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Key NFL Draft Picks To Fill AFC North Offensive, Defensive Holes

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By Tony Meale

The 2013 NFL Draft will take place this week, so let’s take a look at which holes each team in the AFC North needs to fill to have a successful draft.

Baltimore Ravens

The last time we saw the Ravens on a football field, they won the Super Bowl.

This year’s rendition, however, will have a slightly different look due to several offseason transactions – some surprising, some not.

Ray Lewis and Matt Birk retired, and the Ravens released, traded or opted not to re-sign Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin and Dannell Ellerbe, among others, creating immediate needs at linebacker, safety and wide receiver.

To be fair, the Ravens plugged some of these holes by signing Chris Canty, Marcus Spears and, perhaps most importantly, Elvis Dumervil – acquisitions that should provide a more-than-capable pass rush.

Still, Baltimore’s 32nd overall pick will likely be defensive. LSU inside linebacker Kevin Minter and Florida free safety Matt Elam are the top options that could be available, while Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o would likely be snatched up should he fall this far.

Offensively, losing Boldin will hurt more than people think. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are electric, but Boldin’s toughness and clutch-ness – the guy had four touchdowns in the postseason – will be missed. Elon’s Aaron Mellette, a big and physical receiver, would be an ideal replacement for Boldin. Mellette had 1,100+ yards in each of his last three seasons at Elon, including 1,398 yards – to go with 18 touchdowns – in 2012. He is someone Baltimore could target later in the draft. If the Ravens opt for a wideout in the first round, though, Keenan Allen and Robert Woods are two possibilities.

2013 NFL Mock Draft – First Round Picks Here

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals didn’t make any blockbuster moves this offseason, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, they locked in several key defensive players, including end Michael Johnson, linebacker Rey Maualuga and corners Adam Jones and Terence Newman. Losing outside linebacker Manny Lawson to the Bills certainly hurts but is by no means back-breaking, especially if the Bengals are able to sign James Harrison or Karlos Dansby.

Cincinnati, which picks 21st overall, has three options: 1) add depth to a defense that carried the team to a 10-6 record, 2) add a playmaker to an offense that, outside of A.J. Green, is remarkably pedestrian, or 3) find a replacement at offensive tackle if the team is unable to re-sign Andre Smith. Depending on which route the Bengals go, the top options at each turn, respectively, are Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant, California wideout Keenan Allen and Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker. Trufant would bring youth to an aging secondary, Allen is explosive and Fluker, well, Fluker played for Alabama.

Bottom line: The Bengals have made the playoffs in three of the last four years – this after missing the playoffs in 17 of the previous 18 seasons. Overall, the team is young and hungry – but getting to the playoffs is no longer enough. Actually winning a playoff game, which the franchise hasn’t done since 1990, will be the barometer of success in 2013.

2013 NFL Mock Draft – First Round Picks Here

Cleveland Browns

The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002 and have finished with five wins or fewer in each of the last five seasons.

In other words, Cleveland fans have every reason to be pessimistic about the franchise; still, while improvements have been modest, the Browns do appear headed in the right direction. Consider this:

In 2011, the Browns scored 20+ points in a game just twice all season and scored 14 or fewer in 10 of their last 13 games; they finished 4-12.

In 2012, with rookie Brandon Weeden under center, the Browns started 0-5 before going 5-6 in their final 11 games. Included among their losses were one-possession setbacks against Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis – all of which made the playoffs.

In short, Cleveland is getting better, and the addition of first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski – considered one of the top offensive minds in the game – should only help.

Unfortunately for the Browns, they have just six draft picks, including two in the top 100. After picking sixth overall, they won’t select again until Pick 68.

While Chudzinski is known for his offense, expect the Browns to get defensive with that sixth pick. The top options figure to be Alabama’s Dee Milliner and Georgia’s Jarvis Jones. Both are solid playmakers, but Milliner would be preferable, as Cleveland finished 25th in pass defense last season.

Also, don’t be surprised if Cleveland selects a quarterback late in the draft, but Weeden should get at least one year to see what he can do under Chudzinski.

2013 NFL Mock Draft – First Round Picks Here

Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time in a long time, the Steelers will enter a season as an underdog – yes, an underdog – in the AFC North. James Harrison and Mike Wallace are gone, tailback was a revolving door last year and there are once again major question marks along the offensive line.

The Steelers, who pick 17th, will likely enter the draft with a “hopefully this guy falls” mindset. Among those guys are North Carolina offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin.

Jones and Austin would likely be the top options; Jones is a complete player who would fill the void left by Harrison, and Austin is a touchdown waiting to happen. Cooper would be a great value pick, but the Steelers have used high draft picks on offensive linemen in recent years – think David DeCastro and Mike Adams – so it might be best to go a different route and hope DeCastro and Adams develop.

Looking at tailback, Jonathan Dwyer took some by surprise last year, but his bruising style is perfect for a franchise that, historically, has prided itself on tough, between-the-tackles running. Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell is another back who fits this mold and should be targeted as such in the middle rounds.

All in all, the Steelers have enough to contend for a division title, but in won’t be a cakewalk. They have to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright, find consistency in the backfield and fill some big-name holes on an aging defense.

In short, the mystique is still there, but relative to recent years, it’s not what it once was.

More:

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Cincinnati-based sportswriter Tony Meale is the author of The Chosen Ones: The Team That Beat LeBron and contributes to several outlets, including MLB.com and MaxPreps. He has a master’s in journalism from Ohio University and is available for guest-speaking engagements. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale.

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