AFC North: A Quick Glance at Division Rivals Part 4

BALTIMORE - DECEMBER 24: Haloti Ngata #92 of the Baltimore Ravens sacks Seneca Wallace #6 of the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Browns 20-14. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

The Baltimore Ravens eventually ended their unnerving silence this off-season by making a few ripples during this off-season’s free agency period. As most are now aware, the Ravens signed a couple of outside free agents in both cornerback Corey Graham and safety Sean Considine, as well as re-signed two of their own linebackers in Jameel McClain and Brendon Ayanbadejo.

With the Ravens up against the salary cap, they will now begin to shift their focus to the upcoming draft where they usually tend to make the most "noise" each off-season. With several needs at various positions such as: offensive line, wide receiver, and safety, the Ravens should be able to find replacements for the likes of Ben Grubbs, Tom Zbikowski, and Haruki Nakamura through the draft. As posted yesterday, the Ravens should also be able to promote both outside backer Paul Kruger and defensive end Pernell McPhee from within their ranks to replace the departed Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding, respectively, which conceivably could make an already fearsome pass-rush even nastier.

The Ravens also have two star-players that are looking for their big-time contracts: quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice. With both players looking for extended contracts, it’s safe to assume that the Ravens will focus on locking up both offensive stars long-term instead of pursuing some of the free agents still left on the market. There have also been conflicting reports as to whether or not Rice will report to training camp and off-season activities which makes the negotiations between Rice and the Ravens all the more pressing.

With the Ravens’ news out of the way, let’s take a look the rest of the AFC North and what our hated rivals have been up to.

(Follow along after the "Jump" for a quick breakdown of the rest of the AFC North.)

Though all has been relatively quiet around the AFC North and there have hardly been any developments that one would call "shocking", it’s always a good idea to keep a close eye on what the Ravens’ pesky rivals are up to.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Though the Steelers have lost several players this year, much like the Ravens they will focus on the draft and promoting from within in an effort to get younger in key places throughout their roster. Unfortunately for the Steelers, it seems as though that starting running back Rashard Mendenhall may be sidelined for at least a small portion of the upcoming season, if not the entire season altogether, due to an ACL injury suffered late last season. This could be a huge blow to the Steelers’ offensive game-plan as they are still one of the few teams around the NFL that relies on and deploys a heavy, power run-game to compliment and set-up their downfield passing attack. The Steelers have a few capable back-ups on the roster but surely no one proven enough to be relied upon to carry a full season’s workload. For the Steelers, it could very well be a running back-by-committee approach next season, or they could look for a new franchise tail back in the draft.

The Steelers also took a gamble on placing a 1st round tender on restricted free agent wide-out Mike Wallace. Many seemed to believe that even with such a high price tag in order to earn the rights to one of the leagues best deep threats that there would be at least a few teams willing to bite on Wallace and part with a 1st round pick and whatever amount of cash it took to out-bid the Steelers. So far, no team has tried to snag away the Steelers’ top receiver, but there may be a very good reason as to why no one has come knocking for Wallace. Recently, an unnamed AFC coach expressed that teams around the NFL that are faced with the task of matching up against Wallace are wise to his "tricks" and have figured out ways to severely limit the speedy receiver’s abilities. The full story, which is a quick but good read, can be seen here.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have done a solid job during this year’s free agency, not over-spending for players but also maybe not spending enough across the board on patching up some of their biggest roster needs. The Bengals upgraded at running back-one of their biggest needs-by signing free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They also signed a top-priority of theirs in safety Reggie Nelson as well as linebacker Manny Lawson. In addition to their previously mentioned solid moves, the Bengals also added free agent guard Travelle Wharton. So far, the Bengals have hit upon most of their major roster needs through free agency which should only improve and solidify their roster heading into next season.

The most surprising place that the Bengals didn’t spend any cash this off-season was at the wide receiver position. With most of the best free agent receivers off of the board, the Bengals will surely look to find a true #2 receiver to place opposite A.J. Green through the draft where they will have several options.

So far, very good, solid moves by the Bengals this off-season for a franchise that seems to be getting back on track.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns missed out on the RGIII train, an unfortunate stroke of misfortune that could come back to bite a franchise in serious need of a re-boot and a facelift. While quarterback is arguably a big need to the Browns, they have so many roster holes to fill its hard to say where they should start. The Browns will have an opportunity to have a solid draft if they get out of their own way and pick up a few solid players. As a team that’s not yet ready to contend for the playoffs, much less the AFC North crown, the Browns should solely focus on small improvements to keep the ball rolling for future seasons.

Much has been speculated as to whether or not the Browns would consider taking the consensus 3rd rated quarterback prospect at 4th overall in Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill. While he is the 3rd rated quarterback in the upcoming draft, Tannehill only has a handful of starts at the collegiate level after making the transition from wide receiver to quarterback a couple of years ago and projects to be somewhat of a "project". The Browns don’t need a "project" on their offense, instead they should consider taking Alabama’s running back Trent Richardson who many believe to be the best running back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson. A back like Richardson could take some of the heat off of quarterback Colt McCoy and help rejuvenate the Browns’ offense enough to keep fans in the seats and win some games. The Browns could also look to select Oklahoma State’s wide-out Justin Blackmon which would be a huge upgrade for McCoy and would be something the young quarterback has never had: a true #1 wide receiver that he can rely upon.

The AFC North is home to some of the best football year in and year out, and the upcoming season is shaping up to be no different. With the Bengals emerging as a legitimate threat, it should make for an even more interesting and hard-fought divisional race. The upcoming draft will be absolutely paramount for each AFC North team to fill their biggest needs and with only a few weeks left until the start of the 1st round, we all have a lot to look forward to.

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