AFC North offseason grades: Steelers get C+ after not filling biggest need, Browns get A
Could this be the year Cleveland finishes with a .500 or better record for the first time since 2007?
The Steelers cruised to the AFC North title last season, winning 13 games, four more than the next closest team. The Steelers won the division in 2016 too. They've made the playoffs the last four years and eight out of the 11 seasons Mike Tomlin has been head coach. During that time, the Ravens and Bengals have been to the postseason six times each, while the Browns' last postseason appearance came in 2002.
For some perspective on just how good Pittsburgh has been from 2007-17, consider this: They're 116-60 (0.659), which is 17 wins more than the Ravens, who are 99-77 (0.563) over that span. The Bengals are 90-83 (0.520) and the Browns are 48-128 (0.273).
And while every team but the Browns have won the AFC North in that time, this could be the year Cleveland finally turns things around. Of course, we were making similar claims last offseason, months after the team went 1-15 -- and months before they outdid themselves by going winless in '17. But no team in the AFC has done more this offseason to improve than the Browns; they traded for a starting quarterback, used the No. 1 pick to draft another one, and packed the roster with playmakers -- who will join a core group of young, athletic players who could seemingly help the team to its first .500-or-better season since 2010, back when Romeo Crennel was the coach, Derek Anderson was the quarterback, and Braylon Edwards was the leading receiver.
Whether potential meets reality is another matter but for the first time in a long time the Browns aren't the AFC North's default laughingstock.
This is the next installment of our divisional offseason reviews. On Tuesday, CBSSports.com's Sean Wagner-McGough took a look at the AFC East. Today, we're looking at the AFC North ahead of the 2018 season.
Below, you'll find an offseason review for each of the four division teams -- including key additions, key losses, key rookies, a more general overview of what happened from February to May, and finally a grade for their offseasons. The remaining divisions will follow in the coming days.
First up: Baltimore.
- Key additions: WR Michael Crabtree, WR John Brown, WR Willie Snead, QB Robert Griffin III
- Key losses: WR Mike Wallace, WR, Michael Campanaro, WR Jeremy Maclin, C Ryan Jensen, TE Benjamin Watson, RB Danny Woodhead, S Lardarius Webb
- Key rookies: TE Hayden Hurst, QB Lamar Jackson, OT Orlando Brown
The Ravens didn't feel like a 9-7 team a season ago, but a lot of that had to do with the continued mediocrity of an offense that seems incapable of improvement. The defense ranked third in the league, and the special teams was No. 1, according to Football Outsiders, but the offense finished in the bottom third. Actually, the running game was a top-10 outfit; it was the passing game (again) that floundered, ranking 26th. It gets worse: Flacco ranked 32nd in total value among quarterbacks, sandwiched between Tom Savage and Trevor Siemian.
The Ravens signed quarterback Robert Griffin III, the second-overall pick in the 2012 draft who was out of football last season, but there's no guarantee he even makes the roster. Lamar Jackson, however, is a different story; Baltimore traded into the first round to grab the Louisville standout, and while there will be no rush to get him on the field, should Flacco stumble his way through the first month of the season, don't be surprised if Jackson gets promoted. There's already speculation that the Ravens could have Jackson play a few series early in the season because ... well, why not? Flacco has been terrible, though some of the blame falls to the lack of playmakers around him.
To address those concerns, the Ravens signed Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead. Brown and Snead are role players while Crabtree will likely be the centerpiece of the downfield passing game that has regularly included established veterans (Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith) over high-round draft picks. (The Ravens have taken exactly one wide receiver in the first round since Flacco joined the league in 2008 -- Breshad Perriman in 2015, and his career to date has been largely disappointing.)
The team also drafted tight end Hayden Hurst in Round 1, and doubled down with another tight end, Mark Andrews, two rounds later. Flacco has leaned on tight ends throughout his career -- Dennis Pitta was a favorite target through the 2016 season, and Benjamin Watson, who's now with the Saints, led the team in receptions in 2017 as a 37-year-old.
Flacco has four years left on his current deal, but his cap hit is $24.8 million in 2018 and $26.5 million in 2019. Put another way: If he doesn't produce this season, it will almost certainly be his last in Baltimore. The good news is that Alex Collins is one of the league's best young backs and the Ravens' defense remains as good as ever. But if Baltimore is to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014, Flacco and the passing game have to become something more than a punchline. The problem is that, even with the addition of Crabtree, the unit lacks a consistent deep threat.
Offseason grade: B-
- Key additions: ILB Preston Brown, OT Cordy Glenn, DT Chris Baker, QB Matt Barkley
- Key losses: C Russell Bodine, RB Jeremy Hill, QB AJ McCarron, OT Andre Smith, DE Chris Smith
- Key rookies: C Billy Price, S Jessie Bates, LB Malik Jefferson
Andy Dalton is coming off his worst season as a pro, though some of that can be blamed on an offensive line that struggled to protect him. He was sacked 80 times the last two seasons and his passer rating was around 90. In 2015, when he was sacked just 20 times, Dalton completed two-thirds of his passes and set career highs in yards per attempt (8.4), passer rating (106.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (25:7). The Bengals spent the offseason upgrading the O-line, trading for tackle Cordy Glenn and taking center Billy Price in the first round of the draft.
More proof the Bengals are addressing the right problems: In 13 starts in 2015, a year when the team went 12-4, Dalton ranked No. 2 in value per play among all quarterbacks, behind only Carson Palmer. Last season, Dalton was 25th, well below replacement level and behind names like Tyrod Taylor and Josh McCown.
An improved offensive line should not only make life easier for Dalton, who is extremely effective in a clean pocket, but will benefit second-year back Joe Mixon, who managed just 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie but has the potential to be an explosive player.
The Bengals also got better on defense; they signed Preston Brown, considered one of the best under-the-radar free-agent additions of the offseason. The team also drafted safety Jessie Bates in the second round and linebacker Malik Jefferson a round later all in an effort to right a unit that was replacement level in 2017.
Offseason grade: A-
- Key additions: QB Tyrod Taylor, WR Jarvis Landry, OT Chris Hubbard, RB Carlos Hyde, CB E.J. Gaines, CB T.J. Carrie, QB Drew Stanton, WR Jeff Janis, DE Chris Smith, CB Terrance Mitchell, OT Donald Stephenson
- Key losses: CB Jamar Taylor, RB Isaiah Crowell, DL Danny Shelton, DB Jason McCourty, QB DeShone Kizer
- Key rookies: QB Baker Mayfield, CB Denzel Ward, RB Nick Chubb, DE Chad Thomas
Is this the year the Browns finally figure everything out? They're perpetually in rebuilding mode but unlike the previous two offseasons, where they made plenty of moves to bolster the roster but neglected the most important position, they have traded for Tyrod Taylor and used the first-overall pick on Baker Mayfield. Drew Stanton was signed as a backup too. Coach Hue Jackson, he of the 1-31 record over the last two years, has already named Taylor the starter for 2018. But should Cleveland get off to a slow start, Jackson, who is the favorite to be the first coach fired next season, might opt for Mayfield, the former Heisman Trophy winner who has drawn physical comparisons to Johnny Manziel.
But unlike Manziel, Mayfield joins a very good Browns roster, one that includes 2017 first-rounders Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku, as well as 2018 first-rounder Denzel Ward. Whomever's under center will benefit from sharing a backfield with Carlos Hyde and rookie second-rounder Nick Chubb, and offseason addition Jarvis Landry, one of the league's most sure-handed receivers. One of the biggest questions will be if the Browns can adequately replace left tackle Joe Thomas, the team's 2007 first-round pick, who retired this offseason.
The Browns ranked fourth in run defense a season ago but the pass defense was 27th. That led to speculation that the team might take pass rusher Bradley Chubb and put him on the same line with Garrett. Cleveland instead took Ward with the No. 4 pick but addressed depth at defensive end in the third round with Miami's Chad Thomas.
In 2014, the Browns jumped out to a 7-4 record under Mike Pettine and with Brian Hoyer at quarterback. They were atop the AFC North in Week 12 (!) before the wheels fell off; Cleveland dropped its final five games, finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. On paper, the 2018 Browns look like a much better team. Of course, we made similar remarks last summer and the Browns went 0-16.
Offseason grade: A
- Key additions: S Morgan Burnett, ILB Jon Bostic
- Key losses: OT Chris Hubbard, CB William Gay, FS Mike Mitchell, WR Martavis Bryant, LB Arthur Moats
- Key rookies: S Terrell Edmunds, WR James Washington, QB Mason Rudolph
The Steelers' biggest need heading into the draft was finding an inside linebacker. Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury in December and will not play in 2018. His absence was a huge one for the Steelers, who were steamrolled in the playoffs by Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars because they couldn't stop the run.
So when Pittsburgh was on the clock with the No. 28 pick, the team selected ... a safety. Terrell Edmunds is the prototypical hybrid player that has become popular in today's NFL, and he's drawn some comparisons to Kam Chancellor. But he is first and foremost a defensive back, which means he's not an inside linebacker. The Steelers reportedly tried to trade up for Alabama's Rashaan Evans, but the Titans moved up to get him first. Instead of reaching, Pittsburgh addressed another need, a decision that confused some observers.
"I think what everybody needs to understand is that Ryan Shazier is an amazing player," the Steelers other inside linebacker, Vince Williams said from OTAs on Tuesday, via SteelCityInsider.net. "If we would've picked a linebacker this year -- there wasn't a linebacker who had the skillset of a Ryan Shazier in the draft, I mean, unless you're absolutely idiotic.
"Ryan Shazier is a tremendous talent. You don't have linebackers that run 4.3s and jump 40-some verticals and can cover athletic tight ends like that every draft. So just to pick a linebacker to say you're picking a linebacker is not really going to accomplish much. You need a really, really talented individual to do what Ryan Shazier was doing for us, or you needed to do it by committee. And I think that the Steelers' commitment to doing it by committee is what's going to pay off for us -- obviously, because that's what we chose to do, and because I believe in what they've decided."
This means means that the Steelers (for now, anyway) appear content to move forward with Jon Bostic, the journeyman they signed this spring, and Tyler Matakevich, the former seventh-rounder who primarily played special teams, to play alongside Williams.
There's another key among the linebackers, one that went unnoticed by most fans and media this offseason.
Pittsburgh's offense should be at least as good as it was a season ago; Antonio Brown remains the league's best wideout, Le'Veon Bell is one of the league's best running backs, and even though Martavis Bryant was traded to Oakland, the team replaced him with another deep threat, second-round pick James Washington. Washington's teammate, quarterback Mason Rudolph, was drafted a round later, but Ben Roethlisberger says he plans to play another 3-5 years.
Offseason grade: C+
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