In 2014, the AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs. The division is once again poised to be a battle and continues to rank among the most competitive in the NFL. The Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens all have very legitimate chances to make the playoffs again. But what about Cleveland, which hasn’t made the postseason since 2002 and has had a revolving door at both head coach and starting quarterback since rejoining the NFL in 1999?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC North looks heading into the 2015 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Ravens, Bengals, Browns and Steelers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“In a year dominated by the Ray Rice episode, Baltimore used a familiar formula to maintain their focus on the field and made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons under John Harbaugh."
"They led the league in sack differential at plus-30 when they allowed only 19 sacks and racked up 49 of their own."
"Under former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, they ran the ball well and found the needed balance to protect and help QB Joe Flacco."
"Kubiak departed for another head coaching opportunity with long-time friend John Elway in Denver, so Marc Trestman takes over as the OC and he must stay away from taking the Ravens down a pass-happy road again."
"They let Torrey Smith walk as a free agent, but got great mileage out of Steve Smith and drafted UCF WR Breshad Perriman and TE Maxx Williams in the first two rounds of the draft."
"The offensive line rebounded in 2015 and stabilized with Eugene Monroe and Ricky Wagner playing the tackle spots, while Kelechi Osemele and Marshall Yanda were solid on the interior."
"It took a year, but the Baltimore defense returned to the top 10 statistically in 2015 after some growing pains the previous season without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed."
"With Haloti Ngata on the verge of being cut due to his high cap number, GM Ozzie Newsome was able to swing a trade with Detroit for two mid-round draft picks."
"He had that luxury because of the play of young DTs Brandon Williams and Tim Jernigan."
"The Ravens pressured the QB with the formidable duo of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs."
"Pernell McPhee was lost to the Bears in free agency, but he is another in a long line of defenders that have left the organization for bigger riches after being quality support players here."
"C.J. Mosley was a gift at pick No. 17 (fell due to concerns about his shoulder) and emerged as an elite linebacker as a rookie."
"This will be a huge year for LB Arthur Brown and FS Matt Elam, who have both been major disappointments in their early careers."
"Jimmy Smith finally put it all together in terms of his consistency and availability on the field, and they will cross their fingers that Lardarius Webb will stay healthy in 2015."
"PK Justin Tucker and P Sam Koch may very well be the best combination of placekicker/punter in the entire league."
“Marvin Lewis received a one-year contract extension through 2016, so that will lessen some, but not all the pressure on the Bengals as they try to get a breakthrough win in the playoffs. Along with QB Andy Dalton, the focus is squarely on a team that has been a consistent winner during the regular season, but a failure in the postseason."
"Cincinnati has a very solid group of offensive players with a true superstar in WR A.J. Green."
"They could definitely use another wide receiver right now, but opted for two tackles in early part of the draft, Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi and Oregon’s Jake Fisher, for future use."
"TE Tyler Eifert will have an expanded role in 2015 with the departure of Jermaine Gresham in free agency."
"RB Jeremy Hill had a big rookie year and with a healthy Giovanni Bernard, they should be even more dynamic this season."
"Defensively, the Bengals were dead last in sacks with 20 for the entire campaign. DE Michael Johnson inked a huge deal with Tampa Bay, only to be released a year later and re-signed here. They have to get more production from Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt in order to get their defensive line rotation back in order."
"The Vontaze Burfict micro-fracture surgery is a major concern, so A.J. Hawk was brought in to provide some insurance at the position."
"The secondary is going through a transition with the emergence of CB Dre Kirkpatrick who should take over a starting full-time role, while Darqueze Dennard will be assessed as the heir apparent to Leon Hall."
"It’s hard to imagine Lewis and Dalton getting a sixth year together if they don’t win a playoff win in 2015, but the Brown family likes them both and the stability they have brought to the organization.”
“2014 was almost a repeat of what has gone on in Cleveland since the organization returned in 1999. High hopes during the draft weekend, signs of progress at different times throughout the season and then a full meltdown in December."
"The Ray Farmer/Mike Pettine combo will return this year, but the GM faces a four-game suspension over texting staff members during games about personnel use and play-calling. In the fallout of Textgate, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan worked his way out the door and QB coach Dowell Loggains went, too."
"The Johnny Manziel era was put on hold initially because Brian Hoyer led the team to a 7-5 record before he hit the wall. Manziel started two games, looked out of place, got hurt and ended up in rehab for 10 weeks during the offseason. He was released mid-April and is back in the building, but the Browns signed Josh McCown as the 'new bridge to a yet-to-be-determined QB."
"Statistically, the Browns have lost because offensively they cannot convert on third downs (32nd in NFL/29.5 percent) and defensively they have not been able to stop the run (32nd in NFL/141.6 yards allowed per game). With that said, after missing 11 games in 2014, Josh Gordon is out for the entire season this time around after being suspended again, while TE Jordan Cameron opted for Miami in free agency."
"Dwayne Bowe was signed from Kansas City and Andrew Hawkins is a quality No. 3/4 receiver, but neither will require special game-planning from a defensive coordinator... Amazingly, LT Joe Thomas has not missed a snap since he was drafted in 2007. Cleveland’s run game went down after center Alex Mack suffered a season-ending knee injury, so they picked Florida State OL Cam Erving to play RG/RT in preparation for another injury or Mack’s contract expiring."
"LG Joel Bitonio was their best rookie and should be a fixture in the lineup for the next several seasons."
"Both RBs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell flashed ability, but the question remains if one or the other can be a major difference-maker, or if third-round pick Miami’s Duke Johnson can become a factor."
"As for the defense, Washington DT Danny Shelton was the choice at No. 12 overall to shore up the porous run defense."
"OLB Paul Kruger bounced back from a sub-par 2013 with 11 sacks, but Jabaal Sheard left for New England in free agency."
"Barkevious Mingo has been marginal in his first two seasons, so they selected Utah’s Nate Orchard in the second round."
"Karlos Dansby was adequate in the middle and Donte Whitner provided some leadership in the back end with CB Joe Haden continuing to perform at a high level."
"Buster Skrine departed for the Jets and Justin Gilbert’s rookie season was one to forget, so corner is still a concern.”
“There is good news and bad news in the Steel City."
"The offense clicked to the tune of 411.1 yards per game, but the defense has aged out and is under construction with a coordinator not named Dick LeBeau."
"QB Ben Roethlisberger got an extension after he performed at a very high level in 2014. He played superb football all year and finished with 32 touchdowns against only nine interceptions."
"WR Antonio Brown might spend the offseason squawking about his current deal that has two years left, but he has become one of the most exciting players in the entire league. He had a remarkable 129 receptions and 13 touchdowns as the Steelers averaged over 300 yards per game through the air. Markus Wheaton responded with 53 catches, while rookie Martavis Bryant surprised with 26 grabs, including eight touchdowns."
"TE Heath Miller has been underappreciated his entire career and has now accumulated over 500 catches."
"The offensive line held up last year, because Pittsburgh actually ran the ball some in 2014."
"RB Le’Veon Bell had a breakout campaign with 1,361 yards rushing and 83 receptions. He is a superstar in the making, but will miss the first two games after he and [former Steeler, now Patriot] LeGarrette Blount were cited with marijuana last summer."
"Defensively, Pittsburgh finished 18th in total yards allowed and scoring defense, mainly because of their struggles to pressure the QB and create turnovers."
"OLB Jason Worilds actually retired at age 27 and former first-round pick Jarvis Jones has three career sacks in two seasons."
"James Harrison is back, but the need was so substantial that they took Kentucky LB Bud Dupree with the 22nd pick overall."
"LB Lawrence Timmons is a quality player and they are hoping Ryan Shazier can return to form after missing seven games with separate knee and ankle injuries."
"The secondary will be completely remade in 2015 with Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor both retiring."
"Major help is needed at corner and safety."
"Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas will open at the safety spots, but the two corner positions are wide open."
"Big Ben will be expected to carry the team while the defense is reconfigured. This team can have a winning record and even make the playoffs, but they are not good enough to make a deep run.”