As another football season is in the history books, it is now time to embark on a new journey. As for every year, the fight to the finish in February begins right now in the offseason. For some teams, climbing over the hump means making statements in Free Agency; for others, triumph will come from building in the NFL Draft. Each of the 32 teams in the league will do extensive research from now until late April to determine what pieces they will need to perfect their clubs. Let’s begin with the Northern divisions by dissecting the AFC North.
For the past twelve seasons, the AFC North has established itself as the NFL’s most physical and hard-nosed division. All-time defensive greats like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers and stout defensive units from both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals have truly embodied what this division represented for the last decade or so. With that being said, however, the AFC North has quietly shifted into more of an offensive division, thanks to the help of the development of young quarterback-receiver tandems and also the aging of star defenders. Another surprise is that the division’s playoffs teams included neither the Ravens nor the Steelers. What are the key needs for the AFC North teams heading into the offseason?
NFL Draft Needs: AFC North
1. CINCINATTI BENGALS Team Needs: WR, CB, DE
Let’s start with the reigning division champion Bengals. Cincinnati had a solid 2013 finishing with an 11-5 record and clinching the division for the first time since 2009 and only for the third time in the division’s history. The defense was the driving force behind their regular season run going into the postseason. Having said that, the main concern for the Bengals is their offense. The Bengals really could use another vertical target opposite of A.J. Green to take some pressure off of one of the league’s top QB-WR duos.
Despite its depth, the Bengals need to get younger in the secondary; with Adam “Pacman” Jones and former Pro-Bowlers Leon Hall and Terrence Newman all in their thirties, they will need some fresh legs to complement their young and dominant front seven for years to come. Speaking of the front seven, it would not be a terrible idea if the Bengals elect to draft another d-lineman just in case Michael Johnson does bounce out of Cincy.
Many critics have argued that the Bengals need to replace Andy Dalton at the quarterback position, but they should let Dalton play out his final year of his four-year, rookie deal. Let the Bengals give him some more weapons and let’s see if we will have this same discussion at this time next year.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS Team Needs: Youth on Defense, WR, OL
The Steelers have several holes on defense to really pinpoint one spot specifically. From the defensive line to back in the secondary, their main focus is to get younger; the only positive in retaining vets like Polamalu, Brent Keisel and Ryan Clark is that the younger guys can learn how to play Steeler football. As for the offense, the wide-receiver position is a question mark. After Mike Wallace took his talents to South Beach last offseason, the Steelers are likely to experience the same situation with Emmanuel Sanders. With Jerricho Cotchery, who caught 10 touchdowns in 2013, also in limbo, the organization must decide how to approach their outside attack. The offensive line has remained shady throughout the Mike Tomlin era, so building inside-out will also be a great idea starting with their three-time pro-bowl center, Maurkice Pouncey.
3. BALTIMORE RAVENS Team Needs: OL, WR, TE
The Baltimore Ravens were middle-of-the-road in several areas in 2013; the team was nothing like their overachieving, super bowl squad from 2012. Aside from the resurgence of Ray Lewis during his last dance as an NFL player, Joe Flacco was the catalyst for the Ravens’ postseason with his 11 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta were Flacco’s top targets throughout the championship run. With Boldin’s departure to the Bay Area and the injury to Pitta, Flacco’s numbers went down drastically in 2013.
The Ravens need to find a possession receiver who can make plays in the middle of the field (basically an Anquan junior). Wide-outs Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones can both stretch the vertically and make big plays, but they have yet to prove to catch passes in multiple areas of the football field consistently. The Ravens might need to find a replacement for Pitta, who is a free agent, just in case he does decide to migrate from Maryland. Most importantly, the Ravens need to sure up their offensive line; the 48 sacks the frontline surrendered were the fourth most in football this season. Building around blindside tackle Eugene Monroe is not a bad place to start. Perhaps brining in Gary Kubiak will alleviate the load of their signal-caller by making running back Ray Rice the focal point on offense.
4. CLEVELAND BROWNS Team Needs: QB, RB, OL
The only thing that remains constant in Cleveland is change. As big of a mess as the Browns’ front office has been recently, the actual football roster remains in equal flux. The good news for the Browns is that they had the ninth-ranked defense in 2013; the bad news is—and what has been the bad news since 2002—is their quarterback-challenged offense. The Brandon Weeden project has not worked according to plan. Brian Hoyer showed some promise early in the season, but the organization has not made a long-term commitment thus far. With their questionable quarterback situation, the Browns are expected to be in the Johnny Manziel sweepstakes in May. Reloading the backfield is another priority as Cleveland tries to find Trent Richardson’s replacement. Also, resigning two-time pro-bowl center Alex Mack will only help solidify an offensive front that gave up 49 sacks this season, the third most in the league.
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