Ron Cook: AFC North is much improved after draft weekend

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“We feel like we were able to add a number of young talented players to the roster this weekend who fit our offense and defensive schemes. We feel like we were able to address a number of needs across the roster on both sides of the ball. And, then, perhaps most importantly, we feel good about adding a number of individuals that embody the tough, smart, accountable culture that we are trying to build upon here … “

Let’s test your football knowledge right from the start.

Which NFL general manager sat back in his virtual draft headquarters Saturday and made that assessment of his team’s selections?

Hint: There is no wrong answer.

All of ‘em said it, or at least something similar.

General managers and coaches always love their draft picks. It would be big news if they didn’t. You’ll be waiting a long time to hear one say, “We’re disappointed. We thought we would do better.”

The actual comments came from new Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry. He was more than justified if you believe the draft analysts. Sports Illustrated, for instance, gave the Browns a B+.

The site was kind to all of the AFC North teams — well, all but one — with its grades. The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals received an A-. That leaves your Steelers. They got a C, which isn’t surprising because they traded their No. 1 pick to get All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick last season and their third-round pick to move up to take linebacker Devin Bush last year.

What should be more troubling for Steelers fans is that their team’s division rivals had a strong draft and stronger offseason.

Start with the Ravens, who were 14-2 last season. They solved their biggest problem by taking LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen with their first pick. Queen, the Defensive MVP in LSU’s national championship win against Clemson, should be quite an upgrade over their 2019 starters, Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort. The team finally has a replacement for C.J. Mosley, who left as a free agent after the 2018 season.

“Ray Lewis Jr.!” NFL MVP Lamar Jackson gushed about Queen.

The Ravens allowed 4.4 yards per rush last season and were gashed for 217 rushing yards by the Tennessee Titans in their upset playoff loss. They also had just four sacks from their defensive linemen in 2019. They addressed those issues before the draft by trading for Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell and signing Denver free agent defensive end Derek Wolfe after a deal for the Los Angeles Rams’ Michael Brockers fell through. They also drafted Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike and Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison in the third round Friday night.

Last week, Jackson speculated how it would be wonderful if the Ravens signed Antonio Brown. That’s not going to happen, of course, not after the headaches that Ray Rice caused the team. But they did make Jackson happy by taking Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round even though they set an NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards last season. Dobbins should help now and in the future with back Mark Ingram nearing the finish line of a strong career and backup Gus Edwards due to become a free agent after the 2020 season. Dobbins will help Jackson in the short-passing game, another target along with tight ends Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle.

The Browns should be much better than their 6-10 team last season when protection of quarterback Baker Mayfield was their biggest problem. They signed tackle Jack Conklin in free agency and drafted Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th overall pick Thursday night. The selection of Wills prompted Mayfield to scream on social media, “Let’s Go!!!!!!” Retired Hall of Fame-bound Browns tackle Joe Thomas called Wills a “home run” pick.

The Browns could have a terrific offense. As long as receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is happy, he will be much better in 2020 in a new offense alongside Jarvis Landry. The team has Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the backfield — is there a better pair in the league? — and signed Atlanta tight end Austin Hooper as a free agent. New coach Kevin Stefanski likes to use two tight ends and has a second one now to go with David Njoku.

The Browns used their next three draft picks on defense. LSU safety Grant Delpit could start immediately.

The new players are fine, but the Browns’ best addition might be Stefanski, the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator last season. He is a huge improvement over Freddie Kitchens, who was badly overmatched. He might actually last more than one season.

Everyone in Cincinnati is excited about No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow from LSU, the sexy selection in the 2020 draft. He is the next “It” at quarterback. The team made sure he has capable receivers by putting the franchise tag on A.J. Green and drafting Clemson’s Tee Higgins with their second pick. The offensive line also should be improved with 2019 No. 1 pick Jonah Williams returning at tackle after missing all of last season after shoulder surgery.

But maybe the best thing the Bengals did for Burrow and their team was spend big money to improve a defense that ranked 29th in yards allowed last season. Owner Mike Brown committed $120 million to five free agents who could start — tackle D.J. Reader, safety Vonn Bell, cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander and Bynes, the former Ravens linebacker. They also drafted three linebackers; Wyoming’s Logan Wilson could start immediately.

There is no doubt the Bengals will be improved, but it’s a long way from their 2-14 record last season to being a contender in the division this season. But the Ravens and Browns? One is clearly ahead of the Steelers, the other appears to be at least right there with them.

How does anyone not like the Ravens to three-peat as division champions? Only one thing could stop them — an injury to Jackson, who ran 176 times for 1,206 yards last season. The team also might have a hard time replacing retired eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshall Yanda.

You know what could stop the Browns, right? The Browns themselves, of course. We’re talking about one of the all-time doomed franchises in sports. But maybe they finally got it right with Berry and Stefanski at the top. One of these years, they are going to get things right and make the playoffs. When they do, it will be bad news for the Steelers. As if they don’t have enough bad news with the Ravens.


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