How the Teams Stand – AFC North

After a typically gruelling season for each team in the NFL, and a particularly historic one (and not in a good way) for the Cleveland Browns, we now know the fate of every team heading into next season.

This is the first in a series where Calum Scotland will be looking at how well prepared each team is for 2018, even before 2017 has really ended, and where else to start but with the AFC North?

Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 Record: 13-3 (Lost to JAX in Divisional Round)
Key Free Agents: RB Le’Veon Bell, OLB Arthur Moats, ILB Sean Spence
Cap Space: Between $-3m and $3m
Draft Needs: QB/TE/LB

The Steelers capped off another relatively successful season with yet another AFC North title, avoiding major injuries to key players for the most part (Ryan Shazier notwithstanding), and keeping Ben Roethlisberger in the team for all sixteen games, which in itself is a rare feat.

The biggest challenge for the Steelers this offseason will be the same as last year: re-sign Le’Veon Bell. The star RB has threatened to retire if he is once again franchise tagged, and expects to be paid healthily as both an RB1 and effectively a WR2/3.

However, the tight cap situation indicates that the Steelers will have to do a fair amount of trading and renegotiating with other players to ensure that the Killer B’s are all back at Heinz Field next year.

In the draft, although Roethlisberger has already ruled out retirement, the firing of his offensive coordinator Todd Haley (announced today) could force his hand, and the Steelers will certainly need to take a look at the inside linebacker position with Ryan Shazier out indefinitely, and Sean Spence coming up on free agency.

It promises to be a busy offseason for Pittsburgh, and major upheaval could well spell the end of their dominance in the AFC North.Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers

Baltimore Ravens
2017 Record: 9-7 (Lost to their own defensive mistakes in Week 17)
Key Free Agents: WR Mike Wallace, C Ryan Jensen, TE Benjamin Watson
Cap Space: Around $11m
Draft Needs: WR/TE/OLB

A return to the playoffs for the first time in three years looked promising for the Ravens until a late Week 17 brain fart by the entire defense meant that the Bills broke their drought ahead of them.

A stifling defense, coupled with an eventually potent rushing attack is usually a good postseason formula, you just have to get there first, and the big wigs at Ravens HQ will spend the next eight months figuring out how to get the franchise back playing January football once more.

Of the Key Free Agents, the one most pressing for the Ravens to sign would be Ryan Jensen. His physical style of play made him a favourite with the fans towards the end of the season (see: fighting the entire Dolphins defense after a late hit on Joe Flacco), and signing him to a new contract would stabilise an offensive line that has seen too much change in recent years to be consistent.

Tying veteran wide receiver Mike Wallace down to a short-term, low-risk contract would also be a shrewd move from Ozzie Newsome, who should look to use Wallace as a mentor for the WR he picks in the first round of the draft. (NB: this is what Newsome should do, but he will inevitably end up taking Alabama CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick cos Newsome stays loyal to his brand.)

Joe Flacco is the starting QB of this team through 2019 at least, so taking an early shot at a QB does not make much sense, so the Ravens should complement the ever-productive Terrell Suggs with a new friend on the other side of the D-Line to disrupt opposition passers, and take some pressure off the improved, yet injury prone secondary.484360292.0

Cincinnati Bengals
2017 Record: 7-9 (Lost to teams when it mattered, beat teams when it did)
Key Free Agents: TE Tyler Eifert, RT Eric Winston, RB Jeremy Hill
Cap Space: Around $38m
Draft Needs: OT/WR/CB

Cincinnati, just like in most other years, flattered to deceive. They did not even make it to the postseason and go one-and-done this time, so changes are needed across the board for this team to get back to where everyone predicted they were a couple of years ago.

Although I have listed Eifert and Hill as Key Free Agents, Cincinnati seem to have found worthy replacements in Tyler Kroft and Joe Mixon. I fear that Jeremy Hill will be let go, and head somewhere like Detroit to make Matthew Stafford very happy, but the 1-2 punch of Mixon and Giovani Bernard should be enough for the Bengals to not skip too much of a beat.

Eifert, meanwhile, could be re-signed, just a season removed from his breakout year to complement Kroft and AJ Green in the passing game, and potentially revitalise an offense that has looked shaky since losing Marvin Jones Jr to Detroit and Mohamed Sanu to Atlanta.

Upgrading the offensive line looks to be priority number one in Cincy as Andrew Whitworth proved to be one of the steals of the season for the LA Rams, and Eric Winston at age 34 could well be considering retirement.

If it is not the O-Line, then the Bengals should really consider going back to WR in the first round after John Ross was pretty much confirmed as a bust by the front office when they announced they were considering moving him to CB, and as mentioned, the losses of Sanu and Jones have really hurt Andy Dalton and his team.

It does not take much, but with a few correct decisions, the Bengals could once again become offseason champions, and have experts raving about how they are going to go to the Super Bowl once again (but they are almost always wrong as long as Marvin Lewis is in charge).

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Cleveland Browns
2017 Record: 0-16 (Lost to everybody)
Key Free Agents: RB Isaiah Crowell
Cap Space: Around $110m
Draft Needs: CB/WR/QB(?)

Congratulations Cleveland, you finally did it! After all these years of trying, you finally joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to ever go all-defeated. Well done, you.

Now, back to focusing on being a team that are actually good at what they do. I am always sceptical about writing about the Browns’ offseason, because you know that they pretty much rinse and repeat in this situation.

Draft QB, QB sucks, tank, repeat. But I am going to write this with a hint of optimism, which comes in the form of the one hundred and ten million dollars that they have available in cap space.

For that money, the Browns could feasibly sign four or five top free agents in positions of need, and still have some left over to pad out their roster. Not to mention that they have two of the top four picks in the draft this year.

Only having one key free agent (and he is not even that good) means that the Browns can sign more or less who they want, when they want, and then go into the draft safe in the knowledge that hitting big on two or three draft picks can catapult them from winless season to playoff challengers.

The secondary is a huge concern, after trading star CB Joe Haden to Pittsburgh last year, Cleveland never really replaced him, and so a cornerback could well be used in one of the first two round of the draft.

I am of the school of thought that DeShone Kizer could succeed in the NFL with a better supporting cast around him (see Bradford, Sam, and Goff, Jared for examples). Anyone can be a good QB in the NFL with Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio on the O-Line, and Josh Gordon and another premier pass catcher at WR.

I think the Browns should go for a WR in one of the first two round, but I know they will plump for a QB (probably Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, or Sam Darnold at number one overall), so best of luck to the Browns, and best of luck to whichever unlucky chap they choose to lead them into the 2018 season.

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