Four takeaways from the AFC North's crazy offseason that rearranged the power structure in favor of the Browns

The offseason isn't when championships are won, but it is when the foundations that Super Bowls are built upon are laid. 

The Patriots' dynasty didn't start until the 2001 season, but we can trace its origins back to the 2000 offseason when they hired Bill Belichick and drafted Tom Brady. The Browns didn't win the AFC North this month, but if they do capture a division crown for the first time since 1989, we'll look back at March as the month that took the Browns from a young, fun, competitive team to a legitimate contender. 

March Madness came early this year, taking a stranglehold over the AFC North and rearranging the power structure that had been in place for a while now. After adding Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon to an already good roster, the Browns are the new favorites. After trading away Antonio Brown and officially losing Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers are no longer the best team. The power has shifted in the AFC North. 

It's not just the Browns who have seen their status shift in recent months. So have the Ravens. Both teams, with young franchise quarterbacks already in place, are set up to compete for division championships in the short and long term. The Steelers, with a 37-year-old quarterback and after losing their two best skill-position players, are still loaded with talent, but they suddenly no longer have the best roster in the division. The Bengals ... well ... they might just be the new Browns of the division. How long it'll take them to climb out of the depths of the division remain to be seen, but that's where they find themselves as of this very moment. 

The AFC North has often been a strong division. It'll likely remain a strong division in 2019. But the power dynamics have shifted. 

Read on for four takeaways from a crazy beginning of the offseason -- only the draft really remains -- that rocked the AFC North. 

1. Steelers, while still good, are no longer the best

There's no way to spin the Steelers' offseason as a positive experience. It was enough to bump the Steelers down from their long-held position of division frontrunners to the second or third spot in the pecking order. 

No one expected the Steelers would ever be in a position where they would be willing to ship off Antonio Brown during the prime of his Hall-of-Fame career, but that's exactly what happened. Worse, the Steelers ended up settling for an undesirable offer, acquiring only a third- and fifth-round pick for arguably the league's best receiver. Even worse, the Steelers are now on the hook for $21.1 million in dead cap space from just Brown alone, according to Spotrac. From a financial, draft compensation, and pure football perspective, the trade was an utter disaster. 

While JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming off an incredible 111-catch, 1,426-yard, and seven-touchdown season, and appears to be excited about the idea of replacing Brown as the team's true No. 1 wideout, it's one thing to play well when defenses are focused on stopping Brown and an entirely different thing to play well when defenses are keyed in on you and you alone. That's not to say Smith-Schuster can't put up a similar stat line in 2019, but the idea that he's guaranteed to replicate what Brown did for so many years -- 1,380 yards per season since 2011 -- is hogwash. It's not fair to Smith-Schuster either. Even during his breakout campaign in 2018, Smith-Schuster scored eight fewer touchdowns than Brown. He's a great, young receiver, but he's not Brown -- at least not yet.

Even if he does match Brown's production, the Steelers will still be down one great receiver. This past season, Brown and Smith-Schuster combined for 2,723 yards and 22 touchdowns. They're not likely to get that kind of production from their top two receivers again. After losing Brown, which takes Smith-Schuster from a WR2 to a WR1, the Steelers signed Donte Moncrief and re-signed Eli Rogers. Neither Moncrief, Rogers nor James Washington is likely to match Smith-Schuster's production as the team's new WR2.

So, the Steelers got significantly worse at receiver, which came after they got worse at running back due to Le'Veon Bell's holdout this past season and departure in free agency this month. While James Conner filled in admirably for Bell and exceeded all expectations last season, he's also not yet hit the peaks that Bell did with the Steelers. This past season, Conner broke out for 1,470 yards from scrimmage in a 13-game season. Including his six-game 2015 season, Bell averaged 1,599.2 yards from scrimmage per season with the Steelers from 2013-17. From 2016-17, he averaged 1,915 yards per season. In 2014, he exploded for 2,215 yards. The point being, while Conner is clearly very good, he's not Bell yet.

The Steelers have done a very good job drafting replacements for Bell and Brown, but the fact remains that they let two of the best skill-position players in football leave during the prime of their careers without getting a king's ransom in return for either of them. If that had happened to most other teams, we would be calling them dysfunctional.

The Steelers did well to keep most of their offensive line -- arguably their strongest asset -- intact this offseason by re-signing Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster to contract extensions. Those moves can't be overlooked. But they also lost heralded offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the Broncos. They've yet to find a way to adequately replace Ryan Shazier in the middle of their defense -- the signing of Mark Barron does not fix the problem. Cornerback is still a major need, as former first-round pick Artie Burns continues to struggle as a starter. Ben Roethlisberger, while remaining a very good quarterback, just turned 37. At some point in the near future, he'll retire or decline. 

None of this is meant to condemn the Steelers as a bad football team. They're still pretty good. They should still compete for a playoff spot. Big Ben is still one of the better quarterbacks in football. Smith-Schuster is better than plenty of other team's WR1s and the same goes for Conner at running back. For all of the defense's faults at linebacker and in the secondary, the players up front -- Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Stephon Tuitt -- are game wreckers. 

It's just that, this is the first time really that it feels like the Steelers' grip on the division crown is slipping. They just barely missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The Browns just made the biggest move of the offseason after their best finish in a decade with a quarterback who is actually worth building around. The Ravens made the switch to rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson midway through the season and still found a way to make the playoffs even with a quarterback who couldn't throw the ball with consistency.

The Browns and Ravens aren't just better positioned to win right now. They're also better positioned to win in the years to come. The Steelers, with a 37-year-old quarterback, should be going all-in with Roethlisberger while they still have him. Which is why it's especially concerning that they've let two of the best players in football, both of whom could've helped the Steelers win championships during Big Ben's window, leave for almost nothing and still haven't fixed some of the problems that sunk them a year ago. 

2. Browns are positioned for success in the short and long term

The Browns are the new favorites to win the division.

Their new status as frontrunners is well deserved, because as we all know, the rebuild wasn't easy. It took time, patience, plenty of failures, and eventually, loads of success. Finally, the rebuild is complete. We thought it reached completion a year ago when they drafted Baker Mayfield. A year later, they put the finishing touches on it by adding Odell Beckham just days after the Steelers lost Antonio Brown. 

The Steelers gave away arguably the league's best receiver. The Browns acquired arguably the league's best receiver.

The Browns have a 23-year-old franchise quarterback who broke the rookie record for touchdown passes -- and he needed only 14 games. They have a 26-year-old superstar receiver. They have a second-year receiver in Antonio Callaway who, for all of his inconsistencies, racked up 586 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie. They have Jarvis Landry who, for all of his faults, can put up monster numbers as a secondary option. They might have the best backfield in the league with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt (suspended eight games), and Duke Johnson. They have Myles Garrett, a 23-year-old pass rusher who recorded 20.5 sacks in his first two seasons. They just acquired Olivier Vernon to line up on the opposite edge and Sheldon Richardson to man the interior of the line. The linebacker group is solid and the secondary with Denzel Ward leading the way is promising.

The Browns have the best roster in the division. Even before adding Beckham, they might've had the best roster. This is a team that went 7-8-1 last season with a rookie quarterback and a coach for half the year who actively sabotaged their chances of winning. And then they went out and added Beckham. Despite giving up two draft picks for Beckham, they're still armed with eight picks in this year's draft, including a second and third-round selection.

It's why they're the new favorites in the division. It's why they're the AFC North team best positioned to see sustained success.

3. Ravens are also well positioned for the future 

What the Ravens did last year was remarkable. In the middle of the season, they actually managed to swap out a long-entrenched starter for a rookie who couldn't really throw the ball with accuracy on a consistent basis and still win the AFC North.

Having already made the difficult, but entirely necessary switch away from Joe Flacco and to Lamar Jackson, the Ravens entered the offseason knowing that they needed to build around Jackson. Though they wound up losing linebacker C.J. Mosley, pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith, and safety Eric Weddle, the Ravens did well to land Earl Thomas -- the best single-high safety in football -- and running back Mark Ingram in free agency. They've yet to address their holes up front (offensive coordinator Greg Roman has talked about the importance of building a strong offensive line in front of Jackson) or at wide receiver (their best receiver might actually be Willie Snead), but the draft is still to come.

In short, this Ravens team is still very flawed after free agency. They got better in some areas (safety and running back), but worse in others (linebacker and the pass rush). Ingram and Thomas are two strong additions, but the losses of Mosley, Suggs, and Smith, and their lack of a starting-caliber receiver can't be ignored. Unless they have an incredible draft, the Ravens are going to enter the upcoming season as a good, but flawed team that is hoping its young quarterback can make the leap as a passer from erratic to consistent. Don't be surprised if they adopt a run-heavy approach once again and lean on their defense. 

But the Ravens should remain competitive. Under John Harbaugh since 2008, they've finished below .500 only once. This past season, they went 10-6, finished sixth in DVOA, and ranked sixth in point differential. They did that with Flacco (a bad starting quarterback) and Jackson (a developmental rookie). If Jackson can take a moderate step forward as a passer while maintaining his explosiveness as a runner, and if the defense can remain one of the league's bests, the Ravens should be back there competing with the Steelers for a playoff spot. 

Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens are well positioned in the long term with a promising, young quarterback. The key is Jackson. If he takes the next step as a passer, the Ravens should return to the playoffs in the short term too.

4. Bengals might be the new Browns

The Bengals entered the offseason as the worst team in the division. Nothing that they've done so far has been enough to move them out of the AFC North's cellar, though in fairness to them, there's not much they could've done to pull themselves ahead of any of the other three teams.

That being said, the Bengals have made a few puzzling moves this offseason, the kind of moves that makes it look like they've replaced the Browns as the bumbling incompetent team that can't get out of its own way. 

They hired Zac Taylor as their new coach even though Taylor has been an offensive coordinator in the NFL just once before on an interim basis. Essentially, they're hoping that by working under Sean McVay, Taylor will become their version of McVay. It probably won't work out like that. But hey, at least give them credit for not hiring Hue Jackson.

Taylor then went out and immediately hired Jim Turner as his offensive line coach. In 2016, Turner was suspended two weeks by Texas A&M for making degrading comments toward women. The last time he coached in the NFL, he was fired by the Dolphins after an investigation found that Turner was involved in the bullying scandal. After bringing Turner aboard, Taylor defended his character, saying:  "I know the man and I know he's a great person, great human." 

It took a little longer for Taylor to hire a defensive coordinator because nobody would take the job. He didn't get someone to accept the job until a month ago.

In free agency, the Bengals finally moved on from Vontaze Burfict -- a good move -- but re-signed offensive lineman Bobby Hart to a three-year, $21 million deal two years after they let offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth depart in free agency. Hart is bad. Whitworth is good. The Bengals kept the bad one.

John Breech ranked the Bengals' first week of free agency 31st -- ahead of only the Giants

The Bengals are coming off a 6-10 season, which was their third-straight finish below .500. Their quarterback is 31-year-old Andy Dalton. Their new coach, hired for offensive purposes, has never been an NFL offensive coordinator for a full season. The only team that had a worst opening week of free agency than them was the team that traded away Odell Beckham in the prime of his career.

Maybe the Bengals will find Dalton's successor in the draft. That'd be a step in the right direction. But as of this very moment, the Bengals are the worst team in the division. And nothing they've done so far this offseason has helped them climb out of the hole they've dug for themselves. If anything, it further cemented their status as bottom dwellers. 

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

Our Latest Stories