The NFL offseason’s here.
Although it may seem strange, I like the offseason. As I opine every year, it’s the lone time annually that every team is 0-0 on both the scoreboard and the standings, and the losers of the previous season can exercise hope that the next season will be much greater and more successful. “Hope springs eternal” is how the cliché goes, but really, Alexander Pope may as well have been discussing team perspectives during the offseason.
All of our AFC North teams are flawed, with some obviously more than others. There are credible arguments for each team taking the AFC North title home next season. Each team has a full slate of draft picks to work with and seeming confidence in their respective front offices and talent evaluators to draft future contributors. And each team also has at least one critical roster issue that must be addressed, if not more.
Let’s get into those…
After the season-ending injury to first-year QB Joe Burrow, many Bengals fans correctly assumed offensive line would be the team’s draft focus, and that may very well be the case on April 29th, aka Draft Day 2021. Several publications and mock drafts have them selecting an OT at #5 overall, which is certainly high enough to garner the best this draft may have to offer. I would submit their defense is equally at fault for their current problems though, as the Bengals finished #29 in the NFL in rushing defense, with a marginally better pass defense (#17). Given the underwhelming performances along the line and prospective offseason losses, it would appear upgrades in the front seven are needed at almost every position, coupled with a marked need for more depth, which is common among rebuilding teams. I’m guessing they’ll still go with offensive line, but there are real possibilities for improvement elsewhere should a suitable OT prospect not be available.
Prior to last week, the Ravens appeared set on their offseason plans, which involved upgrading their TE and WR groups and providing depth along the offensive line. Pass rushers, also, are presumably part of the plan. Given RT (LT?) Orlando Brown Jr.’s trade request, offensive line may vault to the top of their priority list, as Brown believes he’s now a LT permanently and wants to be moved someplace he can exclusively play there. Brown is due to be an unrestricted free agent in 2022, so it’s tough to understand his urgency unless it’s all about maximizing his salary. He’s cited his stance as being related to his late father’s wishes for him, but that excuse doesn’t hold water considering the elder Brown played RT his entire career and seemed quite comfortable there. In any event, should Brown be traded or hold out (unlikely), the Ravens should draft a contingency plan early and possibly consider free agent additions as well.
Even without the will-he-or-won’t-he nature of QB Ben Roethlisberger’s offseason, the Steelers have a lot of offseason work to do. Their list of free agents is large and a bit overwhelming, as it affects nearly every position group, sometimes heavily. Their salary cap situation isn’t any great shakes either, and it appears the proverbial “bill” has come due for a franchise that routinely renegotiates big contracts and defers money to later years. It should be noted that they will do exactly that with Roethlisberger should he choose to return – a $41 million salary simply isn’t realistic for an aging, increasingly-erratic QB who will require greater protection in 2021 than ever before to be effective. The Steelers could go many directions on Draft Day, but my take is they will concentrate on restocking their offensive line for that reason, or to provide better protection for Roethlisberger’s potential successor should he hang it up for good.
The Browns are an interesting study in team needs, but the most glaring is on defense, and LB in particular, both inside and outside. The team’s offense seems largely settled, and a good, still-evolving offensive line bodes well for continued success both passing and running the ball; the team can safely ignore the offense early and concentrate on defensive prospects almost exclusively, and use the later rounds for depth purposes. There’s little question the defense in general needs help; the return of injured 2020 rookie S Grant Delpit should help immensely, and coupled with another blue chip addition, preferably at LB, from the 2021 draft, the prospect of immediate returns becomes feasible. The Browns also have roughly $23 million in cap space to play with; expect a modest foray into free agency, most likely to fill out the roster just before 2021 camps open.