AFC North: A Quick Glance at Division Rivals

The off-season is upon us, and the Baltimore Ravens are right in the thick of it. Over the past several weeks, everyone has been talking and debating as to how the Ravens’ roster will change over the coming months. Who will remain, and who will leave? Which players are the Ravens targeting in the draft and free agency? I wanted to step away from that for a moment and take a quick look around the AFC North at what our division rivals could have in store this off-season.

As we all know, the AFC North is quickly becoming the toughest division in the entire league. The Cincinnati Bengals are looking to insert themselves among the conversation of perennial playoff contenders with the likes of the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers after an inspired regular season resulting in a wild-card berth, while the Cleveland Browns are continuing their re-building process with a few major questions surrounding the future of their offense in particular.

So, what have our fellow rivals around the AFC North been up to as of late, and how could this notoriously fierce division get even more competitive after the draft and free agency?

(After the "Jump", see a quick breakdown of the Ravens’ divisional rivals and which team could make a major power play in the upcoming 2012 NFL draft for a big-time QB.)

Pittsburgh Steelers: Known as an organization that’s usually as tough as their name suggests, the Steelers have had some un-characteristic off-season rumblings. According to recent reports, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t taking well to all of the new changes that are going on within his offense. In case you haven’t been following along with the drama, Roethlisberger was upset that former offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, who he had a strong relationship with, had not been retained by the team. In fact, no one truly knows whose choice it was to let Arians move on and then hire former Kansas City Chiefs head coach, Todd Haley, as the new offensive coordinator. As if that wasn’t enough, a story was just reported that Haley has yet to even make contact with his new quarterback since being hired about two weeks ago. The full story on the Steelers-Haley-Roethlisberger drama can be seen: here.

The last thing this franchise needs is locker room drama heading into an off-season in which they were an estimated $22.5 million over the cap before being forced to restructure the contracts of several veterans including: Ike Taylor and LaMarr Woodley. Though the restructuring of veteran contracts has significantly reduced the Steelers’ salary cap woes, they’re not out of the woods yet. Steelers wide receiver, Mike Wallace, is set to become a restricted free agent in a matter of weeks, and unless the team can create enough cap space to either extend or place the franchise tag on Wallace, it is a possibility that another team can snag him away for a hefty, but possibly worth while price in the form of a 1st round draft pick and a big time roster bonus that the Steelers most likely won’t be able to match. A team like the Bengals, with two 1st round picks and a ton of salary cap room, could be a prime candidate if they wish to pluck away one of the best receivers in the NFL from a division rival.

Cincinnati Bengals: While things seem quite bleak in Pittsburgh, the Bengals are sitting pretty. With an estimated figure of being $60 million under the cap per ESPN.com, the Bengals have a lot of room to move about free agency comfortably and can look to upgrade several key positions. With a young offense centered around quarterback, Andy Dalton, and wide receiver, A.J. Green, a major priority for the Bengals will most likely be adding a good #2 receiver to plug in opposite Green through either the draft or free agency.

With two 1st round picks (17th and 21st), the Bengals could find themselves in a position to move about the draft as well and gain even more selections by trading away one of their 1st rounders, or they could stay put where a bevy of talent could fall on draft day in the 1st round. With needs like: wide receiver, running back, offensive line, and defensive back, look for the Bengals to spend some cash and improve their roster in a major, major way. For a team that seemed to make all the wrong moves for years, the Bengals seem to be bucking their old habits and making positive changes for the future.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns are facing a little bit of a dilemma in this year’s draft. Sitting at the 4th overall selection, the Browns have the potential to move up by trading picks away with the possibility of snatching up Baylor’s Robert Griffin. The price might be steep, but it could be worth it considering Griffin is one of the most dynamic dual-threat prospects to enter the draft in recent memory. It might also not be a devastating trade for the Browns because they also hold a second 1st round pick at 22nd overall. With Colt McCoy currently sitting as the clear cut starter heading into next season, is it worth it to take Griffin and hope that he pans out, or use your numerous draft picks to acquire talented play makers to surround McCoy with? Very tough decisions to be made for a franchise that is in dire need of an offensive face lift.

The Browns also have a good amount of cap space at an estimated $21 million under the salary cap. With very few of their own free agents to take care of, the Browns will have enough room to make some moves in free agency and will most likely look to add some new offensive talent at running back and wide receiver. One of the big moves to watch this off-season will be if the Browns decide to part ways with malcontent runningback, Peyton Hillis, or sign him to a long-term contract. If the Browns let Hillis walk into free-agency, the Browns could look to draft a running back like Alabama’s Trent Richardson, and with a decent amount of cap space, the Browns could then look into free agency to sign a true #1 wide-out which the team has lacked for some time.

Only time will tell how all of this shakes out in the AFC North. It’ll certainly be an interesting few months that we’re now heading into, and it seems like this division race will be tightening up over the next few seasons. This should all make for some great football games in what I think is the best division in the NFL.

Add your off-season, draft, and free agency predictions for our AFC North rivals in the comments section below!

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