The AFC North was fueled with bitter rivalry games and gritty play in 2015. The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers were strong playoff teams, whereas the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns sat comfortably at the bottom of the standings all year long. In the end the Bengals and Steelers had a playoff showdown in Cincinnati that ended with a crazy, last-second field goal.
Out of Baltimore’s five wins on the year, two of them came against a far superior Pittsburgh Steelers team they just hate to lose to. The AFC North looks to grow this offseason and continue to beat up on each other next season. Whether it comes through high picks in the draft for the Browns and Ravens, or solid later picks from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, every team in the AFC North needs help somewhere on the field.
2015 Snapshot: The 2015 Baltimore Ravens were a disaster, and after a 1-6 start to the season their playoff hopes were long forgotten. The Ravens suffered a plethora of season-ending injuries to key players: Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett and Terrell Suggs to name a few. A franchise known for exceptional defense and secondary play had the fewest interceptions in the NFL this year (6), while also setting a franchise record for touchdown passes allowed (30). Their overall record (5-11) may be a bit deceiving, however, as only two of those losses came by more than one score.
Biggest Needs: This secondary is not what it used to be, and Ravens legend Ed Reed is no longer around to clean up all the mistakes. A shutdown cornerback would help this defense become dominant once again. Another need is a target for Flacco. His top option at the moment is 36-year-old Steve Smith Sr., who is coming off a torn Achilles that ended what he previously declared would be his final season.
First-round pick: No. 6 overall
Potential Picks: The Ravens front office will be begging the teams ahead of them to pass on Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III and Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey. If that fails to happen they may consider adding wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and using their remaining picks on the defensive side. There is a slight drop off in cornerback after the top two guys so it would be smart to address another need and revisit that issue as the draft progresses.
2015 Snapshot: Simply put, the Bengals' wild card game loss to the Steelers may have been the greatest collapse in sports history. This Cincinnati team is supremely talented all over the field, but a complete lack of discipline negates their superior athleticism. The Bengals have been known to take risks in the draft on questionable characters, that trend cannot possibly continue.
Biggest Needs: Linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey are both free agents and it appears the Bengals have prioritized re-signing Rey this offseason. Additionally, Vontaze Burfict will miss the first three games of 2016 for a series of illegal hits this past season, including his headshot on Antonio Brown in the playoffs that effectively lost Cincinnati the game (cornerback Adam Jones talking trash to a severely concussed Brown didn’t help either).
First-round pick: No. 24 overall
Potential Picks: Arizona’s Scooby Wright and Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith are both very smart, instinctual linebackers that have shown they are NFL talents. Another similarity between the two players? Torn ligaments in their left knees. Cincinnati is a very good team that can afford to make this type of high-risk, high-reward move. If they aren’t willing to take that chance, Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple is a steal at No. 24.
2015 Snapshot: At the end of every season it’s hard to imagine how things could possibly get worse for the Cleveland Browns, and then the following year they show you how in 15 different ways. This offseason team ownership hired Paul DePodesta to be their Chief Strategy Officer. The former Mets and Oakland Athletics front office assistant is notorious for his role in Moneyball (Jonah Hill portrays DePodesta in the film). Yes, those are baseball teams. The Browns aren’t afraid to try anything at this point.
Biggest Needs: A four-leaf clover. A rabbit’s foot. A genie in a bottle. In reality, the Browns are still looking for their franchise quarterback. The search has been going on for 15 years at this point, it has to end eventually.
First-round pick: No. 2 overall
Potential Picks: Whomever they do decide to take you must feel sorry for. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch top the list of quarterbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft. This is one of the weaker draft classes in terms of quarterbacks in a while, and the Browns have plenty of other positions of need. They’re going to draft a quarterback at some point and probably fairly early, so good luck to whomever that ends up being.
2015 Snapshot: The Steelers may have been the most exciting team to watch in 2015, with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown spearheading an incredible passing attack. Following the loss of Le’Veon Bell the Pittsburgh rushing attack still managed to finish in the top half of the NFL. However, another reason the Steelers were exciting was because their defense finished 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game. Pittsburgh had to score a ton in order to win games, which proved to be impossible against the Denver Broncos in the playoffs.
Biggest Needs: A lot of help in the secondary. Pittsburgh finished third in the league in sacks with 49. No other team that finished in the top 10 for sacks was worse than 20th in passing defense. With that much pressure on the quarterback, the only way they are finding receivers is if they are open early and often.
First-round pick: No. 25 overall
Potential Picks: If Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple is still available at No. 25 the Steelers will be smiling from ear to ear. If not, I believe the Steelers won’t force a pick at that position and will perhaps go after Boise State safety Darian Thompson. The Steelers tend to take the best talent available regardless of need; so don’t be surprised if they address a different area of the field after seeing their favorite targets go earlier.