AFC North

Backs to the future

Steelers, Ravens boost running game

April 28, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

It used to be that a team needed one big running back to compete in the AFC North. Now the price of contention is two.

The defending division champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the Ravens raised the running back ante in the division with picks at the position in this weekend's NFL draft. The Steelers jumped on Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois with the 23rd pick in the first round. The Ravens pounced on Ray Rice of Rutgers 32 picks later.

It has become fashionable in the NFL, if not altogether necessary, for teams to have a second viable option in the running game. After Pittsburgh's Willie Parker fractured his right tibia in the 15th game of the season -- on his 321st carry -- the Steelers were not the same team.

At the time, the Steelers had only Najeh Davenport as a viable option.

The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Mendenhall rushed for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns last season for Illinois in his only year as the No. 1 back. He is big enough to push the pile and quick enough to get outside, a prototype of what the Steelers like in a back.

Parker, who led the league in rushing at the time he was hurt, is expected to make a complete recovery. But Mendenhall's presence takes the pressure off Parker.

Rice figures to be a perfect complement to Ravens starter Willis McGahee as a powerful 5-8, 200-pound runner with good speed.

Playmakers were a theme in the draft for each AFC North team except the Cleveland Browns.

Anticipating a lengthy holdout from Chad Johnson and having already cut Chris Henry for behavioral problems, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted three wide receivers.

The Bengals passed on the chance to deal Johnson for another first-round pick and instead took Jerome Simpson of Coastal Carolina in the second round, Andre Caldwell of Florida in the third and Mario Urrutia of Louisville in the seventh.

Simpson, a 6-2 receiver with long arms, caught 41 touchdowns in college. Caldwell is the brother of NFL receiver Reche Caldwell, and Urrutia was a 6-6 target for Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm.

The Steelers took a big receiver in the second round, choosing 6-4 Limas Sweed of Texas. Sweed gives quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a target in the red zone he hasn't had since Plaxico Burress left in free agency.

The Steelers selected Sweed's Texas teammate, 6-6 tackle Tony Hills, in the fourth round. Hills is a converted tight end.

In the fifth round, Pittsburgh tapped Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon, whose 2007 season ended with a knee injury. The athletic, 6-4 Dixon could slide into Kordell Stewart's "Slash" mold as a potential passer, rusher or receiver.

The Browns didn't have a pick in the first four rounds going into the draft, but traded into the fourth twice to take inside linebacker Beau Bell of Nevada-Las Vegas and tight end Martin Rucker of Missouri.

Cleveland had traded the top of its draft for the chance to get quarterback Brady Quinn last year and for veteran defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams this offseason.ken.murray@baltsun.com

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