The 2011 NFL season left fans of local teams in disbelief. The Ravens, Steelers and Redskins all did not meet expectations. For Ravens fans, their worst nightmare was realized in the final minute of the AFC Championship. Not only did Lee Evans shove a dagger to the chest of the organization when he dropped the winning touchdown, Raven Nation was stunned to the core when Billy Cundiff, Pro Bowl place kicker, pushed his potential game-tying kick wide left. Some cursed, some stood motionless, all were trying to take in the most unimaginable end to a season for Raven fans. The season was over in Baltimore, just like that. Wounds of recent playoff heartbreaks were ripped open.
The Ravens archrival suffered similar shock and awe when they were “Tebowed” in the opening round of the playoffs. Despite their 12-4 record, the defending AFC champion Steelers, although injury plagued, succumbed to the 8-8 Denver “Tebows”, I mean Broncos.
Washington Redskin fans have been used to losing for over 20 years, culminating merely six winning seasons in that time span. It was no surprise, but still upsetting, to ‘Skins fans that had to witness another embarrassing season from their team, finishing a measly 5-11 after starting a promising 3-1.
But that is the glass half empty perspective. Let’s mix in a pinch of optimism to the proverbial Kool-Aid: The Ravens finished 13-5, won the AFC North division for the 3rd time in last 8 years, and swept their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. Many Ravens fans say sweeping the Steelers makes this season complete regardless of playoff woes. Beside the point of a good season, those types of statements should illustrate the intensity of the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry.
Fans of the Steel Curtain can be proud that their team the finished with the 3rd best record in the AFC at 12-5, sent seven elite players to Hawai’i for the annual Pro Bowl, and can boast they beat the AFC champion New England Patriots (unlike their rival Ravens) 25-19 in week 8. The dominant play of speedster Mike Wallace at receiver is another plus for Steeler Nation looking into the future. The Pro Bowl wide-out caught 72 balls for 1,193 yards and has given the Steelers a versatile deep threat that demands the respect of every secondary in the league. His play tends to move defenders out of the box leaving more holes for halfbacks Rashad Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, and Isaac Redman. Mike Wallace will continue to be a huge part of their offense in years to come, despite owner Art Rooney’s plea for a more “blue collar” running style offense, because he forces defenses to gameplan for his deep threat.
Now onto the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. Do not be alarmed, I understand how ridiculous that statement sounds, but it is the humorous statement you will hear from diehard ‘Skins fans looking to extract any bit of optimism from this season, because they did in fact sweep the true Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The Redskins swept them in decisive victories: 28-14 at home and 23-10 in the Meadowlands. Beating a Super Bowl champion is something to brag about for Redskins fans amongst their buddies. Many Redskin fans gain a sense of pride and hope in their team upon such an accomplishment because it makes them believe in the potential for the team going into the future. Perhaps the Redskins are only a player, or ten, away from a serious playoff contender? Maybe having a good quarterback could get them over the hump? *cough, cough, RG3? cough, cough*
The future of all three teams is bright. A few key players in certain positions can be the defining move to putting their team in the Super Bowl. For the Ravens, I am assuming free agent Ray Rice will resign with the team as contract negotiations are currently underway leaving the biggest concerns to be on the offensive line, with wide receiver and pass rusher being far seconds. Ravens Pro Bowl center, and Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year recipient, Matt Birk is expected to retire after 14 seasons in the league. Former Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode was snatched up before the season started, and was versatile on the O-line, filling in nicely when a few of the starters went down with injuries throughout the year. But, he is now a free agent and is probably out the door, although Gurode has hinted he enjoyed his stay with the Ravens and would like to continue with the team. We will have to wait and see how the picture unfolds, but it is my guess that Gurode would start at center if he resigns. Left guard is another position of worry for the Ravens. Their Pro Bowl starter Ben Grubbs is a free agent and is expected to cash in big from a team outside of Baltimore, where that team is remains to be seen. Regardless, his loss would leave a huge hole in the offensive line, unlike the hole Raven fans are used to him making. Whether through the draft, or free agency, the Ravens are going to have to bring in a new guy that can fill the shoes of Grubbs if he does not get franchise tagged. The franchise tag is the only option I can predict for Baltimore to keep Grubbs at this point.
Cordy Glenn, guard from Georgia, and Kevin Zeitler, from Wisconsin, are two names that come to mind to should still be on the board for the Ravens in the first or second round. All-American David DeCastro from Stanford would be the ultimate steal of the draft if he slips to 29th, he is drawing comparisons to future Hall of Famer Steve Hutchinson from the Minnesota Vikings. However, it is likely he will go in the middle of the first round.
If Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore Ravens general manager who makes all player personal decisions, decides to address their other issues, here is how the draft may play out: linebacker Dont’a Hightower from National Champion Alabama in the first round is a very likely possibility. The All-American would address pass rushing needs and solidify the linebacker corp for years to come. Even Travis Lewis from Oklahoma in the second round is a name to be considered.
If the Ravens decide to go in a separate direction, and if he is still on the board at number 29, Kendall Wright from Baylor could be playing in purple next season. Wright was Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III’s favorite target this past season, submitting staggering numbers including 108 receptions with 1663 receiving yards for 14 touchdowns. He would provide an outstanding third option for Joe Flacco to complement number one receiver Anquan Boldin and rookie sensation Torrey Smith. Two other wide receivers to look out for in the draft is Mohamed Sanu out of Rutgers, who caught 115 passes and amassed 1206 yards with 7 touchdowns, could be a second round pick, also keep an eye on Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles. Although he tore his ACL in a game against Texas A&M earlier in the past college season, he may be one of the best wide receivers to ever play college football. Broyles is the FBS record holder of career receptions with 349; keep in mind he missed half of his senior season! If the Ravens could snag him in the second or possibly third round, his upside is too undeniable to pass on.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had one group that has held them back for a number of years: offensive line. Repairing their Achilles Heel should be the main focus this offseason. Lack of depth, and just lack of adequate football players, has hampered the Steeler offense. Their best weapons are their speedy receivers, and Big Ben shouldn’t have to constantly make the incredible scramble plays he is known for in order to complete the majority of his passes. The risk of injury is too great for the 6’5” 240 pound QB, which showed when he suffered a high ankle sprain against the lowly Cleveland Browns. If the Steelers offense wants to make any progression, OL needs to be addressed. Particularly tackle and guard (Maurkice Pouncey is a stud at center). At tackle, Willie Colon, their best offensive linemen before the arrival of Pounecy, sat on injured reserve for an entire season once again after tearing his tricep muscle. Johnathon Scott practiced new ways to get beat by defenders at his left tackle position throughout 2011. Max Starks had to fill in for Scott after only the second game in the season. This was a shock considering Starks missed the entire 2010 season with a neck injury, decided to show up at training plus-400 pounds, and Pittsburgh sent him packing, later asking him to come back when he lost significant weight and replaced Scott at left tackle. Starks played surprisingly well only to suffer what many believe to be a career ending injury to his ACL at the end of the season. Amongst the negative, the only possible bright spot for the Steelers at tackle may be from rookie Marcus Gilbert. He filled in nicely for Colon at the beginning of the season and many fans believe he is the heir apparent at left tackle.
When you look to the offensive guard position on the Pittsburgh Steelers, they have three currently on the roster, and none of them are very proficient at their craft compared to others around the league. They will have to improve this position during the NFL draft. If I were in charge of the Pittsburgh Steelers draft team, my biggest look would be to Georgia guard Cordy Glenn as I have already mentioned. He was one of the best run-blocker in college football this season and would fit perfectly in the future scheme of the Steelers since they’re trying to reclaim their “blue collar” image on offense by predominantly running the football.
If Glenn is off the board by pick 21, or the Steelers decide to answer a few of their other position needs, look for Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy to replace Chris Hoke and a one-foot-out-the-door Casey Hampton. Worthy is exactly the type of player needed to play in the Steeler 3-4 defensive scheme. He has the ability to shed blocks and demand multiple blockers, which would free the stellar linebackers to make plays.
The only other true need for Pittsburgh is inside linebacker. Lawrence Timmons is going to be a great player in the NFL for years to come, but James Farrior and Larry Foote are showing their age after 15 and 10 seasons in the league, respectively. Both of their contracts expire after the 2012-2013 season, so it is very likely the Steelers may want to look for life after Foote and Farrior. A great pick for Steel City in the third round could be Keenan Robinson, linebacker out of Texas. Robinson has tremendous speed from sideline to sideline and pursues ball carriers until they are on the ground. He would provide a lot of run support and is especially proficient at stretching runs to the outside. The beauty of this pick is Pittsburgh does not have to play him right away so he can learn how to be a NFL linebacker from some of the leagues best.
Redskins, I have not forgotten about you!
There are a lot of interesting possibilities for the Washington Redskins this offseason. First and foremost, the Redskins need a quarterback. Rex Grossman (16 TD’s, 20 INT’s) and John Beck (2 TD’s, 4 INT’s) are not helping their team win football games, in fact their horrendous performance is perhaps the reason the Redskins played so poorly this past season. Understanding the ‘Skins need a new signal caller, why not bring in the best? The possibility of all-universe quarterback Peyton Manning following the precedent of great QB’s playing out their career with a new team (Montana with Chiefs, Unitas with Chargers, Namath with Rams, etc.) has sparked a lot of interest in Washington.
Besides their obvious needs to attain a quality quarterback, the Redskins will have to give him weapons. WR Jabar Gaffney (68 rec, 947 yds, 5 TDs), TE Fred Davis (59 rec, 796 yds, 3 TDs), and WR Santana Moss (46 rec, 584, 4 TDs) were the leading receivers in Washington this past season. Daniel Snyder and Co. will need to find better-quality threats if they are to make a run at the playoffs. Sanu could be an option in the second round of the draft, but head coach Mike Shanahan will look to improve the tight end situation.
Fred Davis is one failed drug test from sitting out an entire season after being suspended four games from multiple failed drug tests, and Chris Cooley missed most of 2011 with a broken finger and bum knee. In this day and age of the NFL, athletic tight ends are at a premium. To a successful offensive team in the NFL having a dominant tight end is necessary. Note the Patriot’s Rob Gronkowski (90 rec, 1327 yds, 17 TDs), the 15-2 Green Bay Packer’s Jermichael Finley (55 rec, 767 yds, 8 TDs) and the top passing offense in NFL history New Orleans Saint’s Jimmy Graham (99 rec, 1310 yds, 11 TDs). With that said, Washington will give Clemson TE Dwayne Allen a good look in the 2nd/3rd round. He has a big 6’4” 255 pound frame which makes him a strong, solid athlete with good hands. He is an outstanding talent that can be used in a bunch of ways under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
As far as the 6th overall pick, I am really not sold on Robert Griffin III being taken by the Redskins for a few reasons. First, RG3 will be playing much better defenses than in the Big 12 which only featured one top 25 ranked defense. Second, there has been a tendency for running-oriented quarterbacks throughout NFL history to bust. Running QB’s to fail to develop their passing skills because they crutch on their running ability when plays break down. Third, the Redskins have been unsuccessful for a number of years on offense, and an experimental talent with limited weapons is asking for a major bust in RG3. Lastly, he surprisingly struggles in big games. I say surprisingly because one would not expect a Heisman trophy winner to be under such a label. But examining his record shows the truth; he threw two interceptions with only one touchdown against the conference champion Oklahoma State Cowboys, which was a repeat performance (two INT’s, one TD) of Baylor’s game in 2010 versus then conference champion Oklahoma Sooners. No doubt Griffin had tremendous performances in college, noting his five touchdown game against TCU to start the season, but he has a considerable drop in production on the biggest stage. It leaves me with an uneasy feeling for RG3’s future if the Redskins draft him when he will be pitted against NFL defenses each week.
Washington should either trade their high draft pick to accumulate more draft picks to better suit all their tremendous needs. But, if they decide to use the pick, WR’s Justin Blackmon for Oklahoma State or Alshon Jeffery out of South Carolina would be tremendous weapons for any QB Washington decides to add to their roster. With a premiere weapon in their arsenal, the Redskins could draft a quarterback in the second round in the nature of Boise State QB Kellen Moore, Arizona QB Nick Foles, or an intriguing possibility of pairing Blackmon with his college quarterback from Oklahoma State Brandon Weedon. Both would already possess remarkable chemistry from their time in college.
All in all, the Raven’s, Steeler’s, and Redskin’s front offices have a lot of work to do this offseason. Like I said, they are merely a few players away at key position at being the envy of the NFL.