NFL Draft Team Needs: AFC North

As the 2022 NFL Draft approaches, it is time to start preparing for one of the most important weekends of the year, with your favourite NFL team drafting their next generation of young talent out of college.

To help you prepare for and enjoy the draft more, I am putting together an in-depth look at the Team Needs of every team in the league. These articles will be coming thick and fast throughout the month of April, so you can read them all to fully understand who needs what and which picks they have to address it, or you can keep an eye out for the division that your team is in.

We’re starting off with the AFC North, which is a very interesting division to say the least. So, with that being said, let’s get started.

Cleveland Browns

2021 Record: 8-9

Needs: DT, WR, TE

Draft Picks: 2nd (44th overall) 3rd (78th, 99th) 4th round (118th), 6th (202nd) 7th (223rd, 246th)

The Cleveland Browns had a pretty disappointing year, with the injury to Baker Mayfield effecting them a lot. They finished 8-9, sharing the lowest record in the AFC North with the Ravens, who also suffered the same problems, with their quarterback being hurt. They also sent Odell Beckham Jr. on his path to a Super Bowl, which worked out great for him, but didn’t help Cleveland.

Now, instead of returning to a healthy Baker Mayfield, they’ve actually one-upped that upgrade for this season. Instead of going from injured Baker to healthy Baker, they instead will be adding a healthy Deshaun Watson. I will avoid discussing his off-field situation in detail, but it goes without saying, his availability is somewhat questionable. If he can come in and play this year it’s an immediate upgrade. If he’s suspended, it will delay Cleveland’s plans for relevance in the AFC North for as long as the suspension lasts. In the event that Watson doesn’t play, the backup plan is their one-year deal for Jacoby Brissett.

The wide receiver position was the biggest weakness of the Browns going into this offseason. OBJ was their best wideout and he wasn’t firing on all cylinders in Ohio. They have since traded for Amari Cooper, who will be a very solid #1. But, they also released Jarvis Landry, so I still think it might be worth drafting another receiver, preferably a slot receiver. Especially now that they’ve invested in the QB position. They could even look to add multiple wideouts and see who earns the starting spot.

The defense could do with some help, too. Their defensive line is solid, but needs more. Myles Garrett is a superstar edge rusher, and their new addition of Chase Winovich is a solid one. Having these two outside pass rushers gives them a bit more freedom in the draft, as EDGE is a high-value position in early rounds, and they can focus on other needs early, and then look for interior pass rush when they see good value.

The tight end position is also one I’d look to address, because Kevin Stefanski makes extensive use of the position and they haven’t really had it clicking lately. I wouldn’t want to see another first-round TE – as it’s not worked well with David Njoku’s, whose role is up in the air, even though they franchise tagged him, and they straight up cut Austin Hooper from the roster.

The general objective for this offseason was to upgrade their offense, which is a process they’re already well underway on, with Deshaun Watson and Amari Cooper. Now they just need to finish that job and improve their defense where they can, and they will have an opportunity, pending Watson’s playing status, to fight for the top spot in the AFC North, which will be their best way into the postseason in the stacked AFC.

Baltimore Ravens

2021 Record: 8-9

Needs: CB, Defensive Line, Offensive Line, LB, WR

Draft Picks: 1st (14th) 2nd (45th) 3rd (76th and 100th) 4th (110th, 119th, 128th, 139th, 141st) 6th (196th) 

Similarly to the Browns, Baltimore suffered an injury at the quarterback position and had a pretty poor season because of it. To say that Lamar Jackson elevates this team is an understatement. The offense runs (literally) through Jackson, and his absence truly kills their production. With him healthy, they can do a lot of damage.

On the offensive side of the ball, they need to improve the offensive line, especially with it’s depth, to get the most out of Lamar as often as possible. Jackson’s mobility allows for him to make some miraculous plays out of the pocket, and the zone read scheme puts less pressure on the line when run blocking. However, for this team to truly succeed, I think you need more from the offensive line, especially when injuries for key players crop up – I’m looking at you Ronnie Stanley. I would also love to see another wide receiver drafted to try and help support the passing game. When Jackson won the MVP a few years back it wasn’t solely on the back of his rushing, let’s not forget, they need good receivers, as well as run blockers.

Then there’s the defense. Defense has been the identity of this franchise for a while now. They need to upgrade the defense in multiple places if they wish to maintain that. The modern Ravens are famously comfortable using a whole load of defensive backs, and that requires a constant influx of young talent in the secondary. This season, I think they will likely try to add a cornerback or two, to go with their new safety, Marcus Williams, previously of the Saints.

However, while their scheme means they need more players in the secondary, it also puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the D-Line. They need to get pressure and slow down the running game, despite having less players on the field, which is the weakness of running their nickel and dime defensive schemes. Making sure the run defense is stout could also extend to bolstering the linebacker depth, but the main improvement is needed on the D-Line, while adding to the secondary. They were almost done with a reunion deal with ex-Raven Za’Darius Smith, but he decided not to sign their offer. This means their EDGE needs remain unfilled. I think that they can still get the job done on the D-Line with the draft capital that they have, preferably addressing it sooner rather than later, while also being able to help protect Lamar Jackson.

The Ravens have a serious amount of picks in the middle rounds (7 of them in just rounds 3 and 4) and that is where they will do the majority of their work this year. They also have the 14th overall pick, where I’d personally like to see them either trade back or take one of the top prospects from one side of the trenches – or even one of each with their first two picks.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2021 Record: 9-7-1

Needs: Offensive Line, QB, Defensive Depth

Draft Picks: 1st (20th), 2nd (52nd), 3rd (84th), 4th (138th), 6th (208th), 7th (225th and 241st)

When I originally drafted this article, I said that the Steelers’ biggest need was obviously and inarguably the Quarterback position. Then they signed Mitch Trubisky. Now, their biggest weakness is… the Quarterback position. Unfortunately, I’m only half-joking. This move from Pittsburgh proves that teams are in agreement with the general narrative that this is a weak QB draft class, and so they decided to take a passable starting QB with some experience. This means while I don’t consider them to no longer need a player at the position, I don’t expect them spend much more this year on it. Maybe a mid-round punt or a ‘what if’ pick of a sliding-QB with some upside on day two.

Whether they think the QB position is fixed or not, they should probably try to protect whoever it is that ends up there long term. The offensive line is a definite need. In fact, the only reason I would have considered the QB a bigger need is because of the overall value he brings to the team. The offensive line might actually be their most urgent problem, in reality. The receivers and TE are good, and Najee Harris showed he’s a competent RB, now they need to work out what Mitch Trubisky is capable of and improve the O-Line, even if the reality is that they’re improving it in advance of drafting their next franchise QB in a year or two.

The Steelers did start the process of upgrading their OL during the free agency period with the additions of 24-year old James Daniels from Chicago and 26-year old Mason Cole from Minnesota, while resigning offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. These moves are solid, I especially like how they’re trying to keep the line young, but I’d like them to add a little more and piece together their long-term starting five over the course of this offseason and the next.

They also added ex-Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack, who is an athletic MLB with six years of experience and Levi Wallace, who is a very solid cornerback. He had to be the number one CB when Tre’Davious White got hurt in Buffalo last year. Both of these players will have roles in this team, as the Steelers mainly just have to keep the depth and talent as strong as possible, while focusing on fixing the offense.

If you push me to address anything specific on the defensive side I’d say that another cornerback wouldn’t go unnoticed, but this defense is really damn good, so the offense is a huge priority in Pittsburgh this offseason, and their abundant defensive talent will likely encourage them to fix their offense up sooner rather than later, while a couple of extra depth pieces on defense will suffice.

Cincinnati Bengals

2021 Record: 10-7

Needs: DT, CB, Offensive line just to be safe.

Draft Picks: 1st (31st), 2nd (63rd), 3rd (95th) 4th (136th), 5th (174th) 6th (209th), 7th (226th and 252nd)

Last but definitely not least, in fact the exact opposite of least. The reigning AFC North Champs – and AFC Champs, while we’re at it – the Cincinnati Bengals exploded onto the scene in 2021. In Joe Burrow’s first full season, returning from his rookie-year knee injury, he elevated a success-starved franchise all the way to the Super Bowl. Their loss is by no means a failure – yes, it would have been epic for them to win, but to get to the big game was hugely impressive, given what I’m about to say…

They needed to fix that offensive line.

Burrow, a young superstar and the face of the Bengals franchise, led the entire NFL in sacks taken, with 51 sacks in the 16 games he played – averaging a nerve-wracking 3.2 sacks a game. They needed to address this immediately. Don’t get me wrong, drafting Ja’Marr Chase was a successful selection, with his incredible Rookie of the Year-earning effort, but they chose to take him over an elite offensive lineman, and now they have to make up for that decision.

In Cincinnati’s defense, that process is already well underway – if not almost finished. Their three biggest acquisitions in the free agency period have been offensive lineman, with ex-Buccaneers guard Alex Cappa and ex-Patriot Ted Karras, who will play centre, joining early in free agency. This was the start of a long process, but they got going quickly in free agency. Then, they added yet another huge upgrade in the form of ex-Cowboys tackle La’el Collins. This means that they acquired three day one offensive line starters for next season within a fortnight, before the draft even rolls around. This is absolutely huge.

The defense was already good, the offense was very good despite a huge flaw, and if they can give Joe Burrow more time in that pocket, he could even take it to the next level. When he has a chance to throw the ball, he’s damn good at it. If you’re into statistics, I’ve got one for you. Per PFF, Joe Burrow was the number one ranked QB in the entire league when throwing from a clean pocket, with a 95.0 rating. Unfortunately, a clean pocket was a rarity last year, maybe that will change as they continue to strengthen their O-Line after starting this process very effectively. Whatever it takes to protect Burrow, they should do it. If they draft an O-Lineman or two as depth pieces, that wouldn’t be a bad idea.

As they’ve been so proactive with Offensive Line, they can afford to use their draft picks on more than just a haul of OL prospects to see who fits (which is what I originally had noted for this article). Now they can focus on acquiring their defensive upgrades, where necessary.

They need to add a new DT or two to fill the void left by Larry Ogunjobi, who they parted ways with this offseason, and another cornerback in the secondary wouldn’t go amiss either, but they have a very capable group already. The Bengals draft will be much less stressful than it potentially could have been, as they were aggressive and very successful in free agency thus far. Well done Mike Brown, but don’t stop just yet, the draft could make this offseason even stronger.