2023 NFL needs offseason: AFC North priorities for Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Browns ahead of free agency

Consistency and competition are two words that come to mind regarding the AFC North division. In 2022, the teams finished in the same order they did in 2021, with the Bengals winning the crown, the Ravens settling for second, 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 top two teams played in an epic wild-card game decided by Sam Hubbard’s 98-yard punt return for a score. In what could be a foreshadowing of things to come, the Ravens played that game without Lamar Jackson, whose future in Baltimore has and will continue to be a hot topic.

They didn’t make the playoffs, but the Steelers went 9-8 while extending their undefeated streak to 19. Pittsburgh went 7-2 on the strength of TJ Watt’s return, Minkah Fitzpatrick’s All-Pro exploits and the improved play of Kenny Pickett during his rookie season; For the 33rd straight year, the Steelers finished ahead of the Browns, who suffered their second straight loss 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 courtesy of Over the Cap.

Baltimore Ravens

Top needs: WR, CB, EDGE, LG, QB
Cap Space: $24.3 million (9th)
Top draft picks: No. 23, No. 86

Baltimore’s first order of business is figuring out the future of Jackson, who could play elsewhere next season if he and the Ravens don’t agree to a long-term deal. The Ravens would certainly get a hefty return if they traded him (which would again require the franchise tag), but Baltimore would obviously prefer to keep the former league MVP.

Regardless of what happens at quarterback, the Ravens need to upgrade their receiving corps. DJ Chark, Allen Lazard and JuJu Smith-Schuster (whom Baltimore has shown interest in recently) would be solid free agent options.

The Ravens may need to replace potential 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 linebackers Elandon Roberts, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and 33-year-old Melvin Ingram could be called up to Baltimore once free agency begins.

Cincinnati Bengals

Top needs: S, ILB, OT, CB, RB
Cap Space: $35.6 million (6th)
Top draft picks: No. 28, No. 60

Each of the Bengals’ needs is manageable. Cincinnati drafted Daxton Hill last year in case Jesse Bates III was out 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, including 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.

The Bengals invested heavily in their offensive line last offseason, and that led to much better protection for Joe Burrow before injuries finally caught up with them in the AFC Championship Game. That said, with Lael Collins coming off an injury and 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 former Eagles first-round pick who recently played in the Super Bowl, would be a good free agent.

Cornerback isn’t a pressing concern given Cam Taylor-Britt’s breakout as a rookie. Eli Apple is a free agent, however, and with Chidobe Awuzie coming off an injury, the Bengals should look to add to that position. If he doesn’t re-sign with Minnesota, veteran Patrick Peterson would make sense given that he remains a highly productive player who might be willing to take less money to play for a title contender.

The Bengals’ high-powered offense may need some replenishment at running back. Third-ranked specialist Samaje Perine is a free agent, and former Pro Bowler Joe Mixon could be a 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 pick here could be Jamaal Williams, who ran for 17 touchdowns with the Lions last year. That means Williams will not re-sign with Detroit.

Possible free agent options to replace Perine’s potential departure include former Pro Bowler Kareem Hunt, a versatile player who with the Chiefs led the league in rushing during his rookie season.

Cleveland Browns

The team needs: WR, ILB, DT, DE, CB
Cap Space: -$13.4 million (23rd)
Top draft picks: No. 43

The Browns are reportedly planning to open things up next season. Cleveland will likely attack the position in both free agency and the draft. In a perfect world, the Browns would reunite Deshaun Watson with DeAndre Hopkins, but the Browns don’t have the resources to do that. Cleveland could, however, look to reunite Watson with two of its other top targets from his days in Houston: Will Fuller and Bradin Cooks. However, Cooks is under contract, so the Browns would have to give up something to bring him to Cleveland.

Walker is one of several Browns linebackers set to enter free agency. The Browns could look to fill one of those openings with Bush, who had a promising start to his career in Pittsburgh before suffering a major knee injury in 2020. Bush had a rough season in 2021, but bounced back with a solid campaign in 2022.

Cleveland will have to replace Clowney and teammate Taven Bryan, assuming Bryan doesn’t re-sign. A solid choice 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 NFL season with his dismissal Jalen Hurts in the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The 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 look to keep Larry Ogunjobi, who played well in his first season in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers will look to find a true nose tackle after prioritizing other needs in recent years. Look for them to address that need during the draft. Javon Hargrave, a former Steeler who recorded 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 him up and start RT Chukwuma Okorafor. Don’t be surprised to see the Steelers use a very high draft pick at this position after using free agency to address the interior of their offensive line last year.

The linebacker isn’t much of a concern, given that the Steelers can likely re-sign Robert Spillane before free agency begins. Even if they do that, the Steelers will continue to add in that area given the fact that Bush played his last game for the Steelers. Speaking of free agents, the Steelers will have to replace starting cornerback Sutton if he is not 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 landed the 32nd overall pick after deciding Chase Claypool was expendable before last year’s trade deadline. Pittsburgh is done with Steven Sims replacing Claypool in the starting lineup, so Pittsburgh isn’t desperate for a receiver. But they’ll likely add one through the draft to give Pickett another weapon while giving them more options in case Diontae Johnson leaves after his new contract expires. Look for receiver to be among the top three positions the Steelers address during the draft, along with cornerback and offensive tackle.

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