The Steelers and Bengals were trending downwards and the Browns and Ravens were both on the up and up as the season ended. There’s been a couple of coaching changes and a fair bit of player unrest in the AFC North since the last slate of games in January so lets look at what the teams key needs are moving in to the off season
Mike Tomlin is given another year and a repeat of last years performance could see him out of a job come January 2020. Star running back Le’Veon Bell is very likely on the way to free agency and there are ongoing question marks over Antonio Brown who has recently requested a trade away from the team following an argument with Ben Roethlisberger before the last match of the regular season.
The Steelers though still have a lot of talent on the team. Bell will be allowed to leave with the emergence of James Conner but a backup running back will likely be sought out, probably through the draft. If Brown does leave, Smith-Schuster will be elevated to top billing but another wide receiver will be needed to help out, though the Steelers have a rich history of drafting quality wide receivers. Guard Ramon Foster is a free agent going into the off season and whilst his age may be a concern (33), the Steelers O-Line has been a strong unit and they may try and keep him on a short term deal and draft some depth at guard.
On the defensive side, this is also stacked with talent – though most of it is up front. The Steelers have never really replaced the backfield with the quality that the likes of Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor or William Gay. A cornerback could be high on the shopping list along with a long term middle linebacker to replace Ryan Shazier.Embed from Getty Images
New coach Zac Taylor has inherited a roster that I think has some decent talent on it. Andy Dalton is a very middling quarterback but has some good receiving options in AJ Green and Tyler Boyd as well as a talented backfield threat in Joe Mixon who had a strong second season in the league. The O-Line improved in 2018 versus the previous year but could still use a talented left tackle with both Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher’s contracts ending. Tight end is another position that needs attention with Eifert going to free agency whilst recovering from a nasty ankle break earlier in the season. Alongside Eifert, Tyler Kroft, Matt Lengel and CJ Uzomah are also going to free agency. Out of the four tight ends I would expect them to keep one and replace others.
On the defensive side, it’s a similar story to the Steelers with backfield and linebackers needed. Darqueze Dennard will likely be allowed to leave but reinforcements will be needed at cornerback. Decisions will need to be made about Burfict who is often suspended, whether that flies with the new coaching staff is something to watch out for but many analysts have the Bengals picking a linebacker with their first round pick.Embed from Getty Images
The resurgent Browns are picking 17th in the first round, a huge improvement on previous years where they often picked in the top five based on the previous seasons performance. This is a young roster with a growing confidence under leaders such as Mayfield, Landry and Garrett. The list of players heading to free agency is minimal and the cap space the Browns have is good. Many are predicting another big step forward for the Browns and if this was any other franchise I’d be right there with them! The roster built by John Dorsey is a good one, the biggest question this team will face going into the 2019 season is not around the players but the new coaching staff.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Browns need a new left tackle to replace Joe Thomas who retired last year. Protecting Mayfield will be key to his ongoing progress and we could see the Browns bring in a couple of O-lineman to provide depth.
On defence, a pass rusher to compliment Myles Garrett, a linebacker to solidify the middle of the field and a cornerback to form a strong tandem with Denzel Ward could all be on the wish list. But all can be got with the cap room and the picks that they have.Embed from Getty Images
The Ravens made the correct decision in re-signing head coach John Harbaugh who has led this franchise admirably in his time. The defence again last year was strong but they have some key players coming to the end of their contracts where decisions have to be made.
If the Ravens are going to roll with Lamar Jackson at quarterback then it’s essential that they bring in some big bodied receivers who have a wide catch radius. Jackson is electric on the ground but his wayward accuracy demands that his receivers need to be able to make outlandish catches of balls thrown to different areas of the field to where they are! Re-signing Gus Edwards to a low cost deal would also be advisable after the running back ended the season on a high. If Joe Flacco is cut, as expected, then the Ravens will also need to decide whether to retain Robert Griffin III or bring in a backup (presumably veteran) quarterback to allow Jackson to carry on his education.
Defensively there could be a lot of changes in 2019 with linebackers Terrell Suggs and CJ Mosely, defensive tackle Brent Urban all heading to free agency. Rumous are that safety Eric Weddle could also be a cap casualty. All would need to be replaced though I would expect one of the linebackers to be retained (presumably Mosely based on his age). Some seriously good drafting by new GM Eric DeCosta will be needed to continue success into 2019Embed from Getty Images