throw a pass during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In this week’s roundtable, the writers of Full Press AFC North will answer questions regarding each of the four teams at the outset of the 2018 free agency period. These writers include:

1.) Le’Veon Bell has yet to agree to a long-term extension with the Steelers. He’s currently on the franchise tag, and has agreed to play on it, but how do you think his situation is ultimately resolved? As a general manager, how valuable would you consider Bell, numerically speaking?

Hammel: Bell didn’t come this far to leave money on the table. He sees himself as a dynamic receiver at least as much as a dynamic runner, and he wants suitable compensation. He’s not bringing running back contracts to the negotiation – he’s bringing the recent extensions of DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans. Respectively, per Spotrac, those contracts carry an average value of $16.2 million and $16.5 million per year.

This isn’t something Bell will be talked down from – he sees himself as a pioneer for his position, not a mercenary. Is he likely to get that kind of money from someone? Absolutely. From anyone in Pittsburgh? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Now, as a general manager, would I be willing to pay Bell that kind of money? I suppose it depends on my situation. A front office with a quarterback on a rookie contract would have to be interested, especially if they’re already inclined to throw money around in free agency. Based on those guidelines, there’s a team in south Florida that could be an obvious match in 2019.

Justik: With Bell receiving the franchise tag once again, it’s hard to see them coming to a long-term agreement. The Steelers want to pay him like the best running back in the league, which he is. But Bell wants to be paid like that and also be valued as a receiver.

For a dynamic player like Bell, I would offer at least $15 million a year, with the max being around $17 million. I don’t see the Steelers ponying up that kind of money for him.

Andrew: I think the Steelers will work a deal out with Bell by the middle of the 2018 season. If I had to put an amount of money he’s worth, I’d say around $16.5 million due to his running and receiving abilities.

Hurley: The Steelers will use Le’Veon Bell as much as possible this season and let him walk in free agency next year. His 427 touches in 2017 rank 18th all-time for touches in a season. That came despite the Steelers easing Bell into action in Week 1 and deactivating him in Week 17.

The Steelers know that Bell’s market is out of whack, with Adrian Peterson’s previous contract setting his franchise tag standards. They also know that Bell has only finished one season fully healthy, and given the durability of running backs, the smartest business move is to use him as much as possible now and take the compensatory pick when he signs a mega-deal elsewhere later.

 

2.) Ryan Shazier won’t be available to play for the Steelers in 208, and his long-term future as an NFL player is uncertain. If you’re running the Steelers, how do you attempt to navigate his situation?

Hammel: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, right? The Steelers already had a need at inside linebacker with Shazier healthy, his indefinite/permanent absence simply exacerbates it. They already have a pick in prime inside-linebacker country, at the bottom of the first round. The Steelers have to pick a guy there, as well as scoop up a veteran in free agency. Worst case scenario, the unit has a new leader and functional depth at the position. Best case, they have two leaders and functional depth at the position.

Justik: With how serious an injury Shazier endured, there’s no reason that he should play in 2018. The Steelers need to consider his needs first and give him the time needed to fully recover from his injury. They should give him the best medical treatment that they can offer.

Shazier is one of the best linebackers in the league, and of course the Steelers would want to get him back on the field. But they need to make sure that he’s one-hundred percent healthy before playing him again in any capacity.

Andrew: If I was personally in the Steelers’ situation, my solution would be to draft a late-round linebacker and try to develop them. Then, if Shazier can’t play football anymore, you have a solid starter and can try to sign Shazier to a management role. Even if he doesn’t play, Shazier’s football IQ can be an asset to the Steelers.

Hurley: The Steelers have to hit the linebacker position in the draft and free agency. Sean Spence is not an NFL player, yet he had to start a playoff game for the team due to their lack of depth. The only true linebacker on the roster that they can trust moving forward is Vince Williams. Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort are special teams assets, and neither has to be retained.

Don’t be surprised if three new faces at the position are with the Steelers in training camp. At minimum, there’ll be two – one acquired via the draft, one via free agency.

 

3.) Every team enters the free agency period of the offseason with needs, but none seem to be as recurring and well-documented as the Ravens’ need at receiver. How should they address the position in 2018?

Hammel: I find it humorous that, after one year of playing in Baltimore, Jeremy Maclin has completely fallen off the NFL receiver map. He recorded 40 catches, 440 yards, and 3 touchdowns with the Ravens in 2017 after being a surprise offseason cut from the Chief’s roster. I’m honestly not sure whether the average NFL fan is aware that he’s still playing.

Maclin turns 30 in May, so whether or not he’ll bounce back is a fair question. Assuming he does, the depth chart behind him is still poor. Mike Wallace could walk; Breshad Perriman has done nothing. Donte Moncrief has been mentioned as a potential free agent pursuit – he’d be a worthwhile half-measure. They’ll still need to draft a dedicated possession/slot receiver, like Alabama’s Calvin Ridley or Maryland’s D.J. Moore. They’re not the outside burners that people so often want to provide Joe Flacco with, but at this point, they might represent a better path forward.

Justik: The Ravens have a solid spot in the first round of the draft. Calvin Ridley is considered to be the best receiver available, and his value is roughly around the middle of the first round. Slotting him in at 16 to the Ravens would make a lot of sense if he drops there. There’s also a solid group of receivers in the free agent market this year. Sammy Watkins could be an interesting pairing for Joe Flacco’s arm.

Andrew: This has to be the year that the Ravens go all-out to fix this huge need. They should land a decent receiver through a trade or free agency, grab one early in the draft (such as D.J. Moore or Calvin Ridley), and draft a late-round receiver as well.

Hurley: Like the Steelers at linebacker, the Ravens should hit the receiver position in free agency and the draft. There’s a decent chance that the Ravens will be picking at sixteenth overall with the entire receiver class still on the board.

D.J. Moore is the best receiver in the class and would be a great fit for the team. He’s a high-upside possession receiver, and it’s almost certain that he’ll be on the board when they select. If the team took him first overall and added a free agent such as Paul Richardson, Donte Moncrief, or Sammy Watkins, they could have a nice receiver tandem overnight.

 

4.) Even after the Browns’ trade for Tyrod Taylor, they’ll probably want to find another quarterback at the top of the draft. If you’re running the team, which one from this class is your guy? What’s your take on the team waiting until their pick at fourth overall to take a quarterback?

Hammel: Taylor’s presence changes the entire paradigm here. He’s not just a bridge – he led an unlikely playoff team in 2017, and he’s still only 28 years old. He doesn’t negate the Browns’ need for a quarterback, but he allows them to look at guys facing potentially longer development curves.

By that, I mean guys like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson – but specifically Allen. The Wyoming quarterback entered the draft process with a lot to prove, and by *most* accounts he was successful. His Senior Bowl reports were good. His combine was better. If a team puts any stock in those things, they should be enough to place Allen in their QB1 conversation. I think the flexibility that the Browns’ situation allows them should put him over the top.

As for waiting until fourth overall? No. We’ve seen that movie before in Cleveland, people won’t care that the front office is different if the result is the same. If they like a guy enough to take him that high, they’ll pull the trigger. They won’t let the competition dictate whether they get their first choice, and there’s no such thing as a 1B or a 1C. Professional decision-makers aren’t paid to be indecisive. John Dorsey and Elliott Wolf are professional decision-makers for a reason.

Justik: As of today, I’d say Sam Darnold should be the Browns’ top guy. He’s a very tough player with great leadership skills, and he can deliver throws into tight windows with anticipation. But, after the trade for Taylor, the Browns may want to draft a player similar to him. I could picture the Browns taking Baker Mayfield at fourth overall, as he has a more Taylor-esque play style.

With Taylor’s addition, the Browns have options at the top of the draft. I still believe drafting a quarterback first overall is the best decision, as Taylor should not be seen as the long-term answer. But Saquon Barkley has a very good case for being the first pick, with a quarterback following him at four.

Andrew: My guy for this draft class would be Sam Darnold. He has great ball placement, and can extend plays by moving around in the pocket. With the addition of Taylor, I think the Browns should wait to take a quarterback until the fourth pick. That way they can get Barkley, and even if they don’t get their dream quarterback they’ll still have Tyrod to rely on.

Hurley: Waiting until the fourth pick to take a quarterback makes no sense at all. If you like a quarterback enough to spend a top-five pick on him, take him first overall. Why allow 31 NFL teams the opportunity to take your franchise-altering leader when you have the chance to take him first? Where’s the logic?

The idea of ‘liking them all and letting one fall to you’ speaks to incompetence. You can’t decide that any are better than the others? Are there any decision-makers in the front office? You’d rather let your competition choose who the leader of your franchise moving forward is than make the decision first? That’s a scary thought.

The best fit and the highest-upside bet with the first overall pick should be Sam Darnold. The quickness in how he processes and reacts to the game is rare. He needs to work on his footwork, as it causes him to occasionally sail passes. However, in the position of spending a year or two behind Taylor, Darnold could certainly clean up his mechanics and hit his upside.

 

5.) Staying on that thought – Taylor was only one of three trades that Cleveland finalized this past Friday. To recap: they acquired Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins, Taylor from the Bills, and sent DeShone Kizer to the Packers in exchange for Damarious Randall. Without looking too far ahead, how much better did the Browns’ roster get on Friday?

Hammel: I threw jokes around that saying the Browns ‘will low-key get six wins’ was a misspelling of ‘will run the table’. On a more serious note, this isn’t a roster devoid of talent. Plugging a serviceable starter in at quarterback is enough to put their floor back at 4-12. Landry’s effectiveness can vary – too often in Miami his productivity didn’t match his high volume of work. Randall is fine, but might mean more to the Browns if he played free safety (which, I mean, he could).

Honestly though, even without the benefit of free agency and the draft, I don’t think 8-8 is beyond the reach of this group. Anything between 4-12 and 8-8 sounds reasonable. I certainly don’t think they’ll be picking first overall again in 2019.

Justik: It’s probably fair to say that the Browns won’t go winless in 2018. With just these moves being considered, they’ve created a solid offense that should be much better than last year’s, and they got a cornerback that [defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams can trust.

The Browns lacked a quarterback that took care of the ball last year, which led to drives being killed and a tired defense being repeatedly put on the field. They also didn’t have a receiver that could attack the middle of the field, which Landry thrives while doing. Randall is a cornerback that can create turnovers – an area in which the Browns were worst-in-the-league last season. These moves alone could get them four or five more wins.

Andrew: In my opinion, the Browns got a lot better. Their quarterback problem isn’t so bad now, their receiving corps is great, and their secondary won’t be easy to pass on. These moves showed me that John Dorsey wants success and will make big moves to secure victories for Cleveland – which I think they’ll finally get in 2018.

Hurley: You can say they got significantly better. However, ‘significantly better’ likely only takes them from zero to five wins. Taylor is a capable NFL starter, but he’s not going to turn the team around on his own. Landry is much better in fantasy football than reality, with the short depth of his targets and minimal yards after catch. Randall has had sky-highs accompanied with valley-lows.

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They added three quality NFL starters, and on a team without enough of those, that’s huge. Let’s not start the playoff campaign yet, though.

 

6.) A.J. McCarron filed a grievance with the NFL to enter the 2018 offseason as an unrestricted free agent, and won. It goes without saying that he won’t be returning to Cincinnati. With Cleveland ostensibly off the list of potential landing sites, where do you think McCarron winds up in 2018? How valuable do you think he is?

Hammel: If this were last year’s market, the NFL would be all over McCarron as a free agent. That said, this isn’t last year’s market. The league has a recency bias, and too many other available quarterbacks have looked too good, not long enough ago. Kirk Cousins will have one of the available starting jobs handed to him. McCarron probably fits somewhere between Teddy Bridgewater (high-upside but overall risky gamble) and Sam Bradford (exceptionally pitiful last exhibit) in the hierarchy.

McCarron will probably end up as an awkward third-wheel for a team like Miami, stuck in a quarterback competition with a better-established veteran and a rookie. He won’t win the job, but he might look good enough to become a third team’s actual backup by the end of training camp. He may ultimately bounce back to Cincinnati’s roster, if they don’t find a new veteran backup that they’re enamored with. Weirder sequences have happened.

Justik: With Cleveland out of the mix, it’s hard to find a fit for McCarron. He’ll likely have to wait and see where the top quarterbacks wind up, as teams will likely want to make deals with Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, and Teddy Bridgewater before him. One team that would make a lot of sense is Arizona. They don’t have a quarterback on their roster currently, and might want to sign a younger guy compared to the other veterans available.

Andrew: I see McCarron going to the Jets or Jaguars, landing a backup job with potential to be a starter. I don’t believe he’s played in enough games to show anything, but overall I don’t think McCarron will be too valuable to any team.

Hurley: McCarron reminds me of Nathan Peterman. In the meeting rooms, he probably sounds great. In practice, when he just has to make quick decisions, without a pass rush, you love him. Then, in reality, the game speeds up, and the questions about arm strength, processing, and precision accuracy come into play. Peterman threw so many interceptions in so little time last year because of low velocity. It so happens that McCarron’s velocity is similar.

McCarron started briefly on a playoff team with A.J. Green, Mohammed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, a strong one-two running back duo, and a top-ten offensive line. He was at home, facing a Steelers’ defense that was still rebuilding and without Le’Veon Bell. The starting cornerbacks he was facing were Brandon Boykin and Will Allen.

He completed 56 percent of his passes, averaged 5.1 yards per attempt, and took three sacks. It would be unfair to call his career after one start, but McCarron’s college tape flashed the upside of, at best, Matt Schaub. There’s no way I’m paying McCarron close to starter money. Probably not even high-end backup money, honestly – Nick Foles’ two-year, $11 million deal from last season seems way too rich for him.

That said, he was a ‘winner’ at Alabama, and he won two regular season games for the Bengals. Someone will probably give him Mike Glennon money. The NFL isn’t good at this.

 

7.) Going back to the NFL combine – who’s a player that you liked as a fit for your team, that improved their stock? Who’s another player that fell down, or off of, your board?

Hammel: There’s hometown bias here, but I really liked Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds heading into the combine. His performance there only helped his stock – he’s either the best or second-best linebacker in the class, depending on who you ask. The Bengals have other needs, but taking a linebacker at twelfth overall would be justifiable. Aside from Vontaze Burfict, their depth chart across the position isn’t exactly settled.

As far as a player hurting their stock? Orlando Brown is the obvious one. After having a hysterically bad combine, he went from being in the conversation for the Bengals at 12 to possibly dropping from the board entirely. It’s hard to believe that a player was simply that poorly prepared for the event – you almost have to wonder what else was going on.

Justik: One player that I think helped his stock is Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen. It looks like he’s cleaned up his footwork, which will help his accuracy be more consistent. Him throwing a 70-yard pass that the receiver could run right underneath was phenomenal to see.

After running a 4.67 40-yard dash coming off a mediocre 2017 season, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden has seen his value spiral downward after a solid 2016 season.

Andrew: I really liked Maryland receiver D.J. Moore, and after his combine, I think it’s safe to say that he drastically improved his stock. Someone who fell off my first-round board was offensive lineman Orlando Brown, who struggled immensely at the combine.

Hurley: I went from being intrigued with Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to assuming that 28 to the Steelers is the lowest that he’ll fall in the draft. He came in with the measurables of a rush linebacker, but moved like one who can play in coverage. His test results were actually scarily similar to T.J. Watt’s from a year ago. The versatility of both players, on the same defense, is a wild thought.

While it was nothing that he did, necessarily, I don’t think it’s likely that safety Ronnie Harrison will be a first-round pick for the Steelers. He’s popular in some mock drafts, but profiles similarly to Sean Davis and isn’t really a scheme fit. Justin Reid and Jessie Bates tested like first round athletes, and translate better to the Steelers’ needs. Hopefully, their names pop up more, and Harrison is left with a better fit.

 

8.) It seemed that the hottest prospect of them all coming out of the combine was UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin. At 6’1″ and 227 lbs., Griffin put up 20 reps on the bench press and ran the forty-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. Where do you think Griffin’s stock is, objectively speaking, and where would you want your team to take him? How would he fit with their defense?

Hammel: Given his size and speed, Griffin has a lot of what people would look for in a run-and-chase stack linebacker. A functioning left hand would obviously settle a lot of questions, but you have to wonder how much he’s really missing out. He’s taken criticism for suboptimal block shedding, but that’s been attributed to his frame and playing with poor balance. He can still cover a lot of ground and works well as a blitzer, which makes him an intriguing passing-down prospect. He’s taken snaps as a safety before – being a dime ‘backer isn’t out of the question. If nothing else, he’ll be fine on special teams.

The Bengals would have a place for him, certainly. As mentioned above regarding Edmunds, their linebacking corps isn’t exactly loaded with athletic marvels. They have an ample supply of Day 3 picks – I’d be alright with spending any of them on Griffin.

Justik: Griffin proved at the combine that he has the athleticism to play at the next level. But, because of his hand, his game will have obvious limitations. Teams aren’t going to want to spend a high-to-mid-round pick on a player that can only disengage from blocks with one hand. Disengaging from blocks in the NFL is going to be much different than doing so in college.

I would expect that the earliest he is picked is the fifth round, as a 3-4 outside linebacker. With the Browns running Gregg Williams’ 4-3 defense, he doesn’t fit their system.

Andrew: I think Griffin’s post-combine stock is late-second to late-third round. For the Ravens, I’d be comfortable with them drafting him in the third or fourth round. His role could involve helping to replace Terrell Suggs when he decides to retire.

Hurley: Admittedly, I have yet to get to Griffin’s tape, but the combine numbers suggest he’s an NFL player. There will obviously be ceiling limitations and questions about whether he can start, but at worst it seems as though he can be a long-term special teams player.

The Steelers have two picks in the fourth round and none in the fifth. I’d have no qualms with one of those picks being Griffin, depending on where he falls. He’s an instant special teams asset, who could potentially step in to start in a pinch as an off-ball linebacker. Given the Steelers’ need at linebacker, it would be foolish to brush him off.

 

9.) You’re the general manager of your respective team. What’s your agenda for Day 1 of free agency? How does it affect your plan for the following days and heading into the draft?

Hammel: I’d work to negotiate a deal with Tyler Eifert, then try to address the receiver position behind A.J. Green and John Ross. Dalton works best in the middle of the field – giving him reliable targets there should be a priority. Kicking the tires on Eric Decker sounds like something the Bengals would do. Paul Richardson, if we want to get really far out there. Offensive line looms as a greater need, but the market is even less inspiring there.

As for the draft, this should leave the Bengals with a singular first-round focus on the line. If Quenton Nelson doesn’t fall to 12, Connor Williams should. Other teams might consider moving up for one, given how many picks the Bengals have. It’s something that would cross my mind, for sure, although in reality I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Justik: The Browns attacked a lot of their biggest needs in free agency with their most recent trades. Given, I don’t believe that it dramatically alters their free agency plans, as the Browns need to add talent across the roster. Terrelle Pryor should be a cheap option, he’s had success under Hue Jackson and can build depth at receiver. The Browns need to build a better pass defense, and Bashaud Breeland could be a good fit. I don’t think that what the Browns do in free agency will change what they do at the top of the draft.

Andrew: My first-day free agency plan for the Ravens would involve signing a well-known, successful wide receiver. This would open up other possibilities for them early in the draft, such as any position aside from receiver.

Hurley: The first move is to find a linebacker. The first guys to look at will be Tennessee’s Avery Williamson and Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens. Washington’s Zach Brown could be an option, but he may have some off-field questions to work around. Chicago’s Willie Young could be a nice depth upgrade on the edge. If the market isn’t as intense as expected, San Francisco’s Eric Reid could be a great value addition as well.

 

10.) Finally, before free agency opens: give a quick first-round mock draft for all four AFC North teams. For reference – the Browns pick at 1 and 4, the Bengals at 12, the Ravens at 16, and the Steelers at 28.

Hammel:

  • Browns (1): Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
  • Browns (4): Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama
  • Bengals (12): Connor Williams, OT, Texas
  • Ravens (16): Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
  • Steelers (28): Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State

Justik:

  • Browns (1): Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
  • Browns (4): Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
  • Bengals (12): Connor Williams, OT, Texas
  • Ravens (16): Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
  • Steelers (28): Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State

Andrew:

  • Browns (1): Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
  • Browns (4): Sam Darnold, QB, USC
  • Bengals (12): Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA
  • Ravens (16): Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
  • Steelers (28): Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama

Hurley:

  • Browns (1): Sam Darnold, QB, USC
  • Browns (4): [Trade Down]
  • Bengals (12): Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
  • Ravens (16): D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland
  • Steelers (28): Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State

 

To follow the writers who contributed to this article:

Andy Hammel:

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Adrian Andrew:

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