The defending champions, an up-and-coming young team, an aging team and ... The Browns.
The AFC North is always a tough division to win given the history of big, fast defenses and bitter rivalries, in recent seasons the Cincinnati Bengals have been breaking up the Ravens-Steelers cartel and are itching to claim a third divisional title since 2005. Meanwhile the Browns are rebuilding for what feels like the 50th year in a row and have yet another front office and head coach combination hoping to drag Cleveland back to respectability.
Let's open things up with the Champs...
Notable Free Agents: Bryant McKinnie (LT), Dannell Ellerbe (LB), Paul Kruger (OLB), Cary Williams (CB), Ed Reed (FS) - Ray Lewis (Retired)
Holes: Left Tackle, Wide Receiver, Linebacker, Cornerback
The Superbowl champs were able to get a deal done with Joe Flacco, handing the reigning Superbowl MVP a 6 year, $120.6million deal. While they've locked down their signal caller, that contract does mean they're unlikely to find the money to re-sign everyone. It's likely that Paul Kruger at least will be jettisoned, while rumours are abound that Bill Belichick is interested in tempting Ed Reed over to the dark side.
It's odd to see Left Tackle down as a need after the impressive way Baltimore's offensive line played in the playoffs with Bryant McKinnie there, but even if they do re-sign him he's not a long term answer there. He can't be relied on not to turn up to camp well over-weight and at 33 his best days are behind him. Michael Oher has proven to be a much better right tackle than left, so flipping him back across the line is likely to be a last resort for the Ravens. With their tight cap space it's likely they look to the draft to fill that particular spot on the roster, or at least find the back-up to McKinnie.
The questions at cornerback stem from Lardarius Webb's ACL injury suffered last season. Adrian Peterson aside, ACL injuries take a long time to fully heal and continue to affect players who rely on quickness and fast breaks up to a full year after the injury. 2011 1st round pick Jimmy Smith has yet to develop into a reliable cornerback while Cary Williams was iffy at best all season. Provided Webb can return and play up to the 6 year, $50million deal the Ravens gave him this time last year the need will become less.
Notable Free Agents: Rashard Mendenhall (RB), Mike Wallace (WR), Maz Starks (LT), Ramon Foster (RG), Casey Hampton (NT), Larry Foote (LB)
Holes: Offensive Line, Linebacker, Cornerback
It seems like every year Pittsburgh need offensive line help. And this season might not be any different with 32 starts in 2012 drifting off into free agency with Starks and Foster. The recovery of last years 1st rounder David DeCastro will plug one hole, but the other needs to be filled with reliable talent (so not Mike Adams). It's unlikely that the Steelers look to retain Mendenhall given the production they got from Jonathan Dwyer last year and the availability of running backs in the draft, and Mike Wallace is definitely not returning after holding out last year and having an indifferent season while Antonio Brown and Heath Miller relished their expanded roles.
The Steelers have become an old, cap-poor team in recent years, so they're going to need a very good draft to fill the cracks that have appeared in a formerly great roster. Nose tackles as good as Casey Hampton was are tough to find these days, as are aggressive pass rushers like James Harrison. But the Steelers need to replace both these players either straight away or in 2014. They will also need to find some help in the secondary to slow the pass-happy teams that have historically given them problems.
They have lot of directions they could go in the draft but are unlikely to pick based purely on need and instead go with a talented player who slips down the board.
Notable Free Agents: Andre Smith (RT), Robert Geathers (DE), Ray Maualuga (LB), Terrence Newman (CB)
Franchise Tag: Michael Johnson (DE)
Holes: Running Back, Wide Receiver, Coverage Linebacker, Defensive Back
The Bengals have been to the post season in the last 2 seasons, but both times have been knocked out straight away by the Houston Texans. Some of this has to do with their offensive limitations but the defense wasn't perfect either. Thanks to the Carson Palmer windfall and hitting on mid-round players like Andy Dalton and Geno Atkins the Bengals are a very young team, but they still have issues. Their linebackers struggled in coverage all year, and they have more than just Maualuga hitting free agency from that position.
Terrence Newman heads up a trio of free agent cornerbacks, and while they still have Leon Hall and last years top pick Dre Kirkpatrick you need more than just 2 corners in today's NFL to compete. Especially when you have poor safety play. With the 21st pick in the draft there's a good chance that the top safety, Kenny Vaccaro, will be available. His disappointing Combine should keep him out of the top half of the draft. The Bengals also have 2 second round selections to help ease the pain in their back 7.
Last year the Bengals bought in BenJarvis Green-Ellis as a free agent to head up their backfield. He's been reliable at grinding out yards, but lacks the explosion and athleticism to break big runs on his own. Finding a complimentary back who can do those things is a must for the Bengals, as is finding a reliable 2nd receiver to AJ Green. Muhamed Sanu could be the guy, but bringing in a possession receiver who can work in areas that Sanu can't could really help get the best out of Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham and Dalton. With that in mind they could do a lot worse than pursuing Danny Amendola given the mountain of cap space they have.
But given all that, the priority has to be getting Andre Smith back. He's one of the best right tackles in the league, but his reported asking price of $9million a year could be the sticking point that sees him sign with another team and force the Bengals in another direction come draft day.
Notable Free Agents: Josh Cribbs (WR), Ben Watson (TE), Jaqua Parker (DE)
Holes:Wide Receiver, Tight End, Pass Rush
With a new front office and new head coach there should be a lot of turnover in the Browns roster, including a potential new Quarterback after Brandon Weeden's less than impressive rookie season. That however is secondary to providing a Quarterback with viable receiving threats.
They've been rumoured to have interest in Mike Wallace and Steve Breaston, but not in bringing Cribbs back at his $2m/year asking price. Where they're picking in the draft there's no value in a receiver, so they should be aiming at pass rushers, or maybe Dee Milliner in the unlikely event he gets past Detroit at 5.
Ben Watson is a serviceable tight end, but with that position now expanding and becoming faster and more important to offenses an upgrade would be very welcome to whoever ends up starting at Quarterback for the Browns in 2013 (For what it's worth I think it will still be Weeden).
- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen