Consistency and competition are two words that come to mind regarding the AFC North division. In 2022, the teams finished in the same order that they had in 2021, with the Bengals winning the crown, the Ravens settling for runner-up, the Steelers coming in third and the Browns taking up the rear. Each team went 3-3 in the AFC North in what continues to be one of the best divisions in football.
The division's two best teams played in an epic wild card showdown that was decided by Sam Hubbard's 98-yard fumble return for a score. In what could be a foreshadow of things to come, the Ravens played that game without Lamar Jackson, whose future in Baltimore has and will continue to be a hot-button topic.
They didn't make the playoffs, but the Steelers did go 9-8 while running their streak of non-losing seasons to 19. Pittsburgh went 7-2 down the stretch on the strength of T.J. Watt's return, Minkah Fitzpatrick's All-Pro exploits and Kenny Pickett's improved play during his rookie season. For a 33rd straight year, the Steelers finished ahead of the Browns, who suffered their second straight losing season despite boasting one of the league's best rushing attacks.
With free agency just days away, here's a look at the biggest needs for each AFC North team.
Note: Projected cap space is courtesy of Over the Cap.
Top needs: WR, CB, EDGE, LG, QB
Cap space: $24.3M (9th)
Top draft picks: No. 23, No. 86
Baltimore's first order of business is figuring out the future of Jackson, who could find himself playing elsewhere next season if he and the Ravens do not agree on a long-term deal. The Ravens would surely get a hefty return if they trade him (which would require him getting franchise tagged again), but Baltimore would obviously prefer to keep the former league MVP.
Regardless of what happens at quarterback, the Ravens needs to upgrade their receiving corps. DJ Chark, Allen Lazard and JuJu Smith-Schuster (who Baltimore showed interest in recently) would be solid free agent options.
The Ravens may need to replace possible free agents in cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Kyle Fuller, defensive ends Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul, and starting left guard Ben Powers. Possible free agent options at cornerback include current Eagle James Bradberry and longtime Steeler Cam Sutton. Longtime Colts Matt Pryor, a versatile lineman who played both tackle and guard in Indianapolis, would be a solid addition to the Ravens' offensive line.
Former Brown Jadeveon Clowney and fellow journeyman Yannick Ngakoue are two free agent options at defensive end. Veteran outside backers Elandon Roberts, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and 33-year-old Melvin Ingram could be summoned to Baltimore once free agency begins.
Top needs: S, ILB, OT, CB, RB
Cap space: $35.6M (6th)
Top draft picks: No. 28, No. 60
Each of the Bengals' needs are manageable. Cincinnati drafted Daxton Hill last year in the event that Jessie Bates III departed this offseason. Hill is in line to start, but the Bengals would be wise to bring in a veteran to back him up. The Bengals may also be in the market for a new starting strong safety if Vonn Bell departs this offseason. Duron Harmon, who had two picks and two forced fumbles for the Raiders last year, could be an option here.
There will also be an opening at inside linebacker with the expected departure of Germaine Pratt. Fortunately for Cincinnati, there are several solid options here in free agency that include longtime Buccaneer Lavonte David, former Colt/Brown Anthony Walker Jr. former Steelers first-round pick Devin Bush and former Bills first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds, among others.
The Bengals heavily invested in their offensive line last offseason, and it led to vastly better protection for Joe Burrow before injuries finally caught up to them in the AFC Championship Game. That being said, with La'el Collins coming off an injury and with Jonah Williams entering the final year of his rookie deal, it wouldn't hurt to add to the outside of their offensive line. Andre Dillard, the Eagles' former first-round pick who recently played in the Super Bowl, would be a good free agent fit.
Cornerback isn't a pressing concern, given Cam Taylor-Britt's emergence as a rookie. Eli Apple is a free agent, though, and with Chidobe Awuzie coming off an injury, the Bengals should try to add to this position. If he doesn't re-sign with Minnesota, veteran Patrick Peterson would make sense given he remains a highly productive player who may be willing to take less money to play for a title contender.
The Bengals' high-powered offense may be in need of replenishments at running back. Third-down specialist Samaje Perine is a free agent, and former Pro Bowler Joe Mixon could be a cap casualty. Look for the Bengals to spend a relatively high draft pick on a running back if they part with Mixon. A good free agent option here could be Jamaal Williams, who ran for 17 touchdowns with the Lions last year. This is assuming that Williams doesn't re-sign with Detroit.
Possible free agent options to replace the potential departure of Perine include former Pro Bowler Kareem Hunt, a versatile player who with the Chiefs led the league in rushing during his rookie season.
Team needs: WR, ILB, DT, DE, CB
Cap space: $-13.4M (23rd)
Top draft picks: No. 43
The Browns reportedly plan to open things up next season. Cleveland will likely attack the position in both free agency and in the draft. In a perfect world, the Browns would reunite Deshaun Watson with DeAndre Hopkins, but the Browns don't have the assets to make that happen. Cleveland could, however, try to reunite Watson with two of his other top targets from his Houston days: Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks. Cooks is under contract, though, so the Browns would have to give up something in order to bring him to Cleveland.
Walker is one of several Browns linebackers set to enter free agency. The Browns could try to fill one of those openings with Bush, who had a promising start to his career in Pittsburgh before suffering a serious knee injury in 2020. Bush had a rocky 2021 season but rebounded with a solid 2022 campaign.
Cleveland will have to replace Clowney and fellow starter Taven Bryan assuming Bryan doesn't re-sign. A solid option to replace Bryan could be Khalen Saunders, who won his second ring with the Chiefs after enjoying his best season to date in 2022. Saunders ended his fourth season in the NFL with a sack of Jalen Hurts in the Super Bowl.
Team needs: NT, DE, DT, OT, ILB, CB, WR
Cap space: $81,000 (17th)
Top draft picks: No. 17, No. 32, No. 49
Pittsburgh's inability to stop the run late in the fourth quarter cost them several games during the first half of the 2022 season. The Steelers will undoubtedly address this issue by adding some new blood to their defensive line.
The team will likely try to keep Larry Ogunjobi, who played well in his first season in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers will try to find a true nose tackle after prioritizing other needs in recent years. Look for them to address this need during the draft. Javon Hargrave, a former Steeler who recorded a career-high 11 sacks for the Eagles last year, would be a big addition to Pittsburgh's defensive line if they are willing to spend.
Dan Moore Jr., the Steelers' starting left tackle, continues to show signs of promise. But the Steelers don't have much depth behind him, so it would make sense to either draft or bring in a veteran to back up him and starting RT Chukwuma Okorafor. Don't be surprised to see the Steelers use a considerably high draft pick on this position after using free agency to address the interior of their offensive line last year.
Insider linebacker isn't too much of a concern given that the Steelers can probably re-sign Robert Spillane before the start of free agency. Even if they do that, the Steelers will still add to this area given the fact that Bush has played his last down for the Steelers. Speaking of free agents, the Steelers will need to replace starting cornerback Sutton if he isn't re-signed. Sutton's replacement could be Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. if he is available when the Steelers are on the clock with the 17th overall pick.
The Steelers ended up with the 32nd overall pick after deciding that Chase Claypool was expendable before last year's trade deadline. Pittsburgh made due with Steven Sims replacing Claypool in the starting lineup, so Pittsburgh isn't desperate for a receiver. But they will likely add one via the draft in order to give Pickett another weapon while giving them more options in the event that Diontae Johnson leaves after his new contract expires. Look for receiver to be among the Steelers' first three positions they address during the draft, along with cornerback and offensive tackle.