The Ravens already have narrowed the gap by trading for wide receiver Anquan Boldin. The Steelers, on the other hand, have taken one giant step backward by jettisoning Santonio Holmes and watching Ben Roethlisberger drag himself and the team through a sex scandal.
The Browns, meanwhile, are starting over again under Mike Holmgren. But the team's new president already has gotten off to a questionable start by moving too quickly to sign scatter-armed quarterback Jake Delhomme in free agency rather than waiting for an outcome on the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb.
Next comes the draft, though, and the Browns are in the most enviable position of any AFC North team. They have the seventh pick in the draft and 10 selections overall, and can rebuild their roster virtually overnight. The Steelers have 11 picks, including four in the fifth round, and the Bengals have nine. In a draft deemed one of the deepest in years, this represents opportunity.
But the Ravens, with just five picks, aren't in panic mode.
"The only thing we concern ourselves with is getting our picks right," said Eric DeCosta, the team's director of player personnel. "We have five picks, and we've got to nail our picks, each and every one of them, to make our team as good as we can. Every team operates on a different script of how they want to get better. We made the determination to give up a couple picks for Anquan Boldin because we thought that made us better than using those picks in the draft."
The Ravens gave their third- and fourth-round picks to Arizona in return for Boldin and the Cardinals' fifth-round pick. They gave up this year's seventh-round pick in a deal for defensive tackle Marques Douglas two years ago. This isn't 2008, when the Ravens had 10 picks coming off a 5-11 season that cost coach Brian Billick his job.
"The reality is, when you have a good team, it's tougher for draft picks to make it," DeCosta said. "Two years ago, we had a ton of picks. That was a bad team. We wanted to bring an influx of young players to the team. That's why, if you look back, I made the statement that I thought it was the most critical draft in the history of the Ravens. And we came out of it with Ray Rice and Joe Flacco."
This is where the other AFC North teams stand going into Thursday's first round:
Picks: No. 21 overall, four of the top 96 and nine total
Needs: Tight end, safety, defensive tackle, nickel back, offensive guard
Outlook: The Bengals signed deep-threat receiver Antonio Bryant but still need a tight end; they were never able to replace Reggie Kelly last season. They probably need to replace Roy Williams at strong safety, too.
Possible targets: Jermaine Gresham would resolve a lot of issues the Bengals had at tight end a year ago. They also could go for a defensive tackle ( Dan Williams or Jared Odrick) or the third safety (Taylor Mays) in the first round. They probably need to strike in the second round for a tight end if Gresham is gone.
Picks: No. 18 overall, eight through five rounds and 11 total
Needs: Cornerback, right guard, left tackle, defensive end, running back
Outlook: The Steelers are having a rough offseason after missing the playoffs. Holmes is gone from the offense, and Roethlisberger is likely awaiting a suspension. The offensive line needs reinforcements to revive the running game. The secondary is in shambles — no lead was safe in 2009.
Possible targets: A lot of mock drafts are sending either center Markice Pouncey or guard Mike Iupati to the Steelers in the first round, but the right cornerback might be hard to pass up. Joe Haden should be gone at 18, but Kyle Wilson, Kareem Jackson and Devin McCourty are probably going to be there. The Steelers have enough picks to move around if they are targeting other players.
Picks: No. 7 overall, five of the first 92 and 10 total
Needs: Safety, defensive line, wide receiver, quarterback, offensive guard
Outlook: Holmgren threw out a smokescreen when he said he didn't see Jimmy Clausen coming to Cleveland and then backtracked after a visit from the former Notre Dame quarterback. Holmgren had a penchant for moving around in the draft at Seattle. He could greatly improve the Browns with his early picks, but might get more help if he trades down. He couldn't do that if he traded up to the first pick for Sam Bradford. Then again, how long does he want Delhomme as his quarterback?
Possible targets: Wide receiver Dez Bryant or Clausen makes a lot of sense at No. 7, although the Browns have to think about defense, too. Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech could be an option because both starting defensive ends are older than 31. Although it's high to get a safety, both Eric Berry and Earl Thomas likely will be available. In the end, trading down probably makes the most sense.