AFC North Team Needs: Offseason Analysis

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With Superbowl LV in the books and teams mostly solidified with their coaching and front office staff, we can start to look at team needs as we enter the off-season. For the AFC North, we see a division that had the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all making the playoffs. Rounding out the division, the Bengals showed some early promise with new quarterback Joe Burrow before he was forced out with a season-ending knee injury.

The following will breakdown the overall team needs heading into the off-season. I will explore potential fits in free agency and potential draft targets. I will also look at potential trade candidates where applicable. Coaching scheme and play style will be taken into account when referencing these targets, for example, a zone-blocking run scheme should not be targeting a mauling blocker. With the basics covered, let’s delve into the division winner needs to kick us off.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The 2020 Steelers danced their way to an 11-0 record to start the season and many thought of them as the team to beat in the AFC. Unfortunately for them, they quickly lost the rhythm they built early on and lost 5 of their next 6, including a playoff loss to the Browns. Some key losses on defense during the season helped expedite their demise towards the end of the season, as did their tendency to rely too heavily on the pass. Head coach Mike Tomlin will return for his 15th season with the Steelers and potentially his first without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center.

Team needs: OT, RB, IDL, DB, QB

Draft capital: 1:24, 2:55, 3:88, 4:130, 4:142, 6:217, 7:247, 7:256

Pending FA’s: JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Zach Banner, Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Tyson Alualu, Bud Dupree, Avery Williamson, Cameron Sutton, Mike Hilton

Salary Cap space: 6.1 million

With limited cap space and numerous free-agent starters, the Steelers find themselves in a position to take a step back in the division. They will need to negotiate or release some of their veterans and will find it difficult to retain a majority of their free agents. The Steelers restructured Roethlisberger recently, a move that lowered their cap hit by $15 million this year and got them back on the green side of the cap. They will need to search out his long-term replacement in the draft this year, Kellen Mond or Mac Jones would be enticing options.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens made the playoffs for the third year in a row and quarterback Lamar Jackson earned his first playoff victory. Baltimore was stymied in the divisional round by a stout Bills defense as they held Jackson in check for a majority of the game. Jackson showed flashes of the player the Ravens believe him to be throughout the season, but still showed inconsistency in some games. Head coach John Harbaugh returns for his 14th season and he will need to help get the most out of Jackson if the team wants to sustain the success it is accustomed to. 

Team needs: EDGE, WR, IOL, S

Draft capital: 1:27, 2:58, 3:106, 4:133, 5:170, 5:185, 6:211

Pending FA’s: Willie Snead IV, Dez Bryant, DJ Fluker, Matt Skura, Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Derek Wolfe

Salary Cap space: 16.9 million

Baltimore enters the off-season in an enviable position, they retain a majority of their core and have the cap space to retain some of their free agents. Additionally, they will return Ronnie Stanley to the lineup after suffering a season-ending ankle injury early in 2020. Orlando Brown, who replaced Stanley, has expressed his desire to remain at left tackle and would welcome a trade to another team.

Trading Brown would most likely bring back a late first-round or early second-round pick and allow for the Ravens to add another cost-controlled rookie to the roster. The Ravens should also target a big-bodied receiver to complement the speedy Marquise Brown. Finally, an extension for Jackson is also on the horizon and will likely command a large chunk of future cap space.

Cleveland Browns

In 2020 the Browns clinched their first winning season since 2007 and earned a playoff berth and victory against the division-rival Steelers. Rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski earned Coach of the Year honors and looks to build on the success he experienced.

The offense and quarterback Baker Mayfield will continue to grow with a second-year under Stefanski’s tutelage. Defensively they may experience an overhaul as most of their free agents are from the defensive side and the unit as a whole was somewhat underwhelming. 

Team needs: EDGE, DB, IDL, LB

Draft capital: 1:26, 2:59, 3:90, 3:92, 4:112, 4:134, 5:171, 6:212, 7:259

Pending FA’s: Rashard Higgins, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, BJ Goodson, Malcolm Smith, Kevin Johnson, Terrance Mitchell, Karl Joseph

Salary Cap space: 24.8 million

Cleveland will need to focus on defense this off-season, both in free agency and the draft. They will look to retain some of their free agents (Karl Joseph, Malcolm Smith) and also potentially cut a few players (cutting Sheldon Richardson will save $11.5 million) to free up additional cap. The Browns missed on JJ Watt, who had been rumored to the Browns, but they should continue to search to pair a pass rushing 3-technique with Myles Garrett.

They are in a prime position to add the best player available in the draft, which will most likely be at defensive back or defensive line. Players like Levi Onwuzurike, Jaelan Phillips, and Nick Bolton are currently being mocked to the Browns at pick #26. 

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals struggled out of the gate in 2020 and their season never took a turn for the better. Promising rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and running back Joe Mixon were lost to injury in the middle of the season and the team never fully recovered.

Burrow looked the part while out there and appeared to have a good rhythm with his receivers and will look to continue that chemistry when he returns. Second-year head coach Zac Taylor may be on the hot seat as he enters year 3 if he is unable to turn things around quickly. 

Team needs: OT, WR, IOL, TE, EDGE

Draft capital: 1:5, 2:38, 3:69, 4:113, 5:151, 6:191, 7:234, 7:236

Pending FA’s: AJ Green, John Ross, Carl Lawson, Mackenzie Alexander, William Jackson III, Shawn Williams

Salary Cap space: 42.9 million

Protecting 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow is priority one, two, and three this off-season for the Bengals. He simply took too many hits this year and ultimately suffered a season-ending knee injury. Cincinnati should target top-name free agents at tackle, guard, and tight end, names like Taylor Morton, Corey Linsley, and Joe Thuney come to mind. Seeking these positions via trade or free agency (Orlando Brown, Kyle Rudolph) could also be an option.

With their first-round pick, #5 overall, the Bengals will most likely select either Kyle Pitts or Penei Sewell to finalize the offensive overhaul around Burrow.