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Divisional needs: AFC North preview

Brian Billick and Taylor Jones break down the top linebackers in the NFL Draft.
Brian Billick and Taylor Jones break down the top linebackers in the NFL Draft.
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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Even with all the offseason roster changes, I’m not sure I’m ready to dethrone the reigning champions just yet. The Baltimore Ravens’ decline is premature, if only for the simple reason that no one in the AFC North, or in all of the AFC, except for maybe the Denver Broncos, have made any significant improvements of their own.

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So even with the retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk, the trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the release of safety Bernard Pollard and the free-agency losses of safety Ed Reed, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, linebacker Paul Kruger and the rest, the Ravens are still my early favorite to win the division, with a competitive push from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Like the Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have a lot of new faces in 2013, but I’m not sure they have done enough to offset the losses. And the Browns are still rebuilding around a 29-year-old, second-year quarterback, Brandon Weeden, with a ton of question marks.

Baltimore Ravens

Finished: 10-6, Super Bowl champions
Drafting: No. 32 overall in first round
Needs: ILB, OT, WR, S

The Ravens were able to weather the free-agency storm, especially in the defensive front, by signing Chris Canty, Marcus Spears and Elvis Dumervil. They will enter the 2013 season with an even better pass rush and interior presence than they had in previous seasons.

The contract for quarterback Joe Flacco and the ensuing unwillingness to match Houston’s offer for Reed, signal the final transformation to an offense-dominated team, with Flacco becoming the unquestioned leader in Baltimore.

Because of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ravens still look to the offensive side of the ball with the 32nd overall pick in the draft. As it stands now, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are the starting wide receivers. Each would be best in a complementary role. At the 32 spot, top receivers of Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson will be long gone. That leaves Keenan Allen, Justin Hunter, DeAndre Hopkins and Robert Woods as the next-best talents at the position.

It remains to be seen whether the Ravens can re-sign Bryant McKinnie. Even if they do retain him, his health concerns and regular-season play justify the Ravens taking a hard look at a long-term solution to protect Flacco’s blindside. The top three tackles will all be top-10 picks, so the names to watch here would be D.J. Fluker of Alabama and Menelik Watson of Florida State. Both have first-round grades, and the Ravens might have to move up from 32 to secure the opportunity to select either one of them.

If the Ravens elect to go defense, they could look to fill the void at either safety or inside linebacker.

The signing of Michael Huff buys them some time at safety, but adding Florida's Matt Elam would be an intriguing prospect.

The departures of Lewis and Ellerbe leave the Ravens awfully thin at a position they honestly haven’t had to worry about for the better part of two decades. If they address the inside linebacker position, there are three names to get to know, one of which you know for all the wrong reasons. Manti Te'o, Alec Ogletree and Kevin Minter are three prospects who fit the bill, but two of the three could already be gone by the 32nd pick.

Cincinnati Bengals

Finished: 10-6, Eliminated by Houston in wild-card round
Drafting: No. 21 overall in first round
Needs: S, RB, OT, LB, WR

This offseason, the Bengals have survived by not getting worse. They have been focused on retaining their own players including defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback/return man Adam "Pacman" Jones, cornerback Terence Newman and linebacker Rey Maualuga. They would love to do the same with right tackle Andre Smith, cornerback Nate Clements and safety Chris Crocker.

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Their one significant loss was outside linebacker Manny Lawson, who signed with the Buffalo Bills. Although he wasn’t great in coverage, he was great at stopping the run and getting after the passer.

Offensively, this team will go as far as the development of quarterback Andy Dalton takes them. He obviously has a top-tier talent in wide receiver A.J. Green and an above-average tight end in Jermaine Gresham, but he could definitely use another weapon to work the underneath routes and create big plays in space. That doesn’t necessarily mean another wide receiver. I think a playmaking running back could serve them just as well.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a solid addition, but he isn’t a breakaway runner or a dynamic threat out of the backfield. With the 21st pick, the Bengals should have their pick of any of the top running backs, with maybe the exception of Eddie Lacy. But I’m not sure they will want to spend a first-round pick on a position that is very deep in this class and has been devalued over the past five years.

If Cincinnati fails to re-sign Andre Smith, offensive tackle becomes a huge need. Sitting at No. 21 is prime real estate to select either D.J. Fluker or Menelik Watson.

If the Bengals do sign Andre Smith, they would most likely look to the defensive side of the ball with their first-round pick to supplement a defensive secondary that is aging. Even if the Bengals retain Clements and Crocker, they will both be 33 and on the tail ends of their careers. Newman is even older, 34.

Clements actually played out of position last year to fill the void at safety, so looking at players such as Matt Elam or Jonathan Cyprien makes a ton of sense, with top safety Kenny Vaccaro already long gone at this point in the draft.

If the Bengals decide to replace Lawson, the outside linebacker position is deep enough to wait for the second round. Having both the 37th and 53rd picks gives them some flexibility if they need to move up a bit to get either Arthur Brown or Khaseem Greene.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Finished: 8-8
Drafting: No. 17 overall in first round
Needs: OLB, OT, RB, WR

Pittsburgh has finally reached that threshold we have been talking about for a while. The injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was a catalyst to see that without him they are an average team at best. They must now focus on rebuilding the defense and retooling the offense to give Big Ben the weapons he needs downfield.

The loss of receiver Mike Wallace isn’t the only void on this offense.

The Steelers, a historically downhill, physical running team finished 26th in the league in rushing yards last year, and the offensive line was once again a revolving door. Second-year players David DeCastro, who is coming off a season-ending injury, and Mike Adams need significant improvement. Adams was so bad that a replacement might be needed.

Running back Jonathan Dwyer was a nice surprise. He might have showed enough to become the bell cow in this backfield, but it might serve the Steelers well to look to add some depth in the middle rounds of the draft.

With the 17th pick, the Steelers will pick behind Carolina (No. 14 overall) and St. Louis (No. 16 overall). Both teams are in desperate need for some help at wide receiver. If a player like Tavon Austin somehow falls to the Steelers at 17, he would be very hard to pass up. Cordarrelle Patterson and Keenan Allen are also deserving of similar high grades.

If the Steelers choose to bypass the wide receiver position, I’m not sure drafting an offensive tackle is the right move here, as they have already spent high draft picks in DeCastro, Adams and Marcus Gilbert over the past two drafts. That leaves them looking to the defensive side of the ball.

The obvious pick on defense would be to fill the void left by linebacker James Harrison, but there is still an outside chance he re-signs with the Steelers, as there hasn't been an eager market for him in free agency. Even still, if Georgia's Jarvis Jones drops out of the top 15 and falls into the Steelers' lap because of medical concerns, he would be a no-brainer: His skill set fits in perfectly with what the Steelers’ needs.

A curveball here could be a cornerback. Dee Milliner should be long gone by now, but Desmond Trufant and Xavier Rhodes are big-time talents who could instantly improve the Steelers' secondary.

Cleveland Browns

Finished: 5-11
Drafting: No. 6 overall in first round
Needs: WR, CB, OG, QB

The Cleveland Browns will be under the direction of their sixth head coach in the past 10 years. Under the guidance of new general manager Mike Lombardi, the Browns have made some solid moves and continue to improve incrementally but might have overpaid for Kruger, linebacker Quentin Groves and defensive end Desmond Bryant.

In my opinion, the best additions have come in the form of new coordinators Norv Turner and Ray Horton. Turner’s head-coaching tenure in San Diego may not have always been a fan favorite, but it is hard to question his ability as a play-caller. Horton will be asked to turn around a defense that is limited in talent, just as he did during his stay in Arizona. Horton's familiarity of the AFC North from his time with Pittsburgh (2004-10) will be invaluable to the Browns.

With that said, this is a quarterback-driven league and the Browns success will come down to the ability of first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski and Turner to cultivate Weeden and determine whether he is capable of turning around a rookie season that left a lot to be desired.

In all fairness, Weeden didn’t have much help on the outside. Greg Little dropped just as many balls as he caught, and Mohamed Massaquoi has never amounted to much. Josh Gordon improved as the year progressed, but it would be a huge gamble to count on him consistently as the No. 1 receiver on the roster.

With the sixth pick, it might be a little rich to take a wide receiver, but the Browns can’t afford to pass up on an opportunity to draft a game-changer, as they did when they traded away their opportunity to take Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft. That type of playmaking ability can be found in Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson, but the Browns might be best served to move back again if they can find a willing partner, as neither of those players present the “can’t miss” ability Jones possessed.

If they stay at No. 6, it also wouldn’t surprise me to see them take one of the two elite interior offensive lineman, Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper. Both are among the best players in the draft, regardless of position, and either would instantly improve an already decent offensive line that would continue to pave lanes for running back Trent Richardson.

The most popular pick may be on the defensive side of the ball, where the Browns could pair Dee Milliner with Joe Haden to become a top cornerback tandem in the NFL. If they can shut down opposing receivers in man coverage, that will give them a lot of flexibility to build pressure schemes up front — something that is definitely needed, as the team’s leading sacker had only seven last season.

Tagged: Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Adams, Falcons, Bills, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Dolphins, Ravens, Steelers, Nate Clements, Matt Birk, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Chris Crocker, Jacoby Jones, Joe Flacco, Mike Wallace, Andre Smith, Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, Jonathan Dwyer, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Torrey Smith, Brandon Weeden, Mike Adams

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