By: Mike Sampogna
The AFC North has grown to be more of a competitive division within the last couple of seasons. Each team has a lot to look forward to heading into a new season with many questions on the rise in terms of what players will be returning to the AFC North in the 2021 season as well as new possible signings. Free agency is right around the corner and with big names set to become free agents, it is time for these four teams to boost their rosters and make the AFC North even more competitive. Without delaying it anymore, let’s take a look at each of the team’s needs heading into free agency and the 2021 draft which begins on April 29th and ends on May 1st.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Cap Space: $5 million
1. Center or Left Tackle
The Steelers offensive line struggled throughout the course of last season. The run game was never apparent in a majority of games they played and Pittsburgh quarterback Roethlisberger was forced to throw the ball quickly on pass plays. With longtime Steelers centre Maurkice Pouncey announcing his retirement and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva set to become a free agent, the Steelers must restructure their offensive line. Addressing either both of these two positions in free agency or the draft is key for Pittsburgh heading into a new year of football.
2. Running Back
Pittsburgh native and four year Steelers running back James Conner is set to become a free agent and it seems like the Pittsburgh Steelers are prepared to move on from the power back. As already mentioned, the Steelers run game was putrid last season as they ranked dead last in the NFL. Pittsburgh is not known for making huge splash moves in free agency and generally sign under the radar players to smaller deals. This position will most likely be addressed in the draft as the Steelers have been looking at running back prospects such as Travis Etienne and Najee Harris.
3. Wide Receiver
It is still unclear if the Steelers will re-sign popular receiver Juju Smith-Schuster who is heading into free agency, however it’s looking unlikely due to the small cap space Pittsburgh has this season. Additionally, recent reports suggest Smith-Schuster has told teammates he will not be returning to the team and will ultimately sign elsewhere once free agency opens on March 17th. The Steelers will be missing that go-to gritty receiver who can be consistent and crucial in tight situations of games. Former Buffalo Bills wide receiver John Brown has expressed his interest in playing for a team like the Steelers, which would be a decent addition and replacement to the receiving room of the team.
Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
Cap Space: $17.6 million
1. Edge Rusher (Defensive End or Outside Linebacker)
The Baltimore Ravens are slated to have quite a few edge rushers hitting free agency. Some of these players include Derek Wolfe, Jihad Ward, Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, and Yannick Ngakoue. If the Ravens decide to let these players walk, they must find replacements for them in order to help ensure Baltimore maintains the dominant defence they have had over the past couple of seasons. The Ravens have a decent amount of cap space, so expect them to be browsing for potential options on the edge.
2. Offensive Lineman
Baltimore will definitely be looking to toughen up their offensive line this upcoming season after last year’s struggles and inconsistencies. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was often protected well, but the line’s ability to provide consistent protection on passing plays limited his ability to make precise throws. There are quite a bit of options this year for offensive lineman and some are quite notable as well. The Ravens should mainly focus on either centre or guard as they have two stellar tackles in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr.
3. Wide Receiver
Lamar Jackson will need more consistent weapons heading into the 2021 season if the Ravens want to make that next jump of becoming a true title contender. Jackson heavily relied on tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Marquise Brown, meanwhile rookie receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche were disappointing in their first year. Adding another reliable and consistent receiving option will help Jackson tremendously and will be a huge assist in the passing game. If the Ravens don’t make any wide receiver signing in free agency, expect them to have it at the top of their list heading into the draft.
Cleveland Browns (11-5)
Cap Space: $31.5 million
1. Wide Receiver
Cleveland will ultimately need to add weapons in the passing game for quarterback Baker Mayfield depending on the status of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. who tore his ACL this past season. If Beckham is healthy and ready to go for next season, the Browns will need that third wide receiver to help cement the offense. However, if Beckham is not healthy enough to start right away, the Browns will need a second option for Mayfield to throw alongside wide receiver Jarvis Landry. With quite a bit of cap space, the Browns have room to add players such as Sammy Watkins, Will Fuller, or Zach Pascal to their team.
2. Defensive Back
The secondary needs a little bit of work as the Browns were a little inconsistent in this area this past season. With the recent signing of safety John Johnson III, Cleveland is making the right moves to ensure the defense complements the offense. The Browns still need a cornerback to pair with current defensive back Denzel Ward, and a replacement for free agent safeties Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph are also a necessity. Both cornerback and safety equally need some work, however it seems Cleveland is focusing on the safety position in free agency with signing Johnson III which may suggest they’ll look towards the draft for a cornerback.
3. Defensive End
Cleveland will desperately need to address this position to pair someone alongside defensive end Myles Garret. Olivier Vernon, who played defensive end for Cleveland the past two seasons is set to become a free agent. The Browns will need to find someone on the other side of their defensive line to assure Myles Garrett doesn’t receive most of the attention next season. If Cleveland has enough money to make this move, Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson would be a stellar fit as he is set to become a free agent this season.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
Cap Space: $41.3 million
1. Offensive Lineman
The offensive line is a major issue the Bengals need to tackle heading into free agency and the upcoming draft. Former first-round pick in last year’s draft, Joe Burrow, was off to a great start at quarterback in his rookie season, but unfortunately suffered a torn ACL, MCL, and partial tears to his PCL and meniscus. In order to keep Burrow safe for the future and improve their poor running game, Cincinnati will have to completely restructure their offensive lie. The Bengals have the sixth most amount of cap space this season out of all 32 teams, so addressing their line in free agency and even the draft is crucial.
One of the weak points of the Bengals in 2020 was their secondary and heading into next season they should find a number one option at this position. With last year’s signing of cornerback Trae Waynes, finding a lockdown corner to pair with him will extremely improve their secondary. The market this year for cornerbacks in free agency is tough since it is filled with a lot of older players, however notable names such as Ronald Darby and Malcolm Butler could be great fits for Cincinnati. Otherwise, the Bengals can look towards the draft if they cannot find a suitable cornerback in free agency.
3. Defensive Tackle
It’s time for Cincinnati to look for another option at defensive tackle due to the aging Geno Atkins who struggled with a shoulder injury in the previous season. Other than Atkins, they’re not many impactful defensive tackles on the current roster. The Bengals could make a huge splash at this position in free agency by signing a player such as defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins or Malcolm Brown. If the Bengals don’t release Atkins, it is still a good idea to find a potential replacement or even someone to pair him with as another defensive tackle would fit perfectly in Cincinnati's scheme on defense.