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AFC North Hasn't Gained Ground On Champs


It's been an eventful offseason for the Super Bowl champions.

The Ravens' offseason moves have included re-signing franchise quarterback Joe Flacco, saying goodbye to icons Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, letting key players go like Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, and also going through the tactical reloading of the defense.

While he is concerned with Baltimore's losses, former Ravens head coach and NFL Network analyst  Brian Billick emphasized on two separate occasions that nobody in the division has gained ground on the champs.

"I don't know that – particularly in the AFC North – that I see anyone who has gotten any better," Billick said on the NFL Network. "So even though they may not be as good a team, I don't know that anyone has closed any ground on them."

He added, "Cincinnati has kind of been status quo, Pittsburgh is clearly regrouping … and Cleveland is on their sixth coach in 10 years."

Still, the three rivals have been busy trying to build their rosters to knock off the back-to-back division champs.

Here's a look at the key moves around the AFC North this offseason:

Cleveland Browns

Key Signings/Additions

  • OLB Paul Kruger. The Browns biggest addition of the offseason was bringing in the former Ravens pass rusher. Cleveland signed Kruger to a reported five-year, $40 million contract, and will look for him to lead their pass rush as they switch to a 3-4 defense.
  • DT Desmond Bryant. The Browns brought in Bryant to help with the move to a 3-4 defense, signing him to a five-year contract reportedly worth $34 million. The veteran gives Cleveland strong depth in the middle of the line, at a position that was already considered a strength.
  • QB Jason Campbell. Quarterback Brandon Weeden produced mixed results during his rookie season with the Browns, and new Head Coach Rob Chudzinski wanted to give him some competition heading into his sophomore season. Campbell is a veteran with starting experience, and he's expected to challenge Weeden for the job.

Key Losses

  • KR/WR Josh Cribbs. The Browns opted not to re-sign the explosive return man, who had spent his entire eight-year career in Cleveland. Cribbs is one of the most accomplished returners in NFL history, but he never fully caught on as a wide receiver.* *The new Browns regime was content to let him walk. He has yet to sign with a new team after having offseason knee surgery.
  • Kicker Phil Dawson. The veteran kicker signed with the San Francisco 49ers, ending his 14-year run in Cleveland. Dawson was the only remaining player on the roster from when the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, and he's also the only player the Browns had ever franchised.
  • TE Ben Watson. He signed a three-year deal with the Saints this offseason, following a three-year run in Cleveland. He was a starter for the Browns during that time, and one of the team's most consistent receiving threats.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Signings/Additions

  • CB WilliamGay. The Steelers brought back a proven starting cornerback in Gay, who spent last season with the Cardinals. Gay started his career in Pittsburgh, where he played for five seasons before going to Arizona. The Steelers signed him to a three-year deal this offseason, and he's expected to compete for a starting job.
  • QB Bruce Gradkowski. After a season where injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger proved critical in Pittsburgh missing the playoffs, the Steelers added a quality backup in Gradkowski. He had been with the division-rival Bengals, but Pittsburgh signed him as an insurance policy should Roethlisberger deal with any more injuries this season.

Key Losses

  • WR Mike Wallace. The speedy wide receiver signed a reported five-year, $60 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. That leaves a big hole in the passing game, as Wallace has been one of the best vertical threats in the NFL over the last few years. The Steelers will likely look to Antonio Brown or the draft to replace Wallace's production.
  • OLB James Harrison. Pittsburgh cut the former Defensive Player of the Year, rather than paying him a big salary from a previous contract. Harrison's production has declined in recent years, but he was still a leader of the defense and notched six sacks last season.
  • RB Rashard Mendenhall.  He signed with the Cardinals after a down season where he butted heads with the coaching staff. The Steelers have other players in Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to step in at running back, so Mendenhall's departure may prove to not be a big loss.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key Signings/Additions

  • DE Michael Johnson. The Bengals used the franchise tag on their starting defensive end, who registered 11.5 sacks last season. He's emerged as one of the budding pass rushers in the game, and using the franchise tag on him guarantees that he'll be back in Cincinnati for at least next year.
  • MLB Rey Maualuga. Heading into the offseason it appeared that the Bengals were going to lose Maualuga, and that he could possibly even end up with the Ravens. But they were able to work out a new deal to keep the starting inside linebacker.

Key Losses

  • CB Jason Allen. The Bengals cut the former first-round pick after a disappointing 2012 campaign, his lone season with the Bengals. Despite playing just four games last year because of injuries, Allen is still considered a talented cornerback that provided the Bengals with valuable depth in the secondary.
  • OT Andre Smith. The former first-round pick is an unrestricted free agent, and he's shopping his services on the open market. Smith, who started at right tackle last season, could end up returning to the Bengals if he drops his asking price. He is regarded as the top right tackle currently on the market.
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