When we look at the AFC North, what do we see? There's a reigning Super Bowl champion, a team marred by injuries in 2012, an up-and-coming contender with one of the league's best wideouts, and a franchise running back surrounded by mediocrity. Yes, this division is all over the map.
The Baltimore Ravens took home the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XLVII, and assuming they retain Joe Flacco (seriously, like he's going anywhere else) we can expect them to be vying for a repeat in 2013. The Cincinnati Bengals finished 10-6 behind Andy Dalton and A.J. Green leading the way into what appears to be a bright future. We saw the Pittsburgh Steelers constantly battled with injuries, along with concerns of the roster being "over the hill". Oh yeah, the Cleveland Browns still play football as well.
Obviously the Browns need the most work out of the four. Trent Richardson is clearly going to be a dangerous weapon for years to come, but he needs a quarterback fueling the offense under center. A real quarterback. This team hasn't topped five wins since 2007. A revamped coaching staff will hope to change that fact.
Did you know the AFC North finished with the most combined wins out of all four AFC divisions in 2012? That's with the Steelers missing Ben Roethlisberger and several other key names throughout the year. A talented group, the bar is set high for next season. What can they do to improve, though?
Every team has its own offseason wishlist. With free agency and the NFL Draft looming on the horizon, all four AFC North teams are gearing up to hopefully add the necessary pieces to compete at the highest level. What is each team hoping for? Let's break down the best-case scenarios for all four franchises.
Pointing out all the flaws of a Super Bowl champion isn't a simple task. The Ravens were a tough team to figure out at time during the regular season, but a 4-0 playoff run is tough to argue against. Where to begin?
Firing Cam Cameron might have been just the wake-up call the Ravens needed. Jim Caldwell unleashed a monster in the postseason as his offense averaged 31 points per game. Now his star quarterback needs a new contract. Using a franchise tag on Flacco would eat up significant cap space, so structuring a long-term deal to be friendly for 2013 would be ideal.
Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Paul Kruger are all candidates for free agency. Baltimore has 13 unrestricted free agents looking for new deals. Considering the fact that general manager Ozzie Newsome wants to build around youth, it won't be surprising to see some of these guys walk. He needs more cap space.
By the way, Ray Lewis is also gone. The Ravens need a middle linebacker to fill his prestigious shoes. Who might fill those shoes? SB Nation's Ravens blog Baltimore Beatdown took a look at a few candidates, including Manti Te'o and Rey Maualuga.
A defensive tackle might be the way to go in the first round. Haloti Ngata needs help on the line. John Jenkins of UGA or Kawan Short of Purdue would bolster that area immediately. Linebackers will be easier to find later in the draft, and adding a playmaker at wide receiver could be an option as well. Anquan Boldin isn't going to last forever.
Perfection: Flacco gets a long-term deal, Ellerbe and at least Williams or Kruger stays, a top defensive tackle lands at No. 32 overall.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green should continue to click next season. Cincinnati's offense ranked in the middle of the road, but this combo can be deadly. If Dalton gets more time to throw, who knows what can happen. He was sacked 46 times last year. Andre Smith is an unrestricted free agent, and he will require plenty of money.
The Bengals defense allowed the sixth-fewest yards per game in 2012. Michael Johnson, who recorded 11.5 sacks, needs to be the top priority to re-sign on that side of the ball. He may be a candidate for their franchise tag.
Linebacker and safety could use upgrades in the draft. Matt Elam and Jonathan Cyprien are two strong safeties who could be in the running here in the second round. Kenny Vaccaro has been mentioned as well. However, with two second-round picks, the Bengals can look to address safety at that point instead of reaching.
Multiple draft pundits are currently projecting the Bengals to take Cyprien, a player Lucas Greta of Cincy Jungle wrote could be a good fit.
The selection makes a lot of sense for the Bengals after their recent struggles to find a safety to pair with veteran Reggie Nelson. In 2012, it took three players to fill the gap -- Taylor Mays, Nate Clements, and Chris Crocker -- and none emerged as long-term options for the team, though Crocker offered some stability at the position.
Alec Ogletree looks like a candidate for the No. 21 overall selection. His recent DUI won't help his cause, but has that ever been an issue for the Bengals in the past? He has the talent to make an impact on the outside.
While the Bengals will have a lot of cap space to work with, how much money is owner Mike Brown willing to shell out? He's been the center of criticism in the past. Don't ask Bengals fans about him, it will just upset them.
Perfection: Johnson and Smith re-sign, Ogletree becomes first selection (barring more pre-draft issues), Cyprien is taken in Round 2.
The Steelers are already repressing the memories of 2012. Every time NFL news broke, it seemed like someone else from Pittsburgh was going down with an injury. An 8-8 record didn't accurately tell the tale of the overall course of the season.
Mike Wallace is set to become a free agent, and it doesn't look like he will be coming back. Antonio Brown takes over as the No. 1 receiver. He needs help, though. Heath Miller is also coming off an ACL tear. Roethlisberger, when healthy, needs a few more weapons.
Rashard Mendenhall also seems a likely candidate to be in search of a new team. His injury-ridden season, along with ball control issues pushed him down the depth chart.
Keenan Lewis needs to be re-signed, but he will cost a lot to a team already tight on cap space. Look at the defensive free agents for Pittsburgh. Larry Foote, Casey Hampton, Will Allen are just a few names eligible to walk. Releasing James Harrison might be a smart option to free up some cap space.
Releasing veterans can be a tough reality for any team, but Anthony Defeo of Behind the Steel Curtain made the argument that moving on from previous stars is the best thing for the Steelers future, despite the risk.
The offensive and defensive line also need work, but the Steelers can't afford to go out and land the top free agents right now. The draft will be the way to handle the current situation.
Perfection: Draft a nose tackle like John Jenkins to replace Hampton, cut Harrison, find speed to add at wideout.
A quarterback. That's all Browns fans are asking for. Well, they'd all like a good receiver. And a better defense. Okay, there are a lot of problems across the board.
Brandon Weeden is not the future of the franchise, and neither is Colt McCoy. Drafting another young passer this season, though, doesn't appear to be the answer to the problem. Discussions continue to arise about the Browns trading for Matt Flynn or Ryan Mallett. Norv Turner does great work with quarterbacks. Maybe they'll let him try out a full season with Weeden before making a decision.
Mike Wallace would make sense in Cleveland. The Browns have the cap space to make a few splashes on the market. Greg Little is still developing, but he's not a No. 1 receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs are free agents. Pursuing a top wideout like Wallace needs to be a priority.
On the defensive side, the Browns are going to a 3-4 scheme. Finding the right personnel to fit Ray Horton's system. Paul Kruger is another in-division free agent that could find his way to the shores of Lake Erie. The Browns would love to have a solid pass rusher on the edge. In addition to Kruger, the Browns are reportedly interested in Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson.
Drafting a defensive end at No. 6 overall seems to be a popular pick. Damontre Moore of Texas A&M would provide a dynamic, physical pass rusher for Horton's new setup if he's there. Jarvis Jones has also been in the discussion.
Perfection: Sign Wallace, draft Moore, add personnel for 3-4.