2011 AFC draft grades: Bengals solid, Titans panic

The state of Ohio made out well in the grading of the 2011 NFL draft as both Cincinnati and Cleveland pulled A’s for their work, even though took very different approaches to getting high marks.

As for the rest of the conference, only Tennessee did anything truly substandard and even that grade depends largely upon how quarterback Jake Locker(notes) turns out. If he’s what most analysts expect, the Titans will be back on the quarterback market in the 2014 draft. If not, it will be time to revise this mark.

Here’s an early assessment of how the AFC teams fared during this year’s draft:

AFC EAST

Marcell Dareus
(AP)

Buffalo Bills
Picks: DT Marcell Dareus(notes), CB Aaron Williams(notes), LB Kelvin Sheppard(notes), S Da’Norris Searcy(notes), OT Chris Hairston(notes), RB Johnny White(notes), LB Chris White, CB Justin Rogers, DT Michael Jasper(notes).
Grade: B
Analysis: The Bills did a good job of letting this draft come to them. With the No. 3 overall pick, the Bills got the guy who might be the safest bet in the first round in Dareus. The Alabama product is the best defensive lineman the Bills have taken since Hall of Fame DE Bruce Smith. Not that he will be as good as Smith, but Dareus will be the lynchpin of a defense the Bills continued to work on throughout the draft with the selections of Williams, Sheppard and Searcy. Sadly, the selections of Williams and Searcy are necessary because the Bills have missed on safeties so much in recent years and expect to lose Donte Whitner(notes) in free agency. Still, this is a solid draft.

Miami Dolphins
Picks: C/G Mike Pouncey(notes), RB Daniel Thomas(notes), WR Edmond Gates(notes), TE Charles Clay(notes), DT Frank Kearse(notes), CB Jimmy Wilson(notes).
Grade: C-
Analysis: The Dolphins started in a hole since they had already traded their second-round pick in the 2010 deal to get WR Brandon Marshall(notes) (a trade that is trending badly right now). But the Dolphins, a team in desperate need of team speed, then continued their trend of thinking offensive line almost to the exclusion of everything else. Mike Pouncey is certainly a good player and will be a terrific center or guard, but the Dolphins continue to pour resources into the line. After missing with the likes of Justin Smiley(notes) and Jake Grove(notes) in free agency, not to mention a handful of interior line draft picks, the Dolphins keep chasing their tail, neglecting speed at the skill positions. Thomas was a need (both Ronnie Brown(notes) and Ricky Williams(notes) are free agents), but he runs a 4.6 40 and required three draft picks for the team to get back into the second round. Fourth-round pick Gates can run, but he’s making a big jump in level of play.

New England Patriots
Picks: OT Nate Solder(notes), CB Ras-I Dowling(notes), RB Shane Vereen(notes), RB Stevan Ridley(notes), QB Ryan Mallett(notes), OL Marcus Cannon(notes), TE Lee Smith(notes), LB Markell Carter(notes), DB Malcolm Williams(notes).
Grade: C+
Analysis: There’s no real problem with any of the players the Patriots drafted. Even QB Ryan Mallet, who generated all sort of odd reactions from NFL coaches and executives, was a good value pick in the third round. Beyond that, trading out from the second of two first-round picks got the Patriots another first-rounder in 2012. However, there’s something somewhat illogical about what the Patriots did this year, particularly after taking 12 players in each of the previous two drafts. Taking nine players this year just means that the Patriots are going to have to cut a lot of those guys. Moreover, the Patriots didn’t take a front-seven defensive player until the sixth round, when they took project Carter. This is a team that needed help in the pass rush to improve what has been a mundane defense in the past few years.

New York Jets
Picks: DT Muhammad Wilkerson(notes), DT Kenrick Ellis(notes), RB Bilal Powell(notes), WR Jeremy Kerley(notes), QB Greg McElroy(notes), WR Scotty McKnight.
Grade: B
Analysis: If CB Antonio Cromartie(notes) were already signed to a long-term deal, this grade would be higher since the Jets gave up their second-rounder this year for Cromartie. Good deal so far and it could get better. Now, there is one huge concern since third-round pick Ellis is still facing charges over felony assault (he could go to prison for 20 years). However, there is a general feeling that Ellis will be eligible to play. Between Ellis and first-rounder Wilkerson, the Jets will inject some much-needed youth into coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 front. The rest of the draft looks like a hunt for specials teams guys, although Powell could get time in a couple years when LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) is done.

AFC NORTH

Jimmy Smith
(AP)

Baltimore Ravens
Picks: CB Jimmy Smith(notes), WR Torrey Smith(notes), OT Jah Reid(notes), WR Tandon Doss(notes), CB Chykie Brown(notes), DE Pernell McPhee(notes), QB Tyrod Taylor(notes), RB Anthony Allen(notes).
Grade: C+
Analysis: The Ravens don’t get blame for the snafu that caused them to miss their first-round pick the first time through. That said, the selection of Jimmy Smith with their first pick is an odd move for a Ravens team that usually doesn’t deal with character problems that early in the draft. Smith’s selection speaks to the desperation the Ravens face at cornerback. Smith had substance-abuse issues in college, including the reported admitted use of codeine. The selections of Torrey Smith and Reid are much more of the traditional Ravens style, hard-working, tough guys who don’t have issues that will get in the way of success. Also, look for McPhee to be a strong contributor, if not a starter someday.

Cincinnati Bengals
Picks: WR A.J. Green(notes), QB Andy Dalton(notes), DE Dontay Moch(notes), OL Clint Boling(notes), S Robert Sands(notes), WR Ryan Whalen(notes), CB Korey Lindsey(notes), RB Jay Finley(notes).
Grade: A
Analysis: Considering that QB Carson Palmer(notes) held a gun to the Bengals’ head in this draft, the Bengals deserve credit for not panicking. Instead of taking a quarterback such as Blaine Gabbert(notes) in the first round and falling prey to Palmer’s pressure, the Bengals took the best receiver on the board in A.J. Green (which also puts them in a position to dump Chad Ochocinco(notes)) and then waited until the second round to get Dalton. Nicely done. The rest of the draft is a typical set of Bengals selections: Just about every player was the best guy on the board at the time, regardless of personal issues. If those players pan out, the Bengals will have a great draft. Even if they don’t, this is a smart way to conduct business, particularly given the circumstances.

Cleveland Browns
Picks: DT Phil Taylor(notes), DE Jabaal Sheard(notes), WR Greg Little(notes), TE Jordan Cameron(notes), FB Owen Marecic(notes), CB Buster Skrine(notes), RT Jason Pinkston(notes), DB Eric Hagg(notes).
Grade: A
Analysis: As tempting as it may have been to stay at No. 6 to take Julio Jones(notes) and give second-year QB Colt McCoy(notes) some much-needed help, the trade the Browns made with the Falcons was too good to pass up for a rebuilding team. The Browns got an extra first-round pick for next year, which they will need, and did a good job of building the defensive line for the conversion to a 4-3 scheme with Taylor and Sheard. Just as impressive, the team came up with two explosive receiving threats in Little and Cameron. While Little has a lot of work to do to take care of his personal issues, he’s a monster at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and Cameron is a potential deep threat from his spot.

Cameron Heyward
(AP)

Pittsburgh Steelers
Picks: DL Cameron Heyward(notes), OT Marcus Gilbert(notes), CB Curtis Brown(notes), CB Cortez Allen(notes), OLB Chris Carter, OL Keith Williams(notes), RB Baron Batch(notes).
Grade: C
Analysis: The Steelers don’t like to do anything too sexy in the draft and this year was no different. The Steelers had needs on both lines and addressed them right away with Heyward and Gilbert. They had needs in the secondary and addressed those in the middle rounds with Brown and Allen. They needed to get a young linebacker and grabbed Chris Carter. This is the definition of meat-and-potatoes drafting, but it’s also effective. The Steelers are really good because they don’t out-think themselves.

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans
Picks: DE J.J. Watt(notes), LB Brooks Reed(notes), CB Brandon Harris(notes), CB Rashad Carmichael(notes), S Shiloh Keo(notes), QB T.J. Yates(notes), OL Derek Newton(notes), LB Cheta Ozougwu(notes).
Grade: B+
Analysis: This draft tells you just how bad the Texans’ defense was last year. Houston’s first five picks were defensive players and there’s a good chance that all five of them will walk in and start for new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is switching the team from a 4-3 to a 3-4. In fact, if Watt, Reed and Harris don’t start right way, it is an indictment of them more than anything else. Watt and DE Mario Williams(notes) could give the Texans more pass rush than most 3-4 teams get out of the line, but Phillips won’t have a problem adjusting to that. Reed has terrific edge rushing ability. Harris has very good man skills, but he doesn’t generate a lot of turnovers. He should become a good No. 2 corner in the long run.

Indianapolis Colts
Picks: OT Anthony Castonzo(notes), G/OT Ben Ijalana(notes), DT Drake Nevis(notes), RB Delone Carter(notes), CB Chris Rucker(notes).
Grade: B
Analysis: Late last season, Colts GM Bill Polian said that he regretted passing on OT Roger Saffold in the first round after the Indianapolis offensive line continued to erode. This year, Polian took no chances in rebuilding the line by getting Castonzo and Ijalana with the first two selections. In the third round, Polian picked up a great value in Nevis, who many GMs considered a second-round pick. Throw in Carter and you have at least four guys who figure to play a lot soon for the Colts, if not become starters.

Blaine Gabbert
(AP)

Jacksonville Jaguars
Picks: QB Blaine Gabbert(notes), G/OT Will Rackley(notes), WR Cecil Shorts(notes), S Chris Prosinski(notes), DB Rod Issac(notes) .
Grade: B+
Analysis: After waiting for years to get a shot at a quarterback, the Jaguars showed a proper amount of aggression in giving up a second-round pick to move up to No. 10 overall and nab Gabbert, who slid slightly. Gabbert was one of only two quarterbacks who graded out as a likely first-rounder (along with Cam Newton(notes)) by most analysts. While Gabbert comes with some defects (he’s not terribly accurate on deep stuff), he is incredibly bright and very composed. While the Jaguars still need to get him some better weapons, he should easily beat out David Garrard(notes) for the starting job. The problem with the rest of the Jaguars’ draft is that the next four picks (Rackley, Shorts, Prosinski and Issac) all come from small schools. That can often make for a rough transition to the big time.

Tennessee Titans
Picks: QB Jake Locker, LB Akeem Ayers(notes), DT Jurrell Casey(notes), LB Colin McCarthy(notes), RB Jamie Harper(notes), DT Karl Klug(notes), OT Byron Stingily(notes), DT Zach Clayton(notes), DB Tommie Campbell(notes).
Grade: D
Analysis: The desperation to get as far away from the Vince Young(notes) era forced the Titans to panic at that position as they took Locker at No. 8 overall. This was a reach of stunning proportions. Yes, Locker is a great athlete who many projected to be a high pick in the 2010 draft if he had come out then. However, his senior season was a disaster and he isn’t accurate, a deficiency coaches and executives will tell you is the hardest thing to fix in a quarterback. It’s the reason that guys like Young and Kyle Boller(notes) haven’t made it despite possessing just about every other tangible skill. The Titans rebounded with a good value pick in the second round with Ayers, who some considered a first-rounder. Casey and McCarthy also figure to play a lot very soon.

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos
Picks: LB Von Miller(notes), S Rahim Moore(notes), OT Orlando Franklin(notes), LB Nate Irving(notes), S Quinton Carter(notes), TE Julius Thomas(notes), LB Mike Mohamed(notes), TE Virgil Green(notes), DL Jeremy Beal(notes).
Grade: B
Analysis: A good rule of thumb in the NFL (and pretty much in just about any sport) is take the bigger guy first. The Broncos went against that theory by selecting Miller over Dareus. That said, Miller is the kind of disruptive, pass-rushing force who could be a perennial Pro Bowler. He is explosive and has a great personality, ingredients for becoming a great player and leader. The rest of the draft was very wise. In particular, getting Moore to rejuvenate an ancient secondary was critical (plus backing up that pick with Carter in the fourth round). Throw in the selections of Franklin and Irving and you have a draft that could easily feature four or five starters. That’s exactly what the Broncos had to get in this draft.

Kansas City Chiefs
Picks: WR Jonathan Baldwin, C Rodney Hudson(notes), LB Justin Houston(notes), DE Allen Bailey(notes), CB Jalil Brown(notes), QB Ricky Stanzi(notes), LB Gabe Miller(notes), DT Jerrell Powe(notes), FB Shane Bannon(notes).
Grade: B-
Analysis: The Chiefs moved back six spots in the first round and still got an offensive weapon who may start right away in Baldwin. The 6-foot-5 Baldwin is a beast and gives the team a great complement to Dwayne Bowe(notes). However, like Bowe, Baldwin can be a bit of a head case. For instance, he had the gall to complain that the Pitt coaching staff was not throwing to him very much because they wanted to hurt his draft stock. Second-rounder Hudson should start this year or next depending on what happens with Casey Wiegmann(notes). Third-round picks OLB Justin Houston and DE Allen Bailey could easily become starters as rookies. Neither figures to ever be great, but both should be solid starters.

Oakland Raiders
Picks: C Stefen Wisniewski(notes), CB Demarcus Van Dyke(notes) , OL Joseph Barksdale(notes), CB Chimdi Chekwa(notes), RB Taiwan Jones(notes), WR Denarius Moore(notes), TE Richard Gordon(notes), WR David Ausberry(notes) .
Grade: B+
Analysis: The Raiders get credit for getting DL Richard Seymour(notes) two seasons ago with the first-round pick they gave up from this year. Seymour has turned out to be a fine acquisition, even if he’s getting long in the tooth. Starting there, this draft simply reeks of Raiderdom, starting with the selection of Wisniewski in the second round. The latest Wiz will not only play for his uncle, former Raider great Steve Wisniewski, but will probably start from Day 1 because starter Samson Satele(notes) just wasn’t that good the past two years. From there, the Raiders basically drafted a 4 x 100 relay team with Van Dyke, Chekwa, Jones and Moore. The Raiders are nothing if not consistent.

San Diego Chargers
Picks: DT Corey Liuget(notes), CB Marcus Gilchrist(notes), LB Jonas Mouton(notes)), WR Vincent Brown(notes), CB Shareece Wright(notes), RB Jordan Todman(notes), OL Steve Schilling, LB Andrew Gachkar(notes).
Grade: B
Analysis: As you can tell, this draft screams defense as four of the top five picks (all in the first three rounds) were on that side of the ball. That started with Liuget at No. 18 overall. Liuget may not be the most dynamic lineman out there, but he’s solid across the board and could play any spot in San Diego’s three-man front. From there, the selection of Gilchrist (who can also line up at cornerback) and Wright restore some much-needed depth in the secondary. Mouton has more than a few detractors, many who say he’s just not that tough, but he’s a very good athlete who is learning to play in the front seven.