AFC North Overview

The Baltimore Ravens could be on the verge of something big in 2005. And we're not just talking about their defense.

A long-overdue offensive makeover is underway in Baltimore. The addition of wide receiver Derrick Mason should make an immediate impact on an offense that is now under the tutelage of Jim Fassel. The former Arizona and New York Giants head coach replaces Matt Cavanaugh as offensive coordinator and Rick Neuheisel has been named the new quarterbacks coach to raise the game of Kyle Boller.

Brian Billick's reputation as an offensive guru might have been somewhat overstated when examining the final product on the field, but the Ravens have been proactive this offseason in making sure their offense catches up to their championship-caliber defense. To be a more balanced team, though, Baltimore still needs quality and depth along the offensive line to protect Boller.

Protecting the quarterback wasn't an issue for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. The same five offensive linemen started every game, but the Steelers could face some problems after right tackle Oliver Ross and right guard Keydrick Vincent signed as free agents with Arizona and Baltimore, respectively. Guard Kendall Simmons, who's expected to return at full strength from a knee injury, is considered an improvement over Vincent, and Max Starks should get a look as Ross' replacement if a fill-in isn't found through free agency.

The Steelers also must find a downfield threat due to the loss of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who signed with the Giants. Hines Ward is the ideal possession receiver but lacks the speed to be a quick-strike option. Free-agent acquisition Cedrick Wilson is the most viable option in the vertical game.

Defensively, the Steelers regained their old physical, consistent-pressure style. They'll welcome back 2003 All-Pro defensive tackle Casey Hampton and his ability to take up space and blockers at the point of attack along the interior defensive line, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will again have an outstanding corps of linebackers despite the departure of Kendrell Bell to the Chiefs. Larry Foote, who stepped in while Bell was hurt, had a solid season. Starters Clark Haggins, Joey Porter, and James Farrior are the horses of a very solid defense.

For the Cincinnati Bengals, their defense was improved overall but remained an issue due to its inconsistency. Chuck Bresnahan takes over as defensive coordinator, hoping to build a unit that's fundamentally sound and fast but doesn't make game-changing mistakes.

Offensively, the Bengals have the key pieces in place. They have dynamic presence at quarterback, a talented running back, a pair of high-quality receivers and a tough veteran offensive line.

Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was re-signed after a breakout season in 2004 and, together with Chad Johnson, provides quarterback Carson Palmer with a significant weapon in the passing game. The re-signing of Rudi Johnson was a critical transaction since the Bengals lack depth at running back. Johnson has proven to be a tough, durable runner who gives balance to the offense.

The offseason has been one of serious change for the Cleveland Browns.

General manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel are quickly rebuilding the Browns in a new image, one seemingly based on the New England Patriots' blueprint for success, by using smart, versatile, team-oriented players. The new brain trust faces a tremendous challenge adapting the team to Crennel's preferred 3-4 defensive scheme and rebuilding a squad handicapped by poor draft selections, lackluster morale and inattention to the offensive line.

The Browns still have substantial work to do in preparing for the 2005 season. The defensive front seven are likely to be changed further, as the Browns continue to chase free-agent linemen and linebackers who better fit the 3-4 defense. Depth on the offensive line remains a concern, and the team's future at quarterback has to be determined.

The Browns' needs are so profound that they could go in any number of directions (linebacker, corner, quarterback, running back or wide receiver) on draft day. Savage will certainly entertain offers to trade down from the No. 3 overall spot to compile more picks.

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