Scouting the NFL: AFC North Players To Watch

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing their job. Here, he identifies which AFC North players to watch in 2015.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Bud Dupree Jarvis Jones/ Shamarko Thomas Heath Miller Martavis Bryant Stephon Tuitt

The Steelers are adjusting to life without a dominant defense, but are hoping to rebuild the Steel Curtain with Bud Dupree, their Rookie who is Needed Early. Dupree, the Steelers’ first round draft selection, is an excellent athlete, an SEC standout at Kentucky. However, the Wildcats preferred to drop Dupree into coverage, so the rookie is relatively inexperienced at pass rushing and cannot expect to get by solely on speed and athleticism. To fill a vital need in their porous defense, Dupree must step up and use his natural physical gifts to become a more consistent pass rusher.

One big reason the Steelers need Dupree to step up is because their defensive line is lacks depth. This is why Stephon Tuitt is the player fans should be Excited About Expanded Role. The second year defensive end out of Notre Dame started only four games last season, compiling only one sack and 17 tackles. Despite the lackluster stats, Tuitt has tantalizing upside, given the combination of size (6’6″ 304lbs) and quickness, and his versatility to play an interior position and as an outside pass rusher. Tuitt suffered a sprained ankle this preseason, but it is not considered serious.

Two 2013 draftees that are Players Who Need to Develop Quickly are linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Shamarko Thomas. Last season, Jones looked to be improved from his rookie campaign until he injured his wrist forcing a fumble while sacking Cam Newton in Week 4. His wrist required surgery, ending his sophomore campaign and ushering in the return of James Harrison. Now Jones must compete with Harrison for a starting position after a lost season. Jones will need to get back up to speed quickly and plug into a vital pass rushing role from the edge.

Thomas enters the year as the starter after spending two years watching Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu. The Steelers need consistency from a key position on the field and hope Thomas can improve upon a resumé filled with injuries and unspectacular play. If Dupree, Tuitt, and Jones don’t make the jump and put pressure on the QB, Thomas will be left holding down the middle to deep part of the field.

On the offensive side the field, the Steelers have one of the most talented offensive teams in the conference. The Most Intriguing Player to Watch Martavis Bryant, after missing the first 6 games, was a revelation for the Steelers offense last year. Bryant combines speed with agility and a nose for the ball, putting up an impressive 26 catches for 549 yards and 8 touchdowns in 10 games. Roethlisberger, however, will need to wait 4 games to place the ball in Bryant’s hands as the WR has been suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Possibly adding to the team’s receiver issues is the Player Most Likely to Decline, veteran tight end Heath Miller.

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The effects of Miller’s torn ACL and MCL from the final game of the 2013 season showed last year as the tight end had clearly lost a step, despite seeing many targets. Seeing Heath’s production drop would hurt Pittsburgh in the passing department, as backup TE Matt Spaeth is a blocking specialist and rookie Jesse James has very limited upside as a pass catcher.

Baltimore Ravens

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Breshad Perriman Courtney Upshaw Terrell Suggs Will Hill Kapron Lewis-Moore

Boasting another top-10 defense, including their signature tenacious pass rush and run defense, the Ravens worked their way to a 10-6 record before falling in the AFC Divisional Round by blowing two separate 14 point leads to Tom Brady and the Patriots. In that game, they saw their secondary exploited, which is why the Most Intriguing Player to Watch is safety Will Hill. An undrafted free agent because of character concerns, Hill played two productive seasons for the New York Giants, but struggled off the field, earning a suspension in each of his first two seasons. He was hit with his third suspension last year, missing the first 6 games. But when he returned he showed what makes him so intriguing by combining his hard-hitting style with the agility to cover receiving threats. With the suspensions behind him, the Ravens hope Hill will be a playmaker all season long.

The Veteran Most Likely to Decline is All-Pro linebacker Terrell Suggs, entering his 13th season. His 36 tackles were his lowest total over a full season since his rookie year; his 12 sacks, however, indicate that he still has the knack for rushing the quarterback, even if he’s lost a step in the field. With Suggs on the “back nine of this career” it is imperative that Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly is fellow outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Not known for his pass rush but for his ability to set the edge, Upshaw hasn’t recorded a sack since 2013. With the potential decline of Suggs and departure of Pernell McPhee to the Chicago Bears, Upshaw must develop into a pass rusher quickly to keep the Ravens defense a top unit. The pass rush is even more important In order to take some pressure off the Raven’s weak secondary, Upshaw must get after the quarterback on a consistent basis.

When the Ravens traded Haloti Ngata to the Detroit Lions for draft picks, it opened up an opportunity for the oft-injured Kapron Lewis-Moore, who is the player to be Excited About an Expanded Role. Moore has come all the way back from a torn ACL in his final college game and a torn achilles tendon suffered last preseason to compete for a starting job this year. Lewis-Moore possesses good size and shows his versatility by lining up as a 3- and a 5-technique. In college, Lewis-Moore showed great potential, but injuries have derailed a promising career. Will he retain the explosiveness, or have his tools eroded because of the development time lost to poor health?

Torrey Smith’s departure to San Francisco was the impetus for the Ravens using their first round draft pick on former UCF wideout Breshad Perriman, the Rookie Who is Needed Early. Perriman is exactly the type of receiver that Joe Flacco needs: He has blazing speed to create separation on deep routes, adjusts to the ball well mid-air, and high points the ball consistently.

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With Steve Smith, Sr., entering his mid-late thirties, the Ravens needed Perriman to hit the ground running. Unfortunately for the Ravens, the WR injured his knee on the first day of practice and while the MRI apparently is clean, it is rumored that he is suffering from a PCL injury, possibly missing the first month of the season.

Cleveland Browns

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Danny Shelton Justin Gilbert/ Barkevious Mingo Tramon Williams Rob Housler Craig Robertson

The Cleveland Browns enter 2015 in what seems like an endless rebuilding, despite years of high draft picks. Their defense was ranked last in the whole league against the run last year. To try to remedy that problem, the Browns drafted the Rookie Who is Needed Early in Danny Shelton at twelfth overall. Shelton is a massive nose tackle with excellent physical tools who the Browns hope will draw multiple defenders and clog the A Gaps on a consistent basis. He lacked consistency against better opponents at the University of Washington, so he needs to find what it takes to step up right away against NFL competition and firm up the Browns’ run defense.

As a counter to their run defense, the Browns have a top 10 pass defense and secondary. However, the Veteran Most Expected to Decline is cornerback Tramon Williams. The Browns signed Williams to a three year deal this past off season, but signs of his decline were evident last year. Williams, who has been one of the top corners in the game the past eight seasons, allowed 10 touchdowns in 2014. Quarterbacks also completed 63% of passes thrown his way. He has been very durable, missing only 1 game since 2007, but at 32, the mileage may be catching up to him. Due to Williams’s expected decline, and with star Joe Haden injured, second year corner Justin Gilbert is a Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly. Drafted eighth overall in 2014, Gilbert was a massive disappointment last year, starting only two games and seeing himself benched over the course of the season. Consistency, worth ethic, and focus all plagued the rookie corner, but after spending an offseason with Haden, Gilbert has returned to camp determined to improve. 

The other Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly is outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick of the 2013 draft. Mingo’s career has been derailed by injuries so far: a bruised lung his rookie season; a torn labrum last year; and arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus this August. The Browns hope to get Mingo back and see him develop into the explosive weak side edge rusher they thought they were getting from the LSU prospect, although he will be competing with rookie Nate Orchard for reps.

Coming off a career year, inside linebacker Craig Robertson is a player to be Most Excited About an Expanded Role. Entering his fourth year with the team, Robertson shined last year, totaling 99 tackles and two interceptions. His outstanding play at middle linebacker when Karlos Dansby suffered a knee injury opened eyes and showed what Robertson can do in an expanded role. Also of note is how Robertson is expanding into a team leader; the Browns awarded him with the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his local charity work and is held up by coaches as an example for young players.

Tight end Rob Housler in John DeFillipo’s offense makes him the Most Intriguing Player to Watch this season on the Browns. DeFillipo loves to put tight ends in motion (during OTAs an estimated 70% of plays called involved motioning a TE or WR) and Housler was brought in from the Arizona Cardinals to be primarily a pass catching tight end. Housler is a big target at 6’5” who boasts WR speed and can stretch the field and create mismatch opportunities over the middle.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Josh Shaw Darqueze Dennard/ Margus Hunt Leon Hall Emmanuel Lamur Jake Fisher

The Cincinnati Bengals have seen their defense slip in the last couple years from a top defense in the league to somewhere in the amorphous middle of the pack. Their pass defense especially struggled last year, as once top corner and Veteran Most Expected to Decline, Leon Hall, showed the effects of two torn achilles tendons, grabbing just one interception. Now on the wrong side of 30, Hall’s ball-hawking days as a shutdown corner have clearly passed and the combination of age and injury has slowed his ability to hang with younger, faster wide receivers.

Competing for Hall’s position as a starting corner are The Rookie Who Is Needed Early, Josh Shaw, and the Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly, Darqueze Dennard. Shaw, a fourth round pick in 2015, needs to step up early and show the versatility at both corner and safety he showed while at USC. With Hall in decline and Adam Jones a free agent at the end the season, the Bengals need Shaw to show that he can provide value and versatility on defense, not just special teams. Shaw possesses good size, but lacks fluid hips and top end speed and may be better suited at safety for the meantime while he refines his technique at the corner and in the slot. Dennard, the 24th overall pick in 2014, didn’t see the field much last season mainly due to conditioning issues, but, now that competition is open, the Bengals need him to flash the skill that earned him the Thorpe Award at Michigan State.

If the Bengals want their defense to be one of the best in the league again, they will need the other Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly in Margus Hunt. The Estonian physical freak (6’8”, 300 lbs, 4.6 40 yd dash) has only played football for seven years and needs to combine his physical stature with game intelligence. Hunt has the ability to flash explosiveness off the line and brute strength when going after the quarterback and, when he puts it all together, he is unstoppable.

This offseason the Bengals bolstered their linebacking corps with the signing of AJ Hawk, but the Most Intriguing Player to Watch is a different LB – Emmanuel Lamur. The 26 year old became a starter last year and put up impressive numbers in thirteen starts. Lamur, who has a background at safety, is a coverage specialist but needs to show an ability to stop the run this year to avoid losing his job to Vincent Rey.

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Jake Fisher is a fascinating rookie and a player to be Most Excited About an Expanded Role. The Bengals consistently have one of the best offensive lines, and Fisher gives the team deep depth at that position group. The former tight end, who converted full time to OT at Oregon, gives the Bengals flexibility with his athleticism and leaner frame, even checking in as an eligible receiver during the third preseason contest. Fisher is already an excellent pass blocker, using his feet well to gain leverage, but needs to improve in the run game, a task for which he will likely need to bulk up.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Dan Hatman is the Director of The Scouting Academy and writes for Inside The Pylon when not teaching future football scouts and coaches how to do their job.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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