This week we'll take a look at the AFC North for the upcoming 2012 NFL season, beginning with the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore came up short of last year's Super Bowl by one questionable dropped pass and a shanked field goal attempt. The Ravens have made some significant moves this offseason, especially in the draft with the excellent choice of LB Courtney Upshaw from Alabama to shore up an aging defense, but they'll need steadier quarterback play from Joe Flacco this year to continue the forward progress.
The Ravens weren't very active in free agency but did lose some second tier players along with offensive lineman Ben Grubbs to the Saints. The defense suffered a huge early loss for 2012 with 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs out for the season with a torn Achilles.
Their schedule for 2012 includes a rough opening stretch, facing the Bengals, Eagles, Patriots, Browns, Chiefs, Cowboys and Texans leading into their Week 8 bye. If they can come through that patch at 5-2 minimum, look for a return to the playoffs for this Ravens squad.
The Cincinnati Bengals may have had the best draft overall of any NFL team not named the Buccaneers. They filled several needs along both lines and in the defensive backfield while also picking up some other needs in free agency.
An interesting move was signing undrafted free agent LB Vontez Burfict from Arizona State, whose stock fell straight off the board due to his emotional issues on and off the field. If the Bengals coaches and staff can get him focused on playing the game within the rules and being a solid teammate, this could be the steal of the draft.
The Bengals have to overcome their 0-4 record in 2011 within the division versus the Steelers and Ravens if they hope to take that next step. The 9-7 record last year will be tough to duplicate with the AFC North facing the NFC East and an improved AFC West this season.
The Cleveland Browns made news with the first round pick of Brandon Weeden from Oklahoma State as the quarterback of the future. After Weeden and Alabama RB Trent Richardson, Cleveland went mostly with defense in the later rounds with some skilled but unexciting selections. The Browns let running back Peyton Hillis walk away, making the selection of Richardson a key addition at running back.
Unfortunately, the Browns offense still lacks playmakers and had the highest percentage of dropped passes by their wide receivers of any NFL team in 2011. No quality upgrades at wideout means low scoring offense in 2012.
The Pittsburgh Steelers addressed several needs in the draft with the addition of David DeCastro and Mike Adams to shore up an aging and oft-injured offensive front. Protection for Ben Roethlisberger is a priority as is head coach Mike Tomlin's desire to get back to a better balance of rushing versus passing. The Steelers rush attack suffered greatly the past few seasons and former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who preferred the deep passing game, has moved on to the Indianapolis Colts. Todd Haley will replace him.
Age will be an issue with this Steelers team as they move forward.