AFC North Draft Needs: Will the Bengals Add to the Defense?

Can Cincinnati add a defense to a good offense? What might the draft have in store for the rest of the division?

The AFC North was one of the most hotly-contested divisions in football last season. Pittsburgh ended up on top by season’s end, finishing at 11-5, but both Baltimore and Cincinnati were nipping at their heels all the way until the bitter end.

We did a comprehensive job here at numberFire with our end-of-season team profiles. But now with the majority of free agency moves completed and the NFL Draft about a month away, it’s an interesting exercise to look at each team’s most pressing roster needs moving forward.

Come along with me as I illuminate each team’s respective weaknesses and the possible moves that can be made to remedy them.

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Needs: Wide Receiver, Running Back

Although Torrey Smith has been somewhat frustrating to own from a fantasy perspective over his first four seasons in Baltimore, he was an important piece to the Ravens’ offense. Not only did he finish either first or second on the team in receptions the last two seasons, but he also drew numerous pass interference calls, something that isn’t a popular stat, but can be a huge positive contribution to an offense.

New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will want to throw the ball more than his predecessor, Gary Kubiak, if he continues to run his personalized style of offense. The Ravens ranked seventh in passing offense last season according to our metrics here at numberFire, but offseason changes make this an area that needs to be addressed.

Although Steve Smith Sr. had a mini renaissance last season, he’s set to turn 36 next month and cannot realistically be counted on to be the primary guy in Baltimore in 2015. With all the top free agents pass-catchers snatched up, the draft is the next place Ozzie Newsome and company will look.

Holding the 26th overall pick in the draft all but eliminates the top-end wide receiver talent from the equation. However, a guy such as Breshad Perriman could be available and could fill the need for a bigger-bodied receiver in Trestman’s offense -- a la Brandon Marshall or Alshon Jeffery.

The Ravens could also use help on the both interior lines, at cornerback, and running back and may choice to go that route depending on how the draft unfolds.

Potential Picks: WR Breshad Perriman (Central Florida), CB Byron Jones (UConn), RB Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin)

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Needs: Defensive Line, Offensive Line

The emergence of Jeremy Hill as a potential workhorse running back last season solidified the Bengals’ offense, even with the maddening inconsistency of Andy Dalton continuing. Giovani Bernard can now theoretically be used in a role that better suits his skill set as a pass-catcher, and A.J. Green is still one of the most gifted wide receivers in the game. The offensive line could be addressed but for the time being is above average.

With the offensive group nearly locked and ready to go, the Bengals’ front office can focus their draft capital on a positional group that struggled mightily at times last season: the defensive line.

You should recognize the names -- Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Carlos Dunlap -- on the current depth chart, but the same group of recognizable players managed only the 26th best rush defense in 2014 according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP quantifies a player or team’s production compared to league average -- or expected -- results and factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance and field position.

Opposing teams saw a weakness, and attacked to the tune of 116.3 yards per game allowed on the ground.

Both the secondary and the linebackers are adequate or better, but the interior line could use an infusion of talent.

Much like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati’s first selection comes on the back end of the first round at 21st overall. If they choose to go defensive line, Eddie Goldman or Malcolm Brown could be available.

If the Bengals would rather upgrade their offensive line, perhaps a future replacement for left tackle Andrew Whitworth -- La’el Collins or Andrus Peat -- could be the pick.

Potential Picks: DT Malcolm Brown (Texas), DT Eddie Goldman (Florida State), OT La’el Collins (LSU)

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Needs: Quarterback, Wide Receiver

Make no mistake about it, this is a bad football team. They finished 26th in our power rankings and aside from a few perennial Pro Bowlers -- Joe Thomas and Joe Haden -- there really isn’t all that much for the Browns to build on. The good news is that the Browns hold two first-round picks in 2015 (12th and 19th).

The quarterback situation in Cleveland has been a running joke for going on more than a decade. The infamous “crossed-out quarterbacks jersey,” highlighting the ineptitude at the position over the last two decades has already added Johnny Manziel to the list.

The Browns ranked 26th in passing offense when adjusted for strength of schedule last season, according to our metrics. And not that anyone in their right mind is suggesting this, but newly-signed Josh McCown, who posted a -31.02 Passing NEP last season (which ranked 68th among all quarterbacks), is not the long-term answer either. McCown guided Tampa Bay to the 31st-ranked passing offense in terms of Adjusted Passing NEP per play last season.

Should Cleveland choose to go quarterback in the first-round for the second consecutive season, keeping the 12th overall pick might not work out. With Jameis Winston guaranteed to be gone, and Marcus Mariota as well, the Browns would need to trade up to get one of the two, or reach for a guy such as Brett Hundley.

If Cleveland decides to stay put at 12th overall, then DeVante Parker or Dorial Green-Beckham could provide a replacement for Josh Gordon, who remains in career limbo. They could also take an interior defensive lineman such as Malcolm Brown.

It’s difficult to predict how a team with so many needs will attack a given draft. For Cleveland, taking the “best player available” approach is ultimately their best bet.

Potential Picks: DT Malcolm Brown (Texas), WR DeVante Parker (Louisville), QB Brett Hundley (UCLA)

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Needs: Cornerback, Linebacker

As a Steelers fan, I have been clamoring for Pittsburgh to take a cornerback in the first round for what seems like an eternity. On offense, Pittsburgh ranks among the league’s best groups, finishing fifth in the league in Adjusted NEP per play last season. On defense, however, major improvements must be made, as the team finished just 27th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.

Typically, drafting from the back end of the first round (something that fans often lament, although this means you probably fared well during the regular season) doesn’t always present much value at the position, but the need is painfully obvious.

The Steelers were abysmal last season against the pass, ranking 27th according to our metrics, and did nothing in free agency to remedy the situation.

The projected starters from the current depth chart, William Gay and Cortez Allen, constitute a duo ready to be targeted by opposing offensive play-callers. Ike Taylor’s recent retirement (despite showing obvious sings of decline last season) even further depletes the talent and depth on the back end. And although he was in the declining stages of his career as well, and lined up at safety, Troy Polamalu’s retirement leaves an even greater hole in the secondary.

With the 22nd overall pick, Pittsburgh will likely have their choice of Byron Jones, Jalen Collins, or Kevin Johnson. All three prospects offer shut-down potential and make the most sense for the Steelers’ first-round approach.

Although other needs do still exist -- linebacker, and to some extent, both interior lines -- the defensive secondary, and specifically the cornerback position needs to be priority number one. (Signed, sincerely, a devoted Steelers fan.)

Potential Picks: CB Jalen Collins (LSU), CB Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest), CB Byron Jones (UConn)