AFC grades: Top marks for Steelers, Raiders, Patsies

Given that there wasn’t a lot of great offensive talent at skill positions available this year, most teams in the AFC focused on upgrading their defenses in hopes of chasing down top quarterbacks Tom Brady of NE and Peyton Manning of Indy. Either that or they spent high picks on offensive linemen in hopes of having the type of running attacks to keep the ball away from those quarterbacks. In that vein, NYJ added pass rusher Vernon Gholston, an amazing physical specimen from Ohio State, while Jaxxe made two trades up to nab DEs Derrick Harvey of Florida and Quentin Groves of Auburn. Not surprisingly, Miami and KC took big strides toward rebuilding their depleted offensive and defensive lines. New England made key moves to improve their aging linebacking corps and Indianapolis made picks with an eye toward the future. But the biggest move of the draft was Oakland taking Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, the most obvious game-changing talent in the draft. The Raiders continued one of the most aggressive offseasons in the NFL, going neck-and-neck with the Jets. That helped give the Raiders a good grade in the draft. We’ll see how it helps during the season:

AFC EAST
Buffalo Bills
Picks: CB Leodis McKelvin, WR James Hardy, DE Chris Ellis, CB Reggie Corner, TE Derek Fine, LB Alvin Bowen, RB Xavier Omon, OT Demetrius Bell, WR Steve Johnson, DB Kennard Cox
Positives: McKelvin and Hardy
Negatives: Ellis
Bottom line: B+. Patience paid off for the Bills as the early run on defensive linemen allowed McKelvin to slip to No. 11 overall. The Bills got the best cornerback in the draft and didn’t have to move up to get him. Hardy is an interesting prospect. His 6-foot-6 height should give the Bills a nice red zone receiver. Ellis isn’t a bad pick for the third round, but he’s not the most disciplined kid. The Bills continued to look for help at CB with Corner. Not the sexiest draft, but it should be effective.
Miami Dolphins
Picks: OT Jake Long, DE Phillip Merling, QB Chad Henne, DE Kendall Langford, G Shawn Murphy, RB Jalen Parmele, G Donald Thomas, RB Lex Hilliard, NT Lionel Dotson
Positives: Long, Henne and Langford
Negatives: Merling and Thomas
Bottom line: B+. Anybody who wants to understand the Bill Parcells blueprint should study this draft. Rebuild the lines first and get a drop-back quarterback. Long immediately steps into the left tackle spot while Merling and Langford give the team a much-needed infusion of talent on the defensive line. However, Merling is a bit of a reach because he doesn’t fit a 3-4 defense perfectly. The best move for the Dolphins was not overreacting to the hype regarding Henne after Baltimore made an early move to nab Joe Flacco. Instead of creating a run on quarterbacks, the Dolphins patiently waited for him at the end of the second round.
New England Patriots
Picks: LB Jerod Mayo, CB Terrence Wheatley, LB Shawn Crable, QB Kevin O’Connell, CB Jonathan Wilhite, WR Matt Slater and LB Bo Ruud
Positives: Mayo, Wheatley and Crable
Negatives: O’Connell
Bottom line: A-. Indy’s Bill Polian is the best drafter, but no team in the NFL works the draft better than the Patriots and they again showed it this year. They moved out of the No. 7 spot and got yet another pick after not getting a shot at one of the premier defenders in the draft. The Pats now can begin the transition from the paleo-linebacking corps they’ve had the past two years to a more modern group. Likewise, they hope the likes of Wheatley and Wilhite will fill the shoes of departed CBs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay.
New York Jets
Picks: LB/DE Vernon Gholston, TE Dustin Keller, CB Dwight Lowery, QB Erik Ainge, WR Marcus Henry, OT Nate Garner
Positives: Keller and Lowery
Negatives: Gholston and Ainge
Bottom line: C. Jets fans at the draft were thrilled when their team grabbed Gholston to give them another outside pass rusher, another piece in an aggressive offseason. But there are plenty of people around the NFL who contend that Gholston is the biggest potential bust of the first round. There are concerns about whether he really likes the game. That’s not good. Keller gives the team a more dynamic receiver for the middle of the field and a stopgap if starting TE Chris Baker doesn’t play for the Jets this season. Lowery gives them depth at a weak spot. Ainge is a waste of a pick.

AFC NORTH
Baltimore Ravens
Picks: QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, LB Tavares Gooden, S Tom Zbikowski, G Oniel Cousins, WR Marcus Smith, OT David Hale, S Haruki Nakamura, WR Justin Harper, RB Allen Patrick
Positives: Rice, Gooden and Zbikowski
Negatives: Flacco
Bottom line: C. There’s a lot of excitement about Flacco, who has a cannon arm. But look at the history of the league: QBs who are taller than 6-5 generally aren’t very good. They can’t move fast enough to avoid hits. Flacco lumbers when he moves and he’s making a big jump from Delaware. Good luck. Rice is a very good backup to Willis McGahee, and Gooden is a much better player than he showed at Miami.
Cincinnati Bengals
Picks: LB Keith Rivers, WR Jerome Simpson, DT Pat Sims, WR Andre Caldwell, OT Anthony Collins, DT Jason Shirley, S Corey Lynch, TE Matt Sherry, DE Angelo Craig and WR Mario Urritia
Positives: Rivers, Sims and Caldwell
Negatives: Simpson and Shirley
Bottom line: D-. Rivers and Sims are immediate starters, but that’s almost by default. The Bengals wanted to get USC DT Sedrick Ellis in the first round, but got jumped by the Saints, who telegraphed their move for four days. The Bengals should have done something to counter New Orleans, but as is typical with Cincy, the Bengals let someone else determine their fate. Calling Simpson a “negative” is a little strong, but he’s just a reminder of how bad the situation is there between the dismissal of Chris Henry and the mouthing off by Chad Johnson. Where the grade really takes a hit is with Shirley, a guy who was in and out of trouble last season. The Bengals never learn.
Cleveland Browns
Picks: LB Beau Bell, TE Martin Rucker, DT Ahtyba Rubin, WR Paul Hubbard and DE Alex Hall
Positives: Rucker
Negatives: Bell
Bottom line: C. Rucker is a good backup to have for TE Kellen Winslow. This is a really difficult draft to analyze because the Browns traded away their first day of the draft. The first-round pick was dealt last year for Brady Quinn. Then they dealt the other picks for the likes of DTs Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams. The Quinn deal has yet to pan out but it could be great. Rogers and Williams were both huge needs, a sign that the Browns are playing for today. This is the type of draft where they could have problems down the road if the roster gets old in a hurry. Bell is a decent interior LB prospect, but he has been hurt.
Pittsburgh Steelers
Picks: RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Limas Sweed, DE Bruce Davis, OT Tony Hills, QB Dennis Dixon, LB Mike Humpal, S Ryan Mundy
Positives: Mendenhall, Sweed, Davis and Dixon
Negatives: Hills
Bottom line: A. This is a truly great draft, although it’s unlikely Dixon will get a chance to develop as a passer with Ben Roethlisberger entrenched. A month ago, there was a debate about who the second-best back in the draft was after Darren McFadden and many people thought it was Mendenhall. Then he fell behind Jonathan Stewart and Felix Jones. The Steelers nabbed a falling value, a great move in drafting. Sweed has awesome talent and Davis will convert to an OLB and has the quickness to be another great pass rusher in the Steelers’ 3-4 system. The injured Dixon was a great value in the fifth round.

AFC SOUTH
Houston Texans
Picks: OT Duane Brown, CB Antwaun Molden, RB Steve Slaton, LB Xavier Adibi, DT Frank Okam, S Dominique Barber, QB Alex Brink
Positives: Brown, Slaton and Okam
Negatives: Molden
Bottom line: B. Give Houston a lot of credit for maneuvering around the draft, particularly after a mid-first round run on offensive linemen left the Texans without great choices at the No. 18 spot. They slid back to get Brown at No. 26, nabbing a need player at a better value spot. You also have to love the speed of Slaton, who can change a game in a hurry. However, Molden is too raw and the downside of Slaton is that he doesn’t like contact, making him a predictable runner. Okam, a former defensive tackle, is likely to shift to guard, a clever move by teams that realize that non-athletic DTs can make for cheap, athletic G’s.

Indianapolis Colts
Picks: OT Mike Pollak, LB Philip Wheeler, TE Jacob Tamme, LB Marcus Howard, TE Tom Santi, C Steve Justice, RB Mike Hart, WR Pierre Garcon, G Jamey Richard
Positives: Pollak, Tamme and Howard
Negatives: Wheeler
Bottom line: B. OK, any criticism of this draft is a matter of being pretty picky. Colts president Bill Polian is always a step or two ahead of the pack. Last year, he traded away his first pick to get Tony Ugoh, a starting left tackle. This year, he’s looking ahead to keeping the line solid with Pollak, a guy who fits the Colts’ system perfectly. Likewise, Tamme gives the Colts another receiving tight end to work the middle of the field. Wheeler is a little stiff for what the Colts do on defense, but he’s still a solid player. Howard is a great experiment at either LB or DE.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Picks: DE Derrick Harvey, DE Quentin Groves, LB Thomas Williams, CB Trae Williams, RB Chauncey Washington
Positives: Harvey and Groves
Negatives: Gave away took many draft picks.
Bottom line: C+. This is not a criticism of the players the Jaguars took. Harvey is one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the draft, capable of playing both outside and inside. He’s going to be a force. Groves is only a step or two behind. However, how quickly will these guys make it? The Jags are in position to compete for a title and there’s a good argument that they could have nabbed Dolphins DE Jason Taylor with some of those picks. It’s a pretty good bet that Taylor will have more sacks over the next two years than either Harvey or Groves. Maybe more than them combined.
Tennessee Titans
Picks: RB Chris Johnson, DE Jason Jones, TE Craig Stevens, DL William Hayes, WR Lavelle Hawkins, LB Stanford Keglar, DB Cary Williams
Positives: Jones and Hawkins
Negatives: Johnson, Stevens and Hayes
Bottom line: D. This not a shot at Johnson, who is one of the fastest players in the draft, but this is the third consecutive year the Titans have spent a first- or second-round pick on a running back. They desperately need receiving help. Jones fills in for the loss of Antwan Odom. Hayes will get a shot at that job as well, but he was more of reach. Hawkins is a really nice pickup in the fourth round, but the Titans needed to get another one earlier.

AFC WEST
Denver Broncos
Picks: OT Ryan Clady, WR Eddie Royal, G Kory Lichtensteiger, CB Jack Williams, RB Ryan Torain, DT Carlton Powell, LB Spencer Larsen, DB Josh Barrett and RB Peyton Hillis
Positives: Clady, Royal and Williams
Negatives: Lichtensteiger and Torain
Bottom line: B. The Broncos nabbed the second-best left tackle in the draft after Jake Long and an immediate replacement to Matt Lepsis, who retired. The Broncos addressed their constant need for a return man with Royal, who could be really interesting in the offense as well. Lichtensteiger is a solid player, but guys with short arms have problems in this league. So much of line play, both offensively and defensively, is dependent upon leverage. Like Royal, Williams is a speed guy the Broncos needed.
Kansas City Chiefs
Picks: DT Glenn Dorsey, G Branden Albert, CB Brandon Flowers, RB Jamaal Charles, TE Brad Cottam, S DaJuan Morgan, WR Will Franklin, CB Brandon Carr, OT Barry Richardson, WR Kevin Robinson, DE Brian Johnston and TE Michael Merritt
Positives: Dorsey, Albert, Flowers and Charles
Negatives: Cottam and Franklin
Bottom line: A. Losing DE Jared Allen to get a bunch of picks still hurts, but that relationship was broken beyond repair. The Chiefs resisted all temptations to move either up or down, stood pat and got perhaps the most dynamic defensive player in the draft in Dorsey and a terrific talent on the offensive line in Albert. Both are great building blocks for the future. Flowers gives the Chiefs a much-needed infusion of youth since veteran Patrick Surtain might be close to the end. Charles provides some speed at running back and he could be a possible successor to Larry Johnson. Oakland Raiders
Picks: RB Darren McFadden, CB Tyvon Branch, WR Arman Shields, DE Trevor Scott and WR Chaz Schilens
Positives: McFadden, McFadden and McFadden
Negatives: Branch and Shields
Bottom line: A-. The McFadden pick is a great gamble, although there’s a legit concern about whether the Raiders will give him the personal help he needs to succeed. Like the Jets (Gholston) and Atlanta (Matt Ryan), the Raiders took a player with huge boom and bust potential. However, McFadden has the biggest upside of all three. In fact, he has the biggest upside of any player in the draft and he could be a huge help to second-year QB JaMarcus Russell. Branch and Shields are desperate attempts to fill needs, but should make the team.
San Diego Chargers
Picks: CB Antoine Cason, FB Jacob Hester, RB Marcus Thomas, CB DeJuan Tribble and OT Corey Clark
Positives: Cason
Negatives: Hester
Bottom line: C. This is a much more clever draft than this grade indicates. Instead of grabbing a lot of players who won’t make the roster, the Chargers wisely took only five players. This is a dynamic that many teams don’t understand when they’re building a roster. Sometimes, having a lot of picks is a waste of time. Cason fills the job of departed CB Drayton Florence. Hester is a bit of a reach, but he is a quality player and a better running back than most people think. He fits well as a replacement for Michael Turner and will be great on special teams.