AFC North position rankings: Offensive line

The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.


1. RAVENS: Even though there were times when Baltimore's offensive line struggled mightily, this group was among the top 10 in the NFL in the second half of the season. The reason was having two of the best guards in the game with Marshal Yanda and Ben Grubbs. Matt Birk had a better season than last, proving to be one of the best centers in pass protection. The tackles, Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, were adequate. Oher still commits too many penalties, and McKinnie needs to do more than get his hands on defenders. Overall, this line blocked for the division's top running attack and gave up the second-fewest sacks in the AFC North (33). What could change: The Ravens are trying to make a run at keeping Grubbs, but he might want to see if he can get more on the free-agent market. Baltimore would replace him by either moving Jah Reid, who is really a tackle, or drafting a center/guard who can learn next to Birk for a season.

2. BENGALS: The Bengals had the best tackle combination in the division and the worst guard tandem. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is the best player on the Bengals' line, and right tackle Andre Smith was one of the most improved players in the division. Center Kyle Cook was a good quarterback for the line, but he was overpowered in the running game. The Bengals need significant upgrades over left guard Nate Livings and right guard Mike McGlynn. Cincinnati couldn't fill the void left by guard Bobbie Williams, who was lost with four games remaining with a broken ankle after being suspended four games by the NFL. Still, this offensive line allowed the fewest sacks in the AFC North (25), which was critical protection for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. What could change: The Bengals would have the division's best line if they could improve at both guard spots. Expect Cincinnati to draft one in the first two rounds and sign a veteran guard in free agency. The struggles of the interior line impacted the running game.

3. BROWNS: Joe Thomas was once again the best tackle in the division, even though he wasn't up to his own standards this season. The only other dependable lineman was center Alex Mack, who didn't let appendicitis slow him down. The rest of the line was a mess. Losing guard Eric Steinbach, who missed the entire season after undergoing back surgery, hurt the Browns. That forced rookie Jason Pinkston to start at left guard, where he was clearly overwhelmed. Right guard Shawn Lauvao's lack of experience showed throughout the season. And right tackle Tony Pashos allowed nine sacks and committed six penalties in 12 games. What could change: The Browns need to get Steinbach healthy and upgrade at right tackle. Cleveland could then have Pinkston and Lauvao battle for the right guard spot. The skill positions need more of an overhaul than the line.

4. STEELERS: Pittsburgh once again ranked among the 10 worst offensive lines in the league. The Steelers were better than last season and steadily improved in 2011 once they signed Max Starks to play left tackle and benched a struggling Jonathan Scott. The biggest disappointment was the play of left guard Chris Kemoeatu, who was benched after racking up the penalties. Center Maurkice Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl for a second season even though he didn't play at that level. Right guard Ramon Foster showed potential at times. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert has the best upside of these current linemen. Overall, the Steelers offensive line allowed too many hits on Ben Roethlisberger and failed to open up running lanes in between the tackles. What could change: Willie Colon will return to take back his right tackle job, which allows Gilbert to move to the left side. The Steelers need to improve at left guard, where Doug Legursky replaced an ineffective Kemoeatu. Legursky, though, is a better backup than starter.

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs

For Tuesday: Wide receivers and tight ends