AFC North: 2012 position rankings AFC North

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

QUARTERBACKS

1. STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger remains the best quarterback in the division, and it's still not even close. Despite three injuries (sprained foot, broken right thumb and high ankle sprain), he threw 400 more yards than any other quarterback in the AFC North. Roethlisberger's highlights were throwing five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueling Tom Brady and beating Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg. He was the true most valuable player on the Steelers, even though Antonio Brown was named that by his teammates. When Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in early December, the Steelers offense was never the same. With a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers don't lose at Denver in the playoffs. In Charlie Batch's only start, the 37-year-old backup completed 15 of 22 passes for 208 yards against the Rams. What could change: The Steelers have to make a decision at backup quarterback. Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are all unrestricted free agents. Leftwich is the favorite to get the No. 2 job.

2. RAVENS: The biggest frustration for the Ravens is that Joe Flacco can look like a championship quarterback one week and a confused one the next. Another uneven season included four games with 300 or more yards passing and seven with less than 200 yards passing. When Flacco was at his best, he threw three touchdowns in the first quarter at St. Louis, delivered a last-minute comeback at Pittsburgh and completed 79 percent of his passes in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati. His biggest moment came in the AFC championship game in New England where he threw the winning touchdown that sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl ... until the ball was stripped from Lee Evans. Rookie backup Tyrod Taylor threw one pass. What could change: The size of Flacco's contract. The Ravens have made it a priority to sign Flacco, who is entering the final year of his contract, to an extension. It should get done before the end of August because both sides don't want this issue to hang over their heads entering the regular season.

3. BENGALS: Andy Dalton was the best rookie quarterback in the AFC and would've been the top one in the NFL if not for that quarterback named Cam. A second-round pick in 2011, Dalton became the only rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 or more touchdowns passes while winning eight or more games as a starting quarterback. The most impressive part of Dalton's game is his anticipation. He gets rid of the ball before the wide receiver gets out of his break, which is quite a feat for a first-year passer. His biggest challenge is overcoming the best defenses in the division. In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Backup Bruce Gradkowski replaced an injured Dalton in the season opener and led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in rallying the Bengals to a 27-17 victory at Cleveland. What could change: The playbook is set to expand for Dalton in his second season. Dalton will progress as long as the Bengals improve his supporting cast. They need to upgrade the No. 2 wide receiver spot and find a more consistent starting running back.

4. BROWNS: No one questions Colt McCoy's leadership or toughness. It's his arm strength, accuracy, recognition of blitzes and ability to make plays in the pocket that are the question marks. You can argue that he doesn't have playmakers in the passing game and the Browns receivers were tied for the NFL lead in dropped passes. While all of that is correct, it's also true that McCoy is limited as a quarterback no matter who the Browns put around him. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 27th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 33rd in yards per attempt (5.9), 27th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8). His season ended with a concussion that resulted in a vicious hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Backup Seneca Wallace isn't the answer. He is 1-6 in seven starts for the Browns. Wallace didn't look like an experienced backup with his poor clock management at the end of the first half in Baltimore. What could change: The Browns need to find a franchise quarterback, whether it's signing Matt Flynn in free agency or trading up to draft Robert Griffin III, which is what I endorse. The fallback option is keeping McCoy as the starter for another season.

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line; Feb. 28: Wide receivers; Feb. 29: Tight ends; March 1: Running backs.
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

RUNNING BACKS

1. RAVENS: Baltimore has one of the best backfields in the NFL, not just the AFC North. The Ravens boast Pro Bowl players at tailback (Ray Rice) and fullback (Vonta Leach). Rice produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns. He led the AFC North in rushing (1,364 yards) and receptions by a running back (76). Much of Rice's success on the ground came from running behind the powerful blocks of Leach, who was as good as advertised. Ricky Williams was a relative non-factor as a backup because Rice never got seriously injured. What could change: Rice is a free agent but he isn't going anywhere. The Ravens will franchise him and it should happen Friday. The Ravens have to find a new backup running back because Williams decided to retire. Baltimore will give rookie Anthony Allen the first shot at the job.

2. STEELERS: As a group, the Steelers ran for the second-most yards (1,903) in the division and had the best average (4.4 yards per carry). Rashard Mendenhall didn't run with authority, or in between the tackles, and fell short of his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season (he had 928 yards). He only broke three runs over 20 yards. His season came to an abrupt end with a knee injury in the regular-season finale. Isaac Redman came through in limited opportunities and gained 121 yards in the playoff loss at Denver. Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer both averaged over 7.0 yards per carry before sustaining season-ending injuries. Pittsburgh's running game proved to be efficient but not electric. What could change: Mendenhall underwent surgery in January, so he is expected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list (he would miss at least the first six games of the season). If the Steelers don't add another running back, Redman would take over as the featured back. Moore is a free agent and is not expected to return.

3. BENGALS: Cincinnati's top two running backs, Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott, both averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. The blame has to be equally shared by the Bengals' ineffective guards and plodding running backs. Benson finished with 1,067 yards, his lowest total since 2008. The Bengals wanted more big plays out of Benson, who had four runs over 20 yards. He complained about splitting carries with Scott, who is a good change-of-pace back but averaged 3.4 yards per carry. If you think that's poor, Scott averaged 2.9 yards per catch. Fullback Chris Pressley was one of the few bright spots of the backfield. As a team, Cincinnati was tied for 26th in the NFL with a 3.9-yard average in the running game. What could change: The Bengals need to find another running back because there will be a mutual parting of the ways with Benson, who is a free agent. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said he is leaning toward a running back-by-committee system. Alabama running back Trent Richardson isn't expected to fall to the Bengals, but Oakland free agent Michael Bush has been strongly linked to them.

4. BROWNS: You know times are tough when Chris Ogbonnaya goes from the Texans practice squad to the Browns' starting lineup in two weeks. The Browns' three top running backs -- Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson -- all missed significant time with injuries. Hillis was the biggest disappointment of the group, watching his rushing yards drop from 1,177 in 2010 to 587 last season. He was sidelined for five games with a hamstring injury and one with strep throat. Hardesty missed all of his rookie year recovering from knee surgery and missed six games in 2011 with a calf injury. The Browns like the promise of rookie fullback Owen Marecic, but they missed the blocking of Lawrence Vickers. The Browns finished 28th in the NFL in rushing. What could change: The big question is whether the Browns will re-sign Hillis. If they bring him back, it'll likely be for one year. If they don't, they will have to find another lead back. It would be huge if Jackson bounces back from a turf toe injury that sidelined him all of last season.

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line; Feb. 28: Wide receivers; Feb. 29: Tight ends.

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

TIGHT ENDS

1. RAVENS: Baltimore made the tough call when it released Todd Heap in the offseason and went with two inexperienced tight ends. But Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta became the AFC North's best combination at a tight end, which as a position, failed to live up to expectations in the division. Dickson finished third on the Ravens with 54 catches for 528 yards. He ended the season strong with four of his five touchdowns coming in the second half of the season. Pitta led all second-string tight ends in the division with 40 receptions for 405 yards and thee touchdowns. He was one of Flacco's favorite targets on third downs, where he had 17 receptions. What could change: Third-stringer Kris Wilson is an unrestricted free agent. His only catch was a 1-yard touchdown grab in the divisional playoff win against Houston.

2. BENGALS: Jermaine Gresham was the best tight end in the AFC North this year. Despite missing two games with a hamstring string injury, he led the division's tight ends in receptions (56) and touchdown catches (six). He also became the first Bengals tight end in 30 years to post two straight seasons of 50 receptions or more. In the comeback win over the Bills, Gresham pulled the Bengals to within 17-13 in the third quarter with a one-handed 17-yard touchdown grab and then had a 25-yard reception in the fourth quarter, which was the longest play in the game-tying drive. Donald Lee contributed 11 catches, and Colin Cochart added five receptions and one touchdown as the blocking tight end. What could change: Two veterans -- Lee and Bo Scaife -- are free agents and might not return. Lee provided a veteran presence when Reggie Kelly didn't re-sign, and Scaife injured his neck in the preseason and was placed on injured reserve.

3. STEELERS: Heath Miller is the most complete tight end in the division. He blocks as well as he catches passes. His receptions would've been higher than 51 this season if he was used a receiver more often. The Steelers should've gone to him more in the red zone. He finished with 631 yards and two touchdowns. David Johnson, who is also used as a fullback, added 12 catches and one touchdown. Undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders played a lot more than his four catches would indicate. What could change: The Steelers need to add another tight end because Saunders has reportedly been suspended for the first four games of the season by the NFL for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. It's an uncertain future for Saunders, who went undrafted because of his troubled past.

4. BROWNS: Cleveland had the deepest tight end group in the AFC North, but that took a hit when Ben Watson and Alex Smith missed a total of five games because of injury and ended up on injured reserve. The Browns' tight ends also never became an integral part of the West Coast offense. Watson's catches went from 68 in 2010 to 37 last season. Evan Moore has a lot of potential, but I'm not sure why the Browns signed him to a three-year, $9 million contract when they aren't going to highlight him. He ended up with 34 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns. He's more than a red-zone target. Overall, this group has talent but it seemed to get overlooked on game days. What could change: Smith is a free agent, but the Browns seemed to like his feisty attitude. Rookie Jordan Cameron should be more involved in the offense next season after catching only six passes last season.

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line; Feb. 28: Wide receivers.

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

1. STEELERS: There is no debate here. The Steelers clearly had the best wide receiver duo in the division. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown each caught 69 or more passes, produced 1,000-yard receiving seasons and averaged over 16 yards per catch. They are the third Steelers receiving tandem to each register at least 1,100 yards receiving in the same season. Wallace had a career-high 72 catches or 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. He became the first Steelers wide receiver to start in the Pro Bowl since since John Stallworth in 1985. Brown delivered a breakout season with 69 receptions for 1,108 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers used a receiver-by-committee approach for the No. 3 spot with Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, all of whom combined for 84 catches. What could change: I'm not sure if you heard but Wallace is a restricted free agent. He could get pursued by the New England Patriots or San Francisco 49ers if the Steelers are unable to put the franchise tag on him. A decision has to be made on Ward, who is scheduled to make $4 million this season after his lowest catch total since his 1998 rookie season.

2. BENGALS: Cincinnati is the runner-up here solely on the strength of A.J. Green. The fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft made an immediate impact as a deep threat. His 11 receptions in 2011 of 35 or more yards tied Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and the N.Y. Giants’ Victor Cruz for most in the NFL. It was the most by an NFL rookie since 1998, when Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14. The Bengals get the nod over the Ravens because of their depth. Jerome Simpson (50 catches for 725 yards and four touchdowns) and Andre Caldwell (37 catches for 317 yards and three touchdowns) were disappointments because of their drops and route-running, but they did provide flashes -- and somersaults. The receiver who shows intriguing promise is Andrew Hawkins, who finished with 23 catches for 263 yards. And don't forget that the Bengals lost Jordan Shipley to a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season. What could change: Simpson and Caldwell are both unrestricted free agents, and the Bengals have to upgrade the No. 2 spot significantly. That would allow Shipley and Hawkins to battle for the No. 3 receiver job.

3. RAVENS: The Ravens were the only team in the AFC North whose leading receiver was not a wide receiver. Running back Ray Rice caught 76 passes, which was 19 more than anyone else. Anquan Boldin finished with 57 receptions, which was one shy of his career low. He also had three touchdowns, which were his fewest since 2004. For whatever reason, Boldin and Joe Flacco have never clicked as expected. Torrey Smith exceeded expectations as as second-round pick, recording 50 receptions for 841 yards (16.8-yard average) and a team-leading seven touchdown catches. Five of Smith's touchdowns went for at least 25 yards. But no other Ravens wide receiver made more than four catches. The Ravens traded a fourth-round pick for Lee Evans, and he delivered four catches in the regular season and the biggest drop in Ravens history when he failed to hold onto the ball in the end zone in the AFC championship game. What could change: The Ravens need to find a third target for Flacco after failing to do so with Evans last year and T.J. Houshmandzadeh the previous season. Evans is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 18, which likely signals his exit unless he takes a pay cut.

4. BROWNS: Cleveland's wide receiver group is among the worst in the NFL. The Browns lack speed at this position and can't stretch the field. Cleveland produced 32 receptions over 20 yards (tied for second-fewest in the league) and six catches over 40 yards (which was tied for fourth-fewest). According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns also were tied for most drops in the NFL with 33, although several came from running back Montario Hardesty. Greg Little had his share of drops, but the rookie second-round pick led the team with 61 catches. This came after he didn't play last season at North Carolina because he was suspended by the NCAA. He could develop into a solid No. 2 receiver in this league. Josh Cribbs plays with a lot of emotion and had the team's most receptions over 20 yards with 10. Mohamed Massaquoi, who was limited because of a concussion, has watched his play level off. He also lacks toughness. What could change: The Browns need to find a big-play receiver, preferably one with speed. Cleveland could draft one as high as the fourth overall pick (Justin Blackmon) or sign a veteran in free agency (Pierre Garcon would be a good fit).

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line.

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

OFFENSIVE LINE

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

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

DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. STEELERS: Pittsburgh had the top-ranked pass defense, and it wasn't all about the pass rush this time. Actually, the pass rush was extremely inconsistent this season, so that No. 1 ranking is more of a reflection of the Steelers' secondary. Cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark had career years. Taylor's season, though, was marred by a late-season decline that ended with him getting stiffed-armed by the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas on the touchdown that ended the Steelers' season. Clark had the best season of any safety in the division, which is saying a lot when Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are in the AFC North. He finished second in the division with 100 tackles. Polamalu was solid, but didn't play up to his usual spectacular level. William Gay was a pleasant surprise, taking back the starting cornerback job that he lost in 2010. What could change: Gay is an unrestricted free agent, but it shouldn't take much to retain him. Look for rookie cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to make more of an impact in their second seasons.

2. RAVENS: This group exceeded expectations, and did so in a surprising manner. Instead of starting Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr at cornerback, the Ravens finished fourth in pass defense with Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. Webb was the division's top cornerback, recording five interceptions and breaking up 20 passes (and that doesn't include three interceptions in the playoffs). Williams was a physical presence at corner. The biggest disappointment was Reed, who intercepted three passes -- his fewest in a season where he played more than 12 games. The Ravens' other safety, hard-hitting Bernard Pollard, provided more of an impact than Reed. First-round pick Jimmy Smith endured an up-and-down rookie season. What could change: Smith should take over for Williams as a starting cornerback this season. Foxworth is expected to get cut, and the same could happen to Carr. Both backup safeties, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, are free agents, but I suspect Nakamura will get re-signed.

3. BROWNS: Joe Haden showed signs of being a shutdown corner, even though he failed to make an interception. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His worst games came against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. While Haden is among the division's best cornerbacks, Sheldon Brown was the worst starting corner in the AFC North. Brown's biggest asset is the experience he provides to a young secondary. The defensive backfield was hurt by the loss of strong safety T.J. Ward, who missed the final 10 games with a foot injury. Teams took advantage of Ward's replacement, Usama Young. Free safety Mike Adams beat out Young for a starting job in training camp. Dimitri Patterson was a reliable nickelback, breaking up a dozen passes. What could change: The Browns might replace Adams, who is a free agent, and they could give rookie seventh-round pick Eric Hagg a shot at doing so. Cleveland is very interested in bringing Patterson back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Patterson starts in place of Brown.
4. BENGALS: Leon Hall is perhaps the most valuable cornerback in the division. In the first nine games with Hall, the Bengals gave up eight touchdown passes. In the last seven regular-season games without him (he had a season-ending Achilles injury), they allowed 12 touchdown passes. The Bengals replaced Hall with Adam Jones, who was extremely erratic in coverage. The Bengals value the veteran leadership of Nate Clements, but the cornerback is looking past his prime. Only nickelback Kelly Jennings struggled on a more consistent basis. Safety Reggie Nelson allowed some big plays early, but he was stingy in pass defense late in the season. The other safety, Chris Crocker, had trouble covering the more athletic tight ends in the league. What could change: The Bengals need to draft a cornerback in the first round to press Clements for a starting role and become his eventual replacement. Nelson is a free agent, but he is considered a priority to get re-signed. The Bengals are expected to part ways with Jones, who is a free agent.

Feb. 20: Special teams

Feb. 21: Defensive line

Feb. 23: Linebackers

For Monday: Offensive line

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

LINEBACKERS

1. RAVENS: Terrell Suggs was the most dominant player in the division and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He recorded 14 sacks, two interceptions, seven forced fumbles and six passes defensed. Inside linebacker Ray Lewis had his most uneven season, and Jameel McClain is a liability in coverage. But both inside linebackers were the leading tacklers for the NFL's second-ranked run defense. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is as solid and dependable as they come in this league. What could change: Half of the starters could be gone because McClain and Johnson are unrestricted free agents. McClain could get a nice-sized contract elsewhere, which would force the Ravens to promote underachieving Dannell Ellerbe or draft a replacement. Johnson could get lured to Indianapolis, where former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is now the head coach. The Ravens would turn to Paul Kruger to step in for Johnson because Sergio Kindle has failed to develop.

2. STEELERS: This would have been the top group in the division if not for injuries. Outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and James Harrison (eye) only started five games together. But they still had strong seasons considering teams focused on the one when the other was out. Woodley and Harrison led the team with nine sacks each. Lawrence Timmons, who led the Steelers' linebackers with 91 tackles, was solid at inside linebacker but didn't live up to the $50 million contract he signed last year. James Farrior is wearing down at inside linebacker and rotated with Larry Foote throughout the season. What could change: The Steelers have to make a decision at inside linebacker, where they might have to cut Farrior, Foote or both. The loss of Farrior would hurt because is the unquestioned leader on that defense.

3. BENGALS: This group fared well against the pass but lapsed against the run in the second half of the season. Rey Maualuga was a disappointment in his first season as an NFL middle linebacker. He missed too many tackles for that position. In his first season with the Bengals, outside linebacker Thomas Howard was the most consistent player in this group, leading the team in tackles. Outside linebacker Manny Lawson was expected to provide a strong pass rush, but he had more of an impact in coverage. He had more passes defensed (three) than sacks (1.5). What could change: Lawson is a free agent and the Bengals could get him back at a reasonable price. But, among the list of priorities, he would rank behind kicker Mike Nugent, safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Frostee Rucker.

4. BROWNS: Honestly, is there anyone outside the division who could name the Browns' outside linebackers? If you need help, they were the ones who got blocked to the ground on the long runs given up by the Browns. There were few positives with this group beyond the return of D'Qwell Jackson, who finished second in the NFL in tackles after missing 26 games the previous two seasons. He had 58 more tackles than anyone else in the AFC North. But the Browns finished 22nd in run defense because of those playing beside Jackson. Scott Fujita looked slow before going on injured reserve for a second straight season. Kaluka Maiava, who stepped into the starting lineup after Fujita was done for the season, was overmatched at 230 pounds. Chris Gocong played better when he switched from the weak side to Fujita's spot on the strong side. What could change: Jackson is a free agent, but he's not going anywhere. The Browns will either sign him to a multiyear deal or put the franchise tag on him. If Gocong is going to remain on the strong side, the Browns have to find someone on the weak side who can stop the run. Cleveland needs to address the inadequate lack of depth at this position.

Monday: Special teams

Tuesday: Defensive line

For tomorrow: Defensive backs
The AFC North is running a series for the next two weeks where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. BENGALS: Cincinnati didn't have to blitz because it got tremendous pass rush out of its front four. In fact, every member of the defensive line recorded at least a half of a sack. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins had a breakout season with 7.5 sacks, and Jonathan Fanene recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks. The Bengals' defensive line would have been stronger if Carlos Dunlap, the team's top pass-rusher, had been healthy in the second half of the season. Defensive end Frostee Rucker had his most complete season, and defensive tackle Domata Peko was the Bengals' top lineman against the run. The biggest negative was how a strong run defense slowly cracked down the stretch and in the wild-card loss at Houston. What could change: Rucker and Fanene are unrestricted free agents, and the Bengals have a great shot of keeping both. Rucker proved valuable because he replaced a struggling Michael Johnson at defensive end midway through the season.

2. RAVENS: This group started strong but faded toward the end of the season. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata wasn't as dominant. In his first 11 games, he recorded five sacks, forced two fumbles and recovered three fumbles (returning one 28 yards for his first career touchdown). In his last five regular-season games, he failed to record a sack, forced fumble or fumble recovery. Nose tackle Terrence Cody was in much better shape this past season when he replaced longtime starter Kelly Gregg. It showed in great efforts against the Jets and Texans, but he disappeared late in the season. Defensive end Cory Redding enjoyed his best season since 2006, finishing with 4.5 sacks. The line played a strong role in limiting teams to 3.5 yards per carry, which tied San Francisco for best in the NFL. What could change: Rookie fifth-round pick Pernell McPhee showed a lot of effort in recording six sacks last season and could move into Redding's spot in the starting lineup. Redding, who is an unrestricted free agent, is coming off a strong year but he turns 32 during next season.

3. STEELERS: Pittsburgh's defensive front did an admirable job considering the situation: Every starter missed at least two games with an injury. Defensive end Brett Keisel had the best year of anyone in this group with three sacks, nine passes batted down and two forced fumbles. Nose tackle Casey Hampton's forgettable season ended with an ACL injury, which puts his future with the Steelers in question. Ziggy Hood was more than solid as he replaced an injured starter (Aaron Smith) for the second straight season. Smith and backup nose tackle Chris Hoke both ended the season on injured reserve. The Pittsburgh run defense finished No. 8 in the NFL. What could change: Plenty with this group. Keisel is the only starter locked into returning to the same spot. Hood could move to nose tackle if the Steelers don't address this position early in the draft. Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick from a year ago, would then take over at the other defensive end spot.

4. BROWNS: There's no shame for being last in this division at defensive line. Cleveland has a young and promising defensive front that could soon develop into one of the best in the AFC North. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard was the best rookie defensive player in the division, recording a team-high 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. Nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin is among the most underrated players in the league and is deceptively quick for a 330-pound lineman. First-round pick Phil Taylor hit the rookie wall, but he should be a dependable starter for years. The biggest disappointment was defensive end Jayme Mitchell, who was benched for his poor play. The Browns' run defense was gashed often, and it showed in the number of 100-yard rushers allowed. What could change: The Browns need to improve at right defensive end, so offenses can't focus all of their attention on Sheard on the other side. Cleveland made strides in its pass rush, but it still needs more help in getting to the quarterback.

Monday: Special teams

For Wednesday: Linebackers

The AFC North is running a series for the next two weeks where every position will be ranked and what needs to change will be determined. It will start with special teams, which includes everything from kickers to returners to coverage teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. BENGALS: Mike Nugent was the league's most accurate kicker until late in the season when he missed four field goals over the final three games. His success rate (86.8 percent) led the AFC North. Kevin Huber led the division with a 44.1-yard net average on punts. The Bengals also were the only division team that had both coverage units ranked in the top 10 in the NFL. Brandon Tate set a team record for combined kick/punt returns and returned a punt for a touchdown, although he seemed hesitant in running straight up the field. What could change: The Bengals want to keep Nugent, but he could leave as an unrestricted free agent. The team might think about getting a more consistent returner.

2. BROWNS: Two punters went down with injuries and the long-snapper was cut because he fouled up two critical fourth-quarter field goals. Josh Cribbs led the AFC North with a 11.4-yard punt return average and ranked second on kickoffs with a 25-yard average. He led the Browns with 14 special teams tackles, even though he did not become part of the kick coverage unit until after the fifth game. Phil Dawson was 24-of-29 on field goals, with two of the misses coming off bad snaps. His eight field goals beyond 50 yards was tied for most in the NFL in 2011. The Browns' kickoff coverage team ranked 12th in the NFL. What could change: Like the Bengals, the Browns could lose their kicker because Dawson is an unrestricted free agent. The team has to find a long-term solution at long snapper after Ryan Pontbriand imploded.

3. STEELERS: Antonio Brown went to the Pro Bowl as a returner after finishing fifth in the NFL with a 27.3-yard kickoff return average and 10th with a 10.8-yard punt return average. His longest punt return was a 60-yarder that went for a touchdown. The Steelers' coverage teams both ranked in the top half of the NFL. Punters Daniel Sepulveda and Jeremy Kapinos both were in the middle of the league in net average. Kicker Shaun Suisham ranked last in the AFC North with a 74.2 conversion rate (23-of-31). What could change: The Steelers need to upgrade at kicker because Suisham is too inconsistent. The team could go in a different direction at punter. Sepulveda is a free agent.

4. RAVENS: Billy Cundiff took a step back from his Pro Bowl season of last year, missing 10 field goals on the road. Sam Koch produced a career- and franchise-best 46.5 yards per punt, but he placed 21 punts inside the 20-yard line -- his fewest since 2007. The coverage teams allowed three touchdowns (two on punts and one on a kickoff). David Reed's strong average as a kickoff returner (29.7) was overshadowed by his three fumbles. Lardarius Webb ranked last in the division with a 10.0-yard average. What could change: The Ravens need to bring in another kicker -- perhaps Shayne Graham -- to compete with Cundiff, especially after that miss in the AFC championship game. Baltimore needs to improve its coverage teams. Three of the team's top four special teams tacklers are free agents.

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