Tremors of change had already begun to rattle the AFC North by the end of last season, with the house-divided Pittsburgh Steelers stumbling out of playoff contention and the Cleveland Browns becoming tomorrow’s darlings on the arm of No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield.
The Ravens took advantage of this transition, seizing their first division title in six years behind a veteran defense and a rookie quarterback. But the sense of a new era dawning has only increased in the months since, with the Browns fortifying their roster while the Ravens and Steelers said farewell to signature stars.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh recently said it himself: the eternal laughingstock Browns are now the most talented team in the division. But are they the clear favorite? As we look ahead to the draft, let’s take stock of the moves made by each AFC North team over the past three months and of the work that remains for each.
2018 record: 6-10
Key additions: G John Miller, CB B.W. Webb, DL Kerry Wynn, HC Zac Taylor
Key departures: LB Vontaze Burfict, TE Tyler Kroft, HC Marvin Lewis
Positions of need: LB, OT, QB, TE
Outlook: It’s been an uninspiring offseason for a franchise that already seemed adrift. The Bengals finally decided to move on from Lewis after 16 seasons. They followed a trend by turning to a young, offensive-minded coach who literally worked under the archetype of that genre in Sean McVay. But Taylor will be hard-pressed to change the momentum of this team until he finds the successor to quarterback Andy Dalton, who’s never proven good enough to lead a deep playoff run. The Bengals still have elite veterans in defensive tackle Geno Atkins and wide receiver A.J. Green, and productive young skill players in wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon. But the bottom line is they didn’t excel in any area last season and haven’t done anything to transform their roster. The Bengals will pick 11th in the first round of the draft, so they should be positioned to add one of the top offensive linemen or linebackers available.
2018 record: 7-8-1
Key additions: WR Odell Beckham Jr., DE Olivier Vernon, DT Sheldon Richardson, LB Adarius Taylor, RB Kareem Hunt, TE Demetrius Harris, OT Kendall Lamm, G Eric Kush, HC Freddie Kitchens
Key departures: G Kevin Zeitler, OLB Jamie Collins Sr., S Jabrill Peppers, WR Breshad Perriman, TE Darren Fells
Positions of need: CB, LB, OT
Outlook: With the gifted, confident Mayfield exceeding expectations at quarterback and young stars Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward matching him on the other side of the ball, the Browns looked like future rulers of the division even before their busy offseason. Then they swiped the NFL’s most gifted wide receiver, Beckham, for a modest cost while adding a pair of excellent defensive linemen, Vernon and Richardson, to help Garrett. They still need to shore up their run defense and pass coverage, but they’ll hit opponents with elite playmakers on both sides of the ball. Harbaugh was correct in saying the Browns currently possess the best roster in the division. They looked within to promote Kitchens. The trust he earned working with Mayfield last season could prove to be his biggest leg up as he tries to elevate a promising collection of talent into a legitimate championship contender. The Browns don’t pick until No. 49 overall, in the middle of the second round, after trading their first-rounder to the Giants in the Beckham deal.
2018 record: 9-6-1
Key additions: CB Steven Nelson, LB Mark Barron, WR Donte Moncrief
Key departures: WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell, TE Jesse James, S Morgan Burnett, OT Marcus Gilbert
Positions of need: CB, LB, WR
Outlook: From 2014 to 2017, no team could match Pittsburgh’s skill-position trio of Bell, Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. No surprise then that the Steelers won three division titles and a wild-card berth in that span. With Brown and Bell gone, they face a radically altered present and an uncertain future. That doesn’t mean they’ll plummet from contention in 2019. At age 37, Roethlisberger is not the force of nature he was five years ago, but don’t make the mistake of burying him. He still completed 67 percent of his passes and threw for more than 5,000 yards last season, and he still has a big-time receiver to target in JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers also did fine without Bell last season as versatile James Conner made the Pro Bowl, aided by an offensive line that still excels at power blocking. Defense is a greater problem. The Steelers haven’t found a worthy replacement for Ryan Shazier at linebacker, and their defensive backs were mediocre in 2018. They added a solid cornerback in Nelson, and their defensive line is still good. But the Steel Curtain this ain’t. With the No. 20 pick in the draft, the Steelers should be positioned to add a starting linebacker or defensive back.
2018 record: 10-6
Key additions: S Earl Thomas, RB Mark Ingram, CB Justin Bethel, GM Eric DeCosta
Key departures: LB C.J. Mosley, LB Za’Darius Smith, LB Terrell Suggs, S Eric Weddle, QB Joe Flacco, WR John Brown, WR Michael Crabtree, GM Ozzie Newsome
Positions of need: WR, EDGE, ILB, OL
Latest Baltimore Ravens
Outlook: DeCosta eased fan anxiety when he swooped in to sign Thomas, the best safety of the past decade. But the Ravens nonetheless watched a huge collection of defensive talent walk out the door. Smith and Suggs were their best pass rushers. Weddle kept them organized on the back end. Mosley was the dependable rock at the center of it all. Depth along the interior line and especially in the secondary will mitigate those losses, but it’s hard to project the Ravens to repeat as the NFL’s No. 1 defensive team. On offense, meanwhile, much will depend on Lamar Jackson’s development as an all-around quarterback. The Ravens trust Jackson to put in the necessary work, but it’s fair to ask how much his progress will be hampered by an alarming paucity of downfield targets. Fans will clamor for the Ravens to draft a wide receiver at No. 22 overall, but don’t be surprised if they see better value in adding a top interior blocker or an athletic, polished inside linebacker such as Devin Bush. They’ll also continue to seek late-spring bargains on the free-agent market.