The Steelers selected Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. In the 15 seasons since, Pittsburgh didn't once have a losing record, won the AFC North seven times, went to three Super Bowls and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy twice.
Over that same span, the Ravens have four division titles and a Super Bowl win. The Bengals also have won the AFC North four times but last earned a playoff victory in January 1991. The Browns, meanwhile, last won a division title in 1989 -- when they played in the AFC Central and had yet to be relocated to Baltimore. This iteration of the Browns, which arrived in Cleveland before the 1999 season as an expansion team, has precisely two winning seasons, one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins. But 2019 is the year that could all change.
The Browns have a franchise quarterback and a roster stocked with young playmakers, while the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals have various roster concerns that make them vulnerable in a way that previously wasn't a concern, mostly because the Browns were the presumed laughing stock of the conference.
It's natural to write this off as another offseason championship for a Cleveland outfit destined to flop, but this feels different. Baker Mayfield is the leader the Browns haven't had since returning to the NFL and John Dorsey is the general manager for putting together one of the best young rosters in the league. It's fair to ask, if not now, when?
Here's a look at what all four teams in the division have done since the end of the '18 season and whether they're better off than they were just a few months ago.
Grades for all 32 teams can be found.
- Key additions: S Earl Thomas, DE Shane Ray, RB Mark Ingram, WR Seth Roberts
- Key losses: DE Za'Darius Smith, LB C.J. Mosley, DE Terrell Suggs, S Eric Weddle
- Key rookies: WR Marquise Brown, WR Miles Boykin, DE Jaylon Ferguson, RB Justice Hill, QB Trace McSorley
Quarterback Lamar Jackson, the team's 2018 first-round pick, didn't make his first start until Week 11. At the time, the Ravens were 4-5 and an afterthought in the AFC. The team finished 6-1 in the regular season thanks in large part to one of the league's best running games. It began with Jackson, who was second on the team in rushing (695 yards) behind running back Gus Edwards (718 yards). But the one-dimensional offense ran into a buzzsaw in the playoffs when it was completely and thoroughly shut down by the Chargers.
So the offseason has been about diversifying. It starts with Jackson, who completed just 58 percent of his passes as a rookie and averaged 57 percent at Louisville. Can he be more accurate? That's the question for offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who admitted that Jackson's fundamentals needed to improve but also recognized that his young quarterback is only going to get better.
"He has a great feel for the game, and he can do things you can't coach," Roman said in February, via the team's website. "He has really, really good field vision. That's something we noticed last spring. Often he'll just see guys open, he'll see the leverage take place. Not all guys are like that. That's a great starting point. Steve McNair was like that. Steve just had an uncanny ability to see guys that might not have been part of the progression."
Signing Mark Ingram only solidifies the running game but drafting Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin provides the Ravens with a legitimate downfield passing attack even if the quarterback may not yet possess the consistency to regularly win deep. The threat of an 80-yard Jackson-to-Brown touchdown is enough to keep a defense honest and open things up in the running game.
Incidentally, the biggest concern for Baltimore may be on the other side of the ball. The defense, which has long carried this team, is going through changes. Suggs, the team's 2003 first-round pick, signed with the Cardinals and Za'Darius Smith landed in Green Bay. The duo combined for 15.5 sacks in '18. And while safety Eric Weddle may be 34 years old, he's still one of the league's best safeties. Of course, Earl Thomas, who played in just four games last season because of injury, isn't a bad consolation prize. There's also linebacker C.J. Mosley. Yes, he was overpaid by the Jets but Baltimore still hasn't replaced him.
Unlike a year ago, the defense may be less capable of keeping the Ravens in games, which means more pressure on Jackson and the offense to consistently put points on the board. The biggest question mark right now? Jackson's progression as a downfield passer.
Offseason grade: C+
- Key additions: OG John Miller,
- Key losses: TE Tyler Kroft, LB Vontaze Burfict, OT Cedric Ogbuehi
- Key rookies: OT Jonah Williams, TE Drew Sample, LB Germaine Pratt, QB Ryan Finley
After 17 seasons Marvin Lewis stepped down as coach. The team had endured three consecutive losing seasons but Lewis deserves credit for the seven postseason appearance, even if the Bengals didn't win a single playoff game. Now Zac Taylor, the former Sean McVay assistant, is tasked with getting the Bengals back on track and his first order of business was bolstering an offensive line that wasn't even replacement level a season ago when the team finished with six wins.
By comparison, in 2015, when the Bengals went 12-4 and Andy Dalton had his best season in the NFL, the O-line was No. 1 in run blocking and 15th in pass protection. That balance made life eminently easier for Dalton, who set career highs in completion percentage (66.1), passer rating (106.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (25/7).
This explains why the Bengals selected Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams 11th overall and the plan is to plug him right into the lineup. What is harder to explain is why the team re-signed right tackle Bobby Hart, who struggled mightily last season. The plan, it seems, is to let him play, even though veteran Cordy Glenn could man left tackle while Williams kicks over to the right side early in his career. But if Hart holds, the offensive pieces are in place for a bounce-back; Joe Mixon has a case for the AFC North's best running back and wideouts A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd have a similar argument. The biggest question at tight end -- can Tyler Eifert stay healthy -- is only overshadowed by the biggest question facing Taylor: Can he get Dalton back to his 2015 form?
The defense, meanwhile, was among the league's worst a season ago, according to Football Outsiders. The team signed linebacker Preston Brown and drafted Germaine Pratt and Deshaun Davis to fill the void left by Vontaze Burfict, whose play declined in '18. Fourth-round defensive tackle Renell Wren adds depth along the line but this unit has the players to be replacement-level-or-better, which was the case in '17.
Like the Ravens, it starts with the quarterback. How good can Dalton be, and is Taylor the man to get the best out of him?
Offseason grade: C-
- Key additions: WR Odell Beckham, RB Kareem Hunt, DT Sheldon Richardson, S Morgan Burnett, S Eric Murray, DE Olivier Vernon, CB Phillip Gaines
- Key losses: S Jabrill Peppers, CB Brien Boddy-Calhoun, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, WR Breshad Perriman, WR Ricardo Louis, S Derrick Kindred
- Key rookies: CB Greedy Williams, LB Sione Takitaki, LB Mack Wilson
Here's all you need to know: Baker Mayfield made his first start in Week 4 and proceeded to go 1-4. Coach Hue Jackson was fired and Mayfield and the Browns finished 5-3. Over that span Mayfield threw 19 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions and looked every bit the franchise quarterback the Browns had been searching two decades for.
Jackson has been replaced by Freddie Kitchens, who served as Mayfield's offensive coordinator over the final half of the '18 season. Kitchens has no previous NFL head-coaching experience but he has one of the NFL's best rosters -- on both sides of the ball -- at his disposal. Mayfield is poised to improve on his impressive rookie campaign and in addition to Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and David Njoku, Cleveland traded for Odell Freakin' Beckham. If that wasn't enough, GM John Dorsey added running back Kareem Hunt, who will be suspended the first eight games of the season. When he's reinstated, he'll make an already strong backfield even stronger, joining 2018 second-rounder Nick Chubb.
The biggest stumbling block to a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 lays with the offensive line. The Browns could've addressed left tackle with the No. 17 pick, but they shipped it -- and Jabrill Peppers -- to the Giants for Beckham. It was a more than reasonable swap, for sure, but left tackle Greg Robinson will need to play much better than he did a season ago.
On defense, the team bolstered the defensive line by signing Sheldon Richardson, adding Takitaki and Wilson -- two playmaking, athletic linebackers -- in the draft, and somehow landed the draft's most athletic cornerback, Greedy Williams, in Round 2.
There's a reason the Browns -- not the Steelers or Ravens -- have the best Super Bowl odds (16-to-1) of any team in the division.
Offseason grade: A
- Key additions: WR Donte Moncrief, LB Mark Barron, CB Steven Nelson
- Key losses: WR Antonio Brown, RB Le'Veon Bell, S Morgan Burnett, LB Jon Bostic
- Key rookies: LB Devin Bush, WR Diontae Johnson, CB Justin Layne, RB Bennie Snell
The Steelers have never had a losing season under Mike Tomlin, who succeeded Bill Cowher after the 2006 season, but their 9-6-1 mark in 2018 was in every way a disappointment. The team started 7-2-1 before going 2-4 down the stretch -- including losses to the Broncos and Raiders. And while it's easy to just blame the defense and move on, it was more than that over the final month and a half; costly turnovers vs. Denver in Week 12 and the sudden struggles of Chris Boswell vs. Oakland in Week 14 all but sealed Pittsburgh's fate.
Everything came to a head in the days leading up to the Week 17 finale against the Bengals. The Steelers were still in the playoff hunt and their best player, Antonio Brown, went missing. It all started with a midweek practice blowup with a teammate. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, who identified that teammate was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, reported at the time that Brown asked to be traded in part because of issues with Tomlin and Roethlisberger.
By March, the Steelers had traded Brown to the Raiders for just a third and fifth-round pick. This development came on the heels of officially losing running back Le'Veon Bell, who signed with the Jets. Put another way: Two of the best players in the league, who were key cogs in one of the most explosive offenses in the league, were now gone for good.
The Steelers managed just fine without Bell last season; James Conner ranked 16th in total value among all backs, according to Football Outsiders, and the expectation is that he'll only improve as he enters his third season. But questions about replacing Brown's productivity remain; yes, JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the best young wideouts in the NFL but he also succeeded because he was playing alongside Brown. Can he be a true No. 1? Part of any success he has will be determined by the players surrounding him. The team signed Donte Moncrief as a big deep-threat target and then used a third-round pick on MAC wide receiver Diontae Johnson. The Steelers are also hoping 2018 second-rounder James Washington can rebound from a disappointing rookie campaign. In the backfield, fourth-rounder Bennie Snell will join Conner and Jaylen Samuel.
And while this offense will always be dangerous as long as Big Ben is under center, it's the defense that has struggled in recent years. But after losing Ryan Shazier to a spinal cord injury late in 2017, the Steelers traded up for Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. He'll replace Jon Bostic, who was ineffective in that role last season. Mark Barron, the former first-round pick, will replace Morgan Burnett, who was unhappy playing dimebacker in his one year in Pittsburgh. And perhaps most importantly, the Steelers signed Chiefs cornerback Steve Nelson to replace 2016 first-rounder Artie Burns, who played himself out of the lineup after a forgettable '18 season.
Pittsburgh's defense features a good mix of veteran standouts and young playmakers and the hope is that the secondary -- for the first time in a long time -- can hold up its end of the bargain. There's a lot to like about what the Steelers have done in recent months but it's also hard to overlook the loss of Brown and Bell.
Offseason grade: C+