In other words, no team in the division is expected to do exceptionally well, according to Las Vegas odds makers, and it should be a tight race for a playoff spot. That makes their offseason activities in free agency and the draft even more important.
The Browns and Bengals were more aggressive in free agency, while the Steelers and Ravens mostly just re-signed their own. But even after the draft, some questions remain with each team.
So how did the teams of the AFC North do in those roster-building areas, and what positions still look like they could use an upgrade that isn’t likely to come with few saviors left on the employment line?
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 9
Top free agent signings: The Ravens’ top three signings all came by re-signing their own – RB Justin Forsett, S Will Hill and K Justin Tucker. The biggest outside signing was S Kendrick Lewis (Houston), who was signed before the recent inking of the restricted Hill, and the Ravens added backup QB Matt Schaub. The losses – TE Owen Daniels, WRs Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, DE Pernell McPhee and S Darian Stewart – will have an impact, too.
Needs entering draft: WR, CB, DT, OLB, DE, RB, TE
What’s left at need areas: The Ravens look like they knocked out two immediate needs with WR Breshad Perriman in the first round and TE Maxx Williams in the second round. If NT Carl Davis, downgraded for inconsistent effort at Iowa, and DE Za'Darius Smith can contribute early, that’s another two needs solved. RB Javorius Allen might also contribute early behind Forsett, but the Ravens might have waited a little long in the draft before selecting a cornerback, taking Tray Walker of Texas Southern in the fourth round. That still appears to be an area needing attention, but it’s hard to criticize Ozzie Newsome’s track record in the draft.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 8½
Top free agent signings: The Bengals were busiest team in the AFC North in free agency, getting DE Michael Johnson back in stripes after a year with the Buccaneers, signing LB A.J. Hawk (Green Bay) and two Oakland products in DT Pat Sims and WR Denarius Moore. More importantly, they retained their top free agents, G Clint Boling, LB Rey Mauluga, WR Brandon Tate, T Eric Winston and K Mike Nugent. The only losses of note were both in the secondary and both to former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, now the head coach in Minnesota, as the Vikings signed CB Terence Newman and S Taylor Mays.
Needs entering draft: DE, OLB, TE, OT, WR, C
What’s left at need areas: The Bengals filled almost every need with a draft pick, but it remains to be seen if they crack the starting lineup. First-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi should push Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and second-rounder Jake Fisher could do the same with Andre Smith at right tackle. Surprise third-round TE Tyler Kroft should be worked into the rotation behind Tyler Eifert, and fourth-round CB Josh Shaw might crack the starting lineup at some point during the season. Fourth-rounders Paul Dawson (LB) and Marcus Hardison (DE) were value picks for depth that likely will be fringe starters in the future. The Bengals definitely helped themselves in their quest for the AFC North.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 6½
Top free agent signings: The Browns ventured outside their own team in free agency more than any other AFC North team in an effort to become division-title contenders. WR Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City), CB Tramon Williams (Green Bay), TE Rob Housler (Arizona), DT Randy Starks (Miami) and WR Brain Hartline (Miami) were all added, and they retained LB Craig Robertson. The only loss was WR Miles Austin, who signed with Philadelphia.
Needs entering draft: WR, QB, RT, NT, DE, TE
What’s left at need areas: The drafting of NT Danny Shelton with the 12th overall pick should be an immediate upgrade as an interior run stuffer for the last-ranked run defense in the NFL last year, and Cameron Irving with the 19th overall pick could help at a variety of positions on the offensive line. Second-round DE/LB Nate Orchard will provide a needed pass rusher. The Browns waited until the sixth round to address tight end, then went with two of them only six picks apart, leaving some doubt at the position. But the main question remains since the end of the season: Do the Browns have an answer at quarterback? Johnny Manziel will need to mature in a hurry, on and off the field.
Vegas over/under on 2015 wins: 8½
Top free agent signings: Like the Ravens, the Steelers concentrated mainly on their own in free agency, a long-standing tradition in Steel City. RB DeAngelo Williams (Carolina) and backup QB Taj Boyd (Jets) were the only outside free agents, and neither of them are starters. The more critical moves were retaining FB Will Johnson, CB Antwon Blake, LBs James Harrison and Arthur Moats, and TE Matt Spaeth. The only notable loss was CB Brice McClain, who signed with Miami.
Needs entering draft: CB, OLB, WR, SS, T
What’s left at need areas: If first-round choice Bud Dupree can be the pass rusher the Steelers want, it could go a long way to helping the 27th-ranked pass defense last year. Second-round pick Senquez Golson is smaller than defenses want at 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, but the cornerback has great skills playing the ball. He or fourth-round cornerback Doran Grant may have to break the starting lineup this year out of necessity. Third-round receiver Sammie Coates has inconsistent hands, but he’s proven he can make the tough, athletic catch when he’s locked in. Although there are still questions at safety and offensive tackle, the Steelers drafted at a lot of positions of need. The biggest question there is how quickly the rookie are ready for the front lines.