Last year's first round of the NFL draft ended up being a disappointing one for the AFC North. Injuries lessened the impact of Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro. Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden played like a rookie quarterback, and the Baltimore Ravens didn't have a first-round pick after trading back. The best first-round pick for the division turned out to be Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler, who looks like a future Pro Bowl player.
This year has the makings of a bounce-back year for the AFC North's first-round picks. On Thursday night, each team in the division came away with an impact player. In terms of value, the Bengals and the Steelers were the big winners.
The Browns drafted their targeted player at No. 6 (LSU outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo). The Steelers found the heir apparent to James Harrison (Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones). The Bengals landed what may be the steal of the draft (Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert). And the Ravens addressed a pressing need in the secondary (Florida safety Matt Elam).
Here's how I graded the newest additions to the division:
Hensley's comment: The Browns made the smart choice here at No. 6. It was too early to reach for a playmaker like wide receiver Tavon Austin, and it didn't make sense to take cornerback Dee Milliner at this spot because he hasn't proven to be an elite playmaker. The Browns went with a potential game-changer in Mingo. The one drawback is you would like to have a more polished prospect when taking in the top 10, but Mingo has a high ceiling. The Browns also wouldn't have gotten Mingo if they had traded out of the top 10. My guess is the New York Jets would've taken Mingo at No. 9.
What the Browns are saying ... Head coach Rob Chudzinski: "His athleticism speaks for itself. He’s an extremely gifted athlete, explosive, great speed off the edge and a developing player. Obviously, he’s been battle tested in the SEC. He has played a lot. He still has plenty of room for growth. But, we really see him as an outstanding pass-rusher and somebody that is going to be able to bring that to our team.”
Hensley's comment: The Steelers were extremely lucky to get Jones, a top-five talent when you watch film. The only reason he fell was because of a disappointing pro day (ask Terrell Suggs how that affected him) and medical concerns. Jones is exactly the type of player that the Steelers need to add some punch back into their defense. Pittsburgh has been great at limiting yards, but the defense has been underwhelming when it comes to generating sacks and turnovers. I believe the Steelers would've taken Jones if they had a top-10 pick. Instead, thanks to the New Orleans Saints going with Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, the Steelers got Jones at No. 17.
What the Steelers are saying ... General manager Kevin Colbert: "He definitely is one of the guys I talked about the other day as being a special player in this draft. He's a solid kid, a great player. He was dominant at a major college. He plays the run, chases the ball and, most important, he gets after the passer."
Hensley's comment: The Bengals didn't need a tight end. But teams that draft based on need usually end up picking in the top 10 every year. The Bengals went with the best athlete on the board in Eifert, an excellent red-zone target who is a match-up nightmare for defenses. Eifert was rated the 12th-best player in the draft (one spot behind Austin) by Todd McShay and the 13th-best prospect by Mel Kiper Jr. And the Bengals landed him at No. 21. If the Bengals were going for need, they would've picked a safety like Elam or Florida International's John Cyprien. But Cincinnati can pick up a safety with one of its two picks in the second round. A top-rated tight end like Eifert wasn't going to be there.
What the Bengals are saying ... Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden: "I’m sure (quarterback) Andy Dalton is happy right now. We try to make Andy happy, and the more weapons you have, obviously, the better. We need to take pressure off (wide receiver) A.J. Green, and this is one step in doing that.”
Hensley's comment: Elam fits the Ravens' defensive profile: He's aggressive, intense, tough and finds a way to make plays. While some will say Elam is a replacement for Ed Reed, he is also an upgrade from Bernard Pollard, who was cut by Baltimore. Elam can make the violent hits like Pollard but he has more ball-hawking skills. The drawback is his lack of size (5 feet 10) and length, which could become a problem in defending tight ends like Eifert. In the end, the Ravens chose Elam over Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o. Both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay had Te'o rated higher than Elam, and Te'o would've also filled a need for the Ravens.
What the Ravens are saying ... General manager Ozzie Newsome: "Even though it was a position of need, whether you all believe it or not, he was the highest-rated player on our board. Matt Elam is our guy. I think if you would have asked any of the four of us (Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh, assistant GM Eric DeCosta and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz) what one player we would have liked to have had today, I think each one of us if we would’ve wrote a name down on a sheet of paper, we would’ve said Matt Elam.”