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Thursday, February 12, 2009
Hot Button: AFC North

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The top issues facing each team in the division:

Baltimore Ravens

 
  James Lang/US PRESSWIRE
  Ray Lewis is one of many high-end free agents the Ravens could have testing the market this month.
Primary issue: Baltimore has arguably the most high-profile list of in-house free agents in the NFL this offseason. Therefore, the biggest issue for the Ravens is keeping their own players.

Center Jason Brown and linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs lead an impressive group set to hit the open market at the end of the month. Other key players include safety Jim Leonhard, punter Sam Koch and restricted free-agent safety Dawan Landry.

It will cost the Ravens too much money to keep all of these players, so expect some to get paid elsewhere.

Solution: The Ravens are expected to offer significant contracts to Lewis and Suggs. That's a good place to start. From there the team could allow everyone else to test the market to determine their value.

Secondary concern: After retaining their own free agents, the Ravens' next concern is getting better at receiver and cornerback. The team lacks depth at both positions.

Baltimore is expected to release former Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister to save $8 million off its salary cap for next season, hurting its depth. There also isn't much talent behind Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason at receiver.

Solution: The Ravens can use their first-round pick to improve one of these two positions, while addressing the other later in the draft or via free agency.


Cincinnati Bengals

 
  Nelson Chenault/US Presswire
  Carson Palmer's recovery from elbow problems is a primary concern for the Bengals.
Primary issue: The Bengals are stuck in between the past and future and need to focus on rebuilding before making another playoff run.

For instance, players such as receivers Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh represent a core that made the playoffs three years ago. Both are over 30 and probably will be better fits on other teams at this point. Houshmandzadeh is an unrestricted free agent and Ocho Cinco could be trade bait for a contending team. From there, the team can start the rebuilding process.

Quarterback Carson Palmer also needs to come back healthy next season from elbow trouble. He will remain the cornerstone of the franchise, but Cincinnati needs to begin putting younger and better pieces around him before it's too late.

Solution: Make changes and get Palmer healthy. The Bengals can win four games next year without Ocho Cinco and Houshmandzadeh. It's time to build a new core while Palmer still has good years left in him.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East
 

Secondary concern: Although this also could be listed as a primary concern, it is very important that the Bengals nail the draft this year.

Cincinnati's scouting staff is one of the smallest in the NFL and it has been reflected in its draft record over the years. Head coach Marvin Lewis has never had an A-list draft in his six seasons in the Queen City. It's hard to compete in the AFC North when teams like the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are consistently hitting on their picks.

Solution: There is no easy answer to drafting well other than to improve the scouting. Perhaps helping the Bengals this year is the fact their coaching staff ran the Senior Bowl, giving the team more insight into this year's class.


Cleveland Browns

 
  AP Photo/Mark Duncan
  Eric Mangini has to evaluate the Browns roster quickly to prepare for next season.
Primary issue: With a new coach in Eric Mangini and new general manager in George Kokinis taking over last month, the Browns are in full evaluation mode of their roster. Mangini and Kokinis have to decide which players are worth keeping and can fit into their system. Among the many questions is whether the unproven Brady Quinn should remain the team's starting quarterback? Or should there be an open competition between Quinn and former Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Anderson? The Browns could also look to trade Anderson.

There also are other talented players such as receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and running back Jamal Lewis that the new regime needs to make decisions on.

Solution: If the Browns decide to rebuild, trading many of these veterans for draft picks might be the most attractive option for Mangini and Kokinis. New regimes rarely keep all the same players who got the previous regime fired.

Secondary concern: Cleveland's inability to bring in Kokinis much earlier puts the team behind in terms of draft plans.

Much of the college scouting knowledge for the Browns rested with former general manager Phil Savage and his staff. But most of those people are gone.

Kokinis' background is with pro personnel, so even the GM will have to be a quick study over the next two-plus months. Mangini also will have a lot of say in getting the type of player he wants.

Solution: Cleveland can do nothing else besides work extra hard during the combine and interview process to make up for lost time. As a result, the Browns might have to accept the hits and misses in their first year.


Pittsburgh Steelers

 
  James Lang/US PRESSWIRE
  Ben Roethlisberger has taken many hard hits over the past few seasons, forcing Pittsburgh to re-examine their offensive line.
Primary issue: Coming off a 12-4 regular season and its sixth Super Bowl, Pittsburgh doesn't have many holes. But its biggest glaring weakness remains the offensive line.

This is a great time to address the much-maligned unit because the Steelers will have four key pending free agents on the line. Among them are starting guard Chris Kemoeatu, starting tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon, and former starting tackle Marvel Smith, who played in only five games because of a back injury. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has taken a pounding the past several seasons, as evidenced by his recent admission of playing the Super Bowl with fractured ribs. The Steelers have put off acquiring linemen for too long and now is the time to address that need.

Solution: Pittsburgh will not allow all of its in-house free-agent linemen to leave. But it will say goodbye to some and upgrade the rest of the positions via the draft and free agency.

Secondary concern: The free-agent class of 2010 could be brutal for the Steelers. So expect them to take a hard look at several key players a year early.

Veterans like tight end Heath Miller, receiver Hines Ward, safety Ryan Clark and defensive player of the year James Harrison all have expiring deals at the end of next season. The Steelers usually allow their players to fulfill their contracts before re-negotiating, but they will probably make a few exceptions this offseason.

Solution: Of the bunch, Harrison is the only surefire player to get a raise and early extension. He is grossly underpaid for his level of production. Everyone else might have to wait until next year.