December 8, 2021


Let's Get It!

Ravens, Browns Need Help in Trenches; Steelers Need DBs

6 min read

For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team’s biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.


Biggest Need: Offensive Line

The Ravens knew it would be hard to replace Marshal Yanda; they didn’t expect to have to replace Orlando Brown. The big man’s trade demands made that a reality, however, leaving tackle—a position of unmatched strength just two seasons ago—a large “maybe.” Alejandro Villanueva, whom tackle-challenged Pittsburgh was quite content to let walk, was signed to take over on the right side, with Tyre (Fire) Phillips there as depth. And we still don’t know how long it will take All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who tore an ACL last season, to return to full strength. The situation is dire enough that Baltimore brought in Andre Smith, who opted out in 2020 and hasn’t been useful in at least half a decade, as insurance.

The interior also has question marks. Bradley Bozeman was a center at Alabama but has played only guard in the NFL. He’s being moved back into the middle. Kevin Zeitler is still a competent right guard, but the only thing certain about the left side is that a guy named Ben will be the starter; whether that is Bredeson, Powers, or Cleveland remains to be determined. The first two Bens are gentle young vets who have shown little thus far, while the latter is this year’s big third-rounder from Georgia, whom the team hopes will seize the spot.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Having dealt away Orlando Brown, Baltimore went back to Norman for another Sooners tackle, Adrian Ealy, who has the desired measurable traits but lacks the agility and hand usage needed to be drafted. Another Big 12 player, safety Ar’Darius Washington from TCU, is on the opposite end of the physical spectrum—a tiny sprite (176 pounds) who made lots of plays in Fort Worth alongside the Raiders’ second-round pick, Trevon Moehrig. Whether Washington can make it in the big boy league at that size is certainly in doubt—maybe he and DeVonta Smith can meet up at an I-95 rest stop to wolf down crab cakes and cheesesteaks.


Biggest Need: Defensive Tackle

Cynics in Cincy will insist the biggest need remains offensive line, though the Bengals threw a second-round pick (Jackson Carman) at the hole at right guard, drafted two other linemen as backups, and signed Riley Reiff to be the right tackle. Certainly, the team feels it is in a better place than 2020, when it trotted out a sieve that consumed Joe Burrow. On the other hand, the defensive front is still a question mark. Other than free-agent signee Larry Ogunjobi, there isn’t anyone on the roster who can be a 3-technique pass-rusher from tackle. D.J. Reader, Mike Daniels, opted-back-in Josh Tupuo, and newly drafted man-mountain Tyler Shelvin are all two-down run-stuffers.

That would indicate Cincinnati will likely use ends inside on passing downs, and indeed Sam Hubbard is often used in that capacity. Cincy did offset the loss of Carl Lawson by signing Trey Hendrickson, but beyond second-year man Khalid Kareem, the team is relying on rookies to provide the rest of the rotation. Third-rounder Joseph Ossai and fourth-rounder Cam Sample are solid prospects, but counting on them to withstand the rigors of a 17-game season and make a large impact is optimistic at best. The Bengals were forced to trot out street free agents as starters last year after a devastating run of injuries; the depth is somewhat better but still has plenty of room to grow.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Gio Bernard’s departure left Cincy in need of a change-of-pace back. Enter the diminutive (170 pounds) and saucily named Pooka Williams, who played four games at Kansas before opting out. He is a good pass-catcher, but probably lacks the elusiveness needed to succeed at his size in the NFL. He has one thing in common with new teammate Joe Mixon: Williams too was accused of punching a female student in college. On the other hand, punter Drue Chrisman became a Columbus legend after proposing to his girlfriend while pretending to hold her field goal attempt at Ohio State’s spring game in 2019. He won’t unseat Kevin Huber as the Bengals’ punter, but Chrisman has already won in the big picture.


Biggest Need: Defensive Line

There has been a furious swapping of names on the Browns depth chart along the defensive line, but the front four remains an area of doubt, if not actual need. Myles Garrett is an obvious anchor, and by himself lifts the unit into average territory. The unknowns follow—will Jadeveon Clowney shake off injuries and underperformance to ever approach his “former top overall pick” status? Can Takk McKinley stay healthy in a new spot? What will be the effect of opting out in 2020 on defensive tackle Andrew Billings, at the moment penciled in to start in the wake of the surprise release of Sheldon Richardson? Is Jordan Elliott ready to take over at the other tackle spot, or will aging but still peppy Malik Jackson have to shoulder the load? On a team with enviable depth elsewhere, the defensive line remains the unit with the most question marks.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Realizing the team could use another big body inside, the Browns won a reported bidding war to procure Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, a former top recruit who underachieved badly in Tallahassee in 2020, appearing overweight and disinterested while feuding with the coaching staff. Abominable athletic testing at his pro day tumbled Wilson out of the draft entirely. The 2019 version showed flashes of a powerhouse, relentless tackle able to fit multiple schemes. Given the hole at the 3-tech spot for Cleveland, Wilson will get every crack to stick.


Biggest Need: Cornerback

Pittsburgh has managed to cobble together an offensive line it feels will be nasty and better in the run game (where it has nowhere to go but up). That’s certainly arguable, but the front five looks positively glowing next to the state of the team’s corners. After losing Mike Hilton to the Bengals and the surprising release of Steven Nelson, the depth chart consists of the solid but aging (32) Joe Haden, versatile Cam Sutton, and a whole lot of question marks. Can either Justin Layne or James Pierre take a step up in quality to claim the third spot? Can vet Trevor Williams be resurrected to play a role? Will the vaunted Steelers pass rush make the weakness at corner bearable? We shall see in September.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

For the first time in 80 years, no Michigan State Spartans player was drafted, though many felt cornerback Shakur Brown should have heard his name called. A smart, instinctive player who was all-Big Ten in 2020, Brown makes up in intangibles what he lacks in ideal size and athleticism, and as noted above, there is a paved path for him to make the roster. In 2018 linebacker Calvin Bundage hunted for a surgeon who would operate on his back when most advised him to quit football; having found the good doctor, Bundage was healthy enough by 2020 to get seven sacks at Oklahoma State. Like Brown, Bundage lacks ideal physical traits but certainly boasts the competitive ones.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.

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