2011 was another successful season for this perennial Superbowl contender. Their aging, but still dominant defense helped lead them to an AFC Championship game appearance. For the Ravens to stay in the title picture, they’ll have to start thinking about tomorrow on the defensive side, while balancing the soon-to-be huge contract demands of offensive stars Joe Facco and Ray Rice.
ILB- For the Ravens to remain an aggressive, defense-first squad, they’ll have to look to the future in their scheme’s most important position, the linebackers. Even if it means investing a first round pick on the position for the first time in 15 seasons.
Though still an outstanding group, Baltimore’s linebacking corps could use an infusion of youth. All-world MLB Ray Lewis will be 37 years old in May. He has stated he intends to return for the 2012 season, but injuries and age are mounting. Strong-side linebacker Jarrett Johnson will turn 31 and weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain is a pending free agent.
C/G- Like it’s linebacking corps, the Ravens’ offensive line is strife with aging veterans, free agents and is in dire need of some new blood. Considering that Baltimore is a run-heavy team, securing effective bodies to man the trenches becomes an even higher priority on draft day.
Center Matt Birk will soon turn 36 and is said to be contemplating retirement. Left guard Ben Grubbs is a fee agent this offseason. This is not a strong draft for interior offensive lineman, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ravens address this need very early on.
Secondary- The Ravens’ patch-work secondary has played better than expected, but like other key groups, is in need of significant upgrades.
All-Pro free-safety Ed Reed will turn 32 this season and could decide to retire. Should he hang up his cleats, it would be a devastating blow. Strong safety Bernard Pollard had his best season, but some are skeptical that he would be exposed as a liability without the ball-hawking Ed Reed’s presence. Both starting cornerbacks Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb are pending free-agents.
WR- It looks like Baltimore hit a home-run with 2011 second rounder Torrey Smith. Opposite of Smith, veteran Anquan Boldin looks to be fading fast. He was limited to 57 catches for only 887 yards and three scores last year. Those numbers all represented his lowest output in eight season.
With Smith secured as the outside deep-threat, the Ravens need a stronger receiving option to relieve Boldin and also to line-up in the slot in three and four receiver sets.
After the Carson Palmer trade, the Bengals are in possession of two first round picks. They overachieved last season and seem to be in excellent position to be a youthful playoff contender for years to come.
RB- Young QB? Check. Young WR? Check. The only missing ingredient for the Bengals to have their own impressive “Triplets” is in the backfield. Cedric Benson is 29, fading fast and an unrestricted free agent. Grabbing an elite running back prospect like Alabama’s Trent Richardson could make the Bengals a formidable offense for years to come.
Guard- Protecting your new quarterback is always a top priority, particularly when you’re in a tough, defensive division like the AFC North. Bobbie Williams isn’t expected back, so beefing up the interior offensive line will be on the wish list for the draft’s second day. It’s doubtful that the club will spend either of their two first rounders to address this need.
Secondary- Cincinnati finished with a strong defensive effort- ending the 2011 season ranked 9th in the NFL defending the pass. Still, they missed Jonathan Joseph and could use some depth behind Nate Clements, who is 32, and Adam Jones. Taylor Mays should be the strong-saftey in waiting behind 10 years veteran Chris Crocker.
WR- They’ll be set for years to come with the phenom A.J. Green. Outside of that it looks pretty thin. Jerome Simpson just plead guilty to a felony drug charge and is an unrestricted free agent. There’s a good chance that he won’t re-sign for a club long known to employee poor-character players. The Bengals should be secure for the slot-receiver role with a healthy return of Jordan Shipley. They’ll look for a starter to line-up opposite of Green.
It was another tough year for the Browns, who now seem to be in a transitional-position on offense. The good news is that the club is in excellent position to get better in a hurry. With two first round picks, the Browns are widely rumored to be players to move up the the Rams’ second pick.
QB- With a full twenty starts under his belt, it’s become painfully obvious that Colt McCoy isn’t the answer. Cleveland has the ammo to move up from their current fourth spot to nab Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. Should they be unable to draft the exciting rookie, they could still address the QB spot later in the round with Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill.
DE- To successfully run a Dick Jauron defense, you need consistent pressure from the front four. Left DE Jabaal Sheard looks solid, but the Browns are woefully thin on the right side. Jayme Mitchell only managed 1.5 sacks and Brian Schaefering looked over-matched. Should Cleveland stick with two first round selections, there’s a excellent chance they’ll address the D-line in the first round.
RB- “Agent” Peyton Hillis might be moving on to greener pastures. Hillis missed a significant portion of last season, had his toughness questioned, was labeled a distraction and was “insulted” be the club’s latest contract offer. The club just invested highly in Montario Hardesty, but he’s battled injuries throughout his collegiate and professional career. Cleveland will address this position through the draft and/or free agency.
OT- Protecting the quarterback is always of huge importance, especially if you’re breaking in another rookie signal-caller. LT Joe Thomas is solid, but RT Tony Pashos is 31 and could be better utilized off the bench or is a rotation.
The blood-letting has begun for the Steelers. Many veterans staples, including Hines Ward, Bryant McFadden, James Farrior and Aaron Smith were salary-cap casualties. In addition, Pittsburgh will be breaking in Todd Haley as their new offensive coordinator.
NT- A huge, run-stuffing nose tackle is the most important cog in a 3-4 defense. To run Dick LeBeau‘s scheme, the Steelers will need an upgrade over the aging Casey Hampton.
RB- The expected plan is for new offensive coordinator Todd Haley to restore some balance to the Pittsburgh offense by returning to the Steelers roots of heavy reliance on the ground game. Losing Rashard Mendenhall to a late-season ACL injury was a devastating blow for the Pittsburgh rushing attack. Issac Redman is better suited for a part-time roll and Mewelde Moore is a third down back.
ILB- Having four solid linebackers is another priority for the 3-4. With James Farrior already gone, and Larry Foote a potential loss, upgrading the once-dominant linebacking corps will be a critical need for the Steelers.
WR- The teams isn’t expected to use the franchise tag on Mike Wallace. With Hines Ward already departed, losing Wallace would be a huge loss to the Steelers offense. Though they are in good position with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, there is next to nothing behind them. If they can find a way to re-sign Wallace, this becomes a position of strength rather than need.