AFC North Offseason Preview

In today’s parity-filled NFL, every team is one solid offseason away from being a playoff contender.

With every team doing their homework for 2010, check out our daily look at each team’s offseason to-do lists by division.

Baltimore Ravens

OFFSEASON STRATEGY
The Ravens have dealt with three coaching changes this offseason. Quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson became the Oakland Raiders’ offensive coordinator, linebackers coach Vic Fangio became Stanford’s defensive coordinator (after not being retained by Baltimore) and defensive backs coach Mark Carrier became the New York Jets’ defensive-line coach. The Ravens replaced two of them, hiring Jim Zorn (quarterbacks coach) and Dean Pees (linebackers coach). Chuck Pagano will remain the Ravens’ secondary coach.

Baltimore’s offseason focus is at wide receiver. Derrick Mason and Kelley Washington are unrestricted free agents, and Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams are restricted ones. Mason is considering retirement, but the Ravens expect to re-sign him. Washington should also be retained, although he wants to explore his options. It’s expected that the Ravens will keep Clayton as a restricted free agent, but they might cut ties with Williams after another disappointing season.

Another decision has to be made on two veterans: running back Willis McGahee and defensive end Trevor Pryce. Their 2010 salaries — McGahee will earn $3.6 million and Pryce will make $4.5 million — could make place them among the NFL’s highest-paid backups. "I can’t read the future," coach John Harbaugh said. "I don’t know how that is going to shake out. From a football coach’s standpoint, I know one thing: They make our team better. And that’s a pretty good place to be with those two guys on your team."

TEAM NEEDS
1. Wide receiver: The Ravens can’t take advantage of Joe Flacco’s big arm because they lack a big playmaker on the outside. Derrick Mason is a possession receiver and Mark Clayton is too inconsistent.

2. Tight end: Todd Heap bounced back to become an effective weapon in the red zone. But Heap is on the downside of his career, and the Ravens don’t have any heir apparent. The Ravens were looking at Brandon Pettigrew in the first round last year before the Detroit Lions drafted him.

3. Defensive tackle: The Ravens ranked No. 1 in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per carry, but they are showing some age in the interior. Kelly Gregg has been slowed by injuries the past two seasons, and Justin Bannan is an unrestricted free agent. This could be the time to pair another young tackle with Haloti Ngata.

Cincinnati Bengals

OFFSEASON STRATEGY
For the second straight offseason there are no significant changes to the coaching staff. After defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer agreed to an extension, the only question was whether quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese would stay. Zampese had an interview for Chicago’s offensive coordinator opening, but both sides could not agree to anything by coach Marvin Lewis’ one-week deadline. Lewis is entering the last year of his contract, but Lewis and the team are expected to agree to some sort of extension during the offseason.

Unlike last year, when T.J. Houshmandzadeh was one of the biggest names in free agency, the Bengals do not have an unrestricted player that would have a huge demand on the market. Offensive guard Bobbie Williams, defensive tackle Tank Johnson and safety Roy Williams appear to be the top priorities to re-sign.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Wide receiver: The Bengals need to find a deep threat that can stretch the field, something they were sorely lacking during the second half of last season when Chris Henry was lost for the year with a broken arm. With Henry’s death, they are also lacking quality depth at the position as Maurice Purify and Quan Cosby tried to fill the role of the fourth receiver to no avail.

2. Tight end: With the receivers and passing game struggling during the second half, the Bengals did not have a dependable pass-catching tight end to give Carson Palmer another option.

3. Safety: With a season-ending injury to Roy Williams and Chris Crocker bothered by a sore ankle the last month of the season, the Bengals had a lack of depth and quality at safety. Tom Nelson is nice as a backup, but he was beaten handily in coverage.

Cleveland Browns

OFFSEASON STRATEGY
The next 11 weeks or so are going to define the path team president Mike Holmgren takes to turn the Browns around. Does he stay with the status quo at quarterback and go into 2010 with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, or does he trade for a veteran such as Donovan McNabb and then draft a quarterback to learn behind McNabb? Sticking with Anderson and Quinn for another year seems highly unlikely.

The Browns have played 11 seasons since the franchise was restored and for the 11th time they head into free agency without the need to use a franchise tag or transition tag on any of their free agents. Five prominent would-be unrestricted free agents will be restricted without a new CBA — running back Jerome Harrison, fullback Lawrence Vickers, linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Matt Roth and safety Brodney Pool. General Manager Tom Heckert said the Browns have not started contract negotiations with any of the group.

"It’s a little early, but the guys we want back we’ll have to start doing that pretty soon," Heckert said. ". . . Obviously we think (Jackson) is a good player and we like him. We’ll have to see how that goes. "(Harrison) is a projection. He did a heckuva job at the end of the season. Whether a guy like Jerome can carry the ball that much throughout the whole season is difficult to say. He’s a good player. He proved he could play in this league. That was an unknown until this year. He did himself a favor. We think he’s a good player."

TEAM NEEDS
1. Quarterback: The fact team president Mike Holmgren has yet to endorse Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson is a clear indication he wants to go in a different direction. That does not mean the Browns have to use a first-round pick on a quarterback; Matt Hasselbeck was drafted by Green Bay in the sixth round in 1998 when Holmgren was coaching the Packers.

2. Cornerback: The Browns pick seventh, and the stars are aligned for them to draft CB Joe Haden from Florida to play right cornerback. The position was shaky last year with Brandon McDonald as the starter for the majority of the season.

3. Running back: Jerome Harrison came on strong at the end of 2009, but he is a free agent and there is no guarantee he will be back. Even if he is, the Browns need another back because James Davis and Chris Jennings did not play enough to be relied upon and Jamal Lewis might retire.

Pittsburgh Steelers

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Steelers signed three players to their roster the past week. CB David Pittman was a third-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2006 and played in the UFL last season. Adam Graessle punted and kicked off at Pitt and also was in the UFL last season after he was signed and released by Green Bay. WR Brandon London appeared in 14 games with the Miami Dolphins in 2008 but was released before the 2009 season.

First up for the Steelers is to sign a couple of impending unrestricted free agents. The only UFAs they will try to sign before March 5 are Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton, starting free safety Ryan Clark and kicker Jeff Reed. Reed will be their first priority. If they cannot sign Hampton to a multiple-year deal, they could franchise him. Clark will not be franchised or transitioned and is unlikely to come to terms by March 5.

Two veterans will not get offers before March 5, although the team might be interested in them if they do not get good offers elsewhere. Halfback Willie Parker and cornerback Deshea Townsend have been important members of two Super Bowl champions but they no longer are starters and would have to return as backups. Starting right tackle Willie Colon will stay a RFA if there is no new CBA and they will issue him a high tender, as they did last season when he first became a RFA.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Offensive line: One reason the Steelers cannot run when they want is the blocking. They get no push from their front line. They have to develop a tackle at the very least and need to find their future center.

2. Defensive line: They addressed this last year with DE Ziggy Hood in the first round, but they need to restock a line that has grown old. Another end and nose tackle are a must.

3. Defensive backs: With FS Ryan Clark likely leaving as a free agent, they have no one to replace him. Their CBs are below average as well.