The AFC North blog will conclude its rankings of each position this week with defense. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. For Tuesday, let's look at the linebackers.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Lawrence Timmons was the best linebacker in the division last year and he's still getting better. The Steelers will miss James Harrison's intensity, but they replaced him with first-round pick Jarvis Jones, who is among the favorites for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Larry Foote led the league's top-ranked defense in tackles, although he should be slowing down at his age (he turns 33 next month). The only question with this group is whether Pittsburgh gets the LaMarr Woodley from 2011 (nine sacks in his first eight games) or the one from last season (four sacks). My guess is the offseason criticism will serve as motivation for Woodley to bounce back.
2. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have the division's best outside linebacker tandem in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. If Suggs is fully recovered from his Achilles injury, it would be a disappointment if these two edge rushers failed to combine for over 20 sacks. Baltimore was extremely lucky to get Dumervil, its top offseason addition who only became a free agent after a fax fiasco with the Broncos. The concern is at inside linebacker, where the Ravens lost both of their starters from the Super Bowl (Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe). Jameel McClain will start if he can come back from a spinal cord contusion, and the other spot will be filled by Rolando McClain or second-round pick Arthur Brown. It's not an ideal situation, but it's far from disastrous.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: Coach Marvin Lewis said Rey Maualuga will remain at middle linebacker even though the Bengals may be better suited moving him to the outside and shifting Vontaze Burfict to the middle. Burfict was the biggest surprise in the division, leading the Bengals in tackles as an undrafted rookie. He's an explosive tackler who has Pro Bowl potential. Maualuga will be better than last year, when he seemed distracted throughout his contract year. The Bengals gained some attitude when they signed James Harrison. I'm not concerned with the transition to a 4-3 defense as much as his durability. The 35-year-old linebacker has missed seven games because of injury the past two seasons. Still, this was a solid addition to a rising defense.
4. Cleveland Browns: There's no doubt that these linebackers will put an increased amount of pressure on quarterbacks. But this group looks like it will struggle in stopping the run, especially with the lack of size and experience on the outside. The only proven starting linebacker is D'Qwell Jackson, who has recorded over 100 tackles and at least three sacks the past two seasons. Paul Kruger was never a full-time starter for the Ravens because he's not a strong run defender. His impact will come in the pass rush. Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard are making the transition to being 3-4 outside linebackers. The other starting inside spot will go to either Craig Robertson (three starts) or James Michael-Johnson (eight starts). This is a young and developing group that will be better next year than in 2013.