We come to the division that produced the Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens. They had a skid near the end of the season, losing four of their last five games after a 9-2 start, firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the year and backing into the playoffs. The Ravens were lucky enough to stave off the Cincinnati Bengals at the end of the year to secure the AFC North title by way of a tiebreaker. The rest is sweet, sweet history, that solidifies Joe Flacco’s elite status and secures Ray Lewis’s legendary career with a Super Bowl victory. Of course, the story doesn’t end there; Baltimore has lost several key players in free agency and through trades and will look like a different team next year. This is good news for Cincinnati, who is on the cusp of becoming a great team after two straight Wild Card Round losses in a row, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, coming off a disappointing 8-8 run and desperate to make it back to the playoffs. Could this be the offseason the Cleveland Browns turn it around and return to relevance? Only time will tell.
Baltimore Ravens (Last Season: 10-6; First Pick: 32nd Overall; Number of Picks: 11)
It isn’t like the Ravens lost all of their best players. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Jacoby Jones, Torrey Smith, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs will all be back, and LB Jameel McClain and CB Lardarius Webb will be returning from injured reserve. They even capitalized on the Elvis Dumervil saga by signing the former Denver DE after his unexpected release. But the retirement of Ray Lewis was just the beginning of the departures. Safety Ed Reed (Houston), LBs Paul Kruger (Cleveland) and Dannell Ellerbe (Miami), and CB Cary Williams (Philadelphia) have all signed with new teams in free agency; WR Anquan Boldin was traded to San Francisco because both sides would not be able to agree to a contract; center Matt Birk retired along with Lewis and safety Bernard Pollard was released. Needless to say, Baltimore will be busy in this draft, and thank goodness they have a lot of compensatory picks to refill the team with. The Ravens did sign safety Michael Huff in free agency, but drafting a safety early on is one of their top priorities nonetheless. FIU safety Jonathan Cyprien could easily be available right around the end of Round One, which would be perfect for them. Another idea would be to package some of their late-round picks together and trade up in the second round to target LSU safety Eric Reid – Ed Reed for Eric Reid, why not? Baltimore also needs a body to “replace” (though it is not really possible) Ray Lewis, a linebacker, preferably on the inside… Manti Te’o?
Cincinnati Bengals (Last Season: 10-6; First Pick: 21st Overall; Number of Picks: 10)
The Bengals have made the AFC playoffs as the #6 seed the past two years, and each year they lost the #3-#6 Wild Card game to Houston. It is true that the AFC North is becoming weaker, despite the Ravens’ Super Bowl victory, and Cincy has never had a better time to pounce. Filling a few important needs by way of the draft is key to their 2013 success. One of these needs is at safety, and Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, the best safety in the draft, should be available here. It would be a perfect fit for the Bengals, who have no real starting-caliber safeties on their roster. A linebacker could go here as well, but before that is decided, it would be interesting to see if the Bengals sign former Steeler LB James Harrison, previously a bitter rival. On offense, the key need is running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a serviceable back, but it would serve the Bengals better if he split the carries with a rookie. It would be nice if RB Eddie Lacy of Alabama would be available at their 53rd pick, but in reality, they will be looking at someone like UCLA RB Johnathan Franklin or North Carolina RB Giovani Bernard.
Cleveland Browns (Last Season: 5-11; First Pick: 6th Overall; Number of Picks: 7)
Another year, another regime (new head coach Rob Chudzinski) in the Mistake by the Lake, a nickname they will not be able to shake until one of their professional sports teams returns to relevance for an extended period of time. For the Browns, that improvement starts on defense. They had an average rushing defense in 2012, but the eighth-worst passing defense thanks to an anemic pass rush. Though they signed former Ravens LB Paul Kruger, Cleveland could use all the help they can get. This could be linebackers Ezekiel Ansah, Dion Jordan or Jarvis Jones. Some mock drafts have Cleveland trading out of the Top Ten, where they can draft a similar pass rusher like LB Barkevious Mingo, or take an elite corner like Xavier Rhodes of Florida State. Cleveland has problems on offense too, but the only reasonable offensive selection they could make at number six would be West Virginia WR Tavon Austin. Another big question is if and when Cleveland will draft a quarterback. The last time they did, it was a 28-year-old first-rounder just last year. Brandon Weeden turns 30 this October – some investment, huh? If Cleveland believes they can steal USC’s Matt Barkley in the early third round, they should go for it. Otherwise, I think they can wait on Weeden one more year before it becomes absolutely necessary to go for a future franchise quarterback.
Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Season: 8-8; First Pick: 17th Overall; Number of Picks: 8)
A season of injuries and turmoil between quarterback and offensive coordinator led to an average finish for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which will never cut it against the Ravens and Bengals. It certainly wasn’t the defense’s fault – yardage-wise, Pittsburgh had the best D in the league. The only hole in their defense is at linebacker, after the release of James Harrison. Could the Steelers take someone like LSU LB Barkevious Mingo at 17? Yes, but I don’t think it’s as pressing of a need as their offensive issues. Former number one receiver Mike Wallace has gone to Miami, and tight end Heath Miller is older now and coming off knee surgery. Therefore, the Steelers should aim for either Tennessee WR Cordarelle Patterson or Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert in the first round – even if they have to trade up a bit to snag one. They can’t go past the third round without drafting a running back, now that Rashard Mendenhall is in Arizona and Jonathan Dwyer is the only serviceable back on the roster. Texas A&M’s Christine Michael might be the ideal choice for Pittsburgh in the late second round.