Many football fans believe the AFC North is the best division in the NFL. The division has successfully sent at least two teams to the postseason for six consecutive years. The Ravens took care of their quarterback during the offseason in hopes he would take care to defend Baltimore’s crown. The Bengals are the biggest threat to Joe Flacco’s success this season as they were the previous two years. An argument may be made for the Steelers to be the third playoff team from this division as was the case during the 2011 season. Finally, Cleveland has improved considerably during the offseason but it’s a long way to the top or to a playoff-birth for that matter.
1. Baltimore Ravens: The defending champs survived a tough offseason and emerged as the favorites once again. Joe Flacco, along with a very different looking defense, will be tested early and often as they complete a rather difficult schedule this season.
Where they got better: On defense. The front seven players have the potential to be among the best in the league.
Where they got worse: Wide receiver. The Ravens’ decision to trade Anquan Boldin has left them hoping the team possesses enough young talent to reproduce Boldin’s numbers from last season.
Breakout player: Corey Graham, CB. His two playoff picks against Denver during the postseason showed everyone a glimpse of the talent Graham possesses. Look for him to continue to build upon that success to become the most valuable member of the defensive secondary.
2. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have made the postseason two consecutive years and three of the last four seasons. Cincinnati has a base of young talent that continues to develop and should ensure them of a playoff-birth again this year. This squad will finish a close second to Baltimore while competing for the division title.
Where they got better: The passing game. Tyler Eifert possesses the talent to complement A.J. Green as the second receiver the team desperately needs.
Where they got worse: Linebacker. The expectation for this part of the 4-3 defensive scheme is largely unknown. Can ex-Steeler James Harrison and Rey Maualuga play well enough for the second line of defense to be a strength during the course of the season?
Breakout player: Shawn Williams, S. Williams is an aggressive hard-hitting safety and should be able to drop down in the box to help protect against the run or get after the quarterback on blitzing downs.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are consistent every offseason. They are always cutting costs and bringing in new talent. The constant turnover of personnel complicates things just enough this year for Pittsburgh to miss out on a playoff-birth.
Where they got better: Safety. Polamalu is healthy again and claims to be in the best shape of his professional career. Clark will continue to start at free-safety. The Steelers acquired additional depth at this position in the draft.
Where they got worse: Offensive line. Save center Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh doesn’t have another reliable starter on the offensive line. Big Ben will have no trouble receiving snaps but adequate protection will be much harder to come by.
Breakout player: Antonio Brown. Brown has proved to be a dependable target for Big Ben. Since the departure of Mike Wallace many sources around the league believe this will be the year Antonio Brown becomes a star-player.
4. Cleveland Browns: Cleveland has averaged 4.6 wins a season over the course of the last five years. The fans are hungry for progress to be made. The Browns have more talent than in reason years and an excellent coaching staff. Unfortunately, this division is tough and though the Browns may be better, they will finish in last place again this year.
Where they got better: Outside linebacker. Cleveland is transitioning to the 3-4 defense under the direction of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Free agency and the NFL draft provided plenty of talent to make this conversion an easy one for the second line of defense.
Where they got worse: Safety. Cleveland released their former starting FS in April and drafted another to replace him in the sixth round. Tashaun Gipson is slated as the number one man on the depth chart after being the backup the entire 2012 season. Look for opposing offenses to exploit the Browns over the middle and deep on passing downs.
Breakout player: Jordan Cameron, TE. QB Brandon Weeden will need a go-to-guy on offense and Cameron is just the man for the job. He should benefit from the downfield passing scheme on offense and the strong arm of a young quarterback.