With two of the first four picks in this year's draft, all eyes will be on Hue Jackson's Browns
Pittsburgh not only won the AFC North for the second straight season, the Steelers tied for the best record in the league (13-3). Baltimore was next at 9-7, as the Ravens saw their playoff hopes dashed with a last-second Week 17 loss to division rival Cincinnati. The Bengals struggled with consistency all season long, but still won seven more games than Cleveland, who became just the second team in NFL history to go 0-16.
The Browns have busy this offseason and control the first round of the draft by possessing two of the first four picks. Pittsburgh remains the class of the AFC North, but the Steelers have some question marks on both sides of the ball to address. Both Baltimore and Cincinnati have already made some big moves this offseason in hopes of addressing weak spots on their respective rosters as well.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7, 2nd in AFC North)
2017 snapshot: The Ravens were in the driver’s seat for a wild-card berth until the Bengals pulled off an improbable comeback and stunned Baltimore at home on a last-second touchdown pass. The loss knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs, extending their postseason drought to three seasons. Joe Flacco struggled, throwing for the fewest yards (3,141) and touchdowns (18) in a full season since his rookie year (2008). The defense did its part, generating a league-high 34 turnovers, including 22 interceptions.
Biggest needs: Wide receiver has been a sore spot for the Ravens for the past several years as guys like Breshad Perriman, the team’s first-round pick in 2015, and Jeremy Maclin, a free-agent pickup last season, never panned out. Michael Crabtree and John Brown were signed in free agency, but don’t rule out Baltimore adding another wideout to the mix. The Ravens also lost center Ryan Jensen in free agency and All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda isn’t getting any younger (turns 34 in September) so offensive line help could be a top priority. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (36 in October) is nearing the twilight of his career and getting help in the pass rush from that position was an issue last season. Baltimore also has been trying to fill the tight end position with a reliable, consistent option ever since Todd Heap left after the 2010 season.
First-round picks: No. 16 overall
Potential picks: Before free agency, wide receiver would have been a near-slam dunk for the Ravens’ first pick, especially if Alabama’s Calvin Ridley was still on the board. However, the additions of Crabtree and Brown may have moved wide receiver down on the list of priorities. This pick could still be used for the offense, as Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey could be reunited with former teammate Ronnie Stanley and serve as Baltimore’s bookends up front. If McGlinchey isn’t available, another tackle could be the choice. The middle of the first round feels too early for the Ravens to take a center, but they probably will at some point, same for tight end. All bets are off, however, should one of the top linebackers remain on the board.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-9, 3rd in AFC North)
2017 snapshot: The Bengals got off to an 0-3 start and never were able to right the ship. Another three-game losing streak in December put an end to any playoff aspirations. The offense ranked no better than 26th in any of the four major categories and was dead last in yards per game (280.5). Statistically speaking, the defense fared better but was one of the worst units against both the run (127.9 ypg) and in generating takeaways (14).
Biggest needs: The Bengals already filled one of their biggest holes by swapping places with the Bills in the first round (Buffalo gets the 12th overall pick) and later in this draft for left tackle Cordy Glenn. Cincinnati lost two starters up front in free agency last offseason and their absence was obvious as the Bengals finished second to last in the league in rushing. Even with Glenn on board, offensive line remains a priority with two other starters (Russell Bodine, Andre Smith) leaving as free agents. Elsewhere, linebacker Vontaze Burfict is facing a four-game suspension to start the upcoming season for a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, so the team may go in that direction. Quarterback also could be addressed at some point since backup AJ McCarron signed with Buffalo.
First-round pick: No. 21 overall
Potential picks: Glenn was a big priority for the Bengals, but I don’t think they are done addressing the offensive line. I think a tackle or guard will be at the forefront of their draft board, whether it’s UCLA’s Kolton Miller or Texas’ Connor Williams or Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn. If not offensive line, I expect Cincinnati to take either a linebacker or cornerback to add more depth. I also expect the Bengals to draft a tight end even with Tyler Eifert back (it’s just a one-year deal) and to not wait too long to take a quarterback as well.
Cleveland Browns (0-16, 4th in AFC North)
2017 snapshot: There’s really no way to put a positive spin on just the second 0-16 season in NFL history (2008 Detroit Lions). The Browns averaged less than 15 points per game (14.6) with three different quarterbacks (DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan, Cody Kessler) combining for nearly twice as many interceptions (28) as touchdown passes (15). The defense did a decent job of limiting yards (328.1 per game, 14th) but gave up way too many points (25.6, 31st). The Browns also had by far the worst turnover differential in the league (-28) thanks to committing the most (41) while generating the fewest takeaways (13). The second-worst such margin belonged to Denver (-17).
Biggest needs: Few teams have been as active this offseason as Cleveland. The Browns have used their cap space and inventory of draft picks to add several new starters, including quarterback Tyrod Taylor and wide receiver Jarvis Landry. There is still plenty of work to be done; however, as the expectation is that the Browns will take a quarterback with one of their first-round picks. Other positions that still need upgrading include running back and the offensive line, particularly tackle following the retirement of All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, as well adding another playmaker for the secondary.
First-round pick: Nos. 1 and 4 overall
Potential picks: The start of the draft is pretty much the Browns’ playground as they not only have two of the first four picks they are currently looking at the possibility that they could wind up with the quarterback of their choice and either running back Saquon Barkley or one of the top defensive players on the board. Cleveland can go in several different directions, including trade down from either pick. At this point, the general consensus is it’s down to Sam Darnold or Josh Allen among the quarterbacks. The Browns will probably take the signal-caller first with the Jets now lurking at No. 3, along with the possibility that the Giants could trade with another QB-needy team and move out of the second pick. So the real intrigue lies with the fourth selection. If Barkley is still there he would be awfully hard to pass up, but what about NC State’s Bradley Chubb or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick? Or will Cleveland take Barkley first and then let the QB chips fall where they may? There will be no lack of intrigue when the Browns officially go on the clock come April 26.
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, 1st in AFC North, lost to Jacksonville in Divisional Round)
2017 snapshot: The Steelers ran away with the division, thanks to an offense and defense that ranked in the top five in the NFL. Unfortunately, a pair of home losses to Jacksonville, the second one coming in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, ruined Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl hopes. Another low point of the season came in Week 13 when Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion while making a tackle during the Steelers’ “Monday Night Football” game against the Bengals.
Biggest needs: Shazier’s unfortunate injury exacerbates the lack of depth Pittsburgh already had at linebacker. The secondary also is in a state of transition with Morgan Burnett signing in free agency but the rest of the safety group unsettled. The offensive line is solid, but could use some bolstering at the tackle spots. Running back wouldn’t be a need, but Le’Veon Bell’s contract standoff combined with James Conner returning from a torn MCL complicates the backfield situation. And Ben Roethlisberger’s future has been a hot-button issue the past couple of seasons and will continue to be until the Steelers put together a succession plan at quarterback. Landry Jones is a serviceable backup but not the long-term answer.
First-round pick: No. 28 overall
Potential picks: Bell’s situation coupled with Conner’s injury puts the possibility of drafting a running back, like LSU’s Derrius Guice, very much into play for Pittsburgh’s first pick. If not in the first round, expect the Steelers to draft a running back sooner rather than later. Otherwise, linebacker will likely be the choice, with Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch or Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter as possibilities. An offensive tackle is another option depending on which of the top prospects are still on the board as the first round winds down.