2015 NFL Draft Preview: AFC North

The AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs last season, but none were able to advance past the divisional round. This is a division that is bordering between contention of yesteryear and attempting to find relevance into the future.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s now all about replacing departed veterans and finding young talent across the board.

Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens need to acquire a couple pass-catching options and find a new identity on defense.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals must finally take that next step from playoff under-performer to serious conference title contender.

And the Cleveland Browns. What can we say about this organization that has not been written on every sports site from one end of the world to the other? They are, indeed, a hot mess. They also boast a surprising amount of young talent. Where do the Browns go from here?

With almost one week until the 2015 NFL draft, here’s our preview of the only division to send three teams to the playoffs last year.

Baltimore Ravens

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Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Baltimore may go after a second-tier receiver like Dorial Green-Beckham

For a team that is just a few short years removed from winning the Super Bowl, Baltimore has a ton of glaring holes on both sides of the ball. As of right now, the team’s starting receivers would be Steve Smith and Marlon Brown. That’s not necessarily an ideal scenario, especially considering Joe Flacco needs above-average pass catchers to be successful. He’s not of Tom Brady’s caliber where he can up the level of play of those around him. The good news here is that this year’s draft is absolutely stacked at wide receiver. Despite boasting the 26th pick, Baltimore should still be able to come away with a starter-caliber receiver in the first round. Anyone from Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman to Oklahoma’s Dorial Green-Beckham should be on the table there.

If the Ravens decide to pass on wide receiver in the first round, they could find a solid guy on Day 2. That would also enable general manager Ozzie Newsome and company to hit another position of need where the pickings might be more slim. That’s where right tackle and inside linebacker—two positions that aren’t deep in this draft—come into play. Either way, Baltimore needs to find three or four starters out of this draft to take that next step.

Cincinnati Bengals

Four consecutive postseason appearances under Andy Dalton. Four consecutive postseason appearances without a single win under Andy Dalton. Something has to give for this enigmatic signal caller and head coach Marvin Lewis, the latter of whom needs to lead his team deep into the playoffs to guarantee himself a job beyond 2015. The talent is most definitely here, it’s now all about finally putting everything together. Cincinnati lost just five games last year. It boasts a two-headed running back monster in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Heck, it even possesses one of the top overall receivers in the game, A.J. Green.

But what do the Bengals need in order to be taken seriously in the AFC? That’s the huge question here. When looking at the team’s current depth chart, one glaring hole comes to mind. The Bengals defense racked up a total of 20 sacks last season. For comparison’s sake, J.J. Watt (20.5) and Justin Houston (22) had more by themselves.

While bringing Michael Johnson back after a failed season in Tampa Bay could help, the issue with Cincinnati’s ineffective pass rush is schematics. As to where former coordinator Mike Zimmer brought multiple blitz packages to mask a lack of talent in the front seven, Paul Guenther’s scheme is more bland. In order for the Bengals to actually have success on that side of the ball, they need more pass-rush talent. The likes of UCLA’s Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Virginia’s Eli Harold should be there when Cincinnati picks 21st overall next week.

Cleveland Browns

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Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Cleveland needs to hit big time in the draft.

Interestingly, the Browns aren’t in a completely horrible situation as it relates to their roster. Based on the bad press this team has received in recent months, one would think it’s set to be a bottom feeder for years. However, that’s far from the case. Nine of Cleveland’s 20 losses over the past two seasons have come by a single score. Competitiveness is one thing, being able to close out games is a completely different thing. That’s the turn the Browns need to take.

When looking into what general manager Ray Farmer needs to do, the primary focus has been on quarterback. Though, it’s really hard to believe that the Browns would select a quarterback in the first round for the third time in four years. In fact, that’s a possibility that just goes to show us how poorly the Browns have been in the draft over the years.

Instead of focusing on quarterback with their two first-rounds picks, the Browns could decide to run Josh McCown out there with more weapons at his disposal. That’s where wide receiver comes into play with the 12th pick. Why not target one of the top-three receivers that may fall to this slot? Louisville’s DeVante Parker would be a tremendous fit here. If not, Cleveland could go defensive line with the 12th selection while adding a second-tier wide receiver at 19.

Either way, all options seem to be open to Farmer and company. It’s now time for this team to actually use these valuable picks to help it become a serious contender in the AFC North.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Here’s a team that finds itself at somewhat of a crossroads. Coming off a solid but unspectacular 2014 campaign, Pittsburgh’s identity has moved from serious AFC title contender to a squad competing for a playoff spot late into the season. It does so with two long-time defensive backs, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, retiring. It does so with questions all up and down that secondary.

If the 2015 season were to start today, Shamarko Thomas and Mike Mitchell would be Pittsburgh’s two starting safeties. In terms of talent, this isn’t an ideal scenario. Now add into the equation the fact that Mike Tomlin’s squad has no true shutdown corner, and this become a real problem. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, there really isn’t a safety in this class worth exhausting a first-round pick on, especially if the team is looking at adding a guy that can play single-high from the free safety position. Instead, Pittsburgh must go best corner available at 22. Someone like Washington’s Marcus Peters or Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson could make sense.

Photo: USA Today Sports