NFL Postseason: Where the AFC North teams need to strengthen

Steelers Heinz Field 2

Richard Moore takes a look at the prospects for the Ravens, Steelers, Browns and Bengals heading into the NFL off-season.

Needs Must!!

With the previous campaign having sped past faster than a moving train, it’s already time to plan for 2013, and with this in mind I wanted to take a look at all the pressing issues confronting all teams, by division, as they aim to be ‘King of New York’ (well, technically it’s New Jersey, but you know what I mean…) come February 2nd, 2014.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens 

"Death is but a door. Time is but a window. I’ll be back." - The insidious words of the menacing ‘Vigo the Carpathian’ from the Ivan Reitman classic Ghostbusters 2.

One man, an equally menacing one at that (on the football field, not from the confines of a 17th century painting), who won’t be back is middle Linebacker Ray Lewis, who sailed off into the sunset with the Lombardi Trophy tucked under his arms, thus bringing to a close a truly illustrious career and leaving the Ravens with the unenviable task of replacing and replicating the inspirational leadership qualities he brought - both on and off the field.

Regardless of the outgoing Lewis, the Ravens appear to be in decent shape moving forward. Although to smooth the transition into the post Lewis era, a few pressing concerns need to be addressed, such as contract issues and possible draft selections.

Contractual concerns: In seeing off future Hall of Fame Quarterbacks in Payton Manning (in Denver) and Tom Brady (twice in Foxborough) on route to the holy grail, Joe Flacco has proven beyond all reasonable doubt that he IS an elite Quarterback (8 touchdowns to 0 interceptions and a 114.7 passer rating going into the Super Bowl, only serve to heighten claims to elite status) and thus in line for remuneration reflective of such standing.

However, it’s likely he’ll receive the franchise tag before any prospective deal can be agreed, although this will be a scenario the Ravens would like to avoid if at all possible, especially when taking into consideration the fact that the $14 million associated with the franchise tag could be better used to tie up deals for free agents such as Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, Edge Rusher Paul Kruger, and Cornerback Cary Williams, not to mention much celebrated Safety Ed Reed, who suggested he could "definitely" see himself playing for the Patriots, and coach Bill Belichick “ What football players wouldn’t play for Coach Belichick?”

Baltimore has some serious thinking to do…

Draft selections: The Ravens priority will be defensive additions to shore up a rush defence that allowed 122.8 yards per game during the course of the season.

Though, it is worth noting that a succession of injuries played a telling role in reducing the unit to 20th best in the league, most notably the freakish spinal injury that curtailed Linebacker Jameel McClain’s season.

Cincinnati Bengals

The franchise Quarterback is established, and the defense proved to be equally competent - ranking 6th in the league in total defense, conceding 320 points, 11 less than the 12 - 4 Houston Texans, and shipping 319.7 yards per game, again, albeit it marginally, more impressive than the much vaunted Texans defense, that allowed 323.2 yards per game despite the presence of Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt.

However, despite another winning record, an improved one at that, 10 - 6, compared to 9 - 7 the year before, Marvin Lewis’s men are now 0 - 4 in post season football, all defeats coming at the first hurdle, in the wild card round against the Steelers (2005), The Jets (2009), and the Texans twice, in both 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Although, the pain may be soothed somewhat by the $55 million in cap space to work with, thus ensuring that Lewis has every chance of ensuring the progression so desired.

Contractual concerns: The defense could look markedly different in 2013 with unrestricted free agents consisting of Cornerback Nate Clements, Safety Chris Crocker, Defensive End Michael Johnson, Linebackers Manny Lawson and Ray Maualuga and Cornerback Terence Newman. Though of the aforementioned seven, it’s Linebacker Maualuga’s future that appears to the most precarious due to his evident struggles in pass coverage this past season.

Draft selections: There are no glaring weaknesses, but there’s clear room for improvement; especially if the team harbours ambition of improving upon that deeply uninspiring post season record. Due in no small part to the Carson Palmer trade, the Bengals have three picks in the opening two rounds, beginning with the 21st overall selection. It is worth noting however, that any pick may well hinge on developments concerning the previously mentioned seven. If indeed this is the case, a pass rusher or defensive back are imperative.

Cleveland Browns

Despite showing signs of improvement towards the conclusion of the season, at 29 years of age Quarterback Brandon Weeden has little room for development under newly acquired Head Coach Rob Chudzinski, the former Offensive Coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.

Chudzinski’s pass orientated philosophy should go hand in hand with Brandon Weedens big arm, which accounted for 48 completions from 20 + yards, and 6 from 40+, but as with most teams (the Jets aside it would seem) quality depth enhances the competative edge and thus the scope for progression, hence Chudzinksi’s desire to bring in competition for current incumbent Weeden.

Contractual concerns: The Browns are approximatley $50 million under the salary cap in 2013, and newly installed CEO Joe Banner must spend most of that sum with the salary cap floor specified in the new collective bargaining agreement (signed prior to the start of the 2011 - 12 season), which will come into effect at the start of the 2013 campaign.

Kicker Phil Dawson, Wideout Josh Cribbs, and Tight End Benjamin Watson are free agents, and all the noises coming out of Cleveland hint at moves for Cornerbacks and Linebackers in the open market, if not the draft itself.

Draft selections: In possession of the No.6 pick, the Browns have the opportunity to acquire the most promising of pass rushers at collegic level. Possible candidates range from LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, Florida State’s Bjoern Werner, to Texas A&M’s Damonte Moore.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Despite boasting the leagues number one ranked defense in yards allowed (275.8 total yards), first in pass yards (185.2), second in rush yards (90.6 per game) and 6th in points allowed (19.6 per game), the Steelers stumbled to a 8 - 8 record - their first non - winning campaign since 2006, though injuries to waning stars such as James Harrison, Troy Polumalu, Ike Taylor, and LeMarr Woodley hardly helped matters. As did the Shoulder injury to the highly durable Ben Roethlisberger, who upon return to the starting line-up, went 1 - 3.

Although, given a full pre - season of rest, recuperation and plenty of reps come training camp, I’d have less concerns over Roethlisberger’s capacity to re - discover his very best form than I would with any of the aforementioned defensive four, as age (although Woodley is 28) and injury have reduced them to pale imitations of their former selves, whereas two - time Super bowl winning Roethlisberger, at age 30, should be entering his peak.

Contractual concerns: One of a few teams with precious little salary cap room, Pittsburgh have, like their Super Bowl winning divisional rivals, much to pontificate this off season.

Among the unrestricted free agents are Wide Receiver Mike Wallace (a worthy acquisition for a number of teams, should he choose to ply his trade elsewhere - Although Steelers fans will be hoping, should be depart, Wallace doesn’t wind up with a divisional rival. However, that rather worrying scenario may well materialize, as according to an CBS Sports Jason La Canfora, Cleveland would appear to be Wallace’s most likely landing spot in 2013; a landing made all the more easier with the cap money at the Browns disposal) and Cornerback Keenan Lewis and two veteran stalwarts, Nose Tackle Casey Hampton and Linebacker Larry Foote.

Draft selections: With the previously mentioned Harrison and Woodley experiencing a significant downturn in production at Outside Linebacker, Pittsburgh would need to add younger talent with the agility and durability to accumulate more than 37 sacks, hence the need for a dominant pass rusher.

That being said, the Steelers may also look to upgrade at the Inside Linebacker position, especially when factoring in Foote’s diminishing powers and Sean Spence on the verge of coming back from a horrific knee injury sustained in pre - season, which left him with ligament tears and a dislocated kneecap.

image: © jimmybyrum