BALTIMORE: Ravens offense moves closer to ''undefendable' through draft
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Eric DeCosta wanted to make Baltimore’s impressive offense even better. “Undefendable,” the general manager said.
Then he went to work in the NFL draft.
Over the course of three days, DeCosta added several key pieces to a unit that led the league in scoring and rushing yardage last season.
Baltimore snagged Ohio State star running back J.K. Dobbins, wide receivers Devin Duvernay of Texas and James Proche of SMU (who can also return punts) and a pair of offensive linemen who hope to ease the sting of eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda’s retirement in March.
DeCosta didn't ignore the defense. He secured LSU linebacker Patrick Queen in the first round and Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison with the 98th overall pick. Either or both could fill the hole in the middle of the defense.
The Ravens also drafted a pair of defensive tackles, an extension of DeCosta's mission this offseason to improve Baltimore's run defense.
“We always want to be as strong as we can be on the offensive and defensive lines,” DeCosta said. “It’s important to us to control the line of scrimmage and be a physical football team.”
And finally, after making a trade that enabled him to get Proche in the sixth round, DeCosta selected Iowa safety Geno Stone with the 219th pick and Baltimore's 10th overall.
HOLD THAT LINE
Dobbins and Duvernay are playmakers, but coach John Harbaugh was just as pleased about getting some extra blocking in front of slick-footed quarterback Lamar Jackson. Before the draft, the coach said, “We’ve got to make sure that we do a great job of making sure the interior offensive line is all set."
Third-round pick Tyre Phillips of Mississippi State is a 6-foot-5, 331-pound tackle who could easily make the shift to guard, much like Jonathan Ogden did as a rookie in 1996. Ogden, of course, ultimately became a Hall of Fame left tackle.
Drafted Saturday in the fourth round, Ben Bredeson played guard at Michigan under Harbaugh's brother Jim, and has the ability to play center.
STOP THE RUN
The Ravens allowed 4.4 yards per carry last season before Derrick Henry ran for 195 yards for Tennessee in Baltimore's playoff defeat.
In an effort to improve that shortcoming, DeCosta got Calais Campbell in a trade with Jacksonville and signed free agent Derek Wolfe before continuing the process in the draft.
Justin Madubuike, a third-round pick from Texas A&M, will likely get plenty of playing time. The Ravens are looking for the same from fifth-round selection Broderick Washington Jr. of Texas Tech.
DEPTH AT RB
The Ravens did well utilizing the running back tandem of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill last year. So why nab Dobbins in the second round?
Because he was there.
“We didn’t anticipate it. We just had to take him," DeCosta said. “He’s just a talented guy and it made too much sense to take him.”
Dobbins ran for an Ohio State-record 2,003 yards in 2019.
LACKING THE EDGE
The Ravens emerge from the draft still looking for a strong pass rusher off the edge.
“You're always going to have a hole that stays open," DeCosta said. “We'll continue to try to fill those holes."
Madubuike has the potential to help.
“He did have sacks (5 1/2 in each of the past two years)," Harbaugh noted. “He had tons of pressures and tons of quarterback hits. He chased quarterbacks down and stuff like that."
Harbaugh was delighted with the technical aspect of the NFL's first virtual draft.
“I thought it went great. I give our IT guys all the credit in the world," he said. “It was perfect."
DeCosta felt that preparing for a draft without any visits from players, Pro Days or 1-on-1 interviews was a refreshing change.
“It was like an old-school, throwback draft," DeCosta said. “Sometimes you can get so much information that you over-analyze a little bit. So from that standpoint it was really easy to get prepared for this draft because we just sat in front of our machines and watched as much tape as we could. There's kind of a beauty to that whole process."
-- By David Ginsburg, AP
PITTSBURGH: Steelers focus on seniors in draft
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers love to pick younger players. A little more raw material. A little less tread on the tires. In this year's draft, not so much.
While general manager Kevin Colbert stressed it was coincidental that the Steelers used five of their six picks on seniors, if there ever was a spring to tilt toward prospects with an extra year of seasoning, this might be it.
Neither Colbert nor head coach Mike Tomlin — or the rest of the NFL for that matter — knows how things will shake out over the next few months, with the U.S. among the hardest-hit countries in the global coronavirus pandemic. Adjusting from college to the pros can be difficult during a normal offseason. And there is nothing normal about this one.
Still, Colbert insisted the decision to take wide receiver Chase Claypool, linebacker Alex Highsmith, offensive lineman Kevin Dotson, safety Antoine Brooks and defensive tackle Carlos Davis — all of whom are on pace to graduate by the end of the summer — was based on their potential, not necessarily their experience.
“It’s just the way it broke for us this year,” Colbert said Saturday. “We're very comfortable with that. We always try to catch them younger because they’re a little fresher. The senior usually comes in at a different maturity level because he finished school or he’s close to finishing school. ... We had no plan to do that.”
Maybe, but it could have its ancillary benefits as the Steelers prepare for the NFL's first-ever “virtual” offseason. The team has no clue when it will have a chance to bring its draft picks, rookie free agents and other first-year players in for a closer look. It's not something Colbert or Tomlin feel will become an issue with the group Pittsburgh has added to a team that has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
“It’s going to be challenging, but you know my mentality,” Tomlin said. “It’s going to be challenging for everyone globally. From that standpoint it’s fair.”
Claypool, selected 49th overall out of Notre Dame, provides Ben Roethlisberger the kind of big red-zone target at wide receiver the team has lacked since Martavis Bryant's rocky tenure ended after the 2017 season. He comes with size (6-foot-4 and 238 pounds), speed (a 4.42 time in the 40-yard dash) and a tenacity born from having to prove to his Fighting Irish teammates that kids from Canada can play.
“Not a lot of guys give that respect right off the bat as you can imagine,” said Claypool, who is from Abbotsford, British Columbia. “So, the respect was kind of earned for me, and that was through tough, physical play and just being competitive.”
LET'S GET PHYSICAL
Claypool isn't the only draft pick who attracted the Steelers because of his willingness to mix it up.
“Physicality is a brand of ball that we want to play regardless of position," Tomlin said. "We believe it’s an asset to victory for us.”
Highsmith morphed from walk-on to havoc-wreaking defensive end at Charlotte. Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. — the lone underclassman — played most of his redshirt sophomore season at Maryland on a sprained ankle that limited his effectiveness. Dotson, who played guard at Louisiana, is so confident he would tell opponents the play call in an attempt to demoralize them.
“If I tell you the play and you still can’t stop it, it hurts you way more,” the 6-4, 310-pound Dotson said.
Brooks was a two-way starter growing up in Maryland before a compound leg fracture and a broken wrist — suffered on the same play in high school — led him to contemplate stepping away from the game. He opted to go forward strictly as a safety and at 5-11 and 220 pounds will give defensive coordinator Keith Butler plenty of options.
Davis, who played alongside twin brother Khalil at Nebraska, opened Tomlin's eyes by running a 4.79 40 at 313 pounds. The Steelers need somebody who can plug the middle at nose tackle after Javon Hargrave left in free agency, though Davis figures to be a bit of a project.
Then again, Davis and the rest of Pittsburgh's incoming class could have a lot of time on their hands.
Dotson is fine if he has to wait a little while longer to get to Pittsburgh. At least it means he can put one of his old jobs — as a bouncer — in the rearview mirror.
Asked if anyone ever actually challenged him when he asked them to leave, Dotson laughed.
“I did a lot of preemptive type things,” he said. “Just walking around the club, got to keep that mean look on your face just to keep people from doing stuff. I did everything so I didn’t have to. I did a few times, but if you do it enough, people know not to do anything.”
-- By Will Graves, AP
CLEVELAND: Browns young GM sticks to NFL draft plan like "seasoned vet"
CLEVELAND — Andrew Berry’s draft debut as Browns general manager was undeniably unique and ultimately unforgettable. It’s way too early to know if it was successful.
It already seems smart.
The NFL's youngest GM stuck to his plan and addressed Cleveland's most pressing needs in this stay-at-home draft, which gave everyone a peek at Commissioner Roger Goodell's basement and provided sports fans a much-needed respite from weeks of being quarantined because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
This was Berry's first draft with final authority over which players would be picked. He had previously been a part of draft rooms in Cleveland and Philadelphia, but this time it was all in Berry's hands and Browns rookie coach Kevin Stefanski was impressed with how his boss handled things.
“I was very impressed with how he operated,” Stefanski said. "He knew when to have everybody be very quiet and he knew when to take input. He looked like a seasoned vet to me.”
Berry suppressed the urge to make a major move in the first round and landed Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills with the No. 10 overall pick. There were other options, but Berry stayed true to his board — he claimed the Browns had Williams ranked atop a talented class of tackles — and now has a protector for quarterback Baker Mayfield's blind side.
Wills' selection underscores a strong connection between Berry and Stefanski, who share Ivy League backgrounds and vision for how the Browns should be built. It hasn't always been that way in Cleveland, where power struggles have been the norm.
Maybe those days are finally over.
“We have a ways to go,” Stefanski said. "We are definitely not where we want to be, but I am appreciative of the group we have been able to put together to this point.”
Berry said his working relationship with Stefanski bodes well for the Browns.
“I love working with Kevin," he said. ”His insight, his calmness, his intelligence, it really does not matter the situation that we are dealing with, and certainly his presence is more than appreciated over the course of the last few days, going through the draft. I really could not ask for a better partner, really in any situation and I am really pleased with how our first drafts has gone as a group.”
If there was a thread connecting Berry's picks it was pedigree.
He added Wills, from one of the best programs in the country, along with a pair of LSU standouts — safety Grant Delpit and linebacker Jacob Phillips, who helped the Tigers win a national championship last season.
Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant was voted the nation's best at that position, Washington center Nick Harris was voted his team's most inspirational player and Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones has been on the radar of NFL scouts since high school.
The Browns concluded the draft Saturday with three picks, returning to the offensive side after taking three defensive players Friday.
The first brought a smile to Stefanski as Cleveland selected Bryant in the fourth round. Bryant is certain to get plenty of playing time under Stefanski, who prefers two-tight-end formations.
“The more we have in the room, the merrier,” Stefanski said.
With the No. 160 pick, the Browns selected the versatile Harris and then concluded their picks by taking Peoples-Jones, a player who didn't fulfill high expectations in college and could have a significant role in Cleveland.
“There is a lot this kid can do,” Stefanski said. “Then, it is going to be a matter of him showing it to us.”
The Browns showed some southern bias.
Cleveland's first four selections all came from the SEC, college football's best conference. After Wills, the Browns selected LSU safety Grant Delpit, Missouri defensive tackle Jordan Elliott and LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips.
And while Berry and Stefanski insisted the run of SEC players was more coincidence than planned, the coach acknowledged it's a bonus to get players accustomed to the big stage.
“We did not go into this saying, ‘Let’s only draft SEC players,’" Stefanski said. "Now, if you are only going to draft from one league, it probably would make sense to draft from that league. I can tell you, though, when you are watching these guys, the lights are bright in that conference and to see the guys perform under those types of elements certainly does not hurt in evaluation.”
There's more star power than ever in the AFC North.
With top pick Joe Burrow now Cincinnati's quarterback, and Lamar Jackson, the NFL's reigning MVP running loose in Baltimore, the Browns are going to have their hands full for years to come.
Berry said he didn't base any of his decisions on moves by the Ravens, Bengals — or Pittsburgh Steelers.
“We are not going to build our team or build our defense just with those two players in mind, but we understand the challenges we face moving forward against two very talented young quarterbacks,” he said.
The 2021 draft is scheduled to be held in downtown Cleveland, but the uncertainty about mass gatherings — as well as the success of this year's virtual undertaking — could alter the league's plans.
The Browns currently have 10 picks next year after acquiring a third-round pick from Indianapolis on Friday.
-- By Tom Withers, AP
CINCINNATI: Two-win Bengals break with past, seek fresh start in draft
CINCINNATI — The Bengals promoted Zac Taylor's hiring as a “New Dey” in franchise history, but his first season was as bad as it's been — a 2-14 record and team-record 11 straight losses. Year Two will bring something new.
New quarterback. New receiver. New generation of Bengals getting a chance to break free of futility.
During the three days of the NFL draft, Cincinnati loaded up on players who can replace aging stars in the next couple of years and take the franchise in a different direction.
“I feel like we're starting something new,” said offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji, taken in the sixth round. “I think in a few years here you're going to see the tide's turned. I think we're going to be a team that shocks somebody.”
For now, they'll be a team that's at least interesting.
The previous time the Bengals had such a notable draft overhaul was 2011, when they brought in Andy Dalton to replace Carson Palmer and added receiver A.J. Green.
The Andy-to-A.J. combo led Cincinnati to five straight playoff appearances, all of them ending in first-round losses.
Picking at the start of each round this weekend, the Bengals zeroed in on players who were leaders on top college teams.
“You're not just trying to win games, you're trying to win championships,” Taylor said. “So ultimately you've got to be thinking long term with the people you have to have that championship mindset and are willing to work harder than any other team in the league. We just feel we've added the right people.”
The changes go beyond their thrown-and-catch tandem. They also overhauled a defense that finished last in the league in 2018 and near the bottom again last season. They took three linebackers in the draft after overhauling the secondary in free agency.
“This has been a proud place when it comes to defense for a long time, and it hasn't been that way the last few years,” second-year coordinator Lou Anarumo said. "Some of the players are getting older.
“Our job is to create competition and then the best guys will bubble up and play, and we're doing that with both free agency and the draft.”
Some takeaways from the Bengals' draft:
CONTENT WITH THE O-LINE
Cincinnati's most glaring weakness last season was the offensive line, which couldn't protect Dalton or open holes for running back Joe Mixon. The Bengals didn't take a lineman until the sixth round (Adeniji), an indication they're satisfied with how things stand.
Left tackle Jonah Williams — their first-round pick last season — has recovered from a shoulder injury that sidelined him his rookie year. The Bengals also signed Cowboys guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and released left tackle Cordy Glenn and right guard John Miller.
“To sit here and say I'm concerned about the quarterback getting hit — I'm really not,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said.
DALTON STILL IN STRIPES
One of the Bengals' next decisions is whether they keep Dalton for the final year on his contract to break in Burrow. Taylor declined to say whether the Bengals got any trade offers for Dalton during the draft process.
“Now that the draft’s over, we’ll let the dust settle and talk through it,” Taylor said.
NOW WHAT WITH A.J.?
Green wanted a multi-year contract extension and bristled at the franchise tag for one year. Although the sides can continue negotiating, the addition of Higgins makes Green less critical for Cincinnati's long-term plans.
THE TOTAL TAKE
Cincinnati's complete draft class, including round and overall pick: 1, Joe Burrow, QB, LSU (1); 2, Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson (33); 3, Logan Wilson, LB, Wyoming (65); 4, Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB, Appalachian State (107); 5, Khalid Kareem, DE, Notre Dame (147); 6, Hakeem Adeniji, OL, Kansas (180); 7, Markus Bailey, LB, Purdue (215).
-- By Joe Kay, AP